MSI R9 290X Lightning Video Card Review

Today we will be reviewing the mighty R9 290x Lightning from MSI. Some of us may recall the outcome of the GTX 780 Lightning review wasn’t exactly what the enthusiast crowd wanted it to be with the imposed power limits that were in place. Now, to be fair, this was not MSI’s fault. That distinction is squarely on NVIDIA’s shoulders for their ‘green’ program. That aside, this is an AMD card and we will have no such limits! That has to be a good thing, right? We will dig down into the nitty gritty of this R9 290x and see what MSI has done to make it warrant the Lightning moniker, and how well it performs.

Specifications and Features

Below is a list of specifications from the MSI website. To summarize, this is a 4 GB of GDDR5 memory card. The memory sits on a 512-bit bus with the clockspeeds coming in at 1250 MHz (5000 MHz DDR5). The core comes in with a nice factory overclock at 1080 MHz (from 1000 MHz reference) and is the highest out-of-the-box overclock of the existing R9 290x video cards. This clock speed pushes 2816 stream processors and 64 ROPs. More details can be found in the GPU-Z screenshot found later in the article.

MSI R9 290x Lightning Specifications
Graphics Engine AMD Radeon R9 290X
Interface PCI Express x16 3.0
Memory Type GDDR5
Memory Size (MB) 4096
Memory Interface 512 bit
Core Clock Speed (MHz)

1080 MHz

Memory Clock Speed (MHz)

1250 MHz (5000 MHz DDR5)

Outputs 2 DVI-D (Dual-link DVI-D)1 HDMI (version 1.4a)1 DisplayPort (version 1.2)
Display Output (Max Rresolution) 2560×1600
RAMDACs 400 MHz
DX and Open GL Versions  11.2 and 4.3
Crossfire Support Yes, 4-Way(SW)
Card Dimensions and Weight 302x131x55mm (11.88″x5.15″x2.16″), 1580g (3.5lbs)

Since this card is made to be pushed, MSI has what they call a “Triple Force Architecture.” The first, Triple Level Signals, is a fancy name for the word “Lightning” on the card changing colors by load. Green is less than 150W load (think idle/2D), purple is 150W-210W (light gaming), while red is for over 210W loads. The second part is the Trifrozr Thermal Design using triple PWM fans with Independent control in the two larger (90mm) outside fans have matching speeds, and the smaller (80mm) inner fan by itself. Neat design in all, but at this second the PWM fans and the latest drivers do not want to play nice… though I found the 13.12 driver allowed the full control in MSI Fan Control. This issue should be resolved soon though so don’t get too hung up on that as it cools just fine regardless. The third and last portion is the pure digital PWM control of the GPU, Memory, and VDDCI.

The R9 290x Lightning as we likely already know, most certainly is not using the reference PCB. As you will see later, it is a much more fortified board. The power phases went from 5+2 (GPU, Memory, PLL), to 12+3. This more robust power section is fed not only by the two native 8-pin PCIe plugs and the PCIe slot, it has a supplemental 6-pin driving up total input power to up to 450W. All the power bits are MSI’s Military Class 4 standards sporting CopperMOS, Hi-C CAPs, all Dark Solid CAPs and a new SFC. All these combined are said to give the GPU a cleaner input power to help maximize the potential of the GPU. With that in mind, MSI has put a dual bios switch on the card. When switching to the LN2 bios, you lose OCP and temperature limits allowing you to really stretch its legs, especially under some cold temperatures.

When you are pushing the limits on LN2, or even water and air, it is nice to know what is actually going on under the hood. Not with software whose accuracy can be questioned, but with the three voltage read points on the card for GPU, Memory, and PLL. Not only voltage control either… temperature monitoring of all three.

All in all, a pretty impressive round up of significant improvements from the reference model, that’s for sure!

icotripforce Triple Force Architecture

  • Triple Level Signals – Show the real-time GPU load by different colors.
  • TriFrozr Thermal Design –Triple PWM fans with Independent Control System on
  • Pure Digital PWM Control – Digitally controlled GPU, Memory and VDDCI
icotwinbios Twin BIOS & Enhanced Power

  • Twin BIOS – Separated BIOS chips for grgular use and LN2 overclocking
  • Enhanced Power – 12 GPU phases and 3 Memory phases on a custom designed 12 layers PCB for amazing overclocking potential.
icomilclass4 Military Class 4 Components

  • Components pass MIL-STD-810G certification for the best stability and quality
  • Equipped with CopperMOS, Hi-C CAPs, New SFC and All Dark Solid CAPs.
ico3xockits 3X3 OC Kits

  • Triple Overvoltage: Total control with GPU, Memory and PLL voltage adjustment
  • Triple Temp Monitor: Real time Monitoring of GPU, Memory and PLL conditions.
  • V-Check point: For direct and accurate read-out of GPU, memory and PLL voltage.
icovgafancontl  VGA FAN CONTROL

  • MSI’s exclusive software and only for R9 290X LIGHTNING.
  • Temperature of GPU and PWM on the interface.
  • Control the fan speed via two PWM controllers automatically or manually.

One of the most impressive things, outside of the hardware, is something to keep this card cool. MSI strapped on the Trifrozr cooler we saw on the GTX 780 Lightning with some improvements even! Before we get into that stuff I want to mention the two 90 mm fans and one 80 mm, all two ball bearing, PWM fans with MSI’s ‘propeller blade’ design doing the work. The main heatsink now has two SuperPipes (8 mm), and four regular sized heatpipes snaking through a slightly less dense fin array down to the nickel plated copper base/contact area. This whole heatsink blows down onto the front heatsink for the VRM and memory to keep it cool, with each fan essentially cooling a different part of the board. And last but not least, the back heatsink for looks, protection, and heat dissipation of the PWM. Combined, MSI calls this a “Form-in-one” heatsink. Working together, this monster is said to dissipate 500W!

If you are not going to go the air route, and want to use water or strap a pot on and go cold, MSI includes a MOSFET heatsink to keep the power bits cool only. This gives you room around the GPU and memory for that pot or GPU-only waterblock.

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Next we look at the slides on the 3×3 OC Kits, Triple Overvoltage, Military Class 4, and the variable input power (two 8-pin or two 8-pin + one 6-pin PCIe) which we discussed above. This card will tell you which power you have coming in via three LEDs on the back side of the card below the 6-pin leads. Red = not enough power, Blue = normal operation (2X8-pins plugged in), and Yellow = OC Mode (all three power plugs in). The next slide show the triple PWM controller of the Memory, GPU, and PLL/PCIe. 

MSI has done away with their GPU Reactor, but not without a bit of sadness it looks like. This wasn’t really their choice as it is due to “AMD’s PPC Power Architecture work[ing] radically different”. But don’t fret, they replaced it with a slew of high current capacitors. So I guess there are no more slot worries with that reactor on the backside at least!

I dropped in a couple of the memory slides as I thought it was interesting to see how they said they came to their choice of IC. In this case, Samsung. We know the Elpida’s really didn’t seem to have a lot of headroom for overclocking, and the Hynix were solid overclockers but due to a couple of factors — some of which being the PS4 eating some GDDR5 and factory fires — kept availability of these pretty low. MSI worked with AMD Engineers in Toronto to come up with the best GDDR5 configuration, which again, is the Samsung. We will get to see how these do a bit later (they do great!).

One of the last features I mentioned earlier is the BIOS switch. MSI says no more soldering, screwing, taping, modding, adjusting, correcting, a few more words as well… just flip the switch to break free of the 20% power limit to have no OCP and no temperature limit. NVIDIA, take note, this is how it SHOULD be done! Now… how about giving more voltage in the LN2 BIOS please!?

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Photo Op – Meet the MSI R9 290x Lightning

Retail Packaging

Ok, all the sweet technical details out of the way, we move on to the slightly more mundane and talk about the retail packaging. If you saw this bad boy on store shelves, you would be looking for the familiar yellow and black with an F-35 Lightning bursting through… who knows what. On the upper right hand side is the new OC Series label. Flipping things around to the backside, it goes over some features like the Triple Force Architecture, twin BIOS, enhanced power design, SuperPipe technology, and the Military Class 4 components. As usual there is not too much to see on the top or bottom.

Just like with the GTX 780 Lightning, this one came in a box that my wife may want to put jewelry in! All black on the outside with just a gold “Lightning” on the bottom right to break up the predominantly black box. It also has a little slide out drawer which most of the accessories are stored in.

Retail Packaging - Front

Retail Packaging – Front

Back

Back

Top

Top

Bottom

Bottom

Fancy Box in a Box

Fancy Box in a Box

Accessories

Below you see the included accessories. Everything from a quick start guide, to drivers, to additional power leads, the MOSFET cooler as well as the voltage read point plugs.

Accessories

Accessories

A Closer Look – The Card

Well, if you didn’t already webwheel down here to see her, there she is! We can see the two 90 mm fans flanking the 80 mm center fan on the TriFrozr cooler. Overall it is a full two slot card. It is also a hefty card, coming in at 3.5 pounds! Make sure things are screwed down tight as you wouldn’t want this, or any other card for that matter, jarring loose somehow or causing warping of the PCB.

The next shot is the card without the backplate on it, which shows just a hint of what is on the other side. If you look close enough under the 6-pin PCIe power plug, one can see the LEDs for power status. I also threw in some other shots of the card.

MSI R9 290x Lightning - Front

MSI R9 290x Lightning – Front

Rear (backplate removed)

Rear (Backplate Removed)

Alternate angle

Alternate Angle

One More

One More

Next up are the outputs: The R9 290x Lightning holds two DL DVI-D ports, HDMI, and a DisplayPort to round things out. Triple monitors on one card is not an issue here. Next up is the power: As you can see there are three inputs. Two 8-pin, and a 6-pin PCIe plug. The required plugs are the two 8-pins while the third 6-pin is optional. You would likely only need that third plug if there were some BIOS/voltage mods though, as the .1v out of the box will not likely take that far past its TDP.

On the side of the card, here is where you will find the voltage read points. From left to right is the GPU, Memory, and PLL. Following that is a picture of the dual BIOS switch. As mentioned above, flip it to the LN2 BIOS to disable OCP and temperature limits.

The last picture shows the front heatsink, and it shows good contact throughout the power delivery and memory areas as we would hope.

Outputs (DisplaPort, HDMI, and 2 DVI-d)

Outputs (DisplayPort, HDMI, and 2 DVI-D)

Two 8 pin PCIe and one 6 pin PCIe power (nly two 8 pin REQUIRED)

Two 8-Pin and One 6-Pin PCIe Power (Only Two 8-Pin REQUIRED)

Voltage Read Points and Fan plugs

Voltage Read Points and Fan Plugs

Bios Switch

BIOS Switch

sadfsadfsadf

Form in one heatsink – bottom

Software – GPU-Z and MSI Afterburner

Here is our complimentary shot of GPU-Z confirming the specifications above. You can see the highest out-of-the-box core clocks of any R9 290x here, sitting at 1080 MHz. The memory on these things are curious, with every model I can think of coming in at the reference 1250 MHz. The latest version of GPU-Z (version 7.7) also shows the manufacturer of the memory. In this case we can confirm it’s the Samsung they were talking about in their press documents.

GPUz v 7.7

GPU-Z v 7.7

Below is MSI’s overclocking software, MSI Afterburner. I’m sure we all know about what it can do as far as clock speed changes, voltage adjustment, fan control, and graphing/logging. I left it on the ‘Gaming’ skin as there was not a Lightning skin to be found natively. 

One thing to note is that, at least on my system, no matter what, MSI AB wanted to throw in +63 mV. I have reached out to MSI to let them know about this and they have stated the next MSI AB beta should resolve that issue.

MSI Afterburner Beta 18

MSI Afterburner Beta 18

The latest generation of Lightning cards (can you believe it has been since 2009 for the first version of these!?) uses the latest Trifrozr cooler. And with that we mentioned the PWM controlled three fan setup. The regular MSI Afterburner software cannot control the inside fan so this is needed to control it, or better, all of them on one screen. If you use the latest AMD drivers, 14.1 and above, you will likely run into an issue with controlling and the reporting on the fan speeds. A rollback to the 13.12s resolved the issue. MSI has reached out to AMD and is working with them to resolve the issue.

MSI Fan Controller

MSI Fan Controller

Performance and Benchmarks

Test System

  • Intel i7 4770K @ 4 GHz, 1.1 V
  • Gigabyte Z87-OC
  • Kingston Hyper X Predator 2 x 4 GB 2666 MHz CL11 @ 1866 MHz 9-9-9-24
  • 240 GB OCZ Vertex 3 SSD
  • Seasonic 1000 W PSU
  • MSI R9 290x Lightning @ 1080 MHz/1250 MHz, and Overclocked @ 1152 MHz/1500 MHz
  • Windows 7 64 bit Operating System
  • AMD Catalyst 13.12

Other cards used for comparison are as follows (any links are to the reviews):

Benchmarking Method/Settings

Note all testing below uses 1920×1080 screen resolution.

  • All Synthetic benchmarks were at their default settings
  • Unigine Heaven (HWbot) – Extreme setting
  • Crysis 3 – Very High settings with 8xMSAA/16xAF (2nd level when you procure and use the Crossbow to get across the level and kill the Helicopter)
  • Metro:LL – DX11, Very High, 16xAF, Motion Blur – Normal, SSAA Enabled, DX11 Tessellation – Very High, Advanced PhysX – Disabled, Scene D6
  • Battlefield 4 – Default Ultra setting (Tashgar level – ‘on rails’ car scene)
  • Bioshock: Infinite – Ultra DX11, DDOF (through Steam – option # 2, then option #1 assuming your are at 1080p)
  • Batman: Arkham Origin – 8xMSAA, Geometry Details/Dynamic Shadows/DOF/Ambient Occlusion: DX11 Advanced, Hardware PhysX: OFF, the rest On or High
  • Grid 2 – 8xMSAA, Ultra defaults + Soft Ambient Occlusion: ON
  • Final Fantasy XIV:ARR – Default Maximum setting
  • More detail is in our article: Overclockers.com GPU Testing Procedures

Synthetic Benchmarks

Our first taste of benchmarks is from the synthetic side of the house. We start off with 3DMark Vantage. Here the R9 290x Lightning scores 42,104, besting everything in this graph outside of the slightly more expensive 780 Ti Classified which it falls around 5.6% behind. This is really what we expect to see for the most part, so no surprises there. Here overclocking cut that difference about in half, but remember that Vantage is really CPU limited due to its required PhysX test.

In 3DMark 11, the Lightning pulls out 14,197 with stock clocks and settings. This is a bit over 4% behind the 780 Ti but easily beating out the R9 290 Gaming, and GTX 780 Lightning by over 8%. This time when we overclocked, the R9 290x took the crown away from the GTX 780 Ti.

graph3dv3d11

Next up is the latest edition of 3DMark… we use the Fire Strike benchmark (non extreme). Here the R9 290x Lightning scores 9,852 out of the box, again besting lesser cards as expected and still falling shy of the GTX 780 Ti Classified, but this time by over 10%. 

Moving on to the last synthetic benchmark, Unigine Heaven Extreme (Hwbot version). Here the R9 290x Lightning scores 3,213.3 again beating out what it should, and again falling almost 10% behind the GTX 780Ti Classified. Overclocking does close that gap to around 4%.

3DMark (Fire Strike) and Unigine Heaven Extreme (Hwbot)

3DMark (Fire Strike) and Unigine Heaven Extreme (Hwbot)

Gaming Benchmarks

Moving on to our gaming suite, we will start out with Crysis 3. Here we see the R9 290X Lightning putting up 40.2 FPS stock and 44.1 FPS overclocked. This falls just a bit behind the GX 780 Ti Classified as was the theme above, however with overclocking, the R9 290x takes the same lead. The point here though is we are easily above the magical ’30 FPS’ with this card, so playing with the settings we do should be just fine.

Our next game benchmark is Metro: Last Light. This is another game that is really tough on the GPU, and its FPS show that too. The R9 290X Lightning manages a solid 48.5 FPS stock and 52 FPS overclocked. This brings it closer to the GTX 780 Ti again.

The last game in this graph is still my favorite, Battlefield 4. Here the R9 290x Lightning manages 78.9 FPS stock and 84.5 FPS while overclocked (NOT using Mantle drivers/API). Which as you likely have guessed by now beats out the R9 290 Gaming, GTX 780 Lightning, and the Titan… but not the GTX 780 Ti. Again, overclocking puts it right in the ballpark though.

Crysis 3, Metro 2033: Last Light, and Battlefield 4

Crysis 3, Metro 2033: Last Light, and Battlefield 4

Moving on to Bioshock: Infinite, I almost have to think this is an “NVIDIA” game, as the R( 290x Lightning gets almost 100 FPS stock, which beats the R9 290 as it should, and essentially matched the GTX 780 Lightning, but loses to the Titan and GTX 780 Ti quite handily. Still, 100 FPS is incredibly playable so it is not like you would know the difference. 

Next is Batman: Arkham Origins. In this benchmark, the R9 290x scores 108 FPS stock and 119 FPS overclocked. Here again it beats out the R9 290, but not the GTX 780 Lightning, Titan (tied), or GTX 780 Ti Classified.

Last up for this graph is Grid 2. Here in my favorite racing game, the R9 290x Lightning hits 115.2 FPS falling just shy of the GTX 780, presumably a Titan (no data gathered in this game for this card), and gets smoked by the GTX 780 Ti. Again FPS are plenty playable throughout.

Bioshock: Infinite, Batman: Arkham Origin, Grid 2

Bioshock: Infinite, Batman: Arkham Origin, Grid 2

And finally the last game benchmark, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Here we show a total of 14,754 frames rendered in the test and again losing out to the GTX 780 Ti and this time, the Titan. Again this is plenty playable at our (highest) settings. 

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

Pushing the Limits

So, I had a chance to let this thing stretch its legs a bit. I didn’t move to the LN2 BIOS, but added .63 mV which allowed the core to reach 1180 MHz. I added .50 mV to the ram and ended up sitting at 1600 MHz, a whopping 350 MHz increase. Both still have more in the tank as far as voltage goes, so I imagine that is not the absolute limit either.

There are also some MSI AB tweaks online that can pour in some extra voltage above the 100 mV they give. Since this card has plenty of cooling headroom and such solid PCB/power bits, give that a Google and see how far she will go then!

Without further ado…

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Cooling and Power Consumption

One of the real concerns on AMD’s new GPUs is how much heat these things put out. The R9 290 throttled with a reference cooler due to the fan spin up being a little slow. A BIOS flash resolved that issue. But there was not a terrible amount of headroom in there regardless on the stock cooler. In comes the R9 290x with similar issues out of the gate. Here we have one way around that issue, which is to strap on a monster cooler like the Trifrozr, and see what it did.

With using the factory fan curve, we saw max temperatures of 73 °C and 76 °C respectively. The fan didn’t ramp up very fast at all and was nearly inaudible. So, a very good showing for the cooler. To add to this, I mined on it for a few days and boy did it do well there. In a 22 °C room, with fans at 55% all around, I didn’t break 64 °C. I certainly couldn’t hear it over the blower type R9 290 I had sitting next to it. With that off, you could hear it, but it was not bad at all. This cooler is quite impressive!

Temperatures

Temperatures

As far as power consumption goes, being the monster that it is, we know the R9 290/290x are not exactly sipping on the power. To that end, the most power draw I saw out of the ‘trusty’ old Kill-a-Watt was 397W at the wall (so around 360W actual). Another complete system that could easily be run by a 550W PSU. 

Power Consumption

Power Consumption

Conclusion

Well, it is time to wrap things up here. It should be pretty darn obvious that MSI has done a lot over the R9 290x reference specifications. The super beefy PCB, power bits, and extra power plugs allow more power and cleaner power to the GPU and memory. Again, those are all controlled separately with their own PWM controller. In order to keep things cool, they used the Trifrozr cooler found on the GTX 780 Lightning with a couple of slight modifications to improve it. Being an AMD card, we do not have a cumbersome power limit like the green team has. You can really get into the full potential of this card with a simple flick of the BIOS switch and some MSI AB tweaks. What a refreshing change! (Still looking at you NVIDIA… stop with the power limits!)

As wonderful as the hardware is, the software side does come with some minor issues that should be resolved very soon. The first is the fan control being messed up, likely by the AMD drivers, to the tune that you can only control one of the two sets of fans. A workaround is to use the Catalyst 13.12 drivers with MSI Fan Control. Hopefully the new drivers and/or an updated MSI Fan Control, wherever the issue may be, will resolve it. And last, another minor issue, but something to note, is MSI AB Beta 18 shows +63 mV on the slider. A simple ‘reset’ on MSI AB resolves it, but it still should be at +00 mV. Again, minor issues that will be resolved very soon.

The last part to discuss is price. In today’s ‘mining market’ as I just called it, AMD cards have a pretty significant premium on their heads due to their superior efficiency versus the Kepler generation of NVIDIA cards. The reference R9 290x was $550 and now can be found for $599. Prices seem to be stabilizing a little, which is a good thing. The MSI R9 290x Lightning comes in at $749.99 at Newegg.com. This is clearly at the highest end of pricing for this card and competes with the likes of the Sapphire Tri-X at the same price point. The next closest card is an offering from ASUS, their formidable DC2OC R9 290x at $649.99. So the price is higher than most, no doubt. But I am not sure it is out of line considering the hardware under the hood and its potential.

If you want the best of the best R9 290x, you have it here… but you will have to swallow that premium for it (nothing new). MSI nailed this, the latest generation Lightning folks, time to save a few more dollars and go grab it!

Overclockers_clear_approvedClick the stamp for an explanation of what it means.

- Joe Shields (Earthdog)

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Discussion
  1. Great review only thing i would recommend doing is changing the colors on the graphs next time so they are not so similar to each other. Its hard to distinguish between the different shades of white on my small laptop with key of the graph.
    Woomack
    nice review :thup:

    I have only one thing to say ... Lightning with warranty sticker :rofl:


    Yep i agree what a joke.. comes with LN2 mode and a warranty sticker.. wth?
    Looks like a good card for LN2.:drool: Good job with the review.

    I cant get this link to work in your review."Overclockers.com GPU Testing Procedures"
    My 2nd GTX780 has Hynix memory but it's not much better than Elpida in the 1st one ... maybe 10-20MHz better what is nothing. At the end good memory doesn't really help so much in general performance especially when you have memory controller with wide bus like in GTX780/Ti or R9 290/X.
    anthonyg45157
    If it makes you feel better, I paid the premium for a gtx 780... it was 529 so not much more than reference. BUT i got elpida memory..


    Lol, thanks!

    I got a real good deal on my card: i paid €270 ($350) for a brand new 290 wich unlocked to the x version!

    Still, love my old 780 and 780ti...
    manu2b
    Well, seems like a sweet card, but I wonder if it's worth paying the premium:

    My 290 unlocked with the stock awful cooler does 1200MHz on the core and VRM's never go above 70°C (kind of noisy though ;))...

    OK, memory can't sustain anything above 1350MHz, but still, it has cr..py Elpida memory.

    Edit: good write up as usual Joe!


    If it makes you feel better, I paid the premium for a gtx 780... it was 529 so not much more than reference. BUT i got elpida memory..
    Well, seems like a sweet card, but I wonder if it's worth paying the premium:

    My 290 unlocked with the stock awful cooler does 1200MHz on the core and VRM's never go above 70°C (kind of noisy though ;))...

    OK, memory can't sustain anything above 1350MHz, but still, it has cr..py Elpida memory.

    Edit: good write up as usual Joe!