Today AMD is launching the Radeon R9 290, which is the second card in its all-new Hawaii series of GPUs designed to take on Nvidia's GK110-based super GPUs. This particular card is extremely similar to its big brother, the R9 290X, but has slightly lower clock speeds and fewer stream processors, allowing it to come in at a slightly lower price point of $400. Though it was originally designed to take on the formerly $400 GTX 770, AMD is now positioning it to compete with the GTX 780 due to Nvidia's recent price drops on both cards to $500 and $329, respectively. Read on to see how it handles the heat, both literally and figuratively.
As the second, lower-priced Hawaii board you might assume this card has been neutered more than a made-for-TV version of The Big Lebowski, but you would be wrong. Thankfully, AMD has left almost everything from the R9 290X intact, choosing to only reduce its texture units from 176 to 160, its Stream Processors from 2,816 to 2,560, and its maximum clock speed from 1,000MHz to 947MHz. It still has the same 4GB of memory, the same 512-bit memory bus, and is otherwise the exact same GPU. It also has the same PowerTune hardware and software that lets you dictate maximum fan speeds and core temps. Before we jump in, let's take a look at the specs for the Hawaii cards along with their Nvidia counterparts:
*We are putting an asterick next to the AMD cards' TDP because it's not a quoted spec but "standard board power."
As the spec chart shows, this card is almost exactly the same as the R9 290X, just like the GTX 780 and GTX Titan in that you have two cards with the same die but one is a bit less powerful. The two cards are the same physical size at 11 inches, both require a six-pin and an eight-pin power connector, and both cards draw a bit over 300 watts too. AMD listed the TDP for the 290X as 250w, but it hedged that answer and never gave it as an official number, but rather an estimate. It didn't reply to our emails asking for the TDP of the R9 290, so we'll just put 250w there with an asterick.
The R9 290 is exactly the same size as the R9 290X at 11 inches, and it also features the same 250w-ish TDP.
Like it's larger, more-powerful sibling, the R9 290 comes with all the baked in features that define the top-tier of this generation of GPUs, namely revamped PowerTune controls, TrueAudio technology, and XDNA Crossfire. TrueAudio and XDMA Crossfire are exclusive to the R9 290/X series of cards, though the current iteration of PowerTune is found on all Rx based cards, and TrueAudio is also found on the $140 R7 260X board.
The new PowerTune controls let you set maximum limits for fan speeds and temperature. We preferred the sliders though, as we found that moving the reticle in the map caused unpredictable results.
Briefly, AMD has changed the PowerTune interface found in the Catalyst Control Center to give you an easier way to control clock, memory, and fan speeds. It also now has a slider that lets you dictate the maximum fan speed and maximum temperature, just like Nvidia is doing with its GPU Boost 2.0 technology found in its 700-series GPUs. You can tell the software to force the card to run at 90C, for example, and it'll throttle the clock speeds in order to maintain those temperatures. Additionally, if you're sensitive to acoustics, you can also set a limit on the fan speed while letting the other settings run at maximum value as well. It's also provided a "2-dimensional heat map" which we found confusing. We also found in testing that moving some of the sliders too far would cause the entire system to hard lock and then experience trouble rebooting, so tread carefully here. By default the fan on the R9 290 runs at a maximum speed of 47%.
TrueAudio is also found on the R9 290, and whether or not it'll make a big difference in the life of an average gamer remains to be seen as no games that use it have been released yet. Gordon wrote an extremely in-depth article about it however, so head on over to it and you'll have all your questions answered.
Finally, XDMA is a new technology appearing for the first time in the Radeon R9 290 series of cards. It eschews the ribbon cable we've grown so un-fond of over all these years and instead uses hardware built into the GPUs and also lets the cards communicate over the PCI-Express bus. Though AMD had seemingly wrangled its frame pacing issues with its recent fix, it's software-based and still available for R9 280X cards and lower. For the R9 290 series though, those changes are built into the drivers and handled through XDMA. The previous GPUs based on Tahiti and lower will still have to use the ribbon cable as there's no exclusive hardware built into the GPUs to handle that transaction, but this is not surprising. It is also reasonable to assume that going forward all new GPUs will use XDMA.
The main reason for XDMA is to handle the increased traffic resulting from the proliferation of multiple displays as well as 4k panels. If AMD continued using the old ribbon cable there simply wouldn't be enough bandwidth to drive the displays at 60Hz, so XDMA was both a necessity to prepare for the future as well as a great way to allow for smoother CrossFire at super-high resolutions. AMD claims there is no performance penalty at all to this configuration, but unfortunatley there's not really any way to run Apples to Apples testing since the Crossfire connectors are removed on the cards (though the electrical contacts are still intact). We also don't have a second R9 290X or R9 290 card to test Crossfire currently, but we hope to get a second card in soon.
Only the R9 and R9 290X get the built-in XDMA engine for CrossFire over the PCIe bus. Hopefully it'll come to all of AMD's new cards in the future.
Hit the next page for what really matters - benchmarks, power, heat, and overclocking, and our final thoughts.
Testing the R9 290 was a straight-forward affair as we had already tested the R9 290X, and this new card doesn't have any new features though it does have one semi-notable feature removed, which is the Uber and Quiet modes. The physical switch is still there on the edge of the PCB, and it still lets you toggle between two BIOSes, but it has no effect on fan speed. On the R9 290X the switch would adjust the maximum fan speed from 40 percent in Quiet mode to 55 percent in Uber mode. The R9 290 still has dual BIOSes, and one is write-protected while the other isn't. Otherwise there's nothing new that needs testing on this card that doesn't exist on the R9 290X, so let's get it on.
To start off, let’s have a look at how things compare at 2560x1600:
At 2560x1600 the R9 290 trades blows with the more-expensive GTX 780, making it the better alternative considering it costs $100 less. The two cards were more or less equal throughout testing, though the GTX 780 was noticeably faster in Far Cry 3, which is odd considering this is an AMD title. The GTX 780 also held the upper hand in Unigine Valley, Metro, 3DMark, and Battlefield 3, with the other tests going to the R9 290. Of course, one area where the GTX 780 is a clear winner is in watts consumed and overall noise, as it was much quieter and also sucked less juice from the wall socket as well. This is nothing new, as the R9 cards run ridiculously hot, and though the R9 290 isn't annoyingly loud, it's certainly louder than the GTX 780. It also ran about 10C hotter than the GTX 780 as well. If the cards were evenly priced, we'd say the Nvidia card gets the nod due to its acoustics and power consumption, but given the $100 price disparity between the two we have to say the AMD card is the better value. Heat and power consumption don't matter that much on the desktop, and the R9 290 card is rock stable, so given its price advantage it takes the win in this category.
Now, let's look at how the R9 290 stacks up to all the cards in this class at 2560x1600.
As you can see from this chart the R9 290X is faster than the R9 290 by quite a bit in many tests, and also beats the GTX Titan in several tests as well. None of this is new information, but when we ran the R9 290X tests before we didn't have enough time to test with Nvidia's latest 331.65 driver, so this chart represents the current leader board in the GPU world. It's all the fastest cards, tested with the latest drivers. You can see the R9 290X and Titan trading blows, which is a situation Nvidia hopes to correct with its GTX 780 Ti launch later this week.
We also received some requests for a few benchmarks showing what this card can do at 1080p going up against the less expensive GeForce GTX 770, so here they are:
Not much explanation is needed here as this card is the clear winner over the GTX 770 at 1080p. It is absolutly perfect at this resolution as it hits that silky-smooth 60fps target in most of the games we use for testing. Metro: Last Light barely runs at 30fps, but that's not too surprising as it can punish even the burliest GPU, and it's heavy use of PhysX favors Nvidia cards. Overall though, this card crushes it at 1080p, but costs $70 more than the GTX 770 so it's a trade-off for sure.
Both Nvidia and AMD are pushing 4k big time with their latest GPUs, so naturally we've run some tests at this resolution. Games at 4K look absolutely amazing, but boy oh boy do you need some serious firepower to run any of the latest games at full detail. In fact, they are so demanding at this 3840x2160 resolution that we have to disable AA otherwise it is simply unplayable, even on these premium GPUs. As an aside, it's interesting to see what they can do at 4K but it's also not terribly relevant right now due to the cost of the panels. The panel we used in the Dream Machine cost $3,500, and the Sharp panel we used for these tests (which we believe is the exact same unit) costs $5,300, so we seriously doubt even hardcore gamers are running these bad boys yet. It is simply too bleeding edge, unless you can run dual or three-way Titans or R9 290X cards. We never though we'd say it, but that's even too rich for our blood. Regardless, here are the numbers:
In our 4k tests there is not a clear winner as it's five wins for AMD, and four wins for Nvidia, though, once again, the fact that the R9 290 costs $100 less than the GTX 780 gives it an advantage considering their performance parity. The R9 290 is the clear winner is Crysis 3, Far Cry 3, Tomb Raider (all AMD games, by the way), Battlefield 3, and Hitman, whereas the GTX 780 is only significantly faster in Metro: Last Light, which is an Nvidia title with physics that are not friendly to AMD's cards at all. All in all though, it's an impressive showing for a $400 GPU.
Just like its big brother R9 290X the R9 290 ran hot, made a little bit of noise, and wasn’t able to be overclocked beyond its base "max" clock of 947MHz. AMD lists its clock speed as “up to 947MHz” and in testing that is how it goes, spinning up to 947MHz when it can, then backing off that clock a bit when temperatures get too extreme. Once it has achieved that delicate balance, it continues to throttle clock speeds up and down by 50Mhz or so under load always staying around 93 or 94C the entire time. Yes, it’s very hot, especially compared to Nvidia’s cards, which typically never get hotter than 83C or so overclocked, but the R9 290 was totally, 100 percent stable throughout testing. Once again we looped Heaven 4.0 over the weekend, and our test bed had no issues whatsoever. The R9 290 sat there at about 94C the entire weekend, and never crashed. Overclocking though, is out of the question. The card already runs hot enough to make the GPU throttle in stock trim, so it's not possible to push the card any further at its stock settings. We could have pushed the fan beyond 47 percent, sure, but it gets very loud very quickly, even at 50 percent, so we don't imagine most users will want to run this GPU at that noise level.
The stock cooling mechanism AMD built for this card does a good job of exhausting heat however, even though it looks a bit plain, especially in comparison to the sleek coolers on the GTX 780/Titan. When the card is hovering over 90C you can still put your hand one half-inch away from it and feel almost no heat whatsoever, so it seems to exhaust well and run totally fine despite its sky-high temperatures. We know it's weird seeing a card run at 94C, and it takes some getting used to. AMD has assured us that is how the card is designed, so it should be able to run at those temps for its entire life without issues. We certainly had no issues in testing, and it was always stable, so we have to give it a passing grade. Just like with the super-hot R9 290X we cannot wait to see what aftermarket cooling mechanisms do for this card's heat output and overclocking potential. Just like how you can overclock a GTX 780 to match a Titan, we're sure the R9 290 could be pumped up to match the 290X with enough cooling. We will have to wait and see if those cards from Asus, Gigabyte, MSI, Sapphire, XFX, and others ever materialize, but we believe they will, and we're excited to check them out when they do arrive, hopefully before the holidays.
When AMD launched the R9 290X last week it was an assault on Nvidia's single-GPU dominance in the premium video card space, and it was a shot that certainly hit its target. The R9 290X exceeded the GTX 780's performance while costing $100 less, so that is a clear-cut victory for AMD. Undaunted, Nvidia responded by dropping the GTX 780's price down to $500, essentially wiping out the R9 290X's advantage in that matchup. The Titan is still threatened by the R9 290X though, but Nvidia doesn't seem to bothered by it, so for now it's leaving the Titan alone. Now that we have the R9 290 though, the GTX 780 is once again under some serious pressure from AMD because the 290 is just as fast, and once again, costs $100 less. If you have $400 burning a hole in your pocket, the R9 290 is clearly the fastest GPU at that price point. We didn't test it against the GTX 770 simply because that is a card we test at 1080p, and the R9 290 is a 2560x1600 card, but it would certainly be faster than the GTX 770 as well since it can beat a GTX 780 in many tests.
Overall, the R9 290 is another excellent GPU from AMD with a tremendous price-to-performance ratio that Nvidia simlply cannot match at this time. It definitely runs hotter and makes a bit more noise than it's next of kin on the green team, but for $100 we would bet most consumers would be willing to put on some headphones. Plus it's almost winter, so the heat will probably come in handy for a lot of folks. On a serious note though, we did not find the heat or noise created by this card to be a problem, so don't let it scare you off.
From here we wait for two events to occur - the GTX 780 Ti launch later this week, which Nvidia is hoping will allow it to once again wrest control of the trophy for "fastest single GPU" since the R9 290X has muddied the waters a bit and put its Titan in peril, at least when it comes to gaming. Also, it's possible that the R9 290 launch will cause Nvidia to lower the price on the GTX 780 even further to be more competitive. As always we will have to wait and see what happens.
Finally, there are still unknowns in both camps at this time. AMD has its Mantle API and TrueAudio, both of which are untested at this time. Nvidia has G-Sync monitors, ShadowPlay, its Holiday Game Bundle, GameStream/Shield, and of course, better acoustics and lower overall temps due to Kepler's efficiency. We've yet to test frame pacing using AMD's new XDMA setup, but reports indicate it's finally as good if not better than Nvidia's SLI at this time. Regardless, both AMD and Nvidia have very unique and exclusive features at this time, making the choice between one camp or the other more difficult than it's ever been.
All in all, we can't remember a time when competition has been as white hot and fierce between AMD and Nvidia as it is right now. AMD has really come out swinging for the fences with its Hawaii GPUs, which have already resulted in both price drops and a new GPU on the way in the form of the GTX 780 Ti. Whether or not today's launch of the R9 290 results in even more price cuts or GPU offspring remains to be seen, but one thing is certain -- it's an awesome time to be in the GPU market.