Back in 2013, I needed a new graphics card, and I bought a Sapphire AMD R9 290X, reference model. It didn't take long for me to regret that decision: what on paper was supposed to be better than a GTX Titan was actually an insanely hot and loud graphics card with drivers so bad it performed worse than a GTX 770 in most games. The card was in fact so hot that most of them, including mine, died within weeks from purchase because the heat generated by the GPU would kill the VRAM chips around it. You can imagine my surprise when I was scouting eBay and found a working sample of a reference 290X. They say that AMD GPUs age like a fine wine, well I was able to get this bottle for 82€ including shipping, and it's here with us today, to show us how it aged, and to suffer.
First things first, since the card is 7 years old, we better open it up, clean it, and apply some new thermal paste. This card is known for being tremendously hot, so it's important that we try to keep the temperatures under control as much as we can. After all, we don't want it to die before we can finish our tests.
After removing the plastic shroud we can see that underneath we have a fairly beefy heatsink and a single blower-style fan next to it. The heatsink is composed of a large vapor chamber with aluminium fins soldered on top of it. The fan blows cold air into it and it goes out the back.
After removing the heatsink we can see the PCB in all its glory, with the pretty large Hawaii chip in the middle (2nd gen GCN architecture). I was expecting the thermal paste to be very dry, but it was still quite soft (although there was an awful lot of it).
I cleaned the PCB, the cooler and the fan with a brush and isopropyl alcohol. I then replaced the paste and the pads with fresh stuff.
Finally, I reassembled the card and applied some glue to the stickers that were coming off.
Before we put it in our test system, let's take a look at what's on the card.
At the top right we have our power connectors, an 8-pin and a 6-pin. The card supposedly draws up to 250w.
At the top left we have a tiny switch. This selects between standard and Uber mode. In Uber mode, the card is allowed to be louder to get slightly better performance. We'll use this mode for most of our tests.
On the back we have 2 dual-link DVI connectors, a single DisplayPort plug, and an HDMI port. I'm not sure why but those stains on the metal won't come off, it might be slightly corroded.
Behind we just have some stickers and no backplate other than that thing to keep the right pressure on the GPU die.
To get the maximum performance possible out of this card, we'll put it in a system that's a few years newer than this card, that way we can be sure that the bottleneck will be the GPU and not the rest of the system.
The test system is composed of:
We'll do the following tests:
The driver versions used are Catalyst 13.12 (old driver) on Windows 7, and Adrenalin 20.7.2 (new driver) on Windows 10.
The ambient temperature was 26 degrees. The card was allowed to cool down before performing each test.
The first benchmark is Unigine Heaven, a DX11 benchmark from 2009.
This result is quite disappointing, as the new driver performs slightly worse than the old one. It should be noted that the card thermal throttled during the benchmark in both standard and Uber modes, therefore I set a custom fan curve to avoid thermal throttling.
Next up is Unigine Valley, another DX11 benchmark from 2013. I used this a lot to test the card when it was new.
This shows slightly better results than Heaven, especially with the custom fan curve, but not a massive improvement.
Finally we have Unigine Superposition, a DX12 benchmark from 2017. This one was only tested with the new driver of course, since DX12 didn't exist in 2013.
Again, the card showed the best results with the custom fan curve because it doesn't thermal throttle, but not a massive improvement.
We tested 5 games that I would have played on this card when it was new, and compared the old driver with the new one to see if there was an improvement. Note that all tests here were performed in Uber mode, with the custom fan curve to avoid thermal throttling.
We tested 8 newer, more demanding titles, on the newer driver. Note that all tests here were performed in Uber mode, with the custom fan curve to avoid thermal throttling.
Idle, the card sits at a comfortable 50 degrees, with the fan spinning at 20%, but under load the temperatures on this card are simply insane. In both standard and Uber mode, the card reaches thermal throttling (95 degrees) withing 2-3 minutes of gaming. Thermal throttling is the reason why this card perfomed worse than a GTX 770 in 2013. Overclocking is out of the question. Repasting it made no difference.
Without touching the fan settings, the fan only goes up to 40% in standard mode and 50% in Uber mode, the former being relatively loud, and the latter being quite loud. Also, the new driver sets a new fan curve that makes the card quieter but slightly lowers performance.
With a custom, more aggressive fan curve, I was able to keep the temps around 80 degrees, but that made the card unbearably loud with the fan running at 70-80% under load. My desk was literally vibrating, it was that bad.
This video should give you an idea of how loud it is from the user's position:
The cooling on this reference card is completely inadequate and incapable of dissipating the over 250W of heat generated by this beast of a GPU.
Here's how it sounds with the case open:
As for power, the card reports a power draw of around 250-280W under load. At the wall, we measured 112W idle and 385W while gaming. Holy shit.
Well, if you can find it for around 80-100€, it's still a competent GPU for a budget system, but stay away from the reference model, get one with a better cooler.
I also need to remind you that AMD only tests their drivers on what's currently popular, while nVidia tests older games as well, so if you're considering the 290x for a machine dedicated to old games, maybe 6th and 7th gen, you're in for a lot of pain if you buy this card. A GTX 960 would be better suited for this, and it even supports Windows XP. (Yeah, I'm still salty that KOTOR won't run on AMD cards)
If you do decide to buy a 290x, keep in mind that you'll need a good power supply for this card or you'll run into stability issues. Newer midrange or budget GPUs can run on pretty much any power supply and will probably give you a better experience.
The new driver isn't significantly faster than the old one, in some games it's actually worse, and the new fan curve actually makes it generally worse in terms of thermal throttling.
However, we need to put this into perspective: priced at $549, this card was meant to compete with the $699 GTX 780 Ti and the much more expensive GTX Titan. In the long run, I think the 290x would have been a better purchase than the GTX 780 Ti because it has 4GB of VRAM instead of 3GB. Most games nowadays are designed with that amount of VRAM in mind, and having only 3GB would definitely be a limiting factor. The GTX Titan, with its 6GB, however, is the best of the bunch, but also the most expensive. Hopefully I can find one some day and compare them.
While running Unigine Valley, this happened: