It's a big day for PC gaming. Graphics card powerhouse Nvidia has a new family of GPUs — the GTX 980 and GTX 970 — based on a brand new chipset, designed to deliver more visual power and higher frame rates than previous generations, while consuming less power. If you believe Nvidia, they're "the new benchmark in performance and efficiency for gaming on the PC."
The GTX 970 may turn out to be the better value card overall in the long run, but today it's the GTX 980 that will get everyone excited. Compared to the last-last-generation GTX 680, the new top-end GTX 980 has roughly 10 per cent higher clock speeds and 33 per cent more CUDA processing cores, but lowers the chip's TDP from 195 to 165 Watts. 7Gbps memory clocks makes the 980 an incredibly high-speed card for demanding gaming, pulling 224GB/sec of peak memory bandwidth.
General purpose computing and electronics more broadly around the world have been getting more efficient as time goes on, but look at the long line of high-end graphics cards and you'll see that they're generally the most power-hungry component inside a gaming PC case. It's great to see that Nvidia is paying attention to this, in the same way as Intel, in maintaining the highest possible performance levels while increasing efficiency and driving down energy consumption.
There are improvements on all sides in terms of the GTX 980's electronics — a more efficient processing pipeline for faster performance per clock tick, 2.5 times the frame rate for demanding (4K, high anti-aliasing rate) gaming, a new efficient anti-aliasing feature called MFAA, and so on. With a pointer to the fact that Nvidia is looking to the future of gaming and entertainment, the new Maxwell graphics chipset and Nvidia software package cuts a full 10ms out of the standard 50ms latency between processing and display on devices like the Oculus Rift.
While the cards themselves are more efficient and consume less power out of the box, don't take this to mean that they're any less effective for all-out gaming grunt. The GTX 980 is broadly competitive and more powerful on paper than the GTX 780 Ti it inherits the top spot in Nvidia's line-up from, with the claim that the GM204 chipset is the fastest in the world.
Australian prices aren't yet confirmed, but use the US pricing as a guide: US$549 for the GTX 980, US$329 for the GTX 970. Australia Tax will probably see prices rise a little bit over that, but even so the cards should be a hell of a lot more affordable than last generation's top performers like the Radeon R9 295 X2.
Considering that manufacturer versions of the GTX 780 are around the $600 mark, the new GTX 980 should be roughly equal, although you might pay a premium close to launch as stock tries to keep up with demand. Speaking of demand, if the 980 performs anywhere near what Nvidia claims it will, I'd expect gamers to absolutely jump on anything with the latest GM204 Maxwell chip on board.
The reference board for the GTX 980 is a beautiful piece of technology — simple and well built. The 2.5-slot silver-on-black cooler is heavy and substantial, with a partially removable backplate and an LED-lit GeForce GTX logo on the top of the card. The removable slot on the backplate will come in handy for anyone planning to use 2- or 3-way SLI with the GTX 980, if you have the spare cash and spare space in your case.
The new GeForce GTX 980 has three DisplayPort connectors, HDMI 2.0 for 4K 60Hz gaming or video playback, and dual-link DVI. Four connectors in total can be used at any time, so get your massive multi-monitor setup ready for action. The stock cooler exhausts hot air out through the rear I/O panel, thankfully not dumping hot air into your already-probably-quite-toasty PC case.
The GTX 980 gets its juice from two 6-pin PCI-E connectors — yep, no more 8-pin connectors, a sign of the new top card's push towards energy efficiency. For a hardcore gaming device, it's still reasonably compact, with the card measuring 270mm in length (and actually fitting quite comfortably into a BitFenix Phenom chassis). Of course, if Nvidia wants to go completely insane, it could offer a GTX 980 Ti or 990 in the future that requires more power and return to 8-pin.
The unspoken advantage of more efficient chipsets and higher performance-per-Watt figures is that, with dynamic clock speed adjustment, you're able to provide significantly higher power at the same energy consumption as previous generation GPUs. The GTX 980 hits a maximum boost clock out of the box of 1216MHz, up from its default 1126MHz, but Nvidia told us to expect routine overclocking speeds of 1400MHz — which should mean some pretty amazing frame rates.
We've got a GTX 980 whirring away in the Gizmodo office at the moment, and although we haven't been able to spend enough time putting it through its paces for a full benchmark, it's anecdotally a screamer. Comparing it to the GTX 780 previously in our testbed, it's quieter, smaller, and achieved better frame rates in a couple of games of Borderlands 2 and Metro: Last Light. Stay tuned for a full and comprehensive review in the next week or so.
We're checking standard Australian pricing with Nvidia's local reps, and we'll let you know as soon as we do. As an aside, the GeForce GTX 780 Ti, 780, and 770 are being discontinued with the launch of the 9-series cards. The GeForce GTX 760 sticks around, with a price tag dropping to US$219, but if you want one of the higher-powered 7-series cards expect prices to drop a little before stock dries up. [Nvidia]
Update: Early pricing for the cards is in, with PC Case Gear pegging the GTX 980 at $799 and the GTX 970 at $519. Let us know any other prices you see in the comments below!