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ASUS Radeon R9 280X DirectCU II TOP Graphics Card Review


by Stuart Davidson - 8th October 2013
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ASUS Radeon R9 280X DirectCU II TOP Graphics Card Review

ASUS Radeon R9 280X DirectCU II TOP 3GB Review

This year is huge for AMD... at least on the GPU side. Their tech is powering Wii U, PS4 and Xbox One giving them a huge potential install base and overall platform for developers to master and build on. In addition, as things have worked out, the release of the new PlayStation and Xbox also coincided with the launch of their latest GPU family for PCs. These new products replace the Radeon 7000 series in the market and bring with them, in varying configurations, a mix of higher performance, new features and some enhancements to existing technology.

All great news... but it is not quite as simple as that. With this new range we have new branding... Or in the case of some cards, rebranding. Mix with that the fact that some of the products are launching now... others in a few weeks and the fact that the press are restricted in what they can say today and we have an "interesting" launch.

So in the interests of transparency here is how it is going to work... and stick with us because this isn't a quick explanation so maybe we will throw in some nice images to keep you going... This is our understanding of how launch coverage should work and a little on what the new cards are...

AMD have imposed restrictions on what sites can cover on today's content. They have given everyone full ability to cover whatever tests, configurations and non R9/R7 comparison cards they wish BUT only on specified/approved R9/R7 cards. So using some of ours as an example, today we could be covering multiple 280X cards (more on that branding shortly) but AMD have specified we can only review one brand of 280X and any other content would have to be reference design. The same going for the lower spec models such as 270X. Now when we say the same goes for that... we are not allowed to show the 270X from the same brand as our 280X even though the box, bundle, cooler etc are all very similar. Elsewhere, provided people play by the rules, you will see another brand of 280X card... maybe even one that we have but can't show, but they won't be able to show anything 280X from the brand we are covering (or any other brand) beside it.

R9 280XR7 260X
On the left the Radeon R9 280X and on the right the Radeon R7 260X

Clear? Probably not really... so we are going to go with the following approach. Today we will cover the highest specification model available at the time of writing, the R9 280X and our version is the ASUS Radeon R9 280X DirectCU 2 TOP 3GB. That is an overclocked version of the card and one of the highest specification models around. We will be comparing it to the two closest NVIDIA models (pricing wise) in the form of the GTX 760 and 770 (both OC models) as well as the part the 280X replaces, the 7970 GHz. We are testing on the latest i7-4960X CPU, Windows 8.1 and games such as Battlefield 4, F1 2013 and Total War: Rome 2. So if nothing else this gives us a nice base point for the price segment and performance in the latest games, on the latest OS/Drivers with the best hardware backing them all. On Thursday (10th) October when the AMD restrictions are removed we will then begin full coverage of the various partner cards around.

Could we show reference performance of the likes of R9-270X today? Sure... but based on the way the product family is shaping up the majority of cards available to buy will be custom designed, factory overclocked configurations and so any reference figures would just skew comparisons for a couple of days. So remember to check back for the full lowdown then.

So what is this new R9 280X? Well, at its core, this is an enhanced Radeon 7970. It uses the Tahiti GPU found in those cards however these are the latest revision of the GPU. That means enhancements to the base silicon and the potential to run at higher speeds. Add to that tweaks to the performance/voltage states and we begin to see an evolution of the 7970 design. (NOTE: 270X is similar to and replaces the 7800, for example sharing the memory bus spec used). As well as manufacturers being able to build their own PCB around the cards, enhancing the design over the 7970 there is one other key difference. The new R9 280X (and 270X) allow the use of Eyefinity without the need for a DisplayPort adapter... output configuration permitting. So in the case of the reference configuration of Dual DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort we can use 2xDVI and HDMI for Eyefinity. There is one caveat on the cards we have tested, the screens and system must be off when connected. Hot plugging displays will not enable Eyefinity without DisplayPort in Windows.

R9 280XR7 260X
On the left the Radeon R7 250 and on the right the Radeon R7 240

Taking a small tangent for a moment it is worth noting that the R9 in the 280X branding is shared by the other enthusiast cards (290X, 290 and 270X). At the sub $150 price point AMD begin pre-fixing their cards with R7... so R7-260X, R7-250. It is nothing more than an attempt to identify performance segments in a similar way to the naming used on their APUs.

Touching on the upcoming R9-290X (which uses a new GPU configuration) it too supports this new Eyefinity requirements, makes some changes to CrossFire which are not present in 280/270X and adds AMD TrueAudio which is also present in 260X. 280X/270X don't support TrueAudio and to be fair current games don't take advantage of it either. For that we need to wait on some upcoming titles and when utilised the TrueAudio tech takes the gaming audio processing task away from our CPU, uses graphics card resource to provide more advanced audio effects (such as improved virtual surround sound), and then passes it to our output device.

True AudioTrue AudioTrue Audio

Using Thief, one of the first TrueAudio titles as an example of how the tech impacts game development the above slides show what Yves Breton, EIDOS Montreal's Lead Sound Designer had to say.

So far we have a bit of a mish-mash of features across the R9/R7 range but one thing which is common across them all (and all GCN based GPUs including the 7900/7800 series) is Mantle.

MantleMantle

Simply put, Mantle is AMD's approach to providing the ideal platform for game developers to expose the features/performance of the AMD cards in their games. It is an approach similar to that found in consoles where developers can draw better performance out of the hardware than the PC equivalent... there is no need for the DirectX/OpenGL layer/overhead in the process. It's GPU>Mantle API/Driver>Game. Using Battlefield 4 as an example there will be a patch released later this year which moves AMD users from the DirectX build to a Mantle build and gives Dice the opportunity to expose more graphics features and performance.

So that's the basics on what AMD are beginning to launch this week... or what they pre-launched in Hawaii a couple of weeks ago. Very much putting in place a platform now for developers to take advantage of later if they wish.

With all that out of the way, it is time to look at the 7970... sorry... ASUS Radeon R9 280X DirectCU 2 Top 3GB!

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