Today AMD are finally revealing the first and flapship member of the R9 290-series, the Radeon R9 290X. Once again Rich AKA W3bbo has put the new flagship GPU through itís paces in our launch review, timed to go live with this article, but itís down to me to give you a more general run-down of the new card and where it fits in the current market. If you havenít already read the review you can find it here, and I urge you to check it out!
R9 290-Series - The First All-New AMD GPU For 18-months.
The final major release of the HD-7000-series was back in March of 2012, when the HD7850 and 7870 were the talk of the town. They represented the effective conclusion to AMDís update to 28nm and Graphics Core Next technologies in that year, and as we speak still represent excellent performance for the price. An effective rebranding of the range - to the R7 and R9-series - occurred this month but since that time almost exactly 19 months ago thereís been little to be heard from AMD in terms of new graphics hardware. Later releases including the HD7870 LE, HD7790 and HD7990 were noteworthy, but were iterative developments which didn't really shake up the landscape in the same way as the first 28nm cards.
For AMDís part, they have been waiting for the new console generation and what they hoped would be an update to game engines for Triple-A titles sufficient to stimulate new demand for hardware. Instead they concentrated in developing new game technologies such as TressFX and the now forthcoming Mantle API to leverage the capabilities of GCN, usually hand in-glove with game studios themselves. Plus we cannot forget to mention bringing new games to retail bundles in the form of the much admired Never Settle offers. That said, the extended period between updates hasnít gone without comment from a number of quarters.
So finally weíre here. Coinciding with the release of the next-generation consoles - notably also powered by AMD GCN hardware - comes the R9 290-series, the first cards based on the Hawaii GPU with updates to the GCN 2 architecture. These cards will take their position at the top of the AMD R9 performance/enthusiast range, effectively replacing the HD7990 and providing an outlet for performance above the R9 280X whilst retaining a single-GPU solution.
The specs are certainly impressive. A full-fat Hawaii core features 2816 stream processors (1.4x that of Tahiti) and double the number of ROPs (from 32 to 64). Combined with a much wider memory bus the result is a GPU which has far more raw horsepower than any previous AMD design, and by some margin. By making efficiencies in the memory controller theyíve also kept the overall die relatively compact, helping to retain good yields. Memory is only clocked at 5GHz, although at 4GB there is plenty there to facilitate high resolution, high image quality gaming. This also allows AMD to use GDDR5 RAM with lower specifications than the R9 280X, potentially saving money with little impact on performance.
From a system compatibility perspective there doesn't appear to be a whole lot to worry about. The R9 290X requires 6-pin and 8-pin PCIE power, limiting it to pulling 250W within current standards; most 600W+ PSUs currently running high-end graphics should be more than capable of delivering this sort of power. At 275mm the reference card length shouldn't be a difficulty with most PC chassis, and a dual-slot cooling solution is as close to an industry standard you get these days without actually being one.
For now, the rest of the range isnít inheriting the architectural improvements of the Hawaii. Even so, for the first time all members of AMDís updated VGA card range will be GCN-based, broadening the install base and harmonising the driver refinement process.
Performance, Temp. And Acoustics - A New Powertune
The Hawaii Core present in the R9 290-series of cards includes new voltage regulation apparatus which allows a much finer control of voltages than previously. Unlocking a new version of Powertune, this hardware allows changes in voltage every 10 microseconds and in better granularity to aid keeping within a power envelope. This is reflected in an updated Catalyst Control Centre Overdrive options with more intuitive visual layout and better scope for tweaking designs within specific limits.
The new OverDrive also fixes an upper limit for the GPU temperature and fan speed, such that the GPU operates within an envelope satisfying these limits.
You may have noticed in specification lists AMD are using an Ďup toí qualifier for their clock speeds. Each card arrives equipped with a Dual-BIOS setup, but itís not for reliabililty and crash-recovery reasons. Differentiated as ĎUberí and ĎQuietí, the two modes define how aggressive the default voltages, clock speeds and fan profiles are. Take careful note in benchmarks for the R9 290-series which BIOS was used, because it may make some difference to real-world experience with the cards.
AMD design the Uber BIOS for gamers demanding cutting-edge performance using headphones, so expect it to be quite load. The Quiet BIOS by comparison will have more modest performance characteristics for those who require better day-to-day operation. Whichever BIOS is used, OverDrive will still allow a level of flexibility on top of default settings.
One point which is sure to excite comment is the default target temperature - 95 degrees. Most benchmarks for this GPU will have been made with this upper limit, which means the card will be running with high fans speeds to gain the projected performance. AMD representatives have responded thusly:
Be assured, that 95C is a perfectly safe temperature at which the GPU can operate for its entire life. There is no technical reason to reduce the target temperature below 95C. However, like all aspects of PowerTune, this is completely within the control of the end user. If you would rather have you GPU operate at a lower temperature, such as 85C or 73C, we strongly encourage you to customize it to your preference and write about it in your review. This is, after all, the reason that we design products with this level of flexibility.
Itís quite possible that to get performance which you can live with on a day to day basis you will need to be aggressive with fan limits, but running any GPU at 95C for extended periods of time will be cause for concern. No doubt pundits will be analysing medium/long-term durability reports for the R9 290X following release, but itís not going to please anyone a guarantee of life beyond the warranty period is dependant on throttling the GPU for less performance than it was sold at.
Manufacturing partners - such as GIGABYTE, MSI and Sapphire - may well be rubbing their hands together with glee, finally able to leverage their 3rd-party cooling solutions not only for better noise characteristics, but also better out-the-box performance than reference designs.
Designed For 4K Gaming
Whilst NVIDIA recently revealed their Battlebox initiative for 4K gaming, generally requiring a dual-GPU solution to achieve excellent performance at these resolutions, AMD are touting the R9 290X as being truly 4K-gaming ready. Thanks in large part to its 512-bit wide memory bus facilitating a bandwidth of up to 320GB/s, the R9 290X claims playable frame rates at Ultra HD (3840x2160) of >30fps in a very wide range of up to date titles including Crysis 3 and Metro Last Light. Like many AMD cards of the past therefore the new GPU seems to thrive on higher resolutions compared to the competition, with multi-monitor support via Eyefinity always a point of interest.
UltraHD gaming is still in its infancy, and many high-end enthusiasts will still be investing in multiple-GPU configurations. To facilitate this AMD claim full Crossfire support and for the first time will be passing all signalling through the PCI-E bus rather than a separate bridge cable. If performance isnít impacted this provides an excellent means of keeping system layout flexible, to the great benefit of those who watercool their rigs. On the software side AMD is also improving Catalyst Control Centerís handling of UltraHD panels, automatically stitching screen regions together and even pushing a new VESA standard for automatic-detection.
Further to their multi-monitor support, R9 290X cards now handle up to three displays through their HDMI/DVI ports, whereas previous HD7xxx-series cards would only support up to two without also making use of a DisplayPort. Given the relative price premium placed on DisplayPort panels moving to a triple-monitor setup becomes all the more affordable. Of course AMD are also keen to tout their 5780x1080 performance figures, generally hitting the good 40fps+ figures on reasonably quality settings, but the proof of the pudding will be very much in the eating in that regard.
Both in terms of pricing and anticipated performance the Red Team are targeting NVIDIAís GTX 780, the Kepler GK110-based graphics card that was released in May. Depending on the benchmark or game title AMD claim a performance benefit of as much as 10% or more, verging on dethroning the GTX Titan as single-GPU king. MSRP for the card is currently pegged at Ä399+VAT/$549, with UK pricing hitting $450 inc. V.A.T.. Thatís considerably less than the current price retail price for the GTX 780 and representing much better value if official benchmarks are to be believed.
Additional Features - Mantle and TrueAudio
Looking ahead to the future, the R9 290-series are the only cards currently part of AMD's enthusiast line which have access to AMD TrueAudio Technology. Due to be a significant part of AMD Gaming Evolved titles in 2014 such as THIEF and Murdered: Soul Suspect, the API allows the game engine to utilise on-board Tensilica HiFi EP DSPs to improve both the library of effects and number of simultaneous channels. In so doing it will also take some of the load from the CPU, reducing the impact of computationally heavy sound effects on overall system performance.
But thatís only part of if. Games with access to AMD TrueAudio can also be passed positioning information, allowing the construction of a significantly more realistic virtualised audio landscape. In theory this would allow for much more immersive gameplay, bringing to the audio element what devices such as the Occulus Rift are in the process of delivering for visual game content. Because itís been built in partnership with experts in the field such as GenAudio the tool is intended to be both powerful and versatile with a minimal cost to the developer, in part thanks to middleware created by AMDís partners.
These technologies aren't particularly new, but fell out of favour as discrete soundcards fell out of vogue. By placing the technology on a gaming GPU the potential installation base increases dramatically, making developing for this technology much more viable.
AMD believe that, like the development of shader technology on the GPU, these programmable DSPs will become part of graphics card designs on both sides. It seems inevitable that if the principle does take off there will be competing solutions from both teams rather than one unified approach, but AMD shouldnít be criticised for taking risks so long as it improves the industry overall. On the other hand TrueAudio, like PhysX, could become an expensive novelty driven by an attempt to differentiate products that because of a fractured market will never be fully leveraged by game developers. Still, with previous new AMD technology TressFX using a GFX cardís DirectCompute capabilities, there is hope.
A brief canned demonstration was enough to turn me from profound cynic to more than mildly interested party, but we really need to wait and see what can and will be done with the technology.
MantleÖ ah Mantle. So much ink has been spilled over this new API AMD are developing in conjunction with DICE. Conceptually itís immensely intriguing, allowing access to graphics hardware at a much lower level than is currently possible via DirectX thanks to a thinner layer of abstraction. Itís not direct to metal, nor a replacement for DirectX, but perhaps the best that can be done for hardware which by its very nature isnít fixed. Itís not quite ready for prime time yet, but when it is all Frostbite 3 titles - including Battlefield 4 - will be accelerated by Mantle on GCN hardware.
DICE and AMD bill this an an attempt to drive innovation in DirectX and OpenGL rather than build another API which developers have a headache over, and has been built according to DirectX HLSL standards. It should allow better access to specific graphics card resources than is generally possible in PC systems, which if nothing else developers would greatly appreciate. But what they may be resistant to is Ďcheatingí and going down a route for improved performance specialised to a particular platform that wonít fit the bill on competing hardware, resulting in only those with deep pockets (like EA) spending the resources on Mantle optimisations.
A net positive is that Mantle is compatible with all AMD GCN graphics cards, which includes the majority of the older HD7000-series cards as well as the entirety of the new R7 and R9-series.
For me, the R9 290X release raises more questions for the next generation than it answers.
Hawaii is by far the fastest and most technologically advanced card AMD have released, but it has a whole load of potential which wonít be realised for some time to come. Even so, It can be stated that AMD finally have a GPU to compete with the GTX 780. Many felt that was beyond them in engineering terms within the 28nm process, and so it should therefore ease some worries that AMD were bowing out of the PC market with their console wins.
Where next for Hawaii? The R9 290 is due at some point in the future, likely positioned at a lower position in the market than the 290X. GCN2 may not be rolled out to the rest of the R7 2xx and R9 2xx seriesí at all, for which we will have to wait until the next run through.
Left unsaid is the benefits that AMD can leverage from GCN being the basis of the next generation of consoles. If development for console hardware by its very nature makes triple-A titles perform better on AMD PC hardware by a measurable percentage then AMD could easily punch above their weight. Equally if developing for x86 hardware improves the porting process from consoles to PC then all PC gamers should benefit from a greater range of titles in the future. At present no-one knows how meaningful the transition will be.
Being an enthusiast, what I want to see is earnest competition in the market. If recent announcements from both sides of the isle are anything to go by however we may be set for a crunch where adoption of proprietary technologies harms consumers. Lets hope that isnít the case.
The R9 290X is launched today, with an MSRP of Ä340 + V.A.T. / £450 inc. V.A.T. / $549. Stock levels are unknown, but expect them to be available from all major retailers. Once again, our full review can be found here.