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Meet The Radeon R9 290X

Now that we’ve had a chance to discuss the features and the architecture of GCN 1.1 and Hawaii, we can finally get to the hardware itself: AMD’s reference Radeon R9 290X.

Other than the underlying GPU and the livery, the reference 290X is actually not a significant deviation from the reference design for the 7970. There are some changes that we’ll go over, but for better and for worse AMD’s reference design is not much different from the $550 card we saw almost 2 years ago. For cooling in particular this means AMD is delivering a workable cooler, but it’s not one that’s going to complete with the efficient-yet-extravagant coolers found on NVIDIA’s GTX 700 series.

Starting as always from the top, the 290X measures in at 10.95”. The PCB itself is a bit shorter at 10.5”, but like the 7970 the metal frame/baseplate that is affixed to the board adds a bit of length to the complete card. Meanwhile AMD’s shroud sports a new design, one which is shared across the 200 series. Functionally it’s identical to the 7970, being made of similar material and ventilating in the same manner.

Flipping over to the back of the card quickly, you won’t find much here. AMD has placed all 16 RAM modules on the front of the PCB, so the back of the PCB is composed of resistors, pins, mounting brackets, and little else. AMD continues to go without a backplate here as the backplate is physically unnecessary and takes up valuable breathing room in Crossfire configurations.

Pulling off the top of the shroud, we can see in full detail AMD’s cooling assembling, including the heatsink, radial fan, and the metal baseplate. Other than angling the far side of the heatsink, this heatsink is essentially unchanged from the one on the 7970. AMD is still using a covered aluminum block heatsink designed specifically for use in blower designs, which runs most of the length of the card between the fan and PCIe bracket. Connecting the heatsink to the GPU is an equally large vapor chamber cooler, which is in turn mounted to the GPU using AMD’s screen printed, high performance phase change TIM. Meanwhile the radial fan providing airflow is the same 75mm diameter fan we first saw in the 7970. Consequently the total heat capacity of this cooler will be similar, but not identical to the one on the 7970; with AMD running the 290X at a hotter 95C versus the 80C average of the 7970, this same cooler is actually able to move more heat despite being otherwise no more advanced.


Top: 290X. Bottom: 7970

Moving on, though we aren’t able to take apart the card for pictures (we need it intact for future articles), we wanted to quickly go over the power and RAM specs for the 290X. For power delivery AMD is using a traditional 5+1 power phase setup, with power delivery being driven by their newly acquired IR 3567B controller. This will be plenty to drive the card at stock, but hardcore overclockers looking to attach the card to water or other exotic cooling will likely want to wait for something with a more robust power delivery system. Meanwhile despite the 5GHz memory clockspeed for the 290X, AMD has actually equipped the card with everyone’s favorite 6GHZ Hynix R0C modules, so memory controller willing there should be quite a bit of memory overclocking headroom to play with. 16 of these modules are located around the GPU on the front side of the PCB, with thermal pads connecting them to the metal baseplate for cooling.

Perhaps the biggest change for the 290X as opposed to the 7970 is AMD’s choice for balancing display connectivity versus ventilation. With the 6970 AMD used a half-slot vent to fit a full range of DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPorts, only to drop the second DVI port on the 7970 and thereby utilize a full slot vent. With the 290X AMD has gone back once more to a stacked DVI configuration, which means the vent is once more back down to a bit over have a slot in size. At this point both AMD and NVIDIA have successfully shipped half-slot vent cards at very high TDPs, so we’re not the least bit surprised that AMD has picked display connectivity over ventilation, as a half-slot vent is proving to be plenty capable in these blower designs. Furthermore based on NVIDIA and AMD’s latest designs we wouldn’t expect to see full size vents return for these single-GPU blowers in the future, at least not until someone finally gets rid of space-hogging DVI ports entirely.

Top: R9 290X. Bottom: 7970

With that in mind, the display connectivity for the 290X utilizes AMD’s new reference design of 2x DL-DVI-D, 1x HDMI, and 1x DisplayPort. Compared to the 7970 AMD has dropped the two Mini DisplayPorts for a single full-size DisplayPort, and brought back the second DVI port. Note that unlike some of AMD’s more recent cards these are both physically and electrically DL-DVI ports, so the card can drive 2 DL-DVI monitors out of the box; the second DVI port isn’t just for show. The single DVI port on the 7970 coupled with the high cost of DisplayPort to DL-DVI ports made the single DVI port on the 7970 an unpopular choice in some corners of the world, so this change should make DVI users happy, particularly those splurging on the popular and cheap 2560x1440 Korean IPS monitors (the cheapest of which lack anything but DVI).

But as a compromise of this design – specifically, making the second DVI port full DL-DVI – AMD had to give up the second DisplayPort, which is why the full sized DisplayPort is back. This does mean that compared to the 7970 the 290X has lost some degree of display flexibility howwever, as DisplayPorts allow for both multi-monitor setups via MST and for easy conversion to other port types via DVI/HDMI/VGA adapters. With this configuration it’s not possible to drive 6 fully independent monitors on the 290X; the DisplayPort will get you 3, and the DVI/HDMI ports the other 3, but due to the clock generator limits on the 200 series the 3 monitors on the DVI/HDMI ports must be timing-identical, precluding them from being fully independent. On the other hand this means that the PC graphics card industry has effectively settled the matter of DisplayPort versus Mini DisplayPort, with DisplayPort winning by now being the port style of choice for both AMD and NVIDIA. It’s not how we wanted this to end up – we still prefer Mini DisplayPort as it’s equally capable but smaller – but at least we’ll now have consistency between AMD and NVIDIA.

Moving on, AMD’s dual BIOS functionality is back once again for the 290X, and this time it has a very explicit purpose. The 290X will ship with two BIOSes, a “quiet” bios and an “uber” BIOS, selectable with the card’s BIOS switch. The difference between the two BIOSes is that the quiet BIOS ships with a maximum fan speed of 40%, while the uber BIOS ships with a maximum fan speed of 50%. The quiet BIOS is the default BIOS for the 290X, and based on our testing will hold the noise levels of the card equal to or less than those of the reference 7970.

AMD Radeon Family Cooler Comparison: Noise & Power
Card Load Noise - Gaming Estimated TDP
Radeon HD 7970 53.5dB 250W
Radeon R9 290X Quiet 53.3dB 300W
Radeon R9 290X Uber 58.9dB 300W

However because of the high power consumption and heat generation of the underlying Hawaii GPU, in quiet mode the card is unable to sustain its full 1000MHz boost clock for more than a few minutes; there simply isn’t enough cooling occuring at 40% to move 300W of heat. We’ll look at power, temp, and noise in full a bit later in our benchmark section, but average sustained clockspeeds are closer to 900MHz in quiet mode. Uber mode and its 55% fan speed on the other hand is fast enough (and just so) to move enough air to keep the card at 1000MHz in all non-TDP limited workloads. The tradeoff there is that the last 100MHz of clockspeed is going to be incredibly costly from a noise perspective, as we’ll see. The reference 290X would not have been a viable product if it didn’t ship with quiet mode as the default BIOS.

Finally, let’s wrap things up by talking about miscellaneous power and data connectors. With AMD having gone with bridgeless (XDMA) Crossfire for the 290X, the Crossfire connectors that have adorned high-end AMD cards for years are now gone. Other than the BIOS switch, the only thing you will find at the top of the card are the traditional PCIe power sockets. AMD is using the traditional 6pin + 8pin setup here, which combined with the PCIe slot power is good for delivering 300W to the card, which is what we estimate to be the card’s TDP limit. Consequently overclocking boards are all but sure to go the 8pin + 8pin route once those eventually arrive.

PowerTune: Improved Flexibility & Fan Speed Throttling A Note On Crossfire, 4K Compatibility, Power, & The Test
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  • TheJian - Friday, October 25, 2013 - link

    Incorrect. Part of the point of gsync is when you can do 200fps in a particular part of the game they can crank up detail and USE the power you have completely rather than making the whole game for say 60fps etc. Then when all kinds of crap is happening on screen (50 guys shooting each other etc) they can drop the graphics detail down some to keep things smooth. Gsync isn't JUST frame rate. You apparently didn't read the anandtech live blog eh? You get your cake and can eat it too (stutter free, no tearing, smooth and extra power used when you have it available). Reply
  • MADDER1 - Friday, October 25, 2013 - link

    If Gsync drops the detail to maintain fps like you said, then you're really not getting the detail you thought you set. How is that having your cake and eating it too? Reply
  • Cellar Door - Friday, October 25, 2013 - link

    How so? If Mantle gets 760gtx performance in BF4 from a 260X ..will you switch then? Reply
  • Animalosity - Sunday, October 27, 2013 - link

    No. You are sadly mistaken sir. Reply
  • Antiflash - Thursday, October 24, 2013 - link

    I've usually prefer Nvidia Cards, but they have it well deserved when decided to price GK110 to the stratosphere just "because they can" and had no competition. That's poor way to treat your customers and taking advantage of fanboys. Full implementation of Tesla and Fermi were always priced around $500. Pricing Keppler GK110 at $650+ was stupid. It's silicon after all, you should get more performance for the same price each year. Not more performance at a premium price as Nvidia tried to do this generation. AMD is not doing anything extraordinary here they are just not following nvidia price gouging practices and $550 is their GPU at historical market prices for their flagship GPU. We would not have been having this discussion if Nvidia had done the same with GK110. Reply
  • inighthawki - Thursday, October 24, 2013 - link

    " It's silicon after all, you should get more performance for the same price each year"

    So R&D costs come from where, exactly? Not sure why people always forget that there is actual R&D that goes into these types of products, it's not just some $5 just of plastic and silicon + some labor and manufacturing costs. Like when they break down phones and tablets and calculate costs they never account for this. As if their engineers are basically just selecting components on newegg and plugging them together.
    Reply
  • jecastejon - Thursday, October 24, 2013 - link

    R&D. Is R&D tied only to a specific Nvidia card? AMD as others also invest a lot in R&D with every product generation, even if they are not successful. Nvidia will have to do a reality cheek with their pricing and be loyal to their fans and the market. Today's advantages don't last for to long. Reply
  • Antiflash - Thursday, October 24, 2013 - link

    NVIDIA's logic. Kepler refresh: 30% more performance => 100% increase in price
    AMD's logic. GCN refresh: is 30% more preformance => 0% increase in price
    I can't see how this is justified by R&D of just a greedy company squishing its more loyal customer base.
    Reply
  • Antiflash - Thursday, October 24, 2013 - link

    Just for clarification. price comparison between cards at its introduction comparing NVIDIA's 680 vs Titan and AMD's 7970 vs 290x Reply
  • TheJian - Friday, October 25, 2013 - link

    AMD way=ZERO PROFITS company going broke, debt high, 6Bil losses in 10yrs
    NV way=500-800mil profits per year so you can keep your drivers working.

    Your love of AMD's pricing is dumb. They are broke. They have sold nearly everything they have or had, fabs, land, all that is left is the company itself and IP.

    AMD should have priced this card at $650 period. Also note, NV hasn't made as much money as 2007 for 6 years. They are not gouging you or they would make MORE than before in 2007 right? Intel, Apple, MS are gouging you as they all make more now than then (2007 was pretty much highs for a lot of companies, down since). People like you make me want to vomit as you just are KILLING AMD, which in turn will eventually cost me dearly buying NV cards as they will be the only ones with real power in the next few years. AMD already gave up the cpu race. How much longer you think they can fund the gpu race with no profits? 200mil owed to GF in Dec 31, so the meager profit they made last Q and any they might have made next Q is GONE. They won't make 200mil profit next Q...LOL. Thanks to people like you asking for LOW pricing and free games.

    You don't even understand you are ANTI-AMD...LOL. Your crap logic is killing them (and making NV get 300mil less profit than 2007). The war is hurting them both. I'd rather have AMD making 500mil and NV making 1B than what we get now AMD at ZERO and NV at 550mil.
    Reply

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