A Closer Look at the ASUS R9 280X DirectCU II TOP 3GB

box - ASUS Radeon R9 280X DirectCU II TOP

Where this was originally an upper-mainstream bordering on enthusiast grade video card it came as no surprise to see that ASUS pulled out all the stops on its shipping container. To be precise this rather large box is gorgeous, informational, and above all else eye-catching without being too garish. What we mean by the latter is that while it has obviously been designed with teenager PC gaming enthusiasts in mind, the box is not too aggressive in its ‘gaming’ appeal; rather it strongly reminds us of ASUS’ Republic of Gamers motherboard series shipping containers. In fact the size of this box is nearly the right side to actually house a full motherboard and not the much smaller video card it really protects.

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This over-sized form factor unfortunately can be considered a negative. Yes it certainly offers tons of extra protection over that of most video cards, but it is almost too big and it will take up a lot more room in your storage bin than most cards boxes. Fortunately the rather short warranty means you won’t have to hold on to the box for the rest of your life like you will the PNY 770 OC2s box. This actually leads us to the largest negative of this video card: its accessories. Not only is the included physical accessory list limited to basically a CrossFire connector and CD (with outdated drivers) but the warranty is also rather short. Three years is fairly typical for ASUS video cards, and is about right for the sub-$300 market, but compared to PNY’s lifetime warranty it seems frail and rather unimpressive. Whether or not ASUS wants to admit it, warranty is the largest accessory that any company can include with their video card. For many consumers the idea of giving up a lifetime warranty in return for saving a mere $50 will not sound like such a hot idea. This is especially true of value orientated consumers who will now be focusing in on this card – as these consumers are more about bang for the buck, and not just about getting the lowest priced card they can find. Hopefully this cards physical aspects in combination with its real world performance will make up for this shortcoming.

ang1 - ASUS Radeon R9 280X DirectCU II TOP
Moving on the video card itself, the 250 to 300 dollar section of the video card marketplace is arguably the most important and most hotly contested. This is because $300 is about the most the typical PC gaming enthusiast are willing to spend on a video card, and many rather spend less than that. Because it is so popular with consumers every manufacturer on both ‘team Red’ and ‘team Green’ have multiple cards in this price range.

The Asus R9 280X DirectCU II TOP is ASUS’ flagship 280x model and is not your typical R9 280x. The typical R9 280X uses a 28nm Tahiti XTL core that comes with a Base Clock of 9550Mhz, a Boost Clock of 1GHz and usually 3GB of GDDR5 RAM clocked at a flat 6,000MHz. While yes the ASUS Radeon R9 280X DirectCU II TOP still makes use of three Gigabytes worth of memory, the GDDR5 RAM modules clock in at 6,400MHz – or in other words the RAM modules have been overclocked by nearly 7%.

More impressive still ASUS has given this 280X a Base Clock of 970Mhz, and a Boost Clock 1070. Both of which are higher than that of the older Tahiti 7970’s ‘GHz Edition’ series the R9 280x replaced. By itself these features would go a long way to justifying its asking price of $350…err… $250. But ASUS was fully aware that paper specifications and real world performance can, will, and does vary greatly with AMD video cards. This is because the AMD Tahiti core run hot and thermal throttling happens at stock speeds and only gets worse when you overclock it.

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This is why the most important features of the R9 280X DirectCU II TOP is not its factory overclock, rather it is the DIGI+ VRM 12-phase power design backstopped by a custom heatsink that ASUS has used. This combination not only allows this R9 280X to reach and stay at its Boost Clock rating, but allows for even greater overclocking headroom – if you are so inclined. That is what the extra $50 is really buying consumers and why it is the very first AMD video card worthy of review. When you add in Mantle API abilities to the mix it is this unique combination of lower price with potentially higher performance that makes the R9 280X DirectCU II TOP so unique and such potent competition to the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 770’s of the world.

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By removing the top metal fascia and taking a closer look at the heatsink we can see that it uses two beefy 8mm heatpipes , two 6mm heatpipes and one massive 10mm heatpipe. These 5 heatpipes are flattened and are spread-out amongst the very, very large aluminum heatsink. More importantly they offer a massive amount of cooling potential – something that is crucial to the success of overclocking Tahiti cores.

fans - ASUS Radeon R9 280X DirectCU II TOP

To keep this large heatsink cool(ish) ASUS has gone with a two large ‘down draft’ fans and in testing not only does this ‘DirectCU II’ cooler provide low noise levels -for an AMD video card – but is also relatively cool running. More impressive is the technology that went into the rearmost fan. Unlike the fan nearest the single 6 and single 8 PCIe power connectors which is your typical axial fan, this rear fan not only blows air downwards but the smaller nub like blades interspaced between the normal length blades allow the fan to blow some air out in a more horizontal direction – just like a blower fan. This duality allows this one fan to cool a wider area of the heatsink and provide more performance without increasing rotational speed. Now that is impressive engineering.

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The only complaint we have with this card from a form factor point of view is much like PNY 770 OC2 card, its dimensions are larger than typical video cards. As you can see this card does not conform to the standard PCIe form factor. In fact it is nearly an inch wider than normal thanks to ‘top’ 10mm heatpipe bending up and then down into the over-sized heatsink. On the positive side, this extra width allows the heatsink to offer nearly a third more cooling surface area than that of a typical GPU heatsink. To be perfectly candid this heatsink makes the PNY 770 OC2’s heatsink look downright wimpy in comparison.

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Unfortunately this added girth does mean that this video card may not fit inside every PC chassis. With this card you will not only have to worry about your case’s maximum supported GPU length but also how much gap there is between the side panel and the GPU. In testing this card did easily fit inside every mid-sized tower case we tried, but we would be very hesitant on using it in HTPC build. This is a shame as this $250 card does have the potential to make for one great LAN PC gaming rig.

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The other minor issue with this card is that while it does indeed make use of a rather heavy customer heatsink, ASUS has decided against using a backplate for the PCB and have not included a backplate for the heatsink. This is odd as this is not a light heatsink and a metal reinforcing bracket around the core itself would have not raised an eyebrow. We assume ASUS felt the stock screws did not need reinforcing, but it certainly is less than optimal.

ports - ASUS Radeon R9 280X DirectCU II TOP

Turning the card around we can see that while this card is a custom R9 it nevertheless keeps to AMD’s reference output selection. Basically the bottom row consists of the usual HDMI port, DisplayPort and a single dual-link DVI port, while the top has a secondary DVi port and some very limited cooling slots. As it stands the output selection is decent, if not exactly above average. On the positive side at least it doesn’t use a mini-HDMI port and instead makes use of the more standard ‘full size’ HDMI port.