There comes a time in the life of every PC gamer when you say to yourself: "Self, I'd like to buy a graphics card with more than twice the shader power of a PlayStation 4 for less money." Then you fire up a web browser, read our review of the GeForce GTX 970, and realize you can have what you want. Because that's how life as a PC gamer works.
Later, around Christmastime, I'll tell you the one about wanting to buy major AAA games for five to ten bucks, opening up Steam, and getting to take your pick.
Or the one about getting a vastly more powerful CPU than the consoles' for $72.
It's good to be a PC gamer, is what I'm saying.
But if you're going to be forking over less than price of an Xbox One for more than three times the GPU power—that is, if you're you're planning to buy a GeForce GTX 970—you may still be vexed by questions. Like, "Which one of these excellent video cards at an amazing price is the best one to get?"
These are tough choices, in the sense that choosing can be difficult. In every other sense, they're really easy, because it's hard to go wrong and, at the end, you'll be doing butt stomps on Elpis with fluid, stunning visuals.
In that context, my happy task is to guide you through some of your options. Today, that means sussing out the differences between a pair of hopped-up GeForce GTX 970 cards: the Asus Strix GTX 970 and the MSI GTX 970 Gaming 4G. The two cards are incredibly similar on paper, but they're more different than you might think in actual use. Let's get down to it.
Asus' Strix GeForce GTX 970
Asus' Strix GTX 970 may be familiar to you from our initial review of the GeForce GTX 970. The Strix is ostensibly a premium card with a higher price and faster clock speeds than the "standard" GTX 970. Trouble is, the idea of a "baseline" GTX 970 is a bit of a convenient fiction. You see, Nvidia didn't produce any reference boards for the GTX 970, so cards like the Strix are some of the earliest implementations.
|GeForce GTX 970 stock||1050||1174||4 GB||7 GT/s||-||-||$329|
|Asus Strix GTX 970||1114||1253||4 GB||7 GT/s||1 x 8-pin||11.125"||$349|
The Strix offers somewhat higher base and boost GPU clock frequencies than Nvidia requires, and it sells for a little bit more than Nvidia's suggested retail price. Asus quotes a list of $339, but Newegg is asking $349 for the Strix right now—if you can find one in stock. They're a bit of a hot item.
Aside from the obvious GPU value, one of the Strix's main attractions is that handsome DirectCU II custom cooler. Asus' press materials say it's 30% cooler and "3X quieter" than . . . something. I'm not sure what. At any rate, it's a big, dual-slot cooler with twin fans, triple heat pipes, and a metal shroud coated with flat-black paint.
Asus has made sure the cooler has lots of heatsink surface area by giving it ample dimensions. At over 11", the Strix takes up more space than the GTX 980 reference design. Also, the cooler's heatpipes protrude about an inch and a half vertically above the top of the PCIe expansion slot covers. Most modern PC cases of the mid-tower variety shouldn't have any trouble swallowing this thing, but you'll want to check the dimensions carefully if space is at a premium inside of your target enclosure.
Asus calls this cooler "DirectCU II" because it belongs to the second generation of Asus coolers whose copper heatpipes make direct contact with the top of the graphics chip. You can see from the leftover thermal paste above that all three pipes line up right above the GM204 die.
The "gray goo" thermal paste application on the Strix isn't bad, either, although the layer of goo is a little thicker than absolutely necessary.
One of the best things about the Strix's cooling isn't apparent from pictures. This cooler is potent enough to keep the GM204 GPU from getting too warm at idle and during light gaming loads without spinning its fans at all. To capitalize on that fact, the Strix doesn't spin up its fans until the GPU reaches a certain threshold temperature.
Asus made the unusual choice of including only a single eight-pin power input on the Strix 970. That plug should supply plenty to juice to drive the GPU and memory, and it's certainly convenient during installation. However, not every power supply comes with an eight-pin PCIe power lead, so the Strix may require a dual-six-pin-to-single-eight-pin adapter.
Speaking of connectors, the Strix comes with a complement of display outputs that looks a bit old-school. Unlike Nvidia's GTX 980 reference design, this card has only one DisplayPort ouput. There's also a single HDMI port, and the other two outputs are DVI—one DVI-I and one DVI-D. Since 4K and G-Sync monitors tend to require DisplayPort, I'd rather see the trio of DisplayPort outputs that the 980 reference card offers. The inability to drive multiple 4K or G-Sync monitors may be the Strix's biggest drawback, and it shares this trait with the MSI GTX 970 card. If you'd like more DisplayPort connectors, have a look at Gigabyte's version of the GTX 970 instead.
No overview of a video card produced by a motherboard maker would be complete without some mention of high-quality electronic components. Asus says the Strix has been blessed with premium capacitors and chokes, and the card includes a Digi+ digital VRM chip for precise voltage modulation. The benefits, the firm claims, include higher durability and expanded overclocking potential.
Asus' GPU Tweak software can help Strix owners tap that potential. GPU Tweak isn't bad, as these sorts of utilities go. The most important tuning variables are exposed right up front, with very little nonsense.
I did run into a problem right out of the gate, though. I was testing the Strix with a 4K monitor and Windows 8.1 in a high-PPI scaling mode. The GPU Tweak app has relative font sizes, which resulted in a bunch of overly large lettering and overlap between words, mostly in the monitoring panel. I had to drop back to low-PPI settings, where icons are tiny and fonts are minuscule, in order to take the screenshot above.
Beyond that, the GPU Tweak apps shows you most of what you need to overclock a GM204. This isn't the most verbose tweaking tool available, but it's pretty straightforward to use.
There's even a place to define a custom fan speed curve. As you can see, the Strix's default policy doesn't ask the fan to kick in until the GPU reaches about 60°C. Although there are only a few points defined on the curve above, you can click in the window to add more. Pretty slick.