MSI R9 290 Gaming 4G Video Card Review

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AMD has had its new Rx 2xx series GPUs out for a couple of months now. Although models with aftermarket cooling have been out for it, here at OCF we have not had a chance to review any of them. That is about to change! In my hands is MSI’s offering, the MSI R9 290 Gaming 4G, which sports the Twin Frozr IV cooler. In past iterations, this cooler has been effective and quiet. Let’s see how it fares with trying to cool a R9 290, shall we?

Specifications and Features

Below is a list of high level specifications for this card. Some of the standout points are 4 GB of GDDR5 (1250 MHz), which utilizes a wide 512 bit bus and the 1007 MHz core clock out of the box. This is moving data through 2,560 shader units and 64 ROPs. Of course, it rests on the GCN2 architecture found in the ‘truly’ new AMD cards (meaning not the rebrands).

MSI R9 290 Gaming 4G Specifications
Graphics Engine  R9 290
Bus Standard  PCI Express x16 3.0
Memory Type  GDDR5
Memory Size (MB)  4096
Memory Interface  512 bits
Core Clock Speed (MHz) 1007 MHz Core    (OC mode)
977 MHz   Core   (Gaming mode)
947 MHz   Core   (Silent mode)
Memory Clock Speed (MHz) 1250
Shader Units / ROP’s 2560 / 64
Outputs 1 (Dual-link DVI-I)1 (version 1.4a)2 Mini DisplayPorts
HDCP Support Y
HDMI Support Y
Dual-Link DVI Y
Dispaly Output (Max Resolution)  2560×1600
RAMDACs  400 MHz
DX Version Support 11.2
OpenGL Version Support 4.3
Crossfire Support  Yes – 4 Way
Card Dimensions (mm / inches)  276x127x39 mm / 10.9″x5.0″x1.3″ (rounded up)

MSI has also put its own flavor to the card with its Military class components, such as the Solid Caps, Hi-C Cap and and Solid State Chokes. This leads to lower temperatures, better energy efficiency and a longer lifespan.

MSI also has their “Gaming App” which is essentially one button overclocking, or the inverse being a silent mode. Out of the box the card runs at the ‘gaming’ clocks.

Next up is the Twin Frozr IV cooler. As we can plainly see, it still uses the two large fans to keep the relatively densely packed aluminum heatsink doing its job. This design also uses a “super pipe” (a larger than normal heatpipe) to help whisk more heat away from the GPU core. This cooler worked well in the past on other cards, and I expect it to do well here too!

Last is the Predator screen cap and video recording tool. I have never used this app to record games or take screenshots, but a bit of research yielded very few complaints.

 icomilcl4
  • MILITARY CLASS COMPONENT – One of the deciding factors in performance is the quality of the components used. That is why MSI only uses MIL-STD-810G certified components for its Gaming cards because only these components have proven to be able to withstand the torturous circumstances of extreme gaming and overclocking.
  • SOLID CAP – One With their aluminum core design, Solid CAP’s have been a staple in high-end design mainboard designs and provides lower Equivalent Series Resistance (ESR) as well as its over-10-year lifespan.
  • Hi-C CAP – A Hi-c CAP is a very small, but super-efficient capacitor. Besides ensuring enough spacing around a CPU socket to install large coolers, it also allows for 93% energy efficiency. Thanks to Hi-c CAP’s MSI mainboards are the most energy efficient in the market.
  • SOLID STATE CHOKE – It’s a new generation, form-in-one choke, which doesn’t generate vibration noise under heavy loading & provide 37,5% higher current output comparing with traditional ring chock. It’s very important when GPU is overclocked or under high loading, since it requires even more amount of electricity which can be provided through this component.
 icogamingapp
  • GAMING APP OC Mode – Tune up core clock and fan speed to gain a best performance.
  • Gaming Mode (Default) – Provide a stable gaming experience with higher core clock.
  • Silent Mode – The best operating environment with fabulous low noise.
 icotwnfrozr
  • ADVANCED TWIN FROZR IV – MSI’s Twin Frozr has been the industry defining graphics card cooler. The first Twin Frozr kicked of the dual-fan trend and today MSI stays true to its dual-fan dual-slot design where others have to resort to less effective means.The other part that the Twin Frozr cooler uses is a large aluminum fin grid array that provides a huge amount of surface area for cooling. Heat from the GPU is transferred to the fin grid array by virtue of heat pipes with MSI’s special SuperPipe technology. SuperPipes transfer heat twice as fast as regular heat pipes enabling an MSI GAMING graphics card to stay cooler than the competition. Furthermore, MSI provides all new Airflow Control technology on Twin Frozr. This new thermal tech is leading airflow to heat pipes by special deflector on heatsink, so it can deflect more airflow to heat pipes directly. In addition, this exclusive heatsink design is increasing the area of heatsink so that enhancing the efficiency of dissipation much more.
 icopredator
  • EXPERIENCE – PREDATOR – A built-in screen and video capturing tool named Predator which captures your screen as still images or videos with the push of a button and allows you to capture and record your coolest, goofiest and most awesome gaming moments on your PC!

Photo Op – Meet the MSI R9 290 Gaming

Retail Packaging

Taking a look at the retail packaging, we see that it is indeed a ‘gaming’ card from MSI. The red and black theme and snazzy looking dragon gracing the front of this box leave little doubt about that. We see a couple of smaller notes, such as the gaming badge and the “OC” on the bottom left. This tells us that out of the box it’s… well, you already know – overclocked!

Flipping over the box shows you the same features I listed above in the Gaming App, Military Class IV components, TwinFroz IV, and the Predator app. I snapped some pictures of the other box sides as well. They are in thumbnail form if you would like to see them. There isn’t much to see outside of serial numbers and such really.

Retail Packaging - Front

Retail Packaging – Front

Back

Back

boxtop boxbottom boxside2 boxside1

MSI usually has a box in a box type of setup with the accessory stack being inside the first box, which rests on top of the GPU. MSI uses form fitting foam to keep the GPU (in an anti-static bag) secure in this packaging. No concerns here with how it is held.

Box in a Box

Box in a Box

Our First Glimpse

Our First Glimpse

The accessories included are pictured below. We have…

  • Quick User’s Guide
  • Installation Manual
  • Driver disk
  • Hybrid BIOS introduction card
  • DVI to VGA adapter
  • 6 pin to 8 pin adapter
  • Molex to 6+2 pin adapter
Accessories

Accessories

A Closer Look – The Card

Below we are seeing our first look at the card! As we expect with MSI’s GAMING line, we see a black and red theme with the gaming badge featured prominently in the middle of the heatsink cover. We also get our first look at the dual 100 mm fans, which help keep things cool. Flipping the card over shows us it comes with a backplate to help make the PCB a bit more rigid. The backplate also serves as protection to some of the tiny bits on the back of the card.

MSI R9 290 Gaming 4G - Front

MSI R9 290 Gaming 4G – Front

Rear

Rear

Glamour Shot 1

Glamor Shot 1

Glamour Shot 2

Glamor Shot 2

Moving on to outputs, this card comes with what feels like the typical selection of two DVI-D, one HDMI, and one full size DisplayPort. That should be plenty of options for single card triple monitor functions, or a single monitor, period.

As far as the power input required, there are 6-pin and 8-pin PCI-E plugs on the board.

The last picture in this grouping is of the BIOS switch. Sadly, this one doesn’t remove OCP or anything fancy. The only difference is how the card boots and resumes from sleep. MSI calls this their ‘Hybrid BIOS’. One BIOS uses the more traditional method, while the second is for modern systems (motherboards) that have a UEFI bios. The UEFI based BIOS allows one to resume from sleep and boot a bit faster.

Outputs - 2 DVI-d, HDMI (1.4a), and DisplayPort

Outputs – 2 DVI-D, HDMI (1.4a), and DisplayPort

PCIe Power - 8 pin and 6 pin Required

PCI-E Power – 8-pin and 6-pin Required

Bios Switch

BIOS Switch

Now comes the part where we break the card down and see what’s doing under the hood. When we take off the Twin Frozr IV cooler and flip it over, we can see the exposed heatpipes that snake from under the contact point throughout the fin array. We can see a couple of additional contact points for the power section and vRAM that is not covered by the plate covering most of the ICs. We can see different caps and such used when compared with the reference model, though the power delivery still appears to be the same. So, there are better parts, but not a more robust power delivery area by number of phases.

Getting a closer look at the heatsink, you can see more clearly the relatively dense fins arrangement. You can also see four regular heatpipes and the one “SuperPipe'” which helps keep this notoriously warm running card cool.

Heatsink Removed

Heatsink Removed

Close up of the Heatsink

Close up of the Heatsink

Card only w/Ram Cooler

Card Only w/Ram Cooler

Bare Card

Bare Card

A closeup of a vRAM IC shows us that it’s using the overclockers preferred, Hynix memory. Specifically, the H5GQ2H24AFR-ROC, which at a meager 1.35 V is rated for 1250 MHz (stock for our card). AMD can use lower memory frequencies because of higher bandwidth the 512 bit bus offers.

Hynix GDDR5 - H5GQ2H24AFR- ROC

Hynix GDDR5 – H5GQ2H24AFR- ROC

Power Delivery - Reference

Power Delivery – Reference

Software – MSI Afterburner and GPUz

Below is the old, but always good, MSI Afterburner. As mentioned in previous reviews MSI AB can change the usual core and memory clocks along with fan speed and the power limit. If the card allows, it can also adjust the core voltage, and even memory voltage and PLL. Recent additions to this software now make it possible to monitor your CPU temperatures, and even system RAM and page file use. It has seemingly morphed into a system monitoring utility lately, which isn’t really a bad thing to me.

MSI Afterburner 3.0.0 Beta 18

MSI Afterburner 3.0.0 Beta 18

MSI Afterburner 3.0.0 Beta 18

MSI Afterburner 3.0.0 Beta 18

Here is a GPU -Z v0.7.6 screenshot confirming what we essentially already read above. This new version of GPU-Z now shows the memory IC maker, so one does not have to remove the heatsink and potentially void your warranty to find this information.

GPUz v7.6

GPUz v7.6

GPU-Z Monitoring

GPU-Z Monitoring

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 290 Gaming @ 1007 MHz/1250 MHz, Overclocked @ 1128 MHz/1400 MHz
  • Windows 7 64 bit Operating System
  • AMD Catalyst 13.12 Beta drivers

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

Here we are… the benchmarks! As usual, we will start off with our synthetic tests, namely 3DMark Vantage. In our first test the MSI R9 290 Gaming 4G put up a score of 40,307 with its stock clock speeds. This score bested its reference, and lower clocked counterpart by around 1.4%. It came in a bit over 2% slower than the 780 Lightning and got a 10% beating by the mighty 780 Ti Classified. Overclocking yielded almost a 5% improvement here… Not too shabby at all. Remember, this benchmark is pretty CPU limited these days, so the performances gaps on some cards will likely grow in more modern benchmarks.

That said, we move on to 3DMark 11. Here the MSI 290 Gaming pulled out 13,196 score. Again, besting the reference 290 by a similar margin, and closing the gap on the 780 Lightning to what I would call a run variance of 0.2%. The 780 Ti Classy easily bests the 290 GAMING, but this time by a great margin at 14.5%. With overclocking that gap shrinks to a little over 5% (a nearly 10% increase over stock) so we saw a good response in this testing that isn’t so CPU limited. So far, what I am saying is holding true!!!

3DMark Vantage and 3DMark 11

3DMark Vantage and 3DMark 11

Next out of our Futuremark suite of synthetics is the latest installment, 3DMark (Fire Strike). In this benchmark, our MSI R9 290 GAMING hit 9,099 at stock speeds. This beats the reference and the 780 Lightning by a bit over 1% each, while the 780 Ti pulls away with even more authority here beating it out by over 20%! Overclocking in this benchmark showed around 4.5% improvement.

In our last synthetic benchmark, we bring in the heavily tessellated Unigine Heaven Extreme (Hwbot version). The MSI R9 290 managed to put up 2,955.1xx beating the reference 290 by over 2.5%, but falling 1.5% short of the 780 Lightning here. Again the 780 Ti  pulls away with an even larger difference of nearly 22%. Overclocking in this test has again showed over a 9% increase and reigning in the 780 Ti a bit.

3DMark (Firestrike) and Unigine Heaven Extreme (Hwbot)

3DMark (Firestrike) and Unigine Heaven Extreme (Hwbot)

So it appears the trend I thought would happen, more or less, did. The heavier you go into the GPU the more the comparison samples separate themselves. Overclocking helped bring it closer, but it’s still going to take a lot more clocks to reach 290x speeds.

Gaming Benchmarks

Now to the meat and potatos… or is potatoes? Anyway, terrible jokes aside, it’s gaming results folks! We will first look at Crysis 3. Here our review sample manages a playable 37.1 FPS average besting the reference model by 1.5 FPS or a bit over 4%. Again the 780 Ti takes a significant (by %) lead, but when you overclock the 290, it nearly catches up to it.

In Metro: Last Light, we see easily playable FPS with the MSI R9 290 Gaming coming in at 43.5 FPS, which barely beats the reference R9 290 and 780. When overclocked, it reaches 48 FPS but still getting a drubbing by the 780 Ti in this title.

Last up in this section, is my favorite, Battlefield 4. Here we see FPS at 72.1 stock and 78.2 overclocked. This bests both the R9 290 and the 780 Lightning by a few FPS while falling behind the 780 Ti Classified by a pretty large margin of almost 16 FPS.

Crysis 3, Metro: Last Light, and Battlefield 4

Crysis 3, Metro: Last Light, and Battlefield 4

Moving on to Bioshock: Infinite, and actually all games in this graph, they are plenty playable with these high ends cards. For the MSI R9 290, it managed 92.9 FPS stock and 101.3 overclocked. Here it is 1 FPS better than the reference R9 290 and loses out to the 780 Lightning by almost 8 FPS.

In Batman: Arkham Origins, the MSI card hits 100 FPS on the nose, the reference R9 290 was at 99 FPS, and the 780 hitting 117 FPS. This is a “NVIDIA” title, so that partially explains the big difference between the brands.

Last up is my favorite driving game currently, Grid 2. In this title we are seeing stock FPS of 105.2 and overclocked FPS of 115. In this game, the overclocked MSI card bests the reference by almost 4 FPS while still falling short of the 780 Lightning and 780 Ti Classified.

Bioshock: Infinite, Batman: Arkham Origin, and Grid 2

Bioshock: Infinite, Batman: Arkham Origin, and Grid 2

Last up is Final Fantasy XIV: A Real Reborn. Just as everything above, things fall in line to where we think they should be. The MSI R9 290 Gaming scores 13,854 in this test beating out the reference model while falling a bit behind the 780 and an even larger margin against the 780 Ti.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

 

Pushing the Limits

Last up is my usual favorite section, pushing the limits! Here I get to pour on some CPU speed, and add some voltage to the card and see what she can do. Sadly, this sample didn’t do too much more. I was able to push the clocks to 1150 MHz on the core and 1450 MHz for the memory, which yielded the results below in 3DMark (Fire Strike).

3DMark (Fire Strike) Extreme - 5,897

3DMark (Fire Strike) Extreme – 5,897

3DMark (Fire Strike) - 11,232

3DMark (Fire Strike) – 11,232

Unigine Heaven Extreme (Hwbot) - 4075.963

Unigine Heaven Extreme (Hwbot) – 4075.963

Cooling and Power Consumption

As far as cooling goes, we can see the results below. Even with the formidable Twin Frozr IV cooler on top, it still runs pretty warm… but note that is by design as these cards can handle it. The fan ramped up to a peak of 60% in this testing, which was audible but certainly not loud, nor could I hear it over my headphones. I happen to have a reference card handy and I can tell you without a doubt this cooler is way, WAY, quieter than the reference blower and also much more effective.

Temperatures

Temperatures

On the power side of things, the card peaked at 395 W at the wall, so around 355 W actual use with my system (4 GHz 4700K @ 1.1 V). Not too shabby for the monster this card is. As a side note here, I paid attention to the ‘trusty’ old Kill-A-Watt meter while running the Pushing the Limits benchmarks (CPU at 4.8 GHz 1.43 V) and managed a peak wattage of 434 W, or around 390 W actual use. One can still easily use a quality 550 W PSU.

Power Consumption

Power Consumption

Conclusion

Where to start here… I suppose let’s go with the positives! MSI has brought to the table another solid offering in their R9 290 Gaming 4G. It cools a lot better than reference with the their well performing Twin Frozr IV cooler strapped on top. They’ve also done some slight upgrades on the PCB with their Military Class IV bits, even though the number of power phases did not change from reference.

The cooling performance is really the key here to me. The Twin Frozr IV cooler with its large dual fans and SuperPipe, did a good job at keeping temperatures in order, though it runs a little warmer than a lot of us are used to (R9 290’s in general, not MSI’s version). The big thing is the difference in noise over the reference card… it’s monumental. That blower fan on the reference card is simply obnoxious compared to this cooler.

As far as pricing goes, we know that AMD put a MSRP on the reference 290 at $400. With the mining craze still in full swing, you would be hard pressed to find one close to that price, even a used one. The cheapest R9 290 I found on Newegg was ~$600. The cheapest aftermarket solution was ~$640. If we take mining out of the equation, I would imagine this card to land somewhere in the $420-$450 range. But, with the market as it is for these cards, I would expect to see this around $630 as well.

With that all said, we have an interesting landscape that formed over the past few months in regards to pricing. Currently, a GTX 780 that is as fast or a bit slower in the titles we tested, can be found for as little as $500 on Newegg. The 780 Ti, which easily bests any R9 290, can be found for $680 on Newegg which makes it a tough call.

Now that we have the why out of the way, I will cut to the chase and tell you all I am approving the card. It is not MSI or any other AIB that is jacking the prices up, so we can’t fault them. Just be sure you know what you want to use the card for… if you are interested in AMD’s Mantle technology for example, and how it can improve FPS in BF4, then that could be a deciding factor. If not, perhaps a 780 is the way to go for similar performance. Either way, MSI’s R9 290 GAMING has proven itself to be a MUCH quieter running card in my subjective testing and helps keep the card cool, so it has done its job well. This card is Overclockers.com approved!

Overclockers_clear_approvedClick the stamp for an explanation of what it means.

– Joe Shields (Earthdog)

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Discussion
  1. Wow a 50% markup in price over MSRP in the wild. This all makes me wish I had bought a r290 back when they initially came out, then flogged it on ebay.
    As far as gaming goes, it looks like it's not worth the price.
    Great review ED.
    MattNo5ss
    There's nothing wrong with MSRPs, they haven't changed. It's the retailers increasing prices to take advantage of supply and demand...

    I meant that like "Too bad we're looking at MSRPs in the rear-view mirror"
    Should have been more clear.
    I bought a 4GB 770 a few weeks ago for $370ish. I think they have gone up just a little since then as well, so that option (SLI 770s) would cost more than the 290. They would be more powerful, though.
    ninjacore
    I bought a 4GB 770 a few weeks ago for $370ish. I think they have gone up just a little since then as well, so that option (SLI 770s) would cost more than the 290. They would be more powerful, though.

    I think that would outperform a 290X, which is around the ~750 price tag of SLI 770 4GBs.
    I have seen most brands in stock for quite a while really.. reference and otherwise. While availability plays a role in pricing, it's seemingly been there but the pricing hasn't changed. :(
    Yesterday Newegg posted the reviewed msi 290 for 469.99. It was up for hours before it sold out. There was also a 290x for 549 yesterday and earlier today. Hopefully it is a sign of supply catching up to demand.
    The 290x is a powercolor, has free shipping, comes with bf4, and is still in stock. Granted most of them are still overpriced, but maybe they will level off now.