Finally, after all the messing around with rebranding almost its entire line of HD 7000 series cards with the new Rx prefix, AMD is launching a genuinely brand new graphics card with a brand new GPU. Ladies and gentlefolk, we give you the Radeon R9-290X and its Hawaii XT graphics processor.
This is AMD's second stab at an ultra-enthusiast card to rival the top tier of Nvidia's lineup, namely the GTX Titan and, more importantly, the GTX 780. The first, the dual-GPU HD 7990, had an ultra-enthusiast price point and in general it had performance to match.
The issue was that when you start banding around multi-GPU cards against similarly performing single-GPU options, there's only going to be one winner. One GPU on its own can be trusted to simply work with any game you care to throw at it, especially a few months or years down the line. Relying on people to keep fashioning multi-GPU drivers or profiles specifically for one niche graphics array is far more of a gamble.
And so AMD had to come out with a big GPU to rival Nvidia's hefty GK 110 silicon and, impressively, it has managed to do just that with the Hawaii XT GPU. There's no actual new graphics technology at play here though – we're still looking at essentially the same Graphics Core Next (GCN) architecture for each of its Radeon cores. This time around, however, we're getting some 2,816 of them. Compared with the 2,048 of the HD 7970/R9 280X, that's a considerable jump.
You've also got double the ROPs count, another 1GB of GDDR5 memory on top, and they're all running through an aggregated 512-bit memory bus. All that extra goodness inside this new card means the Hawaii XT GPU is a massive chip. It's not quite on a par with the GK 110's 7 billion transistors and 561mm2 die size, but at 6.2 bn transistors and a 435mm2 die it's not far behind in sheer scale.
AMD hasn't just followed Nvidia's lead in creating a big, heavy, powerful graphics chip for its flagship graphics card; it's also changed the way it zeros in on the GPU core clockspeed. Where Nvidia introduced GPU Boost with the inaugural Kepler cards, then re-specced it for the GTX 700 series, AMD has been playing catch-up.
Nvidia's cards were the first to really take advantage of dynamic clockspeeds, latterly based upon target temperatures, and with the R9 290X, AMD is also basing its dynamic GPU clock almost entirely on temperature.
That then means we can no longer really talk about clockspeeds as we used to. They're no longer a fixed entity, they move up and down the scale as power and temperature headroom allows. The R9 290X then has a core clock of up to 1GHz and how quickly it runs depends on how close to the 95ºC temperature target the GPU is running at.
Sorry, what? A target temperature of 95ºC?
Yeah, that does seem to be pretty hot for AMD to actively aim its flagship GPU at, but it's been at pains to assure the tech world 95ºC is a "perfectly safe temperature at which the GPU can operate for its entire life. There is no technical reason to reduce the target temperature below 95ºC," I was told. So there.
The fact that it might melt the rest of the components sat around it after a mammoth Battlefield 4 sesh is neither here nor there. The GPU will still be functional even if your actual PC isn't.
Even if it the card is happy to run at that temperature in the default 'Über mode', it sounds like AMD Radeons of old. Anyone remember the ancient X1900 XTX? It sounded much like a Harrier Jump Jet straining to take off with Mr Creosote in the cockpit. When the GPU is running at its peak temperature, the R9 290X is incredibly loud. That's fine if you're always going to be wearing a decent, noise-cancelling headset when you're gaming, but for a lot of us it's just going to be too loud.
And when you consider that the 'Über mode' is setting a maximum fanspeed of only 55 per cent, you'll understand just how ridiculously ear-splitting it is at 100 per cent.
The quiet life
To combat that, AMD has kept with the dual-BIOS switches of the last generation HD 7970 and introduced a 'Quiet mode' as the secondary position. All this seems to do is set the fanspeed to a maximum of 40 per cent in-game – meaning the GPU will hit the 95ºC target temperature well before it gets to the 1GHz maximum dynamic clock.
At that 40 per cent, the AMD reference cooler is actually pretty quiet, so it's not going to leave your ears ringing and force you to turn your speakers up to 11 just to hear the 'splodes of your latest Kerbal Space Program rocket failing to make it off the launchpad.
However, you're sadly going to be leaving some of your £430 graphics card's performance on the cutting room floor. With the fans limited to 40 per cent in our testing, the GPU was hitting around 850MHz – that's a good 150MHz lower than the top reference clockspeed. And it takes a very strong-willed gamer to be capable of turning their back on something called 'Über mode'…
That said, the fanspeed limit can easily be changed from within the Catalyst Control Centre (CCC). So if you don't need the top performance and would rather have some peace and quiet you can lower it, then put it back up when you want some oomph.
But how does this brand new AMD graphics card stack up in the grand scheme of things? Well, next to a cure for cancer its import is pretty minimal. Okay, how about the less grand scheme of things? The main target for the R9 290X has to be the GTX 780. The GTX Titan is a nice goal, but thanks to the GK 110's overclocking headroom that's going to just about remain the fastest single-GPU graphics card for the time being. Not by much, though – and in some games not at all – and that's why this new Radeon is so impressive.
At £430 it's a little more expensive than the GTX 780 is right now, but is still almost half the cost of the ridiculously pricey Titan. And when the card's sat in the deafening 'Über mode' it consistently outperforms the GTX 780 in the latest games, sometimes by a pretty hefty margin. In both the resource-intensive Company of Heroes 2 and the arcade race-a-thon GRID 2, the 290X takes a sizeable lead in the benchmarking stakes. Elsewhere, the lead is less sizeable, but still more than just explainable by simple variance of testing. The R9 290X is most definitely a quicker card than the GTX 780 and, in a lot of cases, the GTX Titan too. Job done, you might think. Even in 'Quiet mode' it's mostly just on par with the 780-shaped competition, so lowering that fanspeed isn't quite as harmful to relative performance as we thought.
Almost as important as the average frame rate comparisons are the minimum frame rates the competing cards achieve. Again, the AMD card has the edge, providing a slightly smoother gaming experience even where the average frame rate is at a similar level. We'd put that down to the improved memory setup the Radeon has over the GTX 780 card. Generally, when you see stuttering or serious slowdown in a game engine it's because of streaming data back and forth; when there's the 4GB framebuffer involved the amount of shunting around in slower storage and memory subsystems is drastically reduced. The 6GB of the Titan can't help though, and we're guessing that 512-bit bus bonus is what gives the R9 290X a boost against it.
When four out of the six straight graphics benchmarks have AMD's noisy R9-290X with the performance lead over Nvidia's GTX Titan then you've got to call it a win for the Radeon team. Coming in with higher minimum frame rates too - possibly down to that wide 512-bit bus - means that in terms of gaming alone the AMD card will deliver a much smoother experience. Unfortunately the hot, hefty and hungry GPU is loud and needs a lot of juice, but those aren't really performance-related problems.
DirectX 11 tessellation performance
Heaven 4.0 – FPS: higher is better
AMD R9-290X 'Über' – 33.7 (17.4)
AMD R9-290X 'Quiet' – 31.8 (16.4)
Nvidia GTX Titan – 37 (18.2)
Nvidia GTX 780 – 33.2 (16)
DirectX 11 gaming performance
Bioshock Infinite – FPS: higher is better
AMD R9-290X 'Über' – 57 (16)
AMD R9-290X 'Quiet' – 56 (16)
Nvidia GTX Titan – 60 (11)
Nvidia GTX 780 – 56 (11)
Company of Heroes 2 – FPS: higher is better
AMD R9-290X 'Über' – 29 (15)
AMD R9-290X 'Quiet' – 29 (15)
Nvidia GTX Titan – 25 (12)
Nvidia GTX 780 – 22 (11)
GRID 2 – FPS: higher is better
AMD R9-290X 'Über' – 86 (68)
AMD R9-290X 'Quiet' – 75 (61)
Nvidia GTX Titan – 77 (61)
Nvidia GTX 780 – 70 (50)
Total War: Rome II – FPS: higher is better
AMD R9-290X 'Über' – 36 (13)
AMD R9-290X 'Quiet' – 32 (14)
Nvidia GTX Titan – 33 (12)
Nvidia GTX 780 – 30 (9)
Metro Last Light – FPS: higher is better
AMD R9-290X 'Über' – 26 (13)
AMD R9-290X 'Quiet' – 23 (13)
Nvidia GTX Titan – 24 (13)
Nvidia GTX 780 – 23 (13)
Peak temperature performance
100% GPU load – ºC: cooler is better
AMD R9-290X 'Über' – 95
AMD R9-290X 'Quiet' – 95
Nvidia GTX Titan – 80
Nvidia GTX 780 – 80
Peak platform power performance
GRID 2 – Watts: lower is better
AMD R9-290X 'Über' – 383
AMD R9-290X 'Quiet' – 313
Nvidia GTX Titan – 300
Nvidia GTX 780 - 283
Where the GTX 780 and GTX Titan do win some friends though is in the general experience. Despite the fact that the GK 110 GPU is a larger chip, with more transistors, it runs considerably cooler and doesn't demand quite as much from your PSU. When you compare the 'Über mode' to the stock performance of the GTX 780, the Radeon is drawing another 100W of power, and even when we had the temperature target of the GTX 780 set to 95ºC, it struggled to get hotter than 82ºC. Both of those factors, along with the superior Titan-esque cooler on the Nvidia card, means that it's whisper-quiet by comparison. You're not going to want the R9 290X sat in your little lounge-based Steam Machine hitting 55 per cent fanspeed whenever you're gaming, simply because of the noise levels that come with it.
This is all shaping up to be a pretty impressive win for the R9 290X then. It's quicker than a GTX 780 and when you push the overclock up a little – to be fair you will only get a little out of it – you'll get GTX Titan gaming performance for almost half the price. The big problem though is the second-tier Hawaii card that was released less than two weeks later. The R9 290 (without the 'X') is still using almost the exact same GPU. The Hawaii Pro chip in the straight R9 290 is short just a few hundred cores but is capable of delivering almost identical gaming performance.
Before we jammed the 290 into our test rig we were massively impressed with the 290X. With the second tier card though offering the same sort of frame rates , for well over £100 less, there's almost no reason for anyone to opt for the much more expensive, hotter and louder graphics card. Nvidia will also soon release the GTX 780 Ti, which will likely take the 290X's place as the de facto fastest graphics card around, though that will be priced ridiculously high.
If it wasn't for the 290X's little brother we'd have been big fans, as it is this card is suddenly almost irrelevant and we cannot recommend it as a good purchase for anyone. Graphics cards always become obsolete eventually but no-one expected it to happen so quickly here...