A Refreshing Change

Asus shows what a highly optimized vid card design can do

Refreshes are bad, right?  I guess that depends on who you talk to.  In the case of AMD, it is not a bad thing.  For people who live for cutting edge technology in the 3D graphics world, it is not pretty.  Unfortunately for those people, reality has reared its ugly head.  Process technology is slowing down, but product cycles keep moving along at a healthy pace.  This essentially necessitates minor refreshes for both AMD and NVIDIA when it comes to their product stack.  NVIDIA has taken the Kepler architecture to the latest GTX 700 series of cards.  AMD has done the same thing with the GCN architecture, but has radically changed the nomenclature of the products.

Gone are the days of the Radeon HD 7000 series.  Instead AMD has renamed their GCN based product stack with the Rx 2xx series.  The products we are reviewing here are the R9 280X and the R9 270X.  These products were formerly known as the HD 7970 and HD 7870 respectively.  These products differ in clock speeds slightly from the previous versions, but the differences are fairly minimal.  What is different are the prices for these products.  The R9 280X retails at $299 while the R9 270X comes in at $199.

Asus has taken these cards and applied their latest DirectCU II technology to them.  These improvements relate to design, component choices, and cooling.  These are all significant upgrades from the reference designs, especially when it comes to the cooling aspects.  It is good to see such a progression in design, but it is not entirely surprising given that the first HD 7000 series debuted in January, 2012.


DirectCU II Basics

Asus aims to provide users with a better overall experience through design decisions which improve performance without being significantly more expensive than the reference designs.  The products I am writing about here are approximately $20 more expensive than the basic sticker units, but they should provide better overclocking potential as well as significantly cooler temperatures at load.  Asus does this through several methods.

The first is the board design and power delivery.  Depending on which product this is, there are extra power phases for the GPU.  These phases are also controlled by the Digi+VRM that Asus claims is much faster and more efficient than the stock VRM controller.  Digital VRM controllers offer faster response for power needs of the GPU and can be programmed more precisely when put in overclocked scenarios.  Power efficiency is also improved by the choice of components that Asus chooses for these cards.  The Super Alloy Power components include high quality polymer caps, high power MOSFETS, and concrete chokes (to essentially eliminate choke buzzing).  These choices lead to better overall power characteristics and cooler operation.

The second portion is that of the software controlling the card.  GPU Tweak is Asus’ overclocking and management software suite for their graphics cards.  This is very similar to MSI’s Afterburner, and honestly is just as good if not a little better.  This software suite allows the user to control most functionality on the cards, from voltages to boosts to fan speeds.  The user can tweak their experience to a great deal with this software, and it of course allows fine overclocking control.

The third aspect is that of cooling.  In the past Asus has relied upon large three slot coolers to handle the heat loads of the high end cards.  This was overall pretty unpopular with users as each card took up quite a bit of space.  It also essentially eliminated Asus from a lot of the small enclosures that are becoming more popular.  The latest generation of cards stick with dual slot units with redesigned heat pipes to more adequately cool the very latest GPUs.

Overall the DirectCU II improvements are a good step up from the reference designs.  Asus hits the sweet spot in terms of cooling efficiency, overclocking potential, and price.  These cards are really not all that more expensive than sticker versions and do offer a lot more functionality and performance.

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