Nvidia's most powerful ever desktop graphics card, the GTX 980, was introduced with fanfare a fortnight ago because even though it was more powerful than last generation's chips, it consumed much less energy for the same result.
To complement the desktop GTX 980, Nvidia has a pair of new laptop GPUs — the GTX 980M and GTX 970M — that are even more efficient. They're twice as efficient as a comparable two-year old chip, and consume a fraction of the power.
Notably, though, the 980M's combination of more efficient Maxwell architecture — it's based on the same silicon as the desktop-spec GTX 980, with very nearly the same performance figures — means that it will fit in equally well with smaller, lighter and thinner laptop chassis with lower thermal thresholds. The lesser GTX 970M — about 20 per cent performance gap lies in between the two — will be in more mainstream models and thinner and lighter laptops again; we're talking MacBook Pro thickness laptops running high-end games without breaking a sweat.
That 2x performance increase that Nvidia quotes is against a two-year old notebook chip, the GTX 680M, and that's important because unlike desktop add-in card upgraders, laptop buyers tend to make purchases on a tri-yearly basis. The new GPUs, based on Nvidia's brand new Maxwell architecture, are designed to deliver the performance to let buyers run AAA games like Watch Dogs, Tomb Raider and Metro: Last Light at Ultra quality settings at resolutions higher than 1080p.
This is great for laptops with high-res screens, but one particular Maxwell GPU technology called Dynamic Super Resolution (DSR) means 1080p screens can benefit from it too. Basically, a Maxwell GPU like the GTX 980M can process graphics at higher-than-1080p resolutions, downscale them in hardware, and output them at 1080p to a monitor with that native resolution, delivering better graphics than if the entire rendering pipeline ran at 1080p. We've seen it in action, and the difference, surprisingly enough, is obvious.
Nvidia is making a big deal of laptop battery energy density and instantaneous Wattage output, too, and wants those laptop manufacturers to outfit their portable gaming machines with the biggest and most energy-dense batteries possible. This is the crucial step that will let gaming laptops with Nvidia graphics use as much power as necessary when needed — and not use it, more importantly, whenever possible.
Part of the improvement of the GTX 980M and GTX 970M comes in the form of BatteryBoost 2.0, a suite of power-saving technologies and software tweaks in the GeForce Experience software package. BatteryBoost lets gamers set a target frame rate that they want their games to run at on their laptops when operating on battery power, and then the power of the Nvidia Maxwell-based GPU is modulated to hit that frame rate.
In practice, it works wonderfully. With a demonstration on a new GTX 980M-toting laptop running Tomb Raider, leaving BatteryBoost off led to an average benchmark frame rate of 70fps, but power consumption around the 90 Watt mark — too high to provide any meaningful length of gameplay on a laptop with an 80 Watt-hour battery (around 45 minutes effective). Switching battery boost on and selecting a frame rate target of 30fps, Tomb Raider's benchmark hit that perfectly while only consuming an average of 35 Watts, enough for over two hours of solid gameplay.
Beyond a generic, software-agnostic frame rate target for BatteryBoost, Maxwell-based GPUs will get access to game-specific battery mode tweaks, including lowered resolutions and disabled particle effects and downsampled textures, through GeForce Experience. All these settings can be tweaked and adjusted and disabled if desired, too, so you're not having your graphics scaled down while gaming on battery unless you want to.
Nvidia is quoting an expectation of, all other things being equal, the laptop equivalents of their GTX 980 and 970 range clocking around 80 per cent of the performance of the desktop cards. Considering that, two years ago, the GeForce GTX 680M laptop variant barely pushed 40 per cent of the pixels of the desktop GTX 680, this is a massive improvement. These efficiency increases, the extra overall power, and the advancements made to BatteryBoost mean that if you buy a new GTX 9XXM-series toting laptop, you're in for one hell of a treat.
This is a really big architecture update, and it's doing amazing things for laptops in both gaming performance and battery life. As soon as we see Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M notebooks start to pop up around the country, we'll let you know. [Nvidia]