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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 19, 2013 | 01:53 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

It would be great if you guys could do a review of this card in comparison to the Gigabyte 780 ti GHZ edition once you get your hands on an actual card. There's talk about that version of the ti murdering the performance charts for only a little more than a reference 780 ti.

July 5, 2014 | 04:31 AM - Posted by Sherlyn (not verified)

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and those crafted by loving owners too. Jo Han Mok is the #1 International bestselling author of the E-code.

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December 19, 2013 | 02:54 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

why are you still testing on BF3 , next to no one is still playing it. Battlefield 4 has been out for a few months at this stage , any chance you could get some benchmarks with that instead ?

December 19, 2013 | 03:15 PM - Posted by bburnham37 (not verified)

Error in the article.

"To put it in a different perspective, the average frame rate of the ASUS card was 1047.57 MHz over the 25 minute period"

Should be:

To put it in a different perspective, the average CLOCK SPEED of the ASUS card was 1047.57 MHz over the 25 minute period

December 19, 2013 | 04:10 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Thanks!!

December 19, 2013 | 03:55 PM - Posted by Absolute0 (not verified)

I would still like to see the 780 ti at it's maximum overclocking potential (1200MHz core seems easily achievable, and 1250-1300MHz is possible) compared to the overclocked ASUS R9 290X @1150MHz. Then the benchmarking results will be fair. Maybe Linus will cover this in one of his videos.

I would also like to point out that the AMD cards are selling well above their MSRP's, perhaps due to the bitcoin miners right now. So the $570 R9 290X actually costs $620-$630 (if you can even find it). The 780 ti, MSRP @$700 comes with $170 worth of free games this holiday season. Overall the 780 ti still offers better price/performance ratio.

December 20, 2013 | 02:21 PM - Posted by Niabureth (not verified)

In sweden we have high availability of the R9 290X, and the prices has gone down somewhat.

December 20, 2013 | 02:41 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Interesting, I'll keep an eye on it for sure.

December 20, 2013 | 02:23 PM - Posted by Niabureth (not verified)

Availability of the reference model shouldn't be a problem anymore? Well at least not here in sweden. The prices has gone down to (somewhat).

December 19, 2013 | 05:30 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

What monitoring software are you using to record the gpu load differences? I ask since I have a custom cooling solution on my 290x and during gameplay of current games, the hottest the gpu ever gets is 70 degrees but the gpu load goes from 0% to 100% literally hundreds of times during a gaming session (looks like a seismograph). Never do I see a solid line at 1000Mhz. Never! I wonder if it is the software that I am using (MSI Afterburner) to monitor or my card. Please note that my gampeplay is silky smooth but the reporting numbers that concern me. So if I could get some insight on the software you are using, that would be great.

December 20, 2013 | 02:41 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

We use GPU-Z.

December 20, 2013 | 04:41 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Snook:

The throtteling isn't an issue really. First you have to consider that the fan is only running 59% in Ryan's bench. Second the powertarget and temp target can easily be up'ed by flashing the bios to one of skyn3t's rev's.

I have a 780 Classy running completely stable (with ACX air cooler) @ 1270/1750 with max temp 75C (skyn3t ln2 rev.3).

As from what I have read/seen; the 780Ti (specially the Evga classy/SC versions) hits about the same clock speeds as mine on air.

December 21, 2013 | 11:28 AM - Posted by snook

thanks for the response sans the "buddy???".

those are really good speeds too. my question was just what is happening to limit it to 1006.2? so powertarget seems as good as anything.

thanks again.

December 20, 2013 | 06:41 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

hmmm.. i wish the price is too good to be true.. in Malaysia all these price are inrease a titan will cost u as much as 1125.79$ and this radeon R9 290x will cost 852.18$.. we do not know even why they cost so much.. i wish they were cheap like other countries.. the price of gtx 770 can buy a gtx 780 in other countries. and a gtx 680 still cost 608.70$ if guys dont believe me just go to any online retail shop pages.. and also gtx 760 is the same price of a gtx 660 ti that is 369$ thats a rip offf!!!!!

December 20, 2013 | 11:35 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Why do you compare a non-reference AMD to a reference Nvidia card. Would it not be better to compare non-reference to non-reference? It would make it easier to see which is the better card and by how much.

December 20, 2013 | 02:43 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Yah, we are waiting for some more custom GTX 780 Ti cards to arrive.

December 20, 2013 | 12:31 PM - Posted by Niabureth (not verified)

Good review!

December 20, 2013 | 02:44 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Thank you!

December 20, 2013 | 04:26 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Its takes a custom cooled overclocked 290x to match a stock reference 780ti. We all know how well a 780ti overclocks so they should of tested with apples against apples. anyway still a fail on Amd part.

December 21, 2013 | 09:03 PM - Posted by snook

with that huge 44Mhz OC :/ yea, them apples. sour apples.
it didn't match it beat it BTW

December 22, 2013 | 04:26 PM - Posted by KrishnanKaoz (not verified)

Exactly. You should be able to hot 1150 mhz without issues so add another 100 mhz on the factory OC. Even if 780 ti hits 1250 stable, it is still 130 dollars more expensive. And as a previous Swede explained, the price gouging is a US-centric issue. And I do not even think it is that related to mining. We have seen a similar mining craze here in Sweden.

Anyway, this card crushes the stock Ti on price/perf ratio. Custom coolers will narrow the gap but unlikely to close it. But Maxwell for desktops is coming in 3 months! Hoprfully AMD can counter faster and prevent Nvidia from taking their customary high prices.

December 22, 2013 | 04:26 PM - Posted by KrishnanKaoz (not verified)

Exactly. You should be able to hot 1150 mhz without issues so add another 100 mhz on the factory OC. Even if 780 ti hits 1250 stable, it is still 130 dollars more expensive. And as a previous Swede explained, the price gouging is a US-centric issue. And I do not even think it is that related to mining. We have seen a similar mining craze here in Sweden.

Anyway, this card crushes the stock Ti on price/perf ratio. Custom coolers will narrow the gap but unlikely to close it. But Maxwell for desktops is coming in 3 months! Hoprfully AMD can counter faster and prevent Nvidia from taking their customary high prices.

December 21, 2013 | 11:04 AM - Posted by Willmore (not verified)

http://www.pcper.com/image/view/35024?return=node%2F59148

The graph with the temps comparing the Quiet mode and the Performance mode idle and load temps is mislabeled. Idle is labeled as Load.

December 21, 2013 | 11:05 AM - Posted by Willmore (not verified)

Oh, darn, that's the Sound level graph, not the temp one. Sorry!

December 21, 2013 | 11:06 AM - Posted by Willmore (not verified)

Oh, darn, that's the Sound level graph, not the temp one. Sorry!

December 21, 2013 | 02:41 PM - Posted by Marco (not verified)

How many nVidia fanboys here. Here I'am switching from ASUS GTX670 DCII to the Asus 290 (probably not X) when available

December 21, 2013 | 09:52 PM - Posted by Principle (not verified)

What would be really nice is to see how quiet we could get the fans if the target temp was set at say 90C, because the GPU is meant to handle 95C without a hitch, for the life of it. So it seems we are either leaving performance or quietness on the table by limiting the temp under 80C in stock settings.

December 22, 2013 | 03:29 AM - Posted by purple (not verified)

when will this be available?

I was thinking about getting a 780, but this is changing my mind completely for multiple reasons.

December 22, 2013 | 09:22 PM - Posted by darkly (not verified)

I was going to buy a GPU this month since I am in america right now and ofcourse booya euro vs dollar shit.

I might of been interested in this card but eh I am not going to pay 200-300 dollars more just because I live in europe so I think I will be buying a 780 Ti then.

the ONLY 290X non ref that is for sale is on newegg right now and it's the gigabyte one.

and that one is 699 dollars so there is no point to buy it over say a MSI 780Ti or hell a 749 EVGA classified which has been proven to overclock to 1300+ easily on air (with some bios fiddling)

Bluh this sucks. replacing my 680 is turning out to be a pain in the ass.

December 28, 2013 | 05:09 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

One thing that would really interest me since Sapphire is the biggest contender for Asus in the AMD custom cooling sector:

How does the db(A) of the Asus r9 290x in performance/quiet mode compare to the Sapphire r9 290x or the Asus r9 280x?

Thanks in advance!

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