MSI GeForce GTX 970 GAMING 4G Video Card Review

The MSI GeForce GTX 970 GAMING 4G video card is making the GeForce GTX 780 and AMD Radeon R9 290 obsolete. This $349 video card puts up a fight and punches in a win at this price. The overclock alone is somewhat staggering. If you are about to spend money on a GPU, don't miss this one.

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Overclocking

We were quite excited to start overclocking the MSI GeForce GTX 970 GAMING. Both the GeForce GTX 980 and GTX 970 are very overclockable GPUs this generation. To begin, we used the latest MSI Afterburner from MSI's website. We simply had to unlock voltage control in the settings, and then we could manipulate core voltage on this video card. We also had access to the power limit, memory and core clock speeds and manual fan control. Let's start by taking a look at what we have out-of-the box.

The MSI GeForce GTX 970 GAMING is factory overclocked from reference GeForce GTX 970 clock speeds, but the memory remains the same. Remember, the boost clock is not the actual clock speed you get while gaming, for that you actually have to monitor clock speeds while gaming in several games to find what the consistent stable actual real-time clock speed is while gaming. Let's break down what we found.

Reference GeForce GTX 970 Clock - Base: 1050MHz / Boost: 1178MHz

MSI GeForce GTX 970 GAMING - Base: 1114MHz / Boost: 1253MHz / Actual: 1366MHz. Default voltage 1.206v on this video card.

So our actual real-world in-game clock speed we are starting from with this video card is a 1366MHz clock speed while gaming. This is higher than a reference clocked GTX 970 would be while gaming. That's already a high starting place, so we didn't think it had that much room to grow, but boy were we mistaken.


Overclocking Without Voltage

We always like to start out our overclocking by turning up the core clock as much as possible without touching the voltage. This gives us a starting place and lets us know where the limits of the core GPU are before we need more voltage to make it go higher. The very first thing you need to do is increase the Power Limit level, this will allow us to overclock and see a performance benefit. The power limit level is 110% on this video card, only 10% up from the starting place of 100%, which overall is not a lot of headroom in terms of the power limit/TDP cap.

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We managed to push the core all the way up to a +140 setting, without touching voltage at all. We also were able to set the memory up to +500, that's right, +500. All of this was done with the fan in Auto settings. We found that we did not need to set a higher fan speed to achieve this overclock, temperature was never a limiting factor in any of our overclocking testing with this card. So what does that result in? This.

Base Clock: 1254MHz / Boost Clock: 1393MHz / Actual Clock: 1506MHz.

Memory: 8GHz

Without touching voltage at all we managed to overclock from 1366MHz to 1506MHz (1.506GHz.) What's more, the memory overclocked a full 1GHz from 7GHz to a whopping 8GHz! Now, in fact, we could get the memory even higher, we managed a +510 memory overclock, however, what happened is that the core clock speed of 1506MHz would start performance throttling when the memory was that high, it dropped below 1.5GHz. So backing off on the memory to +500 allowed a steady and consistent 1506MHz while gaming, with 8GHz memory.

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Here is what that looks like full-load. Remember, the voltage has not been touched at all yet. You will note it is still at the default 1.206v of this video card. The TDP is getting awfully close though at 108%, which is important when we look at the voltage overclocking below. The temperature was 69c on the GPU with auto fan speed which rose up to 57% on automatic. We saw another game hit 61% fan speed with the GPU temp at 71c, we never saw it go over 71c with this overclock. Maximum system wattage was 359W peak at this overclock, without voltage.


Maximum Overclock with Voltage

Remember above how we said we were just over 108% TDP, nearing our 110% power limit level? Well, that plays a big part here because we only have 2% to play with, and it's not enough. Pushing the voltage up also pushes the TDP/power limit up, and thus the GPU performance throttles downward in clock speed when it exceeds the TDP. Since we only have a maximum of 10% to work with, and we already achieved a 10% overclock without voltage, we didn't have a lot of room to work with.

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MSI Afterburner is capable of +87 voltage. This allows the GPU to go from 1.206v up to 1.250v, which is more than enough for this GPU to reach 1600MHz without artifacts, and without crashing. However, the power limit of only 10% caps the overall overclock potential, and the clock speed throttles all the way back to 1542MHz. Yep, the potential, the headroom of this GPU is upwards of 1600MHz but the power limit is the limiting factor, it doesn't allow a high enough setting to exploit the real potential of this GPU.

We lowered settings until we found the magic spot that would show a consistent frequency without throttling. At +175 it would do 1562MHz just fine, but would down throttle to 1542MHz due to the power limit, the temp was under 60c, so it wasn't due to temp, it is due to simply the power or TDP exceeding the 110% limit of the card. So, because of the limit, we again, even with the voltage increased, have to find the limit where it won't down throttle but will instead remain consistent.

We found that to be just a slight bump up from +140 without voltage to +150 with voltage. This allowed a solid consistent 1542MHz while gaming. What the 970 really needs is a higher TDP/Power Limit, 125% would allow us to push it up to 1.6GHz probably.

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Though we set the fan to a manual 90% to ensure temperature wasn't an issue, we didn't really need to. We can leave the fan on auto just fine with this overclock and the temperature remains in the lower 70's. Temperature is not our limiting factor here, voltage is not our limiting factor, only the power limit is our limiting factor. The maximum system wattage with this overclock was 369W.

Our Final Overclock:

Base: 1264MHz / Boost: 1403MHz / Actual: 1542MHz

Memory: 8GHz