Asus and MSI face accusations of doping review graphics cards

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.

Comments closed
    • JerTech
    • 3 years ago

    A tweaked BIOS can change much more meaningful values than mere Base Clock and Boost Clock.

    My own testing using Kepler BIOS Tweaker on my trusty GTX 660 revealed that many other factors than base/boost contribute to your GPU’s performance. I was able to unlock higher voltages for stability. I could raise the Boost Limit – the true max clock which is higher than Boost Clock, which I found to be an almost meaningless number for my card. Even though the [b<]Boost Clock[/b<] is 1098MHz, it regularly hangs around the [b<]Boost Limit[/b<] of 1202MHz while gaming. Most importantly, I was able to tweak how sensitive the Boost feature is, forcing my card to run at the Boost Limit under even the most extreme voltage scenarios. An insufficiently tweaked card will tend to hang closer to the base clock under load, despite having the same listed clock specs. All these factors and more, coupled with the control over my Twin Frozr fans, really helped me to make the most of my specific card's true potential after much testing. I suspect modern cards have even more considerations. My point is that, due to the complexities of Boost, the end result of a tweaked BIOS for these cards can mean much more than a mere 2% increase in average clock speeds under load. In extreme cases, it could be ten times that. Premium chips from the bin could magnify the difference. It's the kind of thing that won't even show up in the listed specs of most GPU utilities; it's better seen by measuring actual clock speeds during a performance test. It could be informative to do that with one of these custom cards alongside an identical model off the shelf. Testing the same card with both BIOSes would also be interesting.

    • Chrispy_
    • 3 years ago

    This problem would be less relevant if Nvidia drivers had sensible clock controls in their drivers.

    AMD’s overdrive controls have been fantastic and they work on all AMD cards going back a long way.

    Nvidia owners are reduced to third-party vendor bloat that may not even be offered by the manufacturer of your card and even if another vendor’s utility even works at all it will still be fugly, badly-skinned and clutter up your system tray with rubbish.

      • NoOne ButMe
      • 3 years ago

      This still was done for some for AMD cards.
      [url<]http://www.techpowerup.com/img/16-06-16/131b.jpg[/url<] Looks like for MSI AMD and Nvidia cards were tampered with equally.

        • BurntMyBacon
        • 3 years ago

        [quote=”Chrispy_”<]This problem would be less relevant if Nvidia drivers had sensible clock controls in their drivers. AMD's overdrive controls have been fantastic and they work on all AMD cards going back a long way.[/quote<] [quote="Chrispy_"<]Looks like for MSI AMD and Nvidia cards were tampered with equally.[/quote<] Not only are these statements not mutually exclusive, but your statement appears to be the exact reason why Chrispy_ likes AMD's ability to control clocks. It's too bad nVidia seems to have no intention of building in such a first party tool.

    • WaltC
    • 3 years ago

    nVidia’s been doing it for years…;) I still remember the old TNT2 vs. Voodoo 3 reviews at sites like Pabst’s “Tom’s Hardware” (sold by Pabst long ago)–Pabst made a big deal of comparing a stock-clocked V3 with an overclocked TNT2–because, he said, nVidia assured him that the TNT2 when it shipped would be clocked at 175Mhz. Six months later (yes, most launches in those days were “paper”) when the TNT2 shipped it shipped at 150MHz–not 175MHz. In fact, when it shipped there were *no* 175Mhz models to be had–those would only come months later. I had one of those original TNT2’s and can recall being *unable* to overclock it past 151Mhz…believe it or not!…;)

    At any rate, sending out cherry-picked review samples that are not necessarily reflective of the product that actually ships is something nVidia has done for most of its history, IIRC. And, to this day, nVidia is still doing things like advertising features its products don’t actually support at all–like 8-bit palletized textures back in the days of 3dfx, or Async Compute, today–while stating that the features are “turned off in the drivers” atm–for very unclear and murky reasons, of course–and that they “should be turned on” in the drivers Any Day Now (TM)…;) This rarely happens, of course, since if your gpu supports the features and it works then why would nVidia “turn it off”?…;)

    It’s a Caveat Emptor world, folks. And it is nothing new at all.

    • NoOne ButMe
    • 3 years ago

    I do expect AIBs to send in “golden samples” but this is stupid of them.

    Might want to note that both AMD and Nvidia cards were affected. Following the link will show this, but some people will just read the article and it talks only about Nvidia cards.

    • Jigar
    • 3 years ago

    I know this increases the work for TR but while you guys are preparing the review of GTX 1080, can you please share stress test result or may be results of after 30 minutes run. If TR debunks/prove that GTX 1080 are throttling after 30 minutes load that would be great.

      • NoOne ButMe
      • 3 years ago

      it won’t be much help if they do it on an open air test-bench. They need to do it in a case. Or both. More data I likey.

    • UnfriendlyFire
    • 3 years ago

    GPU vendors could also ship cherry-picked GPUs with the best silicon chips, especially if the reviewer has a history of overclocking GPUs to test their OC headroom.

    • albundy
    • 3 years ago

    its easier to return a video card than many other things…much easier. just buy from the right places. i say buy it, run your own tests and if they come up short, return it. its their sales that take a hit, not your wallet. better yet, post benchmarks and then return it so people know to steer clear.

    • gerryg
    • 3 years ago

    My concern with any company that tries to tamper with review results is if they’re willing to make a small “meaningless” tweak to look better than they are, then the door is open to doing other bigger things. If you’re willing to fudge in one area, then to me your integrity, honesty, and business ethics are fully in question in all areas. It’s a slippery slope, and could just be the tip of the iceberg? See VW’s dieselgate for example. VW still made good cars, but they weren’t as advertised, and the scope of the problem grew as it was investigated further. I say hold their feet to the fire and watch ’em like a hawk.

      • Voldenuit
      • 3 years ago

      [quote<] business ethics[/quote<] Lol. Had me at "business ethics". Good one.

    • yogibbear
    • 3 years ago

    Is this actually confirmed? Is it entirely possible that different batches of the cards shipped with OC mode by default vs. Game mode by default? I understand why it’s potentially slightly unhelpful that they do this, but any reviewer would be able to see the clock speeds, install the app themselves, and change the mode… Asus and MSI probably just think reviewers might be too lazy in their rush to get the review out on that NDA deadline and wanted their card to always look the best. 😀

      • Beahmont
      • 3 years ago

      You seem to have missed the part where the review cards occasionally came with custom firmware that didn’t necessarily let the cards change from OC to gaming clock speeds even if the profile was changed in the software. That’s moderately shady at best.

      Edit: I can haz brain that spellz pleese? (Spelling fixes.)

        • yogibbear
        • 3 years ago

        Ah OK well then that’s pretty shady. Yeah I also didn’t see the excel spreadsheet over at TechPowerup’s site showing a long history of MSI doing this. So not just one of stuffing up the BIOS crap, but repeat offenders.

    • torquer
    • 3 years ago

    So about those GTX 1080/1070 TR reviews…

      • cmrcmk
      • 3 years ago

      Maybe TR was waiting until they could download the retail firmware?

      • chuckula
      • 3 years ago

      The founder’s edition review parts are in no way affected by what the AIBs did to their hot clocked custom boards.

        • torquer
        • 3 years ago

        My point was to underscore the fact that we still haven’t seen TR’s reviews

      • Fonbu
      • 3 years ago

      TR reviews still means the most for me!

    • nanoflower
    • 3 years ago

    If they shipped all of their cards with the OC Mode enabled there wouldn’t be an issue but no one wants companies playing games with benchmarks/reviews even if it’s only with a small boost of performance.

    • ebomb808
    • 3 years ago

    Care far more about Noise and Heat measurements than the absurdly small differences on clock speeds. It seems GPU Boost 3.0 kind of renders some of the clocks meaningless anyways.

      • travbrad
      • 3 years ago

      Yep. If a card runs cooler and quieter it will tend to OC better anyway, and maintain those clock speeds without throttling, with less noise, etc. I would never choose one card over another just because it’s clocked 25mhz higher by default. It’s the whole package that matters.

    • Firestarter
    • 3 years ago

    running the cards on the ragged edge seems to be exactly what people want, so I don’t blame them for delivering on that. GPUs have always required reasonably low ambient/case temperatures so I don’t think anyone would be too surprised if a “factory OC’ed” card can’t handle a hot summer day, they just need to prepared for that by offering those “gaming” modes with somewhat relaxed clocks

      • slaimus
      • 3 years ago

      It does not bode well for the longevity of the cards though. I remember the super overclocked EVGA GTX 460 that blew away reviewers ended up dying within a year for many owners.

        • Firestarter
        • 3 years ago

        that’s what warranty is for

      • NoOne ButMe
      • 3 years ago

      or maybe they cannot even handle being in a case than an open air bench.

      Optimal case shouldn’t be to much worse, but rarely optimal in realworld.

    • chuckula
    • 3 years ago

    I suggest a celebrity spokesman to deflect these accusations.

    How about A-Rod?

    Or better yet: Lance Armstrong!

      • smilingcrow
      • 3 years ago

      I think he lacks a dual BIOS feature although he does appear to have a dual personality.

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