The AMD Radeon R9 290X and R9 290 have been getting a ton of attention lately due to a number of reports that the retail cards are performing differently than the press cards that the media sites received. We have been following these stories for the past few weeks and finally decided to look into the situation ourselves. We knew from the start that there was a performance difference between testing a ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ graphics card and that AMD’s new PowerTune technology was very temperature sensitive. The AMD Radeon R9 290 series is designed to run at 94C when gaming and the core clock is raised or lowered to maintain that temperature up to a set maximum clock speed. The new twist is that you’ll see performance differences on the same card at various room temperatures and the card will slow down as it heats up. This caused mayhem for some review sites as they were testing from a ‘cold’ state and only doing one benchmark run and not averaging them. Luckily for us, we average our results and have been testing at regular operating temperatures for some time. The thing that caught us off-guard is that the retail cards were being shown to perform 10-20% slower than the press cards when run in quiet mode. AMD tried addressing this variance issue by releasing a new driver that increased the fan speed from 45% to 47% as they thought that it was due to heat. That moved helped fuel the fire that AMD cherry picked low-leakage cards to be sent to the press for the best performance numbers and the retail market has the typical high-leakage cards that run hotter and thus slower. Trying to normalize the fan speed is one way to go about it, but it also makes the cards louder.
The only way to figure out what is going on was to get a retail AMD Radeon R9 290X that was purchased from the retail market to see what is really going on. We did exactly that and have spent the past week trying to figure out if there is a significant performance variance between the cards.
Our retail card was purchased from Newegg and was a Sapphire Radeon R9 290X. The part number on this card is 100361SR and it can be purchased for $559.99 from Newegg.
The Sapphire Radeon R9 290X video card is based on the reference design, so Sapphire just stuck a few stickers on the card and called it a day.
One observation that we had on the Sapphire Radeon R9 290X retail card is that the stickers weren’t cut out in the right shape! This meant that dust, dirt and other gross stuff would adhere to the overhanging sides of the exposed sticky back. There is no excuse for this as it is the only thing Sapphire physically modified on this $560 video card.
Here is a shot of the AMD Radeon R9 290X reference card and the Sapphire Radeon R9 290X press card that we’ll be comparing to one another.