PowerColor R9 290X OC Review

ccokeman - 2013-10-26 20:47:28 in Video Cards
Category: Video Cards
Reviewed by: ccokeman   
Reviewed on: November 4, 2013
Price: $549

PowerColor R9 290X OC Introduction:

It's been a few years since the first generation of AMD's Graphics Core Next architecture debuted with the HD 7970 based off the Tahiti XT core. In that time it has proven to be a card that has long legs and continues on today as the R9 280X. Recently reintroduced at $299, it offers a tremendous value and undercut the green teams' offerings by a nice margin. In a game of one-upmanship, the green team offered price cuts to again drive some competitiveness back into the price point. Today we get our hands on the latest high end card from AMD and its partners; this time around it is PowerColor and its factory overclocked R9 290X OC. As if slapping down the R9 290X as the fastest card AMD has ever put together isn't enough, PowerColor put a little tweak on it to drive the performance expectations up just that much higher.

This is the card we have been waiting for to see if AMD can again rise to the challenge and once again dominate the graphics card landscape. Packed full of AMD's latest architectural designs to improve the 28nm GCN architecture and include something a little new with AMD TrueAudio. Add in some PowerTune enhancements for improved efficiency thanks to an all new voltage controller that improves the voltage change granularity, and we get dynamic clock speed adjustments. Base clock speeds on this rendition of the R9 290X from PowerColor are 1030MHz on the 28nm Hawaii core and 1250MHz on the 4GB of GDDR5 memory. A boost of only 30MHz, but one sure to drive performance.

Priced at $549 and targeted at a level of performance that currently only the best from the green team can achieve, it looks to be a challenge that the R9 290X OC is up to.

PowerColor R9 290X OC Closer Look:

The packaging for this card from PowerColor carries a little flash to go along with some of the basic specifications seen on the front panel of the box. The box shows we have 4GB of GDDR5 frame buffer, uses AMD's GCN Architecture, is UEFI ready, supports DX 11.2, conforms to the PCIe 3.0 standard, and can work with both 4K and Eyefinity configurations. The back side lists the basic specifications and the power and system requirements for using this card from PowerColor. Inside the outer sleeve is a cardboard box that holds the card and accessory bundle. The card is packaged deeply in the cardboard to protect it from shipping hazards yet is easy to pull out once into the box. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PowerColor's accessory bundle for this card is slim and includes a quick installation guide, driver disc, and a single 6-pin to 8-pin PCIe power adapter. Missing is the traditional CrossfireX bridge connection we normally see on AMD-based cards, but with the new Crossfire standards this item is going the way of the dinosaurs and is no longer needed.

 

Curiosity killed the cat they say, but getting a look at what AMD and its partners have to offer with the card is intriguing to say the least. So let's dig in!

PowerColor R9 290X OC Closer Look:

PowerColor's R9 290X OC is built off the reference design from AMD. As such it is equipped with a reference cooling solution and is for all intents and purposes a reference card. As a full size card the R9 290X OC measures just under 11 inches in length. At this size fitting the card into just about any mid tower chassis and even some of the high end SFF designs is possible. Standard for the form factor, the card will occupy up to two slots worth of space in the chassis while only physically occupying a single 16x PCIe 3.0 slot. PowerColor's logo occupies the hub on the centrifugal fan and is the only company logo on the card. Visually the R9 290X OC is more appealing than many of the last high end cards from AMD and its partners. There is something in the design that just screams look at me! And not in a train wreck kind of way! The back side of the card shows plenty of surface mount components without much else but the X bracket that holds the vapor chamber-based cooling solution in place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Display connectivity includes a pair of DVI ports, a single HDMI port and a single full size DisplayPort 1.2 port that allows support for up to a six panel Eyefinity configuration using all of the available display outputs coupled with an MST hub. What's interesting is that AMD finally got rid of the need for an absurd number of adapers by setting up the display outputs so that in a three monitor Eyefinity setup you can use any combination of three ports to feed the monitors. No more active adapters will be needed. The bulk of the thermal load is discharged through the opening in the I/O plate above the DisplayPort and HDMI ports. The back side of the card features an interesting configuration with a series of air inlets to feed the fan when running in a Crossfire configuration with up to four cards should your motherboard support it. This seems like a novel approach but brings to mind some questions of how much noise does this create?

 

 

Auxiliary power is supplied to the R9 290X OC by way of a single 6-pin and single 8-pin PCIe power connection providing an additional 225W on top of the 75W supplied by the 16x PCIe slot for a total of 300W. The recommended power supply of 750W shows that you will need a beefy power supply to keep the R9 290X fed. When overclocked we used right up to that 300W commitment. A major change in how Crossfire connectivity is handled occurs with the R9 290X. No longer will an external bridge connection or dongle be needed, as the communication through the PCIe slots can be accomplished without introducing added latency to the equation. Ever since I had a pair of X1900XT cards with an external dongle and a required "master" card to complete the set I have waited for this solution to arrive. Let's hope it works as well or better than the current solution. Just behind where the Crossfire bridge connections were is a two position switch that in the past has been used to mange clock speed profiles. But on the R9 290X it toggles between Quiet mode and Uber mode. In Quiet mode the card uses all of the PowerTune tuning to keep the card as quiet as possible without exceeding the thermal limits, while Uber mode is a relaxed version that allows a higher maximum fan speed.

 

 

Peeling the shroud off the card we can see the large vapor chamber cooling solution and centrifugal fan used to cool the massive die and power circuit on the R9 290X OC. Removing the large aluminum heat sink used to cool the VRM and memory ICs from the PCB gets us down and dirty with the PCB. At the rear of the card is the six phase power circuit controlled by a new SVI2 interface. This new controller offers more granularity with 255 voltage 6.25mv steps between 0 and 1.55v.

 

 

 

 

The cooling for this R9 290X from PowerColor is the reference cooling solution. Similar designs in the past have been rated to disperse up to 400 watts of thermal loading. The design is a hybrid vapor chamber design that uses a massive vapor chamber that is covered by the aluminum fin array. The fins are oriented to allow airflow through the heat sink and out through the I/O plate. The all too familiar squirrel cage fan is used to push air through the card and comes with all of the baggage associated with a reference cooling solution. The vapor chamber is attached to an aluminum plate that is used to manage the heat load from the VRM circuit and 4GB of GDDR5 memory.

 

 

AMD's newest GPU is built starting with a Hawaii core built on TSMC's 28nm process. The Hawaii core is an improvement to AMD's Graphics Core Next architecture equipped with up to 44 compute units, four geometry porcessors, and 1MB of shared L2 read/write cache. By using the 28nm process and packing 6.2 billion transistors into the 1.24x bigger 438 mm2 die you have one seriously big chip. Inside the die are 2816 streaming processors,176 texture units, 64 ROPs, and a 512-bit memory controller to increase bandwidth up to 320GB/s using the 4GB of GDDR5. The standard clock speed for the GCN core is 1GHz, but PowerColor adds a little tune to the mix with a bump in clock speed to 1030MHz while the GDDR5 memory on this sample is rated to run at 1250MHz or 5000MHz effective. Elpida memory ICs rated to run at up to 1500MHz or 6000MHz effective are used to allow some overclocking headroom.

 

 

The new GCN architecture and general specifications lead us to the fact that this card could be the one that pushes AMD back up to the top of the GPU performance heap. Let's see if all the numbers play out in the end with killer performance.

PowerColor R9 290X OC Specifications:

Graphics Engine
RADEON R9 290X
Video Memory
4GB GDDR5
Engine Clock
1030MHz
Memory Clock
1250MHz x 4 (5.0 Gbps)
Memory Interface
512bit
DirectX® Support
11.2
Bus Standard
PCIE 3.0
Standard Display Connecters
DL DVI-D/DL DVI-D/HDMI/DP
Feature Support
OpenGL
Support
CrossFireX™ Technology
Support
ATI Stream Technology
Support
ATI Eyefinity Technology
Support
ATI Hypermemory Technology
 
Display Support
VGA Output
 
DVI Output
DL DVI-D/DL DVI-D/
DisplayPort
On Board
HDMI
On Board
TV Output
 
HDTV Output
 
HDCP Support
Support
Maximum Resolution
VGA
 
DVI
2560x1600
DisplayPort
4096x2160
HDMI
4096x2160
Power Specs + Board Dimensions
 
Board Dimensions
266.65mmx111.2mmx38mm
Minimum System Power requirement (W)
750W
Extention Power Connector
One 6-Pin and One 8-Pin PCI Express Power connectors

 

PowerColor R9 290X OC Features:



 

All information courtesy of Powercolor @ http://www.powercolor.com/us/products_features.asp?id=489

PowerColor R9 290X OC Testing:

Testing of the PowerColor R9 290X OC will consist of running it and comparison cards through the OverclockersClub.com suite of games and synthetic benchmarks. This will test the performance against many popular competitors. Comparisons will be made to cards of a range of capabilities to show where each card falls on the performance ladder. The games used are some of today's newest and most popular titles, which should be able to provide an idea of how the cards perform relative to each other.

The system specifications will remain the same throughout the testing. No adjustments will be made to the respective control panels during the testing to approximate the performance the end user can expect with a stock driver installation. I will first test the cards at stock speeds, and then overclocked to see the effects of an increase in clock speed. The cards will be placed in order from highest to lowest performance in each graph to show where they fall by comparison. The NVIDIA comparison cards will be using the 330.58 drivers while AMD-based cards will be using the Catalyst 13.11 beta  drivers with the R9 290X running 13.11.Beta 8. The results generated in my testing were reached by utilizing the latest FCAT tools to illustrate the true picture of the gaming experience. To do so will require a second PC setup to capture the data stream generated by the compared video cards. We have tested the R9 290X in Uber mode to eliminate the clock speed inconsistencies we found while running the card in "Quiet" mode to show the best case scenario for this architecture. For a run down of how it performs in Quiet mode see the To Uber or Not page.

 

Testing Setup:

FCAT Capture Setup:

 

Comparison Video Cards:

 

 

Overclocking:

Overclocking the R9 290X OC presents some new wrinkles to work out as far as overclocking is concerned. Most of this comes about due to how AMD's new iteration of PowerTune manages the thermals and power consumption on the card. In the latest driver release AMD has included an updated version of AMD Overdrive to take advantage of the capabilities of the R9 290X. With it you can tweak the card to reach some mild overclocking goals. The keys here are running the card in Uber mode with the fan speed left automatically controlled for a maximum of 55% or manually adjust the fan speed to a higher level to combat thermals. This is the route I took to reach the maximum overclock of 1135MHz on the core and 1400MHz on the GDDR5 memory.

The core clock speed saw an increase of 95MHz over the rated 1030MHz rated speed or close to a 10% improvement. The GDDR5 memory speed saw a 150MHz or 12% boost that helps performance with higher throughput. I was expecting more, but the use of a 512-bit bus makes it tough to even hit the rated speed on the memory. Ramping the fan up to 87% allowed the R9 290X OC's clock speeds to stay at the speed set in Afterburner for a period of 25 minutes. Long term these may drop slightly but seemed solid for the time frame I ran them. By running the fan speed higher I was able to keep the thermals in line at between 67 °C and 70 °C thereby keeping the clock speeds consistent rather than seeing fluctuations that will cause a loss in performance. Higher clock speeds should prove helpful for short time frame 3D benchmarks before the card throttles if you use slower fan speeds.

 

Maximum Clock Speeds:

Testing for the maximum clock speed consisted of looping Unigine Heaven 4.0 for 30 minutes each to see where the clock speeds failed when pushed. If the clock speed adjustment failed, then the clock speeds and tests were rerun until they passed a full hour of testing.

 

 

  1. Metro: Last Light
  2. Splinter Cell Blacklist
  3. Bioshock Infinite
  4. Crysis 3
  5. Far Cry 3
  6. Battlefield 3
  7. Batman: Arkham City
  8. Unigine Heaven Benchmark 4.0
  9. 3DMark

 

  1. Temperatures
  2. Power Consumption

PowerColor R9 290X OC Testing:

Part first-person shooter, part survival horror, Metro: Last Light is the followup to the extremely popular game Metro 2033. Developed by 4A games and published by Deepsilver, this game uses the 4A game engine. In this game set a year after the missile strike on the Dark Ones you continue on as Artyom as he digs deeper into the bowels of the Metro.

 

 

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At 1920x1080 the R9 290X OC is markedly slower than the GTX Titan, but once you reach 5760x1080 the R9 290X OC pulls ahead. As you will see in the 4K testing we see the same result in this game.

 

FCAT Results:

At 1920x1080 and 5760x1080 the percentile charts are relatively flat showing that the amount of outside the normal frame times are not present in this game. We see a more gradual rise though in the 5760x1080 testing though. At 1920x1080 the frame times hang in the 20ms zone leading to a great game play experience while at 5760x1080 the experience gets a little sketchy.

 

1920x1080     5760x1080

 

1920x1080     5760x1080

PowerColor R9 290X OC Testing:

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist is the sixth installment in this franchise. Released in mid August 2013 in the US, it is published and distributed by Ubisoft. This game is built around the Unreal 2.5 game engine and uses Havok Physics. A new feature in this third person perspective game is a new game mechanic called Killing in Motion.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In both resolutions the PowerColor R9 290X OC is second only to the GTX Titan. I see 10+ FPS gains over the GTX 780 in this game.

 

FCAT Results:

In the percentile charts, we see a fairly flat rise in the charts until the 90% point at 1920x1080 and 95% point at 5760x1080. Looking at the plot charts we can see a wildly varying frame time with the R9 290X OC in both resolutions. At 1920x1080 this variance is close to 10ms.

 

1920x1080     5760x1080

 

1920x1080     5760x1080

PowerColor R9 290X OC  Testing:

Bioshock Infinite, much like the first two installments of the franchise, is a first-person shooter known for its strong story and atmosphere. This third installment of the franchise no longer takes place in the underwater world of Rapture, but in the could city of Columbia. Utilizing many of the gameplay characteristics of the original games, Bioshock Infinite has garnered critical acclaim. Taking the player through a maze of outdoor and indoor scenarios, the action is not constrained by territory. Developed by Irrational Games and published by 2K Games, this iteration uses the Unreal 3 game engine.

 

 

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Bioshock Infinite the R9 290X delivers excellent gameplay. The margins between the R9 290X OC and the rest of the field are sizable.

 

FCAT Results:

The percentile charts tell the story of a smooth running game. In the frame time charts there is one spike that every card hits but other than that the game runs smooth as butter.

 

1920x1080     5760x1080

 

1920x1080     5760x1080

PowerColor R9 290X OC Testing:

This third installment of the Crysis franchise, developed by Crytek and distributed by Electronic Arts, uses the CryEngine 3 game engine and requires a DirectX 11 ready video card and operating system due to its demanding graphics engine.

 

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At 1920x1080 the PowerColor R9 290X OC delivers FPS on par with the GTX Titan while at 5760x1080 it moves ahead of the GTX Titan by a few FPS or close to 10%.

 

FCAT Results:

Again we see fairly smooth game play from the R9 290X OC without a terrible amount of outliers.

 

1920x1080 5760x1080

 

1920x1080 5760x1080

PowerColor R9 290X OC Testing:

Far Cry 3 is the latest iteration in the Far Cry series. Released in the US in early December 2012, it uses the Dunia 2 game engine and is published and developed by Ubisoft. This action-adventure, first-person shooter offers both single player and multi-player modes.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At 1920x1080 and 5760x1080, the FPS performance delivered by the R9 290X OC from PowerColor shows it can deliver FPS levels close to that of the GTX Titan and can out perform the GTX 780 in this game.

 

FCAT Results:

The percentile charts rise slowly as the amount of frames included in the calculations rises, with a steep rise at the 97-98% range. There are a few frame time spikes that specifically happen with AMD-based cards. The frame time chart shows that outside of the frame time spikes noted that the frame time variances are tight in this game leading to smooth animation in game.

 

1920x1080 5760x1080

 

1920x1080 5760x1080

PowerColor R9 290X OC Testing:

Battlefield 3 is a first-person shooter developed by EA Digital Illusions CE and published by Electronic Arts. Battlefield 3 uses the Frostbite 2 game engine and is the direct successor to Battlefield 2. Released in North America on October 25, 2011, the game supports DirectX 10 and 11.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In BF3, PowerColor's R9 290X OC delivers FPS targets that match the GTX Titan at 1920x1080 and out perform it at 5760x1080... for $450 less.

 

FCAT Results:

What we see with the FCAT results is that the R9 290X is going to give you smooth gameplay with a single screen or even with a three panel Eyefinity configuration. Frame times do not vary significantly, improving the animation.

 

1920x1080     5760x1080

 

1920x1080     5760x1080

PowerColor R9 290X OC Testing:

Batman: Arkham City is the sequel to Batman: Arkham Asylum released in 2009. This action-adventure game based on DC Comics' Batman super hero was developed by Rocksteady Studios and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. Batman: Arkham City uses the Unreal 3 engine.

 

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Batman: Arkham City, we see the R9 290X OC under performing slightly at 1920x1080, but see how it shows its true colors as the pixel count rises. At 5760x1080 the R9 290X OC has a two FPS margin over the GTX Titan and 5.5 FPS margin over the GTX 780.

 

FCAT Results:

Looking at the percentile and frame time charts, the bottom line is that you get a great gaming experience in this game with just about every card in the comparison stack.

 

1920x1080 5760x1080

 

1920x1080 5760x1080

PowerColor R9 290X OC Testing:

Unigine Heaven Benchmark 4.0 is a DirectX 11 GPU benchmark based on the Unigine engine. This was the first DX 11 benchmark to allow testing of DX 11 features. What sets the Heaven Benchmark apart is the addition of hardware tessellation, available in three modes – Moderate, Normal and Extreme. Although tessellation requires a video card with DirectX 11 support and Windows Vista/7, the Heaven Benchmark also supports DirectX 9, DirectX 10, DirectX 11 and OpenGL 4.0. Visually, it features beautiful floating islands that contain a tiny village and extremely detailed architecture.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Performance wise the R9 290X OC falls behind the GTX Titan and GTX 780 at 1920x1080. At 5760x1080 the script sees a change with the R9 290X OC outperforming them both.

 

FCAT Results:

What we see in the frame time and percentile charts is that the cards are stratified based on the level of performance generated. In this test there is nothing that stands out as abnormal.

 

1920x1080 5760x1080

 

1920x1080 5760x1080

PowerColor R9 290X OC Testing:

3DMark: The just-released version of Futuremark's popular 3DMark suite is designed to let a wider range of the user base make a comparative analysis of the gaming prowess of their systems from entry level PCs to notebooks and extreme gaming PCs.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cloud Gate test shows that the R9 290X OC delivers respectable performance to start with. Moving to the First Strike tests that prove to be much more demanding on the GPU, we see that PowerColor's R9 290X OC changes the performance landscape for this test. The shorter duration of the tests maximizes the performance potential.

PowerColor R9 290X OC Testing:

As GPUs become more capable of pushing higher pixel densities, the use of panel supporting ever higher resolutions are hitting the market with prices dropping as better technology hits the market. Monitors supporting resolutions up to 4K are available, but can be pricey depending on the screen size you are looking for. If you look at some of the non-name branded parts you can find some tremendous bargains at the 2560x1440 resolution and even find some deals on Ultra HD televisions that can be had as low as $700. I will be running six games through the UHD testing to see just what each card will do with high settings and reduced Anti-Aliasing levels. The test setup is the same as the one used for the balance of the GPU Testing with the exception of the switch to an ASUS PQ321Q 4K capable panel. The settings used for each game can be seen in OCC's 4K testing article.

Setting up the FCAT tools to be able to measure the output signal to the display creates some challenges in measuring the raw data just due to the screen size and is more along the lines of measuring the results when running a 5760x1080 resolution. You can take a look back at our introduction to FCAT or Frame Capture Analysis Tools for a more in depth look at the technology and hardware required to pull these results. While FRAPS is a valid measurement for what it does, it does not give an accurate picture of what is actually hitting the screen. For that reason we choose to stay with FCAT as our method for capturing FPS and illustrating anomalies in performance from one manufacturer to the other. To capture the data stream going to the PQ321Q, the setup is a bit different than capturing the data at lower resolutions. Since we have a two monitor setup basically with the UHD panel, we can hook up the hardware-based capture solution as indicated below to keep the data stream at a manageable level.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gaming Tests:

 

Splinter Cell Blacklist:

 

 

Crysis 3:

  <

 

Far Cry 3:

 

 

DiRT 3:

 

 

Battlefield 3:

 

 

Batman: Arkham City:

 

 

Outside of Splinter Cell Blacklist and Batman: Arkham City, the PowerColor R9 290X delivers an excellent level of FPS running a 4K resolution. Looking at the frame time charts we some concern in both Battlefield 3 and Crysis 3.

PowerColor R9 280X OC Testing:

As with just about every launch we get the press guides that answer questions and illustrate the architecture of the product, the positioning, and even performance numbers generated by the manufacturers' in-house teams on a "spec" system that usually differs from the setup we use here at OCC. One thing caught my eye while browsing through the press deck materials on this go round. It was a chart (shown below) that shows a distinct performance difference when running the different fan modes: Quiet for low noise in all situations and Uber that eliminates some of the constraints you have with Zero Core power profiles with an increased fan speed that jumps the fan speed up by about 1000 RPM. Not a huge change in the grand scheme of things when you look at it, but as I was about to find out we ended up with a slight problem that for the most part will go unnoticed until your game performance starts to drop when you have the baddest card that AMD makes in your system.

That being said the two modes are designed for different purposes. "Quiet" mode is designed to run as quiet as possible, forsaking everything else, and keeping the fan speed at a maximum of 40% to, as you guessed it, keep the noise in check. Utilizing a 28nm core with over six billion transistors, the core is huge and needs to be cooled. As we saw with the temperature testing, the R9 290X reaches 94 °C, just under the 95 °C thermal limit of the card. At this point something has to give if there is no way to keep the card cool with a higher fan speed. What gives is the clock speeds. Once the heat builds up sufficiently that the airflow of the fan is not enough to keep the core from overheating, it dynamically reduces the core clock speeds down as low as an observed 669MHz to maintain the thermal thresh hold. As the thermals improve so do the core clock speeds.

Now when you look at Uber mode we see the expected performance levels on the R9 290X as the fan speed can be maintained at a high enough level (55%) to keep the core clock speeds at optimum levels, or at least the rated levels. This we can plainly see in the screen captures below that effectively show the clock speed drop when the R9 290X is at its thermal limit. So lets put that in perspective with the NVIDIA GTX 780 that does dynamically manage clock speeds based on a thermal and power limit to keep the card performing optimally in game and with the noise it generates. By contrast the GTX 780 does drop clock speed as it warms up and the thermal rise. The caveat is that the GTX 780 does not drop below its rated clock speed of 863MHz on the core. Again this is seen below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Quiet Mode"     "Uber Mode"

 

Seeing how the clock speed drops dynamically in "Quiet" mode, we had to revisit our testing and verify Uber mode was enabled to show the expected performance characteristics in the main testing. But we decided to show here how the R9 290X performs when run in "Quiet" mode and how that option compares to Uber mode while comparing this directly with the GTX 780. To do so we heated up all of the cards while in game for five minutes before a benchmark scenario was run. Resolutions tested are 1920x1080 and 5760x1080. We are using a sampling of our normal benchmark suite, but have included Batman: Arkham Origins as a replacement for Batman: Arkham City. The settings used mirror those in our benchmark suite tests for a direct comparison.

 

Batman: Arkham Origins:

 

 

Far Cry 3:

 

 

Bioshock Infinite:

 

 

Crysis 3:

 

 

Metro: Last Light:

 

 

When you get to the end of this and draw a conclusion, you see that PowerTune does its job quite well at keeping the thermals and noise in check when running in "Quiet" mode. However that reduction in noise comes with a significant performance penalty across the board in this series of five games run through two resolutions. FPS drops associated with the use of Quiet mode at 1920x1080 start at just under five FPS and reach almost 13 FPS depending on the game tested. At 576 x1080 the lower overall FPS lessens the actual FPS impact in most games, but if looked at on a percentage basis you can come up with the same conclusions that running in Quiet mode will cost you FPS. If the noise associated with a reference fan is of no consequence to you since when gaming a headset is worn, then I suggest you run Uber mode for the higest FPS levels.

PowerColor R9 290X OC Testing:

Temperature testing will be accomplished by loading the video card to 100% using Unigine's Heaven Benchmark Version 4.0, with MSI's Afterburner overclocking utility for temperature monitoring. I will be using a resolution of 1920x1080 using 8xAA and a five-run sequence to run the test, ensuring that the maximum thermal threshold is reached. The fan speed will be left in the control of the driver package and video card's BIOS for the stock load test, with the fan moved to 100% to see the best possible cooling scenario for the overclocked load test. The idle test will involve a 20-minute cooldown, with the fan speeds left on automatic in the stock speed testing and bumped up to 100% when running overclocked.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Working with reference cards you expect that the cooling solution is not going to be the absolute best, but a compromise between raw cooling performance over the long haul and what we all know and understand to be the noise associated with that same reference cooler. AMD has delivered a card that has a moderately sized design that is built to keep the card running at close to the design temperature of 95 °C to keep the noise level down, yet still maintain a level of performance without waking the neighbors and, more importantly, that significant other. With that in mind, this card from PowerColor uses the reference design and it stays right close to the thermal threshold at 93 °C. At idle we again see the warmest temperatures in the comparison field. In the overclocked testing we see that spinning the fan up to 100% has a minimal effect in the idle thermal characteristics, however under load we see a drastic improvement when moving more airflow through the card. Better cooling is always better in my book.

The R9 290X OC, as do all reference cards, features a pair of BIOS that use different fan and Zero Core power parameters. The Quiet BIOS (front position) is used to keep the card as quiet as possible while the rear position (Uber mode) raises the fan speed to provide the best mix of cooling and noise.

 

Now the downside to maxing out the fan speed is that the noise levels associated with the cooling gain is not worth the trade off. Reducing the fan speed helps with the noise but you need to get down to the 50% level to make it livable. Now you say, "who cares about the noise?", since you wear a headset while gaming so you don't hear the card! You will need to crank it up if you really ratchet up the fan speed. It's going to be a preference, but a vacuum in my case is not going to cut it any longer. Fortunately this is not a board partner problem on the reference designs. It should prove interesting once we get to non-stock boards.

PowerColor R9 290X OC Testing:

Power consumption of the system will be measured at both idle and loaded states, taking into account the peak voltage of the system with each video card installed. I will use Unigine's Heaven Benchmark version 4.0 to put a load onto the GPU using the settings below. A 15-minute load test will be used to heat up the GPU, with the highest power usage recorded as the final result. The idle results will be measured after 15 minutes of inactivity on the system with the lowest recorded power usage as the final result.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking at the stock power consumption at idle, the R9 290X OC looks quite impressive with the second lowest idle power consumption. With the massive die size and hardware under the hood, it's pretty impressive and shows the latest iteration of Zero Core Power works as intended. Under load we don't see any surprises, but power consumption for the system is greater than the GTX Titan. You got to feed the beast. Overclocked idle numbers are not as impressive, but then the fan is also screaming along at 100% fan speed. When you look at the overclocked load usage we see the R9 290X OC is using less current than the GTX Titan. At this point the lack of voltage control helps here in keeping the consumption down.

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. 

 

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