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AMD Radeon R9 review: 280X, 285, 290 & 290X

Chris Finnamore
18 Mar 2015
Expert Reviews Best Buy Logo
Our Rating 

Powerful cards for gaming enthusiasts with some great buys under £200

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OVERVIEW

We've tested four AMD chipsets for gaming enthusiasts. First up is the Radeon R9 280X. This has a Tahiti XTL or XT2 core, depending on the manufacturer, with 2,048 GPU cores and stock 850MHz core and 1,000MHz boost speeds. The Tahiti XTL and XT2 chips both have the same number of GPU cores and the same clock speeds, but the XT2 variant apparently has some power efficiency improvements.

The Radeon R9 285 cards are based on AMD's newest Tonga PRO GPUs, and are the first cards to support AMD's Graphics Core Next (GCN) 1.2 architecture. According to Wikipedia, this brings "improved tessellation performance, lossless delta colour compression in order to reduce memory bandwidth usage, [and] an updated and more efficient instruction set". The R9 285 cards we've tested all have 2GB of GDDR5 RAM, compared to the 3GB in the mid-range R9 280, and have the same 1,792 GPU cores. AMD's stock R9 285 speed is 918MHz.

The R9 290 is significantly more expensive than the R9 285, but is a big step up in terms of specification. You get 2,560 GPU cores, 4GB of GDDR5 memory and a 947MHz core clock speed. Finally, there's the most powerful card we've tested: the R9 290X. This has a huge 2,816 GPU cores running at 1,080MHz, and is a rival for the top-end Nvidia GTX 970 cards.

CardRatingAwardPrice inc VATSupplier
XFX Radeon R9 280X Double Dissipation Black Edition5Best Buy£186www.scan.co.uk
Asus Strix R9 2853£207www.scan.co.uk
Club3D Radeon R9 285 royalQueen3£187www.morecomputers.com
Sapphire R9 285 2GB GDDR5 ITX Compact Edition4£185www.ebuyer.com
XFX AMD Radeon R9 290 Black Double Dissipation Edition5Recommended£242www.ebuyer.com
Sapphire VAPOR-X R9 290X 4GB GDDR5 TRI-X OC4£273www.dabs.com

INDIVIDUAL CARDS

Radeon R9 280X

The XFX Radeon R9 280X is a very big card; at 295mm long it's only slightly shorter than the huge Sapphire R9 290X, so measure your case carefully. The card needs both six-pin and eight-pin PCI Express power connectors, so you'll need a decent power supply. The R9 280X has one dual-link and one single-link DVI port, HDMI and twin Mini DisplayPort sockets, so you may need a Mini DisplayPort to DisplayPort adaptor (around £10 from www.scan.co.uk) to plug into your DisplayPort monitor.

The R9 280X was seriously impressive in our tests. It could play Dirt Showdown smoothly at 3,840x2,160 at almost 42fps, had no problem with Tomb Raider at 2,560x1,440 with Ultra quality and demanding SSAA switched on, and could just about play Tomb Raider smoothly at 3,840x2,160 using the FXAA rather than SSAA anti-aliasing technique, with a 30.5fps average. In the highly challenging Metro: Last Light Redux benchmark, we saw a playable 35.3fps average at 1,920x1,080 with Very High quality and SSAA enabled. Disabling SSAA at this resolution gave us a silky-smooth 59.8fps, and even at 2,560x1,440 we still saw a playable 39.8fps.

It may be over a year old, but the AMD R9 280X is still an impressive card, and is very good value for its performance. It wins a Best Buy award.

Radeon R9 285

We have three cards based on AMD's newer R9 285 chipset. The Asus Strix R9 285 is the largest model, at 269mm long, and also the tallest, at 126mm high. This is due to a huge twin-fan cooler, which is almost silent when the graphics card is running at idle, but builds to a low rush under heavy load. The Club3D R9 285 royalQueen is smaller, at 218mm long, and also has twin cooling fans. However, this is a much noisier card than the Asus model under load when the twin fans spin up. Both the Asus and Club3D R9 285 cards have the standard twin DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort outputs.

The Sapphire R9 285 2GB GDDR5 ITX Compact Edition is something a bit different, as it’s a single-fan design in a short 172mm-long package. This is amazingly short for such a small card, meaning it will fit in even compact Mini-ITX cases, as its name suggests. The Sapphire card has two Mini DisplayPort outputs, so you may need an adaptor for your monitor (see the XFX Radeon R9 280X review above). The Sapphire R9 285 also requires a single 8-pin PCI Express power plug, compared to the twin 6-pin PCI Express plugs on the other two R9 285-based cards. Despite its single fan, the card is very quiet indeed, even under load.

All three cards are mildly overclocked compared to AMD's reference R9 285 speed. The Asus card runs at 954MHz, the Club3D model at 945MHz and the Sapphire card 928MHz. The cards have broadly similar performance in all three game tests; they produced very high, perfectly smooth frame rates in Dirt Showdown and Tomb Raider at 1,920x1,080 with Ultra detail, and maintained a just-playable average of 29fps (28fps for the Sapphire card) in Metro: Last Light Redux. This is a bit close for comfort, so you should turn off SSAA to get properly smooth frame rates in this challenging title.

All three cards managed around a playable 34fps in Dirt Showdown at 3,840x2,160 with Ultra detail, and in Tomb Raider at 2,560x1,440 we saw a playable 34fps from the Club3D and Sapphire cards and 35fps from the Asus model. To get a playable 2,560x1,440 frame rate in Metro: Last Light Redux we just had to turn off SSAA, whereupon we saw smooth 45fps averages from all three cards.

Among the R9 285 cards, the Sapphire model is our favourite, as it has similar performance to the other models but is smaller and quieter. The MSI GTX 960 Gaming 2G is cheaper and just as quick, so is a credible Nvidia-based rival, but our pick at this price is the XFX Radeon R9 280X, which is far quicker than all three Radeon R9 285 models.

Radeon R9 290

The last two AMD-based cards are very much in the hardcore gamer price range. The £242 XFX AMD Radeon R9 290 Black Double Dissipation Edition is overclocked to 980MHz, and the low roar its twin fans make under load isn't intrusive.

The card is very quick indeed, with a smooth 44.1fps in Metro: Last Light Redux at 1,920x1,080, with Very High detail and SSAA enabled. This is very close to the scores managed by the more expensive Nvidia GTX 970-based cards. The card was quicker than the GTX 970 models in the Tomb Raider benchmark, too, with a huge 84.3fps.

48.6fps in Dirt Showdown at 3,840x2,160 shows the card isn't troubled by this benchmark, and we even saw a smooth 34fps average in Tomb Raider at this huge resolution once we'd swapped the resource-hungry SSAA for the lighter FXAA anti-aliasing technique. In the Metro benchmark, leaving quality on Very High but turning off SSAA led to a smooth 49fps at 2,560x1,440, and we saw a just-playable 33fps frame rate at 3,840x2,160 by turning detail down to High.

The XFX AMD Radeon R9 290 Black Double Dissipation Edition is expensive, but incredibly powerful for the money. The Nvidia GTX 970 cards can’t match it for bang for buck, and it makes the Sapphire Vapor-X R9 290X look like overkill. If you're going to play games at up to 2,560x1,440, the much cheaper XFX Radeon R9 280X is a better buy, but if you want to dabble with 4K gaming the R9 290 is a great way to do it.

Radeon R9 290X

At the top of the AMD tree is the Sapphire VAPOR-X R9 290X 4GB GDDR5 TRI-X OC. This card's grandiose title is matched by its appearance. It’s huge, at 300mm long, heavy, and has three big fans and fancy metallic turquoise paint. It also needs two 8-pin PCI Express power connectors.

The card is very quiet at idle, as the two outer fans power down completely. It makes a low roar under load, but the noise's low pitch makes it unobtrusive. This is easily the fastest card we tested, on either the AMD or Nvidia side. The 1,920x1,080 Dirt Showdown and Tomb Raider benchmarks were dispatched without a problem, and 49fps in Metro: Last Light Redux with Very High detail and SSAA is a couple of frames per second better than the more expensive Nvidia GTX 970-based cards managed.

Dirt Showdown and Tomb Raider weren't a problem at 2,560x1,440 either, and turning off SSAA in Metro gave us 54fps at this resolution, even with the game set to Very High detail. We also saw a playable 37fps at 3,840x2,160 once we’d dropped detail to High.

The Sapphire VAPOR-X R9 290X 4GB GDDR5 TRI-X OC is a highly impressive card, which manages to be faster than the Nvidia GTX 970-based models despite being slightly cheaper. However, the XFX AMD Radeon R9 290 Black Double Dissipation Edition does most of what the R9 290X can do at a lower price, so is a better buy overall. 

AwardBest BuyRecommended
ManufacturerXFXAsusClub3DSapphireXFXSapphire
ModelRadeon R9 280X Double Dissipation Black EditionStrix R9 285Radeon R9 285 royalQueenR9 285 2GB GDDR5 ITX Compact EditionAMD Radeon R9 290 Black Double Dissipation EditionVAPOR-X R9 290X 4GB GDDR5 TRI-X OC
Rating533454
Hardware
Slots taken up222223
GPUAMD Radeon R9 280XAMD Radeon R9 285AMD Radeon R9 285AMD Radeon R9 285AMD Radeon R9 290AMD Radeon R9 290X
GPU cores2,0481,7921,7921,7922,5602,816
GPU clock speed1,080MHz954MHz945MHz928MHz980MHz1,080MHz
Memory3GB GDDR52GB GDDR52GB GDDR52GB GDDR54GB GDDR54GB GDDR5
Memory interface384-bit256-bit256-bit256-bit512-bit512-bit
Max memory bandwidth307.2GB/s176GB/s176GB/s176GB/s320GB/s361GB/s
Memory speed1,550MHz1,375MHz1,375MHz1,375MHz1,250MHz1,410MHz
Graphics card length295mm269mm218mm172mm283mm300mm
DVI outputs222122
D-sub outputs000000
HDMI outputs111111
Mini HDMI outputs000000
DisplayPort outputs011011
Mini DisplayPort outputs200200
Power leads required1x 6-pin, 1x 8-pin PCI Express2x 6-pin PCI Express2x 6-pin PCI Express1x 8-pin PCI-Express1x 6-pin, 1x 8-pin PCI Express2x 8-pin PCI Express
AccessoriesMini DisplayPort to DisplayPort adaptor, 2x Molex to 8-pin PCI Express adaptors2x Molex to 6-pin PCI Express adaptorsNoneDVI to VGA adaptor, DisplayPort cable, Mini DisplayPort to DisplayPort adaptor, 2x 6-pin to 8-pin PCI-Express adaptors1x twin Molex to 6-pin PCI Express adaptor, 1x twin 6-pin to 8-pin PCI Express adaptor2x twin Molex to 8-pin PCI Express adaptors
Buying information
Price including VAT£186£207£187£185£242£273
WarrantyTwo years RTBTwo years RTBTwo years RTBTwo years RTBTwo years RTBTwo years RTB
Supplierwww.scan.co.ukwww.scan.co.ukwww.morecomputers.comwww.ebuyer.comwww.ebuyer.comwww.dabs.com
Detailsuk.msi.comwww.asus.comwww.club-3d.comwww.sapphiretech.comwww.xfxforce.comwww.sapphiretech.com
Part codeR9-280X-TDBDSTRIX-R9285-DC2OC-2GD5CGAX-R9285611235-06-20GR9-290A-EDBD11227-04-40G

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