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ASUS Radeon R9 290X DirectCU II Graphics Card Review

Author: Ryan Shrout
Manufacturer: ASUS

Testing Setup and Frame Rating Info

Testing Configuration

The specifications for our testing system haven't changed much.

Test System Setup
CPU Intel Core i7-3960X Sandy Bridge-E
Motherboard ASUS P9X79 Deluxe
Memory Corsair Dominator DDR3-1600 16GB
Hard Drive OCZ Agility 4 256GB SSD
Sound Card On-board
Graphics Card ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II 4GB
AMD Radeon R9 290X 4GB
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti 3GB
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 3GB
Graphics Drivers AMD: 13.11 V9.5
NVIDIA: 331.80
Power Supply Corsair AX1200i
Operating System Windows 8 Pro x64

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What you should be watching for

  1. ASUS R9 290X vs Reference R9 290X - This is the most important and obvious comparison to make.  How much faster is the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II card than the reference models with its 50 MHz higher clock speed and much more consistent clock speeds?
     
  2. ASUS R9 290X vs GTX 780 Ti - With this improved performacne does the ASUS card help AMD reclaim the performance crown for single GPU graphics cards?

Frame Rating: Our Testing Process

If you aren't familiar with it, you should probably do a little research into our testing methodology as it is quite different than others you may see online.  Rather than using FRAPS to measure frame rates or frame times, we are using an secondary PC to capture the output from the tested graphics card directly and then use post processing on the resulting video to determine frame rates, frame times, frame variance and much more. 

This amount of data can be pretty confusing if you attempting to read it without proper background, but I strongly believe that the results we present paint a much more thorough picture of performance than other options.  So please, read up on the full discussion about our Frame Rating methods before moving forward!!

While there are literally dozens of file created for each “run” of benchmarks, there are several resulting graphs that FCAT produces, as well as several more that we are generating with additional code of our own. 

If you don't need the example graphs and explanations below, you can jump straight to the benchmark results now!!

 

The PCPER FRAPS File

While the graphs above are produced by the default version of the scripts from NVIDIA, I have modified and added to them in a few ways to produce additional data for our readers.  The first file shows a sub-set of the data from the RUN file above, the average frame rate over time as defined by FRAPS, though we are combining all of the GPUs we are comparing into a single graph.  This will basically emulate the data we have been showing you for the past several years.

 

The PCPER Observed FPS File

This graph takes a different subset of data points and plots them similarly to the FRAPS file above, but this time we are look at the “observed” average frame rates, shown previously as the blue bars in the RUN file above.  This takes out the dropped and runts frames, giving you the performance metrics that actually matter – how many frames are being shown to the gamer to improve the animation sequences. 

As you’ll see in our full results on the coming pages, seeing a big difference between the FRAPS FPS graphic and the Observed FPS will indicate cases where it is likely the gamer is not getting the full benefit of the hardware investment in their PC.

 

The PLOT File

The primary file that is generated from the extracted data is a plot of calculated frame times including runts.  The numbers here represent the amount of time that frames appear on the screen for the user, a “thinner” line across the time span represents frame times that are consistent and thus should produce the smoothest animation to the gamer.  A “wider” line or one with a lot of peaks and valleys indicates a lot more variance and is likely caused by a lot of runts being displayed.

 

The RUN File

While the two graphs above show combined results for a set of cards being compared, the RUN file will show you the results from a single card on that particular result.  It is in this graph that you can see interesting data about runts, drops, average frame rate and the actual frame rate of your gaming experience. 

For tests that show no runts or drops, the data is pretty clean.  This is the standard frame rate per second over a span of time graph that has become the standard for performance evaluation on graphics cards.

A test that does have runts and drops will look much different.  The black bar labeled FRAPS indicates the average frame rate over time that traditional testing would show if you counted the drops and runts in the equation – as FRAPS FPS measurement does.  Any area in red is a dropped frame – the wider the amount of red you see, the more colored bars from our overlay were missing in the captured video file, indicating the gamer never saw those frames in any form.

The wide yellow area is the representation of runts, the thin bands of color in our captured video, that we have determined do not add to the animation of the image on the screen.  The larger the area of yellow the more often those runts are appearing.

Finally, the blue line is the measured FPS over each second after removing the runts and drops.  We are going to be calling this metric the “observed frame rate” as it measures the actual speed of the animation that the gamer experiences.

 

The PERcentile File

Scott introduced the idea of frame time percentiles months ago but now that we have some different data using direct capture as opposed to FRAPS, the results might be even more telling.  In this case, FCAT is showing percentiles not by frame time but instead by instantaneous FPS.  This will tell you the minimum frame rate that will appear on the screen at any given percent of time during our benchmark run.  The 50th percentile should be very close to the average total frame rate of the benchmark but as we creep closer to the 100% we see how the frame rate will be affected. 

The closer this line is to being perfectly flat the better as that would mean we are running at a constant frame rate the entire time.  A steep decline on the right hand side tells us that frame times are varying more and more frequently and might indicate potential stutter in the animation.

 

The PCPER Frame Time Variance File

Of all the data we are presenting, this is probably the one that needs the most discussion.  In an attempt to create a new metric for gaming and graphics performance, I wanted to try to find a way to define stutter based on the data sets we had collected.  As I mentioned earlier, we can define a single stutter as a variance level between t_game and t_display. This variance can be introduced in t_game, t_display, or on both levels.  Since we can currently only reliably test the t_display rate, how can we create a definition of stutter that makes sense and that can be applied across multiple games and platforms?

We define a single frame variance as the difference between the current frame time and the previous frame time – how consistent the two frames presented to the gamer.  However, as I found in my testing plotting the value of this frame variance is nearly a perfect match to the data presented by the minimum FPS (PER) file created by FCAT.  To be more specific, stutter is only perceived when there is a break from the previous animation frame rates. 

Our current running theory for a stutter evaluation is this: find the current frame time variance by comparing the current frame time to the running average of the frame times of the previous 20 frames.  Then, by sorting these frame times and plotting them in a percentile form we can get an interesting look at potential stutter.  Comparing the frame times to a running average rather than just to the previous frame should prevent potential problems from legitimate performance peaks or valleys found when moving from a highly compute intensive scene to a lower one.

While we are still trying to figure out if this is the best way to visualize stutter in a game, we have seen enough evidence in our game play testing and by comparing the above graphic to other data generated through our Frame rating system to be reasonably confident in our assertions.  So much in fact that I am going to going this data the PCPER ISU, which beer fans will appreciate the acronym of International Stutter Units.

To compare these results you want to see a line that is as close the 0ms mark as possible indicating very little frame rate variance when compared to a running average of previous frames.  There will be some inevitable incline as we reach the 90+ percentile but that is expected with any game play sequence that varies from scene to scene.  What we do not want to see is a sharper line up that would indicate higher frame variance (ISU) and could be an indication that the game sees microstuttering and hitching problems.

December 18, 2013 | 03:20 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 | 03:50 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 | 04:01 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 | 04:42 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Sweet username bro.

December 18, 2013 | 04:47 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 | 08:23 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 | 06:22 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 | 06:05 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 | 07:00 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 | 06:24 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 | 06:54 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 | 07:37 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 | 07:09 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

I hope to test these soon!

December 18, 2013 | 10:05 PM - 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 18, 2013 | 10:11 PM - 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 18, 2013 | 10:26 PM - Posted by snook

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

December 19, 2013 | 07:12 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 | 07:55 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 19, 2013 | 11:49 PM - 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 | 11:40 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

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

December 21, 2013 | 08:27 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 | 08:16 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 18, 2013 | 10:26 PM - 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 | 09:18 AM - 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 | 12:12 PM - Posted by snook

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

December 18, 2013 | 10:32 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

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

December 19, 2013 | 03:15 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 | 07:13 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

You are correct, thank you LtMatt!

December 19, 2013 | 12:21 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 | 04:57 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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