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Sapphire R9 290 4GB TRI-X OC Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
13,264
Location
Montreal
After months of waiting and some pretty high expectations, custom versions of AMD’s ridiculously popular R9 290-series cards have finally been trickling into the retail channel. Granted, crypto currency miners are snatching them up before most gamers can press the “buy” button, some significant strides have been made towards improved availability. While we’ve already taken an in-depth look at ASUS’ R9 290X DirectCU II OC, in this review we’re going towards a slightly more affordable price point with the Sapphire R9 290 Tri-X OC.

At first glance the R9 290 Tri-X OC may seem like a straightforward custom card with the usual massive heatsink but Sapphire has been keen to point out that a ton of development went into this product. With the Hawaii cores housed within all R9 290 cards outputting a significant amount of heat, designing the Tri-X cooling solution was a challenge. Some of this development cost has carried over into this card’s cost as well considering it currently goes for around $599, making it $100 more expensive than the reference version and exactly the same price as most vanilla R9 290X’s. That’s still a far cry from the custom R9 290X cards though, which frequently hit the $700 mark.

Think those prices are nuts? You're not the only one. Even the reference R9 290X and R9 290 have seen drastic price increases of $100 over their respective initial launch costs. Unfortunately, the laws of supply and demand have caught up to AMD in a big way. Board partners like Sapphire whose MSRP for the Tri-X is actually $449 rather than the $599 it currently goes for.


In order to justify this card’s relatively steep premium over the reference version, Sapphire has attempted to capitalize upon their “OC” designation. In this case, the core frequency receives a modest bump of 50MHz while the memory also gets a very minor upgrade to 5.2 Gbps despite there being plenty of available overhead. This likely won’t result in all that much of a visible performance boost but Sapphire’s real focus here is to lower the original R9 290’s high acoustic signature.

Since the R9 290 doesn’t have quite as many problems hitting its maximum frequencies as its more powerful sibling and AMD’s Boost doesn’t take full advantage of additional thermal overhead, in order to get additional performance you’ll need to overclock the card. Luckily, as you’ll see a bit later, the R9 290 Tri-X OC was a very willing participant in our clock speed endeavors, partially due to the inclusion of a thoroughly revised TriXX utility.


The R9 290 Tri-X represents a significant departure from Sapphire’s older designs, a change which was necessitated by the higher thermal output of AMD’s latest architecture. In this case, Sapphire has added an extensive, triple-section heatsink to the R9 290 which uses a stunning black / orange color scheme. Unfortunately, it does add 1.25” to the already long reference design but with a length of 11.75”, it shouldn’t have too many issues fitting into most new ATX cases.


With its three 80mm cooling fans, an extensive aluminum fin array and a vapor chambered contact plate. The build quality here is immaculate even though the shroud is manufactured out of plastic. Sapphire hasn’t seen the need to place a secondary heatsink over their memory modules, though the VRMs do get some attention with the inclusion of a form-fitting aluminum plate that’s actively cooled by the Tri-X fans.


Sapphire’s inclusion of a dual BIOS switch represents a bit of window dressing since both locations are populated by the same BIOS file. On the positive side, this gives you a blank slate to work with should you choose to upload a modified one.


The input and output connectors of this card remain in their reference form. This means video output receives a trio of choices: HDMI, DisplayPort and DVI. Meanwhile, the power connectors include an 8-pin plus 6-pin combo.


One thing Sapphire hasn’t done is upgrade components so the PCB below this high end cooler remains in its reference form. That’s a bit unfortunate considering you’re paying $100 more for what amounts to an upgraded heatsink and slightly higher frequencies. Expect a fully custom R9 290 from Sapphire when they get around to launching their Toxic series.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Messages
13,264
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Montreal
Exploring the TRI-X's Clock Speeds

Exploring the TRI-X's Clock Speeds


As has become usual for these reviews, we decided to delve a bit deeper into the Tri-X’s frequencies since, with its higher end heatsink there should be some untapped performance lying below the surface. The main issue with the reference R9 290-series cards was their lackluster coolers which caused temperatures to rise and as a result, clock speeds tended to throttle downwards into lower territory.


The first round of results in this section shows some very convincing results. Even with the overclocked R9 290 core pumping out heat, the Tri-X design is more than capable of keeping things under control. With this in mind, AMD’s Boost algorithms should be given some additional frequency leeway before things have to be reined in due to power and voltage limits.


Unfortunately it seems that the Tri-X is operating very close to AMD’s default limiters and Sapphire hasn’t done much to move the goalposts. As a result, their custom R9 290 remained at 1GHz throughout testing even though temperatures were nowhere near their maximum, throttle-inducing levels. It doesn’t clock all that much better than a reference R9 290 with fan speeds boosted to 55%.

Compare and contrast this to the impressive default headroom many custom NVIDIA cards come with and it has us wondering how well AMD’s algorithms can manage additional cooling resources.


With all of this being taken into account, it’s great to see the Sapphire card delivering consistent performance without any throttling. However, it would have been great if this R9 290 was able to boost even higher without being dragged back by AMD’s Boost feature. Overclocking will certainly take care of this.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
13,264
Location
Montreal
Assassin’s Creed III / Crysis 3

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 331.70 Beta / AMD 13.11 v8 Beta


Assassin’s Creed III (DX11)


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

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


 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
13,264
Location
Montreal
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.


2560 x 1440





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

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
13,264
Location
Montreal
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
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
13,264
Location
Montreal
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.


2560 x 1440




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
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
13,264
Location
Montreal
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.



The main selling point of Sapphire’s R9 290 Tri-X is its lower temperatures which, as we have already seen, lead to higher clock speeds. This heatsink has obviously been designed from the ground up to provide some awesome temperatures on the hot-running R9 290-series. These results really do speak for themselves.


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.


AMD’s R9 290 and R9 290X are known as two of the loudest-running cards in recent memory if you want to squeeze the most out of them. Sapphire takes care of this in truly impressive form with a custom heatsink design that not only delivers low temperatures but also remains whisper quiet. If there’s anything that sells the Tri-X OC, it will be its ultra low acoustical output.


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.


Lower temperatures lead to reduced TDP so power consumption of this overclocked card isn’t all that much higher than a reference version.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
13,264
Location
Montreal
Overclock Results

Overclock Results


To many enthusiasts, AMD’s R9 290 offers far more overclocking options than its NVIDIA counterparts but we still have to contend with the limitations of the ASIC’s TDP. Sapphire makes things a bit easier with their TRIXX overclocking software.


TRIXX is a relatively straightforward application which, for the time being, allows for modification of core / memory frequencies and core voltage. This is basically what AMD’s PowerTune offers but in a highly simplified and user-friendly manner.

By using TRIXX we were able to get the Sapphire R9 290 Tri-X OC we were able to hit 1251MHz on the core and 5666MHz on the GDDR5 with .085V of extra voltage. This vastly outstrips the levels attained by our reference samples and brings actual performance to some incredible levels.


 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
13,264
Location
Montreal
Conclusion

Conclusion


When it launched, there were some high expectations for the R9 290 and its custom designed ilk. The reference cards performed well but were ultimately held back by lackluster cooling solutions. While we haven’t looked at many examples thus far, alongside the significantly higher priced ASUS R9 290X DIrectCU II OC, Sapphire’s R9 290 Tri-X OC looks like a tantalizing alternative for those who don’t want to spend $700 on an AMD graphics card.

Let’s start with the performance side of this equation. A combination of Sapphire’s low out-of-box overclocks and AMD’s Boost algorithms being incapable of leveraging the thermal space provided by Sapphire’s excellent Tri-X heatsink leads to framerates which aren’t noticeably different than those exhibited by a reference card. With that being said, on paper at least, the R9 290 Tri-X can run neck and neck with a Quiet Mode R9 290X while still offering a good amount of overclocking headroom.

Sapphire’s true goals for this card weren’t extreme performance, though some higher framerates would have been welcome considering its stratospheric $100 premium over AMD’s suggested retail price. Rather, temperatures and acoustics are the real stars of this particular show; the R9 290 Tri-X is one of the coolest running, quietest AMD cards we’ve ever tested. That’s quite an achievement considering its pedigree and the R9 290-series’ tendency to be hot-running cards with screaming loud fan profiles.

While Sapphire has created an excellent card, it ultimately falls victim to AMD’s current identity crisis. With a $100 chasm currently separating the R9 290X and R9 290, the fact that custom R9 290 designs like the Tri-X can easily trade blows with AMD’s flagship part has “forced” board partners to price their wares accordingly. So, in an effort to avoid cutting their own R9 290X designs off at the knees with a lower-priced product, cards like the Tri-X hit the $599 price point without offering that much more performance. Against the current Radeon lineup this $100 mark-up makes perfect sense but when compared against what NVIDIA’s board partners are doing, it spells disaster. Simply put, you can get an overclocked, custom cooled GTX 780 (non Ti) for $80 less than the Sapphire R9 290 Tri-X and still come away with similar performance and a free game to boot.

(Ed. Jan 23) We should also mention that AMD's current pricing troubles aren't necessarily the fault of their board partners. For example, the R9 290 Tri-X OC's suggested retail price is only $450 ($50 higher than AMD's reference card's initial $399 price) but due to the ultra high popularity of these cards, the laws of supply and demand have taken over. As such, most retailers are selling this card for $599 or more. Expect this price to decrease once the crypto currency craze abates.

The R9 290 Tri-X is exactly what AMD users have been waiting for: a quiet, cool running, highly overclockable R9 290. If you’re into crypto currency mining or have an absolute need for an AMD GPU, this warrants a close look. For everyone else a $100 premium over the reference card may be a bit hard to stomach. Regardless of its stratospheric premium, Sapphire's card still receives our Dam Good Award for improving upon the reference design in every conceivable way.

 
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