The folks at TechPowerUp published an exposé of sorts this morning with the provocative headline "MSI and Asus send VGA Review Samples with Higher Clocks than Retail Cards." I nearly spit out my figurative coffee when I saw that lead-in. If that story was true, it would be quite the scoop. As with so much in life, it turns out that the situation on the ground isn't quite so simple.
TechPowerUp's actual beef with Asus and MSI isn't that the companies shipped it GTX 1080s with higher clocks that one could get with a retail card, as that fiery headline might lead one to believe. Instead, what's going on is that these board partners are shipping the site cards with an aggressive clock profile enabled by default: the so-called "OC Mode" you'll see advertised on many spec sheets these days. Retail GTX 1080s are shipping with a milder "Gaming Mode" or similar profile that feature slightly lower clocks than the peak "OC Mode" numbers in marketing materials would suggest.
The somewhat shady part of this story is that MSI and Asus alike appear to be pre-tweaking their cards by way of a custom BIOS, according to Hardware.fr. (Gigabyte appears to be playing by the rules and shipping reviewers unsullied hardware.) The Hardware.fr folks note that these custom firmwares don't always behave as expected, either. For example, switching to the milder "Gaming Mode" in software might not actually cause a card with this "review BIOS" to switch off its highest clock profile. TPU has a point in that manipulating the parameters of a graphics card this way raises questions about the trustworthiness of other settings, like fan speeds, that could also be changed to meaningfully affect the outcome of a review.
We can examine the real-life impact of this review-unit muddling with a quick look at some spec sheets. The Strix GTX 1080's default "Gaming Mode" offers clocks of 1759MHz base and 1898MHz boost speeds, for example, while turning on "OC Mode" pushes those clocks to 1784MHz base and 1936MHz boost speeds. MSI's GeForce GTX 1080 Gaming X 8G offers 1683MHz base and 1822MHz boost speeds in its "Gaming Mode." Switch to "OC Mode," and those numbers rise to 1708MHz base and 1847MHz boost. To be clear, the clock delta between modes on both cards is less than 2%, so goosing cards into these modes by default shouldn't have a huge effect on performance, but it could let one card or another win by a nose in a tight race.
Ultimately, I don't see this sort of move as consumer-unfriendly, necessarily. Anybody capable of downloading and installing software can easily get the utility required to enable "OC Mode" from MSI or Asus, and the potential performance impact of a few MHz just doesn't seem that great. Folks overclocking their GeForce GTX 1080s can probably extract far more meaningful amounts of extra performance through manual tweaking. Still, reviewers have a right to demand hardware that's identical to the stuff consumers will be getting, and we'll be pressing Asus and MSI to furnish us with firmware or cards that match what retail buyers should expect on store shelves from here on out.
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