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EVGA GeForce GTX 780 ACX SC Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
The GTX 780 ACX SC represents something off of EVGA’s typical path. Until now, they’ve been mostly content to stick with the reference heatsink or a close approximation thereof for many of their high end cards. From the Superclocked to the Classified, there hasn’t been all that much of a departure from the norm but with the 700-series, they’ve decided to compete with the Gigabytes, Zotacs and MSIs of this world. How? By introducing a completely custom designed heatsink.

As long as there have been axial and exhaust-style heatsinks, a debate has raged about which is better for cooling performance. While the blower-type setup guarantees hot air is exhausted outside of the GPU’s immediate vicinity, attaining ultra low temperatures is difficult. On the other hand, axial “downdraft” coolers are highly efficient at cooling off a hot-running GPU core, they dump that heat back into the case, potentially playing havoc with the temperature of other components.

NVIDIA has typically chosen to use blower designs but EVGA realized their customers deserve a choice. So, the ACX may represent a slight shift but by no means will it lead to a complete elimination of the so-called reference cooler from their lineup. Basically, EVGA will be offering the GTX 780 ACX alongside the standard design, thus ensuring everyone gets what they want.

Much like the Gigabyte GTX 780 WindForce OC we reviewed earlier, the addition of a custom heatsink has allowed EVGA to push their default Base and Boost clocks quite far. The ACX edition’s Base frequency of 967MHz and Boost of 1020MHz even outpaces the “standard” GTX 780 SC by significant amounts. More importantly, the lower temperatures achieved by the custom heatsink give some extra clock speed headroom with our sample hitting an Observed Boost Clock of 1123MHz on a regular basis without additional voltage. This should put EVGA’s $660 card in direct competition with the GTX TITAN, though memory speeds remain at 6008MHz.

Speaking of price, EVGA has attained a consistent $660 level between the GTX 780 Superclocked and this GTX 780 ACX SC. This allows gamers to choose either without worrying about paying a premium. However, against Gigabyte’s lower clocked yet equally impressive WindForce OC, the ACX looks particularly good with a price that’s $20 lower or a mere $10 more than a reference GTX 780.


This card represents EVGA’s first major foray into the world of custom designed heatsinks but other than that obvious change, there aren’t really any visual differences between the ACX SC and a reference card. It is still 10 ½” long –an important feature for anyone space constrained since Gigabyte’s WindForce OC is an inch longer- and makes use of a reference PCB.

One of the main distinguishing factors between the ACX and its immediate competition is slightly more intrinsic in nature. While their lifetime warranty is now a thing of the past, EVGA is still known for their excellent customer support which puts them ahead of their competitors.

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Naturally, the star of this particular show is the ACX (or Active Cooling Xtreme) which is EVGA’s first in-house cooler design. It utilizes a large dual chambered heatsink layout with five chrome-plated copper heatpipes and a secondary reinforcement baseplate which is supposed to increase rigidity while also lowering memory and VRM temperatures.

The two 80mm fans also boast some impressive specifications. They are engineered to be extremely light, thus decreasing their acoustical signature and ensuring less power is needed for their operation. They are equipped with double ball bearings which grant a 12 year lifespan, a significant improvement over competing solutions according to EVGA.

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As with all of the GTX 780 cards we are likely to see this year, EVGA has retained NVIDIA’s standard connector and power input layouts. There is a pair of DVI outputs alongside HDMI and DisplayPort connectors while the card is fed via a 6+8 pin combination.
 
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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:
NVIDIA 320.18 Beta
NVIDIA 320.14 Beta
AMD 13.5 Beta 2



*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


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:
NVIDIA 320.18 Beta
NVIDIA 320.14 Beta
AMD 13.5 Beta 2



*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.


2560x1440

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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.


2560x1440

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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.


2560x1440

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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.



2560x1440

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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.


2560x1440

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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.


2560x1440

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SKYMTL

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

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.


2560x1440

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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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In order to hit its high Boost clocks, the ACX SC needed to keep the GK110 core as cool as possible and it does just that. It actually manages to beat out Gigabyte’s well-regarded WindForce heatsink in this key metric.


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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On paper, the GTX 780 ACX may seem louder than the Gigabyte WindForce OC but truth be told, it’s almost impossible for the human ear to distinguish one from the other. Remember, we’re talking about readings in the sub-50 decibel range which is as quiet as most fans get. With that in mind, these are some impressive results for EVGA’s first in-house designed heatsink.


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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Despite its excellent temperature results, this card utilizes high clock speeds and is quite power hungry. It matches the requirements of a GTX TITAN which goes to show that when frequencies reach the upper registers, the GTX 780 lines up perfectly with NVIDIA’s flagship from a performance per watt standpoint.
 
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SKYMTL

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

Overclocking Results


Overclocking the GTX 780 ACX SC followed a very familiar and infinitely frustrating chain of events. Since this card already boasts very high Boost frequencies and a custom high performance heatsink, the only items really holding back overclock speeds will be voltage and the Power Limit. Unfortunately, both of those items and their extremely limited overhead settings (6% for the Power Limit and just 35mV of extra voltage) held us back once again.

By using the new “reasons” function built into EVGA’s Precision we were able to determine that more often than not, the GK110’s Power Limit held things in check before the ASIC’s voltage plateau was reached. In a few games the GPU’s voltage limit ended up bitch-slapping core clocks but those instances were few and far between.

In the end, our final core overclock was good by reference card standards but a peak Boost of speed 1183MHz won’t provide a noticeable performance increase over the ACX’s default settings. The memory on the other hand comfortably hit 6888MHz but the extra bandwidth really didn’t have much of an impact in most games.

Not only does this show how close to the edge EVGA is pushing things but it clearly demonstrates the difficulties board partners will have when trying to market their ultra high end SKUs. Without running contrary to NVIDIA’s limits, the Classified, Super Overclock and Lightnings of this world will be hard pressed to justify their premiums.

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SKYMTL

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

Conclusion


EVGA has always been the thousand pound gorilla among NVIDIA’s board partners and their GTX 780 ACX SC has once again allowed them to flex some significant muscle. This card is everything an enthusiast could possibly want wrapped up into a package that features excellent warranty support, top shelf customer service and framerates that go above and beyond competitors’ offerings.

Let’s start with the most important aspect first: performance. Anyone who is spending $660 on a graphics card expects buttery smooth gameplay and the GTX 780 ACX SC delivers that in spades. At 2560x1440 with the highest possible detail settings, it is able to consistently beat NVIDIA’s $1000 GTX TITAN and simply trounces a reference-clocked GTX 780. While GTX TITAN users will likely bemoan the GTX 780’s lack of a 6GB memory allotment but in the grand scheme of things, 3GB will continue to be more than enough long into the future, particularly as developers get a better handle on DX11’s efficient texture handing sub-routines.

Price doesn’t usually factor into the purchasing decisions of PC gaming’s elite buyers but this particular card will make even the most jaded enthusiast take notice. It goes for a mere $10 more than a stock GTX 780 and even one-ups the Gigabyte GTX 780 WindForce OC we reviewed earlier this week while costing some $20 less. That’s an impressive resume but like its Gigabyte-branded competition, actually finding an ACX SC is a lesson in futility these days.

There has been a lot of talk about EVGA’s new ACX cooler and it provides another high point for this card. When using sensitive testing equipment it may be ever so slightly louder than Gigabyte’s WindForce 3X but there’s no way you’ll be able to tell the acoustical difference between the two heatsinks. However, the ACX does provide better temperature results, allowing the GK110 to boost to some spectacular frequencies. Some may not appreciate this heatsink dumping a significant amount of heat back into its immediate vicinity but any enclosure worthy of housing a $600 graphics card will have more than enough airflow to efficiently handle this.

Overclocking headroom (or the lack thereof) on NVIDIA’s high end graphics cards, particularly those which are pre-overclocked like the GTX 780 ACX SC, is becoming a concern. Voltage and power limits that some have called draconian firmly in place, this card really doesn’t have all that much overhead for higher core speeds. Like its competitors, the SC topped out short of the 1200MHz consistent Boost frequency. To attain higher clock speeds, a Power Limit of 106% and a mere 35mV of extra voltage just isn’t going to cut it.

With the GTX 780 ACX SC, EVGA has been able to achieve this class-leading, GTX TITAN beating performance and low acoustical profile without adding a substantial amount to the reference card’s price. That's an enticing combination for anyone looking for a high end GPU.

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