Radeon R9 290: Awesome Power for $400
Just as expected after Radeon R9 290X launch, AMD has released a cheaper card based on a cut-down Hawaii GPU – Radeon R9 290 for $400. It was planned for an earlier release at first, but AMD has adjusted the launch date and the specification of the card due to Nvidia's price drop. AMD's Hawaii is a very powerful and big GPU and thus it requires a lot of power to run and produces a lot of heat. Even when operating at 95 °C temperature, R9 290X was limited by the speed of its fan, as it had to throttle a lot in 40% "Quiet" mode, reducing its performance. "Uber" mode allowed R9 290X to remain at higher Boost clock much longer and have best performance at a cost of much louder stock fan.
The differences between R9 290 and its X big brother are minor. 290 still has 4 GB GDDR5 at 5 GT/s connected by 512-bit wide bus, providing an impressive 320 GB/s bandwidth. There is a 10% reduction in core count and 5% reduction in base and boost frequencies. However, this gives a very close performance potential, but at considerably lower cost. The power consumption also remains practically unchanged. Initially, AMD planned to have default fan setting at 40% and compete against GTX 770, but after Nvidia's price adjustments, have configured new drivers to run the fan at 47% by default, improving performance and nearly doubling the loudness. As a result $400 R9 290 rarely has to throttle its performance, allowing it to compete against $500 GTX 780 and sometimes get extremely close to $550 R9 290X in "Quiet" mode. That makes the case for its performance, but also advises against the reference configuration. While Nvidia's metal reference cases for GTX 700 cards do their job well and look cool, AMD's reference designs for R9 290 and 290X should be avoided at all costs.
With its stock cooler, R9 290 is extremely noisy. However, the coolers from other manufacturers can do much better, especially if you have only one card and do not have to consider the thermal output of multiple GPUs. Tom's Hardware did some tests with a modified aftermarket cooler, originally intended for GTX 480 – another hot card. It manages to run almost silently compared to AMD's stock cooler, while leaving room for a decent overclock. Giving R9 290 a 20% overclock is possible with better coolers without blowing your ears and that pushes its performance beyond any reference single-GPU card. So again – do not buy R9 290 with a stock cooler, look at good custom solutions.
AMD has also started including AMD Game Evolved App (aka Raptr) in their drivers by default. GEA is AMD branded version of Raptr social messaging software, also including the recommended graphics settings for games, just like Nvidia's GeForce Experience. The application is still in beta and in a rougher state than GE at launch, as it bases recommended settings on crowdsourcing at the moment. The list of games is more limited as well.
Overall, R9 290 is an extremely nice card for its price, as long as you avoid AMD's stock cooler. It is so important that it is worth repeating many times. The situation reminds of spring 2012, when GTX 670 at $400 has managed to make GTX 680 unappealing and now R9 290 made R9 290X seem not worth it from price/performance considerations, as well as making GTX 780 seem too pricey once again. Two weeks ago $550 R9 290X seemed like a very nice deal, but today R9 290 takes the spotlight away from it. We have got our generational leap on 28 nm GPUs between HD 7950 and R9 290 in 1.5 years in terms of performance at the same price, but at a cost to our electricity bills. It will be interesting to see if Nvidia responds to this development, as GTX 780 now sits $100 above the card with similar performance. GTX Titan is as good as irrelevant for almost all gamers, as Nvidia will clearly keep it at $1000 due to its unlocked FP64 performance. GTX 780 Ti is planned for release in few days, but with its $700 price point it is likely to be just a token most powerful premium single-GPU graphics card and will not be able to approach anywhere near R9 290's performance/price ratio. Unless Nvidia decides to do another big price drop, R9 290 with a custom cooler will remain the best choice for single high-end card before 20 nm GPUs appear.