ProsAmazing ultra-high-end performance at a reasonable price, silent and effective cooler
ConsVery large card, exhausts all heat inside case
The Sapphire Radeon R9 290 Tri-X is a custom version of the R9 290, sporting a triple-fan cooler and a substantial factory overclock. The R9 290 was originally introduced in November 2013 to much fanfare, due to its retail price of $400 and performance nearly matching the $1,000 GTX Titan. Prices on the 290 skyrocketed, however, due to its use in crypto currency mining, and in the meantime the reference AMD cooler received a lot of bad press for its noise and inability to keep the GPU cool. Sapphire came to the rescue with its Tri-X in early January 2014, about a month later than many enthusiasts had hoped. As you'll see in this review, the card and its cooler were worth the wait.
One drawback to the design is that the cooler extends far beyond the length of the 10.6" circuit board, coming to a full 12" overall. That means it simply will not fit in many cases, especially those with hard drive bays that are not removable. Before you take the leap, take out the tape measure!
Overclocking, Power Use, and Temperature
The test bench we used for this review consisted of an Intel Core i7-4770K@4.4GHz, an Asus Gryphon motherboard, 16GB of DDR3-1866, running Windows 8.1 and AMD Catalyst Drivers 14.4. Our Radeon R9 290 Tri-X sample was purchased at retail, and is therefore not a hand-picked reviewer's card. It features a 1000MHz core clock, which in our testing never fluctuated except when the card was not under a full GPU load, and it uses Hynix memory, allowing for a nice amount of overclocking headroom, even beyond the factory overclock to 1300MHz (5200MHz effective). These clocks compare quite favorably to the reference version's 947MHz/5000MHz, especially considering that the core clock does not vary due to heat constraints, as happens with the reference design.
Of course, we wanted to test the limits of this behemoth, so we set out on some overclocking experiments using a few of our favorite tools, 3DMark and Crysis 3. We use 3DMark to determine whether performance actually goes up with an overclock (this is particularly important for memory overclocks, which begin to yield lower performance as they fail), and then we turn to Crysis 3 to try to break the overclock with a system freeze. The limit of our card was 1075MHz on the core and 5800MHz on the memory without touching voltage. That's an increase of 13.5% on the core and 16% on the memory versus AMD's reference specs, and 7.5% and 11.5% over the Tri-X's shipping core and memory clocks, respectively.
To see if we could get a bit more performance out of the Tri-X, we boosted voltage by 0.05V, which allowed for an overclock of 1100MHz, or 10% beyond what Sapphire provided with its factory overclock. Now, we know more voltage would allow even higher clocks, but power draw became a concern for us. Have a look below to see what adding that small amount of voltage does to power use.
The R9 290 with a 1100MHz overclock uses more power than a GTX 780 Ti. Nonetheless, it was perfectly stable, and never went above 76C while testing. Therefore, we use this overclock throughout our benchmarks as a third sampling of R9 290 performance, in addition to AMD reference clocks and as-shipped Tri-X clocks.
Another thing to keep in mind about this card is that it exhausts essentially all of its heat into the case. We felt no air coming out of its rear vent, which wasn't surprising given the design of the card. In a small case or one with poor airflow, other components could overheat pretty quickly with the 290 Tri-X installed. Consider that issue along with its size before deciding on this card. As you'll see, you likely won't decide to pass on it due its performance!