I've been using Nvidia graphics in my gaming PCs for quite a while — at least a couple of generations. Short dalliances with water-cooled monsters like AMD's R9 295X2 and R9 Fury X haven't been enough to tear me away. Maybe it's time to change, though; after some time away from AMD cards, I gave MSI's R9 390X Gaming 8GB GPU a bit of a test drive, and came away impressed.
It uses a last-generation flagship GPU. The $649 MSI Radeon R9 390X Gaming 8GB, like other 390X cards, uses the Grenada GPU — which is identical to the Hawaii silicon that drove late-2013's Radeon R9 290X. AMD has seen fit to double the amount of GDDR5 RAM on the 1.05GHz 390X's platform, so it's great to have 8GB of 6Gbps memory to push textures through. The R9 390X certainly isn't short of power for 1080p or 1440p gaming.
MSI has gone even further and has factory overclocked the Gaming 8GB model to 1.1GHz clock and 6.1Gbps memory speeds, which should mean a small performance bump versus vanilla 390X models. Having that Hawaii GPU running the show is great in terms of value for money; it's like buying last year's Ferrari — you get great levels of power, as long as you're willing to accept that you're not buying a super-new part.
It's more than fast enough for resolutions under 4K. Using Battlefield 4 as a benchmark in TechSpot's tests, the R9 390X monsters 1080p and 1440p tests with HBAO and MSAA anti-aliasing enabled; that is to say, it'll look excellent and run smoothly with greater than 60fps performance in modern games on any garden-variety monitor of around the 27-inch screen size or lower. It's only when you start spending a lot more on a 4K monitor that the 390X dips below the playable 30fps limit.
That means that for the average gamer, the kind of person that'll just jump into Far Cry 4 of an evening for some wanton destruction, the MSI R9 390X is all you need in your gaming rig — as long as it's paired with an appropriately gutsy CPU, and ideally a healthy serving of fast RAM and a high-capacity SSD. And, of course, it supports FreeSync, so if you happen to have an awesome monitor like Asus' MG278Q, you'll get smooth frames at 1440p even if performance does dip below that 60fps sweet spot.
AMD is the current DirectX 12 king. We saw this a couple of months ago in Ashes of the Singularity, where AMD's mid-range cards were equalling significantly more theoretically powerful Nvidia cards that cost a lot more. This is a big plus to anyone planning on buying a card for the long term, with the five-year future in mind, where games using DirectX 12 processing will quickly become far more common.
Windows 10 means big things for DirectX 12 adoption, and that's great for AMD, so MSI's 390X should continue to keep punching above its weight class. It's likely that this race will even out a little more as it continues to run — and we're already seeing that with similar performance levels from the two big competing brands in alternate-frame testing — but early results are certainly in AMD's favour.
MSI's Twin Frozr V cooling is super-quiet. Graphics cards these days are defined and differentiated by their cooling solutions, and MSI's new Twin Frozr V is great. I've been a big fan of Asus' DirectCU II and Gigabyte's triple-fan Windforce in the past, but I have precisely zero complaints about MSI's twin-fan heatsink. It's smaller and thinner than the last iteration, which means better airflow between multiple card in SLI, but the fans themselves are also stronger.
Despite that, it's so quiet, even under load. I've been two hours into Star Wars: Battlefront with the Radeon R9 390X in a cramped mini-ITX case and not heard a peep from it; I certainly rate it favourably to Asus' STRIX coolers. I like the red and black, and I like the LEDs, which you can customise the colour and brightness of with AMD's gaming app (which also handles overclocking, a la MSI's own Afterburner app) — that's really all there is to it.
It consumes a fair bit of power. Being a last-gen chip, and one that has been boosted significantly in its overall graphical output, MSI's R9 390X consumes quite a bit of energy, and you'll need an appropriately gutsy power supply in your PC. Using a mains power supply meter, I've seen the power consumption of the R9 390X rise above 350 Watts. Where competitor cards from Nvidia, and AMD's own newer Fury chips, are in the mid- to high-200W range, this is a significant rise in energy usage and therefore heat output.
You're only going to be paying a few dollars more per year than a more efficient card, though, and that's a kind of small extra that will pay for itself when you consider that the MSI R9 390X is around $650, and it's a full hundred dollars cheaper than MSI's own Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 cards. When the two are broadly competitive at 1080p and 1440p resolutions in modern games like Battlefield 4 at ultra quality settings, the 390X card — and MSI's especially — starts to look like great value.
We tested this device and wrote this review on Gizmodo's 2016 gaming PC: a machine built with the help of ASUS, Intel and Corsair. The PC runs on an Asus Maximus VIII Gene motherboard, an Intel Core i7-6700K CPU, Corsair Ballistix DDR4 memory and a Samsung 950 Pro solid-state drive.