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AMD Radeon R9 290 Review: Hawaii Just Got Cheaper
Date: Nov 05, 2013
Author: Marco Chiappetta
Introduction and Specifications
This has been an exciting few weeks in the GPU space, to say the least. AMD has released a new line-up of cards that cover the entire spectrum, from entry-level, affordable products, to ultra-powerful, high-end solutions, targeted at hardcore gamers. We’ve also seen NVIDIA react to AMD’s recent releases with significant price cuts on the GeForce GTX 770 and GTX 780, new game bundles, and the announcement of the GeForce GTX 780 Ti, which will be available very soon. In less than a month, the entire GPU landscape has changed, and the metamorphosis isn’t quite complete just yet.

Today AMD is officially releasing the Radeon R9 290. This card was originally slated to do battle with the GeForce GTX 770, but due to NVIDIA’s price cuts, AMD decided to move the R9 290 upmarket at the 11th hour. Instead, thanks to a few tweaks that came via a last minute driver drop that improves performance, the Radeon R9 290 is poised to take on the $499 GeForce GTX 780. We’ll wait to tell you how that battle shakes out until after you’ve seen all of the numbers and digested all of the specs, but as you may expect, the R9 290 comes in at a significantly lower price point than the GTX 780, which makes the head-to-head comparison much more interesting.

The AMD Radeon R9 290 Reference Board

AMD Radeon R9 290
Specifications & Features

As you probably deduced from its model number, the Radeon R9 290 drops in between the more affordable Radeon R9 280X and AMD's flagship, single-GPU powered card, the Radeon R9 290X. In actuality though, the Radeon R9 290 is the same card as the 290X with a few blocks in its GPU disabled and a slightly lower, peak GPU frequency. The two cards are built around the same GPU (codenamed Hawaii) and they feature the same memory interface, memory frequency, and 4GB frame buffer.

Radeon R9 290 CrossFire -- Dongles No Longer Required

As you can see in the specification table above, the Radeon R9 290 features 2560 Stream Processors (down from 2816 in the 290X) and an engine clock of up to 947MHz (down from 1GHz on the 290X). It says “up to” instead of a firm number because of some changes made to AMD’s PowerTune technology, which dynamically adjust the GPU frequency based on the chip's temperature.  More details on the latest AMD PowerTune technology employed in the Radeon R9 290 and 290X is available in this article.  The card’s 4GB of GDDR5 memory is connected to the GPU via a wide 512-bit interface and R290 requires a pair of supplemental power connectors—one 6-pin and one 8-pin.

As we've mentioned, the Radeon R9 290 is based on the GPU codenamed Hawaii. While it is a new GPU design in AMD’s line-up, it is still based on the Graphics Core Next architecture (GCN), which debuted in the Radeon HD 7000 series. The GPU has been significantly beefed up versus previous-gen products, however, and is one of the largest pieces of silicon to come out of AMD in quite a while.

AMD Hawaii GPU Block Diagram

The R9 290 series GPU (Hawaii) is comprised of up to 44 compute units with a total of 2,816 IEEE-2008 compliant shaders, 176 texture unit, and 64 ROPs. The GPU has four geometry processors (2x the Radeon HD 7970) and can output 64 pixels per clock. The GPU also has 1MB of L2 cache on board and features a wide 512-bit GDDR5 memory interface, versus the 384-bit interface on AMD’s previous-gen high-end parts. The R9 290 series GPU features roughly 6.2 billion transistors and is manufactured using TSMC’s 28nm processor node. Its die size is about 438mm2, which is approximately 24% larger than the Radeon HD 7970 (Tahiti) which came in around 352mm2. Unlike the R9 290X, however, the R9 290 has 4 CUs disabled in the GPU, which brings the stream processor count and number of texture units down to 2560 and 160, respectively.

AMD Radeon R9 290 Reference Card

Though it is not a complete departure from older models, the new AMD Radeon R9 290 has a fresh new look versus previous-generation Radeon HD series cards, thanks to its newly designed cooling shroud which features a textured top and wide ridges that run the length of the shroud and swoop into the fan intake.

Just like the Radeon R9 290X, the new Radeon R9 290 is roughly 11” long and two-slots wide, but there are a number of small enhancements on the 290 which aid in cooling the card, especially if multiple cards are installed in adjacent slots. In addition to the aforementioned notches cut into the shroud, there are a trio of holes at the rear to help exhaust air from the card. There are also vents cut into the top near the mounting bracket and there’s a deep slope on the rear. All of these little things mean more air can get to the 290’s cooling fan and that heated air is more easily expelled from the heatsink assembly.

It’s important to mention the R9 290’s cooling configuration because the card runs quite hot. By default, AMD sets the PowerTune max temperature to 95’C, which is about 15’C hotter than a GeForce GTX Titan. AMD claims running the GPU at that temperature poses no long-term threat, though obviously time will tell.

As we’ve mentioned, the Radeon R9 290 sports a “Hawaii” GPU, with 2560 Stream Processors, 160 texture units, and an engine clock of up to 947MHz. At that speed, the card is capable of up to 4.9 TFLOPS of compute performance and a 152 GTexel/s texture fill rate. The Radeon R9 290’s pixel fillrate is 64Gpixels/s.  The Radeon R9 290 also features a 512-bit memory interface with 4GB of GDDR5 memory clocked at an effective data rate of 5.0Gbps, for a peak of roughly 320GB/s of memory bandwidth. All told, geometry processing, compute performance, texture and pixel fillrates, and memory bandwidth have all been increased significantly over AMD’s previous high-end GPU.

In addition to the higher performing GPU, Hawaii brings with it a number of other enhancements as well, including TrueAudio Support, bridgeless CrossFire, and a more flexible output configuration.  We covered all of those new features in our coverage of the Radeon R9 290X a couple of weeks back though, so we won't go into them again here.

Test System and Unigine Heaven v4.0

How We Configured Our Test Systems: We tested the graphics cards in this article on an Asus P9X79 Deluxe motherboard powered by a Core i7-3960X six-core processor and 16GB of G.SKILL DDR3-1866 RAM. The first thing we did when configuring the test system was enter the system UEFI and set all values to their "high performance" default settings and disable any integrated peripherals that wouldn't be put to use. The memory's X.M.P. profile was enabled to ensure better-than-stock performance and the hard drive was then formatted and Windows 7 Ultimate x64 was installed. When the installation was complete, we fully updated the OS and installed the latest DirectX redist along with all of the drivers, games, and benchmark tools necessary to complete our tests.

HotHardware's Test System
Intel Core i7 Powered

Hardware Used:
Intel Core i7-3960X
(3.3GHz, Six-Core)
Asus P9X79 Deluxe
(Intel X79 Express)

Radeon R9 290
Radeon R9 290x
Radeon R9 280x
Radeon R7 270x
Radeon HD 7870 GHz Edition
Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition
GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost
GeForce GTX Titan
GeForce GTX 760
GeForce GTX 770
GeForce GTX 780

Western Digital Raptor 150GB
Integrated Audio
Integrated Network

Relevant Software:
Windows 7 Ultimate x64
DirectX April 2011 Redist
AMD Catalyst v13.11b1/b8
NVIDIA GeForce Drivers v331.40/331.70

Benchmarks Used:
Unigine Heaven v4
3DMark "Fire Strike"
Bioshock Infinite
Hitman: Absolution
Alien vs. Predator
Metro Last Light
Sleeping Dogs
Crysis 3

Unigine Heaven v4.0 Benchmark
Pseudo-DirectX 11 Gaming

Unigine Heaven v4.0

Unigine's Heaven Benchmark v4.0 is built around the Unigine game engine. Unigine is a cross-platform, real-time 3D engine, with support for DirectX 9, DirectX 10, DirectX 11 and OpenGL. The Heaven benchmark--when run in DX11 mode--also makes comprehensive use of tessellation technology and advanced SSAO (screen-space ambient occlusion). It also features volumetric cumulonimbus clouds generated by a physically accurate algorithm and a dynamic sky with light scattering.

The Radeon R9 290 put up some decent numbers in the Unigine Heaven benchmark, easily besting the R9 280X and coming within striking distance of the Radeon R9 290X and high-end GeForce cards, but GTX 780 and Titan had a clear advantage in this test.

3DMark Fire Strike Test

Futuremark 3DMark Fire Strike
Synthetic DirectX Gaming

Futuremark 3DMark Fire Strike

Fire Strike has two benchmark modes: Normal mode runs in 1920x1080, while Extreme mode targets 2560x1440. GPU target frame buffer utilization for normal mode is 1GB and the benchmark uses tessellation, ambient occlusion, volume illumination, and a medium-quality depth of field filter. The more taxing Extreme mode targets 1.5GB of frame buffer memory and increases detail levels across the board. Extreme mode is explicitly designed for CrossFire / SLI systems. GT 1 focuses on geometry and illumination, with over 100 shadow casting spot lights, 140 non-shadow casting point lights, and 3.9 million vertices calculated for tessellation per frame. And 80 million pixels are processed per frame. GT2 emphasizes particles and GPU simulations. Tessellation volume is reduced to 2.6 million vertices and the number of pixels processed per frame rises to 170 million.

The new Radeon R9 290 dropped right in between the GeForce GTX Titan and GeForce GTX 780 in 3DMark Fire Strike. The top-of-the-line Radeon R9 290X, however, finished at the head of pack, well ahead of every other card we tested, whether in Uber or Quiet mode.

Alien vs. Predator Performance

Alien vs. Predator
DirectX 11 Gaming Performance

Alien vs. Predator

The Alien vs. Predator benchmark makes use of the advanced Tessellation, screen space ambient occlusion, and high-quality shadow features available with DirectX 11. In addition to enabling all of the aforementioned DirectX 11-related features offered by this benchmark, we also switched on 4X anti-aliasing along with 16X anisotropic filtering to more heavily tax the graphics cards being tested.

The Radeon R9 290 cards led the pack in the Alien vs. Predator benchmark, besting all of the other cards at both resolutions, including the $1000 GeForce GTX Titan.  The new R9 290 wasn't quite able to catch the more powerful R9 290X here, but the deltas separating the cards were relatively small.

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Looking at the frame times in this game, as reported by FCAT, doesn't reveal any major problems. Frame pacing is similar across all of the cards, though the fastest products consistently offer the lowest frame times across the entirety of the test, as you would expect.

Metro Last Light Performance

Metro Last Light
DirecX11 Gaming Performance

Metro Last Light

Metro Last Light is your typical post-apocalyptic first person shooter game with a few rather unconventional twists. Unlike most FPS titles, there is no health meter to measure your level of ailment; rather, you’re left to deal with life, or lack thereof, more akin to the real world with blood spatter on your visor and your heart rate and respiration level as indicators. Metro Last Light boasts some of the best 3D visuals on the PC platform and includes a DX11 rendering mode that makes use of advanced depth of field effects and character model tessellation for increased realism. This title also supports NVIDIA PhysX technology for impressive in-game physics effects. We tested the game at resolutions of 1920x1200 and 2560x1600 with its in-game image quality options set to their High Quality mode, with DOF effects disabled.

The performance trend in Metro Last Light somewhat mirrors the 3DMark Fire Strike benchmark. In this game, the Radeon R9 290 falls in just behind the GeForce GTX Titan, but ahead of the GeForce GTX 780, while the Radeon R9 290X leads the pack.

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There were some significant spikes in frame times with most of the cards in this game, but the Radeons generally had more incidents than the GeForce cards. The Radeon R9 290 fared better than the 290X, however, most likely due to tweaks in the latest set of drivers we used for testing.

Bioshock Infinite Performance

Bioshock Infinite
DirectX Gaming Performance

Bioshock Infinite

BioShock Infinite is clear game-of-the-year material. The floating city of Columbia is one of the most evocative, intense, and gorgeous environments we've ever seen in a PC game -- but how much you like it may depend on what sort of visual wizardry you prefer. BioShock Infinite is built on Unreal Engine 3, and while it pushes that framework's capabilities into the stratosphere, there's a clear difference between BioShock Infinite and, say, Crysis 3. BioShock Infinite emphasizes light, color and motion, and while the characters look more exaggerated and cartoon-like than some other games, they still look great. We tested the game at various resolutions with its DX11 code path with DOF effects enabled.

The GeForce GTX 780 and GTX Titan were easily the highest performing cards in Bioshock Infinite. At both resolutions, the GeForces led the pack.

Click To Enlarge

The GeForce cards also offered much more consistent frame times in this game. The Radeon R9 290 cars suffered from significant variations in frame time, especially towards the middle of the run. And at about the 75% mark, the Radeons all exhibited a few sharp spikes that shot up over the 90ms mark.

Sleeping Dogs Performance

Sleeping Dogs
DX11 Gaming Performance

Sleeping Dogs

Sleeping Dogs is an open-world game in which you play the role of Wei Shen, an undercover cop trying to take down the Triads from the inside. In the game, you have to fight your way up in the organization and take part in various criminal activities without blowing your cover. We tested Sleeping Dogs at two resolutions, with all in-game graphical options set to their maximum values with FXAA enabled.

Out results with the Sleeping Dogs benchmarks showed a similar performance trend to a few of the games/application mentioned earlier. Once again, the new Radeon R9 290 drops in somewhere between the GeForce GTX Titan and GeForce GTX 780, and a fair amount behind the Radeon R9 290X.

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Generally speaking, there were no major issues to speak of in regard to frame times. The Radeon R9 290 did have a couple of seemingly significantly spikes, but even at the worst point, frame times were barely over 30ms.  For the vast majority of the test, frame pacing was fairly consistent.

Hitman: Absolution Performance

Hitman: Absolution
DirectX 11 Gaming Performance

Hitman: Absolution

Hitman: Absolution follows Agent 47, a cold-blooded assassin, who takes on his most dangerous contract to date. Betrayed by those he once trusted - and now hunted by the police - he suddenly finds himself at the center of a dark conspiracy and must embark on a personal journey through a corrupt and twisted world. We tested the game at multiple resolutions, with all in-game options set to their maximum values and global illumination and 4X anti-aliasing enabled.

The Radeon R9 290 and R9 290X led the pack in the Hitman Absolution benchmark, besting the best NVIDIA has to offer at both resolutions. Though the game did decide to choke on the Titan at the lower resolution. That's an anomaly we haven't gotten to the bottom of yet--there's no reason the Titan would trail a 780 here.

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There were no frame pacing issues to speak of in this game for the Radeons either. Frame pacing was consistent and fast throughout the benchmark run.

Crysis 3 Performance

Crysis 3
DirectX 11 Gaming Performance

Crysis 3

Crysis 3, which is powered by Crytek’s proprietary CryENGINE 3 technology, is the third installment in this popular franchise. Crysis 3 is the sequel to 2011’s Crysis 2 and follows Prophet as he returns to New York a few years after the events of Crysis 2. Like previous games in the franchise, Crysis 3 has impressive visuals that can tax even the most powerful PCs when cranked up to their maximum values. We tested this game at various resolutions with all in-game graphics options set to Very High, with 4X MSAA and 16X anisotropic filtering enabled and motion blur set to high.

The Radeon R9 290 trailed the GeForce GTX 780 by a small margin in Crysis 3 according to our tests, though the disparity is less than 6% at both resolutions.

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Save for a couple of huge spikes at the beginning of the run, frame times were very consistent for the Radeon R9 290 in Crysis 3.

4K Resolution Testing

We also ran a handful of tests on the Radeon R9 290, R9 290X and GeForce GTX 780 using a tiled 4K display with a native resolution of 3840x2160. Unfortunately, for these tests, we could not record frame times using our FCAT tools. We’ve been fighting with the setup for weeks, trying to get captures working using the HDMI inputs on the screen, but have been unsuccessful in our attempts. We are still trying though, and are hoping to include FCAT results at 4K in the future. For now, we only have minimum and average frame rates to share.

For these tests, we cranked the quality down a notch in a quartet of games. In AvP, we lowered the anti-aliasing to 2X, from the 4X we use in our standard tests. In Hitman and Sleeping Dogs, we lowered the AA level to 2X as well, in addition to reducing in-game image quality options to their high-quality settings. We simply increased the resolution in Bioshock, however.

As you can see, save for Bioshock Infinite, where the GeForce GTX 780 finished just slightly ahead of the Radeon R9 290, the Radeons offered the best performance overall at 4K. In AvP, Hitman Absolution, and Sleeping Dogs, the Radeon R9 290 was about 10% faster than the GeForce GTX 780.

Power Consumption and Noise

Before bringing this article to a close, we'd like to cover a few final data points--namely, power consumption, temperatures, and noise. Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing, we monitored acoustics and tracked how much power our test system was consuming using a power meter. Our goal was to give you an idea of how much power each configuration used while idling and also while under a heavy workload. Please keep in mind that we were testing total system power consumption at the outlet here, not just the power being drawn by the graphics cards alone.

Total System Power Consumption
Tested at the Outlet

The Radeon R9 290's power consumption was right about in-line with the GeForce GTX 780 and a notch below the more-powerful Radeon R9 290X, under both idle and load conditions.

In terms of noise output, however, the Radeon R9 290 clearly produces more noise than a GeForce GTX 780 or Titan.  As you've probably noticed by looking at the graphs throughout this review, the Radeon R9 290 does not offer "Quiet" and "Uber" modes like the R9 290X. Whereas AMD's more powerful variant offers two modes of operation, that set the peak fan speed at either 40% (Quiet) or 55% (Uber), the Radeon R9 290 offers only a single mode with a max fan speed of 47%. With its slightly pared down GPU and somewhat lower peak frequency, the Radeon R9 290's noise output is about on par with the 290X when in Quiet mode, but the 290 is noticeably quieter than the 290X when the latter is in Uber mode.

If noise is your primary concern, however, the GeForce GTX 780 is easily the quieter of the cards.

Our Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: The AMD Radeon R9 290 is an excellent performer. As you probably surmised when the card was first announced, its performance is better than the Radeon R9 280X, but not quite on the same level of the Radeon R9 290X. However, the R9 290’s performance is much closer to AMD’s flagship than it is to the 280X. Overall, the Radeon R9 290 offers about 85%-95% of the performance of the Radeon R9 290X.

Versus competing NVIDIA-based offerings, the Radeon R9 290 goes toe to toe with the GeForce GTX 780. Throughout our testing, the Radeon R9 290 and GeForce GTX 780 traded victories, with the 290 coming out on top in four tests and the GeForce in three. With a different mix of games, however, that ratio could easily flip in the GeForce’s direction. For all intents and purposes, the cards are evenly matched if we focus strictly on performance.

The AMD Radeon R9 290

The Radeon R9 290’s performance was very good throughout our testing—no doubt about it. What’s just as likely to tickle your fancies, however, is its price. AMD is launching the Radeon R9 290 at $399, which is $100 below the GeForce GTX 780’s just-reduced price of $499.

If the price vs. performance ratio is your only concern, the Radeon R9 290 is clearly a good value at in its current price bracket. The GeForce GTX 780 does have a number of things going for it that we must mention though. The GeForce GTX 780 is definitely the quieter of the two cards. The 780 also has somewhat better power consumption characteristics, its aesthetics and design are more attractive in our opinion, and NVIDIA is also offering an excellent game bundle currently, which also includes a deep discount on a SHIELD should you want to pick one up this holiday season. Those things may not swing all consumers in NVIDIA’s favor over a cool c-note, but they should be considered nonetheless.

In the end, we can’t help but like the Radeon R9 290. It’s a cutting edge product, that offers new features and excellent performance, and it arrives at an aggressive price point. If you’re in the market for a graphics card in the $400 price range, you can’t do any better than the Radeon R9 290.

Update: We have pulled our recommendation of the Radeon R9 290.  We have been able to replicate the throttling issues some others have reported with certain workloads and performance of the card dipped by over 15%.  We will continue to investigate and revisit the issue when we have more data and AMD has provided some insight into their plans to address the issues.

  • Great Performance
  • Aggressive Price
  • Bridgeless CrossFire
  • Flexible Output Options
  • Louder Than a GTX 780
  • Runs Hot

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