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.
Asus R9 290X DirectCU II OC
If that XFX card somehow wasn’t quite beastly enough for you, perhaps this entrant from Asus will do the trick. The DirectCU II cooler has a name that makes engineering sense—it refers to the dual 10-mm copper heatpipes that make direct contact with the GPU’s surface—but sounds clumsy enough to make me wish for a return to XFX’s not-so-veiled references to boobies.
If the XFX cooler is practically spilling out of its dual-slot shirt, then this Asus one is showing a bit of nip. The Asus card is 11.5″ long—which is pretty long as these things go—and, at peak, that heatpipe sticks up 1.5″ above the top of the expansion slot cover. Many of today’s best PC cases leave enough clearance for this extra height not to become a problem. However, I suspect this card may not fit into some of the more compact mid-tower cases on the market.
So long as it fits, though, the oversized cooler ought to be a blessing. Asus says this thing has a 30% larger dissipation surface than the reference design, and the picture above pretty much confirms it. Beyond the size, Asus says it has worked to make the cooler more effective by angling its fan blades to send air both downward and outward, in order to take better advantage of the expanded heatsink area.
This card’s PCB is larger than stock, too, and is clearly a custom design. Asus tells us the board has six power phases feeding the GPU, up from five on the reference design, and four phases for the memory I/O PWM, up from two stock. The firm has used concrete alloy chokes to quiet the electronic buzzing noise one might otherwise hear. For what it’s worth, I didn’t notice any buzzing noise coming from either the XFX or Asus 290X cards in regular use.
The two tones of stickers in action. Source: Asus.
Asus doesn’t have a light-up logo on its DirectCU II cooler, and frankly, I think the default all-black aesthetic is pleasing—very Batmobile, which is always a good thing. There is a bit of bling available to those who want it, however, in the form of two sets of custom stickers, one red and one gold, that can be attached to the cooling shroud in order to match the look of the system around it. These aren’t just shiny stickers, either. They’re metallic in look and feel, substantial and thick. If you can get ’em on straight, the card’s bound to look like it came from the factory that way.
Speaking of which, the DirectCU II OC comes from the factory with a higher-than-stock Boost clock of 1050MHz and 4GB of GDDR5 memory running at 5.4GT/s. That’s a 5% faster GPU clock and an 8% faster memory clock than the reference cards, and having the two together ought to translate into a modest-but-consistent performance improvement. The R9 290X DirectCU II OC is in stock at Newegg right now for $619.99, and like the XFX card, it comes with your choice of three “free” games as part of the Never Settle Forever bundle.
So do these run slower than the 290X review samples?
In a word, nope. In fact, the heart of this review is right here on this page, in these few words. I tested these cards just like I did the ones in our original article on 290X variance, subjecting them to long periods of sustained loads and tracking clock speeds over time. I was going to plot out all of the results for you, so you could compare the cards visually and such, but the numbers themselves were a serious demotivator. You see, both the XFX card and the Asus maintained constant clock speeds, even during our worst-case thermal workload, MSI Kombustor. The XFX stayed steady at its 1GHz peak frequency, and the Asus one-upped it by staying constant at 1050MHz.
This is an outcome so simple I figured I didn’t need to draw you a picture.
Steady speeds mean both of these cards are faster than retail 290X cards equipped with AMD’s reference cooler. They should also be somewhat faster than our original R9 290X review unit in its default “quiet” fan mode. Only in its noisy “uber” fan mode is a reference-cooled 290X able to avoid PowerTune’s temperature-based clock throttling entirely. Both of these custom-cooled cards have no trouble doing so.
That’s very good news for prospective R9 290X owners, in my view. I consider this steady-speed operation the new “normal” for 290X cards generally, and I used the XFX card in my R9 295 X2 review, so the performance numbers you see there ought to be superior to a reference-cooled 290X’s numbers.
With that bit of good news in mind, let’s look closer at exactly how these custom coolers perform while running Battlefield 4.
Welp. Both of the cards are nearly whisper-quiet under load, registering fewer decibels on our meter than the reference GeForce GTX 780 Ti—and pretty much embarrassing the reference-cooled HIS 290X. All the while, the custom-cooled 290X cards are able to keep GPU temperatures relatively low, as well. This is a major improvement.
I suppose I should say a few words in defense of the R9 290X’s stock cooler. After all, it has a single blower that exhausts heat from the PC case and ought to be more tolerant of having another card nestled up next to it in the adjacent expansion slot. The reference cooler is shorter than either of these custom coolers, and it doesn’t jut up into the space above the expansion slots. AMD had good reason to make the stock cooler in the form that it took. Still, I suspect most folks will prefer the tradeoffs offered by custom-cooled cards like these.
Probably thanks to their cooler operating temperatures, the Asus and XFX 290X cards draw a little less power under load than the reference-based HIS offering. The Asus card may be a little more efficient thanks to its custom power delivery, as well.
Also notice how similar in power draw the GTX 780 Ti and R9 290X are. Although it fits into the same space as the reference 290X cooler, the GeForce GTX 780 Ti’s cooler manages to keep GPU temperatures lower while making less noise. Chalk up another strike against the 290X reference cooler, I suppose. The counterpoint here is that the GTX 780 Ti GPU is a bigger chip with more surface area, so it doesn’t present the same thermal density problems that the 290X coolers must face.
Battlefield 4 performance
Now that we’ve seen how those custom coolers perform, we could probably end the review immediately. But this is a PC hardware review site, so we’re required by international law to pad this baby out with some unnecessary benchmark results.
Our weapon of choice for that task is BF4, where we’re comparing the various 290X cards and a competitor from the green team, the GeForce GTX 780 Ti. We conducted these tests a while back, with older graphics drivers and an older version of BF4, but they should be sufficient to demonstrate the differences between the various 290X cards.
Interesting. I’ve said that the XFX 290X should be faster than the reference-cooled HIS card while gaming, and I stand by that assessment. We’ve seen the HIS throttle in similar scenarios in ways that impact performance measurably. That obviously didn’t happen here. What we can say with confidence is that the custom-cooled cards are unlikely to be affected by thermal slowdowns at all.
Also, as you can see, the Asus card’s higher core and memory clocks translate into a minor performance advantage over the other two 290X offerings. Add in the goodness of AMD’s Mantle API, and the Asus 290X essentially matches the GeForce GTX 780 Ti in our latency-focused 99th percentile frame time metric, which is a better way of assessing gaming smoothness than average FPS.
At this point, I should probably be reporting on the overclocking potential of the individual cards or delving deeper into overall comparative performance, because that’s generally what we do here. I think, however, that we’ve covered the basic points that I wanted most urgently to address.
The bottom line is that these custom-cooled Radeon R9 290X cards from XFX and Asus are almost embarrassingly superior to AMD’s reference design. You’ll have to accept that these puppies may require a larger case and an open slot next door. If you can live with that, what you’ll get in return is a cooler, quieter, better-looking graphics card whose performance should be higher because the 290X’s occasional thermal throttling has been banished.
Asus R9 290X DirectCU II OC
I’m not sure I could choose between the Asus and XFX cards. The Asus is faster and snazzier thanks to a custom board design and high-zoot components, but it costs $20 more. And the XFX card lights up. Once you’re down to the lighting considerations, well, these are matters of taste. Take your pick, folks.
As for the question of how these new-look Radeon R9 290X products compare to the GeForce GTX 780 Ti, well, you can take a gander at the results summary in our R9 295 X2 article to get a sense of 4K gaming performance. (Hint: the GTX 780 Ti is faster, but it also costs $100 more.) I think performance at 4K is a little bit different than what you’ll see at more common resolutions, though. We have additional testing in the works with these cards, including that FCAT stuff I’ve mentioned before. Stay tuned.
You can yell at me about the lack of overclocking results on Twitter.