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Ares, the Greek god of war. ASUS invokes quite an image when they name their uber top of the line card after a god. This, however, is no god. It’s more of a beast. One that comes with two GPUs on one specially designed PCB. Surely you know already it’s going to perform well, but just how well? That’s what we’re here to show you!
Specifications & Features
The specifications are nothing short of incredible. They use two AMD HD 7970 GHz Edition GPUs, but they don’t stop there, they crank them up to eleven …hundred (that’s 1100) MHz each. Then they give you a whopping six gigs of 6600 MHz (quad pumped 1650 MHz) GDDR5 graphics memory.
Now, when you pack this much power into one GPU, you’re going to need to figure out how to cool it. If the HD 6990s from last year were any indication, things get real hot, real quick with two GPUs under the hood. So, ASUS is taking all of that GPU heat and separating it from the card via a closed loop liquid cooler. Then they cool all of the MOSFETs and memory chips with a form-fitting heat sink & aluminum back plate.
In action, the GPUz is no less impressive looking.
It definitely has the specifications to be a top level competitor. Let’s have a look at how it will come to your door if you’re one of the lucky 1000 people that buys one of these.
Packaging & Accessories
The box the ARES II comes in is huge. H-U-G-E, huge. It’s not necessarily because the card is giant (it is), but the box itself holds…wait for it…
That’s right, a briefcase. It’s a pretty nice briefcase too. It even comes with a code you can set. Of course, it’s what’s inside the briefcase that really counts. When you pop the latches and open it up, you’re greeted with form fitting foam surrounding what has got to be one of the most beastly looking graphics cards I’ve ever seen.
We’ll get to the card itself in a bit though, first we’ll look at what comes with it. Nestled underneath the small instruction manual are the electronic accessories.
You get three adapters to turn six 6-pin PCIe power connectors to three 8-pin PCIe power connectors. This is handy for anyone with older PSUs that may not have 8-pin connectors (I’m looking at your old PSU I.M.O.G.).
If you looked closely, there was only one fan connected to the ARES II’s radiator. Thankfully, ASUS included a second fan. They were looking into the specifications but never did get those to us. It’s not an overwhelmingly powerful fan for sure and operates quietly. Both sides have Republic of Gamers stickers and don’t reveal their manufacturer or operating amperage. The screws are just long enough to go through a case side panel, then the fan, then into the radiator. Speaking of stickers, there is also an included ROG case decal.
You may have noticed the metal piece in the corner of the case. Included with every ARES II card is a numbered plaque denoting which of the 1000 cards is in your possession. Our sample is 502, and ASUS is taking these back, so if someone out there winds up with number 502, it was handled kindly, I promise.
Now we’ll meet the ARES II itself.
Meet the ASUS ARES II
Photos really do not do this card justice. I saw the photos from CES, even the ones our guys took and thought “man what a beast that thing must be”. I wasn’t even close to fathoming the beastly nature of this card. Not only is it massive, it’s very solid (and very heavy).
The backplate is emblazoned with a color ROG emblem and, of course, the name of the card.
In keeping with the high-end ASUS video output tradition for this generation, there are two DVI outputs and four full sized DisplayPort outputs. Most of the time I like the standard AMD output configuration (one DVI, two mini-DisplayPort and an HDMI connector), because most of the time people will run either one or three monitors. This is different. The ARES II is plenty happy to run a five or six display setup, which makes the use of a non-standard configuration justified.
When you saw the specifications, surely you didn’t think this thing would sip power? Of course you didn’t, you’re at Overclockers! No, this thing has ample power input, featuring three 8-pin PCIe power plugs. For those counting, as far as the official PCIe ratings go, that’s 75 W for the PCIe slot plus 3x 150 W for the 8-pin plugs, totaling 525 W rated power draw. We’ll see how close they cut it a little later on.
Not photographed, but visible on the back side of the card, are the LED indicator lights. There are two lights for each power plug. When the card is plugged into a PCIe slot, they shine red if you don’t have a power plug in any of the slots and green when you do. It’s good for quick visual confirmation that you’ve got everything hooked up properly.
The HD 7970 isn’t a hot-running GPU normally (until you throw some voltage at it), but put two of them on one card and heat rises exponentially. To cool the two GHz Edition GPUs on this card, ASUS got in touch with Asetek and together they designed a very unique cooling solution.
You’ll see the pumps (yes, plural) in detail later, but the radiator is solid and made of aluminum (Swiftech is the only company that has designed an All-in-One solution without an aluminum radiator). It’s definitely not one of the demure, thin models; this one should dissipate plenty of heat, especially if you use the two fans in a push-pull configuration.
What’s a photo shoot of a massive card without a size comparison? Here is the ARES II next to last generation’s reference HD 6990 (there doesn’t seem to be a reference 7990 coming this generation). Length-wise, the ARES II is almost exactly as long as the HD 6990, but it has a lot more girth. Interestingly, the ARES II is a dual slot card, unlike their two single GPU HD 7970’s (the DirectCU II and Matrix, which are triple slot cards). If nothing else, that makes it easier to use it in crossfire. You know, if you can afford two $1,500 cards.
So there you have it, the ASUS ARES II, in the flesh. Would that everyone could see it in person, it really is an impressive sight.
Under the Hood
The first thing to go when disassembling is the top plate. Turns out these are one of the reasons (of many) that the ARES II is such a limited edition. The top plate is CNC machined and let’s just say the yield isn’t 100%, and they want these perfect before they go out the door.
There are two pump/block combos in series in the ARES II. You couldn’t blame them if they went with one pump and had a passive block on the second GPU, but full on series pumps. Color me impressed.
Since the card is going back, to prevent errant screwdriver slips I stopped there and will let ASUS take it from here. All images of the disassembled card are courtesy ASUS.
This is our first glimpse of the packed PCB and the disassembled water cooler.
Before getting to the card, let’s check out ASUS’ slides about the cooler. Their claim about load temperatures is actually quite accurate. Based on the temperatures, the HD 7970 they reference is likely using the stock design with the squirrel cage blower type cooler. Regardless, a 31°C drop would be quite impressive if it holds true.
The dual pump/block combinations had to be modified a bit to fit the GPUs. They have cut the copper so that it has a raised portion to mate perfectly with the GPU.
In addition to the water cooler that handles the GPUs, you need to cool the MOSFETs and memory of course. Those duties fall to the die cast heatsink. It’s made so that it contacts all the important bits on the card. There are bits on the back of the card as well, which are contacted by the aluminum backplate. That I can personally attest to – that thing gets warm when the card is stressed for a long time. It would behoove owners of the ARES II to be sure and have solid airflow on or around the back of the card.
Now we get to the PCB and it’s packed. There are some RAM chips on the back of the card. The rest of the RAM, the power section and the GPUs are all on the front.
Here’s an overview of the PCB. For more than seven months, ASUS worked closely with AMD to develop the ARES II.
There is a BIOS switch on the ARES II like there is on the DirectCU II and Matrix. This is not a dual BIOS in the traditional sense, with a backup. Its purpose is to switch between five- and six- display configurations.
ASUS uses a PLX PEX8747 bridge to accommodate communication between the GPUs. This is the same chip used on their Maximus V Extreme to expand the PCIe x16 slot capabilities.
To control GPU voltage via GPU Tweak, ASUS uses their own DIGI+ VRM controller. GPU voltage is the only voltage controlled on the ARES II. I guess there just wasn’t enough room for extra controllers necessary to control vMEM, vDDCI and VRM clock like the Matrix.
Here’s a closer shot of one of the HD 7970 GPUs and Hynix GDDR5 memory chips.
Now we get to the main event, what’s used to power this beast. Earlier they referenced a 20 phase VRM. Sixteen of these are dedicated to the GPU, eight each.
If you’re familiar with ASUS’ high end GPUs, you’ll recognize the upgraded power bits. They use the same Nichicon GT Black 10K caps as on the Matrix, Super Ally Chokes and Super Alloy MOSFETs, which comprises their Super Alloy Power section.
Since ASUS took them, here are a couple more glamor shots of the card, then we’ll move on to the rest of the review.
Our test setup today is an Ivy Bridge-based setup, just like all others we use for video card testing. The CPU is run at 4.0 GHz and the RAM at DDR3-1866 with 9-9-9-24 timings. The competition today is going to be last generation’s highest end, dual GPU HD 6990 and the top of the line single GPU cards from NVIDIA and AMD. Regrettably, we never did have a GTX 690 to test, so we’ll be doing without today. Important side note about the competition – the Matrix HD 7970 was tested with the current driver at the time. That was before the significant improvements of the current Catalyst version. The ARES II was benched with the latest Catalyst beta (13.2 beta 2, which just got in our hands Friday afternoon), so gains shown in our testing will be slightly higher than what you would see if the single HD 7970 card were benched with the newest driver.
|CPU||i7 3770K @ 4.0 GHz|
|MB||ASUS Maximus V Extreme|
|RAM||G.Skill TridentX DDR3-2666 @ 1866MHz 9-9-9-24|
|GPUs||AMD HD 6990|
ASUS GTX 670 DirectCU II TOP
MSI GTX 680 Lightning
ASUS Matrix HD 7970 Platinum
|OS||Windows 7 Professional x64|
Since I test on a small’ish test bed, I had to set the radiator off to the side. Thankfully the fans aren’t loud or excessively powerful, so it sat there happily, not making a bit of noise. Installed, it certainly looks like a force to be reckoned with.
ASUS’ GPU software, GPU Tweak, is a solid solution that offers overclocking control, all the monitoring you could want and even a skinned version of GPUz.
These are the overclocking controls available to you. Note that, while memory voltage control appears in this menu, it is not adjustable. The power target goes up to 20%, but you really shouldn’t need to adjust it that far to get the most out of these GPUs. The HD 7970s ASUS uses are very highly binned, not only for stability at 1100 Mhz stock (I’m told plus a relatively easy 100-150 MHz overclock on average), but also for power consumption. They shouldn’t be hitting against the power target limit until overclocked quite heavily.
One thing to note is that the fan control in GPU Tweak only applies to the fan mounted on the cold plate (which cools the vRAM & power bits). There is no direct control over the fans on the radiator; those are controlled automatically by the card itself. They ramp up appropriately and have a good balance between performance and quiet.
The settings menus are pretty self explanatory. Unfortunately, while there are video recording options, that feature didn’t seem to work in this copy.
All told, GPU Tweak is a solid solution for overclocking your ARES II GPU.
Cooler Performance & Power Consumption
Cooler performance and power consumption are tested at stock on all cards that come through. Even overclocked, the cooler was very quiet and kept the GPU well below anything that would be considered hot. However, remember what I mentioned earlier – have good airflow (direct if possible) on the top of this card to keep that backplate cool.
As you can see, the ARES II performs very well. In testing, the higher temperature (in the longer HWBot Heaven benchmark) was the same temperature recorded in ASUS’ internal testing. From last year’s HD 6990 results, you can also see why the liquid cooled solution is a good choice for this card. For a dual-GPU card to have lower temperatures than all of the competition is no small feat.
Additionally, this cooler is seriously quiet. My test bed has three strong Panaflo fans, generally kept around 45% power. Never did the ARES II’s cooling solution get louder than they did, which isn’t very loud to begin with.
While the article was being edited, MattNo5ss astutely pointed out that there was only one temperature. He is correct, I only noted temperature on one of the GPUs. Temperatures should be nearly identical; the water temperature won’t change appreciably between GPUs, they’re both operating at the same frequency and voltage and both are similarly binned. The point remains though, so full disclosure: I only recorded temperature measurements of one of the two GPUs.
The low temperatures are definitely good news. I’m quite sure no one came into this review thinking this card was going to sip power, considering it comes pre-overclocked with two 1100 MHz HD 7970s. Its power draw is over 125 watts higher than the HD 6990 before it.
ASUS recommends at least an 850 W PSU to run the ARES II. While you could get away with a lesser PSU assuming an efficient platform like Ivy Bridge, you should definitely get the recommended wattage. If you’re overclocking, ASUS recommends a 1000 W PSU to be sure. Just overclocking the card for this review jumped power consumption up to ~735 W. Overclocking the CPU will make it even higher than that. If you are one of the lucky (wealthy?) few to get two of these, they recommend a 1200 W PSU minimum.
Speaking of overclocking, ASUS’ estimate of 100-150 MHz more than stock turned out to be a hair low. The ARES II we received made it up to 1270 MHz on the GPUs and 1750 MHz on the memory.
Here are the settings used to get there. You can’t see the PowerTune setting, which was raised to 110%. Note these HD 7970s act just like all of the previous HD 7970s that passed through our hands. North of 1.35 V, the HD 7970 can start acting wonky, with artifacts showing up while benchmarking and benchmark scores actually decreasing even if it allows higher overclocks. It’s the way the HD 7970 behaves in general, not just the two on the ARES II.
Solid overclock over an already solid baseline. Nothing to argue with here.
The cards we’re comparing have all been tested at the same settings per our Video Card Testing Procedure. All game settings can be found at that link. Long story short – benchmarks are run at their default settings and all games are run at 1080p with all eye candy / MSAA turned as high as it can go.
3DMark03 is our oldest test, but still scales pretty well with GPU power over the base provided by our test setup. Current generations of AMD cards perform better than NVIDIA in this test and the ARES II shows its muscle over the HD 7970.
Vantage is our only DirectX 10 test, and the ARES II performs very strongly. Even though CPU is a big part of the Vantage score, the ARES II still has a very large jump over single GPU cards.
3DMark 11 is the first mostly GPU test we come to in our suite, and the ARES II doesn’t fail to impress.
Heaven is even more GPU intensive, as CPU independent as any test we have. When overclocked, the ARES II is capable of more than doubling the Matrix & Lightning’s scores.
It’s definitely a benchmarking beast. Hardcore, sub-zero overclockers aren’t going to really invest in the ARES II, instead preferring cards on which they can mount GPU cooling pots, so they’ll use HD 7970s in CrossfireX. For benchmarkers that use the stock water solution or want to add aftermarket water cooling – or those that only want to use a single two-slot GPU, this is a solid option.
Gaming tests at 1080p aren’t much of a challenge for the ARES II. You can see the results for yourself. They all give a good beat down to the competition. While the HD 6990 still fared well in all of the games vs. the current gen single GPU cards – even beating them occasionally – the ARES II put it and all the other cards in their place.
Aliens vs. Predator has been kind to AMD throughout and it scales more than 100% over the single HD 7970 card clocked the same and, when overclocked, 3x the GTX 680.
Batman doesn’t scale with Crossfire quite as well as the rest of the games, that’s for sure. It’s still a solid win, but not as astoundingly so.
Battlefield 3 scales incredibly well with CrossfireX, just like AvP.
Civilization V is the most CPU-bound of the game tests in our suite. It’s really the best game of its type to benchmark with, but does have that limitation. Regardless, the ARES II still shows it can come out way on top of the others.
Scaling moderately well, Dirt 3 allows the ARES II to flex its muscles a bit more.
Metro 2033, the GPU killer. In my mind, it replaced “…but can it play Crisis?” when it came out. So…can it play Metro 2033? You bet it can. 100.0 FPS overclocked (and 96.7 FPS stock) in this game is just incredible.
As mentioned, we didn’t ever receive a GTX 690 (here’s hoping for a GeForce Titan if that comes to fruition), so we’ll let ASUS show what sort of gains they came up with.
To give you an idea of just how powerful the ARES II would be relative to a GTX 690 just from our testing, consider the Aliens vs. Predator, Battlefield 3 & Metro 2033 results. The ARES II produced more than twice the FPS of the GTX 680 Lightning, which has a higher-clocked GTX 680 than the GTX 690 possesses. Considering the GTX 690 isn’t quite two times the performance of a reference GTX 680, you can easily see how ASUS’ claim of a 13% increase is feasible.
AMD Eyefinity Testing
Eyefinity is where this GPU is really going to shine. Its dual GPUs are begging for higher resolution, so we’ll give it to them in the form of three 1080p monitors, for a total resolution of 5760 x 1080.
Side note – You won’t see Civilization V here. For some reason, it would not load all of the textures in Eyefinity. With only six days from receipt of the card to review, there wasn’t exactly time to troubleshoot.
As you can see, the ARES II excels at Eyefinity. It even reached the pinnacle of 60 FPS exactly when overclocked. Frankly, I’m not certain how it managed to do that, but it did.
Pushing the Envelope
Now we come to the fun part! The card didn’t like to overclock any more than it did for its 24/7 overclock. Any more MHz and the scores went down. Any more voltage and it started artifacting. So, the results you see here are due to a few adjustments. First, the CPU was overclocked to 4.8 GHz (my 3770K isn’t very happy at 5 Ghz, even on water). The RAM was also cranked up, to DDR3-2600. Finally, as any good benchmarker will do, the quality settings were all set to “performance” and Tessellation was disabled (thank you Catalyst).
Tessellation being disabled doesn’t help a bit with 03 and Vantage, but the detail settings do. The final scores are the highest I’ve ever achieved, at 170174 and 53406, respectively.
Tessellation did a great deal to help the two DirectX 11 benchmarks. 3DMark 11 came in at an impressive 18576 and Heaven at an even more impressive 5333.044.
While this won’t beat two HD 7970s on liquid nitrogen, the showing was definitely respectable for a “stock” cooling solution on a single PCB.
Final Thoughts & Conclusion
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first. This card isn’t for penny pinchers or budget benchers. It’s not for otherwise less-than-rather-well-off people either. If you’re one of the lucky few to purchase one (remember, only 1000 of them are being produced worldwide), it will set you back a jaw dropping $1,500. That price isn’t for the faint of heart. You’re buying into an exclusive club with this card. If I were in the market for a new machine and wanted two GPUs, frankly, I’d probably buy two HD 7970s (you can get two HD 7970s for $800). But I’ve always been budget minded, and am not the target market for this card. Hardcore, liquid-nitrogen-leaning benchmarkers aren’t the target either.
Where this GPU shines is its form factor and astonishing scores out of a single PCB. Simply put, you will not find another card on the market – bar none – that will produce these kinds of results and only take up two slots in your case, and on your motherboard. Want two GPUs and a sound card in an mATX build? This is your ticket. (Or a GTX 690, which doesn’t perform as well and won’t overclock as far.) Want two GPUs in any mITX build? Here’s how to do it, assuming there is a 120 mm fan hole and your case is big enough. If you want three HD 7970s and your motherboard only has two PCIe 16x slots, the ARES II has you covered.
Alternatively, maybe you just want to say you have an ARES II GPU. One of only a thousand made, ever. Should your wallet be able to handle it, that’s a perfectly valid reason.
One thing is for certain; while a piece of computer hardware certainly can’t be a god on its own, when this card is combined with the rest of a solid computer, it can certainly grant godlike gaming ability to the computer of whomever possesses it.