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AMD's Radeon R9 290 graphics card reviewed

Hope you didn't buy the X yet
— 11:00 PM on November 4, 2013

Sometimes, in this job, the task is rather complex. Delving deep into the guts of a new GPU architecture, summarizing a chip comprised of billions of transistors, understanding the subtleties of frame dispatch and delivery—these things can be hard to do well. At other times, though, things are actually rather straightforward. Happily, the Radeon R9 290 isn't a difficult product to understand if you're familiar with its big brother, the Radeon R9 290X. Heck, what you need to know is this: it's nearly the same product but a way better deal. Allow me to explain.

The Radeon R9 290
You see, the Radeon R9 290 is almost the same thing as its elder sibling. The 290 shares the same basic card design and cooler, and it's based on the same brand-new "Hawaii" graphics chip as the R9 290X. AMD knows not everyone is willing to fork over 550 bucks to have one of the fastest graphics cards in the known universe. To help ease the pain a bit, they've strategically trimmed the R9 290's graphics performance and reduced the price accordingly.

width (bits)
Radeon R9 290 947 64 160/80 2560 4 5 512 $399
Radeon R9 290X 1000 64 176/88 2816 4 5 512 $549

Well, I say "accordingly," but between you and me, I think they may have been a bit too generous. The table above tells the story. Versus the R9 290X, the 290 has had only two minor adjustments: the peak clock speed is down from 1000MHz to 947MHz, and the number of active compute units on the chip has been reduced from 44 to 40. That means the 290 has a truly enormous amount of shader arithmetic power, but not quite the borderline terrifying capacity of the R9 290X. Both should be more than sufficient.

Now look at the other specs. The 290 retains the Hawaii GPU's full complement of 64 pixels per clock of ROP throughput, so it has loads of pixel filling and antialiasing power, and it can still rasterize quad primitives per clock cycle for high-polygon tessellation goodness. Even better, the R9 290 has the exact same memory config as the 290X, with a 512-bit-wide path to four gigabytes of GDDR5 running at 5 GT/s. Memory bandwidth is oftentimes the limiting factor in graphics performance, so this choice is especially notable.

But yeah, AMD somehow dropped the price by $150 compared to the 290X. That's a mighty big price break for not much change in specs. The 290 stacks up very well against the fastest graphics cards available today.

Peak pixel
fill rate
Radeon HD 5870 27 68/34 2.7 0.9 154
Radeon HD 6970 28 85/43 2.7 1.8 176
Radeon HD 7970 30 118/59 3.8 1.9 264
Radeon R9 280X 32 128/64 4.1 2.0 288
Radeon R9 290 61 152/86 4.8 3.8 320
Radeon R9 290X 64 176/88 5.6 4.0 320
GeForce GTX 770 35 139/139 3.3 4.3 224
GeForce GTX 780 43 173/173 4.2 3.6 or 4.5 288
GeForce GTX Titan 42 196/196 4.7 4.4 288

The R9 290 has higher theoretical peaks of ROP throughput, shader flops, and memory bandwidth than a thousand-dollar GeForce Titan. And it's just not that far from the R9 290X in any of the key graphics rates.

Of course, the numbers above are theoretical peaks. Especially in the case of Hawaii-based cards, the GPU won't always be operating at those clock speeds. AMD's PowerTune algorithm raises and lowers GPU clock speeds dynamically in response to various workloads, and it does so more aggressively than any other GPU we've seen before.

Now realize that both the R9 290 and 290X apparently have the same PowerTune limits for power draw (~290W, from what I gather, although AMD has been coy on this front) and temperature (94°C). You can imagine what that means for actual operating clock speeds. In fact, here's a look at the operating clocks during our short (4-5 minutes) warm-up period in Skyrim for power and noise testing.

Once the cards have both heated up, near the end of span of time in question, the 290X's clocks drop down to nearly match the R9 290's. During those moments when the clocks almost match, the only real performance difference between the two is a small amount of texture filtering and shader computing power. Now, this is just one scenario. You will definitely see both of these cards throttle more with different workloads, and changes in ambient conditions will cause GPU speeds to vary, too. Also, as you can see, raising the fan speed limit on the 290X by putting it into "uber" mode keeps its GPU clocks closer to 1GHz. Just know that we're talking about some pretty small differences between the 290 and the 290X in its stock fan mode. We'll show you more of the actual performance shortly.

First, let me tell you a little story about the 290's early life and upbringing, which will help you understand how it became the card it is today.

Back in its formative days—that is, when it arrived in Damage Labs roughly two weeks ago—the R9 290 wasn't quite the same. Although we didn't know the price yet, AMD supplied us with info showing the R9 290 positioned against a specific competitor: the GeForce GTX 770, a $399 card from the green team. The 290 was well prepared to take on this foe, more than ready to embarrass the competition with its performance.

Then, just as the 290's big day approached, the wily green team decided to slash prices rather dramatically in response to the new Radeons. Suddenly, the GTX 770 was out of the 290's price range, down at $329, and the closest competition was the GeForce GTX 780. The GTX 780 was now priced at $499, but it was faster than the 290 and came bundled with three major games and a $100 discount on Nvidia's Shield handheld Android game console. One could conceivably make a case for the GTX 780 over the R9 290—and the 290X, for that matter.

AMD's product team sprung into action, delaying the 290's release by a week and supplying us with a new driver intended to help the card match up better against the GeForce GTX 780. The one change contained in that driver was an increase in the card's max fan speed. Originally, the 290 shared the same "40% of max speed" limit as the R9 290X in its default, or "quiet," mode—and it was a little more subdued than the 290X, according to our decibel meter. The new driver raised the 290's fan speed limit to 47%. That change alone endowed the 290 with a few percentage points of additional performance, with the obvious tradeoff that it was a little louder while gaming.

So that's how the R9 290 as you'll know it came to be. This card is a little more aggressive and noisier than originally expected, but its difficult upbringing hardened it against the knocks it'll encounter in this cruel world. Totally like Eminem. Or some other rapper.

Any of them, I guess.

Anyhow, AMD tells us the Radeon R9 290 should be available at online stores starting today, thankfully in higher numbers than the so far hard-to-find R9 290X. We'll have wait and to see how that supply picture meets the demand, of course.