AMD Radeon R9 290 – massive bang for buck

AMD Radeon R9 290X header hardware

AMD’s Radeon R9 290 is now out in the wild and reviews are up for perusal. The R9 290 is AMD’s second Hawaii-based graphics card and it’s priced to compete with the Geforce GTX780.

At launch the R9 290 will cost just $399 in the US and Canada. That’s $150 down from the R9 290X and $50 down from the price-cut Geforce GTX780.

The card is not dissimilar to the R9 290X as they share many components, chief among them being the cooler, 4GB of VRAM memory as standard (with 8GB versions on the way in the future), a forward-thinking 512-bit bus to hold onto performance for longer and AMD’s new version of PowerTune to simplify overclocking and tweaking.

However, the $150 price gap between the R9 290 and the R9 290X doesn’t reflect it’s performance. On average and as indicated in the graphs below, a new driver brings the performance of the R9 290 up substantially to a level where it’s between 2-5% slower than the R9 290X.

Out of the box it will also be faster than a Geforce GTX Titan and the GTX780, both mammoth cards featuring Nvidia’s Kepler architecture. Price drops and product realignment alone won’t allow Nvidia to compete on the same performance level.

Radeon R9 290X
Radeon R9 290
Geforce GTX Titan
Geforce GTX780
Shader Cores
2816 2560 2688 2304
Raster Operators
64 64 48 48
Texture units
176 160 224 192
Clock speed 727MHz 727MHz 837MHz 863MHz
Boost speed 1000MHz 954MHz 876MHz 900MHz
Memory speed 1250MHz 1250MHz 1502MHz 1502MHz
VRAM buffer 4GB 4GB 6GB 3GB
Bus width 512-bit 512-bit 384-bit 384-bit
Bandwidth 320GB/s 320GB/s 288GB/s 288GB/s
TDP 300W 300W 250W 240W
Current price $549 $399 $999 $500

Performance results

Few reviews today will illustrate the last-minute change AMD decided to do after Nvidia revealed their price cuts and Geforce game bundle – AMD released a new driver to all reviewers that sped up the default fan profile to 47% instead of the stock 40%. That’s why in many reviews today you’ll see the R9 290 outperforming its larger sibling.

Why is this? Well, it’s a big die and it’s a very hot one as well. The performance of Hawaii depends largely on what cooling you employ and that’s why initial benchmarks and rumors suggested that performance would vary, sometimes wildly depending on your environment – and the reason is that AMD’s PowerTune boost algorithms clock the GPU according to heat generated.

Most benchmarks you’ll see today are almost guaranteed to be started and completed within five minutes between each other, which results in unfair comparisons because the R9 290 hasn’t been given time to warm up. The same applies for the R9 290X and the only way to get a consistent result is to alter the fan profile yourself or use Uber mode.

Despite that, performance is pretty good out of the box. In a well ventilated space the R9 290, with the new default fan profile, can outperform the Geforce GTX780 on many occasions and can even overtake the GTX Titan and the R9 290X. When water-cooled and allowed to run at its maximum boost speed, it’ll be even faster.

But power consumption remains largely unchanged compared to the R9 290X because of the fan adjustment. With a higher default speed, the R9 290 will overclock itself higher and use more energy as a result. Along with that, the fan speed may be more noticeable. At 100% duty cycle, it’s certainly a very competent leaf blower.

Usage scenario

Where does it best fit in? 1080p at 60Hz is a waste on this card so its use case is 2560 x 1440 or higher resolution monitors and it’ll certainly see a lot of use in Eyefinity and UltraHD 4K builds. At the 4K resolution, it’ll either be faster or right on par with the R9 290X, which is also faster than a GTX Titan.

There’s also the case of 120Hz gaming at 1080p which this is certainly capable of. Previously achieving the same level of performance would require an overclocked GTX770 or GTX780. At stock speeds, the R9 290 should be perfectly suited for most games at 120Hz and higher.

What the reviewers said

PC Perspective gave the R9 290 their Gold award, noting that there’s never been so much GPU horsepower for so little money and that Nvidia won’t likely counter with any price drops.

TechpowerUp gave it their editor’s choice award and again lamented the performance of the stock cooler, while pointing out that the card would do much better with water-cooling and a tweaked BIOS.

Anandtech was disappointed in the card’s performance and specifically says that the cooler is the reason why they won’t recommend one. The R9 290 won no awards here. Its worth noting that all Anandtech’s UltraHD 4K gaming tests were done at low or medium settings, not Ultra as is the case with many other reviews on the net, skewing their results.

The Tech Report came away impressed with the R9 290 and declared it a value winner in its price point. Originally slated to drive up against the GTX770, author Scott Wasson notes that the single change in fan speed alters the behaviour of the card drastically.

Hexus gave the R9 290 their Recommended award and found that the stock cooler was up to the job in their tests, but just barely.

Tom’s Hardware gave it a thumbs-up and even tested an after-market cooler to see what difference it made. To their surprise, they could gain over 10% in performance when overclocked while running cooler and much quieter than the stock configuration.

Sources: PC Perspective, TechpowerUp, Anandtech, Tech Report, Hexus, Tom’s Hardware

More Hardware news:

AMD Radeon R9 290 launch price announced

Nvidia drops prices on GTX770 and GTX780

AMD posts first profit in over a year

Nvidia GSync to boost gaming monitor performance

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AMD Radeon R9 290 – massive bang for buck

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