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ASUS GTX 670 DirectCU MINI Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Most gamers and enthusiasts focus on getting the highest possible performance for their money and push secondary concerns like power consumption and card size aside. However, there’s a growing niche that understandably wants their PCs to be minimally intrusive in their environments. That means moving towards smaller, more compact form factors.

At this point in time the SFF market is relatively well represented, with quite a few enclosures, motherboards and even CPU heatsinks catering to confined environments. Unfortunately, gamers who wanted a smaller system either had to sacrifice GPU performance or move their system into a slightly larger case since a high end graphics card typically led to a larger footprint. Not anymore.

ASUS’ new GTX 670 DirectCU Mini targets this burgeoning product space with a GPU that offers excellent framerates while still fitting into smaller cases like the Lian Li PC-Q11 and Silverstone SG04 series. Granted, a GTX 670 may not be the latest generation in NVIDIA’s lineup but it’s still has what it takes to power through every conceivable game at 1080P.

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While the Mini’s focus may be on delivering a compact footprint for size-challenged enclosures, ASUS has still given it higher-than-reference clock speeds with a 28MHz increase to Boost speeds. Along with the stock 6Gbps memory, that frequency increase won’t make a noticeable performance difference but it’s nonetheless great to see that ASUS’ design isn’t held back by its size.

One area which may cause some potential buyers of this card to hesitate is its price. Creating it did take some engineering on ASUS’ part and there’s always a premium attached to a niche product. With that being said, the GTX 670 DirectCU Mini does go for $325 or $299 after various rebates which is right in line with other GTX 670 cards. Count us pleasantly surprised.

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At just 6.7” long, this is one incredibly small card which won’t surpass the edge of mini ITX motherboards. The DirectCU II Mini also uses ASUS’ distinctive RoG red and black color scheme to great effect, creating a card that looks aggressive yet sleek at the same time.

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As with many custom ASUS cards, this GTX 670 uses the DirectCU heatsink but adds a few interesting twists. The cooler houses a copper-based vapor chamber that makes direct contact with the GPU core upon which a large fin array is built. Meanwhile, the shroud is studded with airflow inlets to ensure the CoolTech fan performs up to its stated specifications.

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Speaking of that CoolTech fan, it uses a specialized dust proof technology which isolates the bearing, ensuring dust and other particles don’t hamper its rotations. This allows it to provide a significantly longer lifespan than traditional axial designs.

ASUS has also designed this fan so it optimizes airflow directionality which allows for more effective cooling of the heatsink assembly and adjacent components without sacrificing acoustics. Naturally, these advanced features allow the Mini to maintain below-reference temperatures even though it uses a compact design.

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Underneath the heatsink lies a selection of Super Alloy Power components which includes a number of ASUS-specific components which have been designed to increase the card’s lifespan. There are chokes that house a concrete core which eliminates coil whine, capacitors that boast a lifespan that’s about 90,000 hours longer than standard units and MOSFETs that have a 30% higher voltage capacity for increased overclocking stability. Supposedly, these components also lead to better efficiency which is a cornerstone of small form factor builds.

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Behind the Mini’s dwarf-like PCB is a Direct Power connector which acts as an express power pathway between the PWM and GPU core. This allows for less impedance, increased efficiency and most importantly, cleaner power delivery to the core.

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Since there are less soldered paths between the core and VRM, Direct Power also leads to significantly lower PCB temperatures which tends to prolong the life of a graphics card and can even lead to increased overclocking headroom.

There’s a reason you won’t see this Direct Power feature on larger graphics cards: there’s just too much space between the PWM and core for it to be effective. For the time being, the Mini is one of the few cards in ASUS’ lineup that uses it.


On the connector front, there really isn’t anything to distinguish the GTX 670 DirectCU II Mini from the reference design other than the space-saving single 8-pin power connector. For anyone using this card for an HTPC system, the full-sized HDMI port will likely come in handy since adaptors won’t be needed for HDTV output.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Test System & Setup

Main Test System

Processor: Intel i7 3930K @ 4.5GHz
Memory: Corsair Vengeance 32GB @ 1866MHz
Motherboard: ASUS P9X79 WS
Cooling: Corsair H80
SSD: 2x Corsair Performance Pro 256GB
Power Supply: Corsair AX1200
Monitor: Samsung 305T / 3x Acer 235Hz
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate N x64 SP1


Acoustical Test System

Processor: Intel 2600K @ stock
Memory: G.Skill Ripjaws 8GB 1600MHz
Motherboard: Gigabyte Z68X-UD3H-B3
Cooling: Thermalright TRUE Passive
SSD: Corsair Performance Pro 256GB
Power Supply: Seasonic X-Series Gold 800W


Drivers:
AMD 13.8 BETA
NVIDIA 326.80


*Notes:

- All games tested have been patched to their latest version

- The OS has had all the latest hotfixes and updates installed

- All scores you see are the averages after 3 benchmark runs

All IQ settings were adjusted in-game and all GPU control panels were set to use application settings


The Methodology of Frame Testing, Distilled


How do you benchmark an onscreen experience? That question has plagued graphics card evaluations for years. While framerates give an accurate measurement of raw performance , there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes which a basic frames per second measurement by FRAPS or a similar application just can’t show. A good example of this is how “stuttering” can occur but may not be picked up by typical min/max/average benchmarking.

Before we go on, a basic explanation of FRAPS’ frames per second benchmarking method is important. FRAPS determines FPS rates by simply logging and averaging out how many frames are rendered within a single second. The average framerate measurement is taken by dividing the total number of rendered frames by the length of the benchmark being run. For example, if a 60 second sequence is used and the GPU renders 4,000 frames over the course of that time, the average result will be 66.67FPS. The minimum and maximum values meanwhile are simply two data points representing single second intervals which took the longest and shortest amount of time to render. Combining these values together gives an accurate, albeit very narrow snapshot of graphics subsystem performance and it isn’t quite representative of what you’ll actually see on the screen.

FCAT on the other hand has the capability to log onscreen average framerates for each second of a benchmark sequence, resulting in the “FPS over time” graphs. It does this by simply logging the reported framerate result once per second. However, in real world applications, a single second is actually a long period of time, meaning the human eye can pick up on onscreen deviations much quicker than this method can actually report them. So what can actually happens within each second of time? A whole lot since each second of gameplay time can consist of dozens or even hundreds (if your graphics card is fast enough) of frames. This brings us to frame time testing and where the Frame Time Analysis Tool gets factored into this equation.

Frame times simply represent the length of time (in milliseconds) it takes the graphics card to render and display each individual frame. Measuring the interval between frames allows for a detailed millisecond by millisecond evaluation of frame times rather than averaging things out over a full second. The larger the amount of time, the longer each frame takes to render. This detailed reporting just isn’t possible with standard benchmark methods.

We are now using FCAT for ALL benchmark results.


Frame Time Testing & FCAT

To put a meaningful spin on frame times, we can equate them directly to framerates. A constant 60 frames across a single second would lead to an individual frame time of 1/60th of a second or about 17 milliseconds, 33ms equals 30 FPS, 50ms is about 20FPS and so on. Contrary to framerate evaluation results, in this case higher frame times are actually worse since they would represent a longer interim “waiting” period between each frame.

With the milliseconds to frames per second conversion in mind, the “magical” maximum number we’re looking for is 28ms or about 35FPS. If too much time spent above that point, performance suffers and the in game experience will begin to degrade.

Consistency is a major factor here as well. Too much variation in adjacent frames could induce stutter or slowdowns. For example, spiking up and down from 13ms (75 FPS) to 28ms (35 FPS) several times over the course of a second would lead to an experience which is anything but fluid. However, even though deviations between slightly lower frame times (say 10ms and 25ms) wouldn’t be as noticeable, some sensitive individuals may still pick up a slight amount of stuttering. As such, the less variation the better the experience.

In order to determine accurate onscreen frame times, a decision has been made to move away from FRAPS and instead implement real-time frame capture into our testing. This involves the use of a secondary system with a capture card and an ultra-fast storage subsystem (in our case five SanDisk Extreme 240GB drives hooked up to an internal PCI-E RAID card) hooked up to our primary test rig via a DVI splitter. Essentially, the capture card records a high bitrate video of whatever is displayed from the primary system’s graphics card, allowing us to get a real-time snapshot of what would normally be sent directly to the monitor. By using NVIDIA’s Frame Capture Analysis Tool (FCAT), each and every frame is dissected and then processed in an effort to accurately determine latencies, frame rates and other aspects.

We've also now transitioned all testing to FCAT which means standard frame rates are also being logged and charted through the tool. This means all of our frame rate (FPS) charts use onscreen data rather than the software-centric data from FRAPS, ensuring dropped frames are taken into account in our global equation.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Assassin’s Creed III / Crysis 3

Assassin’s Creed III (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/RvFXKwDCpBI?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

The third iteration of the Assassin’s Creed franchise is the first to make extensive use of DX11 graphics technology. In this benchmark sequence, we proceed through a run-through of the Boston area which features plenty of NPCs, distant views and high levels of detail.


1920 x 1080

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Crysis 3 (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/zENXVbmroNo?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

Simply put, Crysis 3 is one of the best looking PC games of all time and it demands a heavy system investment before even trying to enable higher detail settings. Our benchmark sequence for this one replicates a typical gameplay condition within the New York dome and consists of a run-through interspersed with a few explosions for good measure Due to the hefty system resource needs of this game, post-process FXAA was used in the place of MSAA.


1920 x 1080

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Dirt: Showdown / Far Cry 3

Dirt: Showdown (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/IFeuOhk14h0?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

Among racing games, Dirt: Showdown is somewhat unique since it deals with demolition-derby type racing where the player is actually rewarded for wrecking other cars. It is also one of the many titles which falls under the Gaming Evolved umbrella so the development team has worked hard with AMD to implement DX11 features. In this case, we set up a custom 1-lap circuit using the in-game benchmark tool within the Nevada level.


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Far Cry 3 (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/mGvwWHzn6qY?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

One of the best looking games in recent memory, Far Cry 3 has the capability to bring even the fastest systems to their knees. Its use of nearly the entire repertoire of DX11’s tricks may come at a high cost but with the proper GPU, the visuals will be absolutely stunning.

To benchmark Far Cry 3, we used a typical run-through which includes several in-game environments such as a jungle, in-vehicle and in-town areas.



1920 x 1080

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Hitman Absolution / Max Payne 3

Hitman Absolution (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/8UXx0gbkUl0?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

Hitman is arguably one of the most popular FPS (first person “sneaking”) franchises around and this time around Agent 47 goes rogue so mayhem soon follows. Our benchmark sequence is taken from the beginning of the Terminus level which is one of the most graphically-intensive areas of the entire game. It features an environment virtually bathed in rain and puddles making for numerous reflections and complicated lighting effects.


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Max Payne 3 (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/ZdiYTGHhG-k?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

When Rockstar released Max Payne 3, it quickly became known as a resource hog and that isn’t surprising considering its top-shelf graphics quality. This benchmark sequence is taken from Chapter 2, Scene 14 and includes a run-through of a rooftop level featuring expansive views. Due to its random nature, combat is kept to a minimum so as to not overly impact the final result.


1920 x 1080

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Metro: Last Light / Tomb Raider

Metro: Last Light (DX11)


<iframe width="640" height="360" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/40Rip9szroU" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

The latest iteration of the Metro franchise once again sets high water marks for graphics fidelity and making use of advanced DX11 features. In this benchmark, we use the Torchling level which represents a scene you’ll be intimately familiar with after playing this game: a murky sewer underground.


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Tomb Raider (DX11)


<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/okFRgtsbPWE" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

Tomb Raider is one of the most iconic brands in PC gaming and this iteration brings Lara Croft back in DX11 glory. This happens to not only be one of the most popular games around but it is also one of the best looking by using the entire bag of DX11 tricks to properly deliver an atmospheric gaming experience.

In this run-through we use a section of the Shanty Town level. While it may not represent the caves, tunnels and tombs of many other levels, it is one of the most demanding sequences in Tomb Raider.


1920 x 1080

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Temperatures & Acoustics / Power Consumption

Temperature Analysis


For all temperature testing, the cards were placed on an open test bench with a single 120mm 1200RPM fan placed ~8” away from the heatsink. The ambient temperature was kept at a constant 22°C (+/- 0.5°C). If the ambient temperatures rose above 23°C at any time throughout the test, all benchmarking was stopped..

For Idle tests, we let the system idle at the Windows 7 desktop for 15 minutes and recorded the peak temperature.


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For such a small heatsink sitting atop an overclocked core, the DirectCU II does a remarkable job of cooling things down. There’s even enough room for overclocking if you need a bit more power.


Acoustical Testing


What you see below are the baseline idle dB(A) results attained for a relatively quiet open-case system (specs are in the Methodology section) sans GPU along with the attained results for each individual card in idle and load scenarios. The meter we use has been calibrated and is placed at seated ear-level exactly 12” away from the GPU’s fan. For the load scenarios, a loop of Unigine Valley is used in order to generate a constant load on the GPU(s) over the course of 15 minutes.

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We’ve seen it time and again: small GPU coolers that sacrifice acoustics in favor of cooling performance. Luckily, that didn’t happen with ASUS’ GTX 670 DirectCU II Mini as its fan remained remarkably quiet throughout testing, even after hours of gaming.


System Power Consumption


For this test we hooked up our power supply to a UPM power meter that will log the power consumption of the whole system twice every second. In order to stress the GPU as much as possible we used 15 minutes of Unigine Valley running on a loop while letting the card sit at a stable Windows desktop for 15 minutes to determine the peak idle power consumption.

Please note that after extensive testing, we have found that simply plugging in a power meter to a wall outlet or UPS will NOT give you accurate power consumption numbers due to slight changes in the input voltage. Thus we use a Tripp-Lite 1800W line conditioner between the 120V outlet and the power meter.

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Power consumption is about where we would have expected it to be considering the Mini comes pre-overclocked. There may be some minor efficiency-enhancing features like ASUS’ SAP components but they don’t make much of a difference here.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Overclocking Results

Overclocking Results


Oddball cards like the GTX 670 MINI are typically poor overclockers since sacrifices have to be made to ensure smaller form factors. That didn’t happen in this case since ASUS chose high end, no-compromise components with a particular focus on longevity and overclocking.

Using ASUS’ GPU Tweak utility, we were able to increase the average boost clock to an impressive 1290MHz which remained stable throughout every game. The memory followed closely behind with a speed of 6416MHz. For such a compact card, the resulting performance is simply out of this world.

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Conclusion

Conclusion


It has been a while since we’ve seen something truly unique from graphics card manufacturers but ASUS’ GTX 670 DirectCU II Mini is certainly a breath of fresh air. The small form factor market may gobble up a massive share so system sales but more and more users are looking into compact systems as an alternative to oversized desktops. With that in mind, the Mini becomes a must-have GPU for anyone looking for some extra punch in their SFF chassis. Think of it as the Peter Dinklage of the graphics card world.

Using a GTX 670 core when NVIDIA has moved onto their GTX 7xx series may not seem like a wise decision on ASUS’ part but, when looking at the performance numbers, we can see where they’re coming from. The GTX 760 is a bit underpowered by comparison even though it’s quite efficient. Meanwhile, the GTX 770 is not only significantly more expensive but it consumes more power and outputs large amounts of heat. Neither of those two factors is particularly appealing in the confined enclosures the Mini will find itself in.

So, by utilizing the GTX 670 as the DirectCU II Mini’s starting point ASUS was able to finely tune performance while also adding a bit of overclocking headroom for good measure. The end result is a card that’s perfectly suited to 1080P gaming without making a racket or requiring a massive power supply.

One of the most impressive features of this card is its heatsink. By using their DirectCU II design alongside a high performance vapor chamber, the Mini posts enviable temperature results and features an extremely low acoustical profile.

If you’re looking for a bit more out of your SFF system, the ASUS GTX 670 DirectCU II Mini is a perfect choice. It offers well-rounded performance and excellent cooling results in a surprisingly compact package. ASUS doesn’t even charge and arm and a leg for it. Sure there are graphics cards that allow for higher framerates and offer a better price / performance ratio but they don’t come close to the Mini’s wide-ranging abilities.

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