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ASUS Radeon R9 290X DirectCU II Graphics Card Review

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Manufacturer: ASUS

The First Custom R9 290X

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. 

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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.

Continue reading our review of the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II Graphics Card!!

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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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

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

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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.

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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.

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Here you can see it decked out in all gold...

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...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.

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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. 

December 18, 2013 | 01:34 PM - Posted by Daniel Meier Nielsen (not verified)

Damn, did not expect it to actually do this well. Nice review Ryan.

December 18, 2013 | 01:35 PM - Posted by Imre (not verified)

Awesome:ooo

December 18, 2013 | 01:36 PM - Posted by Imre (not verified)

Please Jesus:((

December 19, 2013 | 08:07 AM - Posted by StewartGraham (not verified)

Jesus can't help you.

December 18, 2013 | 01:42 PM - Posted by OneAgainstOne (not verified)

Exactly, let's wait til these actually come out and what Nvidia is going to do to counter this cause we it could cause a TI drop to reasonable pricing. Thanks Ryan as always!!

December 21, 2013 | 03:29 AM - Posted by nobodyspecial (not verified)

NV doesn't have to respond with anything. You can buy an MSI 780ti gaming card for $699 that is 1020/1085. So a FREE OC is already priced at REF MSRP. It won all benchmarks at hardwarecanucks review of this 290x card except for Dirt Showdown which nobody plays (I say that because it hasn't sold 100K copies yet according to vgchartz which is what it takes to show up on their charts, total failure). Also it won everything without OCing, which nets another 10% as it runs up to 1225 as they show.

Tried to put a link in to hardwarecanucks but caught for spam. I'm sure anyone can get there on their own anyway (newegg below also).

You should be testing at MSI speeds since you can get an OC card for ref pricing. You are testing an OC card here (290X asus) vs. REF 780ti and asking if they took the crown? NOPE. Because you can get OC 780ti for $699 already that easily wins.

The EVGA REF model is now $680 also on newegg once in the cart. More expensive than 290x maybe, but comes with gsync, 3 AAA games, cooler etc.

December 21, 2013 | 01:01 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

You really are a Nvidia fanboy. This 290x beats the 780 TI through and through. Not only does it run slightly cooler, the frame rate is the exact same. OH wait, its $150 cheaper and if Nvidia fanboys can't realize that Nvidia does need to respond with a price drop, they will be seriously hurting. I know fanboys like you will always keep them in business though because you're paying for an overpriced piece of crap. I don't know where you get that the EVGA Ref card is cooler, but it isn't. Look at the 4 degrees difference. Also AMD comes with the Never Settle Bundles, so you have zero point there with the AAA titles. Gsync is pointless. Drivers are far better on AMD now. What's that? OH wait...Games like BF4 AMD dominates Nvidia in every shape and form and this is all before mantle. Is Nvidia in the PS4 or Xbox? Nope. If Mantle does well, is every game from here on out going to adpot it? Yep. So basically Nvidia has an overpriced card that does the same things as the 290x but for way more money and....No thats pretty much it. Have a nice day.

December 21, 2013 | 03:19 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

fanboy, lol me think you can't read graphs, only one where it comes out on top. Then you have the 780ti direct cu2 which eats your AMD fanboy ass

December 22, 2013 | 12:18 PM - Posted by snook

This is the first 290X non-reference card out. If you think there aren't going to be faster non-reference 290Xs released, you've lost it.

enjoy the crow when it's served.

December 22, 2013 | 01:10 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Yes kudos to ASUS for fixing a broken product. Ryan , put it up against the Gigabyte 780ti Ghz Edition or the EVGA SC ACX, would be interested in the results for non ref v non ref
Cheers

December 22, 2013 | 01:07 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

>g-sync is pointless
What?
You do know what g-sync does right?

December 23, 2013 | 11:54 PM - Posted by Niabureth (not verified)

I'll second what Snook said. Until G-sync gets mainstream, (meaning it would be fully compatible with most displays out there) which won't happen anytime soon, I don't really see the point of it. Most people won't be able to use it. And it's not exactly cheap. Don't get me wrong, G-sync is great and all, but it will take some time before it's really a valid argument for going green.

December 22, 2013 | 12:29 PM - Posted by snook

it doesn't come with g-sync. it comes with the ability to use g-sync. huge difference. you get to pay extra for an aftermarket kit (per ryan, limited) or buy a g-sync enabled monitor.

last podcast points out the g-sync limits also. many more than I thought it would have.

December 23, 2013 | 11:42 PM - Posted by Niabureth (not verified)

OMG, you are actually getting really upset about this review, and getting into a defensive position for Nvidia? *The fanboy is strong in this one*

December 18, 2013 | 01:44 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

How much more FPS do you get with the sticker ?
&
Which color combination gives the most FPS ?

December 18, 2013 | 02:19 PM - Posted by D1RTYD1Z619

Actually blue stickers run cooler giving you better overclocks, its science and junk. I have a friend in the "know" that says Asus is saving the blue stickers for the Rev. 2 models.

December 18, 2013 | 02:25 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

speed holes, get out that pickaxe, or shotgun, and make some Holes, at least on those refrence SKUs!

December 18, 2013 | 03:53 PM - Posted by N3n0 (not verified)

Shutup Homer.

December 22, 2013 | 01:11 PM - Posted by Homer, the poet (not verified)

Shut up, pleb.

December 23, 2013 | 11:56 PM - Posted by Niabureth (not verified)

Damn! Can't wait for those.

December 18, 2013 | 02:01 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

how could AMD have not come up with a similarly performing solution for their flagship cards?

AMD have cut their engineering workforce down to almost the bare-bones to stay alive, and maybe AMD should go with a flagship non-refrence design partner, and forgo the costs of thermal engineering to that partner, until AMD rehires/recommits more of its engineering assets towards thermal engineering and cooling/sound design. Yes the parts only cost $20 more, but the engineering costs much more than the materials, and if your engineering workforce is not there, or not available, it is better to get a flagship partner, and utilize that partners engineering workforce.

Alms for the cooling design challenged.

December 18, 2013 | 02:03 PM - Posted by JohnGR (not verified)

Great. But I think most of us knew it for over a month now when many used third party coolers on 290X and had excellent results.
This must be the only time ever that the same gpu that lost the performance crown took it back with just a cooler change.

March 1, 2014 | 03:02 PM - Posted by nashathedog (not verified)

It's shocking how dumb some people are....

December 18, 2013 | 02:49 PM - Posted by Brett from Australia (not verified)

very comprehensive review Ryan, and you have made some good points why AMD could not have done a better job with these cards when they came out of the gate is worrying. These cards do create a lot of heat and as such should have better built in cooling.

December 18, 2013 | 02:59 PM - Posted by envygamer (not verified)

FAWK YEA am selling off my 290 ref!

December 18, 2013 | 03:07 PM - Posted by mikeymike (not verified)

AMD shut up and take my money!!!

December 18, 2013 | 03:08 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Do you run your Skyrim tests with the official HD Textures DLC?

December 18, 2013 | 04:41 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

It's the DLC textures but no mods.

December 21, 2013 | 04:31 PM - Posted by BattMarn (not verified)

Ryan, I know it makes it harder to compare your results with other websites, but I don't know ANYONE who runs Skyrim on PC with no mods.

If you do what TekSyndicate do and run all their tests on a heavily-modded Skyrim, the game will push the GPU further. And so long as none of the mods are ENBs or anything, (so stick to texture and lighting mods) the performance should scale with texture quality, etc.

Might also make Skyrim more relevant as a benchmark, since in most of your latest reviews you've said how pretty much any new GPU can run Skyrim maxed out.

December 31, 2013 | 05:54 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Personally, I wouldn't mind seeing these cards put through their paces with an ENB and DDOF. I noticed on one review - I think an Anandtech review - the AMD cards seemed to react worse to DDOF in Bioshock Infinite than Nvidia ones, and I'd very much like to see if that is a game-specific aberration or a trend.

The beauty of modded Skyrim as a benchmark is that you can test the cards for different kinds of advanced graphics/lighting features from mods and then compare it to vanilla Skyrim as a control.

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