A review of the AMD Radeon R9 390X 8GB 4K Graphics Processing Card
The performance war for building the best 4K and HD gaming GPUs goes on between AMD and Nvidia with the consumer benefit of all sorts of excellent new cards being created on a fairly regular basis. However, in the general balance of victories and defeats, AMD has always seemed to come out at a very slight loss even when it outperforms its Nvidia rival in some specific metric or benchmark. The AMD R9 390X is one more example of this, although it is one excellent performer.
The 390 series of GPUs consists of the R9 390, which we will also be reviewing, and the R9 390X, being reviewed here, and in their qualities and performance, these two cards sit somewhere between the older top single GPU cards of the AMD 290 line and the company’s even more powerful new Radeon Fury GPUs which are now also going on sale.
In terms of direct comparison to Nvidia counterparts, the 390x is the rough equivalent of the GTX 980 seeing as how it is basically a overclocked and juiced up version of the now outgoing Radeon 290X Graphics card that also comes with the “Hawaii” processing core technology of its 290X predecessor. It won’t be until we get to the truly enhanced AMD Fury X that we get to see truly new processor cores like the “Fiji XT” architecture and a new type of memory called HBM.
So, given this competitive landscape and the technologies at work, how does the 390X stack up against its older GTX 980 counterpart at Nvidia? Quite well, even if it does suffer from some of the common AMD GPU problems involving power consumption, overclocking and heat generation. This is definitely not the best AMD 4K-capable card but it’s still an excellent piece of processing technology.
The R9 390X is based on the “Hawaii” processor design and features the same core configuration as AMD’s previous 290X. However, in a quality boost from the somewhat problematic 290X, the new GPUs processor has had its memory doubled to 8GB and the clock speeds of the new 390X have jumped up from 1000 to 1050MHz in the core itself and from 5.00Gbps to 6.00Gbps in the memory. Thus with this, there is a definite power boost from what was offered by the also excellent 290X of the previous generation.
Furthermore, the price of the 390X is, while not low, certainly bold at just $389 and this compares very nicely with the somewhat higher GTX 980 price tag of just over $450,depending on purchase source.
In terms of 4K gaming power, the 390X is a mediocre performer in many ways and will deliver mid-level frame rates only as long as it doesn’t get stretched to the limits of maximum detail levels at full 4K resolutions.
AMD has also added some other fine modifications in the 390X that put it a cut above from its 290X cousin. These include an increased bandwidth of 384GB/sec (from the 320GB/sec of the 290X and a superior performance when cooling comes into question. Also, the Radeon 390X offers DirectX12 support along with the rest of the 300 series from AMD
Most importantly on the 390X is it’s VRAM though, the 8GB is a very big boost and while it’s on par with what’s on offer from the Radeon Fury X and the GTX 980 Ti from Nvidia, here you’re getting it for a massively reduced price of just $389. This is great and those extra GB provide a fine amount of padding for near future gaming developments in which extra RAM becomes not just good to have but outright necessary.
There are plenty of other solid, more detailed aspects to the AMD Radeon R9 390X but we'll cover those in the specifics of the following sections on benchmark performance and highlights.
4.3 - 15 Reviews
The AMD Radeon R9 390X has plenty of great aspects, and particularly when compared to older GPUs from the same manufacturer or even older Nvidia brands. However, in the current landscape of newer cards, it also doesn’t stack up as well as it could. For this while sticking with AMD, you’d need to switch over to something considerably more robust like the new Fury X.
The most fundamental problem with the 390X is that it simply doesn’t do enough to surpass the qualities of the older 290X GPU. And the reason for this is simple: The 390X is basically the same card with a few augmentations, for all intents and purposes.
Aside from the massively expanded memory, enhanced core clock speed and improved memory clock speed, the 290X and 390X are identical in all other specs. These include equal 28nm construction, numbers of streaming processors, texture units, ROPs and Compute units along with equal 512-bit memory busses with GDDR5.
What this in effect means is that the problems faced by the 290X in many ways continue with the 390X and this isn’t a good thing because the 290X was a particularly hungry consumer of power and known for running very hot when used more intensively.
And the benchmark tests bear this out as we’ll see. While the 390X doesn’t run as hot as the old 290X did, it certainly gives up its fair share of heat and hitting peaks of 82 to 85 degrees Celsius, which puts its heat generation above that of the Nvidia cards like the 980, 980 Ti or Titan X.
In our final overview opinion, the AMD Radeon R9 390X is a superb GPU for HD gaming and a decent GPU for gaming at 4K and 1440p settings. If you want real performance, you’re better off moving up in specs to the Radeon R9 Fury X from Nvidia or the GTX 980 Ti against which the Fury X competes, or, if you want truly maximal performance, go for the Titan X from Nvida or the Radeon R9 295X2 dual GPU-in-single-unit card. However, if you’re budgeting on your 4K PC rig but want a taste of real gaming at ultra HD, then yes, the 390X is a really good option for it’s very affordable price relative to other serious 4K cards.
• Stream Processors 2816
• Memory Bus Width: 512-bit
• Texture Units: 172
• ROPs: 64
• Core Clock: 1050MHz
• Memory Clock: 6000 MHz GDDR5
• VRAM: 8GB GDDR5
• Form Factor: dual slot
• Total Memory Bandwidth: 384 GB/s
• GPU: Hawaii
• Architecture: Hawaii
• Transistors: 6.2B (billion)
• Manufacturing Process: 28nm
• Power Supply: 500 watts
As we’d already explained, the R9 390X is essentially a juiced up version of the 290X and it’s main highlight lie in these added specs. Besides them, most of the other characteristics of this card remain identical to or only superficially different from those of the older AMD card.
Thus, the single biggest and most obvious highlight of the 390X is its massively enhanced GDDR5 RAM memory. The 8192MB AMD decided to give this card give it its single biggest source of value and are what’s primarily responsible for the card’s enhanced performance. It’ is in fact largely thanks to the RAM that the 390X outdoes the GTX 980 in certain respects despite the latter’s otherwise often superior build.
Then there is the number of transistors. In this the 390X actually stays the same as the 290X with 6200 million transistors but at the same time, both cards thus offer more than the 5200 million of the GTX 980.
Moving on, we also have the benefit of the 390X’s superior memory clock of 6GHz. This is another of the performance enhancers on the 390X and it nicely boosts the cards overall memory bandwidth to a very decent 384GB/sec. Furthermore, the MSI Gaming version of the 390X card, which is being sold right now as the main consumer model offers a slight additional enhancement that drags the GDDR5 clock to 6.1GHz. This 6GHz memory clock is the result of AMD moving over to a fast and more efficient Hynix memory module.
Additionally, there is the overclock addition that has been given to the 390X. With this, Nvidia’s GTX 980 can finally feel some heat of the kind it didn’t feel from the original 290X, which could sometimes overclock but was barely capable of doing so. In the case of the 390X, AMD added an extra 50MHz of overclock and the MSI Gaming version of the GPU upps this just a bit more to a total of 1100MHz.
Finally --and this applies specifically to the MSI Gaming model of the 390X-- heat generation has been reduced thanks to an excellent, powerful heatsink and two powerful cooling fans which work to displace the heat created by 500W of power generation at high running speeds in the 390X. In this regard, the card is a serious improvement from its 290X predecessor, which was known widely for the heavy temperatures it could produce under intensive use.
4.3 - 15 Reviews
Now we get down to the meat of this review and move through some of the key performance benchmarks for the Radeon R9 390X. As you’ll see, the card obviously delivers without a hitch on any sort of HD gaming and if you’re not interesting in 4K gameplay so much as having absolutely excellent HD play under any conditions with any game without spending over $400 on just a GPU, then the 390X is a perfectly awesome choice.
However, the card obviously also does definitely deliver on 4K frame rates and overall performance, it just doesn’t do so with the kind of performance benchmarks that you’d get from Nvidia’s higher end cards, AMD’s Fury X or the massively powerful Radeon 295X2.
General performance during gameplay
In terms of general performance during gameplay, the 390X does superbly at Full HD. In fact, both it and the directly competing GTX 980 from Nvidia are basically way more than you really need for HD gaming unless you’re crazy about enormously high frame rates that reach or exceed 100fps. This is definitely more of a 1440p card (3440 x 1440p, or “quad HD”) and a reasonably sound performer at full 4K ultra HD settings so long as detail is kept to a lower level, at least for all but the most demanding games.
What really becomes evident when you use the 390X and compare it to lesser AMD cards or even to the Nvidia GTX 980 is that the added VRAM the manufacturer tossed in here really does make a difference. While neither the 980 nor the 390X seem to easily manage 4K gaming with higher detail at a full 60 frames per second, the 390X shows itself to be faster as the pixel count increases. The large memory bandwidth is a key player in this performance boost.
Power consumption was a key problem that the Radeon 290X faced as a card (though not as serious a flaw as its heat generation) and the same thing seems to have transferred over to the 390X with its nearly identical fundamental build.
In the case of the MSI build of the 390X, system wattage at idle loads seems to sit at around 109W during idl moments. In comparison, the Nvidia GTX 980 runs at about 99W anf the AMD Raedon 290X manages an equivalent to 390X 109W. Even here we see that the 390X hasn’t improved in this regard.
However, if you up the ante and move over to full load power consumption, things really start to look bad according to testing. The 390X ramps its wattage to 490´+ watts while the GTX 980 only boosts its own to 320+ watts. Oddly, even the Radeon 290X manages to keep its wattage below 450 so here the 390X seems to have regressed in quality.
Now if we look at performance per watt at 4K settings, power consumption benchmarks also don’t look so good for the 390X. In this regard, the MSI version of the 390X manages 100% performance per watt at 4K UHD resolution. While this seems good at first glance, it underdoes the performance per watt of the Nvidia GTX 980, which can manage a percentage of 216%!
The same occurs under 1440p settings, with the 390X managing 100% performance while the GTX 980 reaches all the way to 220+%. Clearly, in general terms, Nvidia’s competitor card is the superior performer here.
Heat generation has generally been the biggest problem faced by many recent AMD cards and the R9 390X hasn’t escaped this situation completely. The MSI model being sold now has done a lot to reduce heat generation thanks to the dual fans and heavy duty heat sink we mentioned already but overall, this card still runs rather hot.
Average idle temperature seems to sit at something between 48 and 57 degrees Celsius, depending on whose test benchmarks you look at and this temperature, while not terrible is still well above the average 35 – 40 degrees of the Nvidia GTX 980. It’s when things move over to full load gaming that the R9 390X really shows its heat problems. It runs at temperatures that seem to range between 78 and 84 degrees.
This isn’t nearly as bad as the 93 degree+ temps of the Radeon 290X but it’s still worse than the averages for Nvidia’s GTX 980 card. Furthermore, if you take into consideration how much MSI’s excellent cooling board setup is helping the 390X in not overheating, the card itself doesn’t really keep its heat to reasonable levels.
To keep things short and sweet here, the R9 390X is outstanding when it comes to noise generation at idle temperatures. While these figures apply to the MSI model, they can be said to represent the card itself. Basically, under idle conditions, the 390X turns its fans right off (assuming there isn’t heat to dissipate) and thus generates absolutely no real sound at all. That’s right, zero decibels, compared to the 28 idle decibels of the GTX 980.
When running at full loads, the 390X seems to manage roughly 40 decibels. This is partly thanks to the triple slot cooling of the MSI build, which is quieter than alternative and common dual-slot builds. 40 decibels is roughly the same as what Nvidia’s 980 and higher cards also create.
4K gaming on the 390X is a mixed bag sort of experience. On the one hand, this card has definitely been built with 4K resolution in mind but on the other hand it’s only a mid-level performer in this regard. The same applies to the GTX 980 and in the case of both cards, they’re not what’s really ideal for serious gameplay at 4K resolution. For that, you’d be better off with the Radeon R9 295X2, the AMD Radeon R9 Fury X or the Nvidia 980 Ti and Titan X. Make sure you have a 4k monitor thats designed for gaming.
Nonetheless, the 390X does manage some decent fps with 4K resolution. In the following games, it showed the following fps at 1440p and 4K resolution and highest possible detail settings:
Crysis 3 at 1440p: 34 frames per second / Crysis 3 at 4k UHD: 22 frames per second.
Assasins Creed: Unity at 1440p: 26 frames per second / Assassins Creed: Unity at 4k UHD: 22 frames per second.
Battlefield 4 at 1440p: 58 frames per second / Battlefield 4 at 4K UHD: 30 frames per second
Grand Theft Auto V at 1440p: 49 frames per second / Grand Theft Auto V at 4k UHD: 26.4 frames per second.
Essentially, the R9 390X never really comes close to hitting the 55+ fps needed for a 4K GPU to really be called a serious 4K GPU. Furthermore, while we’ll save the GTX 980 4K fps benchmarks for a review of that card, the 390X has a tendency to underperform its Nvidia counterpart.
The AMD Radeon R9 390X is currently retailing for a MSRP of $389. This is a great price for a card of this caliber, despite its deficiencies at full-blown 4K gameplay. The Sapphire version (Tri-X OC) will be in stock on July 3rd and with a price of $429.99.
4.3 - 15 Reviews
• One excellent HD and 1440p GPU
• Superbly large VRAM memory
• Great GDDR5 memory bandwidth
• Noise-free when idle
• Excellent cooling setup in MSI version
• Great price for overall specs
• Can’t manage 4K at high frame rates
• Runs a little hot considering its cooling system
• Inferior performance to Nvidia GTX 980