Beyond Reference — VisionTek Brings AMD’s Radeon 290 Back To Glory – Forbes

Upon release, AMD‘s Radeon 290x and 290 represented pivotal shifts in the graphics card landscape, forcing Nvidia Nvidia to reevaluate pricing and cementing AMD as the price/performance leader. That is, until the cryptocurrency mining boom inflated Radeon GPU prices and eradicated any perception of value. Price tags notwithstanding, the 290x and 290 were widely regarded as an exceptional value, but AMD’s reference design held them back from sweeping praise by committing some thermal mistakes. Namely, a 95 degree Celsius operating temperature and a noise level twice that of Nvidia’s GTX 780.

Now, with the mining bubble bursting and prices settling back to normal, I wanted to go beyond AMD’s reference designs and re-evaluate the Radeon 290. Board partner VisionTek assured me their twin-fan version of the Radeon 290 would restore my faith in the GPU, promising better performance and cooler operating temperatures despite being overclocked. These are both crucial, especially since AMD’s reference design led to the GPU clock throttling itself significantly in the interest of staying below 95C. (For what it’s worth, I had three Radeon 290x cards running in a mining rig for two months straight without incident. My Nevada office turned into an oven, though.)

The VisionTek Radeon 290 The VisionTek Radeon 290

VisionTek’s Radeon 290 retails for $499, and offers up a sturdy metal shroud and backplate, twin fans, and copper heat pipes to efficiently dissipate heat. Aside from the somewhat cheesy-looking VisionTek sticker centered on the fans, it’s a simple but solid all-black design that makes a better first impression than AMD’s reference offering.

For an example of exceptional AMD reference design, check out my review of their liquid-cooled Radeon 295X2

Early adopters of the Radeon 290 or 290x may remember the “golden press sample” debacle. At the core of the issue was a sometimes significant variance in performance from card to card. For example, the 290 press sample I received would throttle its maximum GPU clock from 947MHz down to 839MHz within as little as 60 seconds. That’s an 11% decrease in performance caused primarily by a bad reference cooler. As such, it was the first thing I wanted to test with VisionTek’s Radeon 290.

The test was simple: I looped Unigine’s Heaven Benchmark (a tool that stresses the GPU and measures DirectX performance) for one hour. After time expired, I took a snapshot of AMD’s Catalyst Control Center showing the temperature and GPU clock of the card. Here is AMD’s reference model:

AMD Reference: Radeon 290 temp and GPU clock after a one hour benchmark AMD Reference: Radeon 290 temp and GPU clock after a one hour benchmark

It’s important to note that the reference card hits 94C in less than two minutes and stays locked there. This doesn’t harm the card, but it does result in the GPU clock throttling back and hovering around that 840MHz mark (sometimes even lower).

Now, here’s the same test using VisionTek’s Radeon 290:

VisionTek  Radeon 290 temp and GPU clock after a one hour benchmark VisionTek Radeon 290 temp and GPU clock after a one hour benchmark

The results are clear: VisionTek’s Radeon 290 only climbs to 73 degrees Celsius and stays locked at 975MHz. (I ran the same tests with GPU-Z to confirm there were no fluctuations in clock speed). Not only does their gentle overclock result in a higher GPU speed, it accomplishes this while staying a dramatic 21 degrees Celsius cooler and markedly quieter.

That’s fantastic news, but how does this performance bump affect real-world gaming? I spent some time benchmarking 10 different games, but to place both cards on a level playing field I retested my earlier results for AMD’s reference card — and VisionTek’s version — with the latest Catalyst 14.4 Beta driver currently available to press. All titles were tested at 1440p (2560 x 1440) using demanding quality settings. Crucially, the reference 290 was “warmed up” to peak operating temperature before running an official test. Since we know VisionTek’s card isn’t going to throttle the GPU clock, this would accurately reflect the real-world performance of both cards over a sustained period of gaming.

290 Showdown: AMD's Reference versus VisionTek's Air-Cooled Solution (Frames per second) | CLICK TO ENLARGE 290 Showdown: AMD’s Reference versus VisionTek’s Air-Cooled Solution (Frames per second) | CLICK TO ENLARGE

As you can see, VisionTek’s Radeon 290 gives us a slight performance boost, and with a game like Assassin’s Creed 4 pushes us over to a buttery smooth 60fps. In most cases we’re looking at a marginal gap of 1 or 2 frames per second. That alone wouldn’t be a selling point, but when you consider VisionTek’s card is operating more than 20C cooler than AMD’s reference card and doing so as quietly as Nvidia’s excellent reference cooler design, that makes it a compelling purchase.

Would you rather play a 2 hour session of Titanfall during a summer day with a card kicking out 94C or 73C?

VisionTek's Radeon 290 runs 4K Titanfall at a smooth 60fps, while retaining near-max quality settings VisionTek’s Radeon 290 runs 4K Titanfall at a smooth 60fps, while retaining near-max quality settings

Speaking of Titanfall, while I didn’t do exhaustive testing at 4K resolutions, I did spend some time playing Respawn’s shooter with the VisionTek 290. Here are the quality settings I landed on in order to achieve 60fps at 3840 x 2160.

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