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ITX Battle: R9 Nano vs GTX 970 Mini


Author: SKYMTL
Date: November 12, 2015

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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