NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 4 GB Review 225

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 4 GB Review

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Value and Conclusion

  • NVIDIA's MSRP for the GeForce GTX 980 is $549.
  • Amazingly low power consumption
  • Greatly improved efficiency
  • Faster than GTX 780 Ti
  • Quiet
  • Good overclocking potential
  • Reasonable pricing
  • 3x DisplayPort output with G-Sync Surround support
  • HDMI 2.0
  • 4 GB VRAM
  • Backplate included
  • New software features (MFAA, DSR)
  • Performance increase over GTX 780 Ti not very big
  • High overclocking potential doesn't turn into that much real-life performance
To me, the GeForce GTX 980 is the best reference-design graphics card to launch in a while. NVIDIA has successfully addressed the most important challenge in today's GPU design, which is power consumption.

In terms of pure performance, we find the GeForce GTX 980 exceeding the GeForce GTX 780 Ti by 7%, which doesn't look huge, but consider that the GM204 has nearly 2 billion fewer transistors and about a 50% lower TDP, and something tells us that the GM204 won't be the biggest chip NVIDIA will design on this architecture. Compared to AMD's Radeon R9 290X, we see a large performance gap of up to 20% at 1920x1080, although it shrinks to 10% at higher resolutions. This makes the GTX 980 an excellent choice for beyond-HD gaming, but you should still have two cards running in SLI for 4K.

When looking at performance, you also have to consider power consumption. Nowadays, power consumption is the limiting factor for GPU performance because heat and noise follow power consumption, and you can only cool so much heat in a graphics card while keeping it as quiet as possible. We got a first glimpse of Maxwell's superior energy efficiency with the GTX 750 Ti it debuted with, and NVIDIA has successfully managed to bring those improvements to their high-end product. The GTX 980 only uses 156 W on average in our power consumption tests, which is incredibly low for a card of this performance class. AMD's recently released "Tonga" GPU, based on their latest technology, sips 50 W more for only roughly half the performance. Unlike AMD, NVIDIA has also improved non-gaming power consumption of their board, which will be important to productivity users who run their PC all day long.

NVIDIA was also able to reduce noise levels of their card considerably because of these power consumption improvements, making gaming on it a quiet experience. With 34 dBA, the card is very quiet for its performance class, but I still see some headroom to reduce noise, which board partners will certainly capitalize on.

Overclocking on our sample worked extremely well in terms of frequencies. We managed to increase the GPU clock by 20%, which is more than with most launch samples we've tested before. However, the boost translated into less real-life performance than expected because of NVIDIA's power capping and thermal protection (80°C). Compared to the best manually overclocked GTX 780 Ti we've reviewed, real-life performance is roughly on par. NVIDIA does give you some controls in their driver to improve overclocking performance—namely, the ability to increase the power limit by 25% and up the thermal limit to 94°C. I definitely expect additional performance improvements with custom boards once board partners figure out all the magical performance dials. It's also good to see NVIDIA use Samsung memory chips. As expected, these roughly reached a maximum clock of 2 GHz in our testing, which is definitely better than with Elpida chips.

With the GTX 980, NVIDIA is also introducing several new software features. The first is DSR (Dynamic Super Resolution), which is basically SuperSampling (running the game at a higher resolution), combined with a high-quality gaussian filter that improves the quality of the downscaled image sent to your monitor. This feature can be useful with older or less demanding titles as it squeezes some extra image quality out of the game, but the performance hit is just too big for some of the more recent AAA titles; remember, the game is actually running at 4K. The next innovation is MFAA, which is an evolution of NVIDIA's TXAA anti-aliasing algorithm that promises near 4x MSAA quality at only a 2xAA performance hit. Together with G-Sync, these show that NVIDIA not only delivers good hardware as its software department also has a better track-record in backing up its products with stable software, and useable new features. NVIDIA also says the GTX 980 and GTX 970 to be DirectX 12 cards even though the DirectX 12 specification hasn't been finalized yet. Time will have to show whether NVIDIA's support will cover all DirectX 12 features or only a subset.

Finally, pricing! The GeForce GTX 980 will retail for around $550, and the GTX 970 clocks in at around $330. Going by NVIDIA's recent past, both prices are quite reasonable and lower than I expected. At this price point, the GTX 980 beats AMD's Radeon R9 290X in everything: price/performance, absolute performance, performance per watt, power consumption, heat, and noise. The only thing the R9 290X has going for it is its lower price, which I hardly find convincing, especially with the GTX 970 being cheaper and faster. The GTX 970 at $330 is a steal, really. It is not that much slower than the GTX 980, still beats AMD's R9 290X, with better pricing, and brings all the amazing power consumption improvements of the GTX 980 to the table. Simply put, the GTX 980 is the premium product to the GTX 970, and you'll have to pay for that. NVIDIA has declared the GTX 780 Ti, GTX 780 and GTX 770 as end-of-life, so you might find those cards at discounted prices. Personally, I wouldn't upgrade from anything more recent than the GTX 680, but users of older cards should definitely look at NVIDIA's new products. Oh, and AMD seems fucked.
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