A Closer Look at the PNY GeForce GTX 970 XLR8 4GB

box - PNY GeForce GTX 970 XLR8 4GB

As with nearly every PNY video card we have looked at the PNY XLR8 970 4GB comes in a very compact and attractive packaging that is both attention getting and filled with all the details any consumer could ask for. Sadly it is very easy to confuse a 970 for a 980…for a 780…for a 750Ti…for a 750. Honestly, PNY really needs to make a touch more effort to distinguish their models from one another. On the positive side, this box is small and easy to ship. More importantly finding room for the box – in case of RMA – is a downright snap. This certainly is a good thing as this rather inexpensive video card comes with a lifetime warranty and no matter how good, at some time everything fails!

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When you remove the internal packaging from the shipping container you can see that PNY has also once again opted for a plastic enclosure. Unlike the exterior, we have no issues with that as this clear top and white bottomed plastic enclosure reduces the chances of damage to the card while in transit. More importantly it doesn’t add much weight or increase the overall dimensions of the shipping container – something that anyone ordering online will like as it will help keep shipping costs down.

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The included accessories are classic PNY. That is to say, very decent in their breadth and scope. Specifically unless you are interested in useless goo-gaws like case badges or ‘gone gaming’ door knob hangers the included parts are sure to please. Not only do you get a single 6pin PCI-e adapter, a single digital to analog port adapter, a quick start guide, and a CD with the necessary drivers; you also get a mini-HDMI to full size HDMI adapter. Considering we have seen more expensive videos cards ship with less, this accessory list is rather impressive.

A very good argument could be made – and was by AMD ‘fans’ – that the previous generation 770 series was nothing but a fancied up 680 video card. For the most part that is over-simplifying things a shade too much for our liking, but no one can accuse the new 970 series in general, and this PNY XLR8 in particular, of being nothing but a PNY 780 with a new coat of paint and price point! In fact, the PNY 970 is a study in contrasts that we have not seen in the market in many, many years.

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Obviously NIVIDA have gone out of their way to make amends for the previous generations perceived sins. To be honest the new 970 series marks a return to NIVIDA x70’s roots in that the 970 is a slightly cut down 980 core and not a fancied up 780 core. Specifically, NVIDIA has only deactivated three of the 16 Streaming Maxwell Multiprocessors ‘cores’ that make up a full-fledged ‘980’ GM204 GPU, and have left the rest of the GM204 GPU fully enabled. In practical terms this means that the PNY XLR8 970 comes with 104 Texture units (instead of 128), 64 ROPs, and 1664 Cuda Cores (instead of 2048). Where this is a ‘stock’ reference’ish card PNY has left the Core Speed 1050 and Boost Speed at 1178. All of this is then wrapped up in a TDP of 160watts instead of 165W – and this too helps distinguish the 970 from a 980. Also on the positive side the RAM is still a 256-bit bus – just like the 980 series – and is rated at 7010Mhz. All in all such minor reductions are pretty easy to justify considering those missing Cuda cores and Texture Units come with a price reduction of well over $220.

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That easily takes care of any concerns consumers may have over the 970 being nothing but a 780 is sheep’s clothing. However, what is not so cut and dry is the 970 vs 770 comparison that is almost inevitable. So lets quickly run down the differences here as well. A Stock 770 is a 1536 Cuda Core equipped monster that has 128 Texture Units and 32 ROPS. More importantly it has a Base Clock that is nearly the same as the 970 at 1046MHz and a Boost Clock that is actually higher at 1085. Equally important it makes use of a 256-bit wide bus and 7010 GDDR5 memory, but only has half the amount – 2GB. On paper this certainly does not make the 970 a no-brainer / knock out as while it does have more ROPS and Cuda cores the few Texture Units might bring the difference down to the realm of minor. Of course, there is no denying that this new 5.1 Billion transitory GM204 is more efficient than the 770 (ie 50% more transistors but nearly 1/3rd less TDP) but will most consumers really care about power savings? As we pointed out in the AMD R7 280 review, minor differences in wattage ratings means it will literally takes years and years to justify. To be specific if you upgrade from a 770 to a 970 because of the power savings you will have to game for nearly 1,428 days straight if your cost of electricity is 12.5 cents per KW/h. That is 3.9 years of constant use.

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Obviously the 970 is not targeted at 770 users, and while we are not counting out this new GM204 core yet, the main target of this consumer is the more typical user who skips a generation. IE consumers going from a NVIDIA 670 class video card will notice an across the board improvement. Nevertheless it certainly will be interesting to see how this 970 stacks up against its predecessor.

ang4 - PNY GeForce GTX 970 XLR8 4GB

Because there is no ‘reference’ GeForce GTX 970 to compare against, we were very interested in seeing what direction PNY would take their card. Some manufactures have gone the full custom route, while others have taken a multi-tiered approach with both ‘stock’ blowers on some models and beefy down draft fan backed custom heatsinks on other models. Even on just a quick glance it is obvious that PNY are opting for the latter design philosophy. In fact the blower fan appears to be the same basic design that graces previous generations of ‘reference models’ – including PNY XLR8 770’s. Given the much lower TDP, this certainly should give this 970 more than enough airflow.

Sadly, while the blower fan should be more than adequate the heatsink covering the GM204 GPU core is a touch less than optimal. What we mean is if a company is going to go the blower route for their mid-tier lineup they should use the same basic design as what the GeForce 780 used. Instead of that very impressive – and rather beefy – blower style design PNY has opted for a curious mixture of parts.

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On the one hand the faux carbon fiber looking plastic fascia is very aesthetically pleasing, but on the other it is rather flimsy. Some of this lightweight/flimsy feeling is because it is mainly covering nothing but air! We quickly found this little factoid out when we removed the few screws holding this plastic fascia in place and actually took a look at what it was covering. In a nutshell there is a rather small heatsink – that reminds us strongly of modified version of the PNY XLR8 750Ti’s – covering the GPU and a smaller MOSFET heatsink directly behind it. On closer inspection the heatsink only makes use of 2 heatpipes and even with a rather cool running GPU, this is cutting things a touch close for our tastes.

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Even more curious was when we actually did remove the fascia and blower we noticed that the PCB of this 970 is rather short. In fact this PCB is about the same length as 750Ti’s PCB. Honestly all PNY needs to do to make an ‘mITX’ version of the 970 (just like Gigabyte has done) is simply use a different heatsink for their stock 970. This is not what we would call a good thing. On the positive side this small PCB does use a very decent 4+2 power delivery design that should provide very clean and stable power to both the onboard GDDR5 ICs and the GM204 core itself.

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Also on the positive side the rear ports features a very wide assortment of connection options. In total there is one HDMI port, one DVI port, and three DisplayPort ports. Though to ensure enough exhaust vents for the blower fan PNY had to place all five of these ports on the bottom row and give the entire top row for exhaust vents. To do that PNY had to go for mini-DP instead of full-size DP ports and mini-HDMI instead of a full sized HDMI port. This is neither here nor there and the fact that it is able to have so many options is worthy of respect.

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Overall the PNY 970 is a very interesting looking card, but given its price point most of these features should not be overly disconcerting. However, we do wish PNY had simply made this unit a mITX length card and used a custom heatsink and fan instead of the blower and small heatsink. The performance of this unit really will be what solidifies our final opionon on what it can do and if it is worthy of the XLR8 moniker.