Hardware

The Thermaltake Core P3 ($100) is one of the more unusual cases we’ve tested: it’s a skeleton case with only two sides, one of which is entirely transparent. This is a case that could theoretically be used as a normal mid-tower, and it’s not priced unreasonably for that, but its design makes the P3 exposed to anything that approaches it at a slight angle -- pets, kids, potentially dust if floor-bound. It’s also cooled just by ambient circulation, as there’s not support for case fans outside of a radiator mount. The P3 is, however, an ideal display case for colorful systems with elaborate liquid cooling, and it’s also a much cheaper alternative to the open-air test benches that we use every day.

For modders, the P-series (P1, P3, P5, P7) offer a basic and compact foundation on which to build. For display systems or testing, the case takes a backseat to the components, offering itself up as a platform for hot-swapping components or for component display. These are the use cases where the P3 shines.

 

Corsair’s SPEC-04 ($50) is a new mid-tower aimed squarely at the budget market. The case shares its price and much of its hardware (and tooling) with the aged SPEC-01, but with the alien, angular appearance of the SPEC-ALPHA, channeling the aesthetics of the once-$80 case into an affordable $50 package.

Borrowing tooling from its predecessors, the SPEC-04 is able to ship with a lower price-point, aided further by a stripped-down set of interior accoutrements. The SPEC-04 is a small case, but capable of supporting ATX form factor components. This makes the unit deployable for ultra-budget machines, theoretically perfectly fitting for G4560 users.

Today’s review will heavily analyze the thermals, acoustics / noise levels, and build quality of the Corsair Spec-04 case. We test for thermal throttling and additional fan installation, wherein some time is spent adding +1x 120mm fan to multiple positions in the case.

AMD’s RX 560 continues a trend of refreshing the Polaris line, but with a more notable change than the previous RX 580RX 570 refreshes: The RX 560 fully unlocks itself to 16 CUs, up from the previous 14 CUs of the RX 460. This change (in addition to voltage-frequency changes) instantly accounts for performance increases over the RX 460, theoretically making for a more exciting update than was had with the 580 & 570. That’s not to say that the predecessors of this 500 line were unworthy, but they certainly weren’t eye-catching for anyone who’d followed the 400-series launch.

Our review of the Sapphire RX 560 Pulse OC 4GB ($115) card is the first look at this new low-end line from AMD, updating the entry-level, sub-$120 market (in theory) with fresh competition. The incumbent would be the GTX 1050, which we previously thought a better buy than the RX 460. Today, we’re seeing how that’s changed in seven months.

 

To catch everyone up on the RX 500 refresh thus far, it’s mostly been a glorified BIOS update to the RX 580 and RX 570 cards, driving higher frequency, permitting higher voltage under OV, and trading more power for some performance. Nothing special, but enough to keep AMD in the game until its eventual Vega launch. We found the RX 580 to be a strong competitor to the GTX 1060, particularly at the price point, though noted that owners of RX 480 series cards shouldn’t bother considering an upgrade – because it’s not one. This 500 series is not meant for owners of the 400 series. Tune out until Vega, Volta, or high-end Pascal makes sense.

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Sapphire’s RX 560 Pulse OC has one of the weakest cooling solutions we’ve seen of late, but – as we learn in our VRM+VRAM temperature testing – it’s sufficient for this type of card. A low-end GPU doesn’t draw much power, and so Sapphire skates by with its MagnaChip Semiconductor MDU1514 + MDU1517 3-phase power design.

As this content is relatively straight-forward, given the low price, let’s dive straight into testing.

Fractal’s Celsius S36 debuts alongside the company’s S24, coolers sized at 360mm and 240mm, respectively. The Celsius series uses an Asetek Gen5 pump, identical to the pump found on the EVGA CLC, NZXT X42/52/62, and Corsair H115i/H100iV2 coolers. This is a semi-custom Asetek solution that’s been loosely customized by Fractal Design, primarily focusing on the addition of G1/4” fittings (rad-side only), on-pump speed tuning, and an on-rad fan hub. It’s not as customized as, say, the NZXT Kraken series, but NZXT’s products also run more expensive. Fractal is looking at a launch price of $120 for the S36 that we’re reviewing today, and $110 for the S24.

Our focuses are on thermals and noise – not that you can focus on much else when talking coolers – with some new testing that looks at normalized noise output. We debuted this testing in our ASUS ROG Strix review and have carried it over to coolers.

Fractal’s coolers use 120mm fans that run a maximum RPM nearing 2000, with variable pump RPM from ~2000~3000. In our testing, though, it seemed a little simpler than that – pump RPM is based on liquid temp, and as we found in our 7700K review (the hottest CPU we've tested), liquid temp never really exceeds 30C. Given Fractal's curve, that means the pump stays at 2000RPM almost all the time. Rather than use software or suggest straight BIOS control – which we prefer – Fractal’s gone with a toggleable pump plate that switches into auto or PWM options. We’ve tested variable pump speeds in the past and haven’t found major differences in cooling efficacy, which is more heavily relegated to the fan spec and radiator size than anything else. This is more of a noise impact. We tested using the default, out-of-box “auto” setting, which kept our pump RPM fixed nearly perfectly at ~1960 throughout the tests (liquid temperature doesn't ramp up enough to push higher).

 

Fan speeds were manually controlled for the tests, though users could connect the fans to the on-rad hub. More on this in the conclusion.

Let’s get on with the testing, then run through the accessories and conclusion.

One of the most requested additions to our video card testing has been to normalize for noise. Several of you have emailed, tweeted, or tagged us on Reddit to ask for this type of testing, and so we started the process of re-testing some devices to build a database. The idea is to find fan RPM at a fixed dBA output – 40dBA, for example – and then test thermal performance when fans match that noise level. This doesn’t take into account the type of noise, e.g. frequency spectrum analysis, but it’s a good start to a new type of testing. And, honestly, most of these coolers sound about the same pitch/frequency (subjectively) with regard to frequency output.

The ASUS ROG Strix 1080 Ti review is our first to introduce normalized noise testing, and it’s an interesting card to start us off. We’ll talk more about that specific testing approach lower down.

Silverstone’s RL06 case is divided into four SKUs: SST-RL06BR and SST-RL06WS, with -W and -PRO versions of both. Our review sample is the SST-RL06WS-PRO ($75), which means it’s white with silver trim (WS) and comes with 3x 120mm white LED fans (PRO). BR is black with red trim, and -W is theoretically exactly the same case without the fancy fans, although there don’t appear to be any available anywhere right now.

The RL06 is a stripped-down case with serious airflow at a budget price. Today, we’re putting it on our bench against the nearby Corsair 270R, Be Quiet Pure Base 600, Fractal Define C, and other options we’ve tested recently. The RL06 is more airflow-focused than noise-focused, giving us something different to analyze than the past few case reviews.

Intel’s i3/i5/i7 and AMD’s R5/R7 CPUs are the big competitors in the PC gaming world, but they aren’t the only options out there: AMD released cheap but capable Athlon X4s in 2016, and in January of this year Intel released the 2C/4T Pentium G4560 ($70), a 14nm Kaby Lake processor for ~$64~$70. We didn’t fully review the older and (briefly) popular Pentium G3258, but it has showed up in Ask GN and individual benchmarks, so we were excited to do comprehensive testing on this modern iteration.

The G4560 lacks the feature that made the G3258 so popular: the ability to overclock. Buying a dirt-cheap dual-core processor and cranking the frequency up was enough for decent performance in limited-thread games, although the G3258 often suffers from extreme stuttering in more modern titles. The limitations lead us to believe that Intel doesn’t want to compete with its own more expensive 2C/4T unlocked i3 and locked i3-7100 ($120) & 7300 ($150).

The EVGA GTX 1080 Ti FTW3 is the company’s attempt at a 3-fan cooler, entering EVGA into the three-fan ranks alongside ASUS, Gigabyte, and MSI. The difference with EVGA’s card, though, is that it’s a two-slot design; board partners have gone with a “bigger is better” mentality for the 1080 Ti, and it’s not necessarily advantageous. Sure, there are benefits – taller cards mean taller fans, like on the Gaming X, which results in slower rotation of fans without sacrificing volume of air moved. It follows then that taller fans on taller cards could be profiled to run quieter, without necessarily sacrificing thermal performance of the GPU, VRM, and VRAM components.

But we’re testing today to see how all that plays out in reality. In our EVGA GTX 1080 Ti FTW3 review, we benchmark the card vs. EVGA’s own SC2, MSI’s 1080 Ti Gaming X, Gigabyte’s Xtreme Aorus, and the Founders Edition card. Each of these also has an individual review posted, if you’re looking for break-outs on any one device. See the following links for those (listed in order of publication):

It’s Not About Gaming Performance

Having reviewed this many cards in the past few weeks, it should be apparent to everyone that same-GPU cards aren’t really differentiated by gaming performance. Gaming performance is going to be within a few percentage points of all devices, no matter what, because they’re ultimately governed by the GPU. A manufacturer can throw the world’s best PCB, VRM, and cooler together, and it’s still going to hit a Pascal wall of voltage and power budget. Further, chip quality dictates performance in greater ways than PCB or VRM will. We have duplicates of most of our cards, and they can perform 1-3% apart from one another, depending on which boosts higher out-of-box.

NVidia’s Titan Xp 2017 model video card was announced without any pre-briefing for us, marking it the second recent Titan X model card that took us by surprise on launch day. The Titan Xp, as it turns out, isn’t necessarily targeted at gaming – though it does still bear the GeForce GTX mark. NVidia’s Titan Xp followed the previous Titan X (that we called “Titan XP” to reduce confusion from the Titan X – Maxwell before that), and knocks the Titan X 2016 out of its $1200 price bracket.

The Titan Xp 2017 now firmly socketed into the $1200 category, we’ve got a gap between the GTX 1080 Ti at $700 MSRP ($750 common price) of $450-$500 to the TiXp. Even with that big of a gap, though, diminishing returns in gaming or consumer workloads are to be expected. Today, we’re benchmarking and reviewing the nVidia Titan Xp for gaming specifically, with additional thermal, power, and noise tests included. This card may be better deployed for neural net and deep learning applications, but that won’t stop enthusiasts from buying it simply to have “the best.” For them, we’d like to have some benchmarks online.

EVGA’s GTX 1080 Ti SC2 ($720) card uses the same ICX cooler that we reviewed back in February, where we intensely detailed how the new solution works (including information on the negative type thermistors and accuracy validation of those sensors). To get caught-up on ICX, we’d strongly recommend reading the first page of that review, and then maybe checking the thermal analysis for A/B testing versus ACX in an identical environment. As a fun add, we’re also A/B testing the faceplate – it’s got all those holes in it, so we thought we’d close them off and see if they actually help with cooling.

The fast version is basically this: EVGA, responding to concerns about ACX last year, decided to fully reinvent its flagship cooler to better monitor and cool power components in addition to the GPU component. The company did this by introducing NTC thermistors to its PCB, used for measuring GPU backside temperature (rather useless in a vacuum, but more of a validation thing when considering last year’s backplate testing), memory temperature, and power component temperature. There are thermistors placed adjacent to 5 MOSFETs, 3 memory modules, and the GPU backside. The thermistors are not embedded in the package, but placed close enough to get an accurate reading for thermals in each potential hotspot. We previously validated these thermistors versus our own thermocouples, finding that EVGA’s readings were accurate to reality.

Although this is absolutely a unique, innovative approach to GPU cooling – no one else does it, after all – we found its usefulness to primarily be relegated to noise output. After all, a dual-fan ACX cooler was already enough to keep the GPU cool (and FETs, with the help of some thermal pads), and ICX is still a dual-fan cooler. The ICX sensors primarily add a toy for enthusiasts to play with, as it won’t improve gaming performance in any meaningful way, though those enthusiasts could benefit from fine-tuning the fan curve to reduce VRM fan speeds. This would benefit in noise levels, as the VRM fan doesn’t need to spin all that fast (FETs can take ~125C heat before they start losing efficiency in any meaningful way), and so the GPU + VRM fans can spin asynchronously to help with the noise profile. Out of box, EVGA’s fan curve is a bit aggressive, we think – but we’ll talk about that later.

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