Why AMD's Radeon R9 290 is both awesome and awful

Radeon R9
AMD's Radeon R9 290: Brilliant but a tiny bit broken

Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Or is it the other way round? Either way, only AMD could pull it off with such perverted panache.

I speak of the new AMD Radeon R9 290. Yes, specifically the 290, not the 290X. By most metrics, it's by far and away and without a shadow of a doubt the best graphics card you can currently buy. And yet somehow, AMD managed to launch it in a state that some leading review sites felt they couldn't recommend it.

Let me re-emphasise that. AMD conspired to create the best graphics card on the market and yet make it sufficiently flawed that some experts advised PC gamers not to buy it.

Let's remind ourselves first of what makes the 290 great. It's not actually the fastest graphics chip in the world. That accolade falls to Nvidia's might GeForce GTX 780 Ti. It's not even AMD's fastest. The Radeon R9 290X takes that prize.

Huge performance, plausible price

But what it does do is deliver frame rates that I suspect are largely in distinguishable from those faster chipset in subjective gaming terms. And it does so at a fraction of the price.

As I type these words, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 780 Ti will sock you for about £500. AMD Radeon R9 290Xs start at about £420. But the 290 is yours for just over £300. Nice.

And yet none other than Anandtech had this to say about the 290:

"To get right to the point then, this is one of a handful of cards we've ever had to recommend against."

So, that's one of a handful of cards Anandtech has ever unambiguously recommended against in around a decade of graphics card reviews.

What on earth is wrong with the 290? As it happens, I think Anandtech blundered pretty badly to put the 290 into such undistinguished company. But the 290 is undoubtedly flawed.

There are two closely related problems. The GPU at the heart of the 290 runs very hot and it sports a very noisy fan. The latter problem, if it is a problem, depends on your point of view. Some won't be too worried about a bit of din when the GPU is under heavy load. To be clear, the card is only noisy when rendered detailed 3D graphics.

Piping hot pixel pumper

The temperature issue is potentially more serious and raises concerns about the long-term reliability of 290 boards. AMD says the running temps are fine, but history shows computer chips soaking up 90 degrees-plus with regularity tend to go pop eventually.

The full story is a little more complicated yet and involves some last minute tweaking of the settings controlling the 290's fan. But the details really don't matter too much. The bottom line is that AMD had managed to launch a card that simultaneously all comers while looking seriously flawed, at least to some.

The irony here is that all AMD needed to have done was launch with a quieter fan. The temps could have remained the same and while they would have been remarked upon, I doubt they would have become the main story.

But the hurricane-force fan did a stand up of grabbing all the headlines and spoiling the excellent work of the engineers who designed the GPU.

Fortunately, a solution to all this is on its way. Pretty soon, 290 boards with custom cooling will become available and the din will die down, both figuratively and literally. And then the 290 will take its rightful place as the best graphics card in the world.

In the meantime, I can only marvel at how AMD could make such a mess of such an inherently great product.


Technology and cars. Increasingly the twain shall meet. Which is handy, because Jeremy (Twitter) is addicted to both. Long-time tech journalist, former editor of iCar magazine and incumbent car guru for T3 magazine, Jeremy reckons in-car technology is about to go thermonuclear. No, not exploding cars. That would be silly. And dangerous. But rather an explosive period of unprecedented innovation. Enjoy the ride.