Custom AMD Radeon R9 290X Video Cards Arrive

The AMD Radeon R9 290x and R9 290 both have great performance when gaming, but the cards run notoriously hot. AMD says that the cards were designed to run at 94C and that there is nothing wrong with running that high, but many enthusiasts think otherwise and have waited for the add-in board partners to come out with custom cards that have aftermarket coolers. Those cards are just now starting to trickle out and we got our hands on the yet to be released ASUS Radeon R9 290X DirectCU II and the Sapphire Radeon R9 290X Tri-X. Both of these cards are factory overclocked and have ditched the reference GPU cooler for massive dual or triple-fan models. The AMD Radeon R9 290X was originally released in October and we've covered it extensively in more articles since then, so we'll get right to it as you should already know that this card supports DirectX 11.1, OpenCL 1.2, OpenGL 4.3, PCI Express 3.0, AMD Eyefinity 2.0, AMD PowerTune, AMD ZeroCore, AMD CrossFire, AMD TrueAudio and AMD Mantle. 

 

sapphire-asus-290x

 

Both the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II and the Sapphire R9 290X Tri-X are factory overclocked for improved performance. Sapphire took the 290X Tri-X up to 1040MHz on the core and 1300MHz on the memory from the reference cards 1000MHz core clock and 1250MHz GDDR5 memory clock. Not huge clock frequencies gains, but it is a 4% boost to each clock. ASUS on the other hand was a little more aggressive with 1050MHz on the core and 1350MHz on the memory. This is a 5% overclock on the core clock and 8% overclock on the memory, so right off the bat you know the ASUS card should perform better as it has higher clock speeds by default.

 AMD Radeon R9 290XASUS 290X DirectCU IISapphire 290X Tri-X
Model Number - R9290X-DC2OC-4GD5 100361-2SR
SRP $549 $569.99 $599.99
Clock Speed 1000 MHz 1050 MHz 1040 MHz
Memory Clock Speed 1250 MHz 1350 MHz 1300 MHz

asus-sapphire-290x

The ASUS Radeon R9 290X and Sapphire Radeon R9 290X are both dual-slot video cards with printed circuit boards that both measure 10.5-inches in length, but that is where the similarities end. For example Sapphire opted to use the AMD reference board for the 290X and just slap on the Tri-X cooler and flash the vBIOS with more aggressive clock speeds. Many say that if something isn't broke, don't fix it and that is what Sapphire did here with the reference board. The ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II uses a pair of fans (94mm fan and 93mm) versus the three fans (~84mm) on the Sapphire R9 290X Tri-X. The Sapphire Tri-X cooler hangs past the end of the PCB, making the card 12-inches in total length. Whereas the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II card is slightly shorter as its GPU cooler pushes the card to just 11.25-inches in length.

290x-video-hookups

When it comes to video outputs you have a pair of DVI connectors (DVI-I and DVI-D), Display Port and HDMI. It looks like Sapphire went with a high-flow hot air exhaust bracket, but the cards heatsink has exhaust fins that are vertical... No air really exits here due to this, so this is a very interesting choice. This design would be better suited for the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II as it has horizontal cooling fins.

290x-power-headers

Both cards have required 8-pin and 6-pin PCI Express power connectors that are located at the end of the video card for additional power. ASUS flipped the power connectors 180 degrees to make installation easier and also placed on power status LED lights that let you quickly know if the power is properly connected. Sapphire recommends a 750W or greater power supply with one 75W 6-pin and one 150W 8-pin power connector for this video card to operate properly.

290x-top-down-view

The AMD Radeon R9 290X doesn't have any CrossFire interconnects on top for pairing it with another graphics card, but that isn't needed for the new Hawaii GPU that powers these cards. You can run CrossFire though the PCIe slot now, so you can pair up to four of these cards together for improved gaming performance.  It should be noted that Sapphire has has implemented DUAL BIOS on the Tri-X models, ensuring that the cards boot and deliver maximum performance in systems with both UEFI and legacy BIOS implementations. The AMD reference card had two fan speed profiles, but Sapphire did away with that and has two boot modes for improved motherboard support. ASUS also has a Dual BIOS solution on their card  that has the fan profiles that are difference (Performance and Silent).290x-cards-backThe back of the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II has a nice metal backplate whereas the Sapphire R9 290X Tri-X doesn't have one. We are big fans of backplates as it protects the components on the back of the card and it looks better when installed into PC.

Let's see how these two cards do when put to the test.

 

Test System

Before we look at the numbers, let's take a brief look at the test system that was used. All testing was done using a fresh install of Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit and benchmarks were completed on the desktop with no other software programs running.

Video Cards & Drivers used for testing:

Intel X79/LGA2011 Platform

test-system

test-system-settings

The Intel X79 platform that we used to test the all of the video cards was running the ASUS P9X79 Deluxe motherboard with BIOS 4502 that came out on 10/15/2013. The Corsair Vengeance 16GB 1866MHz quad channel memory kit was set to 1866MHz with 1.5v and 9-10-9-27 1T memory timings. The OCZ Vertex 3 240GB SSD was run with firmware version 2.25.

 

The Intel X79 Test Platform

 

Component

 

Brand/Model

 

Live Pricing

 

Processor

 

Intel Core i7-3960X

 

Motherboard

ASUS P9X79 Deluxe

 

Memory

16GB Corsair 1866MHz

 

Video Card

 

Various

 

Solid-State Drive

 

OCZ Vertex 3 240GB

 

Cooling

 

Intel RTS2011LC

 

Power Supply

Corsair AX1200

 

Operating System

 

Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit

 

ASUS Radeon R9 290X DirectCU II  Video Card GPU-Z Information:

asus-290x-gpuz

Sapphire Radeon R9 290X Tri-X  Video Card GPU-Z Information:

sapphire-290x

Battlefield 3

Battlefield 3 Screenshot

Battlefield 3 (BF3) is a first-person shooter video game developed by EA Digital Illusions CE and published by Electronic Arts. The game was released in North America on October 25, 2011 and in Europe on October 28, 2011. It does not support versions of Windows prior to Windows Vista as the game only supports DirectX 10 and 11. It is a direct sequel to 2005's Battlefield 2, and the eleventh installment in the Battlefield franchise. The game sold 5 million copies in its first week of release and the PC download is exclusive to EA's Origin platform, through which PC users also authenticate when connecting to the game.

Battlefield 3 Screenshot

Battlefield 3 debuts the new Frostbite 2 engine. This updated Frostbite engine can realistically portray the destruction of buildings and scenery to a greater extent than previous versions. Unlike previous iterations, the new version can also support dense urban areas. Battlefield 3 uses a new type of character animation technology called ANT. ANT technology is used in EA Sports games, such as FIFA, but for Battlefield 3 is adapted to create a more realistic soldier, with the ability to transition into cover and turn the head before the body.

 bf3

Benchmark Results: BF3 is easily played on the Radeon R9 290X and the ASUS and Sapphire overclocked cards run it even better. All of the cards are just between 66-70 FPS on average at 2560x1600, so you performance is really similar. 

Bioshock Infinite

BioShock Infinite is a first-person shooter video game developed by Irrational Games, and published by 2K Games. BioShock Infinite is the third installment in the BioShock series, and though it is not part of the storyline of previous BioShock games, it does feature similar gameplay concepts and themes. BioShock Infinite uses a Modified Unreal Engine 3 game engine and was released worldwide on March 26, 2013.

Bioshock Infinite

We tested BioShock Infinite with the Ultra game settings.

bioshock-chart

Benchmark Results: In Bioshock Infinite the two overclocked Radeon R9 290X cards do very well, but notice the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II is about 2FPS faster than the Sapphire R9 290X Tri-X OC at both 1920x1080 and 2560x1600. It looks like the extra 10MHz on the core and 50MHz on the memory clock frequencies does help!

Far Cry 3

Farcry3 Game Screenshot

Far Cry 3 is an open world first-person shooter video game developed by Ubisoft Montreal and published by Ubisoft for Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It is the sequel to 2008's Far Cry 2. The game was released on December 4th, 2012 for North America. Far Cry 3 is set on a tropical island found somewhere at the intersection of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.[11] After a vacation goes awry, player character Jason Brody has to save his kidnapped friends and escape from the islands and their unhinged inhabitants.

FarCry 3 Quality Settings

FarCry 3 Video Quality

Far Cry 3 uses the Dunia Engine 2 game engine with Havok physics. The graphics are excellent and the game really pushes the limits of what one can expect from mainstream graphics cards. We set game title to 8x MSAA Anti-Aliasing and ultra quality settings.

fc3

Benchmark Results: In Far Cry 3 the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II was averaging nearly 55 FPS at 1920x1080 and the Sapphire R9 290X Tri-X OC was averaging 54 FPS, so just 1FPS splits those two cards. The Sapphire R9 290X Tri-X was nearly 2FPS faster than the AMD Radeon R9 290X reference card, so that 4% core and memory overclock did help bump up performance by about 3.5% in this game title.

Hitman: Absolution

Hitman: Absolution is an action-adventure stealth DirecX 11 video game developed by IO Interactive and published by Square Enix. It is the fifth entry in the Hitman game series, and runs on IO Interactive's proprietary Glacier 2 game engine. This game title uses the Glacier 2 game engine and was released on November 20th, 2012.

hitmanabsolution_550.

We benchmarked Hitman: Absolution with Ultra Settings.

hitman-chart

Benchmark Results: Hitman Absolution loves AMD Radeon graphics cards and the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II was at the top of the charts ahead of the mighty ASUS MARS 760 and even the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti reference card! Both of these cards cost more money, so it is always nice to see a lower cost card beating out more expensive cards.

Metro Last Light

Metro: Last Light is a first-person shooter video game developed by Ukrainian studio 4A Games and published by Deep Silver. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic world and features action-oriented gameplay with a combination of survival horror elements. It uses the 4A Game engine and was released in May 2013.

Metro: Last Light

Metro Last Light was benchmarked with Ultra settings

metro-chart

Benchmark Results: Metro: Last Light

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider

On March 5th, 2013 Square Enix released Tomb Raider, billed as a reboot of the franchise. In Tomb Raider, the player is confronted with a much younger Lara Croft who is shipwrecked and finds herself stranded on a mysterious island rife with danger, both natural and human. In contrast to the earlier games Croft is portrayed as vulnerable, acting out of necessity, desperation and sheer survival rather than for a greater cause or personal gain.

Tomb Raider Settings

The game has been built on Crystal Dynamics's game engine called the "Crystal Engine" and the graphics look fantastic. AMD and Crystal Dyanmic's worked on a new technology called TressFX Hair, which AMD describes as “the world’s first in-game implementation of a real-time, per-strand hair physics system” for this game title. We set the image quality to ultimate for benchmarking, but we disabled TressFX Hair under the advanced tab to be fair to NVIDIA graphics cards that don't support the feature.

tomb-raider 

Benchmark Results: In the new Tomb Raider PC game the Radeon R9 290X cards are close, but you can see how increasing the clock speed does help.

3DMark 2013

3Dmark Fire Strike Benchmark Results - For high performance gaming PCs

Use Fire Strike to test the performance of dedicated gaming PCs, or use the Fire Strike Extreme preset for high-end systems with multiple GPUs. Fire Strike uses a multi-threaded DirectX 11 engine to test DirectX 11 hardware.

3DMark Fire Strike

 

Fire Strike Benchmark Results:

3dmark-firestrike

Benchmark Results: The 3DMark Fire Strike benchmark has the ASUS R9 290X DCII scoring 9,982 points and the Sapphire R9 290X Tri-X scoring lower at 9,912 points. The ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II is the fastest single-GPU powered card that we have ever tested in 3DMark Fire Strike.

Fire Strike Extreme:

3dmark-x

Benchmark Results: The 3DMark Fire Strike Extreme benchmark found the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II scored 5,073 points and the Sapphire R9 290X Tri-X scored 5,021 points.

Catzilla

Catzilla is a relatively new benchmark that is made the Polish demoscene group Plasticis. It is being produced in collaboration with Polish post production company, Plastige. Plastige is the company that worked on Witcher 2 Enhanced Edition and some of the developers there were behind the PlayStation Network game Datura. The benchmark uses a parallel graphics engine that takes advantage of multi-core CPUs. This isn't a benchmark being made in some kids basement and it doesn't appear to be bought off by any companies yet, so it should be a good benchmark to use.

catzilla-benchmark

While this benchmark is in beta phases, we still have found that Catzilla is a good cross-API benchmark. You also can't go wrong with a benchmark that has a giant animated cat nuke cities with its laser eyes as you do. You can watch a video of the benchmark in action below.

We purchased Catzilla Advanced and ran the full Catzilla benchmark at 2560x1440.

catzilla

Benchmark Results: The AMD Radeon R9 290X reference card scored 6,255 points in the Catzilla 1440P benchmark test and the 40MHz overclocked Sapphire Radeon R9 290X Tri-X scored 6,600 points and the 50MHz overclocked ASUS Radeon R9 290X DirectCU II scored 6,727 points.

Temperature & Noise Testing

No video card review would be complete with out looking at GPU temperatures and noise levels!

ASUS Radeon R9 290X DirectCU II 4GB Video Card Idle Temperature:

asus-vrm-idle

Sapphire Radeon R9 290X TRi-X 4GB Video Card Idle Temperature:

sapphire-vrm-idle

The ASUS Radeon R9 290X DirectCU II and Sapphire Radeon R9 290X Tri-X were pretty much identical at idle when it came to cooling performance. The Sapphire 290X Tri-X was 1C cooler at idle though, so if you had to pick a winner that would be it.  The ASUS card was 28C and the Sapphire card was 31C in a room that was 22.0C (72F). The VRM 1 and VRM 2 temperatures were cooler on the Sapphire 290X Tri-X at idle. Note both cards have the fans spinning at 20%, which is 1024RPM on the ASUS dual-fan card and  and 1500 RPM on the Sapphire triple-card.

ASUS Radeon R9 290X DirectCU II 4GB Gaming Temperature:

asus-vrm-load

Sapphire Radeon R9 290X TRi-X 4GB Gaming Temperature:

sapphire-vrm-load

When playing Far Cry 3 and Battlefield 3 for about 30 minutes each, we hit 74C on the ASUS 290X DirectCU II and 72C on the Sapphire 290X Tri-X when it comes to GPU temperatures. We were shocked by the difference in the VRM temperatures as on the ASUS 290X DirectCU II the VRM 1 temp was 88C and the VRM 2 temp was 78C. The Sapphire 290X Tri-X  hit 75C on VRM 1 and 48C on VRM 2. Sapphire's GPU cooler helps keep the VRM 1 temperature 13C cooler and the VRM 2 temperature 30C cooler. The GPU temperature is pretty much identical on these two AMD Radeon R9 290X video cards, but the VRM temperatures are night and day different. It looks like the extra cooling fan on the Sapphire 290X Tri-X GPU cooler really helps keeps the board cooler. 

 

Sound Testing

We recently upgraded our sound meter to an Extech sound level meter with ±1.5dB accuracy that meets Type 2 standards. This meter ranges from 35dB to 90dB on the low measurement range, which is perfect for us as our test room usually averages around 36dB. We measure the sound level two inches above the corner of the motherboard with 'A' frequency weighting. The microphone wind cover is used to make sure no wind is blowing across the microphone, which would seriously throw off the data.

noise-testing

The AMD Radeon R9 290X reference card is pretty loud and hits nearly 64dB on our open air test system. The ASUS and Sapphire cards with their respective custom GPU coolers are much quieter. The ASUS 290X DirectCU II ran at 42.0 dB at idle and 51.7 dB when gaming at full load.  The Sapphire 290X Tri-X was a little louder at idle with a reading of 43.1, but was actually quieter at load, hitting just 48.2dB.  These aren't the quietest cards that we have ever tested, but they will be tough to hear inside a gaming case with a bunch of cooling fans in it! Both are hands down better than the AMD reference cooler in terms of noise levels and cooling performance.

Power Consumption

290x-power-headers

For testing power consumption, we took our test system and plugged it into a Kill-A-Watt power meter. For idle numbers, we allowed the system to idle on the desktop for 15 minutes and took the reading. For load numbers we ran three games at 1920x1080 and averaged the peak results seen on the power meter.

power-consumption

Power Consumption Results: The ASUS Radeon R9 290X reference card used around 107 Watts at idle and hit a peak of 464 Watts when gaming. The ASUS Radeon R9 290X DirectCU II and Sapphire Radeon R9 290X Tri-X are both overclocked with custom GPU coolers and used slightly more power at both idle and load. The Sapphire 290X Tri-X ran ay 111 Watts idle and 472 Watts load and the ASUS 290X DirectCU II ran at 117 Watts idle and 480 Watts load. These power numbers are high in comparison with most video cards we have looked at, but this is in-line with what we expected as this is a high-end enthusiast card!

Overclocking AMD Radeon R9 290X Custom Cards

asus-gpu-tweak

To overclock the ASUS Radeon 290X DirectCU II OC we used ASUS GPU Tweak version 2.5.2.3. This is a great overclocking utility that allows you to adjust the GPU boost clock, memory clock, and fan speed settings. If you want to enabled advanced features you can go into the settings and manually enable adjustments for the GPU voltage, power target, and so on. You also have the latest version of GPU-Z built-in and live monitoring tools all in this one utility.

asus-290x-max-overclock

We overclocked the ASUS R290X DirectCU II  and had very good results. The defaults speed core clock speed on this card is 1050MHz and we were able to get it up to 1200MHz with rock solid stability after increasing the GPU voltage by 100mV. Without bumping up the voltage we were hitting around 1125MHz, so throwing some extra voltage at the GPU will most certainly allow for higher overclocks. We were able to overclock the memory from 5400MHz to 6400MHz, but found that 6000MHz was the sweet spot as if we went beyond 6000MHz on the GDDR5 memory the benchmarks would actually show performance decreases. It should be noted that we increased the power target by 20% and left the fan speed on auto.

Let's take a look at some Futuremark 3DMark11 on the performance preset to see how the overclock helped performance.

ASUS R290X DirectCU II OC at 1050MHz core and 6000MHz memory:

3dmark-asus-stock

ASUS R290X DirectCU II OC at 1200MHz core and 6000MHz memory:

asus-290x-oc

We tried out this overclock with Futuremark 3DMark Fire Strike and saw the score go from 9983 to 11223, so this is a 12.4% improvement over the reference speeds!

sapphire-290x-trix-oc

To overclock the Sapphire Radeon R9 290X Tri-X video card we used Sapphire’s TRIXX v4.8.2 overclocking utility. We gave the card an extra 100mV of power and increased the power target 20% to mimic the settings that we did on the ASUS card. We were a bit shocked to see that we maxed out the card at the same exact clock frequency, but we'll take 1200MHz core and 6000MHz memory clocks all day long. The Sapphire R9 290X Tri-X scored 11,309 points in 3DMark Fire Strike, which is actually a touch better than what we saw on the ASUS 290X DC2 OC video card. Both cards might start out with different clock speeds, but they overclocked to the same max speeds!

 

Final Thoughts and Conclusions

sapphire-290x-reference

The Sapphire Radeon R9 290X Tri-X is a great example of what happens when you slap a gigantic aftermarket cooler on the AMD Radeon R9 290X reference card. The Sapphire Tri-X GPU cooler allowed the card to be overclocked up to 1040MHz and the gaming load temperatures went from 94C to just 71C. This is a massive 23C temperature drop and it just goes to show that the AMD reference cooler really isn’t that good as Sapphire was able to significantly drop the temperatures and run higher core and memory clock speeds. Often AIB companies save money with their custom coolers (although they raise prices on consumers), so it just goes to show that if you are going to get a Radeon R9 290X that you really should get one with a custom cooler. The Sapphire R9 290X Tri-X cooler does an excellent job cooling as the VRM 2 temperature location was 30C cooler on the Sapphire card! As you've likely figured out, the Sapphire Radeon R9 290X Tri-X isn’t a fully custom card as it appears that Sapphire just bolted up the GPU cooler to the reference PCB and called it a day.  That might be a bit of a letdown to some, but it means that it will work with most custom water blocks. This is important to note as fully custom cards are often a pain to keep water cool down the road.

asus-290x-custom

The ASUS Radeon R9 290X DirectCU II is a fully custom card from the ground up.  ASUS came up with their own PCB design and used higher quality Super Alloy Power (SAP) components. By doing a custom design ASUS is able to include features that the other brands can’t and ROG Connect, reversed power connectors, and power LED indicator lights are examples of how ASUS is trying to differentiating their card from the dozens of other brands that have Radeon R9 290X cards on the market around the globe. They were also able to shorten the length of the PCB and their DirectCU II cooler isn’t as long as the Tri-X cooler used on the Sapphire card we also looked at today.

[gallery ids="132191,132192,132259"]

You might have noticed that we skipped overclocking and we apologize for that. We were rushing to get out the door for CES 2014 and the AMD Catalyst 13.12 WHQL drivers were fighting us all the way. Every single time we’d overclock either of these cards with Catalyst Control Center (AMD OverDrive) or with the companies’ respective overclocking utilizes we’d get system instability. Basically the system would crash when the card went from 2D to 3D mode and then after it would restart it would do the same thing. We were stuck in a vicious loop as AMD OverDrive was loading up the previous unstable settings and there was no way to disable it. We were going into Windows 7 in safe mode, removing the drivers, going back into windows to re-install the drivers and then we’d end up in the same spot moments later. We’ll attempt to overclock the cards next week when we return and will talk to AMD about the issues we were having.

UPDATE: Both cards were able to overclock to 1200MHz core and 6000MHz (effective) memory, which is very impressive.

So, what about cost? The AMD Radeon R9 290X reference card has an original suggest retail price of $549, but many retailers are asking for far more than that. The AMD Hawaii based video cards are priced sky high right now due what many think is the fact that Litecoin miners are paying whatever the cost to get high-end cards for their mining machines. This is bad news for AMD gamers as it has increased the price of some of the higher-end cards.

For example, Newegg has the Sapphire Radeon R9 290X reference card with BF4 for $629.99 plus $8.50 shipping.  If you want to step-up to the custom cooled and overclocked Sapphire Radeon R9 290X Tri-X you’ll have to fork over $699.99 plus $5.92 shipping. So, you lose what is arguably a good game title and have to spend $70 extra bucks to get essentially get a better GPU cooler. That stings a bit and you can pick up an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti 3GB video card with a game bundle for $699 as well. Usually a ‘custom’ card like this is $10-$20 more, but not today! Sapphire informed us that the R9 290X/290 Tri-X video card models were released at an MSRP of $50 over the reference models and that they can not control what the retailers charge. The ASUS Radeon R9 290X DirectCU II is not out yet, but we are told that it should be available late next week for a suggested retail price of $569.99.  Keep in mind that ASUS does not control what the retail sites and stores charge and we are sure that they are going to mark this card way up like they did with the Sapphire model. It makes it tough to suggest buying one of these cards for gaming when there is such a high markup on them right now. It should be noted that the Sapphire Radeon R9 290X Tri-X has a 2-year warranty and the ASUS Radeon R9 290X DirectCU II has a longer 3-year warranty.

 

At the end of the day both of these ‘custom’ cards feature way better cooling than the AMD Radeon R9 290X reference card. With either of these cards you don’t have to worry about the clock frequency being throttled in certain scenarios and that is really good news.  We’ve showed in the past that when the case temperature goes up that AMD PowerTune technology will throttle the core clock back and that hurts performance in order to maintain 94C. With these cards you are running well below 94C, so the average clock speeds will be the rated clock speeds when you are gaming.  Improving the GPU really helps and makes the number one issue that people have with this video card for the most part a non-issue! If you can find a custom cooled Radeon R9 290X video card for around the suggested retail price we'd easily recommend it.

LR Recommended Award

Legit Bottom Line: The ASUS Radeon R9 290X DirectCU II and Sapphire Radeon R9 290X Tri-X are both solid video cards that run cool and have great performance thanks to their factory overclocks.