Microsoft Surface Book's Secret Nvidia GPU: What Is It?

There's an optional discrete graphics card available in higher-spec variants of Microsoft's brand new Surface Book laptop; it'll make the thin and light laptop powerful enough for a bit of casual gaming as well as demanding graphics applications like Adobe Photoshop. Probably, at least — we don't actually know anything about it, and Microsoft and Nvidia are staying pretty quiet on the topic.

The base Surface Book's integrated graphics are delivered by an Intel HD Graphics 520 processor, built into the silicon of the Core i5 or Core i7 CPU — par for the course for a thin and light notebook, with more than enough power for video decoding and Web browsing and entry-level gaming. But from the 256GB/8GB/Core i5-6200U model upward, a discrete graphics chipset built by Nvidia promises more GPU compute power than you'd expect for a laptop of the Surface Book's svelte and mobile design.

But we don't know what graphics processor exactly that Nvidia and Microsoft are using in the Surface Book. There are eleven current mobile graphics chipsets currently available in Nvidia's line-up for Microsoft to choose off the shelf, ranging from the extremely basic GeForce 910M and 920M to the more powerful GTX series, including the GTX 950M all the way up to the desktop-grade, power-hungry GTX 980 (non-M). The sweet spot is obviously somewhere in the middle, considering that the GPU is driving a high-resolution display but only has the keyboard dock's thin chassis and relatively low-Wattage battery to work with.

The word from our Nvidia spokesperson is this: "Microsoft has announced a new laptop named the Microsoft Surface Book. The new laptop includes an NVIDIA GeForce GPU." Microsoft has teased us in a couple of different ways, referring to the dGPU as an "optional NVIDIA GeForce Graphics Processor with dedicated 1GB GDDR5 high-speed memory", with "the full power of hardware-accelerated graphics" — but there's no more detail than that, at least for now. Nvidia does say that the GPU is new, and as yet unannounced, suggesting that it might be a semi-custom chip developed specifically for the Surface Book and sitting in between models in the existing line-up.

Nvidia tells us: "The new GPU is a Maxwell-based GPU, and was designed to deliver the best performance in ultra-thin form factors such as the Surface Book keyboard dock. With NVIDIA GeForce GPU powering this new hybrid, users will be able to speed up productivity apps such as Adobe Illustrator and Lightroom, and light PC gaming." This suggests that it's not a hugely powerful chip — maybe not even a GTX series chip — since Nvidia is talking more about productivity compute rather than 3D graphics compute. This would be a kick in the pants for gamers, but the dGPU would still be genuinely useful for CAD work and professionals' needs, architects and the like.

At Microsoft's announcement, Devices boss Panos Panay said that "this [GPU] is for the gamer who plays League of Legends; this is for the architect who is building a building right now; this is for the scientist who is thinking about a cure for cancer." Here's where the plot thickens a little. League of Legends was exactly the title that Nvidia used to showcase its entry level desktop GeForce GTX 950 graphics card — an entry level discrete GPU, but with enough power to run LoL at 1920x1080 pixel resolutions and 60-plus frames per second.

Given that the GTX 950 is a desktop graphics card, but pushing a 1920x1080 pixel resolution (2.1-megapixel) in Nvidia's benchmarks that is significantly less demanding than the Surface Book's 3000x2000 pixel (6-megapixel) 13.5-inch panel, referencing LoL would suggest that it's at least GTX 950-equalling in outright graphics power. Expecting constant 60fps performance at the Surface Book's higher resolution is probably a little bit optimistic, but even then it'll have to have a decent amount of grunt. The Nvidia GeForce GTX 950M cracks 67fps in NotebookCheck's Dota 2 benchmark; the GTX 960M just tops 83fps. A semi-custom chip in between these two, or even as powerful as the GTX 965M is possible; I'm betting on something like an as-yet-unannounced GTX 955M.

Whatever it is, it'll be a significant jump in power from the integrated Intel graphics of lesser models and of the tablet portion. The only big question remaining is whether it'll be enough for anything more demanding than LoL and Photoshop. At the end of the day, all we know is that the Surface Book should be pretty well suited to MOBA games like League Of Legends, and it'll do a better job of it than the Surface Pro 4 and probably any other thin and light notebook. We'll have our hands on the new Surface Book very soon, so stay tuned. It'll launch in Australia on November 12 from $2299, and the discrete GPU variant will be out on November 26 — no word on just how much it'll be, though.

Now read Part 2: Microsoft's Surface Book: Not Made For Gaming, But Not Terrible At It


Comments

    If its GDDR5 then it won't be anything lower than a 950m. I think everything below that is GDDR3. They do say its an unnanounce GPU but if it's GDDR5 then I think it's safe to say it's performance won't be lower than a 950m.

      At $2.7k, still a rip off... Apple stopped using Nvidia GPUs so the bar has been lowered and M$ doesn't want to raise it very high.

        MS claims its faster then the Macbook pro so if we match it up to the macbook pro with discreet graphics do we still think it's faster? The macbook pro with GPU is $3500 so about what the full spec surface book will cost and I dont think this SB will beat the full spec MBP.

          They claim it's faster then the 13" Macbook Pro, and that model does not have discreet graphics.

          It won't even be close to the macbook pro with AMD graphics, that sucker is a quad core with a fast 2GB graphics card, the Surface Book is a hobbled 1GB extra low power Nvidia chip, coupled with a dual core processor.

            your talking like your MBPR doesn't overheat and run at half the speed before the wifi and bluetooth drop out from red hot love from the motherboard.

            My mbpr 13 would be luck if it's run OSX twice in 12 months... as it overheats, unlike windows 10 which runs fine (no overheating!)

            Last edited 15/10/15 11:49 pm

            And how much more power does a quad core use than the 15W chip in the MSB? Not to bother including the demands of a high-er performance card and the bulk that entails on its own

      I don't know why you think it has to be 950 or above because it has GDDR5. The 680m has GDDR5. (http://www.notebookcheck.net/NVIDIA-GeForce-GTX-680M.72679.0.html)

      Edit: So does 570m (http://www.notebookcheck.net/NVIDIA-GeForce-GTX-570M.56635.0.html)

      Last edited 08/10/15 2:24 pm

        The first number in the GPU indicates the generation, the next two the GPU. 9 is the current gen the equivalent GPU's today would be the 960/970m which are both above the 950m.

        The 940m, one step below, is GDDR3.

        Last edited 08/10/15 3:40 pm

        Because they said It's a Maxwell GPU and is new. That might still be 800M series, but I seriously doubt it if it's a new custom chip.

      I dont think so. Because every gpu using gddr5 right? So, i think its the new chipset from nvdia, not 950m.

        Hmm, not every GPU is GDDR5. GDDR5 is the maximum performance you can get while DDR3 is the minimum you can still get in the market this time. Not saying another type of GPU which is HBM/HBM2/GDDR5X cause they are in another league. But in this scenario, it is something between GT945M to GT955M because GTX960M is already in GTX series.

    Maybe it's the new Multiadapter feature in DX12 at work.

    "The DirectX 12 Multiadapter feature allows the computer to utilize the integrated GPU on CPU’s alongside the discrete GPU for performance boosts."

    http://blogs.msdn.com/b/directx/archive/2015/05/01/directx-12-multiadapter-lighting-up-dormant-silicon-and-making-it-work-for-you.aspx

    That would be wicked, but probably drain the battery to 30 minutes.

      Yes and no, the games has to support DX12 for that to work unfortunately. Which is ok for LoL as I see that update happening sometime in it's future.

      This is reminiscent of the old Sony Vaio Z that had the hybrid dual graphics controller that had a switch to toggle between CPU GPU and an actual dedicated GPU.

    I'm also interested in know the CPU clock speeds as well as the GPU. My bet is on a 950m.

    Doesn't look anything like a MacBook at all does it.... *ahem*. But at least the product shots don't look like they were done in an Apple Store... *cough*....

      Gotta agree with you on that Paulposter. They are clearly trying to capture that Apple feel in their new devices.

    I think that it will be something between 940m and 950m. 55W TDP of 5 SMXs is too much for chassis that thin, and 940m is DDR3 only. 1GB of RAM is little bit disappointing, as all current mobile GeForce chips have at least 2 GB, but it could point at HBM maybe? TDP is crucial and cost does not matter that much.

    source:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Nvidia_graphics_processing_units#GeForce_900M_.289xxM.29_Series

      Hey that 1GB thing pointing to HBM is very interesting, good point. Surface Book would be a weird (but probably very mainstream) device to introduce it in, but Nvidia is saying it's a Maxwell chip and I don't think they're going to HBM without switching architecture.

        Except they already stated it'll be GDDR5. HBM is it's own classification of memory that conflicts with the GDDR5 announcement they already made. HBM memory would also be on the die next to the GPU chip itself, and the renders of the GPU from the event did not show that.

    AU$4,199 for the Surface Book with highest specs including discrete gpu. It's on the AU Microsoft store. So it looks like we're slugged with a $460 Australia tax. Same model in US sells for US$2,699.

    Edit: okay so I forgot tax. Still.. 4+ grand for a laptop. You'd want it to last a few years.

    Last edited 09/10/15 3:54 am

      $2699 / 0.7 = $3856
      Add 10% sales tax of $385.60 get you to $4241.60. Seems like reasonable conversion to me.

      At the current exchange rate and with tax it works out to be AUD$4109.49, $89.50 isn't really that big a difference when you consider the cost of operating here. Pretty sure you also forgot that US prices never list tax and that's why your price is out so much.

      Jesus H. Goddamn that's a lot of money.

        http://www.apple.com/au/shop/buy-mac/macbook-pro?product=MJLT2X/A&step=config#

        save $700, get more and you can have both OS X and Windows 10.

          Unless you, you know, want a a touchscreen and pen input. So what, you buy a thousand dollar iPad pro as well? So now you're 300 worse off, *and* you've got a whole other device to lug around.

          The Surface Pro 3 is really popular with the Hackintosh community (although I don't think they ever got the touchscreen working in OS X), so I wouldn't be surprised if they're rushing to get it going on the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book as soon as they land :)

          Too bad OSX is beat by any free OS

        especially considering they could have just made it a dock for the sp4 and charged a few hundred bucks instead

    Microsoft Surface Book - 128GB / Intel Core i5
    Ships by November 12
    AU$2,299.00 incl. GST

    Microsoft Surface Book - 256GB / Intel Core i5
    Ships by November 12
    AU$2,949.00 incl. GST

    Microsoft Surface Book - 512GB / Intel Core i7
    Ships by November 12
    AU$4,199.00 incl. GS

    Can I get some of whatever they are smoking over there at microsoft? $4200 ...HAHAHAHAHA yeah right. It's the same problem with the existing surface tablets. Sure, nice tech, very desirable, but totally overpriced.

      I saw that yesterday when I was looking at them on MS site. Can't believe that price for the i7. I mean, what is in it to warrant that price? Are they unlocked i7s?

      The thinner, lighter, and cooler(cold) you make something the more expensive it gets. Everything in the Surface line is made up of customer parts excluding the CPU, USB, & RAM. Every single other piece (2000 pieces make up the surface according to MSFT) is customer fabrication. That sort of thing isn't cheap.

        Production on this scale no-longer qualifies as custom, "no-matter"(qualif.) how many unique parts are in the model, production cost becomes mere cents difference once the development is done (sunk costs).

        Price is always about what the market can bear, and perceptions/emotions of purchasers.

        At the Price it has to perform, that is a given.

    Completely agree, it also seems that most people who complain about Australian tax don't see how much more it costs to run a physical business here, just compare look at our minimum wage and workers rights l, these are the main reasons for the high costs.

      Except that most of it is actually our dollar...

      The cost difference is less than $100 once you take into account sales tax and exchange rate, this is probably the best markup we've ever had.

      Still very expensive devices though.

      nothing to do with "cost of doing business" just charging what they want. The government wants to know more about the "cost of doing business" but that is a vague excuse to charge more and cannot be quantified.

    I don't see why people are so keen on a discrete GPU in the first place. There's the compact Surface Pro / Macbook Air / similar option which is reasonably priced, there's bulkier gaming laptops that can actually play modern games decently which is more expensive. Then there's this weird compromise of compact but not really, decent GPU but not really for an insane price.

      Because discrete GPUs aren't solely for gaming. This system is almost perfect for design professionals who need to be mobile. Couldn't ask for much better.

        I'm sure it has its niche. There aren't that many designers out there. Many are also Macbook users since MSFT is quite late to the game here.

          you may be limiting your understanding of the term "designer", that term doesn't only mean software (or even more limiting, web, game, whatever your little exclusive niche is) design.

          Everything from product design, engineering design (civil,mech, chem, Arch, etc)

          Most of these people don't exclusively use Macbooks in their professional design work. There are quite a lot of Windows programs used in this LARGE community of designers.

          PS, for most, a purchase of this device would be a vanity purchase, not really required, and not really excessively functional in the real world, apart from portable presentations. People still use workstations for "real" design work.

          Last edited 09/10/15 1:08 pm

        Except as a design professional I need a GPU with 2GB or more, so this is really in no man's land.

    What I find a sin is that the entry level computers have 128GB SSD storage. What is this, 2010?

      I reckon 128GB is plenty if you have a decent net connection to offload stuff to Google Drive or Dropbox (or OneDrive if you love Microsoft). If not, you're in a tight spot.

      They also take a MicroSD cards and with the USB transfer speeds shown in the SP4 demo (3GB in about 10sec) external storage could be an option.

      I think there are still people for who 128GB would be enough. I'm currently only using 100GB of the 256GB in my 1yr old Surface Pro 3 and without trying to save space.

        Oh yeah, the MicroSD card slot - something many Ultrabooks don't have.

          Surface book actually has a full sized SD card slot. You can get SDXC card upto 512gb and some even higher these days if you're willing to spend the money.

    I'm running my windows install on a Macbook Pro with 256gb solid state drive.

    My windows 10 install only has 55gb to work with, and still has 10 gb free.

    I'm a dev running vs2013 (not doing any media work - so no super large file sizes).

    (PS. Would have preferred a surface book if the boss wasn't such a mac fan *sigh*)

    i've got a 3.5yr old lappy with a gt 650m (GDDR5 version) and it still runs 95% of the games i throw at it with decent settings. problem is it's 17", heavy and annoying to carry around and battery hog. this thing will be a great replacement, yes i'll sacrifice quality over a higher spec gaming rig but i like the fact you can detach and use it as a tablet, it's light, good battey, quality build and just it's sheer sexyness. can't wait for benchmarks! The price is the only ouch factor atm..

    Why would you think there is an M graphics card in it? recently nvidia showed of its gtx 980 (the desktop version) inside of laptops. I wouldn't be surprised if they used the same tech, i'm not saying there is a 980 inside of it, but there might be something better inside of the surface book then a 950m.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJeXUKFvcHs&feature=cards&annotation_id=6b38f929-bcac-485d-9f37-1cbd343425b2&src_vid=wNYvF3E2m04

      Because it's so thin, and because it only has a small battery. You could barely run a GTX 980 for five minutes off a laptop battery :P

        Have we excluded dual graphics, intel integrated for battery miser duties, and Nvidia for power use?

        Why has no one ripped one of these apart to see, yet? (jk)

        I wish reviewers didn't emphasise battery life on GPU intensive laptops, I don't expect more than 90 minutes and expect to run such machines off the mains.

        They say "wow 90 fps" but deduct 2/10 points for "appalling battery life"

        Just to make a point I'd review a gaming laptop without the battery and leave out the battery metric.

        In illustration, I read about a review on the smallest calculater ever then was marked down because the keys were too small and fiddly.

    are u kidding me? 1GB GDDR5!?

    Nvidia gpu's have been head and foot over amd for awhile.. As to the 'oh no it's 1GB!!' comments, my 570 gtx has 768MB of ram and it still plays bf4 juuuuuuust fine.

    does anyone know if the discrete gpu and/or the core i7 versions have shorter battery lifes compared to the versions without the dgpu and with core i5? If so, what do you think the difference is? I'm trying to decide whether or not to get the core i5 or i7 and the dgpu or not (cuz I like to game from time to time) but I don't really want to sacrifice battery life.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that it might be the 'unnamed' gpu that is in the new alienware alpha / steambox systems, it seems like a logical step

    just in case no one has figured it out yet, its an 940m. just got off the phone with technical support and a guy in my office actually. yes the 940m has GDDR5 and yes its the dGPU thats included in the surface book.

      It's a 940M but with different driver signing: http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2015/11/microsofts-surface-book-not-made-for-gaming-but-not-terrible-at-it/

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