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
POST A COMMENT

295 Comments

View All Comments

  • doggghouse - Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - link

    So at 60dB, it's as loud as someone talking next to you. In other words, you would have some difficulty hearing another person over the sound of the GPU fan. I would say that's pretty loud.

    I think the 290 and 290X have a lot of potential, but with the stock cooling I would stay away from it.
    Reply
  • Vorl - Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - link

    I don't remember the exact noise test, but I thought the measurement was taken right next to the card, at the fan... so if you put distance, and a case around the card, it will not be nearly as loud as that. Reply
  • ThomasS31 - Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - link

    R9 290 series is the worst ever launch for AMD... this was a chance to show how professional they are and gain market share with a great opportunity and product... and they screwed it up and failed.

    And this is not he first time they failed to monetize their products. So maybe there shall be some personal consequences and changes needed.

    Hope the new hires (leaders) change this and this is the last time we saw great products hindered with bad execution.

    After the 7990 cooler I and what nVidia did they learned the lessons... but not.

    And now as I hear they are not allowing custom coolers and/ or limit manufacturers in the use of the best coolers/design they could do... as competition is bad for market or what???
    Reply
  • Mondozai - Friday, December 13, 2013 - link

    lol Reply
  • martixy - Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - link

    So the takeaway is:
    There's a new king in town, and it's name is AMD.
    For now...

    +You get to be Mantle-proof.
    What I wanna see now is Mantle on an nV card and g-sync on an AMD card.
    Reply
  • nevertell - Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - link

    Why is it so that when a ridiculously loud nvidia card gets released, people go crazy about the heat and noise generated, but when AMD does the same, they only focus on the performance?
    I do understand that the price and performance for these cards is pretty ground braking, but then again, AMD used to release some nasty adverts about people using Fermi cards. And fermi cards were not even this loud.
    And considering the fact that the testbed here was probably properly ventilated and designed for hot and fast cards, I believe there is a significant portion of the market, who will buy the card and stick it into a small or badly ventilated or just crammed case and call it a day. And those people will not be able to get the performance advertised here, as their cards will probably throttle a lot more.

    But I do love how the roles are switching, only 3 generations ago, AMD's and Nvidia's positions were exactly the opposite, at least in the power and noise, and mostly power efficiency, departments.

    We still have to wait for 780ti, but seeing as titan is already having a run for it's money.
    Reply
  • Death666Angel - Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - link

    I don't care one bit about the loudness of a card. Anything I own has to be watercooled and the custom water cooling block costs the same whether it is from nVidia or AMD. So this card is a win on all fronts. And unless you have to buy reference design without switching to WC, I don't think you'll be disappointed.
    It's really hard to read 5 paragraphs on noise when that is the least of anyones concerns when buying a video card. People who are concerned with it have custom cooling stuff which is the same for most cards (nVidia or AMD), since most cards are the same. Or they don't care since their other stuff is louder and/or they use good headphones. So I think knocking the 290 for loudness is a bit petty. :)
    Reply
  • Achaios - Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - link

    Can't wait for Gigabyte's R9 290 SOC (Super Overclock) with 3X Windforce Cooler. I drool at the thought. Reply
  • ecuador - Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - link

    Ryan, it is interesting to contrast this review to Anand's review of the FX 5800. You sound much more damning for a card that is much cheaper and faster than the competition at a 9.7dB louder, than Anand was for a card that was slower and 13dB louder than the competition back then! Ok, it is not for everyone until it gets custom coolers, but it sure gives you a lot for that tradeoff. The mystery is why AMD does not make a cooler that is worth a damn! Reply
  • swing848 - Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - link

    Anand,

    Most people that read your reviews know you are a GeForce fan boy. And, the last page of your "review" tells people not to purchase the R9 290.

    In fact, many people purchase this card BECAUSE THEY WANT IT. Let the buyer decide what he or she want in price and performance, and stop poking AMD in they eye with your GeForce stick. If anything give advice to people on how to keep temperatures under control with the least noise possible; but, no, you have to get on your GeForce box and pound AMD ... again. How much do they pay your or your company?

    The R9 290 is a great card, and after reading several reviews, know it.
    Reply

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now