Sapphire Vapor-X R9 290 Tri-X OC Review
Sapphire Vapor-X R9 290 Tri-X OC
I can say from the beginning that among my favorite custom implementations dedicated to AMD GPUs are the ones from Sapphire. Well designed aftermarket cooling, good factory overclocking, simple and effective overclocking software (TriXX) coupled with a fair price made the Sapphire models increasingly popular with PC users everywhere.
Some time ago I tested Sapphire Tri-X R9 290X OC which, although it was based on an AMD reference PCB, left a good impression due to the cooling system and custom BIOS. The BIOS had the maximum voltage for GPU unlocked for a maximum of 1.4V and also the Power Limit was slightly higher from the factory in order not to artificially limit the graphic card’s performance. These things combined helped us achieve a maximum GPU frequency of 1260MHz without any modification to the VGA card, frequency that many people barely get on LN2.
Today we deal with a more interesting card, judging by the specifications and market positioning at least. For some time, Radeon R9 290 is the video card with the best price / performance ratio on the market (except for the period when prices of AMD VGAs were artificially inflated due to the phenomenon of crypto-currency mining).
The model we are testing today is based on a Sapphire redesigned PCB, a new Vapor-X cooler based on Vapor Chamber Technology and comes with factory set frequencies significantly exceeding those specified by AMD. If you correlate that Sapphire Vapor-X R9 290 Tri-X OC runs at frequencies higher than the reference version Radeon R9 290X with the fact that the clock-per-clock performance difference is pretty small between R9 290 and R9 290X, then we must admit that this model is very interesting.
Packaging & description
The graphic card comes in a large sized box based – just like the video card itself – with a black-blue color combination. In terms of accessories, in the package we can find: CD with drivers and Sapphire TriXX utility, installation manual, HDMI cable, two PCI Express adapters 2 x MOLEX -> PCI-Express 8-pin and a themed mouse pad. Regarding connectivity, we have two DVI-D ports, a HDMI port and one DisplayPort – just like the AMD reference design.
As I said earlier, the card comes with some serious out-of-the-box frequencies, so we have the GPU running at 1030MHz while the GDDR5 memoriys ise running at 1400MHz (AMD’s recommended frequencies are 947MHz for the GPU and 1250MHz for the GDDR5 memory). We see that Sapphire is clocking the new Vapor-X higher even than the flagship Radeon R9 290X that has a specified frequency of 1000MHz for the GPU and 1250MHz for the GDDR5 memory.
The PCB is completely redesigned by Sapphire, having both a backplate and a portion of the PCB that makes direct contact with the cooler for a better cooling. Also, for a quieter operation in IDLE and in light loads, Sapphire implemented a technology called Intelligent Fan Control that completely stops 2 of the 3 fans when core temperature falls below 60 degrees C. The IFC technology can be disabled using the button you can find on the back edge of the card. The button on the top of the video card bearing the illuminated Sapphire logo switches the BIOS between Legacy and the UEFI mode (support for Secure Boot and faster boot times).
Under the hood
The cooler which fits the video card consists of a solid copper base with vapor chamber technology, the heat being drained towards the aluminum fins by 5 heatpipes (one 10mm, two 8mm and two 6mm). Sapphire has used three 85mm fans for cooling, the disadvantage compared to the Tri-X non-Vapor-X model is that the card occupies now 2.5 slots, this way multi-card configurations are quite difficult to arrange. The Sapphire logo on the cooler is illuminated in three different colors depending on GPU temperature: blue (0-60 degrees C), yellow (60-80 degrees C) or red (over 80 degrees C).
The VRM powering the GPU is cooled by a separate aluminum radiator and has 6 phases, each composed of polymeric and ceramic capacitors, a ferrite coil, IOR 5335M integrated Driver MOS (the PCB is designed for the 60A model, but unfortunately they are not used) driven by a controller produced also by International Rectifier. The VRM for GDDR5 memory has just one phase composed by three metal transistor, ferrite coil, ceramic, tantalum and polymer capacitors. The last important VRM present on this graphic card is intended for the PLL voltage consisting of an integrated Dr. MOS, polymer, ceramic and tantalum capacitors and a ferrite coil.
We can see that the coils are shaped with grooves for efficient heat dissipation, while the VGA card requires two PCI-Express 8-pin power connectors for operation. At the top of the card we can find an elevated portion of the PCB designed to make contact with the cooling system. This way, the heat stored in the PCB can be eliminated, the thermal aspect being extremely important, especially with a GPU so power hungry as Hawaii.
The IDLE temperature stabilized at 37 degrees C, having complete silence on my desk because only the central fan was spinning at 20% fan speed. Because it’s one of the most demanding benchmarks, we ran the Extreme preset of 3DMark11 and measured again the temperature and fan speed . The maximum temperature reached during the test was 68 degrees C and the speed of the fans were 35% (at this speed, the fans got noticeable but not annoying). The LOAD temperature is very good considering the factory overclocking but also compared to the reference board which is much warmer and noisier. Comparing the results which are identical to those of R9 290X Tri-X OC equipped with 2 slot cooler and without vapor chamber technology, I can say that I’m not really impressed. In IDLE Vapor-X R9 290 Tri-X is one degree hotter but is quieter thanks to IFC technology that keeps only a single fan running while all three fans are running for the Tri-X R9 290X OC.
We already talked about performance in the article from November last year, so we will not return to this subject. Instead, the overclocking potential is what concerns us the most using MSI Afterburner for setting and monitoring.
The factory overclocking is a nice bonus, but we cannot be happy only with that. I set the voltage at 1.11v (an increase compared to 1.04v which was set by default) and the Power Limit at 50% and then I started the adventure of searching for the maximum frequency at which I can run 3DMark11 Extreme. Finally, from a factory GPU clock of 1030MHz, I managed to get 1150MHz for the GPU and 1720MHz for the GDDR5 memory (default VDD), a good gain for such a complex GPU and considering that the increase in GPU voltage was minimal.
However the overclocking on these AMD graphic cards is pretty tricky because the frequency or voltage is throttled by the Power Limit set in BIOS (as seen on the graph in Afterburner). I couldn’t set a higher voltage for the GPU (although it was possible through Sapphire TriXX utility) because the VGA card reduced its frequency even under factory settings due to exceeding the Power Limit set in BIOS. This is set at a much more conservative level than in the case of R9 290X Tri-X OC where I could even apply 1.4v. This is strange, because the Vapor-X series should be positioned at the top of the Sapphire range of graphic cards.
Here, in the overclocking chapter we can see the true performance of the Vapor-X cooler, it managed to keep the GPU within 75 degrees C considering that the fans rotated at a speed of 42%, being set on Auto. They left the silence area, but the noise level is still much lower than the reference model.
As expected, the Sapphire Vapor-X R9 290 Tri-X OC performed very well in our tests, although a BIOS with higher limits in terms of maximum GPU voltage and Power Limit could have made the card shine in overclocking. However, from my point of view the real advantage of this graphic card is the performance and quietness delivered at the factory settings. It outperforms a Radeon 290X running at reference frequencies and it’s much more silent, but the secret “performance sauce” Sapphire threw in is the 1400MHz memory frequency, while most R9 290 / 290X, even if they come with increased GPU frequency, run at 1250MHz memory clock .
I think that Sapphire is also betting on the out-of-the-box performance, the Vapor-X R9 290 Tri-X OC being priced around 415 euro, while the R9 290 Tri-X OC is only 385 euro. The Vapor-X cooler is very good but it isn’t much better than the already excellent Tri-X, which has the advantage that only occupies 2 slots.
In the end it’s the customer’s choice what custom model to choose – if factory performance and silence is important for you then Sapphire Vapor-X R9 290 Tri-X OC is the card for you even if it’s 30 euro more expensive than most custom R9 290 models. If you plan to overclock the VGA card yourself, then the regular R9 290 Tri-X or similar model from other manufacturers should save you some money as the final result will be similar.