Our review of the R9 290X caused a little bit of a stir. Apparently manufacturers aren't too happy with honesty, and thus when we said how little love we had for the cooler on the R9 290X and thus how it became a massively limiting factor AMD decided we weren't going to be allowed to review the regular R9 290.
But we're not so easily swayed here at OC3D. So thanks to our friends at PC Specialist we have a system in for review atm that has the option of a GTX770 or an R9 290. We thought it would be rude not to get it on our own test bench for a look and see how it compares in our graphs and see if the slight reduction in specifications coupled to a big reduction in price is enough to tempt us, or if it's a model too far in a crowded marketplace.
Priced between the GTX770 and the GTX780, this has the potential to be a very wise purchase indeed, and if the scores are similar to the 290X then it might become a best seller. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
As you can see there is only a small difference between the R9 290 and its bigger brother the R9 290X. 16 fewer TPUs and 256 fewer Stream Processors, alongside slightly reduced clock speeds, are really the only obvious changes. We've already covered the Hawaii GPUs in depth with our 290X review, so let's crack on.
Externally there is nothing between the R9 290X and the R9 290. They both have the reference cooler that has been the subject of so much discussion. The 290 even runs on the same 8+6 power input as the 290X.
At the other end of the card you'd be hard pushed to differentiate it from the 290X too. If it wasn't for the PowerColor sticker on the fan we wouldn't want to put the two cards down next to each other and have to choose which is which.
When you look at the fan surround you can see why we find it a terrible design. Why have some of the air blowing back towards your hard drives rather than across the heatsink fins?
PowerColor R9 290
Intel Core i7-3960X @ 4.6GHz
ASUS Rampage IV Extreme
Corsair Dominator Platinum
Corsair Neutron GTX
Windows 7 x64
To the surprise of nobody the R9 290 runs at a toasty 95°C. We understand that this is a deliberate design decision by AMD, but it doesn't mean that we have to like it. All that heat has to go somewhere, and 'into the case' is hardly the place we want it to be. Any time a manufacturer greatly increases the standard running temperature of a product we're far more likely to conclude that they couldn't keep the temperatures in check, rather than have over-engineered their unit to handle higher temps.
3D Mark Vantage
Considering that the 290 is only missing 256 Stream Processors it's a surprise to see even the P score has dropped by so much. 2000 points between the 290 and 290X in both tests. Although, and this will become a bit of a theme, if a theoretical GTX775 existed then the R9 290 would be right on it. Exactly where it's priced. Interesting.
3D Mark 11
Moving on to the next installment of 3D Mark, 11, and the results remain the same. There is a clear drop from the 290X to the 290, and comparing it to the GTX770/780 has it slap bang between the two. Maybe the latest version of 3D Mark will shed some light.
Something different at last. The 290 is much closer to the 290X in 3D Mark, in every test. A particular highlight though is how in the more strenuous tests it is ahead of the standard GTX780. In 3D Mark at least it's out-performing its price point.
Our first game, Alien vs Predator, puts the 290 squarely back above the GTX770 but nowhere near the GTX780. Indeed given the easy nature of the detail it probably says more than the HD7970 is its closest equivalent card.
The almost default 30 frame drop off between the 1920 and 2560 resolutions is still in place, but the 290 makes a surprisingly good fist of BioShock Infinite, running very close to the 290X. Again if a GTX775 existed, that's exactly where this would be.
Considering that there is only a handful of Stream Processors fewer on the PowerColor 290 when compared to the 290X, it's surprising that there is such a huge difference in performance when it comes the higher resolution test. At regular resolutions it's fine, but there is definitely a problem at 2560.
Far Cry 3
We get a clearer indication of the hi resolution limitations of the 290 in Far Cry 3. At 1080 the GTX770 got 42 FPS, the 290X attained 53 FPS, but the 290 got nearly 58 frames per second. So far so good. Up the resolution though and the GTX770 topped out at 27, the 290X 38, and yet the 290 only got 27. So it was better at the 1080P res but lost a lot of performance when we upped the ante.
To look at it another way it was identical to the brilliant GTX780Ti at 1920, but 10 frames behind at 2560.
Hitman has always preferred the Radeon cards and things improve greatly for the 290 here, easily a match for the much more expensive 290X and up there with the GTX780Ti. Excellent.
We know that Metro is hardly the most optimised game engine in the world but even still the 290, whilst returning to its place as a theoretical GTX775, is nowhere near as powerful as the 290X. It's quite a conundrum.
Resident Evil 6
Considering that Resident Evil is playable on a toaster, well not quite but you get our point, it's a shock to see how bad the performance is on a R9 290. Even the 280X is comfortably better.
With Sleeping Dogs the 290 returns to its now comfortable position at behind a 290X and slightly ahead of the GTX770. Certainly the performance is variable depending upon title and resolution.
The last of our purely gaming benchmarks, Tomb Raider neatly encapsulates the 290's performance. If we look at the main three we're comparing to, the GTX770, R9 290X and the R9 290 itself we find average frame rates of 61/41, 79/52 and 73/29 respectively. Whilst at the normal resolution the 290 is fine and dandy, a slight bump in the resolution up to 2560 sees the result fall off a cliff, especially when compared to the 290X.
Returning to the world of the synthetic benchmark and things pick up again for the PowerColor 290. It matches the 290X stride for stride, even at the highest resolutions, which only makes the poor gaming performance at higher resolutions more perplexing.
Inconsistency seems to be the running theme with the R9 290. In some things it's fine, in others excellent, and in others, such as Unigine Valley here, it's pretty awful. Even the GTX770 handily bests it, let alone the 290X.
We've reached the last benchmark and it is appropriate that it is completely unpredictable. So far given our results we'd guess than in Heaven the 290 would be okay at 1080 and poor at 2560, with the addition of the 8xMSAA only exacerbating this. Whereas in actuality although the PowerColor R9 290 isn't a patch on the bigger nVidia cards, it's much closer to the 290X than we've seen in other tests and miles ahead of the GTX770.
Firstly we have to thank PowerColor for stepping in to the rescue. It's nice to know that there are companies willing to accept that they might receive some constructive criticism. Label aside this is identical to any other R9 290 you might purchase, so you can be confident that out thoughts apply to all of them, even the AMD one we weren't allowed to review.
It's impossible to look at the R9 290 without considering the price, and where that fits in the grand scheme of things. As alluded to in our introduction, the R9 290 is priced at around £320 which puts it slap bang between the GTX770 and GTX780. Or, if you want to look at it another way, slightly nearer the R9 280X than it is the R9 290X. So if we forget the numbering for a moment it's a 285X or a GTX775, and in the synthetic benchmarks at least that's exactly how it performs. Naturally with the ridiculous, and we don't care about the design ethos, 95° is too high, temperatures and below average cooler there is zero headroom left for overclocking. So all of our results are at stock and the results we obtained were nothing if not inconsistent.
At times during our testing it looked as if the R9 290 would make a mockery of its reduced Stream Processor count and push the R9 290X hard. Yet in other tests it was almost feeble, but with no rhyme nor reason as to why one would be good and another bad. We'd expect the 2560x1440 Crysis 3 test to emphasise the slower architecture of the 290, and yet Resident Evil 6, a gentle game if ever there was one, struggled mightily. Conversely in Hitman Absolution it gave the GTX780Ti a clip round the ear.
If we didn't know any better we'd have assumed that AMD trimmed just enough from the Hawaii GPU until it fit exactly where they wanted it to be in their product range. This isn't a card with hidden performance, it almost perfectly mirrors what you pay for it. There is almost a cynical underpinning to the R9 290. In 1920x1080 you could look at the GTX770 and the GTX780, average the frame rate and low and behold, the R9 290 is right on point. Designed by a marketing team and shareholders, rather than people looking to make the best possible card for the money. It leaves a rather bitter taste in the mouth. We always want hardware to be the best it can be, not exactly as good as is necessary to turn a profit without eating into the market share of other products in the range. The problem here is we are idealist ranting and this is sadly how most GPU ranges are put together, its only cards like the 780 Ti that seem to ruin this format!
Now this is with the paltry standard, and as always we are limited to testing what we have in front of us. However, we know enough people in the industry to know that with a water block to free up the temperature headroom, the R9 290 is capable of some excellent overclocks and the performance easily surpasses the R9 290X. It's not something we can take into account in our scoring, but we know that some of you will be interested. Especially as a R9 290 and a water block costs less than a 290X. We cant help feeling that its just the fan boys wanting to buy water blocks for these, you could spend less money on a GTX780 and not have to bother with water blocks, if you did overclock you can get leave both the 290 and the 290X for dust.
You have to be very careful with knowing what games and what resolution you'll want to run before purchasing the R9 290. It can be a diamond and a dog. In general it hasn't got enough puff to run higher resolutions, and the lack of overclocking harms it when compared to the nVidia offerings. That cooler is still bobbins. If you want a card that is slightly better than the 280X but not as good as the 290X then the 290 is just the ticket. Quelle Surprise. Anyone would think it was designed that way. Oh wait, it was. Silver.
Thanks to PCSpecialist for supplying the R9 290 for review. Discuss your thoughts in the OC3D Forums.