It's a great time to be in the market for a video card. AMD and Nvidia are duking it out for our hard-earned cash, and it's the consumers who benefit from the battle royale through better performing GPUs at an unbelievably low price.

The saying in the GPU market used to be there are "no free lunches," meaning what you pay for is the performance you'll get. But AMD has changed all that with its fierce pricing strategy – giving consumers seriously strong performance per dollar spent.

Asus has come into the graphics card market with a killer mid-range AMD offering: its R9 280 DirectCU II TOP. Like other AMD Radeon R9 280s, the DirectCU II TOP features a base clock speed of 874MHz and a boost speed of 980MHz, but the card also sports 1792 stream processors, 3GB of video RAM, and a 250W TDP rating.

If the aforementioned specifications sound similar, that's because the R9 280 is a rebadged AMD 7950 Boost GPU. AMD's reference R9 280 is clocked slightly higher than the 7950 Boost's 925MHz core clock, by a measly 8MHz. The R9 280 features a TDP that's 25 watts higher than 7950 Boost, too. Asus's DirectCU II TOP R9 280 is factory overclocked to 980MHz, giving it a 47MHz boost in core clock speed.

Last year the 7950 Boost launched with a price tag of $400, and it was AMD's second fastest single-GPU video chip. Currently, you can get a R9 280 for $250 (£149, AU$270). The Asus Radeon R9 280 DirectCU II TOP, on the other hand, carries a $30 premium for a reasonable $280 (£167, AU$303). I should mention that the closest competitor to this R9 280 is the Asus Nvidia GTX 760 DCUII, which has an MSRP of $250 (£149, AU$270).

A Big Card with Big Performance

Open the box of the DirectCU II TOP and you'll notice the component's massive circuit board and cooler. This card measures 5 x 11.5 inches (W x D). If you have a smaller case, be sure to measure it to make sure you can fit this large GPU.

That said, the giant cooler is whisper quiet and efficient. I barely heard a peep from the card when it was under a full load, and it ran at a chilly 133 degrees Fahrenheit when maxed out.

Benchmarks

All of the following benchmarks were run on the Ultra settings at 1920 x 1080, (except when otherwise noted) with 4X FXAA enabled. Our test bed consisted of an Intel Core i7-4770K at 4.0GHz on a MSI Z87-G45 board with 8GB of DDR3/1600MHz RAM, a 128GB SanDisk Extreme II solid-state drive, and a 750W Corsair power supply.

Metro Last Light (Settings used: SSAA enabled, PhysX disabled):

  • Asus Radeon R9 280 DirectCU II TOP: 32.4 fps
  • Asus DirectCU II GTX 760: 28.7 fps
  • R9 270X (Reference): 25 fps
  • Asus Radeon R9 280 DirectCU II TOP Overclocked to 1025MHz: 33.7 fps

Tomb Raider (Settings used: 4x SSAA):

  • Asus Radeon R9 280 DirectCU II TOP: 44.3 fps
  • Asus DirectCU II GTX 760: 36.9 fps
  • R9 270X (Reference): 36 fps
  • Asus Radeon R9 280 DirectCU II TOP Overclocked to 1025MHz: 46.1 fps

Batman Arkham Origins (Settings used: Geometry DX11 Enhanced, Dynamic Shadows DX11 Enhanced, Motion Blur Off, D.O.F DX11 Enhanced, PhysX Disabled):

  • Asus Radeon R9 280 DirectCU II TOP: 103 fps
  • Asus DirectCU II GTX 760: 125 fps
  • R9 270X (Reference): 84 fps
  • Asus Radeon R9 280 DirectCU II TOP Overclocked to 1025MHz: 108 fps

Sleeping Dogs (Settings used: High-Res Textures Enabled):

  • Asus Radeon R9 280 DirectCU II TOP: 46 fps
  • Asus DirectCU II GTX 760: 41 fps
  • R9 270X (Reference): 37.3 fps
  • Asus Radeon R9 280 DirectCU II TOP Overclocked to 1025MHz: 48 fps

3DMark Fire Strike Normal:

  • Asus Radeon R9 280 DirectCU II TOP: 6795
  • Asus DirectCU II GTX 760: 5754
  • R9 270X (Reference): 5647
  • Asus Radeon R9 280 DirectCU II TOP Overclocked to 1025MHz: 7079

Heaven 4.0 (Settings used: Tessellation: Extreme):

  • Asus Radeon R9 280 DirectCU II TOP: 37 fps
  • Asus DirectCU II GTX 760: 36.3 fps
  • R9 270X (Reference): 31 fps
  • Asus Radeon R9 280 DirectCU II TOP Overclocked to 1025MHz: 39 fps

Overall, Asus' DirectCU II TOP deftly outpaced the GTX 760 in head-to-head benchmark tests. The R9 280 won five of the six benchmarks I ran by an average of 13%. Its best wins came in Tomb Raider and 3DMark (2013) Fire Strike, where it performed 20% and 18% faster than the GTX 760.

The one benchmark the R9 280 lost was Batman Arkham: Origins, and it did so by a staggering 20% to the GTX 760. To be fair, both chips ran Batman Arkham Origins at over 100 FPS, so the loss is a mitigated one.

I also compared the R9 280 to its younger brother, the R9 270X, which currently runs $200 (£120, AU$216). As I expected, the R9 280 destroyed its younger sibling in our benchmark tests, as it should, because of its higher price tag and beefier specifications. The R9 280 won every benchmark against the R9 270X, handily, and it did so with an average winning percentage of 23%.

Overclocking

The video card was fantastic when overclocked to 1025MHz. I heard no difference in fan noise in doing so, but the GPU ran 50 degrees Fahrenheit hotter as a result. The performance gains of our overclock were modest, as I saw an average increase of 4% in performance across all benchmarks.

We liked

The performance of the Asus DirectCU II TOP was impressive: it ran quietly under load and beat out the GTX 760 in five of our six benchmarks. I also like AMD's Never Settle Forever game bundling strategy, which gives buyers of AMD GPUs one to three free games, depending on what AMD graphics card they buy.

The R9 280 qualifies for three free games, which is a sweet bonus. (The games you can choose from include Thief, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Hitman Absolution, Dirt 3, and Sleeping Dogs.)

We disliked

This component is huge, and you won't be able to fit it into a small case with such large dimensions. In contrast the GTX 760 I tested was 8.5 inches long and 4.25 inches wide, making it a piece that could fit into almost any case. The R9 280's large size isn't a deal breaker and, in its defense, quiet coolers are usually pretty large.

Lastly, I didn't like the R9 280's 250W TDP, as it's 80W more than a GTX 760. On the bright side the more power-hungry R9 280 won almost all of the benchmarks we ran, so at least the card's higher TDP comes with higher performance.

Final verdict

The Asus Radeon R9 280 DirectCU II TOP has fantastic performance and it's almost a steal at $280. The strong performance it brings at the middle of the market should have Nvidia scrambling to offer up a counter. Until this happens, the R9 280 is the clear choice for those in the market for a mid-range graphics card.