Radeon R9 295x2 Review: AMD Delivers With Exciting Liquid-Cooled GPU

Posted: Apr 8 2014, 5:11am CDT | by , in News | Hardware & Peripherals

 

Radeon R9 295x2 Review: AMD Delivers With Exciting Liquid-Cooled GPU
Photo Credit: Forbes
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We won’t make the same thermal mistakes again.” An AMD executive uttered this promise — and did so quite passionately — to me weeks ago, way before whispering a word about the Radeon 295X2 to the press. We were discussing the company’s Hawaii GPU reference boards, their noisy cooling solutions, and the reliable but white-hot operating temperatures. I took the statement on faith.

Three weeks later I found myself in a black SUV occupied by AMD representatives who were decidedly suited up and guarding a silver briefcase. Inside said briefcase was the first step toward fulfilling that promise: The Radeon 295X2, a hybrid liquid and air cooled graphics card boasting dual Hawaii 290x chips, a whopping 11.5 TFLOPS of compute power, and the potential for some serious Ultra HD gaming.

AMD made this?” That was the first question that graced my inner thoughts as a representative slowly opened the briefcase, revealing an all-metal construction. A silver and black color scheme was accented by an illuminated red fan and Radeon logo on the shroud’s topside, lending a decisively more professional appearance than the plastic R7 and R9 series they introduced last year. For the first time in recent memory, this AMD graphics card looked like a premium product.

On paper, the specs looked to back up AMD’s $1499 price tag: A 1018MHz GPU clock, 5,632 stream processors, 8GB (4GBx2) of GDDR5 memory, a 640GB/s memory bandwidth. Plus a maintenance-free, custom liquid cooling system designed by Asetek.

AMD didn’t want a lack of technical know-how to impede the gaming goodness either, so they decided on a pre-assembled design. Install the 295X2, mount the 120mm radiator and fan, and call it done. I don’t have a wealth of experience with liquid-cooled products, and this was chimp simple.

The introduction of a product like this raises several questions: Who’s it for? How is it positioned against the competition? Does the performance justify the asking price? Does this signal a new direction for AMD? I’m going to attempt to answer all of these and provide you with enough benchmarks, data, and general impressions to aid your potential purchasing decision. Let’s dig into this beast.

The Radeon 295X2: Who’s It For?

Without question, AMD is marketing the Radeon 295X2 squarely at gamers with Ultra HD systems. With 4K display prices plummeting into the realm of affordability, that’s a wise choice. This card’s performance is sheer overkill at 1080p, though it’s worth considering if you have a 1440p or 1600p display with an eye toward a future 4K upgrade.

Determining an exact audience for this card is tricky. You’re basically looking at two Radeon 290x cards with a faster base clock. While two high-end GPUs is enough to deliver ultra quality settings at a 4K resolution, there are notable exceptions. Take a look at my review of Falcon Northwest’s Mach V for proof — that’s a system loaded with triple Nvidia Titan Blacks, and it barely delivered 60fps for games like Thief, Batman: Arkham Origins and Assassin’s Creed IV under maxed out settings at 3840 x 2160 resolution.

As you’ll see by the benchmarks below, the 295X2 will satisfy all of your 4K gaming needs if you’re willing to step down the quality settings of more demanding games by just a touch. And while I haven’t tested a quad-CrossFire (dual 295X2) setup of this card yet, I have no doubt that scenario would deliver all the eye candy you could possibly desire.

The Competition

Although Nvidia’s Titan Black is Team Green’s fastest available card, it’s only marginally better than the more affordable 780 Ti ($699). Honestly, I hoped Nvidia would have a direct response ready to roll in the form of a GTX 790. The recently announced Titan Z, while an absolute monster, is not that response — especially at what feels like an inflated price of $3000.

For the purposes of this review, we’re going to pit the Radeon 295X2 against two GTX 780 Ti cards in SLI. It makes the most sense from a price perspective: Two 780 Tis will run you $1398, while this will run you $1499. Effectively, that’s a $100 premium for a fully assembled, liquid cooled solution. The driving question is this: Is the premium worth paying?

The 295X2 At Play: GPU Clocks and Synthetic Benchmarks

Remember the variance issues and GPU clock problems that plagued the Radeon 290x and 290? Those cards promised a GPU clock speed “up to” 1GHz and 947MHz respectively, but they couldn’t maintain those clocks after approaching their ceiling temperature of 95 degrees Celsius — which took only minutes. In fact, I had purchased a 290x retail sample that could only maintain an average 818MHz over a 30 minute period.

With the 295X2′s implementation of hybrid liquid and air cooling, that’s a thing of the past. This time around AMD promised “up to” a 1018MHz GPU clock, and AMD delivered a constant 1018MHz GPU clock with no dips in performance. Whether it’s a few minutes or a few hours, you’re getting 1018MHz. I tested this using a 2 hour Furmark stress test as well as an overnight session of Unigine’s Heaven. That clock speed was unwavering.

Not only is this extremely reassuring, but in real-world scenarios this dual-card is clocked even higher than a reference 290x. That should give you an idea where our benchmarks are headed.

As always, here are the core specs for my testing rig:

  • Intel Core i7-4770K at 3.50GHz
  • 16GB Corsair Vengeance LP RAM at 1866MHz
  • ASUS Z87-WS motherboard
  • Windows 8.1

While not necessarily indicative of real-world gaming results, these Heaven benchmarks offer a solid glimpse into DirectX performance. They’re also surgical in their accuracy under repeated testing, and unforgiving in their demands. Under 4K resolutions, both Heaven and Heaven Valley show the Radeon 295X2 with a 12% to 14% lead over Nvidia’s dual 780 Tis.

For 3DMark FireStrike testers, the margins are a little closer. Using the FireStrike Extreme benchmark, the Radeon 295X2 produced a score of 8383, while Nvidia’s dual 780 Ti cards yielded a score of 8205. That’s about a 2% difference which is well within the margin for error on that test. But let’s get into the meat of our testing: Real-world performance.

The 295X2 At Play: 4K Gaming Benchmarks

For these tests, I ditched 1080p completely and concentrated on 4K benchmarks with a smattering of 1440p results. Remember that Ultra HD resolutions pack 4 times the amount of pixels as a 1080p display and therefore place considerable demand on the GPU. I’ve found that 4xMSAA (multi sample anti-aliasing) is the sweet spot for 4K resolution, while 8xMSAA produces the best looking results at 1080p and 1440p. Of course, your mileage may vary…

Based on our synthetic results the majority of these numbers are logical, but a few may leave you scratching your head. I’ll try to fill in the gaps. A bug has been discovered with the latest Total War: Rome II update which kills CrossFire support. This means that 20 frames per second average was being produced on a single GPU. Hopefully AMD can work with the developers on a fix since that graphics engine gets very resource hungry at higher resolutions.

Metro: Last Light, an Nvidia-optimized title, finds the 295X2 going toe to toe with those dual 780 Tis. The winner of Batman: Arkham Origins goes to Nvidia, though AMD does an admirable job of coming close even with PhysX set to High. Bugs and proprietary features aside, BioShock Infinite is the only title Nvidia claims undisputed better performance on, demonstrating a commanding 10% lead.

What’s interesting is what happens when we crunch all the numbers. Even with the crippled CrossFire support in Total War: Rome II, AMD’s 295X2 demonstrates 16% better performance across all of these titles, and it costs 7% more than two GTX 780 Tis. These are still close results which leaves plenty of room for other factors (heat, noise, software) to influence your decision.

The 295X2 At Play: 1440p Gaming Benchmarks

Testing the same titles at 1440p resolution, it appears that the Radeon 295X2 starts to distance itself from the competition. Look at the gaps in average framerates across games like BioShock Infinite, Sleeping Dogs, and Tomb Raider for example. But calculate the averages and you’ll discover the same 16% lead we saw with the 4K benchmarks.

At 1440p, both cards present perfectly playable framerates at near-maximum quality settings. When we journey up to 4K territory, it’s clear that small sacrifices will need to be made to hit that 60fps sweet spot in certain titles. Ultra instead of Ultimate in Tomb Raider. High instead of Ultra in Battlefield 4. As always, driver updates should yield slight performance uplifts on both sides of the battle. So what’s left is air versus liquid, hot versus cool.

Heat, Noise, and Power

While benchmarks are pretty black and white, the topics of heat and noise can be wildly subjective. That being said, there are a couple facts I can put on the table:

1: A Radeon 295X2 is slightly quieter under load than two GTX 780 Tis. It is dramatically quieter than a single reference 290x.

2: A Radeon 295X2 is significantly cooler under load than even a single GTX 780 Ti. Nvidia has very efficient air cooling, but the cards still operate at a max temperature of about 84 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, the 295X2 doesn’t crest above 60 degrees Celsius while under heavy load. And gone are the days of your 7990 blowing hot exhaust back into your chassis — with an assist from Asetek, AMD got the thermals right.

I didn’t have time to measure power consumption in a meaningful way, but even on paper I can tell you this is one area Nvidia will continue to dominate. The 295X2 can siphon up to 500W of juice, and it’s crucial that your power supply is capable of supplying 28A of current to each of the two required 8-pin PCIe connectors. AMD should have a list of compatible power supplies online at www.amd.com/r9.

Still, for gamers not versed in the ways of liquid cooling, this is a damn exciting — and low risk — entry point.

Closing Thoughts

Yesterday I praised Nvidia up and down for their 2.0 release of GeForce Experience and promised to take software into account when critiquing hardware from both camps. That praise hasn’t dissipated. While the 295X2 is the clear winner in performance and thermals, ecosystem loyalty can be a rough habit to break. AMD is making great strides with their Catalyst Control Center and the Raptr app offers one-touch streaming to Twitch as well as auto-optimization for popular games. But Nvidia’s Shadowplay still takes the cake. If that’s something you can’t live without, pick up a pair of 780 Tis and wear a smile.

(The 295X2 launches on April 21st, and we don’t yet know how Radeon Rewards — AMD’s tiered free game program — will factor in. I’ll do my best to keep you updated on that front.)

One 2000 word analysis can’t encapsulate everything you need to know about the Radeon 295X2, and admittedly there are angles I’d love to explore in the near future. Stuff like testing two of these bad boys in the same rig. Running the 295×2 with a triple monitor Eyefinity setup. Overclocking. Testing simultaneous streaming + gaming performance.

What I know for certain is that AMD’s Radeon 295X2 is a compelling product, and that it justifies its asking price in performance, thermals, and aesthetics. And I hope it signals a bold new direction for AMD in terms of design language and branding. Quite simply, if you’re not married to Nvidia’s robust ecosystem and want a 4K-capable card that stays cool and quiet, you can’t go wrong with the Radeon R9 295X2.

The Radeon R9 295×2 launches April 21st for $1499 and should be available via leading online retailers. 

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