Multiple websites are claiming to have received graphics cards from ASUS and MSI with jacked up clockspeeds that are higher than the ones shipping to consumers by default. Known as review samples, it's not uncommon to see slight deviations from the final product when reviewers get their hands on parts before they've launched to retail, but the insinuation here is that ASUS and MSI are gaming the review process to give their cards an edge over the competition.
This isn't a black and white situation. The folks at TechPowerUp noticed that something was amiss with MSI's GeForce GTX 1080 Gaming X card, which sports a factory overclock. It also comes with three software profiles to manage clockspeeds, including "Gaming Mode," "OC Mode," and Silent Mode." The card is supposed to run at "Gaming Mode" by default, and if users want a faster or quieter gaming experience, they can install MSI's Gaming utility and switch modes whenever and however they see fit.
Where things venture into the gray area is how MSI is shipping its cards to reviewers versus how they're shipping to consumers. TechPowerUp says MSI enabled the OC profile on its GeForce GTX Gaming review sample to run by default, which bumps the GPU from running at 1,683MHz to 1,708MHz. It also nudges the GPU boost clock from 1,822MHz to 1,847MHz. These aren't huge discrepancies, but enough to squeeze out a few more frames per second in some benchmarks to cast the card in a better light.
Damien Triolet at Hardware.fr noticed the same thing and further explains that MSI is using a different BIOS version on review samples than it is on cards it ships to retail. The altered BIOS tells the card to run in OC Mode by default rather than Gaming Mode.
Apparently MSI has been doing this for years, though it's not the only culprit. Both sites also report that ASUS has more recently begun goosing cards it sends to the press as well, including its GeForce GTX 980 Ti Matrix and GeForce GTX 1080 Strix.
Why bother with such seemingly trivial clockspeed bumps? I've personally seen similar clockspeed tweaks when reviewing motherboards, where some manufacturers alter settings in the BIOS for a few extra MHz. The reason is because consumers pay attention to benchmarks. All other things being equal, someone looking to buy a GeForce GTX 1080 or a motherboard might be tempted to purchase the one that benchmarks higher, even if it's a nominal gain.
There's some responsibility on the part of reviewers to check these things and ensure no shenanigans are taking place, which is how this was brought to light. But it's also a bit shady on the part of manufacturers for not being upfront about their altered BIOSes.
On a related note, we're working on a review of a Strix card from ASUS and obtained a BIOS that's indicative of what will ship to retailers. When that's not the case, we'll make note of it.
UpdateASUS has issued a statement on cards that press receives versus those that are sold to retail:
ASUS ROG Strix GeForce GTX 1080 and GTX 1070 graphics cards come with exclusive GPU Tweak II software, that provides silent, gaming, and OC modes allowing users to select a performance profile that suits their requirements. Users can apply these modes easily from within GPU Tweak II.
The press samples for the ASUS ROG Strix GeForce GTX 1080 OC and ASUS ROG Strix GeForce GTX 1070 OC cards are set to “OC Mode” by default. To save media time and effort, OC mode is enabled by default as we are well aware our graphics cards will be reviewed primarily on maximum performance. And when in OC mode, we can showcase both the maximum performance and the effectiveness of our cooling solution.
Retail products are in “Gaming Mode” by default, which allows gamers to experience the optimal balance between performance and silent operation. We encourage end-users to try GPU Tweak II and adjust between the available modes, to find the best mode according to personal needs or preferences.
For both the press samples and retail cards, all these modes can be selected through the GPU Tweak II software. There are no differences between the samples we sent out to media and the retail channels in terms of hardware and performance.