AMD’s 300 series GPUs have not been well received. After months of speculation and rumours it turns out that the 390X and 390 are indeed re-badged GPUs. They’re internally called Grenada GPUs, but that name is academic at best because they actually feature Hawaii cores as seen on the Radeon R9 290X and the R9 290.
There are many reasons why AMD chose to do this, which are of little to no importance to us. Suffice it to say we are only interested in what this decision means for the end-user and its effect on the games we play.
With NVIDIA executing near flawlessly over the last 24 months, it’s created a massive demand for GeForce-powered GPUs and in many ways side-lined the offerings from AMD. However, AMD products do have generally more agreeable prices, especially here in SA. With our weakened currency, this is more important than ever. There’s no getting around the fact that a $500 GPU is likely to cost you over R9,000 at retail. Thus, if you’re shopping within a budget, AMD products do represent your best option.
This is perhaps where the MSI R9 390X GAMING makes a case for itself. Keep in mind this is a mid- to high-end GPU and many would consider it at the upper end of the buying spectrum, but again this is mostly down to the disparity between the US dollar and the South African rand. At just under R8,000, anyone buying this is going to want great performance and, more than that, performance that isn’t available via any Radeon R9 290X.
Fortunately throughout testing we discovered that the 390X or at least the MSI R9 390X GAMING (there are no reference models for the Grenada GPUs) offers performance levels that are unmatched by anything in the 200 series. In fact, compared to a reference GTX 980, the MSI R9 390X is more often than not faster. That should not be overlooked as it means just through sheer clock frequency a GPU from 2013 is capable of keeping up with some of the best GPUs released today. It’s impressive, especially on MSI’s part as they have done tremendous work to achieve this. As it stands, this is not only the highest-clocked R9 390X GPU on the market, but it is right at the edge of what is possible with this GPU design. MSI has squeezed out the best performance from this SKU and priced it between the GTX 970 and the GTX 980 while offering better performance than both.
Regardless of how important power draw and thermals are to you, there’s no getting around the fact that AMD is selling the same GPU to you from two years ago, thus these two measurements are always going to be higher than what the GTX 980 or the 970 output. The mere fact that AMD states the TDP for the would-be reference 390X as 275W compared to the 165W and 145W of the aforementioned cards should illustrate this much to you. So there is a caveat to all this performance advantage. With that said, this graphics card is a real and viable option if such things are of little to no concern to you. This is especially true for those who game at 1080p and perhaps even QHD resolutions.
In our performance tests, you’ll see that we’ve compared the MSI 390X with the best GPU from NVIDIA from 2013: the EVGA GTX 780 Ti K|INGP|N Edition. This represents the finest and fastest example of the GTX 780 Ti when it squared off against the original Hawaii GPUs. What you will see is that for the most part it matches and in some instances exceeds what the GTX 780 Ti is capable of. In all cases, however, it is faster than the Radeon R9 290X. If you’re thinking this should not be the case, remember that AMD has had several years to refine the drivers for this architecture and what you’re looking at with the 390X is a near-linear performance gain against the 290X.
The question then becomes, should you bother with the MSI R9 390X GAMING 8G? Well, that depends. If you are at present the owner of an overclocked GTX 780 Ti, or the previous generation R9 290X, then unequivocally you should not be buying this graphics card. You should be looking at getting one of the GTX 980 Ti GPUs or the Radeon Fury, as those will deliver a sizeable performance gain and allow you to game at UHD/4K resolutions (with no anti-aliasing) with comfort – something that just isn’t possible with any other graphics card, especially anything based on this or older architectures.
If you’re coming from an HD 7970/7970 GHz Edition or Radeon R9 280X, however, then this might be a worthwhile upgrade for you. Those GPUs have grown long in the tooth and are in no way going to deliver the gaming experience that is to be found here. This applies to those who are still using the GTX 680/770 as well. An upgrade to the R9 390X is worthwhile, although you may find that the driver experience from AMD’s side or perhaps the usability is particularly diminished by comparison.
The software side of things, which is where AMD is falling behind, could present opportunity for vendors such as MSI to capitalize on, since the Catalyst Control Centre does not offer the ability to create custom resolutions and refresh rates. This ability would be greatly appreciated via Afterburner or whatever other GPU tuning tool MSI has. Instead of having to edit registry entries and resort to third-party user-created programs for what should otherwise be simple functionality, MSI could package this with their software suite, further making this GPU distinct from the rest on the market.
Lastly, it must be stated that overclocking is not likely to get you anywhere with this GPU. It really is at its limit and the memory, while capable of 1,700MHz, does not generate enough of a meaningful performance gain to warrant the added stress on the components and increased temperatures. Besides, the R9 390X isn’t limited by memory bandwidth, thus the gains from this exercise would be limited even if one could theoretically hit the 2,000MHz mark. It would mean very little in terms of game performance.
So there you have it. This will hopefully be the last hurrah for the Hawaii silicon. If it is, it’s a grand way to make an exit and AMD should be proud for having engineered a GPU that has held up this long in this market, especially with their precarious financial situation. As far as R9 390X GPUs are concerned, the MSI R9 390X GAMING 8G is the best of the lot.