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ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II OC Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Ever since its release gamers have been anxiously waiting for the R9 290X to receive its usual dose of board partner excitement. Custom cooling solutions and higher out-of-box clock speeds have taken a while to make their way onto the market but they’re finally here and in this review, we take a look at what will likely be one of the most popular examples: the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II OC. This certainly won’t be the only non-reference R9 290X out there but it does come with ASUS’ long history of success in the custom graphics card field.

The excitement behind this particular “launch” of custom cards hasn’t been completely fueled by the usual suspects of overclocking, a better component selection and more choices. Rather, due to AMD’s PowerTune algorithms curtailing core frequencies while they struggled to balance heat and power consumption, many felt the reference R9 290X was never able to fully reach its potential without reaching insane acoustical levels. That’s exactly what we saw in our launch day review and it continued into retail samples as well.

While the thermal issues with AMD’s latest core have been well publicized, board partners have experienced some extreme challenges when engineering heatsinks for their custom R9 290X cards. According to our conversations with them, the Hawaii architecture is one of the hottest-running they’ve come across since the original Fermi and many previous cooler designs had to either be tweaked or thrown out completely. This led to some delays for others but ASUS was able to carry over their well-regarded, DirectCU II design en masse. This is great news since every other time we’ve come across this particular heatsink, it has achieved some impressive results.


Despite backstopping their card with an excellent cooling solution, ASUS has left clock speeds at a relatively modest level of “up to” 1050MHz on the core, a mere 50MHz up from the reference 1GHz. The real star of the show here is consistency rather than ASUS’ relatively minor frequency bumps since the upgraded thermal dissipation ensures the card can run at higher frequencies more often even when under constant load, unlike AMD’s initial samples with their wildly fluctuating characteristics.

ASUS even includes their own Performance and Silent modes, mirroring AMD’s goals by providing easily modifiable fan speed and performance profiles. With this in mind, our R9 290X DirectCU II OC achieved some seriously impressive results with the core hitting an average speed of 1050MHz and 998MHz in Performance and Silent modes respectively. As you’ll see on the following pages, this translates into some drastic in-game differences in TDP limited scenarios.

One pleasant surprise is ASUS’ incorporation of memory overclocks. Believe it or not, this is a drastic departure from their previous outings and highlights the amount of untapped overhead available in AMD’s conservative 5Gbps rating. In this case the GDDR5 comes in at 5.4GHz which may not be much but it should help edge framerates a bit higher and bandwidth-limited scenarios.

What most of you are probably wondering right about now is how much the R9 290X DirectCU II OC will actually cost. Truth be told, we have absolutely no idea simply because the high end AMD GPU market is so volatile right now. By towing the company line and saying it will come in at $570 (just $20 above AMD’s initial $550 asking price) would be facetious since everyone knows about the insane markups being leveraged onto most Radeon graphics cards these days. With the LiteCoin mining craze in full swing you can be assured of two things: the DirectCU II won’t come cheap and most won’t end up in the hands of gamers. With that being said, things may clear up once it becomes available in January.

 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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A Closer Look at the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II OC

A Closer Look at the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II OC



Gone are the days when ASUS’ custom cards took up three expansion slots with gargantuan coolers. The R9 290X DirectCU II OC approaches its customized nature in a more civilized manner with a double slot heatsink and a relatively compact length of just over 11 ¼” including a ½” overhang from the cooler’s shroud. As a matter of fact, other than a few very minor changes, this is the same heatsink which graced the GTX 780 DirectCU II OC, one of the best GTX 780’s we came across.

For those wondering, that extra wide stance is due to an expanded PCB which houses an 8 phase GPU all-digital PWM alongside two dedicated phases for the GDDR5 memory. It should also be mentioned that our sample had Elipda EDW2032BBBG 6A-F GDDR5 modules installed which are rated for 6Gbps speeds so there should be plenty of memory overclocking headroom.


One of the main differentiators this time around is ASUS’ move towards a truly customizable card and why the first picture you saw on this page shows the DCII in a kind of stealth-like color scheme. In keeping with their current motherboard coloring schemes, they will be including two metallic sticker packages with the R9 290X DirectCU II: one which is ROG red while the other meshes well with their other boards.


The large heatpipe / fin array combination that sits atop the Hawaii core packs some serious cooling firepower. In order to reduce temperatures it uses a four 8mm and a single massive 10mm heatpipes (all of which are copper) that make direct contact with the core. That single 10mm heatpipe allows for 40% greater heat transfer capabilities versus a typical 8mm pipe and ASUS claims a 10°C reduction in core temperatures versus AMD’s reference cooler.


The “cooler” part of this equation is partially taken care of by one of ASUS’ new hybrid CoolTech fans which feature wide-angle, directional airflow characteristics which speed up heat dispersion from the heatsink.

At this point you may be wondering why only a single CoolTech fan has been installed while the other uses a typical axial design. It may seem like an odd choice but the axial fan’s vertical airflow directionality will actually move hot towards the front-mounted CoolTech unit which will then push it out the backplate. The layout is actually quite brilliant since it can act as a quasi-blower style setup.


As with many other ASUS graphics cards, the DirectCU II uses dust proof fan technology which essentially seals the bearing area, preventing particulate matter from entering. This is supposed to help increase the fan’s average life up to 10,000 hours (for a total MTBF of 50,000 hours) or approximately 25% longer than a typical axial design without this addition.


ASUS’ DirectCU II heatsink is able to capitalize upon the fans’ capabilities by giving them a fin array with minimal airflow restrictions and a surprisingly thin design. This last point is particularly important since not that long ago, these cards were critiqued for the aforementioned large triple-slot layout. Now, additional cooling capacity has been built into a high density fin array.

The approach taken here is an interesting one since ASUS has been able to dissect their custom heatsink into five distinct yet critical components. There is a pair of fans, a shroud to direct airflow, the main fin array with its core contact plate, a metal stiffener that prevents PCB flex and a rear heatsink for more efficient heat distribution.


Flipping the card over we see ASUS has also installed a rear heatspreader which not only looks good but helps dissipate any latent PCB heat. To some this addition may seem dubious to some but there are definite tertiary benefits to having a secondary heatsink in place.


Other than the usual BIOS switch, ASUS has added a number of features to the DirectCU II OC like small LEDs next to the power inputs which go from red to green once a good connection has been made. There is also an ROG Connect port which allows this card to be linked up to a supporting ASUS motherboard for voltage modifications and monitoring.
 
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SKYMTL

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Under the Heatsink

Under the Heatsink



One of the cornerstones of ASUS’ approach is what they call Super Alloy Power or SAP components. When taken at face value, it is no different from MSI’s Military Class or Gigabyte’s Ultra Durable initiative but there’s much more to it.

Like its competitors’ options, SAP aims to equip ASUS’ higher end graphics cards with PWM components that provide better performance, lower operating temperatures and a longer lifespan than a reference design. However, SAP actually takes things to the next level by specifying distinct, ASUS-designed items which are spread across the MOSFETs, capacitors and chokes. Super Alloy Power isn’t just a fancy marketing term either since there are some noteworthy enhancements packed into this design.


The three aforementioned component categories (caps, MOSFETs and chokes) play an important part role in GPU design and power delivery. In this case, the chokes ASUS has chosen use a special reinforced core which not only reduces coil whine but also delivers superior performance, improved power output, reduced temperatures and additional protection against electronic interference. To a layman, these aspects may not have a direct impact upon performance but everything from overclocking stability to the card’s lifespan may be improved.

Other than the chokes, SAP also includes capacitors with a titanic 150,000 hour MTBF that increases the maximum voltage threshold and power output by about 30%. There’s also the upgraded MOSFETs the lower operating temperature and enhance power delivery, thus enhancing overclocking headroom. ASUS has even installed a specialized SAP CAP behind the GPU core which further augments input stability.


So what is the result of all of this haute technology? A number of things of which some may be experienced firsthand while others are slightly more intrinsic in nature. For example, as we can see above, the enhanced chokes and MOSFETs have a significant impact upon PCB temperatures.


With all of the enhancements, component-destroying ripple has also been decreased by a significant amount, particularly when the card is working at higher voltages. Even efficiency has been given a boost.
 

SKYMTL

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Test System & Setup

Main Test System

Processor: Intel i7 3930K @ 4.5GHz
Memory: Corsair Vengeance 32GB @ 1866MHz
Motherboard: ASUS P9X79 WS
Cooling: Corsair H80
SSD: 2x Corsair Performance Pro 256GB
Power Supply: Corsair AX1200
Monitor: Samsung 305T / 3x Acer 235Hz
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate N x64 SP1


Acoustical Test System

Processor: Intel 2600K @ stock
Memory: G.Skill Ripjaws 8GB 1600MHz
Motherboard: Gigabyte Z68X-UD3H-B3
Cooling: Thermalright TRUE Passive
SSD: Corsair Performance Pro 256GB
Power Supply: Seasonic X-Series Gold 800W


Drivers:
NVIDIA 331.93 Beta
AMD 13.11 v9 Beta



*Notes:

- All games tested have been patched to their latest version

- The OS has had all the latest hotfixes and updates installed

- All scores you see are the averages after 3 benchmark runs

All IQ settings were adjusted in-game and all GPU control panels were set to use application settings


The Methodology of Frame Testing, Distilled


How do you benchmark an onscreen experience? That question has plagued graphics card evaluations for years. While framerates give an accurate measurement of raw performance , there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes which a basic frames per second measurement by FRAPS or a similar application just can’t show. A good example of this is how “stuttering” can occur but may not be picked up by typical min/max/average benchmarking.

Before we go on, a basic explanation of FRAPS’ frames per second benchmarking method is important. FRAPS determines FPS rates by simply logging and averaging out how many frames are rendered within a single second. The average framerate measurement is taken by dividing the total number of rendered frames by the length of the benchmark being run. For example, if a 60 second sequence is used and the GPU renders 4,000 frames over the course of that time, the average result will be 66.67FPS. The minimum and maximum values meanwhile are simply two data points representing single second intervals which took the longest and shortest amount of time to render. Combining these values together gives an accurate, albeit very narrow snapshot of graphics subsystem performance and it isn’t quite representative of what you’ll actually see on the screen.

FCAT on the other hand has the capability to log onscreen average framerates for each second of a benchmark sequence, resulting in the “FPS over time” graphs. It does this by simply logging the reported framerate result once per second. However, in real world applications, a single second is actually a long period of time, meaning the human eye can pick up on onscreen deviations much quicker than this method can actually report them. So what can actually happens within each second of time? A whole lot since each second of gameplay time can consist of dozens or even hundreds (if your graphics card is fast enough) of frames. This brings us to frame time testing and where the Frame Time Analysis Tool gets factored into this equation.

Frame times simply represent the length of time (in milliseconds) it takes the graphics card to render and display each individual frame. Measuring the interval between frames allows for a detailed millisecond by millisecond evaluation of frame times rather than averaging things out over a full second. The larger the amount of time, the longer each frame takes to render. This detailed reporting just isn’t possible with standard benchmark methods.

We are now using FCAT for ALL benchmark results.


Frame Time Testing & FCAT

To put a meaningful spin on frame times, we can equate them directly to framerates. A constant 60 frames across a single second would lead to an individual frame time of 1/60th of a second or about 17 milliseconds, 33ms equals 30 FPS, 50ms is about 20FPS and so on. Contrary to framerate evaluation results, in this case higher frame times are actually worse since they would represent a longer interim “waiting” period between each frame.

With the milliseconds to frames per second conversion in mind, the “magical” maximum number we’re looking for is 28ms or about 35FPS. If too much time spent above that point, performance suffers and the in game experience will begin to degrade.

Consistency is a major factor here as well. Too much variation in adjacent frames could induce stutter or slowdowns. For example, spiking up and down from 13ms (75 FPS) to 28ms (35 FPS) several times over the course of a second would lead to an experience which is anything but fluid. However, even though deviations between slightly lower frame times (say 10ms and 25ms) wouldn’t be as noticeable, some sensitive individuals may still pick up a slight amount of stuttering. As such, the less variation the better the experience.

In order to determine accurate onscreen frame times, a decision has been made to move away from FRAPS and instead implement real-time frame capture into our testing. This involves the use of a secondary system with a capture card and an ultra-fast storage subsystem (in our case five SanDisk Extreme 240GB drives hooked up to an internal PCI-E RAID card) hooked up to our primary test rig via a DVI splitter. Essentially, the capture card records a high bitrate video of whatever is displayed from the primary system’s graphics card, allowing us to get a real-time snapshot of what would normally be sent directly to the monitor. By using NVIDIA’s Frame Capture Analysis Tool (FCAT), each and every frame is dissected and then processed in an effort to accurately determine latencies, frame rates and other aspects.

We've also now transitioned all testing to FCAT which means standard frame rates are also being logged and charted through the tool. This means all of our frame rate (FPS) charts use onscreen data rather than the software-centric data from FRAPS, ensuring dropped frames are taken into account in our global equation.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Assassin’s Creed III / Crysis 3

Assassin’s Creed III (DX11)


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The third iteration of the Assassin’s Creed franchise is the first to make extensive use of DX11 graphics technology. In this benchmark sequence, we proceed through a run-through of the Boston area which features plenty of NPCs, distant views and high levels of detail.


2560 x 1440




Crysis 3 (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/zENXVbmroNo?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

Simply put, Crysis 3 is one of the best looking PC games of all time and it demands a heavy system investment before even trying to enable higher detail settings. Our benchmark sequence for this one replicates a typical gameplay condition within the New York dome and consists of a run-through interspersed with a few explosions for good measure Due to the hefty system resource needs of this game, post-process FXAA was used in the place of MSAA.


2560 x 1440


 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Dirt: Showdown / Far Cry 3

Dirt: Showdown (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/IFeuOhk14h0?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

Among racing games, Dirt: Showdown is somewhat unique since it deals with demolition-derby type racing where the player is actually rewarded for wrecking other cars. It is also one of the many titles which falls under the Gaming Evolved umbrella so the development team has worked hard with AMD to implement DX11 features. In this case, we set up a custom 1-lap circuit using the in-game benchmark tool within the Nevada level.


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Far Cry 3 (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/mGvwWHzn6qY?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

One of the best looking games in recent memory, Far Cry 3 has the capability to bring even the fastest systems to their knees. Its use of nearly the entire repertoire of DX11’s tricks may come at a high cost but with the proper GPU, the visuals will be absolutely stunning.

To benchmark Far Cry 3, we used a typical run-through which includes several in-game environments such as a jungle, in-vehicle and in-town areas.



2560 x 1440


 

SKYMTL

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Hitman Absolution / Max Payne 3

Hitman Absolution (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/8UXx0gbkUl0?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

Hitman is arguably one of the most popular FPS (first person “sneaking”) franchises around and this time around Agent 47 goes rogue so mayhem soon follows. Our benchmark sequence is taken from the beginning of the Terminus level which is one of the most graphically-intensive areas of the entire game. It features an environment virtually bathed in rain and puddles making for numerous reflections and complicated lighting effects.


2560 x 1440





Max Payne 3 (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/ZdiYTGHhG-k?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

When Rockstar released Max Payne 3, it quickly became known as a resource hog and that isn’t surprising considering its top-shelf graphics quality. This benchmark sequence is taken from Chapter 2, Scene 14 and includes a run-through of a rooftop level featuring expansive views. Due to its random nature, combat is kept to a minimum so as to not overly impact the final result.


2560 x 1440


 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Messages
13,410
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Metro: Last Light / Tomb Raider

Metro: Last Light (DX11)


<iframe width="640" height="360" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/40Rip9szroU" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

The latest iteration of the Metro franchise once again sets high water marks for graphics fidelity and making use of advanced DX11 features. In this benchmark, we use the Torchling level which represents a scene you’ll be intimately familiar with after playing this game: a murky sewer underground.


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Tomb Raider (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/okFRgtsbPWE" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

Tomb Raider is one of the most iconic brands in PC gaming and this iteration brings Lara Croft back in DX11 glory. This happens to not only be one of the most popular games around but it is also one of the best looking by using the entire bag of DX11 tricks to properly deliver an atmospheric gaming experience.

In this run-through we use a section of the Shanty Town level. While it may not represent the caves, tunnels and tombs of many other levels, it is one of the most demanding sequences in Tomb Raider.


2560 x 1440


 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Messages
13,410
Location
Montreal
Looking Closer at the DirectCU II’s Clock Speeds

Looking Closer at the DirectCU II’s Clock Speeds


You may remember that in our original R9 290X review, we mentioned that the card tended to throttle when under constant load as AMD’s PowerTune modulated clock speeds in an effort to balance out TDP parameters. This resulted in lower frequencies than expected when the card was used in Silent Mode and outrageously high fan speeds yet better performance when Uber Mode was engaged. Simply put, AMD’s reference heatsink didn’t quite seem up to the task of taming the hot running core.

Because of the points above, many have waited eagerly for the release of customized board partner cards with better cooling solutions. ASUS has now kindly obliged so we’ve decided to take a deeper dive into how the DirectCU II heatsink affects both performance and temperatures over a 10 minute long run.


First up we have the temperatures which clearly show the ASUS R9 290X to be a card of two very different faces. When in Performance Mode, it reaches a maximum of 78°C which is nothing short of an incredible result. Silent Mode meanwhile tones down the fan speeds and allows thermals to peak but not remain at 94°C.


If anything, this chart demonstrates the difference between AMD’s PowerTune and NVIDIA’s Boost algorithms. While Boost tends to allow frequencies some additional headroom, PowerTune seems to cap clocks at a predetermined maximum (in this case 1050MHz in Performance Mode) even when there’s sufficient thermal and power overhead. Naturally, overclocking can enhance these results by moving the goalposts further afield.

While Performance Mode is the picture of consistency, Silent operation brings about a bit more fluctuation especially as the testing timeframe increases. However, the DirectCU II has a trick up its sleeve. Even when operating close to AMD’s thermal limits, it has room for increases in other areas (namely additional current capacity via an enhanced PWM) so it can still achieve higher frequencies.

One thing to take away from this clock speed chart is that ASUS has achieved a sense of normalcy that was sorely lacking from the reference cards.


The end result of a better heatsink and upgraded components may be a scant 3 FPS in the example above but it is interesting to see how the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II OC in Silent Mode can easily match a reference card’s Uber Mode framerates. It looks like everyone who waited for these custom cards to come around made a good decision.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Messages
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Temperatures & Acoustics / Power Consumption

Temperature Analysis


For all temperature testing, the cards were placed on an open test bench with a single 120mm 1200RPM fan placed ~8” away from the heatsink. The ambient temperature was kept at a constant 22°C (+/- 0.5°C). If the ambient temperatures rose above 23°C at any time throughout the test, all benchmarking was stopped..

For Idle tests, we let the system idle at the Windows 7 desktop for 15 minutes and recorded the peak temperature.



Even though the R9 290X’s core is one of the hottest running ever created, the DirectCU II heatsink has no problems keeping temperatures in check. However, the Silent Mode does tend to cause thermals to rise to the usual 94°C we’ve grown accustomed to from the R9 290X but, as you’ll see in the acoustics, it does so in order to achieve lower noise output.


Acoustical Testing


What you see below are the baseline idle dB(A) results attained for a relatively quiet open-case system (specs are in the Methodology section) sans GPU along with the attained results for each individual card in idle and load scenarios. The meter we use has been calibrated and is placed at seated ear-level exactly 12” away from the GPU’s fan. For the load scenarios, a loop of Unigine Valley is used in order to generate a constant load on the GPU(s) over the course of 15 minutes.


ASUS’ R9 290X DirectCU II is an amazingly quiet card in both Silent and Performance modes. The Performance Mode in particular is impressive since it achieves noise levels that are nearly impossible to hear over typical system sounds without sacrificing one iota of performance. As a matter of fact, in my opinion, it makes Silent Mode all but pointless. When compared to a stock R9 290X, the difference is like night and day.


System Power Consumption


For this test we hooked up our power supply to a UPM power meter that will log the power consumption of the whole system twice every second. In order to stress the GPU as much as possible we used 15 minutes of Unigine Valley running on a loop while letting the card sit at a stable Windows desktop for 15 minutes to determine the peak idle power consumption.

Please note that after extensive testing, we have found that simply plugging in a power meter to a wall outlet or UPS will NOT give you accurate power consumption numbers due to slight changes in the input voltage. Thus we use a Tripp-Lite 1800W line conditioner between the 120V outlet and the power meter.


This is an overclocked card but even when operating at higher frequencies, AMD’s PowerTune strives to hit a predetermined power consumption target. When coupled with lower temperatures (which of course increases silicon efficiency) the DirectCU II OC really doesn’t require all that much more power than a reference card.
 

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