More of the same for a lot less cash
Really? A Hawaii GPU for $399? AMD has some guts with this release and I think the performance per dollar metrics will impress you!
The week before Halloween, AMD unleashed a trick on the GPU world under the guise of the Radeon R9 290X and it was the fastest single GPU graphics card we had tested to date. With a surprising price point of $549, it was able to outperform the GeForce GTX 780 (and GTX TITAN in most cases) while under cutting the competitions price by $100. Not too bad!
Today's release might be more surprising (and somewhat confusing). The AMD Radeon R9 290 4GB card is based on the same Hawaii GPU with a few less compute units enabled (CUs) and an even more aggressive price and performance placement. Seriously, has AMD lost its mind?
Can a card with a $399 price tag cut into the same performance levels as the JUST DROPPED price of $499 for the GeForce GTX 780?? And, if so, what sacrifices are being made by users that adopt it? Why do so many of our introduction sentences end in question marks?
The R9 290 GPU – Hawaii loses a small island
If you are new to the Hawaii GPU and you missed our first review of the Radeon R9 290X from last month, you should probably start back there. The architecture is very similar to that of the HD 7000-series Tahiti GPUs with some modest changes to improve efficiency with the biggest jump in raw primitives per second to 4/clock over 2/clock.
The R9 290 is based on Hawaii though it has four fewer compute units (CUs) than the R9 290X. When I asked AMD if that meant there was one fewer CU per Shader Engine or if they were all removed from a single Engine, they refused to really answer. Instead, several "I'm not allowed to comment on the specific configuration" lines were given. This seems pretty odd as NVIDIA has been upfront about the dual options for its derivative GPU models. Oh well.
Because we are losing CUs, we obviously have fewer stream processors and fewer texture units on the 290 compared to the 290X. The R9 290 has 2,560 shader cores and 160 texture units. That is a drop of 256 stream processors (10%) and a drop of 16 texture units (10%) when going head to head with the 290X flagship.
Interestingly, everything else stays the same. We are still looking at a 512-bit memory bus along with the 64 ROPs and 4GB of GDDR5 memory running at 5.0 Gbps. So, while the top compute performance and the texture fill rate see small declines, I expect the performance of the R9 290 to be relatively similar to that of the 290X. The rated maximum clock rate of the R9 290 (947 MHz) is also within 5% of the R9 290X and there are some other considerations that may make the average clock rate of the 290 higher overall.
A Last Minute Swap
In a rather interesting move, AMD made a last minute change to the R9 290 (via a software update) very close to the NDA release of this article. Originally, the R9 290 had the same default setting for the maximum fan speed as the R9 290X, 40%. However, after another driver revision, the R9 290 was actually bumped up to 47% which will obviously increase performance thanks to the new version of PowerTune AMD has implemented on Hawaii.
If you haven't already seen my article that looks at the configurable nature of the Hawaii GPU thanks to PowerTune, you will definitely want to read that article that went up yesterday. In it, I look at the R9 290X with various maximum fan speed settings in the control panel to see how performance, power, noise and heat are actually affected. Obviously it should go without saying that the R9 290 will be affected in nearly exactly the same fashion and thus the bump from 40% to 47% maximum fan speeds will result in better sustained performance for AMD.
AMD's reasons for the last minute change are still somewhat of a mystery, though it likely has to do with NVIDIA's significant price drop response to the R9/R8 launch. The GTX 780 was dropped from $649 to $499 with that release in order to respond to the performance advantages the R9 290X had over the GK110-based graphics card. AMD has definitely been attempting to take an aggressive stance with the Hawaii release and push its advantages; the additional performance we'll get with the 47% fan speed setting might be in that same vein.
The Radeon R9 290 4GB Graphics Card
If you've seen the R9 290X, you've seen the R9 290 reference card as well. They are virtually identical – coolers, output configuration, etc.
We are still looking at a 8+6 pin power configuration and a 290mm board length. There is 4GB of memory on the card for lots of growing space for users making the jump to 4K gaming.
The output configuration remains as a pair of dual-link DVI ports, a full-sized HDMI and a full-sized DisplayPort and users will no longer have to worry about getting a DP to HDMI/DVI adapter to enable Eyefinity on a single card.
There are no CrossFire connections on the R9 290, just as we saw with the R9 290X, as the multi-GPU communication now goes completely through the PCI Express bus on the motherboard. You can check out our first look at the update AMD CrossFire technology that I posted along with our R9 290X review though we do have CrossFire results for the R9 290 in this review as well.