MSI Radeon R9 390X GAMING 8G Overclocking Review

We take the new MSI Radeon R9 390X GAMING 8G video card and overclock it to it fullest and compare it with an overclocked GeForce GTX 980 at 1440p and 4K in today's latest games. Find out how much overclocking the R9 390X improves performance, and which video card is best performing. Can R9 390X overclock better than R9 290X?


Overclocking Experiences

Let's start off by talking about the AMD Radeon R9 290X for a minute. When the AMD Radeon R9 290X was launched it had some problems, problems that extended into impacting overclocking. The thermal and TDP management was poor, and the GPU clock speed would throttle quite a bit even just running in normal operation inside a case. We experienced drops in excess of 200MHz in GPU clocks from its "up to" specification of 1GHz. With it already throttling just at default clock speeds its prospect for overclocking was not good.

Once we got retail video cards with retail custom cooling we were able to experience stable clock speeds at 1GHz without throttling. However, we soon realized it was taking everything those coolers, at the time, had to keep it at 1GHz. There still was not much headroom left in the cooling units of early Radeon R9 290X video cards to allow any kind of good overclock. We were lucky to get overclocks up to 1050 or 1080MHz stable without throttling on early R9 290X video cards.

Later, as designs matured we were able to get better overclocks out of regularly priced video cards. We were finally getting overclocks over 1100MHz, up to about 1150MHz on the best of cards. Then the expensive cards came out, the cards like ASUS MATRIX series and Sapphire Vapor-X Tri-X which pushed the R9 290X to its limits, literally 1180MHz on the Sapphire card and 1167MHz on the ASUS card. It was video cards like these that allowed the highest of overclocks on the R9 290X. Overall, the Radeon R9 290X is seen as the weakest overclocker of the last series from AMD.

Now we have the refreshed Radeon R9 390X. While the GPU is much the same, processes and designs have matured even more over this time. The result is higher tolerances and abilities to raise the clock speed. With the default clock speed of 1050MHz on AMD Radeon R9 390X we are already at the maximum level early R9 290X cards overclocked to.

MSI has gone even further and an 1100MHz clock speed is default on the MSI R9 390X GAMING 8G. At 1100MHz we are as high as some of the highest R9 290X cards overclocked. The MSI R9 390X was able to go further.

MSI R9 390X GAMING 8G Overclock

We achieved an overclock up to 1150MHz without touching voltage on the MSI R9 390X GAMING 8G. At 1150MHz we are at the upper level of Radeon R9 290X overclocking with voltage increases. This shows improvement that we are able to overclock to that level now with R9 390X without changing voltage.

It gets even better, when we upped the voltage we were able to squeeze out 30MHz more performance and overclock up to 1180MHz. For a Radeon R9 290X this was unheard of except for the most expensive of video cards. The MSI Radeon R9 390X GAMING 8G is able to do it with ease, and stays very cool.

The heatsink and fan solution MSI is using is efficient for keeping this GPU cool while overclocking. We never experience throttling at 1180MHz and +50 voltage which definitely increased system wattage usage. With the fan at 80% GPU temps were under 70c. We could even lower the fan speed and let the GPU get warmer for reduced noise.

As far as overclocking goes, the MSI R9 390X GAMING 8G is an improvement over the Radeon R9 290X. While that is true, it still is nowhere close to the level of overclocking potential NVIDIA's Maxwell GPUs are able to achieve. However, R9 390X is a definite improvement over R9 290X.

We also managed to increase the VRAM clock speed from 6.1GHz to 6.6GHz, a modest overclock. Compared to the 5GHz RAM on the Radeon R9 290X though this is a massive improvement in memory bandwidth.

Overclocking Performance

While the overclock is impressive for the GPU this video card is based on, overall it did not improve performance by a large margin. The overclock represents an 80MHz GPU clock speed increase from the default MSI R9 390X clock speed already on the card of 1100MHz. This is not a lot, when you look at it that way, compared to itself. Compared to R9 290X it is a lot, but to the overclock MSI has put on this card, it isn't a lot.

This has resulted in an average of around 6-10% performance increase in games. This increase did not help achieve any change in the gameplay experience by being able to raise in-game settings in any game. Therefore, while it did raise performance, we weren't able to enjoy the game at higher settings because of it. It also did not help us achieve any better gameplay at 4K resolution and did not make this a video card perform well at 4K.

When we look at the overclocked GeForce GTX 980 reference card, it was much faster than the overclocked MSI R9 390X GAMING 8G in most games. There is a clear performance lead with the GTX 980 overclocked well ahead in most games.

AMD Radeon R9 390X Summary

The AMD Radeon R9 390X is what the Radeon R9 290X should have been. If you could take a Radeon R9 390X and time travel back to 2013 and replace the Radeon R9 290X with a Radeon R9 390X video card then that launch would have been a smashing hit. Not that the 290X did not impress somewhat at the time. At that time it was even somewhat impressive in 4K resolution gaming, but a lot has changed in terms of 4K gaming image quality since 2013.

The AMD Radeon R9 390X improves upon the R9 290X by eliminating the GPU clock speed throttle issue the R9 290X was notorious for. The AMD Radeon R9 390X has an improved board design, better efficiency, runs cooler, and overclocks a lot better than the Radeon R9 290X. It is also clocked a bit higher and has much faster memory and memory bandwidth. It is a shame the Radeon R9 290X wasn't up to the level the Radeon R9 390X is, like we said, it would have been a landslide win for AMD back then if it had been.

Now however, in mid-2015 the AMD Radeon R9 390X is only just barely competition for NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 980. When overclocked it cannot keep up with the massive overclock potential on the GeForce GTX 980. Even though AMD Radeon R9 390X overclocks a lot better than Radeon R9 290X, it isn't quite enough to compete with the large overclock potential on GeForce GTX 980.

We did however see the R9 390X actually just slightly outpace the GTX 980 in Far Cry 4 at our 4K gaming settings.

The Bottom Line

The MSI R9 390X GAMING 8G is able to overclock to 1180MHz with a little voltage increase. This is 80MHz past MSI's clock speed of 1100MHz, and 130MHz past the Radeon R9 390X's reference clock speed of 1050MHz. We don't have any other Radeon R9 390X based video cards to compare it to yet to see if this is a good overclock or not for R9 390X based video cards.

The reference cooled GeForce GTX 980 can overclock in-game from 1240MHz to 1516MHz, a clock increase of 276MHz. The AMD Radeon R9 390X, as much improved as it is, cannot come near that overclock. The Radeon R9 390X overclock is tame compared to GeForce GTX 980.

Overall the AMD Radeon R9 390X GPU extends the life of AMD's GCN 1.1 Hawaii architecture in today's games. The MSI R9 390X GAMING 8G overclocks better than Radeon R9 290X, giving it a little more performance to try and compete with NVIDIA's latest offerings. In the end, it may not be enough, but it is a good effort with higher clock speeds, more memory bandwidth and 8GB of VRAM.

We feel MSI did a very good job designing and building a solid Radeon R9 390X video card that stays cool and quiet and has plenty of options for hardware gaming enthusiasts to tweak performance. The MSI R9 390X GAMING 8G is a fun card to tweak with for overclocking. We feel it is a solidly built and we feel MSI did build this video card with overclocking in mind. It is well made and we felt confident while pushing it to its limits.

The MSI R9 390X GAMING 8G retails for $429 with Prime Shipping from Amazon and sells for $429 from Newegg with $5 shipping.