The GeForce GTX 980 Ti is arguably the best video card you can buy right now, by most standards. AMD’s Radeon R9 Fury X has arrived and shown itself to be competitive but not quite dominant. In most games, the 980 Ti is faster.
Sure, you could pony up a grand for a GeForce Titan X with 12GB of memory in order to get the “ultimate,” but the 6GB of GDDR5 aboard every GTX 980 Ti appears to be all that anyone needs in current games. More importantly, perhaps, the Titan X is limited to Nvidia’s reference design, while the GTX 980 Ti comes in a bunch of different flavors, with slick aftermarket coolers, custom board designs, and tweaked clock speeds. If you’re looking for the finest, most extreme single-GPU video card on the market, look no further than cards like these:
Pictured above are GTX 980 Ti cards from the likes of Asus, MSI, EVGA, and Gigabyte. They’re all different, but they all have their sights set on this guy:
That’s Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 980 Ti reference design, with the familiar stock cooler that Nvidia has been shipping for several years. The custom GTX 980 Ti cards we’ve assembled all cost about 10 to 20 bucks more than the reference version, and they all aim to improve upon the vanilla card in multiple ways. Have they succeeded? More importantly, which one of them might be the best choice for you? Let’s take a look.
EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti SC+
The SC+ is one of five different GTX 980 Ti cards that EVGA is currently selling at online retailers. That thought might be a little daunting, but don’t worry. The SC+ is selling for $679 at Newegg, just ten bucks more than cards based on the reference design, and it’s likely to be the best value among EVGA’s offerings. The others will set you back more and include exotic options like liquid cooling. For most folks, the SC+ will probably be the card to buy.
This beast is a nice step up from the reference design, starting with base and boost clock frequencies of 1102 and 1190MHz, roughly 10% above the reference defaults of 1000 and 1076MHz. Believe it or not, those clock speeds make the SC+ the most modestly clocked card among this bunch, mostly because Nvidia builds quite a bit of headroom into its reference clocks in order to make products like these possible.
Of course, default clocks aren’t terribly important if you’re willing do a little overclocking. The SC+ could help facilitate that, ahem, questionable practice with the help of EVGA’s ACX 2.0+ custom cooler. This cooler features twin fans and a total of five different heatpipes snaking across above the GPU. As you can see below, three of those heatpipes run straight through the length of the card. EVGA says the lack of bends in the pipes improves heat transfer efficiency by six percent. We’ll have to see how that works out in practice.
The ACX 2.0+ cooler also participates in one of my favorite innovations of recent years in video cards. Its fans are thermally controlled and don’t spin at all when the GPU’s temperature is below 60° C. That means the card should be essentially silent during desktop work and even during light gaming. I believe every card in this group, with the exception of the reference board, has a similar semi-passive fan policy, so it’s not unique to EVGA. But yeah, it’s nice.
Another of this EVGA card’s virtues is its compact size: at 10.5″ long and no taller than the PCIe slot covers, the dimensions of the SC+ are virtually identical to the reference card’s. That means this puppy should slide into a broad range of PC enclosures without any drama. The SC+ also has a six-plus-eight-pin power input config. The rest of the aftermarket cards we have on hand require dual eight-pin inputs, so EVGA wins points for potentially working with a broader array of power supplies.
Unlike the reference card, the SC+ ships with a handsome backplate meant to protect the rear of the card from an errant screwdriver tip.
EVGA bundles the SC+ with two notable pieces of software beyond the drivers. The firm’s Precision X utility allows for extensive overclocking, tweaking, and monitoring, and it’s one of my favorite utilities of its type. Also, right now, this card is available at some retailers with a bundled copy of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, which I was surprised to learn is not a game about a knee replacement.
Gigabyte GTX 980 Ti G1 Gaming
With a 1152MHz base clock and a potent 1241MHz boost speed, Gigabyte’s take on the GTX 980 Ti is pretty aggressive, although its memory clocks are bone stock. You’ll pay a little more for this card right now; it’s listed for $689.99 at Newegg, although it’s currently out of stock. Truth be told, GeForce GTX 980 Ti cards generally seem to be in high demand. As a result, all of the cards we’re testing may be subject to limited availability and potential markup from retailers while supplies are tight.
It’s not hard to see why this thing would be in high demand. We’ve appreciated the merits of Gigabyte’s graphics cards for several generations. The company’s triple-fan Windforce cooler is back for another, erm, spin, this time with some silver cladding added atop the black shroud to give it an updated look. I think the new look works for it, but I think I still prefer the all-black look overall.
The G1 Gaming is unique among 980 Ti cards because it sports a second DVI output courtesy of Gigabyte’s Flex Display arrangement. If you have multiple fancy monitors that happen to be a bit older, the G1 Gaming might be the path of least resistance, since it would require one less DVI adapter.
Gigabyte claims this Windforce 3X cooler can dissipate up to 600W of heat, which is about twice what it would ever be asked to do aboard this card. Then again, I think these fans probably only ever reach about 50% of their peak speed, so it all makes a sort of sense. As with the other cards, the fans spin down when the GPU’s temperature is low enough, plunging them into silence.
You can see the five heatpipes running across the generously-sized copper plate above the GPU in the picture. Despite its beefy nature, the Winforce 3X is actually relatively compact, as these things go. The cooling shroud extends just a quarter-inch above the PCIe slot covers, way less than some of its competitors. Instead, the shroud steals some additional space lengthwise, making the G1 Gaming roughly 11.1″ long, over a half-inch longer than the reference boards. For a lot of today’s ATX enclosures, the added length won’t matter, but you might want to do a quick measurement before you buy.
That “Windforce” lettering atop the card lights up, as in past products, but this time, there’s a new twist: custom lighting. The deep blue hue on older cards was nice, but it didn’t match well with the red and white hues that dominate PC components these days. Gigabyte has taken notice and blessed its GTX 980 Ti with a rainbow of possibilities. I’m weirdly jealous not to have this color-matching option in the Damagebox. Users can choose from seven different colors using Gigabyte’s OC Guru II tweaking utility. Those “silent” and “stop” lights are always white, though, and come on whenever the fans spin down.
The utility can also switch the LEDs to always off, always on, or “auto” mode, in which the lights glow only when the GPU is busy.
In addition to OC Guru II, the G1 Gaming currently comes with the same Metal Gear Solid V bundle as the EVGA card, at least at certain stores.
MSI GTX 980 Ti Gaming 6G
MSI video cards are easy to spot with their distinctive red-and-black color schemes, dragon-themed iconography, and more pipes than a Colorado dispensary.
The GTX 980 Ti Gaming 6G will currently set you back $679 at Newegg, yet it has one of the most aggressive combinations of cooling and clock speed in this bunch. The Gaming 6G’s base and boost clocks are 1178 and 1279MHz, respectively, and its memory runs at 7.1Gbps, a tick above the stock 7Gbps speed.
Heat removal comes courtesy of the flashy Twin Frozr V cooler. The two fans on this puppy are independently controlled, so each one only spins as fast as needed—and they stop rotating entirely when not required. Notice that there’s a shiny area with a kink in it in every other fan blade. MSI says the mix of two blade types allows for better dispersion of air across the heatsinks. Makes sense, I suppose.
Both the Gaming 6G board and the Twin Frozr cooler are larger than the 980 Ti reference design. The heatpipes curve up above the PCIe slot cover tops by about 1.25″, and the board’s about a half-inch longer than the reference one at roughly 11″. This combination of length and height ought to fit well in the majority of today’s popular mid-tower ATX cases, but it could prove difficult to squeeze into mATX enclosures or anything that’s less than spacious.
Pull off the cooler, and you’ll see that MSI’s card “only” has four heatpipes, but a couple of those pipes make an S-curve and snake into the heatsink fins in two places. I don’t want to give away too much, but this arrangement and the dual blade types really do seem to work well together, as we’ll soon see.
The entire rear expanse of the Gaming 6G is covered by a protective backplate. That little MSI dragon logo you can see peeking up between the SLI connectors and the heatpipes is illuminated by a white LED, and MSI’s Gaming app lets users choose from a range of lighting effects like “breathing,” flashing, and static illumination.
In addition to that Gaming app, MSI offers its excellent Afterburner tweaking utility for overclocking, a six-month subscription to XSplit Gamecaster for live streaming via Twitch, and that familiar MGS V bundle at select retailers.
Asus Strix GTX 980 Ti OC Edition
If you’ve been reading TR the past few weeks, this sight may look familiar to you.
That’s a video card adorned with Asus’ extra-beefy DirectCU III cooler. We’ve seen this same cooler deployed on the Radeon R9 Fury and 390X. Here, the new Asus cooler design makes it way to the GeForce side of the aisle aboard the Strix GTX 980 Ti. The Strix is a relative newcomer to the scene and appears to be out of stock most places, but it’s listed for $669.99 on Amazon.
Thanks in part to that humongous cooler, the Strix has easily the highest default clock speeds of any card in this group, with a 1216MHz base and 1317MHz boost, along with 7.2-Gbps memory.
In order to achieve that feat, Asus has given the Strix an outsized custom circuit board with a massive 12+2-phase power delivery section. The card is nearly as tall as the cooler, and the cooler sticks up 1.7″ above the top of the PCIe slot cover. At 12″ long, the Strix is both the longest and tallest card of this bunch—and it’s not really close.
Asus isn’t kidding about the DirectCU thing, either. The copper heatpipes really do come into contact with the surface of the GPU, although only three of the card’s five pipes appear to touch the chip in this case.
If you require a light show from your graphics card, Asus has you covered. The Strix logo atop the cooler glows and pulses like a heartbeat. Around back, the board is clad with a metal backplate, just like the other guys.
Asus supplies its own config and overclocking utility, known as GPU Tweak II, and it also includes a full year of XSplit Gamecaster service with the purchase. Asus looks to be participating in the MSG V bundle at Newegg, as well.
We’ve explored the performance of the GeForce GTX 980 Ti extensively, using advanced metrics, in our initial review of the GPU and, most recently, in our Radeon R9 Fury review. I won’t repeat that sort of in-depth testing here, but I do want to take a look at the relative performance of these cards. To do so, I tested with the built-in benchmarks in Shadow of Mordor and Tomb Raider. Both games were configured to use their “Ultra” image quality presets. These simple FPS-based tests should be sufficient for comparing against different implementations of the GM200 graphics chip.
All of these cards deliver a substantial boost, at the default clock speeds, compared to the stock GeForce GTX 980 Ti reference card. Given that these are actual products you can buy for $10-20 more than the 980 Ti’s base price, that’s kind of a big deal.
The Asus Strix captures the top spot among the 980 Ti offerings we’re comparing, with the Gigabyte and MSI cards firmly in second and third place, respectively. Although the MSI card has slightly higher base and boost clocks (1178/1279MHz) than the Gigabyte (1152/1241MHz), the Gigabyte looks to be a little faster in these games. Since the GPU’s actual clock speed is determined by Nvidia’s GPU Boost algorithm, the question of clock speed is more complex than base and boost speeds alone. We’ll explore that dynamic more in a moment.
While we’re here, though, I can’t help but notice that these hot-clocked GTX 980 Ti cards upset the order of things at the top of the GPU stack. All of them are faster than our GeForce Titan X. Also, these cards improve Nvidia’s competitive position compared to the Radeon R9 Fury X. In Shadow of Mordor at 4K, the reference card is just a hair slower than the Fury X, but the Asus Strix outguns the Fury X by ~14%. This outcome is a natural consequence of the fact that Nvidia builds some headroom into its GPUs for its board partners to exploit.
Pushing a big GPU like the GM200 to its limits does impose some power costs. When running Crysis 3, our GPU rig’s total power consumption rises by at least 30W with any of these aftermarket cards installed in place of the reference GTX 980 Ti. The Asus and Gigabyte cards require another 20W beyond that, pushing their power use beyond that of a Radeon R9 Fury X. The total of 378W still seems frugal next to the 449W of power draw from the R9 390X-based system, though.
Noise and temperatures
All of these custom GTX 980 Ti cards spin their fans down at idle, so they’re all essentially silent at the Windows desktop or with the display in power-save mode. Any differences in the readings on the decibel meter likely have to do with the noise floor here in Damage Labs fluctuating slightly. With the right setup, we might be able to measure any slight coil whine or chatter happening on each card, but we’re talking about incredibly subtle stuff at idle.
The 35-dBA reading for the R9 Fury X, by the way, is likely driven by its pump whine. Some Fury X cards have this problem, and ours is among them.
Welp, every one of the aftermarket cards is quieter than the reference GTX 980 Ti under load. The big revelation here is the MSI Gaming 6G, which stands out by being incredibly quiet. In fact, the air-cooled MSI card generates less noise than the liquid-cooler Radeon R9 Fury X, which is quite a feat. The Asus and EVGA offerings aren’t far behind.
Gigabyte’s default cooling policy is much more aggressive than the other cards’. That results in more noise and markedly lower temperatures than the rest of the pack. Even then, the G1 Gaming registers lower on the decibel meter than both the reference GTX 980 Ti and the Titan X.
The process of overclocking a GeForce GTX 980 Ti isn’t especially difficult since it all happens in software, but it’s not terribly straightforward. Nvidia’s GPU Boost algorithm factors in multiple variables in order to determine the best possible clock speed from moment to moment, and a number of things can limit clock speeds: temperatures, power limits, voltage peaks, frequency caps, and so on. Current GeForce cards come with two rated clock speeds: a “base” clock that is a guaranteed minimum and a “boost” clock that represents a typical speed while gaming. (Yep, the boost clock is not a maximum. The GPU can range higher than that under the right conditions.)
As you might be gathering, actual GPU clock speeds will vary depending on the workload. Before overclocking these cards, I decided to establish a baseline by seeing what speeds they run in a very demanding program: MSI’s Kombustor, specifically the “Furry PQTorus” test based on FurMark. This application represents a worst-case thermal scenario for modern GPUs and pushes things much harder than any game I’ve seen. We’ve used Kombustor in past reviews for this very same purpose.
Here’s how each of the cards handled in FurMark.
|Reference GTX 980 Ti||1000||1076||7000||1.018||1189|
|Asus Strix GTX 980 Ti OC||1216||1317||7200||1.030||1240|
|EVGA GTX 980 Ti SC||1102||1190||7000||0.999||1050|
|Gigabyte GTX 980 Ti Gaming G1||1152||1241||7000||1.003||1177|
|MSI Gaming GTX 980 Ti 6G||1178||1279||7100||1.043||987|
Right away, you can see that things get a little weird when we push these big GPUs with an atypical and very intensive workload. The delivered clock speeds and voltages vary widely. Only the reference card, with the tamest tuning of the bunch, runs at a speed higher than its boost clock. You’ll know from the previous page that these numbers aren’t a very good predictor of in-game performance. I’ll probably want to switch to a more typical workload next time I decide to overclock a batch of big GPUs.
Regardless, Kombustor is still a pretty good stress test, if nothing else. I was able to use it for that purpose while seeking the max possible clock speeds for each of the cards.
I decided to use EVGA’s Precision X tool for overclocking this time around. Here’s what I was able to achieve by prodding each of these cards for a while. Of course, since this overclocking and is in no way guaranteed, your mileage may vary. The peak possible clock speed at a given voltage will vary from chip to chip.
|Reference GTX 980 Ti||+270||1346||8000||1.012||1101||84|
|Asus Strix GTX 980 Ti OC||+60||1377||8000||1.055||1328||83|
|EVGA GTX 980 Ti SC||+140||1330||8000||0.999||1177||77|
|Gigabyte GTX 980 Ti Gaming G1||+120||1361||8000||1.074||1354||74|
|MSI Gaming GTX 980 Ti 6G||+60||1339||8000||1.043||1215||78|
The first thing you might notice in the table above is that third column, “boost + offset.” That’s effectively the peak speed I was able to wring out of each product, and there’s not much distance between the slowest and fastest options. Cards like the MSI with higher default clocks would only tolerate smaller offsets, while conservatively tuned boards like the reference model handled larger offsets well. At the end of the day, GM200 chips tend to have similar limits, regardless of which card they’re on.
One reason they’re so similar is that Nvidia has limited the peak voltage. Each and every one of these cards will allow you to raise the default GPU voltage by 87 mV and no more. I simply took each card to its max when I tested. I’d need more voltage to push the GPU offsets any higher without stability problems.
As for memory speeds, well, I generally pushed from the default of 7Gbps to 8Gbps and stopped. Each of the cards was able to handle that speed, but things got dicey in a hurry when I pushed past that mark. Since a number of GDDR5 chips are involved on each board, what you can get on the hairy edge of memory speeds will likely vary even more from one board to the next.
When overclocked using the settings above, all of the 980 Ti cards limited their clock speeds in Kombustor for the same reason: hitting their power limits. The reference board briefly hit a temperature limit instead, until I raised its temperature tolerance by a few degrees. Then they were all power limited. You can raise the power limit a bit in Precision or similar utilities, and I maxed it out for each contestant. Most cards topped out at 110% of their default, but the MSI allowed a 120% setting. The Gigabyte went to 130%. Regardless, power was always the limiting factor for clock speeds in Kombustor.
I should say that it’s entirely possible that my simple formula of using the peak voltage with the peak clock offset might not be the most optimal config in every case. One could possibly extract more performance from a power-limited GPU by keeping its voltage lower. But finding that magic sweet spot involves serious tweaking and tedium, and I just didn’t have the extra hours to dedicate to that process for every card. At least next time, I’ll use something else generate the GPU load, so we can see more typical clock behaviors.
Of course, the true test is how these overclocked configurations perform in games.
Turning up the clock speeds and voltage/power limits for these 980 Ti cards adds another 10% or so to their performance. Asus and Gigabyte are once again at the top of the pack when overclocked.
There’s a reason the Asus and Gigabyte cards are able to achieve the highest stable boost + offset clock frequencies and thus the highest frame rates: they use more power than everything else in order to stay stable. I’m not sure whether they’re secretly throwing more voltage at the GPU or what, but the difference in power draw versus MSI and EVGA is about 18W at stock speeds and ~30-50W when overclocked.
Even when topping the performance charts, the Asus Strix is among the quietest cards while overclocked. That’s a nice combination of attributes. The Gigabyte card achieves similar performance, but it makes a more noise in its efforts to keep GPU temperatures lower.
These are $650+ graphics cards, and as you might expect, they are all very good products. There aren’t any poor choices in this group, and each one of them has its own particular virtues. Which one is right for you will depend on what you value. Let’s review briefly, and you’ll see what I mean.
We should start with the GeForce GTX 980 Ti reference design from Nvidia, which many of these brands still sell under their own names. Although each of the aftermarket cards improve on the original in specific ways, Nvidia’s board and cooler design set the standard for everyone else. The reference cooler is relatively noisy—but only relatively so—and it doesn’t spin down its blower to zero like the other coolers represented here. But it does direct all of the GPU’s heat out of the back of the PC case, something the others only do partially, if at all. The reference card also lacks a backplate to provide extra protection on the back of the board.
Nvidia chose to omit the backplate and use a blower for a specific reason: multi-GPU configs. The blower removes heat from the enclosure, and the backplate provides room for another card’s air intake. If you’re planning on packing two or more—especially more—graphics cards into the same system for SLI, then I’d recommend giving the reference boards serious consideration.
For everyone else, EVGA’s GTX 980 Ti SC+ is a clear upgrade from the reference card for single-GPU use. The ACX 2.0+ cooler is every bit as compact as the reference design, yet the SC+ is among the quietest cards we tested. The EVGA card is also the only aftermarket contender that requires only a six-plus-eight-pin power input, so it should work with a broader range of power supply units than the other cards. In a way, EVGA has set its own baseline for GTX 980 Ti cards with the SC+. The firm also offers more expensive 980 Ti variants, but this one is an easy choice that gives you a little something more with minimal hassle.
Gigabyte’s GTX 980 Ti G1 Gaming takes a distinctly different approach. It’s one of the two fastest cards we tested overall. The Windforce cooler gives this card a long, lean profile; it’s not much taller than the reference cards, which will make it a good fit in enclosures without much Z height. This card is a little noisier than most thanks to its default fan profile, but the Windforce cooler is clearly very capable. The G1 Gaming runs cooler than anything else we tested, yet it’s still quieter than the reference cards. Also, I’m smitten with Gigabyte’s multi-colored lighting—not because I like to taste the rainbow, but because it can be made to match or complement the other LEDs in your build. The G1 Gaming also has that second DVI port, which could matter to some folks.
The quietest card of the bunch is easily the MSI GTX 980 Ti Gaming 6G. The MSI also manages the second-lowest temperatures under load, behind only the Gigabyte—and it maintains its quiet, cool profile when overclocked. In short, the Twin Frozr V cooler is excellent, part of a long tradition of MSI goodness. Despite relatively high default clock speeds, though, the Gaming 6G isn’t quite as fast in the benchmarks as the entrants from Asus and Gigabyte. Still, I have admit: this board might be my choice for my own personal system. The performance differences at stake here are minor, and I appreciate the Gaming 6G’s quiet running and flashy good looks.
That said, the Asus Strix GTX 980 Ti would have to merit serious consideration. The Strix is the fastest card we tested, both at its stock speeds and when overclocked, and it’s second only to MSI in going easy on the decibel meter. Asus’ new DirectCU III cooler is deadly effective, but you’ll pay for it in case volume. The hulking Strix makes the other cards look tiny. Provided it will fit comfortably into your PC’s case, though, there’s very little downside. Judging by current listings, the Strix costs no more than the other cards, and Asus throws in a full year of XSplit Gamecaster in addition to Metal Gear Solid V. That’s the most generous software bundle on offer here.
At the end of the day, the Strix is the best all-around contender in this bunch, and I’m making it my pick for a rare, coveted TR Editor’s Choice award. Just be sure you measure your case before ordering one. If your system can’t swallow a 12″ long card that juts up 1.7″ above the PCIe slot covers, consider going with one of the other options instead. You really can’t go wrong with any of them.