Radeon HD R9 290X: Titan’s Fall
When AMD announced Rx 200 series of graphics cards, most of them used old GPUs which were already present in HD 7000 series of graphics cards. R7 260X is a small exception, as its GPU had already been released in HD 7790, it still has some new features, most of which were disabled in HD 7790. Unlike all other cards in series, AMD's newest top end card R9 290X uses a completely new GPU codenamed 'Hawaii'. It has the same updated GCN architecture as R7 260X, but has a lot more power under the hood. R9 290X's launch price is $550, which is $100 below Nvidia's GTX 780 and $450 below GTX Titan. Let's look how it fares against the former performance kings.
Hawaii is the biggest GCN GPU and the biggest GPU AMD has ever built with 6.3 billion transistors and a 435 mm^2 die area. R9 290X packs 2816 SPs (36% more than HD 7970), 64 ROPs to get a very large fillrate and 4 GB 5 GHz GDDR5 to achieve a 320 GB /s memory bandwidth. The less certain part is the frequency the card operates at, as AMD tries to advertise it with the maximum boost clock of 1 GHz, which it will lower if the card gets over the temperature of 95 °C. As the default settings cap fan at 40% in "Quiet" mode (45 dB) and 55% in "Uber" mode, it will be very easy to reach that limit during gaming and thus experience the throttling and lower performance. There is also an option to set the fan settings in the Catalyst Control Center to any value you like, but noise may become really problematic. Tom's Hardware reports that the reference AMD card is quite noisy at 55% fan speed and is extremely noisy at 95% fan speed. It is really recommended to get R9 290X with a more powerful and silent cooling solution compared to AMD's design. Also, a good PSU is recommended as R9 290X is ~40W more power hungry than GTX Titan or R9 280X and can draw up to 300W in "Uber" mode on heavy load. Finally, there is a change to multi-GPU Crossfire configurations as these cards no longer use an additional bridge.
When it comes to the performance, AMDs attempt to push GCN to its limit vindicates itself well. In a "quiet" mode, where its noise does not exceed GTX 780 levels too much, the card manages to be close to or beat GTX Titan in most games. That usually leaves the $100 more expensive GTX 780 10% or more behind in performance. AMD has also improved the support of 4K displays and Crossfire frame pacing with R9 290X, making it a viable option for people who want to play at those extreme resolutions at high settings. The high memory bandwidth and filtrate help at high resolutions as well. However, heat becomes a larger problem in Crossfire, which may leave two R9 290X with lower performance than SLI GTX Titans or even SLI GTX 780 in more hot situations.
Overall, R9 290X is a good high performance gaming offer for its $550 price in comparison with $650 GTX 780 and $1000 GTX Titan. The $250 price difference between it and the $300 R9 280X feels like an additional premium, compared to the performance increase, and leaves some space for another card. It is almost certain that we will see R9 290 with a slightly cut Hawaii chip to fill the gap very soon. Back when HD 7970 has launched at the same $550 price point almost two years ago that price seemed slightly excessive, however Nvidia's later premium pricing made it seem like a good deal. Now there is a big problem with Nvidia's GTX 700 series pricing, compared to AMD's Rx 200. GTX 760 still remains close to what AMD offers at $250, but often older more powerful cards are still sold at a slightly higher price. GTX 770 has little performance advantage, but costs $100 more than R9 280X. Whilst GTX 780 and GTX Titan were just blown away in gaming performance by a cheaper R9 290X. While GTX Titan still has its FP64 performance and remains the cheapest card to run CUDA code requiring that performance (make no mistake, CUDA works well and is widespread in non-gaming applications), there is little saving grace overall. Not many people will consider lower power consumption and noise as something worth less performance and additional an $100. The current game bundle and ShadowPlay are unlikely to be selling points worth that $100 premium either.
In an interesting turn of events I'd say AMD has completely vindicated Nvidia's Tony Tamasi's claims about PS4 performance. He has called HD 7850 performance a low-mid end, which was not true at the time. That claim became closer to reality with GTX 760 and has met my criteria of Titan level performance below $400 with the R9 290X release before the PS4 launch. The new GPU generation is not here yet, as TSMC is still working on the mass production of 20 nm chips. R9 290X seems to push a performance limit of what can be expected from 28 nm GPU, just like GTX 580 and HD 6970 did for 40 nm GPUs. There might still be some interesting twists in the future for GCN GPUs due to the Mantle API and its promises of increased performance. Nvidia has already announced their response to R9 290X – GTX 780 Ti and it remains to be seen how far they are going to push GK110 and at what price, as well as how they will adjust prices of their current cards in the coming weeks.