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NVIDIA GTX 970 SLI Performance Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
Along with the GTX 980, NVIDIA’s GTX 970 has shaken the graphics card market to its very foundation. While the GTX 980 is a relatively expensive (albeit still well priced) high end GPU, the GTX 970’s price of just $330 makes it a surefire hit for anyone who is looking for affordability and excellent performance metrics.

The GTX 970 has been launched in so-called “virtual” form which means there isn’t any reference design per se. Rather, NVIDIA has given their board partners a set of specifications that need to be followed for minimum base / boost frequencies, cooling capabilities and current capacity. Past those metrics the cards are being freely engineered and the amount of variety available from day one has been nothing short of incredible. Unfortunately, this hasn’t necessarily led to widespread availability and the GTX 970 is still nearly impossible to find at retailers. Expect that situation to change in the next few days and weeks as China's Golden Week Holiday is finished and cards will start shipping from manufacturers again.

Even with limited stocks, an SLI setup with a pair of GTX 970 cards has actually become the de facto standard for anyone who wants optimal performance without a huge outlay of money. As a matter of fact, provided you can find two of these cards without an atrocious markup attached to them, two GTX 970’s will cost less than a most single GTX 780 Ti’s did not three weeks ago. That’s an incredible value when you consider the amount of future-proofing packed into this setup. Dual GTX 980's provide awe inspiring performance but cost significantly more as well.

With such a wide array of different cards, finding one that’s close to NVIDIA’s base specs isn’t easy. Our first GTX 970 review covered ASUS’ excellent DirectCU II OC model and there will be plenty of others covered in the upcoming GTX 970 Roundup. However, what about a card or cards that boast the reference clock speeds and a basic cooling solution? We went calling and PNY answered by providing two of their very, very basic cards with simple blower-style heatsinks and reference clock speeds. They’ll have other GTX 970’s based around the XLR8 overclocked platform in the near future.


PNY’s GTX 970 is a fundamentally basic card which was produced in a short timeframe using existing components rather than a ground-up custom design. This repurposing was done by nearly every board partner to meet Maxwell’s aggressive launch window and while others decided to utilize larger, more extensive heatsinks, PNY angled towards the standardized blower design. This does lead to all the card’s hot air being exhausted outside of any enclosure’s confines but also sacrifices acoustics since the fan needs to work harder to push air through the heatsink. Also, in this case, the whole setup feels a bit flimsy which isn’t something we’re used to seeing from NVIDIA cards these days.


Flipping the card around we see a design that’s vaguely reminiscent of NVIDIA’s reference GTX 760 with an ultra-short PCB and a fan shroud that extends outwards. This results in a relatively short 9 3/4" length which broadens case compatibility but that may be cold comfort to gamers looking for upgraded components or a beefed up cooling solution.


Under that heatsink shroud is a standard component layout consisting of a 5+1 phase PWM and a pretty large heatsink core that’s equipped with a quartet of copper heatpipes. At face value it looks like this should be more than adequate to keep the GM204 core cool but there are some minor design flaws which will prevent it from operating at peak thermal efficiency.

Since there’s so much space between the aluminum fins and the fan, any airflow towards the cooling components is going to be partially diffused before arriving in this key zone. There’s a small baffle that is supposed to direct the onrushing air but it tends to launch it at an angle rather than straight onto the heatsink.

The end result of these internal workings is a fan which needs to work overly hard in order to ensure optimal temperatures. As we will see in the performance over time results, NVIDIA’s Boost algorithms end up working overtime.


Looking at the PNY GTX 970’s connectors, we see the first signs of something a bit different. The two 6-pin power inputs are par for the course but that backplate looks like something borrowed from AMD rather than one that typically appears on an NVIDIA card. There’s a single DVI alongside three mini DisplayPort outputs and a single mini HDMI connector. Unfortunately, while PNY thoughtfully included a mini HDMI to HDMI adaptor, no such provision was given for the DisplayPorts so you’ll need to buy one yourself. That’s pretty disappointing considering the price you pay for a GTX 970 and the fact that DisplayPort is currently the best solution for features like G-SYNC and the only viable option for 4K.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
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 344.07 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.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
Exploring Clock Speed Stability

Exploring Clock Speed Stability


PNY’s GTX 970 utilizes a blower-style cooler than has a few minor design flaws which could impede the card’s performance due to NVIDIA’s stringent Boost algorithms. Should the core’s temperature reach a level of 80°C or more, the card will strive to reach the highest possible frequency without hitting NVIDIA’s predetermined Base clock. Typically custom heatsinks keep temperatures far below that point but blower-style coolers aren’t necessarily known for their thermal efficiency so PNY may be starting from a rear-facing position to begin with.


As expected, the core hits the 80°C mark quite quickly as the BIOS’ fan curve struggles to balance thermals, acoustics and clock speeds. If you choose to manually increase the fan speed, expect to see significantly lower temperatures but also a noticeable increase in the fan’s noise. Compare these results to the ones achieved by ASUS’ higher clocked, custom cooled, $10 more expensive DirectCU II and you’ll begin to see the benefits of going with a different cooler design should your case situation warrant it. More on acoustics a bit later…


These results are actually quite surprising given the temperatures this card runs at. While there is a slight 30MHz downturn in frequencies when the core hits that magical 80°C mark, it looks like NVIDIA’s Boost algorithm alongside proper fan speed and power management save the day. As a result, the PNY GTX 970 retains an operating frequency of 1223MHz which is 47MHz over the reference design’s Boost specification. This trend continued well into an hour of intensive gameplay so there’s no worry about any further throttling. Unfortunately in a direct comparison against the ASUS card, this GTX 970 simply isn’t able to keep up.


Overall performance with a continually high load is also quite consistent though there was a near-perfectly timed framerate reduction when the core’s temperature hit 80°C. While some may frown upon this behavior, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been considering how reference AMD cards behaved in this exact same situation.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
Acoustical Testing / 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.


The PNY GTX 970’s acoustics aren’t exactly extreme but the card is louder than most others in its category (minus AMD’s reference designs of course). Its lone fan emits an almost inconspicuous thrumming noise at lower RPMs but once its speed rises, the bearing’s sound quickly becomes apparent. There’s also a high amount of transient electrical noise from the card’s chokes, a problem that has been corrected on higher end designs by encasing these components with an internal layer of concrete between the outer housing and copper core. These two aspects are made even worse when two of these cards are placed in SLI.


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.


Maxwell is an extremely efficient architecture and the two GTX 970’s are shown to be one of the most power-conscious solutions around. It should be noted however that there may be some additional power savings had PNY’s cards been able to run at lower temperatures.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
1440P: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag / Battlefield 4

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag


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

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


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

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


 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
1440P: 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


 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
1440P: 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
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.


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


 
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SKYMTL

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

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag


3840 x 2160




Battlefield 4


3840 x 2160


 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
4K: Call of Duty: Ghosts / Far Cry 3

Call of Duty: Ghosts


3840 x 2160



Far Cry 3


3840 x 2160


 

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