What's new
  • Please do not post any links until you have 3 posts as they will automatically be rejected to prevent SPAM. Many words are also blocked due to being used in SPAM Messages. Thanks!

Sapphire R9 290 Vapor-X OC Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
It’s been a while since we last reviewed an R9 290 here at Hardware Canucks; nearly two months in fact. During that time, the R9 295X2 launched, NVIDIA announced the TITAN Z, details about DirectX 12 came out and AMD rolled out another Never Settle gaming bundle. Meanwhile, Sapphire’s R9 290 Vapor-X OC, one of the fastest cards available right now, was shown for the first time and we’ve finally been able to take a closer look at it.

Amongst all that industry news one of the most important news items for gamers went largely overlooked: due to various factors, some of the wind went out of the sails of crypto currency mining. Now some of you may be wondering what mining has to do with this review and the answer to that is simple: due to their relative strength in crunching numbers, the AMD’s graphics cards’ retailer-bound pricing structure was literally tied at the hip to the popularity of Bitcoin, Litecoin and countless other virtual currencies. At the height of the mining craze Radeon GPU prices hit stratospheric levels but, as the market has rebalanced, things are finally beginning to settle down.

290-VAPORX-53.jpg

After AMD launched their Hawaii architecture last year, we saw quite a few custom versions of the R9 290X and R9 290. However, other than stable clock speeds granted by upgraded heatsinks, very few of them offered significant performance increases over the reference version. Now, the board partners have moved into “phase two” of their rollout with higher end offerings like Sapphire’s Vapor-X and Toxic, ASUS’ Matrix, Gigabyte’s Super Overclock and some interesting additions from PowerColor, VisionTek and others.

By being one of the first out of the gate Sapphire’s R9 290 Vapor-X OC has to set the bar pretty high. With that in mind they’ve pushed the card’s clock speeds to titanic levels with the core easily hitting the 1030MHz mark while the GDDR5’s frequency is the highest we’ve seen to date at 5600MHz.

Those are some impressive figures but they’re no surprise since Sapphire has been actively binning cores and memory IC’s for the limited edition R9 290 Toxic (a card which won’t be making its way to North America). Any of those which don’t quite pass the higher binning process get sent down one tier, tested again for use in the OC Vapor-X. If they don’t pass this card’s still-stringent guidelines, they’re pushed into a slightly lower-end SKU like the Tri-X OC. Other than directing perfectly allocating premium resources into Sapphire’s flagship products this process could also lead to more overclocking headroom for the R9 290 OC Vapor-X.

With an extremely high performance threshold that could conceivably challenge many R9 290X products and an awesome heatsink, it almost goes without saying that Sapphire is charging a premium for the R9 290 Vapor-X. Let’s cut right to the chase then: it retails for $470. That’s a hefty price to pay considering many custom R9 290 cards retail for $399 while some are even going for $370 when on sale. When placed alongside the Never Settle offer, this represents a phenomenal value. Sapphire’s Vapor-X also gets access to those free games and from a specs perspective alone, it looks like a pretty good buy as well. A 15% premium for such feature-rich product with a highly binned core is more than reasonable in our books provided this R9 290 can deliver on all its promises.

290-VAPORX-9.jpg
 
Last edited:

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
A Closer Look at the Sapphire R9 290 OC Vapor-X

A Closer Look at the Sapphire R9 290 OC Vapor-X


290-VAPORX-1.jpg

Simply put, this is one of the most stunning cards we have seen over the last 12 months or so. It’s predominantly black heatsink shroud isn’t anything special but the dash of iridescent blue is well placed and executed to perfection. The only thing spoiling an otherwise clean design is the extended PCB and its associated silver heat spreader.

As with most custom R9 290 cards, Sapphire has decided to extend the cooler past the PCB’s furthest-most edge which makes the Vapor-X about 12” long. That won’t have problems fitting into most cases but it’s something to take into account if you are leaning towards a small form factor build.

290-VAPORX-2.jpg

As this card’s name suggests, the cooler uses Sapphire’s Vapor-X design which incorporates a core-contact vapor chamber which efficiently displaces heat, transferring it to a large internal fin array. In this case, the contact plate also covers the GDDR5 memory modules while the VRM components are taken care of by a secondary aluminum heatsink.

Under all of these heatsink components is what Sapphire calls their Aero10 VRM design which uses a 10-phase layout with Direct-FET technology and Black Diamond chokes. While there is no way to independently verify this, Sapphire claims their design offers extended longevity over the one found on reference cards.

290-VAPORX-6.jpg

For those wondering, that PCB extension is actually utilized for extra cooling. What Sapphire has done is extend the PCB’s copper layer and then sandwiched it between two heatsinks. This supposedly allows for a reduction of core temperatures by about 2°C since excess heat travels through the copper layer and gets dissipated within this area. It seems to be an efficient use of space. Unfortunately, the surface finishing here leaves a bit to be desired and the black thermal compound may rub off on your fingers but after installation it will likely go unnoticed within the dark confines of most cases.

290-VAPORX-5.jpg
290-VAPORX-7.jpg

In the place of AMD’s usual BIOS switch, Sapphire has added their own design that supports dual firmwares. In its default position, it engages the card’s legacy BIOS which is compatible with all operating systems. Depressing the button enables Sapphire’s Secure Boot Mode which is essentially a UEFI firmware that is approved and WHQL signed for compatibility with Windows 8’s secure boot. In this secure environment, only “known good” core and boot loaders can execute before the OS loads. This locks down the system and prevents malicious code from running without the end user’s knowledge and in theory should speed up the loading of Windows.

The On/Off switch is linked to our favorite feature on the R9 290 Vapor-X OC: Intelligent Fan Control. With IFC enabled, the card’s fan profiles are modified so during idle phases only the center fan works to keep things cool. Meanwhile, the standard temperature-specific rotational speeds are activated for scenarios where the core is under load. This lowers idle acoustics to a mere 20.8dB which is exactly what most gamers are looking for when they’re not engrossed in doing battle online.

290-VAPORX-4.jpg

Sapphire has equipped the Vapor-X with a rear full-coverage heatsink as well even though there aren’t any active components on this side of the PCB. With that being said, a design like this could still potentially cut down component temperatures in some scenarios.

290-VAPORX-3.jpg
290-VAPORX-8.jpg

In order to feed the heavily overclocked core with enough juice, there is a pair of 8-pin power connectors. Meanwhile, the backplate still holds the usual dual DVI, DisplayPort and HDMI connectors, though Sapphire has increased the exhaust openings for additional airflow potential.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Test System & Setup

Main Test System

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 2412M (1440P) / ASUS PQ321Q (4K)
OS: Windows 8.1 Professional


Drivers:
AMD 14.4 Beta
NVIDIA 337.50 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 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.


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
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag / Battlefield 4

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag


<iframe width="640" height="360" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/YFgGnFoRAXU?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

The fourth 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 Havana area which features plenty of NPCs, distant views and high levels of detail.


2560 x 1440

290-VAPORX-30.jpg

290-VAPORX-39.jpg


Battlefield 4


<iframe width="640" height="360" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/y9nwvLwltqk?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

Amidst its teething problems since its release, BF4 has been a bone of contention among gamers. 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.

2560 x 1440

290-VAPORX-40.jpg

290-VAPORX-31.jpg
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Call of Duty: Ghosts / Far Cry 3

Call of Duty: Ghosts


<iframe width="640" height="360" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/gzIdSAktyf4?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

The latest Call of Duty game may have been ridiculed for its lackluster gameplay but it remains one of the best-looking games out there. Unfortunately due to mid-level loads, getting a “clean” runthrough without random slowdowns is nearly impossible, even with a dual SSD system like ours. Hence why you should ignore any massive framerate dips as they are anomalies of poor loading optimizations. For this benchmark we used the first sequence of the 5th Chapter entitled Homecoming as every event is scripted so runthroughs will be nearly identical.

2560 x 1440

290-VAPORX-41.jpg

290-VAPORX-32.jpg


Far Cry 3


<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

290-VAPORX-43.jpg

290-VAPORX-34.jpg
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Hitman Absolution / Metro: Last Light

Hitman Absolution


<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

290-VAPORX-44.jpg

290-VAPORX-35.jpg


Metro: Last Light


<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

290-VAPORX-45.jpg

290-VAPORX-36.jpg
 

SKYMTL

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

Thief


<iframe width="640" height="360" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/p-a-8mr00rY?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

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.


2560 x 1440

290-VAPORX-46.jpg

290-VAPORX-37.jpg



Tomb Raider


<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

290-VAPORX-47.jpg

290-VAPORX-38.jpg
 

SKYMTL

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

Temperatures Over Time & Thermal Imaging


Sapphire’s Vapor-X claims to be one of the coolest running cards around, which is one heck of a promise to make considering the R9 290 happens to pump out a lot of heat. In this section we will look at how the vapor chamber cooler handles the overclocked core and if there is any effect upon performance. Due to AMD’s revised PowerTune routines, the core can throttle back quite dramatically if it hits higher thermal points.

290-VAPORX-50.jpg

The Vapor-X cooler does provide some excellent temperatures, even after 10 minutes of full load. The reason for this is simple: its PWM fans dynamically predict upcoming heat output and adjust RPMs accordingly. This predictive approach allows the fans to spin up a minimal amount rather than try in vain to lower temperatures that have been allowed to go too high.

290-VAPORX-49.jpg

With stable and low temperatures, frequencies are allowed to remain at the 1030MHz mark rather than throttling to lower points like the reference version. Even after the 10 minute mark, we didn’t see any movement after more than 2 hours.

290-VAPORX-50.jpg

With constant temperatures and stable clock speeds, framerates really don’t move all that much other than the usual 1FPS cavitations in this particular title. This is pretty much par for the course with most custom cooled R9-series cards.

290-VAPORX-54.jpg
290-VAPORX-55.jpg

Looking at the thermal imaging results, there really isn’t anything surprising or any particular hot spots that should be concerning. The top view shows even dispersion of heat across the heatsink’s primary elements along with a few minor areas where there are temperature spikes.

Sapphire’s rear-mounted secondary heatsink does tend to exhibit higher temperatures since it isn’t actively cooled but once again there aren’t any extremes here. Since most of the primary components are top-mounted, this area is used for secondary dispersion purposes and seems to do its job quite well.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Acoustics & Power Consumption

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.

290-VAPORX-51.jpg

The acoustic results should come as no surprise considering Sapphire’s pedigree in this area but they do deserve some explanation. When enabled the Intelligent Fan Control allows two of the Vapor-X’s three fans to power down during idle phases which significantly cuts down on the card’s noise signature when the core isn’t under load. Disabling this function boosts idle decibel readings but also lowers temperatures.

Regardless of the IFC setting, maximum load temperatures are identical since once in-game, IFC is disabled which allows all three fans to begin their assigned tasks.


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.

290-VAPORX-52.jpg

Power consumption is what we’ve come to expect from an overclocked R9 290.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Overclocking Results

Overclocking Results


A previous edit of this review went live with a mistaken overclock speed of 1380MHz. The ACTUAL overclock speed is 1280MHz.

With a binned core and plenty of cooling overhead, Sapphire’s R9 290 Vapor-X seems to have what it takes to please overclockers. However, there’s another element in this card’s stable of tricks: the TRIXX software.

290-VAPORX-10.jpg

TRIXX may not be the most advanced bit of overclocking software but it covers all the basics. Voltage adjustments (up to a 200mV offset), fan speed management and a handy profile selector are all there alongside some extremely high frequency limits.

With the voltage maxed, temperatures never exceeded the 75°C mark and we were able to hit an impressive core speed of 1280MHz. Meanwhile, the GDDR5 proved to be a bit more difficult, likely since it has already received a pretty substantial overclock. We achieved 5592MHz which is quite good but completely unnecessary considering the core still can’t take advantage of all that bandwidth. With that being said, the performance results were nothing short of amazing with the Sapphire R9 290 Vapor-X nearly matching NVIDIA’s significantly more expensive GTX 780 Ti.

290-VAPORX-56.jpg

290-VAPORX-57.jpg
 
Last edited:

Latest posts

Twitter

Top