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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  • swing848 - Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - link

    It will only get loud for me when playing games or the occasional benchmark. During games I wear

    a headset, and during benchmarks I can leave the room. I have a room dedicated to computer use

    and the house has good sound proofing, so, it will not bother other people.

    If I want it quiet I will use a water cooler with a large radiator and fan, my Cooler Master HAF

    922 case already has sealed holes for tubing for an external radiator.

    Water cooling is better than dumping all the hot air from the video card into my case, even if it

    is well cooled with 200mm fans. I overclock my CPU and I do not want it, RAM, or chips on the

    motherboard to get any hotter than necessary.

    The only thing I will miss on this card are Black Diamond Chokes and Digital Power 8+2+2 phase

    used on the Sapphire R9 280X Toxic [Black Diamond Chokes are also used on Sapphire R9 280 Vapor-

    X]. To be honest I do not know how many mosfits are dedicated to cool GPU functions on the R9

    290. In any event, both the Toxic and Vapor-X dump hot air into the case.

    Another thing I would like to have seen on the Sapphire R9 290 is a metal back plate.
    Reply
  • somethingwicked - Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - link

    what the holy gee whiz

    the new AMD drivers are insane! 290x is speeding past Titan now and 780 is a turtle while 290x is a ferrari... the new 290 is performing like the 290x was at launch and now the 290x is a card unto its self at the top of the food chain

    thank goodness for competition

    i smell more deep nvidia price cuts cause AMD is kicking butt
    Reply
  • TheJian - Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - link

    rofl. So NV just has to release a "fan that drives you out of the room" driver now to respond. IF NV did this all of you would be falling all over yourselves to moan and groan claiming NV was cheating. AMD does it, and wow this is awesome, I love the noise anyway...LOL. Technically this is all NV has to do though right? Raise the fan speed until it hits another 10DB's and blow them down again.

    Perf is great, but not if it drives me out of my room. There is nothing stopping NV from adding 10DB's to their cards and calling it a day. But I don't want this being called normal. IMHO this is a crap way to get perf and a game both sides can play. If NV does this tomorrow and says we're hiking prices because if we overclock our cards also (which is essentially what they're doing here, just reverse, raise fan so clocks boost higher, same story) we blow AMD away.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djvZaHHU4I8
    Both cards clocked to max (290x vx. 780, NOT TI mind you).
    Fast forward to 8:40 for benchmarks...AMD is blown away. The 780 didn't lose ANY game. Not one. And in star citizen blows AMD away. I don't believe these cards will be used mostly on 1600P or 1440p either. 1080/1200p is running on 98.5% of our screens and a large portion of the 1.5% that is above these two resolutions are running TWO or more cards. Steam's surveys don't lie. Already they turn down nearly every game at 1440p here which to me means you won't run there anyway (they are not reporting mins here for most games). Everything is pretty maxed in linustechtips vid above at 1080p, and you should be able to stay above 30fps (probably?) doing it. They are reporting avg's here at anandtech and already turning stuff down. Meaning maxing graphics on a lot of games would be unplayable under 30fps especially when lots of crap is going on. LOW DETAIL? Seriously? So Ryan is assuming you'll buy one of these cards (or any single gpu card) to then go out and buy a 1440p monitor (which are still over $550 for any brand you'd recognize the name of on newegg, and start there when you choose NEWEGG ONLY) and then run the details on low to play games? I don't think so. If he's assuming we're all going to buy new monitors, might as well get Gsync instead (though I'd say wait for more models first even if Asus has a decent one out of the gate). Heck some of the games have details DOWN on 1080p here (total war2, medium shadows? still looks like it would hit below 30fps on most cards).

    For anyone saying get a water block...LOL. How much did my card cost if I have to add that and how many regular users even know what water is or are even capable of adding one? I say that as a guy who has as Koolance kit. Or even adding an aftermarket fan. Isn't this upping the cost of the card then?

    Both solutions are unacceptable and attempting to fix a problem caused by shipping a card that already is unacceptably NOISY, hot and sucking up watts vs. it's competition. No games either.

    Add on top reviews elsewhere show other games that give an opposite story. Techpowerup, Techspot, Guru3d, Hardocp show wins for AC3, COD Blackops2, Diablo3 (spanked by NV), FarCry3, SplinterCell Blacklist, Star Craft2 (spanked, heck 770 does well), World of Warcraft (spanked), Skyrim (lost 3 resolutions, 290/x won 1600p, oddly lost upping to 5760), Resident Evil 6.

    So maybe you need to take a bit of a WIDER view than anandtech ;) I don't call 53 more watts than 780 (or 70 more than 770) a victory. Never mind the noise it creates while doing it. Is running 10DB's higher really a better card? Do people here realize that noise in DB's is EXPONENTIAL? A 10Db noise difference is HUGE (ryan did say 2x as loud). 12 degress hotter for this kind of perf isn't good either. I see a clear reason NV should be charging more than AMD's cards. They are better. I can OC and beat them easily without all the noise, heat, watts. I don't need a waterblock to do this either...ROFL. Whatever I already have on my card can do this easily and come in UNDER Ryan's 7970 noise levels that he calls acceptable.

    I see no price cuts, but probably a few more videos poking fun at AMD like this:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oV5vs27wnCA
    Tell me that isn't funny ;) I'm wondering if someone at NV paid for this vid to be made...LOL. Sparks, dripping fire, ROFL. Great job of getting the message across.
    Reply
  • rviswas11 - Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - link

    i couldn't give two s***ts because when i game i wear noise cancelling headphones that i use for listening to music on the bus Reply
  • rviswas11 - Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - link

    so i'm happy. and with the exception of skyrim i could set the graphics card to 10% fan profile and max the game. i run quite afew mods for skyrim don't play it anymore.
    but i can see how the noise can be a major issue for a lot of people.
    Reply
  • Morawka - Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - link

    your not understanding. At this level of noise, not even noise canceling headphones will drown it out. This is louder than a 747 jet from 100 meters away. Reply
  • mgl888 - Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - link

    You'd better be trolling.
    60dB is the intensity of a normal conversation.
    Reply
  • Galidou - Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - link

    Comon, a 747 jet 100 meters away... you gotta be freaking stupid to only think it could be true :O Reply
  • ahlan - Saturday, November 9, 2013 - link

    @Galidou
    What do expect from nvidia fantards who think higher price is better.
    They are so unsecure and delusional that they comment in every AMD review...

    Nvidia is loving their stupidness...
    Reply
  • 1Angelreloaded - Saturday, November 16, 2013 - link

    120 decibels is a 747 I would know I work around them, But AMDs new cards are crap, 550$ to add a water cooling system totaling around 200-300$.......either way its not a deal really, Nvidia cards have more headroom on air and water, while AMD's cards are impressive to an extent Hawaii is a bastard step child of sorts, it is probably a failed version of the next chip to compete with Maxwell but had no choice but to release it. Reply

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