It's always really satisfying when you can tick both excellent performance and lower power consumption from your checklist of "is this better than the last one?" in technology, especially in the usually incrementally improving world of desktop computing.
The new Nvidia GTX 980 graphics card, though, uses less energy than previous chipsets but improves performance more than you'd expect at the same time. Nvidia's latest top-of-the-line GPU is a piece of technology to behold.
What Is It?
- Graphics Chipset: GM204, 'Maxwell'
- Core Clock: 1126MHz
- Boost Clock: 1216MHz
- RAM: 6GB GDDR5
- RAM Clock: 7000MHz
- RAM Bus: 256-Bit
- Process: 28Nm
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 with the brand new GTX 980, 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.
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.
What's It Good At?
The GTX 980, of course, is a superlative performer. It doesn't quite have the raw graphical processing clout of the GTX Titan or Titan Black for those serious workday CAD constructions, obviously, but for playing games the 980 is a perfect complement to an overclocked, SSD-wielding, Core i5 or Core i7 gaming system. In 3DMark's Fire Strike benchmark, the GTX 980 clocks 12058, where the last generation GTX 780 is around 1000 points behind. That same result is true whether you're gaming at Ultra HD, 1440p or 1080p resolution, although the difference is more prominent the higher you go, and the results are broadly similar to the stupidly powerful AMD Radeon R295X2:
Nvidia GeForce GTX 980: Average Frame Rates
Battlefield 4 (Ultra): 1080P: 90FPS 1440P: 59FPS Crysis 3 (Very High): 1080P: 95FPS 1440P: 60FPS Metro: Last Light (Very High): 1080P: 62FPS 1440P: 50FPS Tomb Raider (Ultimate + TressFX): 1080P: 158FPS 1440P: 101FPS
All of this comes at much lower power consumption than the previous generation of cards, despite no reduction in fabrication die size. The GTX 980 runs cool and quiet as much as a high-end card can; that is, it runs cool and quiet until you get into some heavy and visually-demanding gaming, and even then the stock Nvidia cooler does a pretty decent job of keeping things below any kind of threatening thermal threshold. If you game loads, then you'll see a lower energy bill running the GTX 980 compared to cards one or two generations old. Compared to the incredibly power hungry GTX 480 of four years ago, it is positively sipping on electricity.
Nvidia has enabled all kinds of magical software features on the GTX 980, including Dynamic Super Resolution. This process actually runs your games at 4K resolution then downsamples it for 1440p or 1080p display according to your monitor, and while that might sound like a waste of time it genuinely does have a significant impact on the graphical quality of some games' elements, like grass sprites -- smoother edges are immediately obvious, and when you're talking about the little things that kind of small improvement really does stack up. It's not feasible for newer and more demanding titles that already stress the GTX 980 somewhat, but older games -- we're talking Tomb Raider and older -- have never looked so good.
What's It Not Good At?
The biggest threat to the widespread success of the GTX 980 is the fact that like it, the equally new GTX 970 is built on the same Maxwell architecture. When a factory overclocked ASUS STRIX GTX 980 sets you back $869 and its equivalent GTX 970 sets you back $300 less, there's a genuine argument to be made for picking the cheaper model. If you're gaming on a single 1440p -- or especially 1080p -- monitor, then there isn't as much argument in favour of the 980; it's too powerful. Of course, overkill is a great thing, and it makes for excellent future-proofing, but you have to consider how much you're willing to spend.
Nvidia's reference cooler for the GTX 980 is pretty damn effective at keeping temperatures down, but it does get a little loud under heavy load -- we're talking after half an hour of strenuous super-high-res gaming or benchmarking or similar. There are superior cooling solutions available from Nvidia's third-party vendors like Gigabyte, whose triple-fan Windforce cooler has consistently been one of the smart choices for high-end air cooling, and ASUS, whose DirectCU II double-fan cooler is equally lauded. The Nvidia card looks better than both, but unless you're showing it off with perspex window and case lights, that shouldn't be a huge concern.
Nvidia still has the single-card GPU performance crown squarely in its possession for mainstream graphics chipsets with the GTX 980 -- that much is abundantly clear -- but what rival AMD has is price on its side. The R9 290X is a full $150 cheaper than the current street price of most 980 cards, and when you're building a PC, that $150 can be put towards Intel's K SKU unlocked CPUs, more RAM, or a solid state drive -- with better performance improvements than in jumping up a GPU class. If you can find a GTX 980 for less than $750, that would be an amazing achievement, but this side of Christmas I wouldn't expect any miracles.
Should You Buy It?
The GTX 980 is the high-end card in the newly announced and soon-to-be-more-widely-released Nvidia line-up, for the latest quarter of 2014 and the first half of 2015; there will be an even more powerful twin-GPU card inevitably turn up, and more mid-range and entry-level variants released after Christmas. For that reason alone, it's a safe purchase -- you know it's going to be the pick of the litter, apart from an excessively expensive special edition model, until the next Nvidia model refresh in quite some time. Your only other reasonable consideration should be the imminent top-end AMD Radeon release.
If the mobile GTX 970M version is any indication versus its top-end sibling, probably the strongest competition for the GTX 980 will come from the already pretty damn impressive outright power of the GTX 970, with its much lower price. We've reached an age of build-your-own personal computing where the high-end 980 is more than enough power for 1080p or 1440p gaming -- look for a double- or triple-monitor setup running at 1080p to make best use of the GTX 980. If you run out of graphics grunt, slot another in via SLI thanks to those sweet power consumption gains.
The GTX 980 really is notable not for its top-of-the-pack performance at high resolutions -- that's a given, and of course it smashes previous generation cards out of the park in that respect -- but for the fact that it does exactly this while consuming significantly less power in every state of its being. That's a genuine, noticeable, money-saving difference in the long run and if you were choosing between a previous-gen GTX 780 Ti and the GTX 980 I'd opt for the newer model every day of the week.
Even considered on its own, without the context of previous Nvidia graphics chipsets, the GTX 980 is a wholly impressive piece of technology. If you built a new PC today and were looking for a reliable choice of (single-slot solution) graphics card to deal with the next three years of gaming, you needn't look any further than Nvidia's current top dog.