One of the nice things about the GPU market today is that even with a new generation of cards out and about, the older GPUs still have plenty of driver support left in them, and certainly offer a lot of bang for the buck. PowerColor’s revamped Radeon R9 290 may be late to the party now that AMD is trying to get everyone to buy into the refreshed 300 series, but it doesn’t seem like PowerColor minds that at all. And neither should you, because this card represents ridiculous value for money.
After reviewing Sapphire’s Nitro R9 390 – one of the heaviest cards I’ve ever handled, clocking in at well over 1.1kg – the R9 290 TurboDuo feels obscenely light at just 851 grams. Most of the bulk is shaved off by not using an overlong heat pipe and fin array as well as one less fan, but PowerColor also doesn’t include as much metal on the card to act as a brace. It does, however, have a plain black aluminium backplate, as well as a metal heatsink shroud. Six heat pipes branch off from the copper core to the fins, and temperatures are kept low with the aid of two 80mm fans.
PowerColor has taken a strange approach to memory cooling, because the heatsink design doesn’t touch the memory. Instead, there are small heat-spreaders that are adhered to the chips themselves in an attempt to spread out the surface area as much as possible. In practise, I regularly recorded temperatures well over 80 °C while gaming or benchmarking, with the fans spinning at almost 93% capacity. Enthusiasts would be well advised to use their own cooling solution that covers the memory (or pump loads of air into their chassis) if they’re aiming to enjoy some heavy overclocking on this card.
Another issue that I hope PowerColor will address in future on their cards that use the same cooler is that the PEG power plugs are rotated to face inwards. Normally this isn’t a big issue for most cooler designs, but there’s overhang from a heat pipe that makes it necessary to use a flathead screwdriver to flatten the latch on the innermost power connector in order to disconnect it.
Looking at I/O, we have two DVI-D ports, one HDMI 1.4a port and one DisplayPort 1.2a port. VGA am cry. Honestly, if you’re thinking about using a card like this with a monitor that only has a VGA port, you’re either really attached to your Sony FW900 24-inch CRT, or you’re really cheap.
Overclocked from the factory, the R9 290 TurboDuo doesn’t bump up things too much, with core and memory clocks set at 975MHz and 1,250MHz respectively. Over time, the headroom for the Hawaii core has improved significantly, so I was eager to see how far I could stretch things. I ended up, after much testing and re-testing, with a stable clock speed of 1,125MHz for the core and 1,500MHz for the memory, with a voltage offset of 30mV. That’s an increase of 150MHz and 250MHz respectively, which isn’t shabby at all.
Initially I had settled on 1,130MHz core and an offset of 13mV, but that eventually proved unstable. Later on I had 1,125MHz core and an offset of 25mV working, but that failed as well. Backing off for a bit showed that whenever I upped the memory clocks to higher than 1,480MHz the driver would crash and recover, followed by a complete lock-up on the desktop. I expect I could have gone further to at least 1,160MHz core, but this card is held back by the lackluster memory cooling. The Heaven benchmarks saw temperatures soaring to around 90 °C.
In terms of performance, results tended to depend on how far the particular game or application pushed the R9 290 TurboDuo. Synthetic results showed that the card performs well against the Sapphire Nitro R9 390, trailing it by a small margin once overclocked. This is expected, as they are literally the same product internally, possibly separated by just a few weeks in the factory. If there’s any place where the R9 290 doesn’t excel, it would be at stock settings.
In our bench test suite, the R9 290 TurboDuo performs well. As with other AMD cards I’ve tested, it performs badly in Alien: Isolation even when overclocked, for which I don’t have an explanation. It pulls out one freak win in GTA V and virtually ties with the Sapphire R9 390 (a card which costs a heck of a lot more) in Civilization: Beyond Earth, Dragon Age: Inquisition and Hitman: Absolution. The relationship is the same for the GeForce GTX 970, which is a card that costs on average R2,000 more. Even at stock settings, performance is more than adequate for this card in this price range with all the details turned up.
Power consumption seems to be in line with our sample R9 390 sent to us from Sapphire. At stock speeds it’s a little higher than Sapphire’s measurements, possibly as a result of more aggressive voltage control on the R9 390 Nitro. Power consumption doesn’t seem to be affected overall, but it is possible that I’m running into a limit with my testing where I’m not measuring at a point far along enough to show more differences, or I’m possibly not pushing the cards far enough. Regardless, these scores are good, and performance specifically in Metro: Last Light is almost identical.
PowerColor’s R9 290 TurboDuo manages to avoid all the hoopla about rebrands and sticks to an older name and model number, but with a new price attached. I rather like the value proposition offered here and the company clearly knows that enthusiasts are still price-sensitive, even though the Radeon 300 series obviously has merit. Buying older high-end cards once the new hotness hits the market has always been a good idea and this card firmly highlights that point.