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Custom-cooled Radeon R9 290X cards from Asus and XFX reviewed

More fans and pipes than a Phish concert

Ok, so these Radeon R9 290X cards have been kicking around for a shamefully long time in Damage Labs without getting a proper review. They were, a few months back, a Very Important Consideration in my list of things to cover.

You see, the first wave of retail R9 290X cards with AMD's reference coolers tended to run pretty hot, and as a result, they were sometimes slower than the initial press samples. That fact was somewhat scandalous, of course. The folks at AMD told us that it shouldn't be that way, and they took a two-pronged approach to addressing this problem. First, they asked to take one of the retail 290X cards I'd tested into their own labs for further testing, pledging to get to the bottom of the issue. Two, they pointed to the upcoming release of 290X cards with custom coolers as a reason why this problem shouldn't matter so much in the near future.

After that, well, we never heard anything definitive back from AMD about the problems with reference-based 290X cards. We asked about it, but AMD didn't have any findings to share after looking at the retail card we gave them. I got the distinct sense they were hoping that story would just kind of fade away.

Besides, they said, the custom-cooled offerings were on the way. Two of them arrived in Damage Labs, one from Asus and another from XFX, and I began testing them. Somehow, though, I was briefly distracted from that task by higher-priority reviews.

And then, suddenly, none of it mattered.

The crypto-currency mining boom hit hard, and demand for high-end Radeon cards skyrocketed. Supplies of the R9 290X were so tight in North America that Newegg's auto-pricing algorithm briefly marked up the cards to $900—and that was kind of a good thing, since they were at least in stock. For months, gamers in North America were effectively priced out of the market for most of the R9-series Radeons.

Naturally, I found it hard to prioritize reviewing a couple of video cards that were nearly impossible for PC gamers to acquire at a reasonable price. Plus, I was distracted by other pressing matters, like the astounding Radeon R9 295 X2.

Happily, right about now looks like an appropriate time to revisit these custom-cooled 290X cards. For one reason or another, supplies of high-end Radeon GPUs appear to have recovered. The cards are in stock at retailers like Newegg and selling for reasonably sane amounts, not far off their original suggested list prices. Meanwhile, I've used these custom-cooled 290X cards in multiple tests, including the R9 295 X2 review, and I have good things to report. Might as well finally get on with it.

XFX R9 290X Double Dissipation
Let's be frank: depending on how you look at it, you either have to give XFX some credit or some grief for naming its graphics cards "DD edition." Because breasts. That's clearly the imagery the name is meant evoke, and the twin fans on this cooler certainly are large and full. Ample, one might even say. And you know, there's very little that a lonely male gamer likes more than a really large pair of... fans.

I almost think the too-clever name is kind of a shame, since this cooler is definitely sexy on its own terms. We first got a look at this basic design on XFX's R9 280X card, and it was practically overkill atop that mid-sized GPU (although in the best way possible). The folks at XFX almost certainly had the 290X's beefy Hawaii GPU in mind when they designed this thing.

As you can see, this Double Dissipation cooler is larger than the circuit board beneath it in every way that counts. The result is a video card that's 11" long—about a quarter inch longer than a reference 290X—and protrudes fully three-quarters of an inch above the top of the expansion slot area. This video card is one of the tallest ever to pass through Damage Labs, and XFX has used the additional height to house a large heatsink. The fins stick up above the PCB and run the length of the card, allowing for more cooling capacity than would be possible in a conventional dual-slot format. The obvious downside is that this card won't fit into every case. You'll want to check for clearance before ordering one of these things.

Yes, the XFX logo on this puppy lights up when the card is powered on. That little touch is purely cosmetic, but I can't help myself—the eight-grader somehow still inside my head thinks it looks awesome. Between the light show and distinctive flat finish and rounded corners (surely Apple will sue) of the cooling shroud, XFX's take on the R9 290X would be a perfect addition to a custom gaming rig with a big case window.

Beyond the bling and beefy cooling, this card follows AMD's template for the 290X very closely. The ports on that nifty XFX backplate are the same as the reference card's, with one DisplayPort, one HDMI, and two DL-DVI connectors. The GPU has a 1GHz Boost clock, and it's paired with 4GB of GDDR5 memory running at 5GT/s on a 512-bit interface, just like on the stock 290X.

Perhaps best of all to gamers looking for a high-end graphics solution, the XFX 290X DD Edition is in stock right now at Newegg for the low, low price of $599.99. That's 50 bucks above AMD's original list price for the reference 290X, but a whole lotta water has passed under the bridge since then. From today's perspective, a 290X card with custom cooling for that price seems like blessed relief.