ASUS GTX 680 DirectCU II TOP Review
To many, the GTX 680’s birth has been a troubled one from its first day on the market. Even though it was able to thoroughly trounce the competition in nearly every category from power consumption to price to performance, widespread availability seemed to be a bridge too far. Some claimed popularity was the root cause of NVIDIA’s misfortunes while others shouted the words “manufacturing issues!” from atop their cardboard boxes. Regardless of the underlying reasons, the end result remained the same: until recently, GTX 680 backorder lists were long and getting your hands on one of these cards required patience rather than cold hard cash.
In some respects, the GTX 680’s situation has improved and some reference version cars are now readily available but this is mostly due to the GTX 670 taking a good amount of heat off its bigger brother. This acts as a double edged sword since some GTX 670s can run even with a GTX 680 while retailing for about $100 less so one shouldn’t wonder why the higher end Kepler GPUs are now regularly in-stock items. Unfortunately, high demand, custom cards have been announced and seem to be trickling into retailers’ warehouses but they’re rare at best and paper launches at worst.
This long lead-up brings us to the situation we find ourselves in with the ASUS GTX 680 2GB DirectCU II TOP. Since it was first announced this has been one of the most highly anticipated and sought after GTX 680 cards on the market but it is nearly impossible to find. So you may wonder why it is actually being reviewed here. Well, we’re eternal optimists here at Hardware Canucks so we’re willing to bet the DirectCU II TOP should eventually be available in larger quantities. Hopefully.
Looking at the paper specifications, it isn’t hard to see why this particular GTX 680 is so highly regarded among enthusiasts. ASUS has increased the Base Clock by just over 130MHz while the Boost Clock should hit at least 1202MHz. Ours tended to Boost itself up to 1300MHz in most games (well above the 1110MHz we saw with the reference version), likely because of the DirectCU’s incredible thermal dissipation. We just wish the TOP Edition would have received a memory speed increase but from our understanding ASUS skipped over this in order to ensure broad spectrum compatibility and longevity.
Another reason for the DirectCU II TOP’s popularity boils down to price. Bleeding edge performance normally dictates an ultra high cost and although $539 is a hefty amount to pay, it certainly isn’t outrageous either.
ASUS hasn’t held anything back from the DirectCU II TOP’s design but the pitfalls normally associated with ASUS’ high end DirectCU II cooler are back with a vengeance. The engineering that went into this heatsink is significant but in order to expand its thermal mass while still retaining ATX standards necessitated that the DirectCU II expanded upwards rather than outwards. The result is one massive card which dwarfs literally everything else on the market and takes up three whole expansion slots. Those of you with limited space within your enclosure may want to steer clear of this card and it can even block additional expansion slots on some motherboards. Nonetheless, as we will see in the temperature testing section, the benefits from such an expansive heatsink may be well worth some sacrifices.
When seeing this card for the first time, it can seem over the top and somewhat ridiculous but in the past, it’s been nearly impossible to criticize ASUS’ design fundamentals due to the DirectCU’s ability to drastically reduce core temperatures. Under the black plastic shroud, there are five copper heatpipes that make direct contact with the core alongside a multi stage aluminum fin design that optimizes heat transfer away from the card’s hottest running areas. This is all capped off by a pair of directional 100mm fans which feature dust proof bearings for a claimed 25% increase in lifespan. 20% cooler and up to 14 decibels quieter than the reference design which is one hell of an accomplishment considering a standard GTX 680’s normally subdued demeanor.
ASUS has also upgraded the components on this card by using an 8+2 phase Digi+ digital PWM, part of which is covered by a secondary heat spreader. This PWM falls under the purview of ASUS’ Super Alloy Power initiative and allows for higher overclocking headroom, additional stability and better current delivery. The Digi + VRM design also translates into additional power efficiency over the reference design.
The DirectCU II’s underside features a large integrated backplate to further help with heat dissipation and provide an additional method of PCB reinforcement. There’s also a strategically placed branding message which will be easily viewable through a case’s side window.
The backplate also has a number of cut-outs for LEDs, ventilation and other secondary functions, one of which is the VGA Hotwire terminal. VGA Hotwire allows an overclocker to hardwire the core, memory and PLL voltage points on the card to a supporting ASUS RoG Extreme series motherboard. Once this is done, hardware-level voltage changes can be applied alongside fine grain monitoring. The idea is certainly a novel one but there are only a few high end motherboards that support it and we doubt most users will take advantage of this feature.
Moving to the back end of the card, we see the DirectCU II’s heatsink and shroud overhang the PCB by a good inch. The additional length results in card that's nearly 12” long, making ASUS’ highest end GTX 680 one of the longest NVIDIA cards currently on the market.
ASUS has retained many of the reference GTX 680’s input and output features but the custom PCB does incorporate an 8+6 pin power connector layout for increased current should it be required. Otherwise the two SLI pin-outs for triple or four-way SLI are present (although they are surrounded by a large metal PCB retention bracket) as are the dual DVI connectors, single HDMI 1.4a and lone DisplayPort output. Like all other GTX 680 card on the market, this layout makes the DirectCU II compatible with 3+1 monitor NVIDIA Surround and 3D Vision Surround.
The size difference between the ASUS DirectCU II and a reference GTX 680 is extreme in both length and height. You may want to take this into account before assuming this monster will fit into your enclosure.
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