Gamers want power. Whether it's a faster CPU, better timings on RAM or the instantaneous flash memory of a SSD, the quicker the better -- and damn the price tag. That win-by-any-means ethos applies squarely to graphics technology, too -- and there's a new GPU on the block that wants your hard-earned dollars. According to AMD, the $1899 Radeon R9 295X2 is the fastest single-slot graphics card on the market today.
The Radeon R9 295X2 is the latest in AMD's graphics line-up, and it's the first official dual-GPU card since Radeon 7990 launched last year. It packs in two Radeon R290X graphics processors, each running at a slightly-boosted 1018MHz (over the 290X's 1000MHz), with a total of 8GB of 5GHz GDDR5 memory providing plenty of temporary high-speed texture and graphics asset caching.
Designed to be used for gaming with a 4K monitor or quadruple-headed Full HD screen setup, it's so powerful -- and consumes so much energy -- that it needs external cooling; an onboard fan just wouldn't be enough to keep the 295X2 from overheating. It has an onboard fan, of course, but the real heavy lifting is done by the twin watercooling blocks and external radiator.
The R9 295X2 arrrived in AMD's custom packaging for the card -- a metal suitcase that would be equally at home transporting a professional photographer's kit or a dirty bomb. With foam cut-outs for the card and its attached hybrid water-air cooling system, the case made for an impressive introduction to a hugely powerful graphics board.
The integrated cooling solution is one of the most impressive parts of the Radeon 295X2's kit. With two Asetek 740GN watercooling blocks chained in series, pumping coolant through a 120mm radiator with a single 120mm fan mounted, the 295X2's cooling can easily keep up with the 500 Watts of power consumed and output as heat by the card at full load. There's no question that this is a particularly bulky cooling system on an already excessively long graphics card -- it barely fit in my standard-size, mid-tower Antec Solo II.
This is not a graphics card that you can just buy down at your corner store and pop into your PC for boosted frame rates. The R9 295X requires two 8-pin PCI-Express power connectors, each of which must be able to supply 28 Amps on each 12V rail; the massively over-engineered 1200-Watt Corsair AX1200 in my test system handled the card just fine, but most other power supplies would be on the edge of their capacity powering such an energy-hungry graphics card at full load.
I benchmarked the Radeon R9 295X2 on an Intel Core i7 system with the following specifications:
Gizmodo Test Bench: Specifications
CPU: Intel Core i7-3770 Motherboard: ASUS Maximus V Extreme Storage: 1x 256GB Sandisk Extreme II SSD, 1x 1TB Western Digital WD Black RAM: 16GB (4x 4GB) Samsung 1600MHz DDR3 RAM PSU: Antec AX1200 Gold, 1200W Enclosure: Antec Solo II Cooling: Noctua NH-D14 CPU cooler, 3x Fractal Design 'Silent Series' 120mm case fans
With all that kit inside, this was one seriously heavy PC. And it was seriously powerful, too -- the benchmark results in Tomb Raider, Metro: Last Light, Battlefield 4 and Crysis 3 were far and away more impressive and higher than anything I've ever seen before. For gaming at 1080P, 1440P, or even with multiple monitors at these resolutions, the Radeon R9 295X2 is capable no matter the gaming title. Here are the average frame rate results we recorded, using AMD's Catalyst 14.4 Beta drivers:
AMD Radeon R9 295X2: Average Frame Rates
Battlefield 4 (Ultra): 1080P: 78FPS 1440P: 69FPS Crysis 3 (Very High): 1080P: 99FPS 1440P: 87FPS Metro: Last Light (Very High): 1080P: 62FPS 1440P: 50FPS Tomb Raider (Ultimate + TressFX): 1080P: 147FPS 1440P: 103FPS
How we benchmark: On our test system, we use a combination of current real-world gaming performance benchmarks at 1920x1080 and 2560x1440 resolutions, and synthetic performance tests using Futuremark's 3D Mark Fire Strike. All tests are run three times in series to produce an average result representative of expected everyday performance, accounting for any possible heat-related speed throttling due to insufficient component cooling.
The Radeon R9 295X2 also decimated every synthetic benchmark we threw at it. 3D Mark Fire Strike Extreme, for example, returned a result of 8352, a huge improvement over the sub-3000 scores of the GeForce GTX 670 usually sitting inside the testbench. In 3D Mark Fire Strike Performance, the GTX 670's sub-6000 scores were far and away bested by the Radeon 295X2's 14107 benchmark average. The GTX 670 is just reaching the end of its usable lifespan for playing current games at maximum quality and at 2560x1440 -- it's still reasonably capable -- so this should show you just how powerful the 295X2 is.
At $1899, the R295X2 isn't cheap, but at the same time it's a lot cheaper than the similarly specced -- twin high-end GPU-powered -- Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan Z, which is a painful $3000. In terms of power, it directly competes with a pair of Radeon R9 290X cards paired in Crossfire, which are slightly cheaper but take up twice the space in a PC case, consume even more power, and don't have the same elegant and powerful liquid cooling.
What is most impressive about the R9 295X2 is how consistently quiet it runs at full power. It might not be the quietest system when it's simply sitting idle, but it doesn't get much louder even when you're pushing it hard. The closed-loop liquid cooling system may have a relatively small radiator cross-section and only a single 120mm fan (although a second can be mounted in a push-pull configuration), but even during its third consescutive Crysis 3 benchmark, the card only had a barely noticeable raise in the audible volume of its onboard and radiator cooling fans.
Because the liquid cooling radiator is designed to be mounted in the place of a case fan, it's closer to the outside of your PC -- giving it an advantage in receiving fresh, cool air for cooling, but also making its mounted fan more audible. As a side effect, though, we did notice the increased power draw leading to our Corsair PSU's fan speed increasing under load. So if you're running the R9 295X and playing some seriously intensive gaming titles, your PC will get louder, but it's not directly because of the graphics card.
The R9 295X2 is definitely a niche product. You're not going to start seeing it appearing in HP's Harvey Norman specials, or even in a high-end Alienware box; it's designed and aimed squarely at the PC enthusiast who isn't afraid to upgrade his or her own components, build a system from scratch around a new graphics card (like the 295X2), and tweak everything for maximum performance.
The AMD Radeon R9 295X2, in all its $2000, metal-suitcase-bundled, 500-Watt power-sucking, benchmark-destroying glory will be available in Australia from the end of April, with stockists (and the amount of stock available) still to be confirmed. I don't imagine AMD will have too many orders for it, but in its own way, it's actually surprisingly good value.