The First Custom R9 290X

ASUS has the first custom built R9 290X to hit the PC Perspective office. How does it change our perception of Hawaii?

It has been a crazy launch for the AMD Radeon R9 series of graphics cards.  When we first reviewed both the R9 290X and the R9 290, we came away very impressed with the GPU and the performance it provided.  Our reviews of both products resulted in awards of the Gold class.  The 290X was a new class of single GPU performance while the R9 290 nearly matched performance at a crazy $399 price tag.

But there were issues.  Big, glaring issues.  Clock speeds had a huge amount of variance depending on the game and we saw a GPU that was rated as "up to 1000 MHz" running at 899 MHz in Skyrim and 821 MHz in Bioshock Infinite.  Those are not insignificant deltas in clock rate that nearly perfectly match deltas in performance.  These speeds also changed based on the "hot" or "cold" status of the graphics card – had it warmed up and been active for 10 minutes prior to testing?  If so, the performance was measurably lower than with a "cold" GPU that was just started. 

That issue was not necessarily a deal killer; rather, it just made us rethink how we test GPUs. The fact that many people were seeing lower performance on retail purchased cards than with the reference cards sent to press for reviews was a much bigger deal.  In our testing in November the retail card we purchased, that was using the exact same cooler as the reference model, was running 6.5% slower than we expected. 

The obvious hope was the retail cards with custom PCBs and coolers would be released from AMD partners and somehow fix this whole dilemma.  Today we see if that was correct.

The ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II Graphics Card

The ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II follows in the footsteps of the previous DC2 models by introducing a custom cooler and PCB design to the Hawaii GPU. 

The card is going to run cooler, quieter and overclocked out of the box; nothing to dislike about that!  Of course we have to see how their claims actually hold up in our testing. 

The DirectCU II R9 290X from ASUS comes out of the box in an all-black design with a pair of fans hiding a passive heatsink on the Hawaii GPU itself.  The card is both longer and taller than the reference model though so users with small cases will want to make note of the specific dimensions: 11.3-in x 5.8-in x 1.6-in. 

The back of the card has a plate that doubles as both a heatsink and strengthening device for the card.  Thought it's not extreme, the R9 290X DirectCU II is definitely a heavier graphics cards that can use the support when installed in a standard case. 

Up top you can see the massive, 10mm direct contact copper heatpipe that helps keep the GPU cooler than the reference design could ever hope to.  ASUS claims that the larger heatpipe offers up to 40% better transfer efficiency than other products while the heatsink as a whole has 30% more dissipation area for air to pass over. 

The left fan in this setup is based on the ASUS CoolTech fan design that offers a hybrid approach combining the axial and blower options typically seen on graphics cards.  The goal is to provide high airflow while keeping acoustics low. 

The output configuration includes a pair of dual-link DVI connections and a full-size port for both HDMI and DisplayPort. 

Along the bottom you will find four additional heatpipes for moving heat from the GPU surface the fins of the DirectCU II cooler.

The ASUS custom 290X still only requires a 6-pin and 8-pin but ASUS has implemented an 8-phase DIGI+ VRM system with super alloy components to extend the life of the card and hopefully increase overclocking capability.  To help users that hate the electronic buzzing sound some R9 290X cards have had ASUS went with concrete alloy chokes.

Even though I am huge fan of the stealth appearance of the ASUS card out of the box, ASUS does include two sets of decals that you can apply to the card in both red and gold colors.  These are obviously meant to match the various motherboard options ASUS has on the market today.

Here you can see it decked out in all gold…

…here it is in red.  You can mix and match if you want, or leave it all black.  It's great to see ASUS include these options for the consumer.

I mentioned the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II is larger and longer than the reference card, but here is proof how much deeper your case needs to be to fit this custom design.  Small Form Factor (SFF) users might want to watch out and measure carefully before purchasing this unit. 

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