EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2 review: A ferocious graphics card with a radical cooler

EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2 review: A ferocious graphics card with a radical cooler

Ever since the monstrous $700 GeForce GTX 1080 Ti launched, the world’s been waiting to see what this beastly GPU was capable of in the hands of Nvidia’s hardware partners. The Founders Edition delivered damn near uncompromising 60-fps performance at 4K resolution with everything cranked to 11, and that was with a lowly reference cooler and stock clock speeds. How far can factory-overclocked versions with potent custom cooling solutions go?

Well, for the first time ever, a graphics card is so damn fast that it managed to largely push a game’s bottleneck off of the GPU and onto the CPU in PCWorld’s ferocious testing PC—while running 15 degrees or more cooler than the Founders Edition.

And the EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2 ($720 on Amazon) isn’t even EVGA’s fastest custom GTX 1080 Ti.

Damn.

Meet the EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2

Before we dive into the customizations EVGA made to the SC2, here’s a refresher on the GTX 1080 Ti’s default technical specs, built around the full-fat version of Nvidia’s GP102 graphics processor.

gtx 1080 ti specs Nvidia

The major difference under the hood of EVGA’s card is the GPU clock speed. The GTX 1080 Ti SC2 hums along at a 1,556MHz base clock and 1,670MHz boost clock. That’s a healthy 88MHz leap over the GTX 1080 Ti Founders Edition boost clock—heck, the EVGA card’s base clock is a mere 26MHz away from the stock version’s boost clock. The numbers aren’t as concrete as they seem, however, as the GTX 1080 Ti regularly surpasses its rated boost clock anyway. Before performing any additional overclocking, we saw EVGA’s card hit clock speeds up to 1,850MHz in some games, depending on what was happening on-screen.

The memory’s untouched compared to the reference version, with a borderline excessive 11GB of GDDR5X of onboard RAM. The cooling solution is anything but.

evga gtx 1080 ti sc2 5 Brad Chacos/IDG

You’ll notice EVGA’s new shroud design first. With the GTX 1080 Ti lineup, the company’s ditched the solid exterior found in its customized GTX 1080 models for a porous new aesthetic that shows the beefy heatsink lurking underneath. The look’s been somewhat divisive in forums but I dig it, not least of which because it shows the true star of the show here: EVGA’s ambitious iCX cooling setup.

We went hands-on with EVGA’s revolutionary iCX when it debuted in the GTX 1080 FTW2 earlier this year, and it’s worth highlighting again. Graphics cards have traditionally only featured a single temperature sensor, monitoring the GPU processor itself. EVGA’s iCX loads the card with not one, not two, but nine additional sensors that also monitors the rear of the GPU, the onboard memory modules, and the power controllers. Virtually every aspect of your graphics card is tracked.

asynchronous cooling EVGA

How EVGA’s iCX cooling technology works.

But iCX does more than simply track temperatures. It uses that comprehensive data to control the speeds of the dual fans independently, with the leftmost fan responding to the GPU temperature, and the right-side fan adjusting speeds to keep the memory and PWMs cool. If the memory’s heating up rapidly but the GPU itself is staying relatively cool, as can happen with the Furmark stress test, the dedicated GPU fan maintains a slower, quieter speed, while the memory fan ramps up.

vrm heatpipe sc2 EVGA

The copper VRM heatpipe integrated in the GTX 1080 Ti’s redesigned baseplate.

EVGA’s tweaked the VRM heatpipe design on iCX-equipped GTX 1080 Ti cards as well, to help keep temperatures even lower.

You can monitor your temperatures sensor-by-sensor in EVGA’s Precision XOC software, or just by glancing at the graphics card in your case. Three RGB lights above the EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2’s logo on the card's edge indicate how hot your GPU, PWMs, and memory are, respectively. As components heat up, the individual lights change color (not that you’ll have to worry about it much with this card). Precision XOC lets you customize the colors of the EVGA logo as well as the RGB indicators.

evga gtx 1080 ti sc2 1 Brad Chacos/IDG

The colored lights over the “1080” show how hot your hardware’s running.

It feels like the future of cooling, and it’s stunningly effective in practice. It’s nice seeing RGB lights being used to practical effects, as well. Most custom GTX 1080 Ti cards released thus far have used thicker 2.5- or 3-slot designs to keep the GPU tamed, but EVGA’s card sticks to a traditional 2-slot size, so it’ll be interesting to see how iCX holds up in games.

As far as the rest of the card goes, the EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2 features a sturdy backplate, as you’d expect in a graphics card this pricey. Despite its higher clock speeds, the card still harbors the same 250-watt TDP as the Founders Edition, and the same 8-pin and 6-pin power connectors. EVGA’s internal 7+2 power phases will help you push the GPU to even faster speeds.

evga gtx 1080 ti sc2 3 Brad Chacos/IDG

There’s one final tweak of note. While Nvidia’s GTX 1080 Ti Founders Edition ditched the DVI-D port to increase cooling while sticking to the same form factor as the GTX 1080 Founders Edition, EVGA’s robust cooling system allows the company to return the legacy, yet well-loved connector to its rightful place on the rear of the card.

Enough talk. Let’s benchmark this badass. You’re going to want to read the results for heat and Ashes of the Singularity.

Next page: System configuration, benchmarks begin

Our test system, Division benchmarks

We tested EVGA’s GTX 1080 Ti SC2 on PCWorld’s dedicated graphics card benchmark system. Our testbed’s loaded with high-end components to avoid bottlenecks in other parts of the system and show unfettered graphics performance. At least, theoretically. We’ll get to that later.

  • Intel’s Core i7-5960X with a Corsair Hydro Series H100i closed-loop water cooler ($120 on Amazon).
  • An Asus X99 Deluxe motherboard ($230 on Amazon for an updated version).
  • Corsair’s Vengeance LPX DDR4 memory ($130 on Amazon), and 1,200-watt AX1200i power supply ($310 on Amazon).
  • A 480GB Intel 730 series SSD ($280 on Amazon).
  • Phanteks’ Enthoo Evolv ATX case ($190 on Amazon).
  • Windows 10 Pro ($158 on Amazon).

Naturally, we’re comparing the EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2 against Nvidia’s GTX 1080 Ti Founders Edition ($700 on Amazon). We already know that the GTX 1080 Ti stomps all rivals, but we’re also including benchmarks from the Founders Edition GTX 1080 ($500 on Amazon) and GTX 1070 ($380 on Amazon) for reference. AMD hasn’t had a competitive enthusiast-class graphics card since Nvidia’s GTX 10-series launched in mid-2016, and it won’t until Radeon Vega hits the streets sometime before the end of June.

All cards are tested with default fan profiles and out-of-the-box clock speeds.

Each game’s tested using its in-game benchmark at the mentioned graphics presets, with V-sync, frame rate caps, and all GPU vendor-specific technologies—like AMD TressFX, Nvidia GameWorks options, and FreeSync/G-Sync—disabled. This card is so powerful that we’re limiting our testing to 4K and 2560x1440 resolution.

The Division

The Division, a gorgeous third-person shooter/RPG that mixes elements of Destiny and Gears of War, kicks things off with Ubisoft’s new Snowdrop engine. We test the game in DirectX 11 mode; The Division recently rolled out an update that adds DirectX 12 support, but the performance is virtually identical to the DX11 results.

division Brad Chacos/IDG

The EVGA card pushes a few more frames per second than the stock GTX 1080 Ti here, with a wider gap as resolution increases. It pulls ahead by roughly 6.5 percent at 4K, but just 4.5 percent at 1440p.

Next page: Hitman

Hitman

Hitman’s Glacier engine historically favored AMD hardware. It’s no surprise; Hitman’s a flagship AMD Gaming Evolved title. That said, GeForce cards certainly don’t slouch after recent driver optimizations. We test in both DirectX 11 and DirectX 12 with SSAO disabled.

hitman 4k Brad Chacos/IDG
hitman 1440 Brad Chacos/IDG

The EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2’s lead is less here, possibly because Hitman’s already pushing out so many frames. We saw roughly 3 to 4 percent performance improvements over the GTX 1080 Ti Founders Edition at stock clock speeds—but a lot of people don’t buy a card like this to stick to stock speeds.

Next page: Rise of the Tomb Raider

Rise of the Tomb Raider

Whereas Hitman leans towards Radeon GPUs, Rise of the Tomb Raider performs much better on GeForce cards—and it’s absolutely gorgeous. We only test the game’s DirectX 11 mode, as DX12 results can be erratic.

rotr 4k Brad Chacos/IDG
rotr 1440 Brad Chacos/IDG

Again, we saw a 3 to 4 percent improvement across the board going from the Founders Edition to the EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2.

Next page: Far Cry Primal

Far Cry Primal

Far Cry Primal is another Ubisoft game, but it’s powered by a different engine than The Division—the latest version of the long-running and well-respected Dunia engine.

fcp 4k Brad Chacos/IDG
fcp1440 Brad Chacos/IDG

Another game, another improvement of a few frames per second over the stock GTX 1080 Ti. At 4K/Ultra, the difference is 5.36 percent.

Next page: Ashes of the Singularity

Ashes of the Singularity

Ashes of the Singularity, running on Oxide’s custom Nitrous engine, was an early standard-bearer for DirectX 12, and many months later it’s still the premier game for seeing what next-gen graphics technologies have to offer. We test the game using the High graphics setting, as the wildly strenuous Crazy and Extreme presets aren’t reflective of real-world usage scenarios.

aots 4k Brad Chacos/IDG
aots 1440 Brad Chacos/IDG

Here’s where things get really interesting. The EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2 sees the biggest performance uptick of all the tests in Ashes, pushing out frames a full 10 percent faster than the Founders Edition at 4K resolution. But look at those 1440p results! They’re virtually identical between the two cards, and remained so after several tests.

That’s because the EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2 is so fast, Ashes becomes CPU-bound rather than GPU-bound at 1440p/High—the first time we’ve seen a graphics card max out our system’s capabilities. The SC2’s extra oomph pushes it over the edge, as confirmed by checking the game’s deeper metrics, which showed that only about 5 percent of heavy- and medium-batch frames were GPU-bound. To be fair, the 8-core Core i7-5960X in our test system runs at modest 3GHz stock speeds, but it’s still a milestone. We’ll be making some changes soon to prevent it from happening again.

Next page: Synthetic benchmarks

Synthetics, power, heat, overclocking

We also tested the EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2 and its rivals using 3DMark’s highly respected DX11 Fire Strike and Fire Strike Ultra synthetic benchmarks, as well as 3DMark’s Time Spy benchmark, which tests DirectX 12 performance at 2560x1440 resolution.

fire strike Brad Chacos/IDG
time spy Brad Chacos/IDG

Everything falls about where you’d expect based on prior performance results.

Next page: Power and heat

Power

We test power under load by plugging the entire system into a Watts Up meter, running the intensive Division benchmark at 4K resolution, and noting the peak power draw. Idle power is measured after sitting on the Windows desktop for three minutes with no extra programs or processes running.

power Brad Chacos/IDG

The EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2 only uses a hair more power than the GTX 1080 Ti Founders Edition, and a significant 10W less power at idle. That’s probably because the dual fans on EVGA’s card stop spinning when the card isn’t under load, whereas the reference model’s fan constantly whirs.

Heat

We test heat during the same intensive Division benchmark at a strenuous 4K resolution, by running SpeedFan in the background and noting the maximum GPU temperature (in Celsius) once the run is over.

temps Brad Chacos/IDG

The EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2’s robust iCX cooling solution keeps the GPU a whopping 15 degrees Celsius cooler than the Founders Edition under load, and it stays far quieter while doing so. It’s not just the GPU staying chilly, either: Checks with Precision XOC showed the PWMs and memory running nice and cool. I was hoping to snag a shot of the card blaring a red RGB indicator light but couldn’t get it to happen under any reasonable circumstances, even after overclocking.

icx temps Brad Chacos/IDG

Precison XOC’s sensor temperature readings while running our thermal test, a.k.a. The Division at 4K repeatedly. (Click to enlarge.)

That’s using the default fan curve, too. Precision XOC allows you to set a custom fan curve, or enable an “aggressive” fan curve. The aggressive curve, which I used in my overclocking endeavors, is no joke: It kept the overclocked GPU running between 52 and 59 degrees Celsius in The Division and Rise of the Tomb Raider even at 4K/Ultra. Air-cooled graphics cards don’t get much colder than that—though the fan noise generated using that setting is just as aggressive.

Next page: Overclocking and bottom line

Overclocking

Unfortunately, time constraints prevented me from fine-tuning the perfect overclock with the EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2. Without tweaking the power limit—an important note—I was able to achieve a +80MHz offset on the card’s GPU clocks, which resulted in actual clock speeds of 1,910MHz to 1,987MHz in games depending on the resolution and intensity of the scene. Memory overclocks hit +300MHz without a hitch, and could’ve gone further if I had time to keep stepping up the frequency and checking stability.  

Even overclocked, EVGA’s aggressive fan curve kept temperatures in the mid- to high-50s, Celsius. The combination of the overclock and using the aggressive fan curve also didn’t use much more power than the stock configuration, at 314W instead of 303W.

This hasty overclock added a few more frames' worth of performance in the handful of games I was able to test at 4K/Ultra.

overclocked Brad Chacos/IDG

Brief overclocking results.

The extra oomph provided by the overclock resulted in a 9.9 percent average frame rate increase compared to the stock GTX 1080 Ti Founders Edition, and no doubt with time I could’ve pushed it even further. Not too shabby.

Oh, and I tested Ashes of the Singularity at 1440p with the overclocked EVGA SC2 and saw virtually no difference in performance yet again. Yep, it’s CPU-bound.

Bottom line

The EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2 kicks ass.

evga gtx 1080 ti sc2 6 Brad Chacos/IDG

Sure, it’s only an average of 5.7 percent faster than the GTX 1080 Ti Founders Edition out of the box, but even that modest increase is enough to push The Division and Far Cry Primal to the edge of 60 fps at 4K resolution with all the graphics options cranked to 11—and push Ashes of the Singularity into being CPU-bound at 1440p. A quick, basic overclock nearly doubled the performance gain, though overclocking’s always subject to the whims of the silicon lottery.

The real star here is EVGA’s unique iCX cooling solution. I was a fan (har har) when EVGA debuted iCX, and the refinements in the GTX 1080 Ti SC2 really make it shine. The card runs cool as a cucumber and quiet as a mouse with its default fan profile, and that’s all the more impressive when you consider that the EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2’s a standard 2-slot size. Most of the other custom GTX 1080 Ti cards released expanded to bulkier 2.5- and 3-slot thicknesses to accommodate the heat of this potent GPU.

evga gtx 1080 ti sc2 9 Brad Chacos/IDG

If you’re really looking to crank overclocks as far as possible, you might want to wait for the release of EVGA’s flagship GTX 1080 Ti FTW2 flagship, which is also imbued with iCX. That card offers slightly higher out-of-the-clock speeds but really caters to overclockers by swapping out the secondary 6-pin power connector with another 8-pin connector, upgrading the power phases to a 10+2 arrangement, and adding a second BIOS. It costs $30 more, though.

You can’t be disappointed with a cool, quiet, eminently configurable graphics card that pushes performance to the literal brink in a game like Ashes, though. The $720 GTX 1080 Ti SC2’s performance bump and vastly improved cooling solution make it well worth the premium over a Founders Edition card. EVGA’s card is easily the fastest graphics card to ever cross our labs. Don’t hesitate to buy it if you’re gaming at 4K resolution, or 1440p at a high refresh rate.

And we won’t hesitate to upgrade our testing system. Look for a rebuild before Radeon Vega lands, complete with a new lineup of game benchmarks.

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