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PowerColor R9 390X PCS+ Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
AMD’s R9 390X was initially greeted with a mix of derision and hope. At first glance this “new” card seemed to be nothing more than a rebranded R9 290X which set a lot of people on edge since it actually retailed for more than the outgoing Hawaii-based card. On the flip side of that coin, when we originally reviewed the R9 390X we actually found it to be a good value since it included 8GB of memory versus its predecessor’s 4GB, faster GDDR5 speeds and a mature core architecture that allowed for lower power consumption and heat.

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Whereas that original review featured an impressive Sapphire card, PowerColor is their hand at their own version. Dubbed the R9 390X PCS+, like every other competing solution it has been born out of necessity. AMD didn’t release a so-called reference spec (other than clock speeds of course) for this product so board partners are left to their own devices to design a PCB and associated cooling solution. Clock speeds are a different affair altogether since, according to our contacts, at 1050MHz, AMD’s baseline spec is precariously close to a maximum value that guarantees stability without some serious binning.

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With that taken into account, PowerColor has been extremely conservative on their frequencies. The PCS+’s core receives a meager 10MHz overclock while the memory remains at default 6Gbps speeds. At least, unlike Sapphire, they haven’t been audacious enough to call this an “OC” version despite the miniscule increase. Memory is receives a similar treatment but without an overclock so it tops out around 6000MHz.

Even PowerColor’s pricing is right in line with their competitors. At $429 the PCS+ isn’t a dime more expensive than cards from the likes of Gigabyte, ASUS, Sapphire and XFX but it isn’t cheaper either. Ironically, despite this card being based on an architecture that’s more than two years old, the R9 390X actually stacks up against NVIDIA’s product lineup quite well. That’s likely due to the fact that the GeForce offerings simply doesn’t have anything to offer between the $329 and $499 price points other than overclocked GTX 970 cards.

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This R9 390X can be distinguished by its triple-fan PCS+ heatsink but that doesn’t necessarily lead it to be all that distinctive. PowerColor has been using this cooler design for the better part of three years now and not much has changed since its inception. There’s still a trio of 80mm fans (most competitors have moved to 90mm or larger units), a double layered set of cooling fins, five heatpipes and a pure copper core contact plate. These are all pretty much par for the course these days but while a bit older, the PCS+’s engineering has stood the test of time and is still considered one of the best around.

Unfortunately, while relatively cool temperatures are virtually guaranteed despite the hot-running Grenada core, all of this cooling tech requires space. That leads to the R9 390X PCS+ requiring 2.5 PCI-E slots of height and a good 11.5” of length. While PowerColor has handily avoided the need to upsize on the width, they’ve sacrificed in other areas, leading to a card that may not be compatible with some smaller, more compact chassis.

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While some may criticize PowerColor for their large cooler, it seems like they’ve added in a few unique touches to distinguish themselves. First and foremost among these is a full-contact heat plate that touches nearly every critical component on the PCB, insuring low temperatures regardless of how far the card is overclocked. In addition, the R9 390X’s 6+1+1 power design includes several of what PowerColor call PowerIR stages which boost overall current efficiency while also boosting current capacity.

Other than extreme overclocking, there aren’t many real-world uses for these advanced components so most users won’t end up realizing their benefits. They’re simply fancy marketing points. However, better component selection could lead to a longer-lasting graphics card, though that likely won’t be a factor if you plan to change it out within a few years.

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One of the main reasons why this card is so long is the odd shape of the heatsink shroud. Despite the internal fin array stopping at the 10.75” mark, the shroud continues on for another ¾”. This was likely done to give the fans a better way to direct their airflow.

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On the backside of PowerColor’s R9 390X is a full coverage backplate which is mostly for aesthetic purposes since it doesn’t actually make contact with any of the rear-mounted components. It does however look pretty good and will likely stand out quite well within a window-equipped case.

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Moving on to the power connectors we see that PowerColor has decided to retain AMD’s usual 6+8 pin layout which is pretty much par for the course these days. We can’t forget this card has a massive TDP of 275W so even with these two connectors, the amount of current capacity for overclocking will be limited but it could also draw on the 75W provided by the PCI-E slot.

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There really isn’t anything different on the I/O area either. There’s a single HDMI 1.4 output (HDMI 2.0 isn’t available on any AMD card at this point) a DisplayPort 1.2 connector and two DVI outputs of which one is a dual link.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Performance Consistency & Temperatures Over Time

Performance Consistency & Temperatures Over Time


PowerColor promises many things with this card; it’s supposed to run cooler, quieter and faster than a reference version. That’s an interesting claim considering there’s no baseline “reference” R9 390X to speak of so we’ll just have to take their word for it. With that being said, it’s going up against some serious competition in the form of Sapphire’s R9 390X TRI-X which happens to be one of the more impressive cards we’ve looked at this year.

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Things start out extremely well with the card hitting an amazing 64°C and just sitting there throughout testing with a few one degree spikes. This is by far the coolest temperatures we have seen from a higher end AMD card that wasn’t under water cooling.

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As you can imagine, such low temperatures lead to consistent frequencies with the R9 390X PCS+ hitting the 1060MHz mark. Unfortunately, AMD’s PowerTune technology isn’t built to take advantage of the additional thermal headroom so the card can’t strive for higher clocks even though there’s obviously enough room for higher performance.

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Overall framerates are right in line with Sapphire’s R9 390X since that 10MHz difference won’t translate into any faster performance.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
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Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Thermal Imaging / Acoustics / Power Consumption

Thermal Imaging


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With such low core temperatures it should come as no surprise that our thermal imaging shots don’t point out any problem areas. However, we can’t forget PowerColor’s backplate does cover some key components without actually making contact with them so there may be some hot spots we aren’t seeing.


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, Hitman Absolution is used in order to generate a constant load on the GPU(s) over the course of 15 minutes.

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Throughout our testing with the PCS+, one thing stood out: it was one of the loudest cards we’ve encountered in a long, long time. At idle, the fans don’t make a peep since they’re programmed to turn off when the card is idling but when gaming, things get messy quite fast.

As you can see in the chart above, PowerColor seems to have programmed the card to top out at about 2000RPMs which isn’t all that bad considering the fans are actually quite quiet at that level. However, that step doesn’t last for long as the card then kicks things up another gear before leveling off at a ballistic 2350RPMs.

We have a funny feeling these fans speeds have been carried over from the R9 290X PCS+ which did indeed require higher RPMs to insure nominal temperatures. However, the Grenada XT core is supposed to require substantially less cooling which is why PowerColor’s competitors have been able to effectively reduce their fan speeds despite utilizing identical heatsinks as their respective Hawaii XT-based products.

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The acoustic numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise with the PCS+’s fans spinning away at “good GOD!” levels. What makes this so frustrating is there’s absolutely no need for this; PowerColor could have implemented a fan speed profile that allowed their card to hit between 70°C to 75°C with a significantly more intelligent RPM output method and we would have been singing its praises.


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.

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This is actually one of the more efficient AMD Hawaii....errr Grenada-based cards we’ve come across which is likely due to the fact that its temperatures are so low.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
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Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Test System & Setup

Test System & Setup



Processor: Intel i7 4930K @ 4.7GHz
Memory: G.Skill Trident 16GB @ 2133MHz 10-10-12-29-1T
Motherboard: ASUS P9X79-E WS
Cooling: NH-U14S
SSD: 2x Kingston HyperX 3K 480GB
Power Supply: Corsair AX1200
Monitor: Dell U2713HM (1440P) / ASUS PQ321Q (4K)
OS: Windows 8.1 Professional


Drivers:
AMD 15.7.1
NVIDIA 352.90


*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 2 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, other than 4K.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
1440P: AC:Unity / Battlefield 4

Assassin’s Creed: Unity


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While it may not be the newest game around and it had its fair share of embarrassing hiccups at launch, Assassin's Creed: Unity is still one heck of a good looking DX11 title. In this benchmark we run through a typical gameplay sequence outside in Paris.

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Battlefield 4


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In this sequence, we use the Singapore level which combines three of the game’s major elements: a decayed urban environment, a water-inundated city and finally a forested area. We chose not to include multiplayer results simply due to their randomness injecting results that make apples to apples comparisons impossible.

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
1440P: Dragon Age: Inquisition / Dying Light

Dragon Age: Inquisition


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Dragon Age: Inquisition is one of the most popular games around due to its engaging gameplay and open-world style. In our benchmark sequence we run through two typical areas: a busy town and through an outdoor environment.

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Dying Light


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Dying Light is a relatively late addition to our benchmarking process but with good reason: it required multiple patches to optimize performance. While one of the patches handicapped viewing distance, this is still one of the most demanding games available.

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
1440P: Far Cry 4 / Grand Theft Auto V

Far Cry 4


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The latest game in Ubisoft’s Far Cry series takes up where the others left off by boasting some of the most impressive visuals we’ve seen. In order to emulate typical gameplay we run through the game’s main village, head out through an open area and then transition to the lower areas via a zipline.

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Grand Theft Auto V


In GTA V we take a simple approach to benchmarking: the in-game benchmark tool is used. However, due to the randomness within the game itself, only the last sequence is actually used since it best represents gameplay mechanics.

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
1440P: Hitman Absolution / Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Hitman Absolution


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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.

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Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor


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With its high resolution textures and several other visual tweaks, Shadow of Mordor’s open world is also one of the most detailed around. This means it puts massive load on graphics cards and should help point towards which GPUs will excel at next generation titles.

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
1440P: Thief / Tomb Raider

Thief


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When it was released, Thief was arguably one of the most anticipated games around. From a graphics standpoint, it is something of a tour de force. Not only does it look great but the engine combines several advanced lighting and shading techniques that are among the best we’ve seen. One of the most demanding sections is actually within the first level where you must scale rooftops amidst a thunder storm. The rain and lightning flashes add to the graphics load, though the lightning flashes occur randomly so you will likely see interspersed dips in the charts below due to this.

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Tomb Raider


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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.


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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
1440P: Total War: Attila / Witcher 3

Total War: Attila


Total War: Attila is the only strategy title in our benchmarking suite simply because it is one of the most resource-hungry. It gobbles resources with good reason too: this game happens to be one the best looking of the series thus far. Our benchmark sequence uses the in-game tool since, after hours of gameplay, it seems to show a perfect blend of in-game elements.

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Witcher 3


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Other than being one of 2015’s most highly regarded games, The Witcher 3 also happens to be one of the most visually stunning as well. This benchmark sequence has us riding through a town and running through the woods; two elements that will likely take up the vast majority of in-game time.

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