ASUS have long been ploughing a lone furrow in the world of the truly insane graphics card. From the original Mars, the first Ares, through the Mars II and now the Ares II, if you were recently a city banker or happened to win the lottery then there was a single company out there asking for your money.
The original Ares was two full-fat HD5870s on a single PCB with a seriously gorgeous cooler. Of course it was hilariously expensive, but you had some exceptional packaging and lots of little bits and bobs to help soothe the pain. More importantly the performance was incredible. So often dual-GPU cards are cut-down versions of the high-end GPUs, but with the ASUS range you had totally un-trimmed graphics.
Now it's time to take a look at the next in the range, the Ares II. With two full-on HD7970s beating beneath a self-contained water-cooling loop, it certainly has the potential to break our benchmark records.
As always it wouldn't be an OC3D review if we didn't push it that extra mile and today we're not only going to be looking at the performance available from a single Ares II, but what you can get from the insanity of Crossfired Ares II's.
There is no denying that the Ares II is right up there with the best single PCB solutions available. This isn't the first time we've seen the Tahiti XT duplicated on the same board, as the PowerColor Devil13 HD7990 did the same thing. The main changes between the PowerColor and the ASUS offerings is the increased speed of both the GPUs and the GDDR5 on the Ares II, as well as the cooling solution of course.
Whereas the HD7990 had DVI, DisplayPort and HDMI connections the Ares II relies solely upon DVI and DisplayPort to provide it's output. Although if you've got the requisite £1200 to buy the card we assume you're already rocking some serious DisplayPort monitors.
We've already taken a look at the Ares II in our recent preview, but we can't help having another look at what £1200 buys you. As always with the extreme models in the ASUS line the Ares II comes in a case guaranteed to survive even the most extreme postal service abuse. Opening this is an event.
Here it is in all its glory. As we'd expect the foam is extremely tightly cut, with no wiggle room at all. Because of the move from air cooling to a water loop the radiator dominates the eye more than the card itself. This has also meant that the designer had a lot of freedom with the cover and it replicates the heatsinks we saw on the Maximus V. It is strangely bland to be honest. When we think of the monstrous Ares bristling with highly-polished copper heatpipes, the Ares II is rather meh.
As you'd expect with something that has two Tahiti XTs at the heart of it, the Ares II requires three 8pin PCIe power inputs. At the other end of the card is a Crossfire finger. Something we're going to take advantage of in today's review.
The cooler is familiar to anyone who's seen the Corsair H100 and the idea is the same as the PNY GTX580. It's certainly not the prettiest beneath the hood, but as long as the card remains cool and quiet then that's the important part.
Thankfully ASUS have removed the ridiculous multi-coloured model name we saw on the Matrix and left the Ares II logo in ROG red. It looks the business when powered on. Really eye-catching, as you'd want.
ASUS Ares II
Another ASUS Ares II
Intel Core i7-3960X @ 4.6GHz
ASUS Rampage IV Extreme
Corsair Dominator Platinum
Corsair Neutron GTX
Windows 7 x64
Out of the box the Ares II runs at 1100MHz on the GPU and 6600MHz on the GDDR5. With a little judicious tweaking we could stretch these to 1250MHz for the Tahiti XT and 7248MHz for the memory which is what we'll be using for our overclocking benchmarks.
As you see from GPU Tweaker the cooling works well, keeping the card topping out at 60°C under heavy loading.
Obviously the main competition for the Ares II is the Devil13. Identical processors and, when the Devil13 is overclocked, pretty close in clock speed too. This shows up perfectly in our first benchmark, Alien vs Predator, but it's tough not to end up with your eyes wide open at the Crossfire result. Quad HD7970s giving over 400FPS.
Batman Arkham City
Such is the poor quality of the Batman conversion that the Crossfire bench is actually lower because of the CPU overhead from the extra card. Of course the Ares II runs it as perfectly as possible, but then a single GTX680 is enough to give flawless gameplay.
Far Cry 2
Showing the flaws in Crossfire compatibility Far Cry 2 replicates the lack of improvement we saw in Batman. The Ares II is 6FPS better than the Devil13, but we're so far past the 60FPS floor that a frame here and there doesn't mean a lot.
Whatever was broken in the previous version of the Catalyst drivers is most definitely fixed now. Wow what an insane score the Ares II is capable of. With the overclock the minimum frame-rate barely drops below 100FPS. Again though we actually lose performance from the extra card thanks to the processor overheads.
Metro loves dual-GPUs. In fact we never tire of seeing how it's supposed to run when more than one GPU is present. The Ares II just shades the Devil13 again, and we finally get a benefit from our extra card.
Resident Evil 5
Resident Evil gives us some different results than we've seen so far. Firstly the overclock on the Ares II really gives a big boost in frames per second. Secondly the extra card doesn't improve matters, despite the excellence of the MT Framework engine. Finally the Devil13 outperforms the Ares II for the first time, although only by the odd handful of of frames that the Ares II has been winning by so far.
Things return to normal in Unigine. Similar to 3D Mark the Unigine benchmark really makes the most of every bit of hardware available to it, which is why we see a massive benefit from the extra card. Although the single card results are close to the Devil13 as we'd expect.
Ramping up the image quality doesn't change the result, with the ASUS Ares II outperforming the Devil13 by a few frames, and the Crossfire setup standing proud at the top of our graph.
The Witcher 2
Such are the demands of The Witcher 2, along with its preference for nVidia cards, that the Ares II is bettered by a host of setups, including the Mars 2 and GTX680 SLI as well as the Devil13. The extra card makes no difference.
Far Cry 3
Did I ever tell you the definition of insanity? Because it's certainly the results we see in Far Cry 3. It doesn't like Quadfire, and the Ares II itself is outperformed by nearly everything. Dr Earnhardt needs more medication.
Hitman is a vast improvement. It supports the two-card setup, although gains no benefit from it. That aside the Ares II is a mighty performer, although a dual-GPU setup against the single cards we've tested so far means it's to be expected.
MOH : Warfighter
Again the, rather risible, Warfighter makes the most of the extra GPU power available, nearly doubling the results we've seen so far and the extra card gives some extra performance, although nothing like a linear improvement.
Another title that doesn't work with the two Ares cards, Sleeping Dogs at least makes the most of the single Ares II. You wont find a smoother pork bun buying experience than the power of the Ares II.
Whenever you've got this much pure GPU horsepower the P-Score in 3D Mark is wholly CPU limited. This is shown by how close the vastly harder test of the Extreme preset is to the Performance preset.
As for OC3D record scores, the Ares II handily beats out the competiton. However, we do have to note that the GTX690 SLI arrangement is a lot closer than we expected it to be, and the PowerColor Devil13 is only a tiny bit slower than a single Ares II.
3D Mark Vantage
3D Mark 11
A new benchmark, if only to save our brains from the mind-numbing tedium of seeing the Vantage tests for the millionth time, CatZilla from AllBenchmark has four different tests of increasing strenuousness. You can see a big drop in performance once we pass the standard 1080P test, but the Ares II Crossfire results show how much performance is theoretically available. It's better at 1080P than a single card is at 720P.
Noting the drop-off in CatZilla we ran the Crossfire setup on our PB278Q monitor to see how much performance we lose moving from a standard HD resolution to the beastly 2560x1440 resolution. Both Far Cry 2 and Batman Arkham City barely notice the increase in resolution.
Batman Arkham City
Far Cry 2
Hi Res Gaming
The opposite is true in Hitman and Mafia 2, with both titles showing a significant performance drop-off when increasing the resolution. The extra 1.6 million pixels impact the results more than we expected.
Sometimes you get a product that comes with some expectations, and the Ares II certainly arrived with a lot of expectations riding upon its shoulders. For a start it's a sequel to a pretty spectacular card, or the fourth in the premium ASUS range if we include the Mars. Secondly we know how good the HD7970s are and how brilliant the PowerColor Devil13 was, so we knew that unless ASUS really messed up this would have power to burn. Finally it's a £1200 item. No matter what you think of that cost, and we'll explain our thoughts in a moment, something that's the equivalent of Porsche 911 in a Ford Focus world means we demand the very highest in every area.
Performance is brilliant but not without caveats. Let there be no doubt that in terms of plugging in a single card to your system and having it happily eat its way through everything you throw at it, the Ares II is unmatched. That isn't to say it's not unrivalled though. The Devil13 runs it extremely close in every test. It's usually a hair behind, but we're talking a handful of frames from results normally in the hundreds. We ran a pair in Crossfire and the results were, at best, variable. It worked in maybe 50% of our titles, and of those even fewer saw any benefit at all. Of course if you're a benchmark whore and going for world records then there is nothing, nothing at all, that remotely gets close to the scores available from the Ares II Crossfire arrangement. Gaming though is very hit and miss and we'd recommend you stick to a single card, if only because it's guaranteed to work.
The cooler works very well being pretty quiet, certainly quieter than an air solution, and keeping the card cool even when overclocked. The decision to use this particular type of cooler is a strange one though and we believe it makes a product, that already has a tiny potential audience, desirable to even fewer people than just those who can afford it. When you decide to put your hardware out at £1200 it's only the extreme enthusiasts that are the target audience. But those people are the kind who are very likely to have a water-cooling loop already. So the built-in water loop on the Ares II is actually detrimental to them. The radiator is so beefy that a good-sized air cooler wont fit if you place the radiator where you'd expect (the case exhaust). So it wont plumb into your waterloop and isn't compatible with an enthusiast air cooler. So it's only really viable to those who have a Corsair H100 style cooler, and then you'd need a case that supported putting the GPU radiator on the floor intake, or was tall enough to put the H100 in the roof above the Ares cooler if it was mounted in the back (exhaust).
What it really needs is an air cooler for the 'average' user, and water-block in that suitcase for those who have a waterloop. The current solution suits nobody. Speaking of things in the suitcase that the Ares II comes in, we've seen better accessories included in £150 cards. If the Devil13 was £800, and it is, then the extra £500 of the Ares II should buy T-shirts, stickers, screwdrivers and all the innumerable things we'd expect in such an elite product. Instead you get the standard molex and display converters you get with every other card on earth. Nothing else. No games. No t-shirts. No nothing (if you'll excuse the expression).
So it's brutally powerful. We knew that it would be. It's over-priced, we expected it to be. But it totally lacks anything to justify that price beyond the performance, which isn't much better than the HD7990 Devil13 we've already seen. Even more so the cooling choice is a curious one. It breaks world records, but we can't help coming away from it feeling disappointed. If you're spending the thick end of £1200 on a graphics card you want more than a few adaptors and a suitcase for your money. It's all about e-peen and the Ares II, performance aside, is somewhat lacking. With our sensible hat on you could buy a Devil13, a waterblock and an ASUS PB278Q monitor for the same price as the Ares II, and the Ares II doesn't offer enough to make us take our sensible hat off. Worthy of our Performance Award of course but ASUS, we expect more theatre from the next in the Mars/Ares line if you want that award to be golden.
Thanks to ASUS for providing the Ares II's for today's review. Discuss our findings in our OC3D Forums.