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ASUS GTX 980 STRIX OC Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Months after its launch the GTX 980 remains one of the most popular cards around, especially now that its inventory situation has largely cleared up. While there are now plenty of options out there at various price and performance points, ASUS’ GTX 980 STRIX OC is typically one of the first options gamers turn towards.

The reason for this dedication should be evident: despite including a raft of advanced features, the STRIX OC is one of the more “affordable” options right now. While many competing cards go for $590 and more, ASUS is focusing on attaining market share by hitting the $570 price point. Granted, that’s $20 more than a reference card goes for but in this case the premium gets you a lot more than a basic blower-style setup and baseline components.


ASUS may give the “OC” designation to this particular card but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has been overclocked to an extreme amount. That’s the domain of their Matrix and Matrix Platinum models. In this case the STRIX hits a modest 1178MHz Base Clock and 1279MHz for its average Boost frequency. As we’ve seen in the past these are likely underrated somewhat since the DirectCU II heatsink should provide ample thermal overhead for even higher frequencies without any user overclocking.

As usual the memory hasn’t been touched since binning GDDR5 modules for consistency above and beyond their rated spec is a time consuming and expensive process. That would have caused the GTX 980 STRIX OC’s price to spiral out of control in relation to its competitors.


We’ve already reviewed ASUS GTX 970 STRIX OC and the GTX 980 version is a literal carbon copy in many ways. It uses the same DirectCU II heatsink, the same expanded PCB and boasts the same 11” length. For those of you who want to install this graphics card into smaller SFF cases, make note of its portly girth of 5.3” which may make compatibility impossible in some situations.


Past the obvious size difference between a reference card and the STRIX, ASUS has included their DirectCU II heatsink which is equipped with a pair of 92mm fans and a metric ton of thermal mass. Some of you may be wondering why the card is so large when compared to other options but there’s a method to the madness; due to the heatsink’s size, the STRIX is able to completely shut its fans off and operate silently provided temperatures remain under 65°C. While this threshold can be modified within ASUS’ GPU Tweak utility, when playing under light gaming loads or idling in many workspace applications, the fans remain silent.

That heatsink is a large affair that makes use of a direct-contact base for its heatpipes and quick heat dissipation via a large fin array. There are also secondary heatsinks covering the memory modules and certain components of the expanded 10-phase all digital PWM.

ASUS has also gone to great lengths to reduce coil whine on these cards by housing their chokes in high density material. Unfortunately, it is impossible to completely eliminate coil noise in every conceivable situation but strides have been made in an effort to at least minimize the likeliness it will be a widespread phenomenon.


ASUS has implemented a large-scale backplate on their STRIX OC in an effort to better dissipate any built up heat in some key zones. It includes several small perforations to insure the actual PCB receives a bit of airflow. There’s also an aluminum stiffening strip that runs from just behind the SLI connectors to the rearmost portion of the card and is supposed to prevent the PCB from flexing under the cooler’s substantial weight.


In the previous photo you may have noticed a cutout on the backplate. This area houses the voltage read points for the GPU’s core, memory and PLL. Not many gamers will use these but overclockers with access to custom BIOSes will appreciate their inclusion.


While the reference card receives a basic 6+6 pin layout, ASUS has decided to go with a 6+8 pin power layout which concentrates input current directly from the power supply. This is also supposed to minimize the amount of power coming directly through the PCI-E interface, thus guaranteeing a “cleaner” profile. There are also small LEDs on each connector which glow red to indicate it’s not plugged in while a green flow points to a good connection.


The SLI connector on this card certainly looks odd due to its long projection out past the PCB’s typical boundaries but like all other things on the STRIX, this is a design feature rather than an oddity. Due to the heatsink’s width, it would be almost impossible to connect two cards together once they’re installed into a case. Hence ASUS has pushed the connector outwards, making access all that much easier.


The rear-facing connector layout follows the path taken by the reference design. There’s a trio of DisplayPort 1.2 connectors, a HDMI output and a single legacy DVI-D output.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
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Messages
12,857
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Montreal
Test System & Setup

Main Test System

Processor: Intel i7 4930K @ 4.7GHz
Memory: G.Skill Trident 16GB @ 2133MHz 10-10-12-29-1T
Motherboard: ASUS P9X79-E WS
Cooling: NH-U14S
SSD: 2x Kingston HyperX 3K 480GB
Power Supply: Corsair AX1200
Monitor: Dell U2713HM (1440P) / ASUS PQ321Q (4K)
OS: Windows 8.1 Professional


Drivers:
AMD 14.7 Beta
NVIDIA 344.75 Beta


*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 2 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, other than 4K.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Messages
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Clock Speed Consistency Over Time

Clock Speed Consistency over Time


With its massive heatsink and some impressively large fans, there shouldn’t be any doubt about the STRIX OC’s cooling potential. The real question is how far their 0dB technology will allow temperatures to reach before engaging the fans. If temperature go too high, ASUS could be presented with a runaway train scenario where the fans would have to spin at extremely high levels for short periods of time or run the risk of heat rising to throttle levels.


The proof is in the pudding as they say and the Maxwell core’s heat signature proves to be no match for the DirectCU II heatsink. Even though the fans remain off until the core hits about 65°C, the temperature climb is quite gradual and continues upwards a bit as the fans slowly spin up. The entire process is seamlessly done without any negative effects or sudden heat spikes.


Given that ASUS rates the STRIX OC at a maximum Boost frequency of 1279MHz, the fact it attained a stable 1316MHz throughout testing may come as a surprise. The reason for this is quite simple: to a certain extent NVIDIA’s Boost algorithms are able to take advantage of additional thermal overhead provided the core doesn’t run into Power or Voltage limits. In this case, the temperatures are low enough that an extra 37MHz of speed can be wringed out.


With such low temperatures and the STRIX’s ability to boost frequencies even higher than ASUS’ conservative estimates would have you believe, performance relative to the reference design is much improved. While the actual visual difference will be hard to distinguish, there’s just enough of framerate increase that most gamers will notice a smoother gaming experience, particularly in any section where a game causes the reference design to stumble into sub-30FPS territory. However, in this area in Hitman: Absolution there isn’t all much difference at all.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Messages
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Thermal Imaging / Acoustics / Power Consumption

Thermal Imaging



These results are about what we would expect given the GTX 980 STRIX OC’s heatsink is hugely overpowered for the amount of heat produced by the GM204 core. That means nearly no excess heat buildup throughout the heatsink or secondary heat spreaders, though there is a small hot-spot on the backplate which lies just over the core itself.


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, Hitman Absolution is used in order to generate a constant load on the GPU(s) over the course of 15 minutes.


Acoustics are absolutely excellent with the STRIX OC being virtually inaudible without any perceptible fan noise and, more importantly, no coil whine. What the charts don’t show is the 0dB technology allows this GTX 980 to completely turn off its fans in idle and low load scenarios. In our testing, the fans remained off in Civilization V, Starcraft, Hearthstone and a few other titles.


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.


Despite being overclocked, the STRIX OC doesn’t require all that much more power than a reference GTX 980. This is likely due to the core’s low temperatures which in effect increases transistor efficiency.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag / Battlefield 4

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag


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The fourth 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 Havana area which features plenty of NPCs, distant views and high levels of detail.


2560 x 1440




Battlefield 4


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Amidst its teething problems since its release, BF4 has been a bone of contention among gamers. In this sequence, we use the Singapore level which combines three of the game’s major elements: a decayed urban environment, a water-inundated city and finally a forested area. We chose not to include multiplayer results simply due to their randomness injecting results that make apples to apples comparisons impossible.

2560 x 1440


 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
Call of Duty: Ghosts / Far Cry 3

Call of Duty: Ghosts


<iframe width="640" height="360" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/gzIdSAktyf4?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

The latest Call of Duty game may have been ridiculed for its lackluster gameplay but it remains one of the best-looking games out there. Unfortunately due to mid-level loads, getting a “clean” runthrough without random slowdowns is nearly impossible, even with a dual SSD system like ours. Hence why you should ignore any massive framerate dips as they are anomalies of poor loading optimizations. For this benchmark we used the first sequence of the 5th Chapter entitled Homecoming as every event is scripted so runthroughs will be nearly identical.

2560 x 1440




Far Cry 3


<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.



2560 x 1440


 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
Hitman Absolution / Metro: Last Light

Hitman Absolution


<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.


2560 x 1440




Metro: Last Light


<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.


2560 x 1440


 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
Thief / Tomb Raider

Thief


<iframe width="640" height="360" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/p-a-8mr00rY?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

When it was released, Thief was arguably one of the most anticipated games around. From a graphics standpoint, it is something of a tour de force. Not only does it look great but the engine combines several advanced lighting and shading techniques that are among the best we’ve seen. One of the most demanding sections is actually within the first level where you must scale rooftops amidst a thunder storm. The rain and lightning flashes add to the graphics load, though the lightning flashes occur randomly so you will likely see interspersed dips in the charts below due to this.


2560 x 1440





Tomb Raider


<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.


2560 x 1440


 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
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Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
Overclocking Results

Overclocking Results



For the most part ASUS’ GTX 980 STRIX OC proved to be a very willing overclocker when paired up with the excellent GPU Tweak utility. However, we were stymied at every turn by ASUS’ own limitations.

When overclocking NVIDIA cards we have often lamented the fact that NVIDIA’s strictly controlled voltage and power limits artificially capped overclocking at relatively pedestrian levels. This time GPU Tweak imposed a 1400MHz core speed cap while there was still some voltage and power headroom. NVIDIA’s new “reasons” function allows overclockers to see which element within the Boost calculation is holding back clock speeds and in this case there was no culprit. That pointed us directly to GPU Tweak’s pegged clock speed slider which obviously needs a few more notches.

With that being said, a constant speed of 1437MHz is certainly nothing to turn your nose up at. We just feel like this card is capable of so much more and yet ASUS has curtailed the possibilities. Hopefully this doesn’t happen with the upcoming Matrix series.

Unlike our experience with the core, the achievable memory speeds are well within GPU Tweak’s range and we achieved a stable clock of 7950MHz. Unfortunately, there isn’t an option for GDDR5 voltage adjustments but that seems to be par for the course these days.


 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
Conclusion

Conclusion


Back at the beginning of this review we mention that GTX 980 STRIX OC was one of the most popular Maxwell-based cards on the market. After looking over the results for the umpteenth time, it isn’t hard to see why so many gamers put their faith in what ASUS has designed.

The most obvious place to start is on the performance front which ran to an obvious conclusion: the GTX 980 core and ASUS’ DirectCU II heatsink are a match made in heaven. While ASUS hasn’t pushed the GM104 core to its utmost limits the additional clock speed is a welcome addition, particularly since there’s enough thermal overhead for NVIDIA’s Boost algorithms to push things even further without any user-induced overclocking. Being able to hit 1316MHz on a consistent basis is certainly impressive given the reference design topped out at 1223MHz even in a best-case scenario.

Past the obvious performance benefits, that incredible heatsink graces the GTX 980 STRIX OC with a number of other noteworthy aspects as well. Temperatures never head north of 66°C which, given the clock speeds this thing is running at, is impressive in the extreme given the fans don’t even need to turn on until the core hits the 65°C mark. When the fans do engage (expect completely silent performance in most basic games) they’re whisper quiet and won’t be noticed over the din of gaming.

Overclocking is the only area where we feel the STRIX OC could offer a bit more. While ASUS may be holding onto their best hand-selected cores for the upcoming Matrix series, this particular card feels like it has been collared and shuttered in a fenced off yard. GPU Tweak maxes out at 1400MHz which resulted in an effective speed of 1437MHz and we weren’t anywhere near hitting the voltage, power or thermal limits imposed by NVIDIA. That’s still a great amount of headroom but there’s much more in the tank left untapped.

The ASUS GTX 980 STRIX OC is the picture of clock speed stability, it boasts some incredible acoustic results and feels like a highly crafted product. It also happens to be only a few bucks more than a reference card. If you’re looking for a GTX 980, this is the one you should focus on.

 
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