The eternal march of technology is never felt greater than in the world of graphics cards, and more specifically the GPUs themselves. Since the advent of DDR3, Memory technology hasn't moved on a lot. SSDs reached the limits of the SATA 6Gb/s bus a while ago. Graphics cards though come on in leaps and bounds. If you stop paying attention for a year the levels of performance would be unrecognisable when you looked again.
This endless quest for progress and something new to advertise does have its drawbacks. As a company such as nVidia or AMD the cost of developing a new GPU is mind-bogglingly expensive. To spend hundreds of millions of dollars and then, six months later, have to do it all again would quickly make for a bankrupt company.
So what do you do if you have a new GPU coming out but know that the fickle buying public would instantly dismiss your current, still great, range of cards as last years news and not buy them? Rebrand of course. It's the perfect way to extend the lifespan of your expensive R&D outpourings whilst possibly catching a few people who want the latest and greatest but can't finance it.
The big new dog on the block from AMD is the Radeon R9 290X, based around the Hawaii core. That's a week away though, and the banner-waving product that brings this new naming convention to us begins with the R9 280X. A Radeon HD7970 by another name.
The specifications for the reference R9 280X would give deja vu to anyone who read our review of the HD7970 all those months ago. Thankfully our ASUS DirectCU II model has, as we'll see on the third page, a good boost in the GPU Core Speed, but the reality is that it's still a Tahiti core, so we will have to wait a little longer to see what the new Hawaii GPU will bring us.
When a new product arrives the company provide some literature to journalists that indicate where they expect it to be in the current range of choices, and for the R9 280X AMD have chosen the HD5870 and the GTX760. It's quite a surprise really as the HD5870 is so old that it's akin to comparing a Bugatti Veyron to a bicycle. The GTX760 is just about the competitor in pricing terms, but we already know that this is a HD7970 in a change of clothes, and the GTX760 is a GTX670 in a change of clothes, and the HD7970 was originally targeted at the GTX680. It's all rather confusing. If the aim of such comparisons is solely to make their 'new' product look good then why not compare it to a Voodoo 2?
But that is why we are here, to cut through the marketing waffle and tell you how it really performs and compares to its rivals.
ASUS were the last company still holding on to the 'fantasy' art that used to be everywhere in the 90s, and we're extremely pleased to see it's finally disappeared. The box for the R9 280X is extremely nice thanks to this redesign. Everything is clearly laid out. Welcome to the 21st century.
The DirectCU II cooler has proven itself over many variants and is one of our favourite add-on coolers. We understand that you can't redesign things every time a new product comes out, but it's strange to see it hanging a few millimetres off the back and and being a few mm short of flush at the output end of the PCB. Every time we look at it you're aware it wasn't designed for this card.
An all new PCB supports the Tahiti GPU core of the R9 280X and has some spaces that could hint at what we can expect from the 290X. Otherwise with the 8+6pin PCIe power and two Crossfire fingers, it is business as usual.
The fin density of the DirectCU II cooler is impressive and should help keep the R9 280X cool. Outputs are handled by the regular Radeon selection of DisplayPort, HDMI and DVI connectors.
ASUS Radeon R9 280X DirectCU II
Intel Core i7-3960X @ 4.6GHz
ASUS Rampage IV Extreme
Corsair Dominator Platinum
Corsair Neutron GTX
Windows 7 x64
If anyone doubted that this is really just a renamed HD7970 then GPUz tells the full story. The ASUS DirectCU II cooler does an excellent job of allowing us plenty of headroom to overclock, with a good increase on the GPU core of 80MHz, and a serious boost on the memory, up by 800MHz effective.
The DirectCU II cooler performs well, keeping the 280X nice and cool even under our most stressful tests.
3D Mark Vantage
We're just running at stock today because the 280X is the same as the HD7970 we've tested plenty of times. The 280X matches the GTX770 stride for stride and, of course, matches the HD7970 it replaces.
3D Mark 11
Our second benchmark again has the GTX770 standing toe to toe with the R9 280X. The scores are so similar that, if you didn't know better, you'd think they were the same card. You can also see how much of an improvement a years worth of driver updates and the better stock clock speed has brought compared to the first HD7970s.
In the latest version of 3D Mark the 280X continues its position as nearly identical to a HD7970, because it is. In comparison to the GTX770 it improves as the detail level increases. A gap of 160 points in the Cloud Gate test (28601 vs 28421) becomes nearly 400 points in Fire Strike Extreme (3839 vs 3475).
At the risk of repeating ourselves, the R9 280X is a shade ahead of the GTX770, and with its 116FPS average it's a handful ahead of the original HD7970. Of course AvP is hardly the most demanding benchmark around, so let's move along.
Batman Arkham City
Batman has long since proven that almost anything is capable of rocking 60FPS with it, such is the way it's designed. The high PhysX prefers the nVidia cards though, and at extreme resolutions the AMD performance falls off.
The comparison AMD give us of the R9 280X against the GTX760 has consistently shown to be either pessimistic or self-serving, with the 280X and the GTX770 being inseparable. In BioShock Infinite there is only a single frame between the two in both 1080 and 1440 resolutions.
The newest in the Crysis series wasn't released at the time of the original HD7970 review, so it's harder to compare the 280X to the card it already is, but we can still see how it compares to the GTX770 and it, once again, proves capable of doing well. In the 1920 test it's a few behind and in the higher resolution it claws back a lot of that to end up a single frame ahead.
Far Cry 3
The Game of the Year in 2012 works well on the ASUS R9 280X with 40FPS at 1920x1080. In the 2560x1440 result we can see that the combination of driver updates and the faster clock speed of the R9 280X when compared to the HD7970 are worth 6FPS. It is, again, identical to the GTX770 in the higher resolution, although it's giving up a couple of frames in the standard 1080P benchmark.
Finally we have a test that shows a huge benefit with the R9 280X. The early release of Hitman Absolution was a chuggy mess but since then the patches and driver updates have vastly improved the playability. Even still the 280X comfortably beats out the GTX770 whether you're running at 1920 or 2560. Indeed the R9 280X is on a par with the GTX780 when it comes to the adventures of Agent 47.
Resident Evil 6
The tables turn in Resident Evil 6, with the GTX770 handily beating the 280X DirectCU II. It's hugely playable regardless, but it's so rare to find a title in which the two cards aren't neck and neck that it's worth mentioning.
Metro 2033 has never been the most competent game engine in the world and we're sure that you're as tired of hearing about its poor performance as we are telling you. However, the R9 280X backs up the belief that it prefers the Radeon cards to those from nVidia, with 57FPS average in 1920 and 32FPS at the higher 2560 resolution.
Metro Last Light
All that time we spent waiting for Last Light and it's still clearly coded for some mythical future computer. Because of its recent release we've hardly got a wealth of results to choose from, but it looks both great and terrible for the 280X. On the one hand the GTX760, for the first time, matches the performance of the Radeon R9 280X. Yet in the high resolution test the 280X is a match for the GTX780. It's probably fair to say that the performance, or lack thereof, of Last Light is the key factor here rather than the card you use.
The 280X performs very well in Sleeping Dogs with 53 and 33FPS respectively. Considering that the GTX770, which has been tightly matched so far, scores only 49 and 28FPS then you can see that the ASUS R9 280X enjoys the Wei Shen title.
We see a similar 4FPS improvement in Tomb Raider. The reboot of Lara Croft gives us good performance on the 280X, clocking in at 66FPS on the 1080 resolution and 45 in the higher 2560 setup.
In our 3D Mark tests we saw that as the detail level increased, so did the relative performance of the R9 280X. In CatZilla though, no matter whether we're at the "looks like a PS1 game" 576 test of the full-on 1440 benchmark, the GTX770 comfortably beats the R9 280X. Even the GTX760 stays close until the image quality maximum where the 280X just pulls ahead.
Unigine Valley gives us an interesting result. Without any anti-aliasing the GTX770 has the upper hand, but once we apply the 8xMSAA the 280X comes back to tie.
The Unigine Valley results are repeated in Unigine Heaven. The GTX770 has the edge without anti-aliasing, but once you remove the jaggies the R9 280X strides ahead by 5FPS in both resolutions.
These are always difficult reviews to write. After all, despite the fancy rebranding, this is a HD7970 under the skin. A GPU that we first reviewed in January 2012. In case you've just stepped out of a time machine or been woken by a kiss from a handsome prince, that was 21 months ago. There is nothing new to say about the Tahiti GPU. Everyone remotely interested in a graphics card is aware of the performance potential.
AMD brazenly state that the R9 280X is a competitor for the nVidia GTX760. Given that the GTX760 is around £200 and the HD7970 is £300, it's hardly a fair comparison. At the time of writing we don't know what the street price of the R9 280X will be, especially not in this non-reference ASUS DirectCU II guise. It's supposed to be $299, and anyone in England knows that by the time you've taken into account VAT and the usual English markup, it's probably going to be around the £299 mark which puts it slap bang against the GTX770. Which is already the main competitor for the HD7970.
Since the time of writing the sellers recommended price has been confirmed as £275, and the score has been adjusted to reflect this excellent price point.
That 'dueling cards' comparison bears fruit in our benchmarks, with the two cards being within a frame or two of each other in nearly every test. Even the 3D Mark ones, which aren't always a good indicator of gaming performance, were so close that if you hid the Y axis you'd struggle to guess which card was which.
The DirectCU II cooler is one that has often proven itself as a wise choice, and things are no different with the R9 280X. It's a good looking cooler, even if it is slightly skewiff, and even under the most intensive applications it kept the Tahiti GPU at a relatively cool 70°C, without deafening us either.
So the ASUS R9 280X DirectCU II then. It's a HD7970 for less money, in a fancier box with a good cooler and great overclocking potential. It's tempting to say it does exactly what it says on the tin, except it does exactly what it says on another tin. The Tahiti is still a good performing GPU, even all this time since the release, and the R9 280X does nothing to tarnish that legacy. It's hard to recommend it as an upgrade with many HD7970s still on the market, but if you've stuck with an older series GPU then this still has the power to provide great gaming performance and the DirectCU II cooler and Never Settle game bundle only enhances the value. Time hasn't withered the Tahiti GPU as a Gold Award winner.
Thanks to ASUS for supplying the R9 280X for review. Discuss your thoughts in the OC3D Forums.