Week in Tech: World’s Best GPU, Elite 4 + VR + IR

By Jeremy Laird on April 10th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.

Is Sapphire’s Tri-X Radeon R9 290 the world’s best graphics card? I think it just might be. OK, it’s only the best graphics card in the world in a given context – one in which you’re willing and able to cough up £330 for a graphics card. Likewise, a few other add-in board makers have similarly impressive custom-cooled offerings based on the R9 290 chipset. And somehow all this would hang together a bit better if the Tri-X was available for £290, which is the figure I’d hoped the R9 290 would have to slipped to by now (damn you, cryptocurrencies!). But the Tri-X still ticks all my boxes, I reckon it’s right in the sweet spot and I’m going to explain why. In other news, last week I saw the most exciting thing in gaming since I gazed fecklessly at the goldfish-bowl-proportioned cathode ray tube that masqueraded as a PC monitor and experienced hardware T&L and filtered textures (Tomb Raider on a TNT2, if you must) for the first time. The funny thing is, the bit I’m most excited about I haven’t even seen. I’m talking Elite: Dangerous. I’m talking TrackIR. I’m talking Oculus Rift DK2.

So, the Sapphire Tri-X Radeon R9 290. It’s not exactly fresh out of the oven. It’s been available for several months. The AMD Radeon R9 290 chipset therein is even crustier. Five months is an eternity in tech.

At least, it used to be. What was once a rather rabid GPU refresh cycle has taken on a more leisurely, processional gait. Progress remains inevitable, but it doesn’t beat you up before breakfast as was once the norm.

Take Nvidia’s current GPU king, the chip known as GK110. It was first seen, albeit not really in a gaming guise, way back in late 2012. Here we are in 2014 and it’s still Nvidia’s finest and the way things are going will survive into 2015.

The AMD Hawaii chip that underpins the Radeon R9 290 is quite a bit fresher, but again, it wouldn’t surprise me to see it survive well into 2015. The upside to all this is that any investment you make in pixel pumping today won’t be subject to the ravages of time with the sort of sickening speed that was once the case.

Onto specifics re Radeon R9 290. What we are dealing with is a card based on a genuine high-end GPU. Where Nvidia has blurred the line a bit between true high end and mid-range GPUs with GK104 (as found in the GTX 680, the GTX 770 and other boards) and then somewhat oddly pitched GK110 as almost beyond high end, AMD’s high end GPUs have remained a bit more unambiguous.

For me that matters, because while GK104 was a staggering achievement by Nvidia in terms of performance per transistor (unbelievably, Nvidia has raised the bar again by that metric with Maxwell even if there’s no sign of performance Maxwell parts as yet), there are inherent weaknesses that come with mid-range chips. Things like narrower memory buses and fewer ROPs. And these are the kinds of things that catch up with mid-range GPUs as they age.

Anyway, the point I’m making is that if at all possible, you want a card that sports some iteration or other of a current high-end GPU. And the cheapest chipset that currently ticks that box is AMD’s Radeon R9 290.

Unfortunately, that didn’t make the the R9 290 a no brainer at birth. Thank AMD’s inexplicable inability to design a board with half decent cooling for that.

It’s taken board makers like Sapphire to come up with a workable solution and the Tri-X Radeon R9 290 is an absolute peach. It’s the board the Radeon R9 290 always ought to have been. Sapphire has fixed the gale-force noise and come up with a cooler that’s both ultra-quiet and uber effective. I’ve done some testing and this card makes about the same noise as a standard GeForce GTX 750Ti. Enough said.

As it happens, I’ve just spent this week crunching the numbers with all the latest boards from Nvidia and AMD. Intriguingly, Sapphire’s own Tri-X R9 290X isn’t nearly as impressive. I reckon I detected some of the dreaded thermal throttling. I also fancy the R9 290 does exactly what I want from this kind of card. It delivers a gaming experience that’s subjectively indistinguishable from the most expensive boards you can buy.

NVIDIA’s 780 is a little close for comfort

At least it does up to 2,560 by 1,600 resolutions and most of the time. 4K may be the game changer that exposes the 290’s limitations. But those of you heading down the 4K path know who you are. And you know that you’re going to need some extraordinary graphics grunt.

For everyone else, the Radeon R9 290 seems to me the point beyond which diminishing returns really kick in. Admittedly, the argument for 290 would look a bit better had the whole cryptocurrency lark not prevented its pricing from slowly but gracefully declining post launch. The Nvidia GeForce GTX 780 isn’t that much more expensive at £360, but I would defy anyone to accurately distinguish between the two in most games most of the time.

If there is a caveat to all this it’s that the likes of Asus, MSI et al also do R9 290s with custom coolers and you know what? They’re probably every bit as good and deserve equal consideration. The point is that it’s the general notion of an R9 290 board with proper cooling that makes for the sweet spot right now and there’s certainly no reason to pay more than the £330 you need for the Sapphire Tri-X. Just make sure you don’t buy an R290 with the furiously noisy stock cooler.

Anywho, a custom-cooled 290 such as the Tri-X is a highly recommended bit of kit. If you’re considering dropping serious money on a new GPU any time soon, put it on your short list.

And don’t take my word for it, take the word of RPS’s Xmas compo winner who is finally going to get his card, now that I have given it a proper prod and poke. With any luck, I’ll pump him for impressions once he’s had the card for a bit.

The latest in elastic-supported chassis technology…

And finally, that Elite: Dangerous-TrackIR-Oculus-Rift thing. M’colleague on esteemed print pub and PC gaming institution PC Format (and our own Alec’s old stomping ground) has been taking the crowd-sourced Elite reboot for a spin courtesy of the TrackIR head-tracking gadget and the merest glimpse of it in action gives the impression that you’re glimpsing the future.

Not that TrackIR is brand new, obviously. But the game is so stupendously pretty and the impact that something as conceptually simple as head tracking makes is so profound, it’s reignited my incrementally but undeniably waning interest in actually getting in some quality gaming of late.

The point I’m trying to make is that Elite-plus-TrackIR is a little bit fabulous. And it makes me think Elite-plus-Oculus VR DK2 might just be completely fabulous. It might just be a whole new thing. And it’s made me more excited about gaming than I can remember.

I don’t have any particular insight to add other beyond that. It’s been covered elsewhere on RPS, but I just wanted to add my voice. Very likely, I’m going to buy a DK2 purely on the basis of what I’ve seen this week, which ironically didn’t involve any Oculus technology at all. In the meantime, I’m hoping to have a dabble with Elite and the TrackIR using my projector. If anyone has any experience of doing just that or similar, shout out below.

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58 Comments »

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  1. jonfitt says:

    I haven’t used my TrackIR since ARMA2’s early days. I’m looking forward to digging it and my joystick out of cryogenic suspension.

  2. Taidan says:

    Fingers crossed that the Elite guys will add support for FreeTrack/FaceTrackNoIR while they’re at it.

    • karthink says:

      I dunno about FreeTrack support; NaturalPoint doesn’t allow anyone using TrackIR to support other head-tracking solutions. They’re like the epitome of the scared bully.

      • Scythe says:

        Bohemia Interactive (Operation Flashpoint, ArmA, etc.) have had both native trackir and freetrack support since ArmA 2. They called Naturalpoint’s (TrackIR) bluff and there were no (public) repercussions. Naturalpoint are a mob of monopolistic bastards. I suggest anyone check out the free alternatives before shelling out for a TIR. Freetrack works well, I hear facetracknoir works well too. Both can emulate the pre-crypto TIR protocol, as well as the freetrack protocol.

  3. MadArcher says:

    I have been playing with this very card for a few months and I couldn’t agree more with you. Its stunning silence and its cooling efficiency while delivering awesome graphics are worth every penny.
    There is simply no need to pay more at this level of performance.
    I use it permanently overclocked by 10% and still it remains silent and quite cool (about 60°C/140°F).

  4. CookPassBabtridge says:

    For a similarly high end CPU / mobo / memory combination, what would be your recommendation?

    I am not fully genned up on all the card variations, but I’ve been waiting for decent coolers to come out for these cards before buying. I had been thinking of a 780ti or 290X. Was the 780ti a thing? Or did I make that up? PC gaming tech is officially Very Confusing.

    • Sakkura says:

      780 Ti is a thing. It’s slightly faster than the 290X, but has less memory (which matter at high resolutions, especially 4K).
      But when it comes to value for money you should look at the 290 and below. You pay a large enthusiast premium for the 290X, GTX 780 Ti etc.

      • Dale Winton says:

        Not quite true , they trade blows

        Gaming PC should be i5 4670k , with an R290x or 780ti I’d say

        • Sakkura says:

          The GTX 780 Ti is faster than the R9 290X on average. It’s just that the advantage AMD or Nvidia has in each game is often larger than the small performance gap between the 780 Ti and the 290X.

          • Dale Winton says:

            £500-550 for the Nvida or £400-450 for the AMD card though
            Edit – actually just had a look
            Cheapest 780ti £489
            R9 290X £359

          • Sakkura says:

            Yeah, though you’d want to avoid the cheapest R9 290X cards because they’re the ones with the terrible reference cooler. But if you get one with a decent cooler, they’re still quite a bit cheaper and only a little bit slower than the 780 Ti – so they’re better value for money.

    • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

      You seem uncaring about the price difference between the 290x and the 780ti, so i’d say the choice for the latter is a clear no brainer, unless you are interested in Mantle.

      It’s true that the VRAM is slightly less, but unless you want to SLI it for 4k ( because no single card will do 4k for ALL games ) then you’re golden. Also, going back to Mantle, we still have to see how much growth it’ll see and there’s still the issue that it’s implementation in BF4 isn’t without side effects.

      With Nvidia you’d get for certain their cool features ( if you care about that stuff ), and there’s also the matter that with everyone raving about CPU overhead both D3D and Nvidia stepped up their game, with their new beta driver doing some wonderful optimization that you can read there: http://www.nvidia.it/download/driverResults.aspx/74708/

      This essentially means that you’re placing your bet on an API that is certainly going to be used, unless Windows dies off course.

      • johnnyan says:

        How is “the choice for the latter a clear no brainer” ?

        • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

          Unless you want Mantle, which is a caveat i mentioned, would the choice be that difficult if there was NO price difference at all between the two cards?

          My reasoning works only if the OP doesn’t give a damn about the price, though.

  5. Tiax says:

    I canceled my DK2 preorder after the whole Facebook thingy, but boy is it going to be hard during the next few months.

  6. Premium User Badge

    SquidgyB says:

    I made a DIY version of the TrackIR back when I was eagerly awaiting Cliffs of Dover to come out and for various other sims (Rise of Flight, IL2, RFactor and black Shark were all excellent with head tracking set up, as I remember).

    At the end of the day it’s just an infra red webcam (you can make one out of a standard webcam and a piece of floppy disk material) tracking three or four IR LEDs with some software calculating the resulting head position.

    FreeTrack was the software I used at the time, but unfortunately it’s not been updated since those times, and now looks like a dead project.

    Another option is FaceTrackNoIR which doesn’t require any IR LEDs at all, using facial recognition for tracking. I don’t know how good this is nowadays, but it’s been in constant development – I haven’t got a webcam set up to test it unfortunately.

    PS3 Eye cameras are cheap and easy to get on ebay and have a better viewing angle and framerate than normal webcams as well.

    Of course TrackIR is a nice little package that’s easy to set up and get working quickly, but if you’re a tinkerer there’s a whole load of posiibilities for DIY head tracking out there, it just seems that everyone’s getting more exited by the prospect recently what with the Oculus strutting it’s stuff. I’m torn between ordering the DK2 or waiting for the next kit, having seen some comments from the team. We’ll see.

    • phelix says:

      I used to love TrackIR. Then I read about their anti-competition measures and abuse of market leader position.

      • Premium User Badge

        SquidgyB says:

        Ah yes, now I remember – that was one of the main reasons I decided to build my own… Their insistence on locking games down to their own protocols ruffled a lot of feathers in the flight sim crowd.

        I found my old PS3 Eye and just hooked it up and tried it with FaceTrackNoIR. It works, but it’s quite juddery just like I remember. Looks like it might have the facility to track points as well though, so making your own LED frame isn’t out of the question.

        Another major point of concern – your neck will ache. A lot. maybe it was my style of play, and setting up proper deadzones will help massively, but keeping an accurate bead on a plane while pulling through turns with pedals, throttle and joystick can end up being a full body workout on long flights.

        • phelix says:

          I wasn’t really talking about proprietary protocols, more about their …dubious measures against (perceived or real) rivals that technically puts TrackIR in breach of US/EU consumer law, as stated on the linked site.

          Good point about the muscle aches though, never experienced them myself, but then I’ve never played FSX for more than two hours on end.

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            SquidgyB says:

            That’s exactly what I’m talking about – they disregarded the already available HID protocols, developed their own, subsequently encrypted them and then coerced developers to maintain exclusivity to the TrackIR protocol and drop support for other protocols, like FreeTrack, HID etc.

      • drinniol says:

        I feel dirty for buying a TrackIR now :(

      • P.Funk says:

        “777 Studios (known for Rise of Flight) is founded by a former NaturalPoint employee and refuses to support head trackers other than TrackIR on the basis that they are illegal. ‘Any product that access the game for head tracking other than TrackIR is infringing upon NaturalPoint’s patents’ ‘We will never support such a device.'”

        Fuck these people and anyone who thinks like them. I fucking hate capitalists.

        • drinniol says:

          That’s not capitalist behavior, that’s arsehole-ist behavior.

          Naturalpoint should be shitting themselves, though, now that Oculus VR has infinite money.

          Hmm, that just changed my mind about the Facebook buyout.

        • AMacdonald says:

          Nevertheless, Rise Of Flight works with Freetrack and FaceTrackNoIR just fine.

    • AMacdonald says:

      I too built a special IR hat to use with Freetrack. Freetrack is dead as a project now but the same kit works flawlessly with FaceTrackNoIR and its point tracker plugin. Total cost of a home made hat and PS3 Eye less than a tenner. Bargain!

    • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

      “I’m torn between ordering the DK2 or waiting for the next kit”

      Unless you’re really desperate about VR, waiting is surely going to be a good thing. I haven’t tried it but i’m still pretty certain that more polish is always going to be welcome in this field.

      There’s also the matter that with head tracking you’re not forced to give up on your ( probably good ) monitor which is ( no matter what ) of better quality than the thing found in the Rift. Oh, and for the time being you’ll still be able to enjoy your room and the rest of your surroundings without a brick glued to your face!

      • Convolvulus says:

        I don’t think any amount of polish can help VR goggles because the technology is guaranteed to make people vomit. Better visual fidelity will only increase the disorienting sensory rift, so there’s no way to fix the problem. It can only be worked around by limiting the device to stationary/low motion simulations, so have fun playing Person in a Chair 2: The Reclining. (Also, Dear Esther.)

        • Asurmen says:

          Surely the exact opposite? The better the image ie displayed, the more convincing it is to the brain that you’re in motion.

        • drinniol says:

          Yeah – I don’t buy that either. Sight overrides the inner-ear (as anyone who has inner-ear problems will tell you).

        • sophof says:

          Watch Michael Abrash who actually knows things explain it to you (based on observations and study!) instead of simply making things up:

        • Premium User Badge

          All is Well says:

          As others have said, that probably isn’t correct, but even if it was it would still mean any vehicle simulation would be viable, as your body isn’t actually moving when you’re flying/driving.

        • Press X to Gary Busey says:

          You can be a sceptic all you want but please don’t spread FUD.
          And motion sickness is highly individual. I get it often myself and somtimes it’s just from headbob, variable framerate or mouse acceleration and not the motion itself. Doom turns me into a puke fountain while I can play Mirrors Edge for hours.

    • Premium User Badge

      All is Well says:

      I feel like it’s worth adding that
      A) If you don’t want to fiddle around with LEDs and batteries and such, you can always just buy a Trackclip Pro LED-thingy and a webcam – it’s still a lot less expensive than a full TrackIR setup.
      B) Floppy disk material probably isn’t optimal as it might block out some IR light as well as visible light. Exposed camera film should work better, but I don’t know if the difference is huge.
      C) The FreeTrack webpage still has some nice suggestions on how to get/build a headtracking setup.

      • Press X to Gary Busey says:

        With risk of breaking things, it might be possible to remove the IR filter from the camera instead of adding filter on filter. Plus it won’t look like a crap 5 minute homebrew. :P

  7. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    I have bought a R290 with the stock cooler, but I have no idea how loud that is because as soon as it arrived I pulled the air cooler off and water cooled it and it’s almost silent :)
    Voiding the warranty on a brand new bit of tech is fun, everyone should try it.

    • Horg says:

      It’s all fun and games until somebody has to RMA……..

    • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

      Heh, i’m lucky i’m still loyal to my Sandy Bridge or i wouldn’t be able to resist the idea of uncapping an IB/Haswell.

      Sure, i’m talking about CPUs and you about GPUs, but the point still stand, you did the right thing. Screw the warranty, it’s just an evil thing playing games with our own conscience. We are free men, not slaves!

  8. Sakkura says:

    R9 290? R9 290X? AMD just released the Radeon R9 295X2, which is a single card with TWO of the same GPUs as in the 290X, and running at higher clocks.

    It’s crazy expensive, but still the MSRP is half that of Nvidia’s Titan Z monstrosity. And the 295X2 has a far better stock cooler than the 290X; finally AMD managed to put together a good cooler.

    • SuicideKing says:

      Yeah, this is what i was expecting him to write about.

      • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

        It’s not the same bang for buck though, and that’s before even mentioning that Crossfire is not for everyone.

        That thing shines only if put against the dual Titan on a budget perspective, and even then that comparison only works if both cards are judged solely for their gaming prowess.

        Oh and, the author already dealt with the issues of stock 290’s with a huge “STEER CLEAR!!!” sign. ( this one is in response to Sakkura )

        • SuicideKing says:

          True on all accounts, though Jeremy generally does cover stuff like Titans so…

    • sophof says:

      Did you even read the article? He clearly states he thinks this card is at the right price-point before you get massive diminished returns.

      • Sakkura says:

        Yes, the R9 290 is at the point beyond which value for money goes out the window. Yet he still mentions the more expensive 290X. So why not the 295X2 as well? In for a penny, in for a (thousand) pound(s)?

    • Premium User Badge

      Wisq says:

      My experience is that AMD multi-GPU cards are best avoided. Unlike SLI, Crossfire actively breaks some titles (including newer ones, not just old games) in fullscreen mode; and unlike a multi-card single-GPU-per-card Crossfire setup, you cannot turn it off whatsoever. I came across a number of titles where the solution to my crash-on-startup was “turn off Crossfire”, an option I simply didn’t have available.

      • Dale Winton says:

        That is about three years out of date , it’s actually the other way about now

        I run 7970s in crossfire , used to be a slight bit of micro stutter every now and then but that is pretty much cleared up

      • Press X to Gary Busey says:

        Both have issues. It’s down to lack of testing and supporting the minority running multi-card setups.
        One “recent” example is Xcom Enemy Unknown (and expansion) is missing shield icons for cover. It’s reported as a dual card issue. Running just one card solves it (no matter AMD or nVidia). If you’ve got a multi-gpu card I guess you are stuck with guessing cover levels. :/

  9. MacTheGeek says:

    “If there is a caveat to all this it’s that the likes of Asus, MSI et al also do R9 290s with custom coolers and you know what? They’re probably every bit as good and deserve equal consideration.”

    Has any review site actually done a head-to-head-to-head comparison of the various aftermarket coolers for the R9 290? The Tri-X was pretty heavily reviewed because it was first to market, but I’d love to see a consistent methodology applied to all the brands, to turn that “probably every bit as good” into solid comparables.

    I understand why AMD and Nvidia use blower-style coolers for their reference boards, but that practice really hamstrung AMD with the R9 290 and 290X. The blowers just can’t push heat out fast enough or quietly enough to allow an ideal user experience. Maybe now that the mining-related price bubble has popped, we’ll see some more attention paid to the non-reference coolers that were introduced in the last couple months.

    The R9 290 is still out of my price range, but it’s getting closer. I may get to upgrade from my old 560Ti this year after all.

    • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

      There’s one thing i don’t like about Asus recently, and i used to be a pretty big fan of them: their cooler only covers the chip alone, which is an incredibly cheap trick to reduce the measured heat without much effort ( and noise ). That way, you can afford to build a cheaper cooler and still make it silent and efficient.

      “Who cares if the VRMs and RAM modules are both at 7291° C, your software can’t tell you that!”

      You’ll notice in overclock stability though, and that’s before even mentioning the biggest offender which is longevity.

  10. SuicideKing says:

    If you’re looking for another space sim with TrackIR support, as usual i’ll point you towards FreeSpace 2 and the Source Code Project.

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      Joshua says:

      I agree. FreeSpace 2 is rather brilliant.

    • karthink says:

      I highly recommend Diaspora: Shattered Armistice, the short Battlestar Galactica inspired dogfighting game. It’s in cockpit view, and headtracking does wonders there. (Built on the same Open Freespace engine, of course.)

      I’ve been using it to demonstrate headtracking to my friends and to a man, everyone’s gone “wow” when they realized they could lean forward in their chair to lean forward towards the radar in the cockpit.

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    amateurviking says:

    I just took the plunge on one of those cheap import 2560×1440 panels from South Korea which means I’m going to need to update the faithful old 560ti if I wan’t to get the most out of all those extra pixels (last monitor was a 23″ 1680×1050 – needless to say my mind is a little but blown by the new one). 290 + custom cooler sounds like a good fit, it’ll be a couple of months at least before I can do anything about it so unless we start seeing some high-end Maxwell-based cards I might pump for this instead.

  12. Ny24 says:

    I bought the R9 290 with the stock cooler and now I feel dissed by RockPaperShotgun. :(