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ASUS Radeon R9 290X DirectCU II Graphics Card Review

Author: Ryan Shrout
Manufacturer: ASUS

Cooling and Clock Benefits to DirectCU II

The Dual BIOS Switch Effects

Just like the reference models of the R9 290X, the ASUS DirectCU II model has a BIOS switch on the top meant to interchange BIOS settings.  The switch in the default position (away from the output connectors) indicates the card is in Performance Mode while the switch in the opposite position (towards the output connectors) puts the card into a Quiet mode.  Sound familiar?  It might but the behaviors are very different than the first 290X cards.

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Here in performance mode, you'll notice that the AMD Catalyst Control Center doesn't list a target GPU temperature and also defaults to having the maximum fan speed at 50%.  Don't be scared though!  These fans are MUCH more quiet than the reference cards.

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In the quiet mode you have the same settings that we saw previously with a target GPU temperature of 95C and a maximum fan speed of 40%. 

Clock Speed Variance - Is it fixed??

First things first, let's look at how the clock speeds vary on the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II.  To see this over an extended period of time, we are looking at 25 minutes of consistent, looped gameplay in Metro: Last Light.  This is the same testing loop utilized in our discussion of the 290X variance problems from last month.  We'll be compare this new custom R9 290X from ASUS to the reference card we got from AMD initially as well as the Sapphire R9 290X that we purchased ourselves that uses the stock cooler.

For this test, all three cards are in their default state.  That means the sampled and Sapphire R9 290X are in Quiet mode while the R9 290X is in performance mode.  More on that below.

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Well look at that, the ASUS R9 290X is quite the champ!  Throughout our 25 minute session of Metro: Last Light it stays at the 1050 MHz frequency pretty much the whole time with only the occasional dip to something in the 600-700s when the level reloads.

What does this mean?  The custom cooled R9 290X DirectCU II from ASUS is the first R9 290X we have seen to consistently run at its rated frequency and as a result it will be among the fastest cards we have ever tested!

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To put it in a different perspective, the average clock speed of the ASUS card was 1047.57 MHz over the 25 minute period while the sampled reference card was only hitting 930 MHz.  The Sapphire card, at 869 MHz average clock, is 17% slower than the ASUS card.  The press sampled card is 11% slower than the ASUS card.  Those are large, tangible and hard to swallow results for buyers of reference R9 290X models.

I do realize that the default clock of the ASUS DC2 card is 1050 MHz while both the press sampled and Sapphire reference cards are rated at "up to" 1000 MHz and that results in a 5% delta out the gate.  Still, it is clear based on the clock speed comparison graph above that the stock blower cooler was never up to the task of keeping the Hawaii GPU in the thermal envelope it needed to be.

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Keeping mind that these are totally different cooler designs, the ASUS card is able to maintain a 1050 MHz clock speed with a fan speed of just 1600 RPM or so, though we do have TWO fans.  How do that effect sound levels?

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As it turns out, the DirectCU II cooler, in performance mode, is significantly more quiet than the reference cooler in quiet mode.  Think about that for just a second.  Okay, let's move on.

The custom built ASUS R9 290X is 6 full dbA lower in our noise testing than the reference R9 290X and is even able to come in under the sound levels of the GTX 780 Ti.  It's still louder than the original GTX 780 that runs at a lower fan speed, but it's pretty close.

In my testing, the R9 290X provided about as good of a sound experience of any high end graphics card we have tested in the past year.  This is exactly where the AMD R9 290X should have been the whole time.

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Another huge benefit you get with the ASUS DirectCU II is lower temperatures.  Not only does this card run faster than the reference, and quieter, it is doing all of that while keeping the GPU at a temperature 18C lower than the reference cooler.  This is nothing to balk at or just dismiss, this is serious improvement by ASUS.

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Finally, does all of this come at the cost of power consumption?  Not really - the ASUS DC2 was actually drawing a few watts lower power than the reference card in our testing under a full load.

How does the Quiet Mode change things?

Though we did all of our primary testing with the switch in its default state, Performance mode, Quiet mode has some interesting characteristics worth noting. 

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Sound levels in the quiet mode are, well, quieter (as you would expect).  The jump from 37.1 dbA to 34.1 dbA isn't as big as the move from the reference 290X to the ASUS custom card but the noise difference is still noticeable.

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The clock speeds reported over the same 25 minute period are interesting.  For most of the recorded period, the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II in quiet mode is able to maintain the same 1050 MHz clock speed as it does in the performance mode.  Between the 550 and 850 second period though there is some obvious throttling the occurs with clock speeds going to nearly 950 MHz.  Even though that is definitely going to cause performance drops, it is nothing close to the 830 MHz clocks we saw with the Sapphire reference cooler testing last month.

The clock speed does eventually restabilize at 1050 MHz though for reasons you'll see below.

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Even with that clock speed variance above, the average frame rate of the ASUS DC2 card in quiet mode is only 8 MHz lower over the entire 25 minutes testing period.

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In order to hit just 34.1 dbA in quiet mode, the ASUS card only briefing breaches the 1200 RPM mark at about the 950 seconds.  It then drops again and seems to find a stable spot at 1180 RPM or so.

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How can the ASUS card maintain the same performance levels (or close to the same performance levels) with lower noise in quiet mode?  By allowing the GPU to hit higher temperatures.  In performance mode our GPU hits the 76-77C mark towards the end of its 25 minute test run while in quiet mode ASUS allows the GPU to 94C.  It is not a coincidence that it happens in the same 650-850 second window where we saw the clock speed come down and the fan speed quickly ramp up.  The DC2 card then finds the best spot for it to maintain 1050 MHz with a 92C temperature and ~1200 RPM fan speed.  This is AMD PowerTune at work!

This creates an interesting choice for the gamer - you can basically get the same 1050 MHz clock speeds from the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II by either allowing the GPU to hit 94C and getting lower noise levels OR by keeping the GPU cooler (around 77C) with higher noise levels.  The key this time is that performance is nearly identical in both cases and that both the Quiet and Performance defaults have dramatically improved noise levels compared to the AMD R9 290X reference "quiet" mode.

December 18, 2013 | 06:20 PM - Posted by PapaDragon

OMG OMG..finally. Thanks for the review Ryan, was excited when you announced it on Facebook.

Great to see these cards the way they were meant, Great Performance and consistency...oh and the noise levels!! Great job Asus!

"Maybe the best news is that even with this overclock, running Metro: Last Light for an extended loop, we never saw the GPU temperature exceed 86C. The 1150 MHz clock speed was pretty much fixed (no variance) and the fan speed stayed around the 2000 RPM mark (53%). Yes, it was louder than stock but still not close to what we have seen with the AMD cards in quiet or Uber mode."

I remember your facial expression every time the subject of the 290X and its noise was brought up in the podcast ..You were Like the Captain Picard face Palm meme!!

LOl..to bad these cards wont make it to be under peoples Christmas Trees this Holiday, but At least we know they are ready!!

December 18, 2013 | 06:50 PM - Posted by AnonymousSally (not verified)

The Price there showing doesn't exist anymore 3 weeks ago a 280 was 300 now 420$ I get the B4 280 for 300$ which means I paid only 250$.

December 18, 2013 | 07:01 PM - Posted by AMDBumLover (not verified)

I wanna see ryan complain about these, maybe he will create a new metric to review these, noise? heat? powerdraw? drivers? or he will now recommend it because it is selling too well...not saying he is biased just saying he is a Journalist searching for a story down any BS avenue...

December 18, 2013 | 07:42 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Sweet username bro.

December 18, 2013 | 07:47 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

For the AMD refrence SKUs, these induced clock/thermal feedback variances/oscillations can unnecessarly result in extra thermal wear and tear, and premature failure, and however unnoticeable they may be in game play, are still in need of review and mention, with thorough examples! And if you think AMD's fixing/mitigating the matter as quickly as possable with driver fix, was just beacuse of a few benchmarks pushing them to act quickly, then try paying the warranty, and extended/implied warranty costs, that AMD may have had to, and have incurred, should they have swept the problem under the rug!

December 19, 2013 | 11:23 AM - Posted by Ophelos

That's why i never listen to reviews unless they only talk about stock speeds when running benchmarks. When these reviewers start talking the price is when i get turned off on the cards an go into a different direction.

So AMD has lost my business after 10yrs of only using AMD cards.

December 22, 2013 | 09:22 AM - Posted by Daniel Nielsen (not verified)

Too bad for you i guess, they loose you and gain me. I will switch my 680 our for a 290, if it does as well as the 290x.

So balance is yet again restored.

December 18, 2013 | 09:05 PM - Posted by Myopic

I've seen water cooling reviews and now custom fan solutions and both make this card run as advertised. It seems to me AMD barely made a minimum effort to cool the card. Once again I'm rather disappointed with the efforts by AMD. And I'm a fan......for now

December 18, 2013 | 10:00 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that the reference cooler performs poorly, but reference coolers are built for maximum compatibility. There are situations where only a blower cooler will work, and it cannot be too large either. There needs to be a bare minimum cooler that works for everyone, even if it's not very good. People who want better cooling and have enough space, airflow, etc can get a custom cooled card.

That said, the delay for custom cards is disappointing, and Nvidia certainly had a better reference cooler, although it likely cost more.

December 18, 2013 | 09:24 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Ryan writes: "It looks great, overclocks well and ASUS is only asking $20 more than the current MSRP. You can't really demand much more from an enthusiast class GPU today!"

Good Review!

It is not good enough for NVidia fans. Why? Because this card uses AMD chip and its price is very reasonable. NVidia fans wont buy a good AMD product. They love to bash AMD.

December 18, 2013 | 09:54 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Very nice to see a backplate on a card costing only $20 over reference. Hopefully Asus releases a 3-slot card as well; if any GPU needs it, it's the 290, although this card is certainly enough for anyone who can only spare 2 slot.

December 18, 2013 | 10:37 PM - Posted by daffy (not verified)

But surely you'll need to compare it to cards like the Asus 780 Ti DCUII to be fair, Either way the 290x and no doubt 290 are again very desirable. 290 will be a bargain and a custom version will be faster than stock 290X IMO. I still don't which one I'd buy out fo custom 290X or custom 780 Ti however. Need to wait for more custom 290(X) solutions to compare.

December 19, 2013 | 10:09 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

I hope to test these soon!

December 19, 2013 | 01:05 AM - Posted by Holyneo (not verified)

Well, I might not be able to get one this year. I do know I'll be asking for some New Egg gift cards. 8)

December 19, 2013 | 01:11 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

What were the clocks of the gtx 780 ti? Were they limited to 876 mhz? Your results seem kind of low for bioshock infinite. Bioshock seems like a game nvidia hardware do better at.

December 19, 2013 | 01:26 AM - Posted by snook

GTX780Ti running at non-boost on a PCper review of an AMD card???? now, that is funny.

December 19, 2013 | 10:12 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

The clocks weren't limited at all.  They were running in their stock functionality.  I don't have the specific clock recorded for Bioshock Infinite though.

EDIT: Actually I do!!  Here is the GPUZ data from our Bioshock testing on the GTX 780 Ti.

http://screencast.com/t/eQfWxYNF3

The numbers you see there are GPU clock, memory clock, GPU temp, fan %, fan RPM.

December 19, 2013 | 10:55 AM - Posted by snook

thanks, I was right again! woohoo. not so much a knock against you as it was dismay at his question. essentially thermal throttling at 1006.2?
In an ironic twist, the 780Ti would bet the 290X if Nv allowed the gpu a higher thermal limit..say 90c.

December 20, 2013 | 02:49 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

What thermal throttle are you talking about buddy???
The card was between 1006 and 993mhz. That is well above the minimum stock boost specifications of the 780Ti. 7mhz variance is nothing.
At similar clocks the 290x and the 780Ti are very close. Deal with it.
Also the 290x was not running at its thermal limit. It was well below that.

December 20, 2013 | 02:40 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Yah, agreed here.  NVIDIA's ratings and clock speed claims are obviously being met by our results.

December 21, 2013 | 11:27 AM - Posted by snook

my claim isn't against clocks, simply asking why that limit. was it thermal? see, nice and clean.

stated like this: why didn't it boost above 1006.2? that seems the max you got from it.

December 21, 2013 | 11:16 AM - Posted by snook

it was a question buddy???
if it's not thermal (780Ti buddy??), why didn't gpu boost take the clock higher?

again, a question buddy??? seeking information. deal with what? I don't have a dog in this fight other than contempt for Nv.

December 19, 2013 | 01:26 AM - Posted by snook

let it be known, from this day hence. I predicted this result on three separate occasions, on this PCper site. nice being right.

December 19, 2013 | 12:18 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

You shall forever be known as the prophet of thermal/performance results.

Also, since we're on the internet, SS or it didn't happen.

December 22, 2013 | 03:12 PM - Posted by snook

no SS, 24th comment from top: http://www.pcper.com/reviews/Graphics-Cards/NVIDIA-GeForce-GTX-780-Ti-3G...

December 19, 2013 | 01:32 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Look over there it's SUPER ALLOY POWER MAN to the rescue... He will save us.

December 19, 2013 | 06:15 AM - Posted by LtMatt

Great to see the 290X taking on and often beating the 780TI, not to mention the titan.

Someone above me mentioned about the Bioshock results looking low. I believe i can explain that and maybe Ryan can confirm im correct. Pcper are using the stock Ultra preset settings for Bioshock. This actually favours AMD cards. Most sites, but not all use the custom DDOF preset. This actually adds zero image quality improvement, it actually looks worse. What it does do though is favour Nvidia cards and hits fps quite hard for no improvement. If you see AMD winning in Bioshock, they used Ultra preset. If you see Nvidia winning they used the custom preset, this is assuming the cards are fairly evenly matched ala 770vs7970 or 780vs290 etc.

December 19, 2013 | 10:13 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

You are correct, thank you LtMatt!

December 19, 2013 | 03:21 AM - Posted by Prodeous

I will admit that I do not regret purchasing the reference card. In Quiet mode it is not too annoying, but throttles too much. Seeing tomshardware test reference card with aftermaket cooler showed how much potential was hidden.

Seeing this review just verifies that what AMD did with it's cooling was a shot in the foot, giving some negative feedback on a good card.

One thing I really like about this ASUS design compared to other cooler designs for R9 290x that are floating on the web is that this still blows the air out of the case (at least in part) Gigabyte and MSI do not.

If I was to get another R9 290x this would be the card I get. And most likely will to finally have Dual GPU setup - current GTX 680 + R9 290x don't count

December 19, 2013 | 07:57 AM - Posted by idiot101 (not verified)

Great review. This is what I was expecting. Asus has done a great job. I just wish it was available right now. Nvidia would have been caught out again requiring them to make another price revision.

Oh Well. At least hoping that the card would be available in decent numbers at the quoted price.

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