MSI Radeon R9-280X Gaming
MSI as always dresses to impress with its non reference designs and well with the Radeon R series of cards there is no mistaking a MSI card from the rest as they carry very distinctive cooler designs and honestly when first seeing this card I was at a loss to tell it apart from the Nvidia 770 version I had tested some time ago when looking at it from the fans side. However once you get past the fans and shroud designs that is where the similarities end.
The Radeon R series cards for the most part are actually a relaunch of the previous gen cards for the most part with only the top end R9-290X actually being an entirely new Hawaii based GPU. This is not necessarily a bad thing though as with this refresh or relaunch so to speak AMD has dropped the price of its models in a way which caused an immediate response and a drop from the NV camp which tells us that while Nvidia may still hold the performance crown for now the competition is starting to heat back up.
The R9-280X we are looking at today is a 3GB card with a Tahiti based GPU and for all intensive purposes is a HD7970 GHz edition card with a new name. The great part about this though is this R9-280X model launches with a MSRP of $299.99 which means while it may be an aging model it is a top end card in the 300 dollar price range with a full custom PCB and loads of performance. Lets not forget this is a 3GB card which means that even at extended resolutions you have some framebuffer headroom should you come across the need to feed multiple high res displays or even a 4K display.
Military Class 4 Components
MSI has long touted the Military Class components on their cards due to the fact that they are specially tested components, not just by them but by a third party testing center according to the enclosed certificate. “Military Class components” sounds nice, but are they really necessary on a card or motherboard? Honestly, no as most times the reference components are good enough to do their job. However, they are not designed to push the limits to the extreme. The answer is better and stronger components. Most manufacturers worth their salt will use better components, so in order to try and stand out, MSI uses “Military Class” components in an attempt to ensure better hardware reliability.
Military Class Component Testing
When MSI puts military class components to the fire they are not joking as they come to the table claiming to have passed multiple tests following Mil spec (MIL-STD-810G) Tests including:
- Temperature Shock testing: Sudden thermal changes which can normally wreak havoc on electrical components are fully tested on these components to ensure they can last through some of the worst conditions liek lets say what the extreme enthusiasts community may employ them for. Although im sure the Lightning card will be more in that category its still nice to know its there.
- Humidity Testing: Testing of components in different humidity conditions can make a big difference as to the capabilities of the cards as different areas can have much different environments and not every deployment will be like a sterile lab and knowing they can take that kind of abuse once again is a major plus.
- Vibration tests: This one is a little nuts but being in California I guess if I have an earthquake I can ensure the shaking wont affect the components.
- Low Pressure Testing: This once again is a little extreme as deployment for different elevations especially extreme enough to require low pressure testing is gonna be extremely rare if ever but it will handle it.
- High Temperature Testing: This one should be a standard for every component in a high end PC as thermals are the enemy of every enthusiasts rig so I like to see such attention paid here.
- Low Temperature Testing: Once again I think something more targeted at the Lightning model, but the fact that they test these cards to withstand LN2 benchmarking temperatures tells me that under standard gaming stresses this card is gonna run and keep on running.
- Shock Testing: This is once again more extreme as these are similar to drop or rough impact testing which wel even if the card survives im sure other components may not fare so well in this kind of scenario.
So what we can take from this is that this card may survive the nuclear apocalypse or even a Zombie infestation but well in the case of a nuclear apocalypse this card looks like it could probably take it, and with The North Korea situation maybe you can hide behind a stack of these cards.
Advanced Twin Frozr IV Cooler
MSI introduced the Twin Frozr cooler quite some time ago. The Twin Frozr is MSI’s version of the custom cooler to keep the GPU and components cool on the card.
Here we see some advantages of the cooler design, including the dual propeller blade fans which work in tandem to ensure plenty of air is moved through the fin array for a cooler running GPU and also onboard components.
The propeller blade design is made to offer some serious airflow without the fan noise we had heard before and compared to the MSI 660 Ti we had tested previously it definitely sounds like they got the fan noise down quite a bit.
The complete cover heatsink is a nice dual purpose design as it works as a heatspreader for the VRM/memory components but also it helps stiffen the PCB quite a bit which makes for a much stronger and more durable card.
MSI offers its own software utility. MSI Afterburner is co-developed with Rivatuner which is very similar to what the other top manufacturers are offering.
There we see it above with multiple options including voltage control and power limit controls to ensure our overclock ceiling is just a little bit higher. Do note that some options may not show up right away and need to be enabled in settings otherwise they will be hidden.
MSI Gaming App
The Gaming app is a cool design as it offers a simple to use interface where users can quickly set a overclock or even Eco setting without having to work with the Afterburner app which for some can be a bit confusing especially for a newer or inexperienced user
Above you can see the small footprint of the gaming app. there is an addition to this gaming app vs the very first one I had used on the GTX 770 which it now has a cooldown button which you will notice as the snowflake above the silent mode button. This allows quick timed bursts of the fan up to 70% to rapidly cool the card when needed I am guessing if benching or stressing the card this could be pretty handy to cool down quickly between runs.
A Closer Look at the MSI Radeon R9-280X Gaming
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The 280X box looks almost identical to the gaming edition 770 box we saw before carrying the same dragon logo and gaming series nomenclature even the team Fnatic endorsement which is the pro esports team which MSI sponsors. The differences you will notice of course are the Radeon logo’s or badging in place and the spec details on the rear which speak of the special capabilities of the Radeon based card and GCN GPU.
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Here you see the complete accessory bundle and it is nice and plentiful. I do like that they include a mini Displayport to Displayport adapter to ensure that you can hookup a display if you have a Displayport model, One thing I would like to see is more versions of mini Displayport adapters offered directly from GPU manufacturers as many times gamers may not know which ones to use or even worse but one from an online source and it may not even work correctly so I think that many GPU partners are missing a big opportunity here to upsell with “Certified” adapters which are tested to work with their card models and this kind of convenience sometimes can be the kind of thing that makes a gamers life easier and even earns you a customer for life.
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The card as you look at it is quite beastly looking as the large cooler creates a dominating appearance but as I said before it is easily identifiable as a MSI card but I do wish there was some way to differentiate the AMD models vs Nvidia as the gaming messaging is strong but with no actual messaging on the card you simply don’t know what someone is running except the fact that its a MSI gaming series.
The rear of the card is fairly simple nothing really jumps out and I do like that there are no obscenely big components so being void of a backplate is not really an issue as the components are all very low so chance of damage without being super careless is not very likely. However if you find your free time taken up by playing shuffleboard with your cards then that might be something to be mindful of.
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The display connectivity is about standard for what we have seen on the Kepler based lineup
- 1x DVI
- 1x HDMI
- 2x Mini Displayport
This all digital connector arrangement allows for maxing out the GPU with up to 3 Displays for a Eyefinity surround setup.
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The Custom PCB of the R9-280X offers a full custom design including custom VRM fed by a 8 pin and 6 pin PCIe power combination which will allow for more than enough power to feed the hungry Tahiti GPU even when pushing the overclock for more performance.
The Dual Crossfire fingers offer expandability of up to 4 cards for maximum gaming horsepower should you find a game that a single 280X GPU can quite push to your liking.
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Removing the cooler we now see the massive cooling array of the Twin Frozr cooler design with the thick contact base for the GPU and the four massive heatpipes and even the single larger superpipe used to directly feed heat into the fin array where it can be quickly blown away from the GPU.
The card itself has a large front mounted plate which works double duty as it stiffens the PCB and also works as a passive heatspreader for the memory and board components allowing for the onboard components to get heat sapped away by the plate and the passing air from the cooler will help evacuate it from the card surface.
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And here after popping the top you can see the memory employed is Hynix H5GQ24H24AFR which are rated for normal use at 6GHz and even spec’d for up to 7GHz should they be employed in the correct ranging and grouping configuration. For this card they are clocked at 6GHz out of the box but ahead in the OC section we will see what they can really do.
Also here you can see the Military class components in the VRM in the form of metal case high end mosfet units and heavy duty chokes/inductors backed by all solid state japanese caps..
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The board includes a BIOS switch which unlike some this is not a OC BIOS selection but a selector between standard BIOS and UEFI GPU BIOS which is needed for the secure boot function of Windows 8 systems so it is a nice feature to have should you want to do a UEFI install with the fast boot times and added security.
Lastly here you can see the Tahiti GPU and no its not new, you have seen it before but regardless it is still a great and powerful unit especially for its new price point.
The OS we use is Windows 8 Pro 64bit with all patches and updates applied. We also use the latest drivers available for the motherboard and any devices attached to the computer. We do not disable background tasks or tweak the OS or system in any way. We turn off drive indexing and daily defragging. We also turn off Prefetch and Superfetch. This is not an attempt to produce bigger benchmark numbers. Drive indexing and defragging can interfere with testing and produce confusing numbers. If a test were to be run while a drive was being indexed or defragged, and then the same test was later run when these processes were off, the two results would be contradictory and erroneous. As we cannot control when defragging and indexing occur precisely enough to guarantee that they won’t interfere with testing, we opt to disable the features entirely.
Prefetch tries to predict what users will load the next time they boot the machine by caching the relevant files and storing them for later use. We want to learn how the program runs without any of the files being cached, and we disable it so that each test run we do not have to clear pre-fetch to get accurate numbers. Lastly we disable Superfetch. Superfetch loads often-used programs into the memory. It is one of the reasons that Windows Vista occupies so much memory. Vista fills the memory in an attempt to predict what users will load. Having one test run with files cached, and another test run with the files un-cached would result in inaccurate numbers. Again, since we can’t control its timings so precisely, it we turn it off. Because these four features can potentially interfere with benchmarking, and and are out of our control, we disable them. We do not disable anything else.
We ran each test a total of 3 times, and reported the average score from all three scores. Benchmark screenshots are of the median result. Anomalous results were discounted and the benchmarks were rerun.
Please note that due to new driver releases with performance improvements, we rebenched every card shown in the results section. The results here will be different than previous reviews due to the performance increases in drivers.
|Motherboards||ASUS Maximus VI Formula|
|Ram||Gskill TridentX 8GB (2x4GB) 2666Mhz 11-13-13 Dual-Channel Kit|
|CPU Cooler||Custom Liquid Cooling|
|Hard Drives||8x Western Digital RE4 2TB 7200RPM 3Gb/s Hard Drives (Raid 5)|
|SSD||3x Kingston HyperX 240GB SATA III 6Gb/s SSD|
|GPU||MSI Radeon R9-280X Gaming
Nvidia GeForce GTX 760 2GB Video Card
Nvidia GeForce GTX 780 3GB Video Card
Nvidia GeForce GTX TITAN 6GB Video Card
Nvidia GeForce GTX 690 4GB Video Card
|GeForce Drivers||327.23 (GTX 760,770, 780,TITAN and 690)
Catalyst 13.11 (AMD Radeon R9-280X)
|PSU||Thermaltake Toughpower XT 1475W Gold|
|Mouse||Tt eSPORTS Theron Gaming Mouse|
|Keyboard||Tt eSPORTS Meks G1 Illuminated|
Synthetic Benchmarks & Games
We will use the following applications to benchmark the performance of the MSI R9-280X Gaming video card.
|Unigine Heaven 4.0|
|Batman Arkham City|
|Dirt 3 Showdown|
|Metro Last Light|
|Sniper Elite V2|
Here we see first up is 3DMark 11 and with it the MSI 280X pulls in right around the 770 on extreme and actually surpasses it slightly in the Performance preset.
In 3DMark Firestrike and extreme the MSI Gaming model pushes well ahead of the 770 model from Nvidia.
Unigine Heaven 4.0
Unigine Heaven is a benchmark program based on Unigine Corp’s latest engine, Unigine. The engine features DirectX 11, Hardware tessellation, DirectCompute, and Shader Model 5.0. All of these new technologies combined with the ability to run each card through the same exact test means this benchmark should be in our arsenal for a long time.
Heaven pushes the 280X very hard and it falls about 1.5 FPS behind the 770 in this test.
Sleeping Dogs is actually a game that is actively bundled by AMD and its dominance in this game is prevelant as it takes a over 2FPS lead over the 770 here.
Even after many years, Metro 2033 is still one of the most demanding DX11 video games available to really push the limits of your system. Here the MSI 280X pulls a very respectable number trouncing the 770 by 6FPS which is alot when we are talking Metro at max settings.
Batman Arkham City
Batman Arkham City is a fun game and utilizes FXAA fully. It is nice to see the full screen anti-aliasing getting picked up by popular titles. Here being an Nvidia based title I am not surprised to see the 280X lose a little ground and it falls 3 FPS average behind the 770 but still within striking distance.
Tomb Raider once again is a heavily pushed title by AMD and with TressFX even after all of this time shows major issues like the hair looking like it was experiencing electro shock therapy to it just looking odd, however switch to the 280X and all is well in the world. Speaking of all is well the 280X once again muscles a lead of over 4FPS over the 770.
Metro Last Light
Here we have Metro Last Light which is a brand new game added to our testing platform as it just came out. If you thought Metro 2033 was stressful you have seen nothing yet. The particles and lighting, as well as the PhysX effects all add up to an amazing looking game that can put a stun even the most powerful system in its tracks. Here the MSI 280X we tested Metro Last light without the PhysX effects to ensure fair play as not to overload the NV cards since AMD does not support PhysX and to mu surprise the 280X trailed the Nvidia 770 card by only a single frame which is a surprise for a game which was pushed so hard by Nvidia.
Sniper Elite V2
Sniper Elite V2 is a fun game which, when first released, was quite stressful but still playable on most higher end cards. By now, most cards have surpassed it, and today is no different however the 280X has a tough time here pulling over 12FPS behind the 770 but still holding a solid 7 Frame lead over the 760 model card.
Dirt 3 Showdown
Dirt 3 Showdown is a visually beautiful game with excellent lighting and overall motion blurring creating a real visual spectacle of a game. The MSI 280X pulls in right below the 770 here again at just under 4FPS short of matching.
Overclocking on AMD is fairly straight forward as unlike Kepler there is no crazy algorithms to worry about which sometimes plagues power users as the Nvidia GPU boost utilizes many factors to calculate how it throttles.
AMD just lets you set the clock and power target percentage and your off to the races. MSIs innovation in the overclocking department by offering the Afterburner app has really changed the landscape and is probably one of the most used GPU tweaking tools on the market.
The MSI Radeon R9-280X is stock clocked at 1050MHz GPU and 6000MHz memory. As we started to push we eclipsed 1100 easily but found the limit at 1115MHz, but that was not completely stable so I wound up backing it down to 1110 which was stable for all of my testing.
The memory which is at 6GHz to begin with was able to reach 6520MHz before we lost stability, in all actuality you can do 6600 for benching purposes but it simply is not stable upon long gaming sessions as about 20 minutes of gaming caused a driver crash.
Total overclock for the MSI Radeon R9-280X is 6% on the GPU and 8% on the memory which is nice clocks but I have seen some 7970 GPUs do better so I am assuming this sample might just be a weaker one as I know the components and VRM should be up to the task for a much higher clock but that’s the way the GPU lottery goes.
To measure the temperature of the video card, we used MSI Afterburner and ran Heaven Benchmark in a loop to find the Load temperatures for the video cards. The highest temperature was recorded. After looping for 10 minutes, Heaven was turned off and we let the computer sit at the desktop for another 10 minutes before we measured the idle temperatures.
|GPU Temperatures||Temperature (Idle/Load)|
|Nvidia GTX 690||32C/81C|
|Nvidia GTX TITAN||31C/67C|
|Nvidia GTX 780||30C/65C|
|Nvidia GTX 770||34C/79C|
|Nvidia GTX 760||31C/67C|
|MSI R9-280X Gaming||31C/66C|
The Tahiti GPU is definitely a powerful GPU and it can put some heat out but honestly with the Twin Frozr cooler it really does a good job of keeping thermals at bay even at full load as it never once broke 70C and actually we only saw a stable max of about 66C. Also it is worth noting that the cooler was quiet even under load however if you do decide to ramp the fans to full speed they can make some noise but being that they stay this cool on auto fan I really don’t see the need to push the fan to full speed unless your benching it.
To get our power consumption numbers, we plugged in our Kill A Watt power measurement device and took the Idle reading at the desktop during our temperature readings. We left it at the desktop for about 15 minutes and took the idle reading. Then we ran Heaven Benchmark for a few minutes minutes and recorded the highest power usage.
Here the MSI R9-280X Gaming pulls just under the GTX 770 at idle and under load it jumps just a few watts above which is quite good considering this is a top end GPU
Our Final Thoughts
Overall the AMD launch was a bit of a let down to some as they basically just renamed several models but to me I see it as a great move since they are not ready with a full line of new GPUs yet they took one massive GPU and announced it along with renaming many existing models to fill in the new offering until they can come around for a new launch once all of the GPUs are ready to roll.
The lower price on the 280X or 7970GHz edition to 299 price point is awesome and makes it a viable option at a great price point.
The 280X pulls right behind the 770 which is quite a surprise since the 770 comes to market at a MSRP of $399 which makes for a 100 dollar delta with a minimal performance gain. This makes the 280X that much more of an incredible deal for gamers looking for great performance at a reasonable price.
Add to this the fact that the Never Settle bundle has many top end games available and you can get yet another 120 dollars in value pending the games offered are of interest to you and well honestly most of them are actually pretty awesome titles.