This review compares the MSI R9 390X Gaming 8GB OC with the 290X 4GB (non-throttling) reference version, and with the GTX 980. This $429 MSI R9 390X Gaming has a silent mode which runs the clocks at the reference 1050/1500MHz, but out of the box it is clocked at 1080MHz/1500MHz, and MSI guarantees an overclock of 1100MHz/1525MHz that is supported by its 3-year warranty.
Besides comparing the MSI 390X Gaming 8G with the reference 290X at its stock clocks, we will overclock the 290X as far as it can go to compare with the 390X at the same clocks. We shall overclock the 390X to compare it with the GTX 980, the R9 Fury X, the GTX 980 Ti, and even with the GALAX GTX 970 EXOC to determine the new card’s value.
The GTX 970 and the 290X have been natural competitors with the GTX 970 holding its own against the aftermarket 290Xes, so a faster 390X should be a slightly slower competitor to the GTX 980 at around $450-499. AMD has renamed the usually 4GB vRAM equipped R9 290 series “Hawaii” GPU, “Grenada”, and has relaunched it as the 390 series with 8GB of faster memory. The memory frequency is up from 1250MHz (5,000MHz effective) on the 290X to 1500MHz (6,000MHz) on the 390X using higher-specification Hynix GDDR5 memory modules.
Grenada is the same Hawaii GPU released in 2013, but now on a more mature fabrication which allows for higher core clocks – from 1000MHz on the 290x to 1050MHz on the reference 390X; 1080MHz on the MSI card. Higher core clocks also mean that there is a need for much better cooling over reference as the voltage has also gone up. We plan to test Hawaii’s 290X versus Grenada’s 390X at the same clocks to see if there are any enhancements other than the faster memory and core clocks.
The Myth of the Throttling Reference 290X & the lack of a proper CrossFire Solution
The 290X reference versions were evidently quite unpopular, originally getting a bad reputation for running hot and throttling well below AMD’s “up to 1000MHz” on the core when it first launched. We were quite fortunate to get a PowerColor PCS+ overclocked reference version of the 290X at launch from retail that is clocked at 1030MHz on the core, and it does not throttle in cool ambient temperatures. In testing our much more recently purchased VisionTek reference version which also pegs 1000MHz, we find it does not throttle either at stock Uber (55%) fan profile. And neither card throttles at all – either separately, or in CrossFire with a space between them – when their cooling fans are allowed to spin up to a nearly unbearably noisy 100%.
Evidently the early Hawaii GPUs at their launch barely met specifications as the reference cooler was unable to cool them properly without throttling the clock speeds. At Hawaii’s launch, AMD was determined to beat the original TITAN’s performance even if it meant running the 290X on the edge with Uber clocks and with uber noise.
Newer Hawaii GPUs evidently have no such throttling issues with the reference cooler as long as the gamer is willing to put up with what most consider excessive noise from a fan that spins up to 55% when the GPU hits 94C. This is a rather big issue that CrossFire users face when picking a 290/X video card – either use reference and put up with extreme noise from two cards, or use an open design for multiple cards and roast the interior of your case and the PC hardware inside. Of course, the ideal solution is to watercool two Hawaii or Grenada GPUs, but it is expensive.
Enter the higher clocked and faster R9 390X. AMD has no reference version, so for 390X CrossFire this means putting two open-design 390Xes into a case which may overwhelm its cooling. The 390X still uses the same GPU as 290X, but higher clocks now require higher voltage and there is even more heat to deal with. The MSI TwinFrozr V model cooler is now more than 2 slots wide to keep the 390X cool, and it is very effective at idle when the fans may even shut down. However, at load the card makes itself known, although it is more like a rush of air – much like the GTX 980 Ti reference version – and not annoying nor intrusive like the hairdryer-like sounds of the reference 290X at Uber speeds.
The real competitor to the 390X at $429 is the slightly more expensive GTX 980 which starts around $450 after rebate. We purchased a MSI 390X from retail and we have put our test cards through their paces with a 26 game PC game benchmark suite. Since both cards are fairly close in price, they make for a natural comparison and we will use 3 resolutions up to 4K to determine the overall winner.
Let’s briefly look at our main competing cards individually. This evaluation is focused on each card’s performance, not on the architecture.
What’s New with the MSI R9 390X Gaming 4G?
Grenada has changed nothing from Hawaii except it is now equipped with 8GB of faster memory and higher core clocks. There are no other changes except to the cooling which has to be more substantial now.
Our Testbed of Competing Cards
Here is our testbed of competing cards and we shall test 26 games and 3 synthetics using Core i7-4790K turbo locked to 4.4GHz, ASUS Z97+ motherboard and 16GB of Kingston “Beast” 2133MHz HyperX DDR3 on Windows 10 Home 64-bit:
- MSI R9 390X Gaming 8GB OC – $429. (Stock 1080/1500MHz, 1080/1425MHz to match the 290X OC, and further overclocked to 1125/1500MHz)
- VisionTek R9 290X 4GB – reference non-throttling (1000MHz Uber mode and at 1080/1425MHz), originally $579 – discontinued, on sale for $250-$300.
- GTX 980 Ti 6GB – $649 – Nvidia’s mainstream GM220 single-GPU Maxwell flagship.
- GTX 980 4GB, $499, formerly $549 and Nvidia’s flagship before the TITAN X
- GALAX GTX 970 EX OC, 4GB, GALAX Clocks, $319
- Sapphire Fury X – $679. AMD’s new flagship single GPU with 4GB of High Bandwidth Memory.
This evaluation will pit the stock and overclocked MSI 390X Gaming 8G, as well at the 290X’ maximum overclock (1080/1425MHz), against the 290X and against the reference GTX 980. We also use the GTX 980 Ti, R9 Fury X, as well as the GALAX GTX 970 EXOC to give us “The Big Picture” We are using 26 modern DX11 games and 3 synthetic benchmarks at 1920×1080, 2560×1440, and at 3480×2160 resolutions.
How does the MSI R9 390X Gaming OC 8G compare with its rival, the GTX 980, and also against the 290X at the same clocks?
This is the big question: How does the MSI R9 390X Gaming OC 8G compare with its rival, the GTX 980, and also against the 290X at the same clocks?
First, let’s take a closer look at the new MSI R9 390X Gaming 8G OC as we unbox it.