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PowerColor R9 290X OC Review

ccokeman    -   November 4, 2013
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PowerColor R9 290X OC Conclusion:

At the end of the rainbow we have the latest high end card from AMD and PowerColor: the R9 290X OC. When you dig through the performance metrics, the R9 290X OC delivers FPS numbers that are on par with what NVIDIA is delivering with the GTX 780 and at times the GTX Titan. That in itself is truly amazing at the price point that the R9 290X OC carries when brought to market at $549. AMD and its partners laid down the gauntlet by bringing the R9 280X to market at a $299 price point that easily upset the NVIDIA pricing structure. At this point the players on team green have delivered price cuts coupled with the inclusion of three Triple A game titles and $100 off a purchase of SHIELD to get you started. to get you started. Currently online I am able to find GTX 780s in the $499 to $580 range, making the choices very difficult when you look at the performance metrics. All told a $549 price point is not bad for a card delivering this level of performance.

AMD's new PowerTune feature set has changed the game with a new voltage controller that allows AMD to deliver truly dynamic clock speed adjustments to the 28nm Hawaii core. However it does come with the side effect of driving up core temperatures and reductions in core clock speeds to stay within thermal and power boundaries. We see this happening most when running the R9 290X in "Quiet" mode, where it's keeping the core at or below a 95 °C thermal threshold. The temperature rises and the core clock speed is reduced to decrease the thermal load that has to be dissipated by the cooling solution. In this mode the maximum fan speed you will see is roughly 40%. In Quiet mode it takes roughly 90 seconds to two minutes for the core speeds to start dropping to as low as an observed 669MHz or a 360MHz drop on this card from PowerColor.

Reducing this impact is as easy as moving the mode switch on the top of the PCB to Uber mode that increases the fan speed scaling while practically eliminating the clock speed drop. This is in no way a PowerColor concern as this card is a reference design with a tweaked BIOS that allows higher baseline clock speeds. Overclocking brings back another problem and that is thermal load. More effectively moving this load outside the chassis requires higher fan speeds than what you get with the two BIOS positions on the mode switch. However, going up and over the 55% level on the fan greets one with noise levels that take me back to 4870X2 days. Moving up to the 90% level drives that noise level to the unbearable range, yet it was is needed to deliver the cooling performance required to reach 1125MHz on the core and keep these levels in game for more than just a few minutes. When I say unbearable, as I said before it sounds like a vacuum that you can hear over headphones. Overclocking the memory on this sample stopped at 1400MHz, less than the rated modules are capable of, but still a roughly 12% boost in clock speed to the modules. Coupled with the almost 10% clock speed bonus I saw measurable improvements in performance.

Cooling the card down is a large cooling solution that at times seems less than adequate, especially when running in Quiet mode. Temperatures quickly skyrocket to 94 °C on this card before clock speeds start dropping. This is particularly troubling when you run this card in a sealed case. You get some thermal dump into the case, which hopefully is well ventilated with more than just a pair of low CFM fans, or your gaming bliss could be short lived. While AMD states 95 °C is OK, I found out otherwise as this card would decide enough was enough and shut down at random times in games, which is a concern that needs to be addressed. Usually after the thermal limits had been reached and had been running under load for any time with a fan speed of less than 55%. Again not a PowerColor problem, but something I am wondering is indicative of the higher operating temperatures on the reference design. I hope that the non-reference designs from AMD's board partners remedy the cooling concerns to maintain the thermal headroom needed for optimum performance, because currently it's quite clear that NVIDIA cards run cooler and quieter than this current flagship from AMD.

AMD and its partners have been at the forefront of multi-display solutions since 2009 when it introduced Eyefinity to the world. Connectivity to this kind of panel combination has at times been difficult making sure you had the correct adapter to make the solution work. With the R9 series, AMD and its partners like PowerColor have moved past these concerns and improved connectivity so the end user can connect any three of the onboard connections to run a 3x1 panel configuration. Moving to a six panel solution is going to require using the full size DisplayPort 1.2 port with an MST hub to send the signal to a trio of the panels with the two DVI and single HDMI port delivering the signal to the balance of the panels. No more active adapters or special cards equipped to work in this capacity without the adapters. That is a win in anyone's book.

4K displays are starting to become all the rage and in the coming year the prices should drop to make the technology more affordable to everyone. Currently it takes a pair of stout GPUs to deliver excellent frame rates over 60FPS. However, a single card can run the panel and get frame rates above 30FPS. In four out of six games the PowerColor R9 290X OC was the fastest card in the comparison field. Of the two games it was not the fastest card the margins were three and 10 FPS. New for this card is support for CrossfireX without using a traditional external or internal bridge connection. This new revision of Crossfire technology, "allows for direct access between GPU display pipelines over PCI Express®" without any performance penalties. I should have another card arriving shortly to put this to the test. If so this has been a long time coming. I remember having to buy separate cards that used a special external dongle for the interconnect.

AMD brought a few new items along with the new core and revised GCN architecture to the R9 290X with the introduction of its own Mantle API and AMD True Audio. Currently there are no games that use these features, but the future looks interesting for the options. Overall the R9 290X OC is an interesting product that will bring about changes to how we test video cards going forward to fully realize just what the cards are doing in all circumstances. It has the capability to cement itself at the top of the video card heap with excellent performance and a reasonable price point, if some of the issues we found are corrected. In the vein of delivering more FPS, PowerColor has tweaked the BIOS to get the end user a little more usable clock speed for even more impressive gaming.

As a reference card the R9 290X OC from PowerColor delivers great performance at a great price point for that performance, but the bugs and issues have to be addressed to bring its stock up. We look forward to checking out PowerColor's non-reference cards (LCS versions) to see how they fare against these hot temps and noise. 

 

Pros:

  • Price
  • Performance
  • No noise in "Quiet" Mode
  • Eyefinity connectivity
  • 4K ready
  • PowerTune enhancements

 

Cons:

  • Noise ( When u manually adjust fan)
  • Temperatures
  • Clock speed throttling in Quiet Mode (As Much as 360Mhz)
  • Decent chassis needed to maximize airflow
  • Random Crashing when temps are hit


 

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