As time passes, GPU manufacturers get better at making specific chips, and the fabricators of these chips get better at optimising their production lines to make better quality products. The constant tweaking that takes place behind the scenes really can make a difference, and you may end up with a GPU that’s a different animal from the launch version. So it is with Sapphire’s R9 390 Nitro, and with 8GB of VRAM on tap, the Hawaii core at its centre still has a long life ahead of it.
The Sapphire R9 390 Nitro is heavy, weighing in at 1.037kg. Most of the heft comes from a cooler that is easily the longest I’ve ever seen at 305mm from the PCI bracket. The Nitro cooler hangs over the PCB by 35mm and requires several braces to keep the card straight in the PCI Express slot to avoid flex. Calling this thing “beefy” might be selling it short – it’s a monster.
Three 80mm double ball bearing fans keep the card cool and quiet, and that’s the only thing I can really complain about – it’s often so quiet that I don’t know it’s on. Five copper heat pipes (three of which are oversized) extend all over the card’s surface to help dissipate heat. Turning the card over, I spotted the Dual BIOS switch with the Sapphire logo, which the website entry for the card tells me facilitates switching between Legacy+UEFI and UEFI-only booting modes.
The somewhat-handy quick installation guide mentions that an online manual is also available that explains the more advanced features of the card, but I have yet to find one available on its landing page. Perhaps if Sapphire reads this, then they’ll be able to offer the manual for download, or begin including that on the DVD.
Looking at the port layout at the back it has one lonely DVI-D port joining a trio of DisplayPort 1.2a ports and HDMI 1.4a. If you’re a triple-monitor fan, this card should significantly pique your interest – you can run up to four monitors off this one GPU, the last of which would need to use HDMI or DVI. The other three will still be FreeSync-compatible, which is going to become a major selling point in the future, I’d bet.
The inclusion of 8GB of VRAM makes this an interesting card to consider as we head into the Windows 10 and DirectX 12 era. Is all this memory really necessary? It may become an important factor later on for anyone playing on a 4K display with two of these cards in CrossFire, and DX12 does promise that separate VRAM pools on GPUs in a multi-card system will be able to pool their memory and resources together to act as one unit. For now though, it’s not strictly necessary.
The R9 390 Nitro comes overclocked out of the box, and Sapphire has made a few changes to the power phases to improve power delivery and increase stability, and to also facilitate higher overclocks. I’d never overclocked a Hawaii card before, and this one required fiddling with the voltage settings.
Starting from a core clock of 1,010MHz and memory at 1,500MHz, I slowly worked my way up until, with a power limit of 25% and a voltage offset of 25mV, I managed to settle on an overclock of 1,100MHz on the core and 1,550MHz on the memory. I did get a stable run in Unigine Heaven at 1,130MHz and 1,600MHz respectively with a voltage offset of 50mV, but this proved to be unstable in 3DMark and Catzilla, and I saw a few lock ups in Alien: Isolation. Finding this card’s limit and its safe zone was difficult with the added voltage coming into play, but I’m sure that with a bit more nudging the card would be able to grab higher scores.
How much does this tweaking bring in terms of performance? In our synthetic runs, the increases are quite impressive. 3DMark shows a big gain in the Fire Strike and Fire Strike Extreme runs, but Catzilla shows the GTX 970 running ahead thanks to slightly better efficiencies in the Maxwell architecture. The R9 390 picks up first place again in Heaven once overclocked, with the stock performance being very close to the GTX 970. These are impressive results, and paint a good picture for overall performance. There are also clear gains in the synthetic runs compared to the Radeon R9 290, which is quite welcome. Re-spinning an old architecture is forgivable if the performance increase justifies it.
In our bench test suite, the R9 390 Nitro performs well. It sees wins in quite a few titles, like Dragon Age: Inquisition, GTA V, Hitman: Absolution, Metro: Last Light Redux and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. These are all games that tax memory bandwidth and scale with extra shader resources. Everything else sees the GTX 970 leap forward. In some cases it’s a big lead for games that like having extra texture units (Alien: Isolation), and in others it seems to be driver-related (Thief). Hawaii has always had raw potential, but AMD’s ability to harness it for the majority of games that will test its mettle has been about 50-50 thus far. However, once you scale up to 4K things change quite a bit, and you can expect the R9 390 to come out on top almost every time.
Compared to the R9 290, power consumption is better, down by an average of 17 watts under load and with lower idle scores than the GTX 970, even when overclocked. I’m not sure who to credit here – AMD or Sapphire – but a win’s a win, whether it’s by an inch or a mile. Surprisingly, the power consumption chart doesn’t scale with temperatures either; I saw a constant 65 °C while running the Heaven and Metro benchmarks, and it barely rose above that. Kudos goes to Sapphire here for designing an excellent cooler that is also quiet under load.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a rebranded graphics card! But it’s one that doesn’t disappoint, and I’d be happy to recommend it on the spot if you woke me up in the dead of night to ask me what GPU to buy. In relation to the GTX 970 it’s a good performer, and I think that would be even more apparent with a display that has a higher resolution than 1080p.