E3 2015 is over, and there's a brand new crop of really great games on the horizon. And to play those games at the bleeding edge of graphical detail, you'll need an appropriately powerful gaming PC. And thus enters the GeForce GTX 980 Ti. This is Nvidia's newest, best and almost its most powerful graphics card — it's nearly identical to the $1499 GeForce Titan X, but is a full $500 cheaper.
What Is It?
- Base Clock: 1000MHz
- Boost Clock: 1075MHz
- Memory Clock: 7.0Gbps
- Memory: 6GB GDDR5
- Power: 250W, 8pin + 6pin
The $999 Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 Ti is the company's newest graphics card and one that technically sits beneath the Titan X in its hierarchy of massive graphical calculation power. However, a quick glance at the specs will tell you that both the Titan X and 980 Ti are hewn from the same silicon — they're the only two cards that currently use Nvidia's latest GM200 architecture, a step up from the GM204 used in the GTX 980 and step-down GTX 970. The difference between the Titan X and this new 980 Ti is utterly minimal, though — the newer, cheaper card still has 91 per cent of the ROPs and texture units that the big daddy has, and its other specs are otherwise identical.
That's right — apart from 6GB of onboard 7GHz GDDR5 VRAM rather than the Titan X's 12GB, the 980 Ti is identical — a 1000MHz base and 1075MHz boost clock speed, a 384-bit memory bus width, and a 250 Watt TDP. The 980 Ti also uses an 8-pin plus a 6-pin PCI-E supplementary power connector, and Nvidia recommends a 600 Watt power supply as a minimum for any system planning to use the card. The only real-world difference that the 980 Ti has is that halved RAM amount, which is genuinely still enough for textures at 4K resolutions. It's only when you'd be considering higher-than-4K screen setups that you'd need that extra VRAM that the Titan X has onboard.
On the backplate of the GTX 980 Ti, you'll find yourself extremely well served for high-res multi-monitor gaming with a triple serving of DisplayPort 1.2 and a single HDMI 2.0 for audio/video output, as well as a single DL-DVI-I for high-res video only. The DVI is a hangover from an antiquated era; I really wish Nvidia had chosen the 980 Ti as an opportunity to jump entirely into a next-gen suite of connectors; maybe another HDMI or even a mini-DisplayPort would have been useful for a (admittedly very small) niche of gamers or graphics professionals.
What's It Good At?
The Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 Ti is a Titan X for two thirds of the price tag. Honestly, it's that simple. In every test I ran on my stock-as-a-rock GTX 980 Ti reference card, I got an average of 96 per cent of the performance I recorded from the Titan X on an identical system — basically identical performance from 1080p, 1440p and 4K resolutions in a range of recent graphically demanding AAA games. That means buttery smooth performance all the way up to 4K, with only a few of the most demanding titles dropping below an average of 40FPS under the worst conditions. The kind of difference between the two cards, for the average high-end gamer, is well within the margin of error.
Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 Ti: Average Frame Rates
Far Cry 4 (Ultra): 1080P: 96FPS 1440P: 76FPS 2160P: 41FPS Battlefield 4 (Ultra): 1080P: 106FPS 1440P: 55FPS 2160P: 54FPS Crysis 3 (Very High): 1080P: 108FPS 1440P: 58FPS 2160P: 48FPS Metro: Last Light (Very High): 1080P: 71FPS 1440P: 51FPS 2160P: 45FPS Tomb Raider (Ultimate): 1080P: 198FPS 1440P: 110FPS 2160P: 98FPS
It's also just a very powerful graphics card, regardless of its price tag. The frame rates you're seeing above are almost all above 60FPS until you get into 4K resolution territory, and that's an easy route to incredibly smooth gameplay even if you don't have a G-SYNC monitor. It's also fully DirectX 12 compliant, including a whole bunch of special features like conservative raster — not used by games at the moment, but buying a 980 Ti means you're future-proofing for future titles.
Nvidia's reference blower, as used in the GTX 980 and GTX Titan and GTX Titan X, returns for another run on the GTX 980 Ti. It's the best blower-and-heatsink combo going, and does a very good job of keeping the 980 Ti's temperatures well within a comfortable operating range, which should do a lot to prolong its life whether you're gaming 24/7 or just using it for a spot of super-high-res gaming every now and then. As usual, a bunch of superior third-party cooling solutions are available depending on which particular brand you buy your 980 Ti from. The blower completely covers the 980 Ti's 10.5-inch (267mm) length and there doesn't seem to be any hot spots or under-cooled components from a cursory inspection after a few hours of stress testing.
What's It Not Good At?
Despite the value proposition that the GTX 980 Ti offers — inasmuch as it's almost identical to the $1499 GeForce Titan X and costs $500 less — it's still a very expensive graphics card. When you take into account the strong value-for-performance proposition of AMD's new Fury X and Fury graphics cards, it's a difficult ask to drop a thousand dollars on a single graphics card, or more if you intend to buy a third-party overclocked or water- or air-cooled variant. This is a card restricted only to high-end builds for serious gamers; anyone else won't get the full benefit.
According to other sources, too, AMD's Fury X also outperforms the 980 Ti at the highest of high resolutions — like 4K, and beyond into multiple 4K setups — and comes at least very close for the majority of benchmarks. Given AMD's position as a value challenger, the range of Fury cards on offer should be cheaper than the 980 Ti and that makes it a little harder to recommend — that extra upfront cost will have to come from Nvidia's arguably superior driver suite and the GeForce Experience game enhancement software. Honestly, for the most part, it comes down to brand loyalty and whether you're a fan of red or green.
That's the biggest and really only problem with the GTX 980 Ti: the fact that we haven't seen what the competition can do. And that puts it in an interesting position — it's incredibly good value for a top-end graphics card, even if you take its Australia Tax into account and the fact that's it's still expensive nonetheless. AMD's recent card refresh means new Radeons will be hitting the market very soon and older Radeons and GeForces alike will be dropping in price — all of this translates into Good Stuff for you, the gamer. All that is required is you wait a couple of weeks for GTX 980 Ti stock levels to rise, for Radeon Fury and Fury X stock levels to actually exist, and for the corresponding price drops to hit not-especially-inferior cards like the GTX 980 and 970.
As much as I love how it looks, especially in satin black Titan X guise, Nvidia's reference cooler is getting a bit long in the tooth. It's a dated closed blower design and can get a little loud under heavy loud, especially when you consider the GTX 980 Ti's efficient-but-still-quite-high 250 Watts of TDP. Temperatures are well controlled but I'd always recommend a high quality third-party cooler from a brand like MSI, Gigabyte or ASUS if you can find one in stock. It's also worth mentioning that the 980 Ti doesn't have the metal shroud backplate of the equally hot GTX 980 or Titan X, although it doesn't have any critical components to cool back there — it's mostly an aesthetic thing.
Should You Buy It?
Yes. Why wouldn't you? The $999 GeForce GTX 980 Ti is for all intents and purposes a $1499 GeForce GTX Titan X with the name crossed out; given my gushing praise for that card at its very high price I'd be remiss not to repeat that but louder for the 980 Ti. It sounds strange to say it, but this card — despite being expensive — is very, very good value. When you consider the improvement that you get from even one generation of cards — even the high-performance 780 Ti and its ilk — it's hard not to love what you're getting.
You'll need an appropriately powerful gaming PC — a nice fourth- or fifth-gen Intel Core i5 or i7 CPU, 16-ish GB of RAM, a nice speedy SSD — to take advantage of the 980 Ti's power and not bottleneck it in other parts of the compute and performance pipeline. Similarly, this kind of card is a little wasted on 1080p gaming, and you'll need a 1440p or even higher-resolution monitor. You're going to have to pay to get the most out of the 980 Ti, but if you're considering it in the first place then you're probably prepared to make that kind of investment.
As an addendum, I really can't wait to try out one of AMD's Fury graphics cards like the water-cooled Fury X or air-cooled Fury variant to see how they perform and compare to the 980 Ti. Early impreessions suggest they're very competitive in outright power, but are significantly smaller and might benefit more at higher resolutions due to that super-fast HBM memory. If you can wait a couple of weeks to see them hit the market in Australia, you might see a bit of price competition taking place. If the 980 Ti gets even cheaper, that's even better.