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ITX Battle: R9 Nano vs GTX 970 Mini

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Montreal
4K: AC: Unity / Battlefield 4

Assassin’s Creed: Unity


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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


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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
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Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
4K: Dragon Age: Inquisition / Dying Light

Dragon Age: Inquisition


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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


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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
12,857
Location
Montreal
4K: 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
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Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
4K: Hitman Absolution / Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Hitman Absolution


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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


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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
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12,857
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Montreal
4K: Thief / Tomb Raider

Thief


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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
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Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
4K: 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


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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.


 

SKYMTL

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

Comparative Overclocking Results


Let’s get this straight right away: neither of these cards is designed for overclocking but that doesn’t necessarily mean some surprises aren’t possible. We already know the limits of our R9 Nano sample which topped out at a pretty impressive core speed of 1070MHz. Unfortunately, HBM overclocking and voltage tuning haven’t been added yet by and of AMD’s board partners.

ASUS on the other hand has something interesting on their hands. Our sample actually topped out at a core frequency of 1489MHz while the memory hit 7924MHz, two numbers which actually put the GTX 970 Mini ahead of quite a few other GTX 970’s we’ve reviewed in the past. Judging from feedback on forums and retailers’ websites, our results are pretty much in line with what others are experiencing.

With all of this taken into account, we put both cards through a quick re-test of some games. The GTX 970 is actually able to tighten up its position quite a bit but it still can’t overcome the Nano, even at a friendlier resolution of 1440P.



 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
Conclusion; Winners or Rejects? Maybe Both...

Conclusion; Winners or Rejects? Maybe Both...


This conclusion is going to be a bit of an interesting thing since the two cards here are similar in form only and, at least on paper, certainly aren’t meant to compete against one another. However they do end up going head to head since anyone who is tight on space in their high performance small form factor build will invariably look towards one or the other. The GTX 970 Mini is the more affordable solution while the Nano has an impressive spec sheet but is there one “right” answer here? No.

NVIDIA’s GTX 970 hasn’t exactly had an easy life thus far and with good reason. There’s no denying that revelations about its core’s oddball memory configuration and subsequent drubbing on forums hurt its position within the market. But, as evidenced by its placement throughout the tests, there should be no denying the ASUS Mini version can and will deliver a superlative gaming experience for SFF users who don’t want to step up to the more expensive Nano. Even at 4K, its memory “limitations” once again proved to be a non-issue.

The R9 Nano on the other hand continues to impress me with its capabilities. How AMD was able to pack so much performance into such a svelte little card simply defies belief and it remains the pinnacle of great GPU engineering today. It does require a not-so-insignificant amount of cold hard cash and the inductor whine can be a turn-off but overall value is something I’ll get into a bit later.


For now let’s talk about raw performance since that’s what most of you have come here to see. In the chart above, the GTX 980 was added as a bridge between these two cards due to the fact that the Nano and GTX 970 straddle either side of NVIDIA’s fully enabled GM204 core.

Obviously the R9 Nano walks all over the Mini at both 1440P and 4K to the tune of 23% and 31% respectively. This should come as no surprise given their comparative positioning but it is nonetheless interesting to see how AMD’s new architecture can leverage a revolutionary memory design to lengthen its lead at 4K. The slightly overclocked GTX 970 puts up a heroic fight and delivers excellent framerates at the lower resolution but it just can’t keep up in most games.

Without delving further into any other aspect of these cards, it should be more than evident that ASUS GTX 970 Mini is a card for 1080P and 1440P gaming. That bodes extremely well for its capabilities in current generation titles and at more typical resolutions. Meanwhile, the R9 Nano has a good amount of future proofing built into its frame and is infinitely better suited for 4K gameplay.


On paper at least those rather impressive 23% and 31% wins just can’t do much to mitigate the Nano’s 86% higher price and as a result it gets absolutely demolished in the performance per dollar category. Flagship cards -or any extremely high-end product for that matter- are hardly ever considered a good value since you end up paying through the nose for a few percentage points of additional performance over more affordably priced solutions.

One of the main problems with niche cards is their specialized aspect always commands a premium. In this case the GTX 970 Mini does perform better than a stock GTX 970 but you’ll still pay a hefty charge for the convenience of an ITX-compatible GPU. The same goes for AMD’s R9 Nano; it costs just as much as a Fury X but offers substantially lower framerates.

Another thing that should be mentioned is my hesitation when it comes to putting up charts like this since they offer a poor view about the relative financial and performance metrics of a given product. For example, the GTX 970 just cannot deliver consistently playable framerates at 4K but, due to its much lower price, it still “looks” like a better value than the Nano. Trust me, AMD’s higher price brings with it a world of difference when moving up the resolution and in-game setting ladders.


In the performance per watt category things are drastically different with both cards running literally neck and neck at 1440P and the Nano understandably pulls away at UHD resolutions. Not only does this go to show that the GTX 970’s lower performance is a handicap in some situations but AMD also needs some serious recognition for how they constrained their card’s power consumption profile. It’s been a long time since I was able to say that a Radeon card won a perf per watt comparison.

With all of these results taken into account, is there one of these cards I would choose over the other? The answer to that is a firm no but that was already evident a few paragraphs earlier. While they actually complement each other quite well with the Nano covering the high end market and the GTX 970 Mini effectively taking care of a more affordable price point, neither is an overwhelmingly good solution.

There are a number of reasons for this; the first and foremost being current offerings in the ITX chassis market don’t require the use of extremely compact GPUs. Most case manufacturers have been able to engineer 10” to 12” of GPU clearance into their small form factor designs without sacrificing overall volume or footprints. There are a few ITX cases which do need something like the Nano or Mini but their lack of basic features and need for low-powered SFF PSUs make for an unappealing combination.

Ironically, I find both cards to be poorly suited to a living room environment as well. If you need them for 1080P content there won’t be any problems, but UHD is simply a bridge too far. NVIDIA’s lack of HDCP 2.2 support and AMD’s bewildering inclusion of an HDMI 1.3 output in lieu of the newer and more versatile HDMI 2.0 standard stymies things on both fronts.

While NVIDIA’s missing HDCP 2.2 certification isn’t going to negatively affect gaming and can be worked around by playing other forms of non-protected content, the Nano’s lack of HDMI 2.0 is particularly egregious. With its lone HDMI 1.3 output, even games will encounter video bandwidth limitations unless your UHD TV is one of the few that includes a DisplayPort input. The only way to actually create a 4K60 interface with a supporting TV is to find a DisplayPort 1.2 to HDMI 2.0 active adapter and those are even rarer than DisplayPort-compatible UHD TVs.

So where does this leave us with the GTX 970 Mini and R9 Nano? Both are poor choices from an overall value standpoint, especially when you consider the dearth of SFF cases that actually require a non-conformist GPU. However, if someone forced me to make a choice between the hugely expensive AMD solution and ASUS’ more affordable but less capable option, I’d probably end up picking the Nano….but just by a hair. While far from perfect, it offers awesome performance per watt (especially on a 4K PC monitor) and will future-proof your system for a longer period of time. The Mini on the other hand is able to somewhat narrow the performance gap with some pretty impressive overclocking feats but it tends to fall behind under exceedingly stressful workloads. In the end, the ultimate choice for you will likely rest with budget above all else.
 
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