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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  • carlob - Saturday, December 7, 2013 - link

    At the top of the card, above first row of memory chips, there is one micro switch. If i see well, it's written SW1.
    Does anybody know what is the purpose of the switch? Thanks.
    Reply
  • jonabatero - Thursday, December 19, 2013 - link

    HELLO: guys test the R9 290 with LUMION 3D . please .
    could someone please test the performance of the R9 290 with Lumion 3d. serial great buy with the performance of a GTX 770 in Lumion
    Reply
  • xaml - Sunday, December 22, 2013 - link

    "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 (...)."

    Or the scenario, the one that's neither unreasonable nor rare, which was conveniently left out, namely playing with a headset. I understand, however, that there has to be a balance between more powerful fans and their noise output, especially with cards which typically grew in size, yet reaching a point where both the cards as well as their fans cannot further grow. A truly negative review would have been one where the fan was loud and where it wouldn't adequately support the airflow.
    Reply
  • c1phertxt - Tuesday, December 24, 2013 - link

    I don't think a lot of people realise how hot this card gets under load. I have a CM HAF XB and an XFX R9 290.

    When the card is at 100% load, the existing "fan-temp" curve is insufficient to prevent throttling. I see the temps stabilising at 95 C while the fan is at 46%. As a result clocks throttle down to 662 Mhz. I have to set a custom fan profile that sets the fan to atleast 65% to keep the temps at 85C. Even then, the clocks go down to 850Mhz (a 100 Mhz throttle).

    Anything over 65% fan speed is deafening (sounds like a blow dryer and at 80%+ it sounds like a vacum cleaner).

    Seriously contemplating putting this under water or getting an after market cooler.
    Reply
  • jaris - Thursday, June 19, 2014 - link

    Been gaming since the mid 70's, so fairly seasoned, the review is good upto the point regards noise, then it becomes silly. Most gamers don't sit in the front room playing whilst the wife watches tv, well I don't, plus I like loud, thats why i use a headset, all the time. R290 is going into my i7 4790k, like quickly. Might have to close the den door a little but well... I have a very decent headset, won't hear anything other than the game playing. ;) Reply

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