Final Words

Bringing this review to a close, it’s admittedly not very often that we write a negative video card review, especially for a major SKU launch from NVIDIA or AMD. Both companies have competitive analysis teams to do benchmarking and performance comparisons, and as a result know roughly where they stand long before we get their cards. Consequently they have plenty of time to tweak their cards and/or their pricing (the latter of which is typically announced only a day or two in advance) in order to make a place in the market for their cards. So it’s with a great deal of confusion and a tinge of sadness that we’re seeing AMD miss their mark and their market, and not by a small degree.

To get the positive aspects covered first, with the Radeon R9 290 AMD has completely blown the roof off of the high-end video card market. The 290 is so fast and so cheap that on a pure price/performance basis you won’t find anything quite like it. At $400 AMD is delivering 106% of the $500 GeForce GTX 780’s performance, or 97% of the $550 Radeon R9 290X’s performance. The high-end market has never been for value seekers – the fastest cards have always commanded high premiums – but the 290 completely blows that model apart. On a pure price/performance basis the GTX 780 and even the 290X are rendered completely redundant by the 290, which delivers similar-to-better performance for $100 less if not more.

The problem is that while the 290 is a fantastic card and a fantastic story on a price/performance basis, in chasing that victory AMD has thrown caution into the wind and thrown out any kind of balance between performance and noise. At 57.2dB the 290 is a loud card. A very loud card. An unreasonably loud card. AMD has quite simply prioritized performance over noise, and these high noise levels are the price of doing so.

To get right to the point then, this is one of a handful of cards we’ve ever had to recommend against. The performance for the price is stunning, but we cannot in good faith recommend a card this loud when any other card is going to be significantly quieter. There comes a point where a video card is simply too loud for what it does, and with the 290 AMD has reached it.

Ultimately there will be scenarios where this is acceptable – namely, anything where you don’t have to hear the 290, such as putting it in another room or putting it under water – but on a grand scale those are few and far between. For most buyers who will simply purchase the card and drop it into their computers as-is, this represents an unreasonable level of noise.

As a result for most buyers the competitive landscape in the video card market will remain unchanged, even with today’s launch of the 290. With the reference 290 untenable as a purchase, this leaves the GTX 780 at $500, the 290X at $550, or the GTX 770 and 280X at the $300-$330 range, leaving a large hole in the market in the short term. In the long term it will be up to AMD’s partners to try to salvage the 290 with custom designs, enhanced coolers, and other modifications. The 290 still has quite a bit of potential both as a product and as a competitor in the larger video card marketplace, but that potential is wasted so long as it’s paired with AMD’s reference cooler and the need to run it so loudly.

On a final note, with the launch of the 290 and AMD’s promotional efforts we can’t help but feel that AMD is trying to play both sides of the performance/noise argument by shipping the card a high performance configuration, and using its adjustability to simultaneously justify its noise as something that can be mitigated. This is technically correct (ed: the best kind of correct), but it misses the point that most users are going to install a video card and use it as it's configured out of the box. To that end adjustability is a great feature and we’re happy to see such great efforts made to offer it, but adjustability cannot preclude shipping a more reasonable product in the first place.

Had the 290 shipped in its original 40% fan configuration, it wouldn’t be knocking on the GTX 780’s door any longer, but it would have been in a spot where its balance of price, performance, and noise would have made for an attractive product. Instead AMD has shipped the 290 with the equivalent of uber mode as the default, and in the process has failed to meet the needs of the majority of their customers.

Update

Originally published here.

In this week’s article I flat out avoided recommending the 290 because of its acoustic profile. When faced with the tradeoff of noise vs. performance, AMD clearly chose the latter and ended up with a card that delivers a ridiculous amount of performance for $399 but exceeds our ideas of comfortable noise levels in doing so.

I personally value acoustics very highly and stand by my original position that the reference R9 290 is too loud. When I game I use open back headphones so I can listen for phone calls or the door for shipments, and as a result acoustics do matter to me. In the review I assumed everyone else valued acoustics at least similarly to me, but based on your reaction it looks like I was mistaken. While a good number of AnandTech readers agreed the R9 290 was too loud, an equally important section of the audience felt that the performance delivered was more than enough to offset the loud cooling solution. We want our conclusions to not only be reflective of our own data, but also be useful to all segments of our audience. In the case of the 290 review, I believe we accomplished the former but let some of you down with the latter.

Part of my motivation here is to make sure that we send the right message to AMD that we don’t want louder cards. I believe that message has been received loud and clear from what I understand. It’s very important to me that we don’t send the message to AMD or NVIDIA that it’s ok to engage in a loudness war in the pursuit of performance; we have seen a lot of progress in acoustics and cooler quality since the mid-to-late 2000’s, and we’d hate to see that progress regressed on. A good solution delivers both performance and great user experience, and I do believe it’s important that we argue for both (which is why we include performance, power and noise level data in our reviews).

The Radeon R9 290 does offer a tremendous value, and if you’re a gamer that can isolate yourself from the card’s acoustics (or otherwise don’t care) it’s easily the best buy at $399. If acoustics are important to you, then you’re in a tougher position today. There really isn’t an alternative if you want R9 290 performance at the same price. The best recommendation I have there is to either pony up more cash for a quieter card, accept the noise as is or wait and see what some of the customized partner 290 cards look like once those do arrive. I suspect we’ll have an answer to that problem in the not too distant future as well.

Note that this isn't going to be the last time performance vs. acoustics are going to be a tradeoff. AMD pointed out to us that the 290/290X update is the first time its fan speed has been determined by targeting RPMs vs. PWM manipulation. In the past, it didn't really matter since performance didn't scale all that much with fan speed. Given the current realities of semiconductor design and manufacturing, the 290/290X situation where fan speed significantly impacts performance is going to continue to be the case going forward. We've already made the case to AMD for better reference cooling designs and it sounds like everyone is on the same page there. 

Overclocking
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  • Leyawiin - Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - link

    I'd just wait for the ASUS DirectCU II version or something equivalent. Something as hot, loud and power hungry as the old GTX 480 isn't acceptable to me, but drop a couple of those cons and I'd be on board. Reply
  • FuriousPop - Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - link

    No... But..........the.......................noise...................is........... just............too........ loud.......... are....you......getting..............this.......

    *puts on headphones*

    Now then, as i was saying its very loud but but i want it whisper quiet, so buzz off else where then. your 2cents here is not appreciated.

    as a CFx7970 owner (not to mention i had 2xgtx670's just before that which 1 became DOA and yes just as loud as current GPU's) i can safely say - noise is NOT a reason to be placing the whole argument onto when deciding about price/performance wise when there are sooo many different things you can do to reduce the noise generated from your case - if your unwilling to then obviously logic dictates that you would NOT purchase this, clearly.... but but i still wanna compare my 6 month old GPU to this one....... of course you can junior.... of course you can...

    Custom coolers will come and will reduce the temps/noise, maybe not by a massive amount, but maybe just enough to convert some of those green boys over!
    Reply
  • stangflyer - Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - link

    I am a older gamer at almost 50. I have had many cards since my first 3DFx card. Both AMD/ATI and Nvidia have been in my cases. I have a 1440p monitor but also game at 5040x1050 eyefinity.
    Currently run 2x7950 sapphire flex boost cards. They run relatively quiet as I have a empty slot in-between the cards.

    I listened to some of the sound clips of the 290/x and they reminded me of my 5970 that I ran before my 7950's. I swore I will never have anything that loud in my pc again.

    Will wait and see what the custom coolers bring to the table as I am hoping to go to one card even though I know I will lose some performance. Or just wait for 20nm.

    I was over at my cousins and he showed me his new 780gtx with the acx cooler. Mild OC and it was extremely quiet.

    I will play with either red or green cards but I do know that I will pay 100 bucks for the noise diff of the 780gtx.
    We will see.
    Reply
  • lnanek - Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - link

    Hmm, loud cards are good for me, I always use earbuds anyway. Reply
  • Sancus - Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - link

    Everyone who says "just use headphones" probably doesn't realize that these AMD cards are so loud that they would actually be quite disturbing to anyone else in the room, and in the case of Crossfire, probably your entire house or adjacent apartments. 2x 290X's in CF Uber mode are approaching vacuum cleaner levels of noise.

    Not recommending these cards due to noise is not 'biased' it's merely a common sense, practically based choice.
    Reply
  • ClexRex - Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - link

    Agrred ive played with the 290x and unless you keep your pc in the other room defiantly hold out till the aftermarket cool is here otherwise youll be pissed and havto spend another 50 on aftermarket cooling once available.

    Also a lot of people hatng on the 780 forget one thing..that it overclocks better than the 290/290x flat out...it also have the option for custom bios which in return will boost the 780 above the 290 and do it at a lower power comsumption/noise/heat

    Also to crossfire the 290 you will need a min. of 1000w psu as we ran intoissues with 800w psu's during testing with crossfire and heavily overclocked cpu's.
    Reply
  • rtho782 - Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - link

    This card actually hits louder noise levels than the old FX5800 Ultra! http://techreport.com/review/4966/nvidia-geforce-f... Not exactly the same method to measuring but this was 10 years ago... Reply
  • AnnihilatorX - Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - link

    Power consumption will be identical while performance will be down, so efficiency will be slipping and 290 will have all the same power/cooling requirements as 290X.


    The above statement I feel is an over-simplication.

    I would imagine the actual instantaneous clock-for-clock power consumption will actually decrease due to the lower computation units. However, R290 or R290X cannot sustain their boost clock and are nearly always throttled by their thermal limits. Hence, the practical power consumption is similar, and since at the same power output R290 would have to have a higher clock to match the speed to R290X, the theoretical efficiency is somewhat lower, but I don't think they differ by much.
    Reply
  • UGMan - Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - link

    Come on AMD, get this beauty out with coolers from ASUS, MSI, Sapphire et. al. and then TAKE MY MONEY ! Please !!!
    Nothing out there touches it for the price, and AMD have finally sorted out crossfire. I've got a feeling that Mantle is going to shock and awe with it's performance.

    Bring it on !!!
    Reply
  • Vorl - Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - link

    for everyone using stupid sound comparisons, like "a 747 taking off". Here are some real comparisons.

    Whisper Quiet Library at 6' 30dB
    Normal conversation at 3' 60-65dB
    Telephone dial tone 80dB
    http://www.gcaudio.com/resources/howtos/loudness.h...

    I think that the reviewer is biased considering how big a deal they make of noise now, but in the past with noisy nvidia cards it was more like "meh, they are noisy, BUT FAST". Now they are all over "how loud the card is".
    Reply

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