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ITX Battle: R9 Nano vs GTX 970 Mini

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Montreal
When the R9 Nano was first launched we determined it was a great little card, albeit one that would only appeal to a very narrow subset of users. It was admittedly geared towards small form factor systems but that also meant it competed against every other GPU on the market since the vast majority of current generation SFF cases could fit larger GPUs without a problem. There is however a slim selection of miniature enclosures that simply aren’t compatible with anything larger than an ITX motherboard and for those situations the Nano currently has only one true competitor: ASUS’ GTX 970 Mini.

Ironically, when we first set out to do this article, the Nano was launched and in widespread supply but the Mini quickly sold out at every retailer. Could AMD’s push into the SFF space have sparked a renewed interest in the only higher end NVIDIA card that could be considered a viable alternative? That’s certainly possible but no one knows for sure. With that being said, the dearth of GTX 970 Mini cards meant this review was indefinitely pushed back until now.

While we may talk about the Mini and R9 Nano in the same sentence, that doesn’t mean they are direct competitors. Not only are their price points completely at odds with one another ($349USD for the ASUS card versus the Nano’s staggering $649) but AMD’s solution is targeted directly at future 4K gaming applications while the GTX 970 has far more pedestrian capabilities. Indeed, comparing these two cards almost leads us to a David versus Goliath situation but that doesn’t necessarily mean raw performance is the end-all factor here. Things like noise, power consumption and heat signature are all items that arguably take greater precedence in this market niche than unadulterated framerates.


Due to wildly different architectures, there’s very little baseline information that would help someone make a decision between the GTX 970 Mini and R9 Nano. With that being said, AMD’s solution may be based off of a hot-running, power sucking flagship card but it has been aggressively tuned and binned to deliver optimal efficiency in every respect. That does mean slightly slower speeds than water-cooled and slightly unwieldy R9 Fury X but not by an appreciable amount. It truly is an incredible product regardless of whether or not you are an AMD or NVIDIA fanboy.

The GTX 970 Mini on the other hand doesn’t have quite such a distinguished performance pedigree but it does have the advantage of being pre-overclocked out of the box. The actual amount of base and boost frequency increases are minimal when compared against other, higher end GTX 970’s but those higher speeds should help close the yawning gap between itself and the Nano. In addition, it boasts significantly lower power consumption which is actually quite important if you are building a system with a lower-powered SFF PSU.

I can certainly go on all day about the benefits of AMD’s and NVIDIA’s value-added propositions since both companies have been vying for feature-set supremacy for longer than I’ve been in this industry. However, factors like the great DX12 unknowns, GeForce Experience, FreeSync and other elements will be left aside here. We’re simply focusing on few key metrics like performance per dollar, performance per watt, temperatures and noise output. All of these are primary concerns for anyone building a compact SFF system.


The first point of distinction between these two cards is their respective lengths with the ASUS GTX 970 Mini ringing in at a short 6.7” while the Nano hits just 6.25”. Both have been able to achieve their diminutive statures by incorporating a dose of brilliant engineering but AMD’s pint sized powerhouse is arguably the more advanced of the two. Its architecture is the first to incorporate High Bandwidth Memory which saves a massive amount of PCB space by combining the memory modules and GPU die onto the same package. ASUS meanwhile simply condensed their components into a smaller space.

The additional length of ASUS’ card isn’t concerning since it doesn’t exceed the standard length of ITX motherboards to fitment won’t be a problem in small form factor chassis.


The cooler structures of both cards are quite similar, though ASUS utilizes their DirectCU technology, allowing heatpipes to come into direct contact with the GPU core. AMD’s vapor chamber is designed around the same principle but essentially elongates a single large “heatpipe” which is attached directly to a set of aluminum fins and transfers heat away from the core by way of convection.


Power input on these cards is handled by a single 8-pin connector, though the Nano’s is positioned in such a way that it will actually add to the card’s overall length. Meanwhile the Mini’s right-angle setup insures it remains compact but it may cause some headaches for anyone using a slimmer chassis.


When it comes to connectivity, the battle between these two cards is a close one. On one hand the GTX 970 has the one thing that AMD’s latest architecture lacks: an HDMI 2.0 connector. However, for some reason NVIDIA didn’t enable the (in our eyes at least) essential HDCP 2.2 protocol which allows users to play protected 4K content from streaming services or local files through their PC to a UHD TV. Granted this won’t impact games and the DisplayPort output will likely take over the lion’s share of ultra high definition duties but it is nonetheless a major miss.

AMD isn’t in a better position since they’ve tied their R9 Nano to the older HDMI 1.3 connector standard which doesn’t have the bandwidth to carry 4K60 content. In addition, in its retail form this card doesn’t include an active DisplayPort to DVI adapter so using the card on a high resolution DVI-based monitor will require an additional investment.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,900
Location
Montreal
Performance Consistency & Temperatures Over Time

Performance Consistency & Temperatures Over Time


Neither of these cards have what you would call extensive coolers despite their relatively large cores and substantial heat output. While we already know the Nano does quite well in these tests due to its ability to quickly tune its clock speeds to balance out heat output and a well designed vapor chamber cooler, the Mini is something of an unknown.


Temperatures of both cards are kept very well in line with expectations. The Mini actually beats out the Nano here but honestly, when we’re talking about a few degrees, there shouldn’t be any doubt about either’s abilities to insure heat doesn’t become a rampant problem.


Whereas AMD needed to selectively bin their cores in an effort to achieve the lowest possible temperatures and consistent core speeds, ASUS likely does the same thing to a certain extent on their Mini. With that being said, the Mini is actually able to achieve a completely flat line while AMD’s PowerTune is busy attuning frequencies so a balance of performance, power consumption and thermal output can be maintained.


Naturally, overall performance between these two cards is like night and day, as their respective prices would have you believe.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,900
Location
Montreal
Comparative Acoustics / Power Consumption

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.


AMD’s R9 Nano has well-known issues with its noise output since many samples, be they in reviewers’ or customers’ hands, have exhibited inductor whine and ours was no different. The GTX 970 Mini on the other hand has a slightly louder fan but it is ultimately quieter than AMD’s indirect competitor.


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.


Ironically, the Nano actually sips electricity and only consumes a bit more than ASUS’ much less powerful card. That’s quite impressive and points towards how well AMD selected their cores.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,900
Location
Montreal
Test System & Setup

Test System & Setup



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 15.10 Beta
NVIDIA 358.50 WHQL


*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
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,900
Location
Montreal
1440P: AC:Unity / Battlefield 4

Assassin’s Creed: Unity


<iframe width="640" height="360" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/8V96SFIvFKg?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

While it may not be the newest game around and it had its fair share of embarrassing hiccups at launch, Assassin's Creed: Unity is still one heck of a good looking DX11 title. In this benchmark we run through a typical gameplay sequence outside in Paris.




Battlefield 4


<iframe width="640" height="360" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/y9nwvLwltqk?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

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.


 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,900
Location
Montreal
1440P: Dragon Age: Inquisition / Dying Light

Dragon Age: Inquisition


<iframe width="640" height="360" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/z7wRSmle-DY" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

Dragon Age: Inquisition is one of the most popular games around due to its engaging gameplay and open-world style. In our benchmark sequence we run through two typical areas: a busy town and through an outdoor environment.





Dying Light


<iframe width="640" height="360" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/MHc6Vq-1ins" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

Dying Light is a relatively late addition to our benchmarking process but with good reason: it required multiple patches to optimize performance. While one of the patches handicapped viewing distance, this is still one of the most demanding games available.


 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,900
Location
Montreal
1440P: Far Cry 4 / Grand Theft Auto V

Far Cry 4


<iframe width="640" height="360" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/sC7-_Q1cSro" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

The latest game in Ubisoft’s Far Cry series takes up where the others left off by boasting some of the most impressive visuals we’ve seen. In order to emulate typical gameplay we run through the game’s main village, head out through an open area and then transition to the lower areas via a zipline.




Grand Theft Auto V


In GTA V we take a simple approach to benchmarking: the in-game benchmark tool is used. However, due to the randomness within the game itself, only the last sequence is actually used since it best represents gameplay mechanics.


 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,900
Location
Montreal
1440P: Hitman Absolution / Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

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.




Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor


<iframe width="640" height="360" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/U1MHjhIxTGE?rel=0" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>​

With its high resolution textures and several other visual tweaks, Shadow of Mordor’s open world is also one of the most detailed around. This means it puts massive load on graphics cards and should help point towards which GPUs will excel at next generation titles.


 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,900
Location
Montreal
1440P: 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.




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.



 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,900
Location
Montreal
1440P: Total War: Attila / Witcher 3

Total War: Attila


Total War: Attila is the only strategy title in our benchmarking suite simply because it is one of the most resource-hungry. It gobbles resources with good reason too: this game happens to be one the best looking of the series thus far. Our benchmark sequence uses the in-game tool since, after hours of gameplay, it seems to show a perfect blend of in-game elements.




Witcher 3


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

Other than being one of 2015’s most highly regarded games, The Witcher 3 also happens to be one of the most visually stunning as well. This benchmark sequence has us riding through a town and running through the woods; two elements that will likely take up the vast majority of in-game time.


 
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