This card was provided by AMD so we did not pay for it. It can however be bought here for £300 but you might be able to get other models of the r9 290 for slightly lower prices if you shop around.
High-end gaming almost seems like madness to the uninitiated. The top tier of cards runs from around £300 up to £1000 and they all have confusing names like 780, Titan, R9 295X and the R9 290. AMD’s R9 290 is by far the cheapest out of this tier, but it definitely belongs there, packing 4GB RAM and powerful enough to run 4K displays. AMD kindly provided us with a Powercolour R9 290 4GB TurboDuo so we’ve been taking it for a few tests, we’re impressed with what we’ve seen.
First off the bad news – this card is incredibly hot. We had problems with an R9 290 with a stock cooler getting up to 80 degrees, and this card goes beyond that, reaching 92 degrees celsius while running Star Citizen. Now this seems like the top end – we couldn’t get it to go any higher, but this is without overclocking and running in a well cooled case. Even with the fans at 100% the Powercolor cooling is surprisingly quiet, nothing like a dedicated aftermarket cooler, but tolerable even when the rest of your PC is silent. If you have headphones on you won’t even notice it at all. The stock cooler on the other hand sounds like a banshee so definitely have a look for something more customised by one of the big card manufacturers. So the card runs at near-boiling point, is this dangerous? Seems like the answer is no, that temperature is the central processor on the card and the fans do an excellent job of getting the heat away. The ambient temperature in our case wasn’t anywhere near that hot and as soon as the GPU gets a chance to slow down a little, the temperature drops down ten degrees almost instantly. This makes us confident that this is a chip designed to run at these temperatures and it’s not going to fry the rest of your PC.
Now onto the good news. If you use a 1080p display or thereabouts, you’re easily going to be able to run current and upcoming games at maximum settings at 60fps. Crysis 3, Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider, Hitman Absolution, they all run without a hitch. The only games we’ve been able to find that won’t run at 60fps are being held back by our CPU (a modest i5 2310). Anything beyond this card right now seems like overkill unless you’re going beyond 1080p, at which point you’re going to need to be investing in something substantial. Even then, in terms of cost-power we think the diminishing returns are too severe to make anything beyond the r9 290 worth it. £300 is a considerable amount of money, but it will give you a PC capable of playing games at settings well beyond the capabilities of the Xbox One and Ps4, and thanks to the ridiculous amount of VRAM, you’re going to be able to keep pace with this generation of consoles over the next few years.
Of course to keep this thing running you’re going to need a decent PC to begin with and on the box it recommends a 750W PSU plus you’ll also need a PCI 2.0 or 3.0 slot with space beneath it free. This is a large card (although nowhere near as large as our previous 290 with a custom cooler) so the case needs a decent amount of room, and just to make sure those temperatures don’t become a problem you’ll want to keep it well ventilated with some space and two or three fans to keep the air moving over it.
Installation is an absolute breeze as it is with most graphics cards nowadays. You simply slot it into the PCI slot, make sure the little latch on the edge has clicked, but your screws in to hold it to the back of the case, connect an 8 pin and 6 pin power connector to the side, connect your display(s) and then you’re good to go. Of course whenever you install any new component make sure you delete any previous drivers and install new ones. Even though we already had Catalyst installed, doing a fresh install provided us with more options and seemed to make things run a little smoother.
In terms of benchmarking we ran Futuremark’s 3dMark Firestrike test which is a standard test for high-performance PCs. The results churn out what seem like arbitrary numbers but when used in comparison they can be useful.
Firestrike result with same machine using overclocked MSI Twin Frozr Radeon 7870HD 2GB
For reference, above is the result of running the test with our old card, the 7870HD. The 7870 is in no way a bad card, running at around £140 and capable of running most games at high settings at 40-60fps. You can see the graphics score is 6280 – this is the one that really matters, the physics score is artificially low due to our somewhat poor CPU. This card had been overclocked to its limits and this was the best score out of many attempts. Everything else in the machine at this point was the same: i5 2310, 750w PSU, 16GB 1666Mhz Kingston HyperX Ram, Samsung 250Gb SSD.
Firestrike result with Powercolor R9 290 4GB at stock settings (no overclock)
Here you can see the power increase that the r9 290 has given us. Again ignore the physics score as that is CPU dependent (and apparently our CPU has got worse somehow) but the graphics score has gone from 6280 to 10570 – that’s a 68% increase in performance. You can see from the framerates what that equates to in terms to what will matter to you – how games look. Running at the same settings we would have gone from 30fps to 50fps.
Firestrike result with Powercolor R9 290 4GB with overclock
These are the results with the highest overclock we could get working on the card. We will test it further with some smaller adjustments but unfortunately our particular card could barely be pushed at all without showing graphical artifacts or outright failing. The Powercolor model is already overclocked a little and with the temperatures it runs at this is no great surprise. Still there were some gains in the graphics score and we could get an extra couple of fps with a tiny change to it. Overclocking is now simpler than ever with AMD’s own Catalyst suite providing some tools to do it, although we find the MSI Afterburner Suite (free to download) a little easier to use, giving you detailed logs of what the changes are doing to your system.
When deciding between AMD and NVidia both sides have gone beyond power and are offering new systems built into their cards to help you with gaming and general computing tasks. Some of AMD’s current flagships are Eyefinity and Mantle. Eyefinity allows you to very easily create a custom resolution that splits your display across as many monitors as you would like. This is particularly useful for three monitor setups where you can play games with actual peripheral vision or consign bits of the UI in MMOs to their own screens. This really is a game changer if you have the money to get it running and thankfully the r9 290 is powerful enough to run games at these crazy resolutions (three screens means three times the pixels).
We will be running a separate feature on Mantle in the near future but basically put it allows developers to interface with the processing on the card more directly, giving them greater access to optimisation. This means game that make use of it (games such as Battlefield 4, Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare, Hitman Absolution, Tomb Raider, Thief) will run better when you’re using one of the newer AMD cards and this seems to be more than just marketing speak, with Battlefield 4 in particular looking absolutely incredible on this card and running at a solid 60fps (it actually runs far beyond this but our displays only run at 60hz).
Overall we are impressed with the r9 290. It’s cheaper that other cards that have the same performance and it seems like manufacturers have been able to solve the problems that the original stock cooler faced. If you can get one for under £300 with a decent cooling set up you’re going to have one of the most powerful gaming rigs for a fraction of the cost of anything more powerful. As always in computing there are limits to what power games will actually use and at the moment the r9 290 is in the sweet spot of just surpassing it. We’re still not entirely happy with the ridiculous temperatures and we’ll keep you updated if this has any effect on the lifespan of the card, but for now this is easy to recommend.