Overclocking, Power, Noise and Conclusions
Though the benchmarks on the previous pages are important to see, the real differentiating features of retail cards from the same GPU class come in the form of power, noise, and overclocking. In these areas, the MSI GTX 970 Gaming is superb.
The GeForce GTX 970 GPU, based on the GM204 GPU, is a fantastic card when it comes to power consumption and power efficiency. With a total system power draw of 292 watts, the MSI GTX 970 Gaming is just 4 watts higher than the reference card (which is well within a margin of error). However, the AMD options, in the form of the Radeon R9 290X and the R9 290, use significantly more power. The AMD flagship R9 290X uses 130 watts more than the MSI GTX 970 Gaming; the R9 290 uses 76 watts more. Those are not small numbers in the grand scheme of things and is something we harped on in our initial GTX 980 and GTX 970 review. If you need a card that is going to run as cool and as quiet as possible, the GTX 970 is a better starting position than either of the AMD options shown here.
Sound testing is important as well when it comes to selecting a graphics card. Each of the cards tested here are retail models. The MSI GTX 970 Gaming is obviously our review target, the "reference" results come from an EVGA GTX 970 ACX 1.0 card, and the R9 290X is an ASUS DirectCU II unit. Even with the high quality cooling solution provided by ASUS on the AMD Radeon R9 290X, the MSI GTX 970 Gaming is a full 2 dBA quieter under full load and nearly 2 dBA quieter at idle. The MSI card was essentially silent during use, even with the machine sitting on our desk during testing.
Okay, now let's dive into overclocking. As always, our results are not 100% indicative of what you will get and they instead should be used a starting point of reference. All overclocking includes variability from chip to chip and GPUs are no different than CPUs in that regard.
Using the latest beta version of the MSI Afterburner overclocking software, I was able to push the MSI GTX 970 Gaming card from the reference base clock speed of 1114 MHz up to an impressive 1364 MHz; that is a 250 MHz offset. That also pushes the Boost clock to 1503 MHz though in our testing and looping of Metro: Last Light, we were able to maintain a clock speed of 1578 MHz pretty consistently over 30 minutes of gaming. At stock settings, that clock speed was 1303 MHz – we were able to maintain a 21% higher clock speed with some very basic and easy overclocking on the MSI GTX 970 Gaming.
And just as important, GPU temperature never went over 70C and the noise levels when overclocked were only modestly increased. (The fan only went up about 120 RPM or so.)
This overclocking was done with the default options and the standard maximum of +87 mV of additional voltage applied to the GPU. Nothing fancy, just moving a few sliders around to get this added performance.
What does that mean for real world performance? The graphs above show that in Metro: Last Light, the overclocked settings result in a 12% faster average frame rate when compared to the stock settings that were already overclocked. This also pushes the performance of the MSI GTX 970 Gaming ahead of a stock Radeon R9 290X.
Now that the GTX 970 cards are showing consistently in stock at online retailers like Amazon and Newegg, I think you'll find more and more PC gamers looking towards this option for upgrading a gaming rig this holiday (and into 2015). As of this writing, there are seven total GTX 970 SKUs in stock – a big increase when we compare it to the first 60 days or so of NVIDIA's GM204 release. It is possible that all the gamers excited about the GTX 970/980 release back in September have moved on or purchased competing products, but I think that is unlikely. With the gluttony of gift cards and checks being passed around in the month of December, I think you'll find upgrades are going to be quite frequent.
With all of that in consideration, is the MSI GTX 970 Gaming the right card for you? It's hard to to see why it wouldn't be – it offers pretty much everything you can ask for. You have a custom cooler that is able to keep the GPU incredibly cool, even when overclocked. The fans are quiet in both load and idle conditions. Our card overclocked very well, getting another 20% boost in clock speed over the out of box settings. And current pricing has the card for just $349, only $20 over the base price. Oh, and you can get a copy of Assassin's Creed Unity, Far Cry 4 or The Crew included as well. (As of this publication the GTX 970 Gaming is out of stock at Amazon.com – but keep an eye out as we are told stock should return very shortly.)
UPDATE: You can find the MSI GTX 970 Gaming at BHPhoto.com in stock as well.
The GTX 970 is definitely a better value than the GTX 980, but AMD has strong competition in the form of the Radeon R9 290X and R9 290. As you saw in our benchmarks on the previous pages, both Hawaii GPUs are offering comparable performance – faster in a couple of instances, slower in a couple others, and essentially tied in a couple more. But pricing definitely favors the AMD cards. You can find R9 290X cards for $349 and R9 290 cards for little as $289 – and considering the performance deltas of these solutions and the GTX 970, AMD has the performance-per-dollar edge. But if that were all that mattered, then AMD would have the market sewn up and that obviously isn't the case.
There are certainly a lot of options out there for gamers looking at the GTX 970 for their next GPU upgrade and many of them are going to be high quality solutions that meet your needs. For users that like the styling, features, and price of the MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming, this purchase is an easy decision.