Entertainment, Graphics, Hardware, Software Programs

AMD Radeon R9 290: Blowing the Doors off the Competition

We started this review trying to go into it with absolutely the most simple of expectations, whether or not this card presented a new challenge to Nvidia, AMD?s primary competitor. In this review, we?ll be focusing on overall performance in synthetic benchmarks as well as gaming and the overclockability of the card. All of this will be weighed against the current pricing of all of AMD?s and Nvidia?s cards and it will be decided whether or not this card is worth its weight. 

The R9 290, much like the R9 290X is based on AMD?s Codenamed Hawaii Architecture which is simply put a GCN architecture with an improved, larger memory bus that takes up less space. Sure, AMD basically just took the 7970?s architecture, dialed things up, and made some tweaks, but it isn?t the same card. The same can?t necessarily be said for their R9 280X, 270X or R7 260X, however I can understand the need for the company to unify their branding across all performance levels. Additionally, they did add a few features here and there to the cards themselves, but the R9 290 and 290X are really the only NEW cards. We?ll be taking a look at how those cards perform based on price at a later time.

Getting back to the R9 290, the real point for this card?s existence is a bit perplexing because it is supposed to be a slower version of the 290X, but it sells for $150 less than the 290X, almost a solid 1/3 the price. Based on this, one would expect that it performs 1/3 the speed, and since AMD didn?t provide us with a 290X at the time of launch, we?ll have to run our 290X review at a later date. Nevertheless, we?re really interested to see how the R9 290 performs against the GTX 770 and GTX 780 as well as GTX Titan. After all, the GTX 780 is a $500 card and the Titan is a $1000 card. We will also be doing a review of the GTX 780 Ti shortly, but due to some issues we will be publishing it at a later date.

So, right now, we?re squarely focused on the R9 290 that features a chip with 6.2 billion transistors (identical to the 290X) and is manufactured on TSMC?s 28nm process (the same as the HD 7000 series). The 290 is clocked at up to 947 MHz, while the 290X is clocked up to 1 GHz, a fairly small difference. The R9 290 also has 2,560 stream processors, while the R9 290X has 2,816, a difference of 10%. In terms of peak theoretical compute performance, the R9 290 should be capable of up to 4.9 TFLOPS while the 290X is capable of 5.6 TFLOPS. The difference in TFLOPS is a direct result of the R9 290 having 16 fewer texture units than the 290X and a lower clock speed, since the 290X has 176 texture units and the 290 has 160. Both cards have a 512-bit memory bus and 4GB of GDDR5 clocked at 5 GT/s resulting in a memory bandwidth of 320 GB/s.

Going on from all those specs, we?re just going to cut to the chase and give you the benchmarks that you want to see.

Synthetic Benchmarks
First, we benchmarked 3DMark 11 and 3DMark Fire Strike Extreme

As you can tell from our 3DMark 11 benchmarks, the R9 290 sits above the GTX 780 and below the GTX Titan. Do note that in the Entry and Performance tests the R9 290 bested the GTX 780, however it did not win in the Extreme Benchmark, where the GTX 780 came ahead with a score of 4541 versus the R9 290?s 4229.

Moving on from 3DMark 11, we also tested 3DMark Fire Strike Extreme. In this benchmark, we were expecting to get the same results as we did in 3DMark 11, but in fact the R9 290 beat the GTX 780 and GTX Titan in this benchmark. Considering that AMD has historically done better than Nvidia in the latest version of 3DMark, we can?t always be too sure of how that will reflect final performance. Either way, a $400 card is beating a $500 and $1000 card from their competitors.

We also tested the card in both of Unigine?s synthetic benchmarks, and saw more of the same from the previous benchmarks.

In Unigine?s Heaven 4.0 benchmark, we saw a pretty expected level of performance from the R9 290 considering what we saw in 3DMark. It once again beat the GTX 780, but didn?t quite beat the GTX Titan with a score of 1593, just barely beating the score of 1587 on the GTX 780. However, we did notice some stuttering during the test, even after multiple successive tests on the 290.

In Unigine?s Valley benchmark we were testing for more of the same, but with a different kind of scenery. Unigine?s Valley benchmark is designed to test a graphics card in much larger spaces and is great for synthetically benchmarking scenes that would appear in a game like Skyrim. In this benchmark, we the R9 290 got a score of 2062, which actually puts it well below the GTX 780 but still quite a bit above the GTX 770.

Compute Benchmarks
Moving on from there, we also ran a few OpenCL benchmarks, where AMD has been traditionally very strong. Here, we wanted to see how much of an actual compute impact Hawaii really has and what kind of an improvement it is over the Tahiti (HD 7900) architecture. Here, we tested Kishonti?s CLBenchmark as well as Luxmark?s v2.0 benchmark. Each benchmark uses OpenCL for Ray tracing to calculate performance of the graphics card.

Here in CLBenchmark we can see that the R9 290 comes out with a score of 333K, which is much higher than the HD 7970?s 281K, a real improvement of about 16%. Of course, this is significantly better than the GTX Titan, which came in at 238K. Still, though, the HD 7990 takes the cake as a single graphics card (with two GPUs) with a score of 560K.

In LuxMark v2.0 we saw a similar story with the R9 290 besting all of the other single GPUs in OpenCL compute. In this test, we saw a very similar improvement over the HD 7970 in terms of compute, with an overall improvement of 15%. The Score of 2661 on the R9 290 seems pretty awesome when you realize that two GTX Titans scored 2713 and that we were able to overclock the R9 290 well beyond the benchmarked stock clocks. This means that a $400 card can be almost as fast as two $1000 cards in OpenCL. And, when overclocked to 1,100 MHz, the R9 290 gets a score of 2,765. Beating two GTX Titans.

Once we finished with our OpenCL benchmarks, we moved onto the real world gaming benchmarks.
First, we tested Battlefield 3. Which we will be retiring after this review in favor of Battlefield 4.

In Battlefield 3, we saw the R9 290 taking a cozy seat between the GTX 770 and GTX 780 with an average frame rate of 121, higher than the 11 of the GTX 770 but lower than the 132 FPS of the GTX 780. Even though, the card did have a higher lowest frame rate than both of the other cards.

In Crysis 3 we saw the R9 290 actually match the GTX 780 spot on. Both in terms of lowest frame rate as well as the average frame rate, coming in at 37 FPS (avg) and 26 FPS (low). Obviously, we were running this game at very high settings at 1080P, but it was still interesting to see.

In Bioshock Infinite we saw the R9 290 outperform against the GTX 780, but just ever-so-slightly underperform the GTX Titan. The R9 290 had an average FPS of 120 while the GTX 780 came in at 110 and the GTX Titan at 125. If you take price into consideration once again, is not a bad place to be for $399.

Finally, we took a look at the card?s overclocking performance, heat generated and sound. For overclocking, we initially attempted to use AMD?s new OverDrive via the Catalyst control center, however the methodology is a bit cumbersome and actually feels too precise at times and difficult to use. The whole crosshair style of overclocking isn?t really useful and I had a hard time overclocking with it. I also couldn?t adjust the fan speeds on the fly beyond 47% so it was basically useless to me for overclocking.

That aside, I downloaded MSI?s Afterburner Overclocking Tool and was able to get much more consistent and stable results. I was also able to crank the fan up to 66%, which is admittedly way too loud for anyone to run in any computer, but it significantly reduced the card?s 94C peak temperatures that we experienced during our testing. Since this card?s thermal max set by the drivers is 95C.

Using Afterburner, I was able to get a stable OC of 1,100 MHz with a power boost of 35%. Yes, this significantly increased my power consumption beyond the standard 245w that we experienced at stock, but it also enabled us to get some impressive 3DMark Fire Strike Extreme scores. At 1,100 MHz, the R9 290 was able to score 5146 points in 3DMark, which puts it above a GTX titan and the Radeon HD 7990. Heck, it even starts coming close to the performance of two GTX 680s in SLI (5312).

Overall, the card performs pretty well based on what we?ve seen, but it seriously needs a better cooling solution if anyone wants to squeeze any additional performance out of this chip. With a proper cooler, VReg and fan speed, it seems pretty clear that you could eek out at least a 20% OC. We managed a 14% OC just by bumping the fan speeds to insanely loud audio levels. I actually dared to put the fan at 100% and it sounded like nothing I have ever heard, not even from a 130 CFM Delta fan that sounds like a jet engine.

Value and Conclusion

Now, when you take all of those performance numbers into consideration, it seems like the R9 290 is a pretty good card that runs a bit hot, but still has potential. Now, when you take the $399 price into account, you begin to realize that this card really is the best bang for your buck, hands down, even better than the 290X. At $399, you easily get the best performance per dollar out of the R9 290 than any other card from anyone. Using 3DMark as an easy comparison, you get about 11 ?marks? per dollar on the R9 290 while the GTX 780 yields you about 8. We all know that most people don?t get much performance per dollar out of their cards when they buy into the high-end, that?s just not what they expect. When you look at the HD 7970/R9 280X you can see that you get about 11 ?marks? per dollar as well. So, the mid-range of cards is no longer the only place where you can find the best bang for your buck anymore. With the R9 290, you can get the best performance for your dollar and not have to sacrifice performance at all.

What is a little disappointing, however, is that AMD?s R9 290 doesn?t come as part of any bundle. It can?t be bought with Battlefield 4 as part of a limited time bundle, nor can it participate in the Never Settle Forever bundle. At this point, the value lies purely within the card?s performance and pricing, none of the usually enticing bundles are present right now. For us, this is a little disappointing considering previous graphics card launches and bundles from AMD.

I have to say that AMD has done more than a great job with the R9 290. It is still rough around the edges, but AMD has been providing incredibly rapid and effective software support of all of their new R7 and R9 series graphics cards. It will be incredibly interesting to see what happens next year when they do a die shrink of the card to 20nm, considering the heat and power consumption at 28nm. If I were in the market for a card right now and wanted to build on a budget without sacrifices, I would be putting my money down on the R9 290.

Based on this, we have awarded the AMD Radeon R9 290 with our Editor?s Choice and Value Awards for Prosumer.