Asus MARS II Limited Edition £1137
8th Sep 2011 | 09:00
Extreme graphical power at an extreme price
Well, here it is, the Asus Mars II LE, the undisputed performance king of this graphics generation.
You may have heard some of the hype surrounding the Asus Republic of Gamers MARS II Limited Edition. It's got people excited, and rightly so, it's a pair of Nvidia GTX 580 graphics cards in one – you've probably heard that it's the world's fastest and most powerful graphics card.
You heard right.
Just as the first iteration of Asus' Republic of Gamers MARS set new levels of rendering and graphics processing performance by sticking two powerful GPUs onto one overclockable PCB, the limited edition Asus RoG MARS II takes that recipe and adds more beef.
The first MARS graphics card from Asus dropped two of Nvidia's GTX 285 chips onto one card, just as Nvidia itself had done with the GTX 295 – a dual-GPU card powered by two GTX 265 chips. Until Asus released the RoG MARS, Nvidia's humble GTX 295 was the most powerful graphics card on earth, and it cost £330.
Then came that first MARS. It eclipsed the GTX 295 in every department, including the price. If you wanted the faster 648MHz core clock, 4GB of GDDR5 RAM and 2125 GFLOPs of computing power, £1,070 was what you had to pay.
Skipping to the present, Asus' RoG MARS II enters the market at a time when there is no single fastest GPU – people are still bickering over the performance of AMD's Radeon HD 6990 and Nvidia's GTX 590.
Both are dual-GPU cards based on each company's most powerful graphics processor – two Cayman XT chips in the HD 6990 and two GTX 580 GF110 chips in the GTX 590. The truth is the cards are evenly matched, although you can run certain benchmarks to make either card appear superior.
That argument is well and truly silenced by the Asus Republic of Gamers MARS II Limited Edition. It might seem at first to be little more than a GTX 590 with some bigger fans on, but in raw specification and in performance, there's a sizeable gap between the two cards.
The MARS II is definitely the most powerful graphics card money can buy.
Speaking of that, there are several other superlatives we can chuck at Asus' RoG MARS II. As we've mentioned, it's the most powerful, but it's also the most expensive. The price? £1,137.
That's more expensive than the first Asus RoG Mars, most PCs, a night wining and dining Adele at the Ivy or a decent second-hand car.
For the kind of silly power on offer though, the kind of enthusiasts it attracts will see it as a money-no-object purchase.
Ready for more superlatives?
Asus is making just 999 RoG MARS IIs, making them among the rarest performance parts money can buy.
At the time of writing, there are just two MARS IIs in the UK, so if you want one it's best not to dilly dally.
The other key feature of this RoG MARS II from Asus is its sheer size – it's the biggest graphics card we've ever seen across every dimension.
Entire PCs such as the Sapphire Edge HD are smaller.
It occupies three case slots vertically, extends further horizontally than AMD's HD 5970, and with two 120mm fans keeping the whole thing cool, it's wider than anything we've seen too. It measures 315mm x 130mm x 60mm, to be precise.
That planetary moniker is starting to make sense – we're surprised the RoG MARS II doesn't pull surrounding matter into its orbit.
A cursory glance at the Asus RoG MARS II reveals some similarities with Nvidia's GTX 590. It's certainly closer to this Nvidia thoroughbred card than any other, employing the might of twin GF110 GPUs.
A single, internal SLI card like the GTX 590 has advantages in terms of power connectors and heat management. It also opens up the possibility of quad-SLI – two dual-GPU cards connected together delivering the power of four graphics processors.
Enthusiasts were disappointed then when the GTX 590 was released with a dramatically downclocked core operating speed, from 772MHz to just 607MHz.
Despite Nvidia's conservative measures, the card still runs hot, and two separate GTX 580s will outperform it, so the biggest selling point for the GTX 590 is quad-SLI.
It can't be overclocked very far, and leaves us with the feeling that Nvidia simply had to counter the AMD HD 6990, not that it was particularly worried about consumer needs.
Asus has certainly taken heed of the GTX 590's reception.
The core clock speed of those twin GF110s is not downclocked, but actually raised to 782MHz.
It's the same story for the memory, too – for the GTX 590, Nvidia downclocked the memory from the GTX 580's factory default 1002MHz to 855MHz, and Asus has gone and ramped that right back up to 1002MHz with the MARS II.
It's important to see that refusal to compromise in any area of performance when we're talking about a card this powerful and this expensive.
And architecturally it's these clock speeds and the thermal and design modifications that have allowed Asus to elevate it from the flawed GTX 590.
In other areas, it's largely the same story as Nvidia's original twin-GPU card. Like the GTX 590, the Asus RoG MARS II has 1024 CUDA cores, a total of 96 ROPs, 3GB of memory and a wide memory bus at 384-bit across each unit.
While CUDA cores and AMD's shader units can't be compared directly, the MARS II doesn't blow the AMD HD 6990 out of the water on the spec sheet. The AMD card, though, has a faster core clock at 830MHz, and 4GB of memory.
For the MARS II, however, it's not just about matching the core speeds of the GTX 580 – it's about smashing them.
There are some out-of-the-box core increases over the GTX 580, but once you've spent a few seconds in the MARS II's company, it's clear this card wants to be overclocked.
As we saw with Asus' GTX 580 Matrix, there's a button on the card that enables you to turn the fan speed up to 100%.
The fans themselves are two 120mm monsters, and they cover two equally enormous four-pipe heatsinks.
If you can't quite grasp the scale, look at the chunky fans pushing or pulling air around your PC. They're likely to be 120mm, now imagine them sat on top of your graphics card.
To test the limits of a card as powerful as the Asus RoG MARS II Limited Edition, we ran all our benchmarks at a resolution of 2560 x 1600. It seems a waste to use this card for a standard issue 24-inch 1080p screen, after all.
The games and synthetic benchmarks feature varying levels of tessellation – Heaven 2.5 being the king of that castle – and also vary in terms of CPU intensity. Shogun II and Just Cause 2 results vary considerably with different processors, whereas Heaven 2.5 works the graphics card almost exclusively.
Metro 2033 is the most demanding benchmark of the bunch. We've yet to find a system that can run it at consistently playable frames at max settings and 2560 x 1600.
Strap yourself in – the Asus RoG MARS II is the quickest graphics card we've ever tested.
It's hardly a momentous shock, considering the architecture and high price, but the margins of superiority over its rivals are a bit more interesting.
The MARS II is roughly 15-20% faster than fellow dual-GPU chips the AMD HD 6990 and Nvidia GTX 590 in certain benchmarks, but it's too close to call in other results, such as the Metro 2033 benchmark.
Considering the incredible price margin between the Asus MARS II and pretty much any other graphics card, it's impossible to recommend to anyone from a value perspective. But that won't be much of a surprise either.
What matters for the MARS II is that it fulfils its mission objective to be the most powerful incarnation of this generation's Fermi technology. There won't be a faster graphics card until AMD or Nvidia release their next generation of architecture. And even then, they'll only be better if they double up the chips again.
The Asus Republic of Gamers MARS II delivers with the bare minimum panache at stock settings, but there's another chapter to the tale in overclocking.
Those huge, case-spec, 120mm fans and industrial PCB cover suggest some extensive tweaking potential, so armed with Asus' own Tweak it! software, we cranked the MARS II up a notch or two.
Firstly, the Tweak it! software is excellent. It's as feature-rich as MSI's Afterburner, providing temperature and voltage readouts as well as the usual clock tweaking.
Whereas Afterburner locks the core clock and shader clock together though, Tweak it! links core clock with voltage, and we found we could get better clock settings as a result – with the MARS II and Asus' Matrix GTX 580 also supplied with this software.
Sure enough, there's plenty of room for boosting core clock and memory frequency levels. Our card ran happily with a core at 850MHz and memory at 4100MHz, and increased voltage.
However, after a certain point we found that increased clock settings stopped translating into increased gaming performance – try as we might, Heaven 2.5 would run no faster than 42.3fps, even though we ramped each clock up further and further.
It's worth mentioning that for all the benchmarking prowess of the Asus RoG MARS II, it didn't always run smoothly in our benchmarks – there was often a big gap between minimum and average frame rates, and we saw some serious stuttering at times in several benchmarks.
That might be down to the age-old problems associated with dual-GPU cards – 3GB might seem a lot for a card, but since the memory's split down the middle and both GPUs need all the data the memory's dealing with, that gives you two 1.5GB graphics cards in SLI. Not quite so meaty for your £1,137.
Then again, dual-GPU cards have suffered from driver issues in the past, so hopefully for anyone who has shelled out, the MARS II's performances will get better with more mature drivers.
One area of resounding success, though, is temperature.
Running overclocked under load for long periods, the Asus RoG MARS II Limited Edition still never got hotter than 67C. Idle, that temperature shrank down to a warm summer day's 31C. That's quite a feat for a dual-GPU graphics card.
The Asus Republic of Gamers MARS II Limited Edition doesn't include any new graphics tech – it's simply an exploration of the limits of Nvidia's current most powerful technology.
With that in mind, there are limits to how far this card can outperform the current high-end competition, and because it's so similar to a physical dual-GTX 580 SLI setup, the performances of the two are actually quite close.
It does assert itself fairly confidently as the most powerful dual-GPU card, though. Particularly at higher resolutions. And for that accolade the price tag will look reasonable to some enthusiasts.
Then again, it costs £1,137. Any notion of value for money goes out of the window just by reading that price.
Here's the thing; £1,137 buys your way into an elite club of 999 members who have the absolute best of one component.
Free market capitalism rarely looks out for the little guy, and a company can charge just about anything for the best – people would buy this card if it cost £2,000. From that perspective, you can almost support the current pricing.
Asus has done a great job in other areas of the MARS II beyond the benchmarks, too.
Load temperatures are especially impressive – the designers and engineers who brought this card to life are, we're sure, extremely proud. Far from just a tech demo, it's built to last, under extreme overclocking if the user feels in that particular mood.
Extreme high-end cards are usually plagued by temperature worries and appear destined to burn out long before they fade away as new tech supersedes them. We have no such reservations with the Asus RoG MARS II.
Included with the MARS II is a set of rubber covers that stick onto the PCI slots underneath the MARS II's huge frame. They're designed to keep the MARS II straight in its PCIe slot, and prevent any warping under its own weight over time.
That was a problem with the original MARS from Asus, and it's good that it's created a solution to that problem. It just worries us that Asus' solution is a 3mm rubber block.
The power requirements are also worrisome.
A minimum 1000W power supply is required, with a minimum 42A 12V rail.
A beefy PSU is to be expected, given that the MARS II is ostensibly an SLI setup, but the latter specification is quite thin on the ground – your current PSU might not have such a 12V rail, even if it's 1000W or 1200W.
The counter-argument to any problems with the MARS II will always be "for this money, you can afford a new PSU too", and there's some weight to that, but these issues are still worth noting.
Asus has well and truly achieved its mission objective with the Republic of Gamers MARS II – it's created the most powerful graphics card in existence.
In certain benchmarks, the MARS II is 20% quicker than any other card, although at times two GTX 580s in SLI come close.
It's not just the performance that impresses us, it's the temperature management and build quality. With a three-figure price tag it was never gong to be a consumer's champion, there's a lot on offer here for overclockers and modders beyond simply raw performance.
Other than the price, our reservations are minor – hefty PSU requirements and a pretty flimsy solution to long-term weight warping.
These won't deter the type of enthusiast who'll buy this card – they've got their eyes firmly on the overclocking and modding potential.
The world's most powerful graphics card, and more.
The Asus Republic of Gamers MARS II is well constructed, well designed, but a pipe dream for the vast majority.