Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 / 970 review (incl. Ultra HD)

New architecture makes Nvidia GPUs more efficient than ever



Today, Nvidia introduces the GeForce GTX 980 and GTX 970, two new high-end cards of the Maxwell generation. The GeForce GTX 750 and 750 Ti, which were introduced a few months ago, also belong to this generation. We extensively tested both new cards on our completely revamped test platform for video cards, including 2-way, 3-way, and 4-way SLI configurations for the GTX 980, as well as MSI's and ASUS' variants of the GTX 970.

Nvidia GeForce GTX 980

After the recent wave of rumours, most hardware enthusiasts weren't surprised to learn that Nvidia was about to introduce a number of new high-end video cards. Some of these rumours will have raised the eyebrows of those who are closely following the video card market. First, there's the fact that the brand new GM204 chip, on which both boards are based, is produced on TSMC's 28nm process node, rather than on a new 20nm process node. There are good reasons for this – more on this later – but as this review and the benchmarks will prove, the GM204 is a significantly faster chip than its predecessor, the GK104, which was used as a basis for the GTX 680 and the related GTX 770, despite the lack of a new process node. What's more, the new GTX 980 is, as one would expect based on its name, also substantially faster than the GTX 780 and GTX 780 Ti, both of which are based on the GK110 chip.

All this brings us to another peculiar thing: the naming convention. Why transition to the GTX 980 and 970 right after the GTX 780 and 770? What happened to the 880 and 870? Nvidia's explanation is that they had to use the 800 series earlier this year for a new series of notebook GPUs, as large laptop manufacturers insist that they receive a series of "new" models each year, regardless of whether there are actual new chips. Most of these 800 series notebook GPUs are therefore existing chips from the Kepler generation, running at different clock frequencies than their predecessors. In order to maintain the relation between new chips and new boards, Nvidia decided to introduce the new cards as part of the 900 series. This isn't the first time something like this has happened, as the 300 series was also skipped because it was being used in laptops, making the GTX 480 the true successor to the GTX 280. What is confusing, however, is that the recently introduced GTX 750 and 750 Ti are also part of the Maxwell generation. For once, we wouldn't mind Nvidia rebranding these to GTX 950 and 950 Ti.

The focus of this generation is efficiency. To illustrate, a little sneak preview of the specs: the GTX 980 has a TDP of 165 watts, much less that the 250 watt TDP of the GTX 780 (Ti) and the AMD Radeon R9 290(X), but it does offer substantially better performance, as we will see over the course of this review.

Moreover, Nvidia opened a whole new bag of tricks containing all kinds of new functionality. From new anti-aliasing technologies such as DSR and MFAA, to improved support for virtual reality headsets, to new lighting technologies: the new boards are more than just faster and more efficient than their predecessors. 

Nvidia provided us with a reference model of the GTX 980, and MSI and ASUS sent us their variants of the GeForce GTX 970. Furthermore, the heroes over at Tones.be offered us the opportunity to test another four ASUS GeForce GTX 980 cards – which are identical to the reference cards – in various SLI configurations. SLI scores can be found in a separate review.

See also: GeForce GTX 980 SLI / 3-way SLI / 4-way SLI review

The ASUS GeForce GTX 970 Strix and MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming

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