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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 19, 2013 | 10:53 AM - 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 | 01:31 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 | 11:54 AM - 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 | 12:15 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 | 01:10 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Thanks!!

December 19, 2013 | 12:55 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 | 11:21 AM - 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 | 11:41 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

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

December 20, 2013 | 11:23 AM - 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 | 02:30 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 | 11:41 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

We use GPU-Z.

December 20, 2013 | 01:41 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 | 08:28 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 | 03:41 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 | 08:35 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 | 11:43 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

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

December 20, 2013 | 09:31 AM - Posted by Niabureth (not verified)

Good review!

December 20, 2013 | 11:44 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Thank you!

December 20, 2013 | 01:26 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 | 06:03 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 | 01:26 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 | 01:26 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 | 08:04 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 | 08:05 AM - Posted by Willmore (not verified)

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

December 21, 2013 | 08:06 AM - Posted by Willmore (not verified)

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

December 21, 2013 | 11:41 AM - 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 | 06:52 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 | 12:29 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 | 06:22 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 | 02:09 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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