ASUS sent us a Radeon HD 7870 GHz Edition DCII (or, if you prefer, ASUS HD7870-DC2-2GD5-V2) to test, and you my lucky readers get to see the results of this test. Of course there will be a number of pictures between there and here, as well as some specs and such. The DCII cooler promises to be 20% cooler and “Vastly quieter”. That’s a direct quote off the box, I find it vaguely amusing as it sounds like something I would write in a review! It’s also difficult to pin down exactly what “vastly” is, but I figure I can take a crack at it. To conclude this rather lengthy introduction, I will say that the testing process has been rather interesting. To find out what was so interesting you’re just going to have to read the review!
ASUS is addicted to features like I am to chocolate. Sadly, I’m out of chocolate. Thankfully (for this section, anyway) I have plenty of features to talk about! The following information is lovingly copied from the ASUS product page for the 7870 DCII GHz Edition, mixed with three cups of cynicism and baked for two hours (I type a lot) under the unforgiving light of Lead Editors.
Direct cooling for 20% cooler than reference
If the GPU is the heart of a graphics card, then the cooling device would be its lungs. Without it, the graphics card would not be able to “breath” smoothly, causing it to break down or even cause the entire system to fail. For ultimate cooling, ASUS DirectCU thermal technology developed the ideal heat banishing copper in exclusively designed heat pipes for direct and fast heat dissipation.
ASUS DirectCU technology
Thick copper heatpipes are accurately positioned in direct contact with the GPU surface so heat is transported and dissipated efficiently to the heatsink – achieving a 20% cooler performance than reference. Since heat is carried away faster, fans can spin at a lower speed thus resulting in quieter performance than reference.
An extra metal plate is placed between the heatpipes and GPU, slowing down heat transfer to the heatsink. Due to temperature build-up, the fan has to spin faster, leading to louder operating noise.
There isn’t a whole lot for me to say here. The reference card uses a classic squirrel-cage blower design rather than the two fans ASUS uses. The plus side to the DCII fan setup is that it is much quieter, the downside is that the heated air stays in the case. If you have good case airflow, the DCII setup is generally much better. An amusing note (to me, anyway) is that the picture shows the heatsink being hotter in the Extra Metal diagram, a hotter heatsink means better heat transfer from die to heatsink. 20% cooler will be difficult for me to judge, as I don’t have a reference card handy.
There are many flavors of DirectCU coolers, as you can see the DCII comes in at the Serious Business end of things. Looking at the cooler itself, this is fairly obvious.
Super Alloy Power
15% performance boost, 2.5 times longer lifespan, 35 °C cooler operation
The new and exclusive Super Alloy Power technology on ASUS graphics cards uses a special alloy formula which is highly-magnetic, heat-resistant and anti-corrosive. It delivers a more stable and quieter operation compared to the reference design – a welcome bonus sought after by performance seekers.
The Super Alloy Power bits are something I’m going to look into in depth in the dissection section, when/where I can look at the card and get part numbers and such. In theory, it sounds good to me!
15% Performance Boost
During overclocking, the Super Hybrid Engine acts as an intelligent controller to switch between high and low intensity power profiles in real time for 15%* performance boost.
This I can find nothing about, not that relates to desktop graphics cards anyway. It appears to be a notebook feature, what it does on a desktop card I don’t know.
2.5X Longer Lifespan
Super Alloy Capacitor increases the card’s lifespan to 150,000 hours which is 2.5 times longer* than traditional capacitors.
Sadly I can’t find where the *’s are defined. Polymer caps definitely last longer, and definitely contain alloys. Are these polymer caps better than other polymer caps? I have no idea, and no way to test.
35 °C Cooler Operations
Super Alloy components are reinforced with special alloy formula and manufactured under high temperature and pressure to deliver stable and noise-free operation.
Last time I checked all inductors were manufactured out of some sort of alloy, and at a fair bit of pressure. That said, there is a huge variety of inductors in the world and some definitely run cooler than others. These, I assume, are of the cooler sort. Now being noise-free is definitely a plus, “coil whine” on GPUs is highly annoying and I applaud ASUS for reducing it. Please note the “Noise-free operation” line, remember it when you get to the end of the testing section.
Tweak and tune like a PRO
Overclocking is made real-time and intuitive with ASUS GPU Tweak utility. It not only allows you to optimize clock speeds, voltage and fan speeds on up to four graphics cards independently or simultaneously, you can also select between GPU Tweak’s Standard or Advanced modes depending on your level of experience. For gamers out there, GPU Tweak enables instantaneous in-game video recording* up to 720p resolution so you can share clips with the community easily. On top of these exciting tools, ASUS gives you more:
- Sync GPU clocks and voltages for easier overclocking
- Automatically check and update driver and BIOS versions
- Get detailed specs and actual card status with GPU-Z
- 2D/3D switcher can lock the card in 3D for higher benchmarks
- Monitoring widget provides detailed multi-parameter info
Now we’re getting into interesting stuff, GPU Tweak is, as you’ve likely guessed, ASUS’ GPU overclocking software. It has a few interesting features that I haven’t seen elsewhere, such as the ability to acquire BIOS updates for your GPU automatically and the ability to link your core clock and core voltage sliders. It also has a built in GPUz with a nice ASUS skin on it.
That does it for the features page, what it doesn’t mention is that the card supports PCIe 3.0 and that the power delivery is courtesy of a Digi+ controller. The box mentions it, we’ll see that in a bit. Right now it’s time for…
These are somewhat more compact than the features:
Now we get the PCIe 3.0 and such, or at least some of it. Note the Engine Clock, we’re at a full GHz here stock! Not that long ago 1 GHz was a pretty solid overclock and far beyond stock levels. The memory is 2GB of GDDR5 at 1200 MHz (or 2400 MHz, or 4800 MHz, depending on how you look at it. All are valid views) with a 256-bit bus. Lots of bandwidth, there. For output ports we have a nice selection, with DisplayPort, DVI-D and DVI-I ports, plus a HDMI port. Additionally ASUS includes a DVI-VGA adapter. The accessories included are a bit skimpy, just the previously mentioned adapter and a CrossFire bridge. The card takes two 6 pin PCIe power plugs, which when combined with the slot gives a maximum of 225W to the card. I seriously doubt it will actually draw that much, as the TDP is significantly lower. Lastly we have some dimensions, pegging this as a two slot GPU.
It may have been a compact table, but that was a fair bit of typing. Let’s look at some pictures!
Photos Part One: The Box
The box shares in the recent animal attack theme from ASUS, while I can’t say it makes a whole lot of sense to me it doesn’t make any less sense than Gigabyte’s cyborg eye or the barely clothed anime type characters in previous generations. I just hope they caught the animal and checked for rabies. Once you get past the animal attack the box reiterates the Features and Specifications a few times, the DCII cooler is on five of six panels, which is pretty impressive coverage really. In tiny, tiny print on the barcode label the card is specified as a “v2”, nowhere else. I find that interesting, though I don’t know why.
Opening the box, we find a box!
Inside the box, what do we find?
Just to keep the streak going, here are the accessories. We find them inside the box that is under the bag that is inside the box that is inside the box. Now that is Boxception! Alternatively, it’s so meta it’s almost meta-meta. Depends on whether you have an English degree or have watched a decent movie recently.
You get a driver DVD that I personally would ignore completely (hit amd.com for a driver and Asus 7870 download page for GPUTweak/etc. If you lack internet, the DVD is there for you), a DVI-VGA adapter, a SpeedSetup guide (very, very brief), a Crossfire cable (thanks) and most confusingly a single six pin PCIe power extender. Not an adapter mind you, it’s six pin on both ends. This card has two 6-pin PCIe power connectors, why might you need one (1) extender? I’m confused.
Regardless, under that box we finally find the GPU itself, nestled in foam.
Photos Part Two: The GPU
Very nice looking card here. The red stripes are paint, for whatever that is worth to you. Note the metal stiffening bar across the top, it’s probably not needed for stiffening but it’s nice to see anyway. It’s exactly the kind of overkill I like.
Almost last, a larger view for giggles.
Now we find a very cool feature that isn’t mentioned elsewhere. Lights for the PCIe power plugs. Not just a light if you don’t plug one in and then you turn a computer on mind you, these lights are active any time the PSU is plugged in and turned on. They run off the 5VSB line. You get a red LED if the power plug isn’t plugged in, and a green LED if it is. Check it out:
This is by far the best setup I have ever seen for this, I applaud ASUS and would like to shake the hand of the person who had the idea.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to get your fingers to the PCIe power plug release levers due to a heatpipe that cruises right over them. That’s an oversight.
Moving right along, we get to what is generally my favorite part: Ripping it to shreds!
Photos Part Three: Dissection and Components
Unlike the 7790, there are no sneaky “No more warranty for you!” stickers to be found here. Admittedly this is a review sample, before you remove the cooler of your card check for stickers and check the warranty policy! As a review sample I don’t have a warranty to void, so it’s a moot point.
Now we can see the heatpipes and how they touch the core! ASUS did a very nice job on making sure there weren’t any gaps, it’s impressive. The cooler is flat, but the surface isn’t overly smooth. The thermal “paste” is somewhat more like a thermal brick, it’s very tough stuff. Not at all like the nice soft stuff that I’ve seen on other 7xxx cards. On the plus side it was making very even contact, on the minus side it had a pretty thick layer between core and cooler. This is, mind you, after I did all the testing (and ran a bitcoin miner overnight, for extra stress), despite the thick glop the temps were excellent.
Note that only the top/right three RAM chips contact the cooler via the thermal pad, the others are left to fend for themselves with airflow alone. The various power MOSFETs are also stuck with airflow alone, no heatsinks for them. I don’t like this.
The cooler has the same sort of stepped-fin design we’ve been seeing on CPU coolers for a while, it’s supposed to reduce noise and increase airflow. I don’t have any way to test that, but my bet is that it is true. Turbochargers use roughly the same setup on the intake side of the impeller, and those things are so incredibly tuned on those that they wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t useful. The RAM power appears to be split, with single phase setups for RAM power and RAM Bus power. There’s a third small VRM on the far left, likely for PLL power.
The core power setup is much, much larger and more complicated!
The core gets six phases of digital power, courtesy the Digi+ controller (IR. who bought CHiL, makes the “Asus” Digi+ controllers – IR does a mighty good job of it, too), this makes it as advanced as GPU/Motherboard power bits get. Across the top of the controller photo we can see six phases worth of current sensing bits for OCP, while in the overview section we can see six phases and three driver chips. Each driver chip has two inputs and can control two phases, they’re very advanced IR bits that can either accept two inputs and control two phases with them, or they can take one input and split it into two phases. Very cool, those. In this case they’re almost certainly taking two inputs and controlling one phase per input.
Each phase gets one 7030AL (30V, 68A) MOSFET for the high side and two 5030AL (30V, 91A) MOSFETs for the low side. Six sets of those should be well more than enough, hopefully enough overkill that they run decently cool even without a heatsink. In case you’re wondering what “Super Alloy MOSFETs” are, in this case they’re TrenchMOSFETs. It’s a shape that makes them interesting, rather than the alloys involved. All MOSFETs are made out of some sort of alloy, nothing in the datasheets implies that these have anything special about them alloy wise. That said, the TrenchMOSFET architecture is definitely an improvement over more standard designs.
Now, before I get fired for taking too long, let’s move on to benchmark results!
Performance and Overclocking
- Biostar TZ77XE4
- G.SKILL RipjawsX 2133MHz 2×2 GB
- Western Digital 1TB Green
- Intel i7 3770K Processor @ 4.0 GHz
- Thermalright Ultra-120 Extreme (TRUE)
- Thermaltake Smart-M 750 W PSU (among others, more on that in a bit)
- Asus Radeon HD 7870 DCII GHZ Edition GPU
- AMD Catalyst 13.3 BETA Drivers
- Hacked to hell ancient ATX case benching stand
Since June of last year, we have been using our new Updated Video Card Testing Procedure. If you are not yet familiar with it, click the provided link to learn more. Below is the down and dirty version of the new procedure.
- All Synthetic benchmarks were at their default settings
- Unigine Heaven (HWbot) was run using the “extreme” setting
- Aliens vs. Predator – 1920×1080 with highest settings offered (4x AA, textures set to highest)
- Battlefield 3 – 1920×1080 at Ultra settings (4xAA/HBAO by default)
- Dirt 3 – 1920×1080 with 8x MSAA and all settings enabled and at Ultra where possible
- Metro 2033 – 1920×1080, DX11, Very High, 4x MSAA/ 16x AF, PhysX OFF, DOF enabled, Scene: Frontline
- Civilization V – 1920×1080, 8x MSAA, VSync OFF, High Detail Strategic View: Enabled, Other Settings: High, using full render frames value ( / 60)
- Batman: Arkham City – 1920×1080, VSync off, 8xMSAA, MVSS and HBAO, Tessellation set to high, Extreme Detail Level, PhysX Off
Additionally I’ll be running Futuremark’s new 3DMark Fire Storm benchmark and Catzilla, because I like them.
ASUS GPU Tweak Overclocking Software
GPU Tweak comes in three parts, the primary bit being the main window:
Usual deal for the most part, there’s GPU clock, RAM clock, fan speed, Power Target, and Core Voltage. The big difference between this software and all others is that the GPU voltage and clock can be linked. By default they’re linked and you have to hit the “advanced” mini-button in the lower left to get access to the button to un-link them. As with most AUTO voltage settings it isn’t shy about pouring on the voltage, though with a cap of 1.3V on this card (and a default of 1.216 100% stock) you won’t get into much, if any, trouble. The Power Target setting lets to tell the card that it is OK to use more power than TDP. It didn’t seem to make and meaningful difference in performance and overclocking for me. It does cause higher idle power consumption, as we’ll see later.
GPU Tweak also has a monitoring window you can pop out:
All the usual suspects are represented, there’s a Settings button so you can select how often the data is read as well as which streams are shown.
Lastly it comes with an ASUS skinned GPU-z built in as well:
The plus side is that it looks awesome. The downside is that it doesn’t seem to update if the window is open and you make clock speed changes. Also note the lack of a “Sensors” tab. It’s very cool looking, but if you plan to do a lot of overclocking I recommend downloading the full GPU-z (there’s even an ASUS skinned version, I believe).
Overclocking for Daily Use
There are two flavors of overclocking: Daily use, and Benching. Daily use overclocking is aimed at exactly what the name implies, daily use. It needs to be stable, as BSODs on a daily use computer are annoying at best and disastrous at worst. This means you can’t really toe the absolute limits of the card. This is the level that the “Overclocked” benchmark results will be run at, a level that I could run 24/7 with this card.
Benching overclocking is very different! For benching all that matters is that the benchmark is completed and the computer doesn’t crash before you save a screenshot. This is an overclocking level that you simple can’t run 24/7, as it is lucky to make it all the way through the benchmark, but has no hope of actually making it through a gaming session. This is the level of overclocking that the Overclockers.com Benchmarking Team does on a regular basis, and is what you’ll find in the Pushing The Limits section of this review. Benching type overclocking has been known to be rather hard on hardware, emulate it at your own risk.
In this case the 24/7 stable clocks turned out to be ~1180 MHz on the core (at 1.25 V) and ~1340 MHz on the RAM, not a bad bump from 1000/1200 stock, though less than I expected.
These are pretty promising results. In 3D03 the GTX660 gets eaten alive, though that says more about GTX6xx in 3D03 than it does the real world performance. The difference between the ASUS 7870 and the Sapphire 7870 is more interesting. Also interesting is that the OC’d 7870 matches the 7970 in 3D03. In Vantage things are more as expected.
Here in DX11 land it’s another strong showing for the 7870 DCII. Not surprisingly it fits it’s price bracket quite well.
Now we get to the bit that most people care more about, the game benchmarks!
Note the difference between the similarly priced 7870 DCII and GTX660. That’s partly AMDs work on drivers you’re seeing there, and partly simple raw performance. As a sidenote: I had absolutely no issues installing and using the latest beta driver, despite it being willfully installed over the top of an older beta driver.
In civilization V the 78xx cards do an amazing job these days, I’m not really sure why, but they dominate. I tested and retested that OC score, and it sat there happy as a clam beating the 7970. In Dirt3, something you actually need some FPS to play, the 7870 DCII has a significantly-higher-than-60FPS average. In the brutality known as Metro 2033 it’s a pretty close battle. The stock card actually loses to the stock HIS 7850 4GB, I’m at a bit of a loss on that one. The grunt of the 7970 pulls it well ahead.
3DMark Fire Strike
Solid, not epic, but solid. It does make my not-that-old GTX580 look a bit silly.
Power Consumption and Core Temperatures
Lastly, we have power and temperature graphs. Please note that the power numbers are for the full system and are at the wall numbers. They’re with a 700 W 80+ Gold PSU, running in the 8-29% range of capacity, so approximately 82-89% efficiency. To get the actual system numbers (excluding the theoretical PSU efficiency) multiply by 0.88 or so. For the temperature numbers, the fan profile was left at default. Better OCing was had with a noisier profile, but once the profile has been messed with temperature numbers are useless.
Not a lot of power draw. Note the huge difference the Power Target adjustment makes at idle! Given the overclocked numbers, you could run this card on a 350 W PSU, overclock, and still have plenty of extra room. It doesn’t appear to be hitting its TDP even overclocked.
With higher idle power draw come higher idle temperatures. If you leave the power target alone OCing doesn’t do overly much to the idle temps. At full load the different between OC’d and stock is minimal or nonexistent.
The cooler not touching the MOSFETs doesn’t appear to be an issue (none of them exploded), though the back side of the PCB crested 80 °C during testing. 80 °C PCB temps are higher than I’d like, though the MOSFETs are rated for significantly higher. I’d still like a MOSFET heatsink.
Pushing The Limits
In this section I cranked the core voltage up as high as it would go (1.3 V, not that high). I also spent a bit of time brutalizing the driver settings and generally applying benching team know-how to the poor unfortunate thing. The CPU was bumped up to 4.6 GHz and the RAM up to 2133-7-10-7-27-1t. The GPU was bumped up as high as it’d run the benchmark in question.
Not a bad bump up! Top clocks varied significantly by benchmark. Higher Power Limit settings were of dubious use. I appeared to get better performance, but at the cost of lower stability. The best setting turned out to be ~6%. Do note that Tessellation was disabled, this is a 100% legal, valid, done-by-everybody benching tactic. If you’re leaving it turned on for competition, you’re Doing It Wrong. Also, I love Catzilla.
Digi+ Power, Revisited
Now you get to find out why I tested with multiple PSUs!
The power bits on this card make some noise. More importantly the power bits on this card make PSUs make noise, too. I’ve tested four different PSUs with this GPU now. Two have made noise that exactly mirrors the GPUs noise, at about the same volume. This is not especially loud, you won’t hear it unless your case is on your desk next to you and has a mesh side panel. The other two PSUs however made a LOT of noise. Noise that I could hear from over 20′ away. I’ve tested the PSUs with a variety of other video cards, as well as my PSU test equipment, they’re quiet. It’s only with this GPU that they make noise. They aren’t low quality units, either.
One is a fantastic be quiet! Dark Power Pro 10 1200W (Seasonic built), the other is the excellent InWin Commander III 700W. There was only marginal noise on the Tt Smart-M 750W (CWT) and the Tt Smart-M 1kw (Sirfa).
In all cases however, the reference 7870 power bits are quieter.
Final Words and Conclusion
Asus’s latest edition of the 7870 is a winner. As always the DCII cooler does an excellent job, holding temperatures to very nice numbers even with a solid OC involved. The fans are just this side of silent at idle, and even with a sustained 100% load, overclocked, they’re very quiet. I would agree that it’s vastly quieter than the average reference card. It looks cool, too.
The power bits are nicely overbuilt, I have my doubts about “Super Alloy’s” being involved, but the parts selection is solid. The power bits do make noise however, more importantly they make PSUs make noise. In some cases they make PSUs (very, very good PSUs mind you, which do not make noise with ANY other hardware) make a LOT of noise. This is a major con, and of course makes the claim of “noise-free operation” look a bit silly. The lack of a MOSFET heatsink is frustrating as they run quite warm. I stress tested them heavily though and the MOSFETs can deal with the heat, so I guess it’s OK.
ASUS’ GPU Tweak software does a good job, the linking of core clocks and voltage I could do without, or at least it’d be nice if the setting to link or unlink them didn’t reset itself every time the program is closed. That’s annoying.
Performance is excellent, the card overclocks pretty nicely as well.
Price wise it’s solid, considering the cooler. You can find less expensive 7870s, but not by a lot. The ASUS DCII cooler makes the price worthwhile in my opinion.
Let’s do some pros/cons here.
We’ll start with the pros:
- Runs quiet.
- Core runs very cool.
- Good overclocking.
- Looks great.
- Lots of ports.
- Very obvious whether you’ve plugged the PCIe power plugs in correctly.
There are a few cons as well:
- No MOSFET heatsink makes me sad.
- Difficult to unlatch PCIe power plugs.
- Limited accessory pack.
- Noisy power bits can cause major PSU noise.
All told things look pretty good, the only real con is the PSU noise. It’s luck of the draw on that one (or really, it’s a question of your PSU). Other than that the pros list is great and the cons list doesn’t have anything major. The ASUS HD 7870 GHz Edition DCII 2GB GPU gets an Approved award, with the caveat that you may end up with a noisy PSU as a result of this GPU.