Another retail card reveals the results

It looks like AMD might still have some issues on their hands with the R9 290 series of cards

Since the release of the new AMD Radeon R9 290X and R9 290 graphics cards, we have been very curious about the latest implementation of AMD's PowerTune technology and its scaling of clock frequency as a result of the thermal levels of each graphics card.  In the first article covering this topic, I addressed the questions from AMD's point of view – is this really a "configurable" GPU as AMD claims or are there issues that need to be addressed by the company? 

The biggest problems I found were in the highly variable clock speeds from game to game and from a "cold" GPU to a "hot" GPU.  This affects the way many people in the industry test and benchmark graphics cards as running a game for just a couple of minutes could result in average and reported frame rates that are much higher than what you see 10-20 minutes into gameplay.  This was rarely something that had to be dealt with before (especially on AMD graphics cards) so to many it caught them off-guard.

Because of the new PowerTune technology, as I have discussed several times before, clock speeds are starting off quite high on the R9 290X (at or near the 1000 MHz quoted speed) and then slowly drifting down over time.

Another wrinkle occurred when Tom's Hardware reported that retail graphics cards they had seen were showing markedly lower performance than the reference samples sent to reviewers.  As a result, AMD quickly released a new driver that attempted to address the problem by normalizing to fan speeds (RPM) rather than fan voltage (percentage).  The result was consistent fan speeds on different cards and thus much closer performance.

However, with all that being said, I was still testing retail AMD Radeon R9 290X and R9 290 cards that were PURCHASED rather than sampled, to keep tabs on the situation. 

After picking up a retail, off the shelf Sapphire branded Radeon R9 290X, I set out to do more testing.  This time though, rather than simply game for a 5 minute window, I decided to loop gameplay in Metro: Last Light for 25 minutes at a resolution of 2560×1440 with Very High quality settings.  The results are you'll see are pretty interesting.  The "reference" card labeled here is the original R9 290X sampled to me from AMD directly. 

Our first set of tests show the default, Quiet mode on the R9 290X.

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For the first nearly 3 minutes of game play, both cards are performing identically and are able to stick near the 1.0 GHz clock speed advertised by AMD and partners.  At that point though the blue line, representing the Sapphire R9 290X retail card, starts to drop its clock speed, settling somewhere in the 860 MHz mark.

The green line lasts a bit longer at 1000 MHz until around 250 seconds (just over 4 minute) have elapsed then it too starts to drop in clock speeds.  But, the decrease is not nearly as dramatic – clocks seem to hover in the mid-930 MHz. 

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In fact, over the entire 25 minute period (1500 seconds) shown here, the retail R9 290X card averaged 869 MHz (including the time at the beginning at 1.0 GHz) while the reference card sent to us from AMD averaged 930 MHz.  That results in a 6.5% drop in clock speed delta which should almost perfectly match performance differences in games that are GPU limited (most of them.)

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The fan speed adjustment made by AMD with the 13.11 V9.2 driver was functioning as planned though – both cards were running at the expected 2200 RPM levels and ramped up nearly identically as well. 

But what changes if we switch over the Uber mode on the R9 290X?  The setting that enabled 55% fan speeds, and with it more noise?

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You only see the blue line here from the Sapphire results because it is overwriting the green line of the reference card – both are running at essentially the same performance levels and nearly keep the 1000 MHz frequency across the entirety of the 25 minute gaming period.  The retail card averages 996 MHz while the reference card averages 999 MHz – pretty damn close.

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However, what I found very interesting is that these cards did this at different fans speeds.  It would appear that the 13.11 V9.2 driver did NOT normalize the fan speeds for Uber mode as 55% reported on both cards results in fan speeds that differ by about 200 RPM.  That means the blue line, representing our retail card, is going to run louder than the reference card, and not by a tiny margin.


The Saga Continues…

As we approach the holiday season, I am once again left with information that paints a bad light on the retail versus sampled R9 290X cards but without enough data to really make any kind of definitive conclusions.  In reality, I would need dozens of R9 290X or R9 290 cards to make a concrete statement on the methods that AMD is employing, but unfortunately my credit card wouldn't appreciate that.

Even though we are only showing a single retail card against a single sampled R9 290X from AMD directly, these reports continue to pile up.  The 6.5% clock speed difference we are seeing seems large enough to warrant concern, but not large enough to start a full-on battle over it. 

My stance on the Hawaii architecture and the new PowerTune technology remains the same even after this new data: AMD needs to define a "base" clock and a "typical" clock that users can expect.  Otherwise, we will continue to see reports and reporting on the variance that exists between retail units.  The quick fix that AMD's driver team implemented to normalize the fan speed on RPM rather than percentage clearly helped, but it has not addressed the issue in total.

Here's hoping AMD comes back from the holiday with some new ideas in mind!