ASUS GTX980Ti STRIX OC Review : Titan X for cheap

The GPU market has seen the same transition for the last couple of years like the CPU market. Nvidia and AMD fighting for the graphics supremacy has more often than not been a very even battle, with both companies releasing products steadily at a less than a year cadence to outrun each other. But over the last year or so, the share of wins has been more for camp green. If we consider the fact that the GPU manufacturing lithography is stuck at 28nm for quite some time (while the Intel desktop CPUs are already in 14nm and will be moving to 10nm somewhere in 2017) there is very less scope to improve. Nvidia has concentrated on maturing their Maxwell architecture with a trifecta of reducing power consumption, reducing thermal output and increasing performance. While the first generation of Maxwell debuted with an arguably low-end card, the second generation disrupted the market in a way that took their main competitor AMD off-guard. The GTX 980, at launch, was considerably faster, cooler and consumed almost half the power of the R9 290X, while the ace in the hole, GTX 970 took away the price/performance advantage AMD had introduced with the excellent R9 290. Even with the controversies surrounding the GTX 970, AMD didn’t have any answer to these cards. With the R9 390X and R9 390 released, the performance gap was minimized to some extent, but AMD’s strategy of performance at any cost meant that both the Hawaii refresh cards remained a costly proposition for most users.

Over two years back, we had Nvidia announce the GTX Titan. This card was a missing link between their mainstream GeForce and workstation focused Quadro cards, offering a beefy 6GB of memory and bumped up floating point performance. The placement between two segments meant that the GTX Titan came with a hefty price tag. The idea soon paid dividends and Nvidia expanded the Titan lineup. Titan Black emerged as a rehashed GTX 780Ti with 6GB of DDR5 memory, and then Titan Z came out with an insane price tag and beastly specifications. Both these cards weren’t as successful as the original GTX Titan though. The Titan Z, behemoth as it was, lost to AMD’s venerable R9 295X2, and it was hard to justify paying the extra moolah for the Titan Black which in essence didn’t provide anything spectacular compared to the 780 Ti. This year, Nvidia’s 2015 edition of the Titan family, dubbed Titan X emerged with a full GM200 GPU and tore through gaming benchmarks, taking the single-GPU crown. But it was still expensive, and the gap between it and the GTX 980 remained substantial, both on price and performance point. Nvidia wanted to fill this market segment with something, and that something manifested into the GTX 980Ti.

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The GTX980Ti represents a perfect middle ground between the GTX 980 and the GTX Titan X. The CUDA cores get a 37.5% bump compared to the GTX 980, 9% less than the Titan X.  Same story continues for the Texture Units as well, with the GTX 980Ti being equipped with 176 Units (192 in the Titan X, 128 in the GTX 980). The VRAM gets a shrink to 6GB GDDR5, but apart from that rest all specs remain intact from the Titan X. Since the GM200 was not intended to be a hybrid gaming/compute chip, we see the 980Ti’s FP64 remain at 1/32 FP32. Specifications considered the GTX 980Ti appears to be much closer to its bigger brother. Whether the same can be said about the performance is something we will be testing today.

As with most of the second generation Maxwell releases (barring GTX Titan X), cards equipped with custom PCBs and aftermarket coolers were available from day one. ASUS made quite a splash when they introduced their silence oriented STRIX cards, and with the newer generation of cards they modified their initial subdued design. I covered the evolution of STRIX into STRIX gaming in my earlier review of the STRIX R9 390, and in short, the muted black colors now have a dash of red strips going around it. Two fans give way to three, and the top side of the card now has a pulsating LED lighting up a red and white plastic strip with STRIX branding.

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With the GTX 980Ti STRIX OC, the overall design language is same as what we saw with the new STRIX cards. The only difference gets apparent when the cards’ backplate is seen.  On the opposite side of where the GPU chip sits on the PCB, the backplate has a square cut out which reveals a red metal plate attached to the PCB. ASUS calls it GPU-fortifier, and though it stress on the fact that the bracket serves as a strengthening solution for pressure around the GPU chip itself, it looks more aesthetic than anything else, breaking the monotony of black PCB/black backplate and continuing with the whole red/black theme. As stated before, I am not exactly a fan of this digression of the STRIX line towards ROG, but then perspectives are always personal.

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The card needs two 8pin PCIe power connectors. NVidia lists the TDP of the GTX 980Ti to 250W, same as the flagship Titan X. The ASUS STRIX variant lists the maximum power consumption of up to 375W, keeping in line with the two 8pin power connector specification (150W each, plus 75W from the PCIe connector). The I/O for the 980Ti STRIX OC is typical NVidia stock affair that we have seen in GTX 980 as well. This is 1x DL-DVI-I, 3x DisplayPort 1.2, and 1x HDMI 2.0, with a total limit of 4 displays. The DVI-D display is becoming quickly obsolete for powerful GPUs and for good reason, since it cannot drive higher resolution displays that GPUs of this calibre commands. The inclusion of HDMI2.0 port means that the GTX 980Ti can drive 4k televisions, a boon for people who want a compelling solution for home theatre plus gaming PC. There are two SLI connectors on the card for a total of 4-way SLI setup.

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ASUS is using a custom PCB with a beefed up 14-phase all digital VRM solution. This is much more than what NVidia’s reference design offers (6+2 phase), and should provide better overall stability and overclockability theoretically. As with all their power delivery designs, ASUS employs DIGI+ VRM solution and premium black alloy chokes.

Lastly, the clock speeds of the STRIX OC gets a significant boost to 1190/1291MHz from the reference 1000/1075MHz, and ASUS pushes it even further with the OC mode that can be enabled from the GPU Tweak II Utility bundled with the card. OC mode’s 1216/1317MHz is 21% and 22% bumps respectively, which when taking into the card’s silence oriented focus, is a lot. But we will see that the card can do much more than this in our performance charts.

Test System:

  • Intel Core i7-4770K, Haswell, 4C/8T, 3.5GHz base/3.9GHz turbo
  • ASUS Maximus VII Hero, Z97, BIOS version 1104
  • SKILL RIPJAWS-Z 8GB DDR3-1600 CL9 memory
  • Assortment of GPUs, including
    • ASUS AMD Radeon R9 290X Matrix
    • GeForce GTX780, Reference
    • ASUS GeForce GTX980 Matrix Platinum
    • ASUS AMD Radeon R9 390 STRIX OC
    • ASUS AMD Radeon R9 390X STRIX OC
    • ASUS GeForce GTX 980Ti STRIX OC
    • ASUS GeForce GTX 970 STRIX OC
  • Samsung 840EVO 256GB SSD for OS/benchmarks
  • Western Digital 3TB HDD for data
  • Cooler Master Silent Pro M2 1000W power supply
  • Custom Liquid Cooling for CPU
  • Corsair Carbide Air540 case

A big shout out to ASUS for providing us with the review sample.

Benchmarks:

I ran the custom suite of benchmarks on the 980Ti STRIX OC.

3D Benchmarks:

Starting with the 3D Benchmarks, we immediately see the GTX 980Ti STRIX OC separate itself from the pack. Older generation cards like the GTX 780 is left in the dust and even AMD’s newer and improved Hawaii offerings, the R9 390X and the R9 390 have a hard time competing with it. In 3DMark Fire Strike, the lead over the nearest card is 25%, while the Unigine Valley, the 980Ti STRIX OC is 40% faster than the GTX 980.

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Compute & Synthetics Benchmarks:

Compute and Synthetics have historically been a strong point for AMD cards, though off late NVidia has been catching up. The GTX 980Ti STRIX OC merges victorious in all three tests that I run, running like a brute in Luxmark and SystemCompute. TessMark has never been a strong point for AMD cards due to extreme use of tessellation, and in it the GTX 980Ti’s lead is abysmal over the nearest AMD card. It is more than 300% faster. SystemCompute continues the trend, with the card coming 32% faster than the R9 390X.

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Gaming Benchmarks:

Next up, the usual bunch of games were run to see how far the GTX 980Ti STRIX can extend its lead over its competition. Our gaming suite consists of graphics heavy games like Crysis 3 and Metro Last Light, and also CPU-heavy games like Civilization: Beyond Earth.

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The dominance continues in the gaming tests as well. Overall, the GTX 980Ti offers better low and average FPS for all games, translating into smoother gameplay experience. The power of GM200 can be seen here, trumping the competition in both CPU and GPU-heavy titles with ease.

Overclocking:

Based on primary reviews, the GeForce GTX 980Ti is a great card for overclocking. Armed with a custom PCB and substantially beefed up power delivery, the 980Ti STRIX OC remained cool throughout my overclocking session. I managed to push it to 1309/1410MHz, bringing the card to a whopping 31% overclocked from its reference model clocks. From STRIX OC perspective, the overclock was lower, standing at 7% compared to its already boosted default clocks.

Overclocked, the benchmark results went up by around 5% across the board.

As for temperatures, I took the sensor data from GPU-Z while running 3DMark Fire Strike. A fairly stressful benchmark, this pushed the GPU to almost 100% during the tests. As can be seen, the card remained under 80C under all times, mostly hovering between 65-80C during the benchmark. I also checked the power consumption of the card and the GTX 980Ti STRIX, at max, touched around 96% of its rated TDP of 250W, consuming around 235W.

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I checked if there was any throttling in the GPU at all, monitoring both the GPU core and memory clocks. They both topped out at their respective limits once the GPU hit near 100% load and remained there for the entirety of the benchmark, never throttling. That says a lot about ASUS’ new cooling solution and the overall heat generation of GM200. The lower heat generation comes from lower core voltage applied as well. At idle, the 980Ti STRIX OC has a VDDC of 0.831 volts, which ramps up to 1.187 volts at full bore. This is significantly lower than what we saw in R9 390 series of cards from AMD.

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Conclusion:

The GeForce GTX 980Ti is an interesting move from NVidia if we consider that its bigger brother, the Titan X, sits at a pricier point, offering very little in terms of boost in performance over it. Some may say it is camp green’s first move anticipating the launch of AMD’s Fury X. While this may allegedly be true, but in terms of pure graphics horsepower, the 980Ti is a beast of a card, and will take some astonishing engineering from AMD to beat. It trumps the 390X and the likes by a significant margin, sometimes posting scores which are almost 50% better than the latter. Compared the GTX 980, the lead is 10-15% across most benchmarks, giving users enough incentive to look for this card. Even more so, people who were looking at the Titan X and thinking of selling their kidneys can finally breathe a sigh of relief since the GTX 980Ti should theoretically offer around 85-90% of its performance at a much lower price point. NVidia continues to push the 28nm manufacturing process to its limits, and the improvements to power and temperatures we had seen debut with the GTX 980 and GTX 970 are introduced here as well. Even with 100% load the card’s power consumption never crosses its max TDP of 250 watts, which is a good sign, and GPU temperature stays well below 80C for most of its operation. To users looking for an upgrade from the existing GTX 780 or older, or R9 290X or older, the GTX 980Ti is a fantastic option and probably the best that they can get right now. The card comes equipped with 6GB of memory which should keep most of our sleepless nights about games consuming huge chunks of VRAM at bay, and consistent floating point performance between it and the Titan X means this card should be as good (or bad!) as the Titan X in compute performance. NVidia has announced a bunch of new features that the GTX 980Ti should support, DirectX Feature Level 12_1, G-Sync Variable Overdrive, Windowed Mode G-Sync and Multi-Res Shading to name a few.

Coming to the ASUS STRIX OC model, I can’t add anything more that hasn’t been said already about the overall aesthetics. I like that ASUS has taken time to evolve the overall design language, but my gripe remains that with this they have moved their ROG and STRIX lines closer from a design perspective. I wish they could have done away with the red bits and kept it minimal. The LED also should have been user controllable, as the pulse doesn’t follow a fixed interval. Again, these things are at sole discretion of an individual, and I think for some people this would be a refreshing change.

Performance of the GTX 980Ti STRIX OC doesn’t leave much to be desired. This card stomps almost every benchmark and stays cool while doing it. The fans hardly spin up and even when they do, are hardly audible. ASUS has done a splendid job yet again with the overall package. GPU Tweak II brings a welcome UI change and now looks much more distinct and simple to use, and ASUS’ packaging is top-notch as well.

To conclude, the GTX 980Ti STRIX OC isn’t an everyday buy. It never intends to be. But if you want something that would give you fantastic performance and would run cooler and quieter, there aren’t many that can match it at this moment. Which brings me to a fun fact – every time there’s a new AMD card to be released on the horizon, we hear rumours about it being a Flagship killer. We heard the same for Fury X as well, it being touted as the Titan X killer.

How ironical that the real slayer of the Titan X turned out to be its own brother from NVidia.

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Suvojit Banerjee

Certified madman, reviewer, dreamer and storyteller. Did I miss adding 'a self-loathing narcissist'?