We're traveling for an event today, which means the bigger review and feature content is on hold until we're back in the lab.

The last few days have yielded enough intrigue and hardware news to warrant a separate content piece, anyway. AMD and nVidia, as usual, have largely stolen the show with head-to-head events on February 28, working to snipe coverage from one another. Also on the video card front, JPR reports that add-in board sales have increased for 4Q16, and that attach rate of AIB cards to systems has increased year-over-year. Somewhat related, new RX 460 cards from MSI offer a half-height form factor option (pricing TBD) with the 896 core version of the Polaris 11 chip.

 

GPU diode is a bad means for controlling fan RPM, at this point; it’s not an indicator of total board performance by any stretch of use. GPUs have become efficient enough that GPU-governed PWM for fans means lower RPMs, which means less noise – a good thing – but also worsened performance on the still-hot VRMs. We have been talking about this for a while now, most recently in our in-depth EVGA VRM analysis during the Great Thermal Pad Fracas of 2016. That analysis showed that the thermals were largely a non-issue, but not totally inexcusable. EVGA’s subsequent VBIOS update and thermal pad mods were sufficient to resolve any concern that lingered, though if you’re curious to learn more about that, it’s really worth just checking out the original post.

VBIOS updates and thermal pad mods were not EVGA’s only response to this. Internally, the company set forth to design a new PCB+cooler combination that would better detect high heat operation on non-GPU components, and would further protect said components with a 10A fuse.

In our testing today, we’ll be fully analyzing the efficacy of EVGA’s new “ICX” cooler design, to coexist with the long-standing ACX cooler. In our thermal analysis and review of the EVGA GTX 1080 FTW2 (~$630) & SC2 ICX cards (~$590), we’ll compare ACX vs. ICX coolers on the same card, MOSFET & VRAM temperatures with thermocouples and NTC thermistors, and individual cooler component performance. This includes analysis down to the impact the new backplate makes, among other tests.

Of note: There will be no FPS benchmarks for this review. All ICX cards with SC2 and FTW2 suffixes ship at the exact same base/boost clock-rates as their preceding SC & FTW counterparts. This means that FPS will only be governed by GPU Boost 3.0; that is to say, any FPS difference seen between an EVGA GTX 1080 FTW & EVGA GTX 1080 FTW2 will be entirely resultant of uncontrollable (in test) manufacturing differences at the GPU-level. Such differences will be within a percentage point or two, and are, again, not a result of the ICX cooler. Our efforts are therefore better spent on the only thing that matters with this redesign: Cooling performance and noise. Gaming performance remains the same, barring any thermal throttle scenarios – and those aren’t a concern here, as you’ll see.

NVIDIA released their Pascal-based architecture in May of 2016 and, while pricing was sporadic early on, the prices have seemed to remain fairly consistent as of late. AMD also released a new architecture in 2016 with the Polaris family, and has also found a stable price-point as demand and supply have steadied. If you are in the market for a new graphics card or looking to upgrade, we have found some deals that can save a little money.

The first and last of AMD’s Polaris GPUs hit the market last year, among them the RX 460 and subsequent Sapphire RX 460 Nitro 4GB, a card that underwhelmed us with unimpressive performance and an ambitious price. Just a few months later, overclocker der8auer implemented a BIOS flash to unlock additional stream processors on some RX 460 cards, bringing the count from 896 to 1024 by just flashing the card BIOS.

EVGA’s CES 2017 suite hosted a new set of 10-series GPUs with “ICX” coolers, an effort to rebuff the cooling capabilities of EVGA’s troubled ACX series. The ACX and ICX coolers will coexist (for now, at least), with each SKU taking slightly different price positioning in the market. Although EVGA wouldn’t give us any useful details about the specifications of the ICX cooler, we were able to figure most of it out through observation of the physical product.

For the most part, the ICX cooler has the same ID – the front of the card is nigh-identical to the front of the ACX cards, the LED placement and functionality is the same, the form factor is effectively the same. That’s not special. What’s changed is the cooling mechanisms. Major changes include EVGA’s fundamentally revamped focus of what devices are being cooled on the board. As we’ve demonstrated time and again, the GPU should no longer be the focal point of cooling solutions. Today, with Pascal’s reduced operating voltage (and therefore, temperature), VRMs and VRAM are running at more significant temperatures. Most of the last-gen of GPU cooling solutions don’t put much focus on non-GPU device cooling, and the GPU cores are now efficient enough to demand cooling efforts be diverted to FETs, capacitor banks, and potentially VRAM (though that is less important).

AMD’s Vega GPU architecture has received cursory details pertaining to high-bandwidth caching, an iterative step to CUs (NCUs), and a unified-but-not-unified memory configuration.

Going into this, note that we’re still not 100% briefed on Vega. We’ve worked with AMD to try and better understand the architecture, but the details aren’t fully organized for press just yet; we’re also not privy to product details at this time, which would be those more closely associated with shader counts, memory capacity, and individual SKUs. Instead, we have some high-level architecture discussion. It’s enough for a start.

CES is right around the corner and with that, ZOTAC has announced their new GeForce GTX 1080 Mini (ZT-P10800H-10P), which should prove to be useful for SFF systems.

The second card in our “revisit” series – sort of semi-re-reviews – is the GTX 780 Ti from November of 2013, which originally shipped for $700. This was the flagship of the Kepler architecture, followed later by Maxwell architecture on GTX 900 series GPUs, and then the modern Pascal. The 780 Ti was in competition with AMD’s R9 200 series and (a bit later) R9 300 series cards, and was accompanied by the expected 780, 770, and 760 video cards.

Our last revisit looked at the GTX 770 2GB card, and our next one plans to look at an AMD R9 200-series card. For today, we’re revisiting the GTX 780 Ti 3GB card for an analysis of its performance in 2016, as pitted against the modern GTX 1080, 1070, 1060, 1050 Ti, and RX 480, 470, and others.

Building-up a semi-custom liquid cooling loop is a bit of a new trend, spawned from a surge in AIO dominance over the market. The ease of installation for AIOs greatly exceeds what’s possible with an open loop, with the obvious loss of some customization and uniqueness. The cooling loss, although present, isn’t necessarily a big factor for the types of buyers interested in AIO CLCs rather than open-loop alternatives. Ever since we saw PNY’s solution years ago, though, and then more recently EVGA’s quick disconnect solution, the market has begun to burgeon with semi-custom loop “CLCs.”

An example of these semi-custom CLCs would be the EK Waterblocks Predator XLC 280 that we benchmarked in our Kraken X62 review. Today’s review also focuses on one of these semi-custom liquid cooling solutions, featuring benchmarks of the Alphacool Eiswolf GPX Pro on a GTX 1080. Our testing looks into thermal performance under baseline conditions (versus a GN Hybrid DIY option), frequency stability and performance, overclocking, and FPS impact. We’ve got a few noise and CPU tests too, though this will primarily focus on the GPU aspect of the cooling. The Alphacool Eiswolf GPX Pro does not work as an out-of-box product, necessitating our purchase of the Alphacool Eisbaer to hook into the system (CPU cooler + radiator). The Eiswolf GPX Pro is a $130 unit, and the Eisbaer cost us ~$145.

This unit was provided by viewer and reader ‘Eric’ on loan for review. Thanks, Eric!

GN reader ‘Eric’ reached-out to us to loan his Alphacool Eiswolf GPX Pro cooling block, which we’ve now applied to a GTX 1080 Founders Edition card. The Eiswolf build process isn’t too difficult – certainly easier than the tear-down of the average FE card. The Eiswolf GPX Pro has an on-card pump with designated in/out tubes, each terminating in threaded quick release valves that hook into a semi-open loop system. We later purchased an Alphacool Eisbaer for our radiator and CPU cooler, then connected them all together.

The review of the Eiswolf will be posted tomorrow, followed shortly by a look at EK WB’s Predator XLC. For today, we’re just posting the build log that our Patreon backers have helped produce.

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