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Asus’ ROG Strix GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card reviewed

Renee Johnson
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If there’s one constant in life as a PC builder, it’s that Asus knows how to build a high-quality video card. The Strix GTX 980 Ti OC Edition took home a coveted TR Editor’s Choice Award in our GTX 980 Ti roundup, so I was excited to see what Asus had in store for its next generation of graphics cards when the ROG Strix GTX 1080 flew into the TR labs.

For the arrival of the GTX 1080, Asus opened a clean CAD file and rethought both the function and style of its high-end graphics card for a post-Pascal world. That clean-sheet thinking has resulted in a few changes for Asus’ new breed of aven predators. The Strix brand is now part of the swanky Republic of Gamers family. The most visible result of that change is a move from a brash red-and-black design language to a subtle gray-and-black palette. The Strix cooler’s shroud is now accented by angular outcroppings that spread across the underside of the card’s cooler like some kind of bionic wings.

Those neutral colors serve as a perfect backdrop for the RGB LEDs embedded within the Strix’s cooler shroud. Six fissures in the shell of the cooler let those LEDs shine through. Those full-spectrum LEDs also illuminate ROG logos on the side of the shroud and on the card’s backplate. While a lot of thought clearly went into these LEDs, it’s a shame they’ll be hidden in 99% of regular PC builds. Show-offs will want to use a case like Thermaltake’s Core P3 or Core P5 to use the Strix’s LEDs to maximum effect.

These lights don’t improve the Strix card’s performance, but I’m still pleased that I can coordinate the card’s lighting with the other RGB LEDs in my system and on my peripherals. Even in a typical ATX case where the LEDs around the card’s fans won’t be visible, the ROG Strix card still offers a sharp-looking touch of color on its backplate with a laser-cut ROG logo.

The most unique feature of the ROG Strix GTX 1080 hides under the front edge of the card’s PCB. Asus includes a pair of four-pin fan headers that allow system fans connected to the Strix to respond to the graphics card’s temperature fluctuations. Hallelujah.

You see, I’m a huge stickler about firmware fan control, and being able to tie system fan speeds to a variety of component temperatures is one of my favorite things about the better motherboards out there. Even Asus’ motherboard firmware doesn’t allow builders to set the graphics card temperature as a control variable for system fan speeds yet, though. For systems where the graphics card is likely to be the biggest heat generator (like small-form-factor builds), I’ve had to rely on third-party fan controllers like NZXT’s Grid+ v2 for that kind of control. With the ROG Strix GTX 1080, that all changes.  

The fan headers on the Strix card take some DNA from Asus’ best-in-class fan-control mojo. They can control both four-pin (PWM) and three-pin (DC) fans, and the headers automatically sense the type of fan that’s connected for plug-and-play simplicity. The fans connected this way are controlled by the same fan curve that governs the graphics card’s fans, however, so they can’t be configured independently or individually. They’ll also shut off at idle, which might be an issue in powerful systems with only a couple of fans. Be careful.

Though Asus doesn’t include a breakout box for VR hardware like some Gigabyte and EVGA cards do, it still offers a degree of VR-friendliness in its port cluster. Asus trades one of the GTX 1080’s three standard DisplayPorts for another HDMI 2.0 out. This two-and-two split between HDMI ports and DisplayPort outs means that Rift and Vive owners can plug in their headset alongside another HDMI monitor or TV without an adapter. For folks who want to show off their VR exploits in real time, that extra HDMI out might be handy.

To keep the GP104 GPU chilly, Asus uses a new version of the DirectCU cooler we’ve seen on many of its cards in the past. This cooler uses five copper heatpipes—only three of which touch the GPU itself—to carry heat away from the chip. From this angle, we can also see the six- and eight-pin PCIe power connectors that feed the card’s eight-plus-two power-phase setup.

  GPU base
core clock
(MHz)
GPU boost
clock
(MHz)
Memory
clock
(MHz)
Memory
size
(MB)
GTX 1080 Founders Edition 1607 1733 2500 8192
Asus ROG Strix GTX 1080 1670 1809 2500
Asus ROG Strix GTX 1080 OC Edition 1759 1898 2500

The ROG Strix GTX 1080 comes in two flavors: the “ROG Strix-GTX1080-A8G-Gaming” and the “ROG Strix-GTX1080-O8G-Gaming.” The main difference between the cards is one of clock speeds. The A8G card is clocked at 1670MHz base while the O8G card pushes further with a 1759MHz base clock and an 1898MHz boost speed. Both cards are clocked significantly faster than the 1607MHz base and 1733MHz boost speeds of Nvidia’s GTX 1080 Founders Edition.

Confusingly, Newegg sells the A8G card under its full Asus model name, while the O8G is sold as an “OC Edition.” Buyers should be careful to make sure they’re getting the Strix card they want. The A8G card sells for $709.99, and the OC Edition sells for $719.99. That’s not much more to pay for a significant increase in factory clock speeds. Both cards are priced far in excess of Nvidia’s seemingly wishful $599.99 suggested price for custom GTX 1080s, though. Let’s see what those dollars buy us when the bits hit the DirectX queues.

 

Our testing methods
As always, we did our best to deliver clean benchmarking results. Our test system was configured as follows:

Processor Intel Core i7-6700K
Motherboard ASRock Z170 Extreme7+
Chipset Intel Z170
Memory size 16GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type G.Skill Trident Z DDR4-3000
Memory timings 16-18-18-38
Chipset drivers Intel Management Engine 11.0.0.1155
Intel Rapid Storage Technology V 14.5.0.1081
Audio Integrated Z170/Realtek ALC1150
Realtek 6.0.1.7525 drivers
Hard drive OCZ Vector 180 480GB
Power supply Seasonic Platinum SS660-XP2
OS Windows 10 Pro

 

  Driver revision GPU base
core clock
(MHz)
GPU boost
clock
(MHz)
Memory
clock
(MHz)
Memory
size
(MB)
GeForce GTX 1080 Founders Edition GeForce 372.54 1607 1733 2500 8192
Gigabyte GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming 1759 1898 2553 8192
Asus ROG Strix GeForce GTX 1080 OC Edition 1759 1898 2503 8192

Like many graphics cards on the market today, the ROG Strix GeForce GTX 1080 comes with multiple clock profiles that one can enable in its GPU Tweak II companion software. Asus ships the card in “Gaming Mode,” which lets it run at 1759 MHz base and 1898 MHz boost speeds. Since most people will be using this card without its companion software, we left the card in Gaming Mode for our testing.

We’re pitting the ROG Strix GTX 1080 against Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1080 Founders Edition and the Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming card that we recently tested. All of the cards were run on an open bench for performance testing using the same Core i7-6700K-powered test system that’s served as the underpinnings of our recent graphics card reviews. We conducted noise and thermal testing inside a Cooler Master MasterCase Maker 5 ATX mid-tower to provide a sense of real-world performance on those measures. For each benchmark we run, we perform three test runs and take the median of the results.

Our testing methods are generally publicly available and reproducible. If you have any questions about our methods or results, be sure to leave a comment on this article or join us in the TR forums.

 

Out-of-the-box performance
If you’re looking for an in-depth take on how the GTX 1080 performs in our advanced “Inside the Second” frame-time benchmarks, you should go read our GTX 1080 Founders Edition review. We won’t be repeating that fine-grained testing here. Instead, we’ll be relying on the scripted benchmarks from Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor and Rise of the Tomb Raider to gauge average frame rates at a variety of resolutions. These simple FPS-based tests should be good enough to separate the various GTX 1080s we have on hand.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
To put Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor through its paces, we used the game’s internal benchmark and the Ultra quality preset. Click the buttons below the FPS graphs to see how the three GTX 1080 cards perform at three common resolutions.


Interesting. Despite their similar core clock speeds, the Gigabyte GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming ekes out a tiny but consistent lead over the Strix. Perhaps the Xtreme Gaming’s higher-clocked memory is giving it the edge over the Asus card here. Both custom GTX 1080s open a wide performance advantage over the GTX 1080 Founders Edition card.

Rise of the Tomb Raider
Rise of the Tomb Raider is a recent, demanding title from our current graphics testing sute. We ran this game using the following settings: 


Man. Far be it from us to call a winner here. Both custom cards are within about a frame per second of one another at all of the resolutions we tested. Both the Asus and the Gigabyte cards offer a nice performance boost over the Founders Edition card, to be sure, but whatever characteristic gave the Gigabyte card the edge in Shadow of Mordor isn’t being exercised here.

Noise levels

Our noise level measurements don’t make this race any less close. Going by pure dBA numbers alone, the Strix card is ever-so-slightly quieter than the already excellent cooler on the GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming. To be perfectly honest, I doubt most people’s ears are sensitive enough to hear the difference in absolute noise levels between these cards while they’re operating. The Strix and the Xtreme Gaming cards both offer improvements over the GTX 1080 Founders Edition in this regard, as well.

dBA numbers never tell the whole story about noise, though. Despite its low dBA figure, the Strix’s trio of fans produces a higher-pitched whoosh than the GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming’s 100-mm spinners do. Unfortunately, this sound isn’t entirely smooth. It has a slight buffeting quality or roughness about it that puts a bit of scruffiness on an otherwise broad-spectrum noise character.

At their worst, the Gigabyte fans produce the slightest hint of a baritone note, but they usually don’t sound like much of anything in operation. That means the Xtreme Gaming card’s sometimes-prominent coil whine is often the only sound that’ll clue you in to the fact that it’s operating at speed. On the other hand, the Strix card produces barely any coil whine, so which card is “better” on a subjective basis will depend on whether you’re bothered more by the sound of air moving or by the occasional sound of electronics switching at high speed.

Now that I’ve heard it with my own ears, I think we may have been a bit harsh on the GTX 1080 Founders Edition cooler in our original review of that card. The fan on the Founders Edition is one of the best-sounding blower coolers I’ve ever heard, but it still has a certain whiny, hissy quality about it that doesn’t fade into the background as easily as the sounds of the Asus or Gigabyte cards do. Once again, the card isn’t exactly loud, but it’ll always make itself known in operation.

Power consumption

At idle, our test system is impressively frugal on power with all of the GTX 1080s we have on hand. The overclocked custom cards unsurprisingly consume slightly more power than the GTX 1080 Founders Edition, but that’s to be expected.

Under load, the GTX 1080 FE consumes significantly less power than both the Asus and Gigabyte cards. The factory clock speed boost on both of the custom cards seems to come at a significant cost for power consumption. The Strix holds about a 10W advantage over the Xtreme Gaming card while running Unigine Heaven, but the two are so closely matched in every other regard that we’d call this test a wash.

GPU temperatures and observed clock speeds

In our experience with Pascal chips, the GPU Boost 3.0 algorithm tends to boost clocks to a peak speed before settling into an equilibrium once the card has had a chance to heat up. To take that behavior into account, we ran the Unigine Heaven benchmark for 10 minutes before observing clock speeds and taking temperature measurements.

Unsurprisingly, both custom coolers handily outperform the GTX 1080 Founders Edition’s reference heatsink. Asus’ custom card delivers a 14° C drop over the reference design, while the Gigabyte card’s massive heatsink lets it run another 3° C cooler yet. If you’re concerned about thermal headroom for overclocking, the performance potential of either of these coolers should offer plenty of wiggle room for a chip that might be thermally limited.

We also observed the sustained boost clocks that each card reached under our Unigine Heaven load. After 10 minutes, the Strix settled into a boost speed of 1972MHz, while the Xtreme Gaming card seemed content to run at 1987MHz. Both of those speeds are far in excess of the 1898-MHz boost speed that Asus and Gigabyte list in the specs for these cards, so that figure is at best a very loose guideline of what to expect.

The Founders Edition card, on the other hand, has to modulate its clocks in apparent service to its thermal limit. Recall that Nvidia’s boost speeds are a range, not a ceiling. Despite Nvidia’s specified 1733-MHz boost speed for the GTX 1080, the card doesn’t just boost up to that speed and stop. Instead, we observed that the Founders Edition’s clocks tended to oscillate around that speed in order to keep temperatures in check.

After being loaded with Heaven for a while and reaching its 82° C maximum, the Founders Edition card occasionally boosted as high as 1772MHz, but it also dipped as low as 1696MHz. The handy GPU-Z utility can expose why a card is hitting a performance ceiling, and unsurprisingly, it showed that the Founders Edition card was hitting a thermal limit instead of a power cap.

In contrast, neither custom card needed to vary its boost speed while under load. After building up some heat, both the Strix and the Xtreme Gaming cards maintained their boost speeds without a hitch. While we don’t think most people will notice, that performance consistency could translate into smoother gameplay over time, and it’s another reason to consider custom-cooled GTX 1080s instead of the Founders Edition card.

 

The GPU Tweak II software
As any respectable graphics card maker does these days, Asus provides its own first-party management utility for the Strix GTX 1080: GPU Tweak II. Let’s take a brief tour of the software and see what kind of control it offers over the Strix.

When it’s first launched, GPU Tweak II presents users with the “Simple Mode” interface, along with a handy “GPU Tweak II Monitor” app that graphs most every performance parameter one might care about when turning the knobs and dials of a graphics card. I imagine most people will use the Simple Mode interface to switch between the Strix’s Gaming Mode and OC Mode clock profiles and to monitor the card’s temperatures.

A “Gaming Booster” button in this view promises to speed up one’s system by turning off visually intensive Windows features like Aero, disabling Windows processes and services, and a “System Memory Defragmentation” routine. Gaming Booster doesn’t say which Windows processes and services it’s messing with before it runs, so I would never actually run this utility. Like many other “system optimizers” out there, this one seems like it has too much potential to harm and too little potential to help. If you really care about rogue processes running on your system, the Startup tab in Windows 10’s Task Manager offers a much finer-grained look at those services and their impacts on performance.

The “Professional Mode” UI that’s invoked using the button in the lower right corner of the GPU Tweak UI offers many more options for manual tuning, including core clock speeds, core voltage, memory clocks, fan speeds, the GPU power and temperature targets, and a frame rate cap. These controls all work as you’d expect if you’ve used MSI’s Afterburner or a similar overclocking utility.

GPU Tweak also includes a subset of the extremely handy GPU-Z utility baked right into the app. If you want to know all of the basic specs of your graphics card, the Info tab will tell you all of that information and more.

The Tools tab serves as a launcher for Asus’ own Aura RGB LED control utility and for Xsplit’s Gamecaster utility, if you have it installed. Each shortcut will prompt you to install the associated app if you haven’t already. If you already have Xsplit or Aura installed, clicking on the shortcut will launch the app as you’d expect.

The Aura utility
Unlike Gigabyte’s Xtreme Gaming utility, which condenses both tweaking and lighting controls into one app, the Aura app that controls RGB LEDs on Asus hardware is an independent utility that needs to be downloaded and installed separately.

Once it’s running, the Aura app offers most of the knobs one might need to control RGB LEDs to the fullest, including a temperature-sensitive mode that varies the colors of the Strix’s RGB LEDs according to its load temperature and a “music” mode that puts on a psychedelic light show in time with the tunes of your choice. The color wheel that the Aura UI presents for picking a given color isn’t particularly well-aligned with what shows up on the card, however, so some trial-and-error might be needed to get the shade you want to actually appear on the Strix.

Some other colors—like pure white—result in the expected white on the ROG logo, but a violent purple elsewhere on the card. Asus says this is a limitation of the RGB LEDs themselves, and other reviewers got similar results when they played with the Aura software. I also think Asus could make life easier for the truly RGB LED-obsessed by offering hexadecimal or distinct RGB value entry fields for primary values from zero to 255, as some other RGB LED control utilities do, for ultra-fine tuning of the colors that show up on the card.

Overall, Asus’ software package for the Strix is about as good as any I’ve used for graphics-card tuning, and users will find most everything they need to extract all the performance and bling they might want from their Strix cards.

 

Overclocking and the silicon lottery
In a normal graphics card review, this is where I’d share the results of our efforts to wring out every last Hertz of clock speed from our Strix. Sadly, that won’t be the case today. We lost the silicon lottery with the particular GP104 GPU that’s soldered to this GTX 1080.

As we’ve already seen, Nvidia’s GPU Boost technology can make the marked clock speeds on recent GeForces an understatement of their actual capabilities, and that’s especially true of Pascal-powered cards. To establish the actual clock-speed baseline for these cards, we’ve taken to running Unigine Heaven for 10 minutes to let cards heat up before making any records of observed clock speeds.

Since the Strix card comes with multiple clock speed profiles baked into its firmware, we figured we’d start our testing by observing the clock speeds the card reached in its default Gaming Mode and the slightly-boosted OC Mode before moving to manual tweaking. Though Gaming Mode was perfectly stable in our tests, switching over to the baked-in OC Mode immediately led to hangs and artifacting, suggesting our particular GP104 chip didn’t even have the headroom to handle that modest overclock.

This instability was surprising to see. I’ve never used a graphics card that couldn’t maintain stability with its factory clock profiles, so I asked Asus about this behavior. The company told me that while its Gaming Mode profiles are guaranteed to be stable, OC Mode stability may vary from card to card. Asus suggests that if OC Mode doesn’t work, owners should just flip back to Gaming Mode.

To be honest, that response surprised me—no such disclaimer is in evidence on any Asus product or retail page that I can see. What’s worse, Newegg (and other retailers) present that OC Mode clock speed as the one the card will hit, not as a provisional bonus. Furthermore, Asus has sent out cards to reviewers in the past that were locked into OC Mode by default. If OC Mode isn’t guaranteed for stability on Asus cards, that decision would mean the cards in reviewers’ hands might not reflect the performance buyers will get off the shelf—even if it is just a tiny difference. We’d urge Asus to clarify its position on just what OC Mode means for its graphics cards so that buyers don’t end up disappointed if their cards can’t hit those clocks.

After our initial discovery, I tried to nurse this particular piece of GP104 silicon to higher clocks with power, temperature, and voltage limit increases, but our chip just wasn’t having it. Even single-digit clock speed increases over the Gaming Mode defaults introduced instability, and that behavior persisted even with artificially high fan speeds that ruined the Strix’s noise character and drove temperatures far below the typical load levels we’ve seen on GTX 1080s so far. Even a careful application of premium thermal paste didn’t help. At that point, we wrapped up our overclocking efforts.

To be clear, we don’t think these results are a black mark on the Strix GTX 1080’s design or quality. Chip-to-chip variance is a fact of life with all semiconductor products, but this is the first time we’ve run into such a dud. It’s possible that with different luck, one might see better overclocking results with a Strix, and both TechPowerUp and HardOCP had better luck with their Strixes. We just can’t test that headroom with our particular sample, so caveat emptor.

 

Conclusions
Given our past experience with Asus’ top-end graphics cards, we had high expectations for the ROG Strix GTX 1080 when it landed in our labs. For the most part, the card lives up to the high standards Asus has set with its past ROG products, but we do have a couple nits to pick.

For one, the ROG logo on the side of our GTX 1080 actually fell off from the heat dissipated by the card in its passive mode. Asus assures us that this ungluing is an anomaly of an early-production sample. The card’s RGB LEDs also don’t produce a pure white—set that color in the Aura software, and you’ll get a pale purple instead. Asus tells us that an imperfect white is inherent to RGB LEDs. The Gigabyte Xtreme Gaming card we recently reviewed can’t do a clean, true white with its RGB LEDs, either, so we’ll let this one slide.

We’re less forgiving of the “overclocking” experience we had with the Strix. We know that manual overclocking is always a luck-of-the-draw exercise, but baked-in clock speed profiles have always seemed to offer an implicit guarantee of extra performance to us, regardless of manufacturer. That sense is furthered by the fact that both Asus and online retailers make no disclaimers about whether users will be able to safely activate this (or any other card’s) OC Mode. We were a little surprised to learn that Asus doesn’t actually guarantee the stability of the Strix’s OC Mode, and it suggests that users should simply use Gaming Mode if the more aggressive clock speed profile demonstrates instability.

If OC Mode isn’t actually guaranteed to be stable, we think Asus could avoid some headaches by coming out and saying as much. A handful of negative Newegg reviews and Asus forum posts suggest we’re not the only folks who have had trouble with the OC Mode on Strix cards, and even a small subset of owners disappointed with the performance of their $720 video cards seems like a problem a company would want to avoid in the highly competitive market for GTX 1080s.

Even if one draws a short straw in the silicon lottery, the Strix’s factory clock speed boost in Gaming Mode is still more than enough to let the Strix soar over the GTX 1080 Founders’ Edition card in our performance tests. The triple-fan Strix cooler let this custom card consistently hold clock speeds above and beyond Asus’ specified boost speed for the vast majority of our testing, and he low noise levels and polite noise character of the Strix cooler make this card an easy upgrade pick over the Founders Edition GTX 1080, as well.

On balance, the ROG Strix is a solid take on the GTX 1080 with some innovative features builders won’t find anywhere else, especially its GPU-controlled system fan headers. Those fan connectors are great to have on a graphics card, and Asus deserves high praise for the convenience they offer.

The problem for the Strix is that Gigabyte’s superb GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming card is just as fast, it runs cooler than Asus’ effort, and its heatsink sounds better at speed. The Gigabyte card also includes some nice accessories in the box, and it actually sells for less money than the Strix when it’s in stock. Even better, Gigabyte tells us that it tests the stability of its OC Mode clock profiles at the factory, and it’ll accept an RMA if one of its cards demonstrates instability in any of its clock speed profiles. That’s the kind of support we’d expect from a $700 video card, and we think that unless you’re willing to gamble with the silicon lottery and a Strix card, that added assurance is worth the wait if the Xtreme Gaming card is out of stock.