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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 | 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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