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.