AMD Radeon R9 290 4 GB Review 235

AMD Radeon R9 290 4 GB Review

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Value and Conclusion

  • According to AMD, the Radeon R9 290 will retail for $399.
  • Great price
  • Excellent performance
  • Software voltage control possible
  • Native, full-size HDMI and DisplayPort
  • Improved multi-monitor output
  • Dual BIOS
  • 4 GB video memory
  • Support for AMD TrueAudio
  • Extremely Noisy
  • High temperatures
  • High power consumption
  • No analog VGA outputs (DVI adapters do not work)
AMD's new Radeon R9 290 delivers quite impressive performance numbers. Averaged over all our games and resolutions, the card exactly matches the performance of the Radeon R9 290X in "Quiet" mode, and the difference is just - 6%, very little, compared to the R9 290X in "Uber" mode. The difference between the highest end SKU and the next tier is typically 10%-15%. The card also beats NVIDIA's GTX 780 by 1% and only ends up 5% slower than the GTX Titan, which is more than twice as expensive. One cornerstone for this impressive performance is AMD's updated driver: it switches the upper fan speed limit from 40% to 47%, which yields higher performance because it allows the card to throttle later. In our testing, the card barely throttled and ran above 925 MHz almost all the time. Typically, such a change would be delivered through a BIOS update, not a driver update, but AMD might have worried that updating the BIOS would be too complicated for editors. They did confirm that this is a permanent change, not only part of the reviewer driver. Other cards are not affected by this driver and do not see a performance improvement.
Power consumption of the R9 290 is very similar to that of the R9 290X. While single monitor idle is high compared to other cards, with 16 W, it's certainly ok. Multi-monitor and Blu-ray power consumption is very bad, though. We respectively see 51 W and 74 W power draw in these states, which is 300% of what comparable NVIDIA cards use. Gaming power consumption is about 25W lower than with the R9 290X, which was to be expected given the reduced operating frequency and fewer shaders in the GPU. While gaming power consumption is certainly high, I think it manageable had AMD only used a decent cooler.
AMD's reference design cooler gets completely overwhelmed by the card's heat load once you start gaming. With load temperatures of 94°C, the card already runs very hot, but even at those temperatures, the fan needs to run at a deafening 49 dBA to handle the heat. I'm don't really know why AMD increased the fan speed limit at the last minute instead of looking into making the card quieter and doubt many people will care about a few percent in performance, or whether the card beats the GTX 780. But most people will care once the graphics card's cooler takes over acoustically by producing enough noise to negatively affect your gaming experience.
Overclocking of our card worked reasonably well and did yield positive performance improvements (remember, the R9 290X in quiet mode scaled negatively during OC), but a bug in the BIOS seems to hold back memory overclocking—the memory could clock much higher and did so on the R9 290X using the exact same PCB and components.
Not convinced right now if the card is worth it? Then you'll be sold after hearing the price. AMD is selling their R9 290 reference design for just $399, a cool $150 cheaper than the R9 290X and just a little bit slower. NVIDIA's GTX 780, which has seen a price drop down to $500 last week suddenly looks really expensive, but it does run cooler and quieter; not sure if that's worth the extra $100. Right now, the R9 290 has the best price/performance ratio in the segment, and just like with the R9 290X, its price helps me overlook its shortcomings in regards to power, heat, and noise. The card is really noisy, though, making this a really tough decision indeed. I have very high hopes for cards with custom coolers that reduce noise levels considerably. We'll hopefully see these cards in time for xmas business.
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