At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the biggest story in the GPU industry over the last year has been over what isn’t as opposed to what is. What isn’t happening is that after nearly 3 years of the leading edge manufacturing node for GPUs at TSMC being their 28nm process, it isn’t being replaced any time soon. As of this fall TSMC has 20nm up and running, but only for SoC-class devices such as Qualcomm Snapdragons and Apple’s A8. Consequently if you’re making something big and powerful like a GPU, all signs point to an unprecedented 4th year of 28nm being the leading node.

We start off with this tidbit because it’s important to understand the manufacturing situation in order to frame everything that follows. In years past TSMC would produce a new node every 2 years, and farther back yet there would even be half-nodes in between those 2 years. This meant that every 1-2 years GPU manufacturers could take advantage of Moore’s Law and pack in more hardware into a chip of the same size, rapidly increasing their performance. Given the embarrassingly parallel nature of graphics rendering, it’s this cadence in manufacturing improvements that has driven so much of the advancement of GPUs for so long.

With 28nm however that 2 year cadence has stalled, and this has driven GPU manufacturers into an interesting and really unprecedented corner. They can’t merely rest on their laurels for the 4 years between 28nm and the next node – their continuing existence means having new products every cycle – so they instead must find new ways to develop new products. They must iterate on their designs and technology so that now more than ever it’s their designs driving progress and not improvements in manufacturing technology.

What this means is that for consumers and technology enthusiasts alike we are venturing into something of an uncharted territory. With no real precedent to draw from we can only guess what AMD and NVIDIA will do to maintain the pace of innovation in the face of manufacturing stagnation. This makes this a frustrating time – who doesn’t miss GPUs doubling in performance every 2 years – but also an interesting one. How will AMD and NVIDIA solve the problem they face and bring newer, better products to the market? We don’t know, and not knowing the answer leaves us open to be surprised.

Out of NVIDIA the answer to that has come in two parts this year. NVIDIA’s Kepler architecture, first introduced in 2012, has just about reached its retirement age. NVIDIA continues to develop new architectures on roughly a 2 year cycle, so new manufacturing process or not they have something ready to go. And that something is Maxwell.


GTX 750 Ti: First Generation Maxwell

At the start of this year we saw the first half of the Maxwell architecture in the form of the GeForce GTX 750 and GTX 750 Ti. Based on the first generation Maxwell GM107 GPU, NVIDIA did something we still can hardly believe and managed to pull off a trifecta of improvements over Kepler. GTX 750 Ti was significantly faster than its predecessor, it was denser than its predecessor (though larger overall), and perhaps most importantly consumed less power than its predecessor. In GM107 NVIDIA was able to significantly improve their performance and reduce their power consumption at the same time, all on the same 28nm manufacturing node we’ve come to know since 2012. For NVIDIA this was a major accomplishment, and to this day competitor AMD doesn’t have a real answer to GM107’s energy efficiency.

However GM107 was only the start of the story. In deviating from their typical strategy of launching high-end GPU first – either a 100/110 or 104 GPU – NVIDIA told us up front that while they were launching in the low end first because that made the most sense for them, they would be following up on GM107 later this year with what at the time was being called “second generation Maxwell”. Now 7 months later and true to their word, NVIDIA is back in the spotlight with the first of the second generation Maxwell GPUs, GM204.

GM204 itself follows up on the GM107 with everything we loved about the first Maxwell GPUs and yet with more. “Second generation” in this case is not just a description of the second wave of Maxwell GPUs, but in fact is a technically accurate description of the Maxwell 2 architecture. As we’ll see in our deep dive into the architecture, Maxwell 2 has learned some new tricks compared to Maxwell 1 that make it an even more potent processor, and further extends the functionality of the family.

NVIDIA GPU Specification Comparison
  GTX 980 GTX 970 (Corrected) GTX 780 Ti GTX 770
CUDA Cores 2048 1664 2880 1536
Texture Units 128 104 240 128
ROPs 64 56 48 32
Core Clock 1126MHz 1050MHz 875MHz 1046MHz
Boost Clock 1216MHz 1178MHz 928Mhz 1085MHz
Memory Clock 7GHz GDDR5 7GHz GDDR5 7GHz GDDR5 7GHz GDDR5
Memory Bus Width 256-bit 256-bit 384-bit 256-bit
VRAM 4GB 4GB 3GB 2GB
FP64 1/32 FP32 1/32 FP32 1/24 FP32 1/24 FP32
TDP 165W 145W 250W 230W
GPU GM204 GM204 GK110 GK104
Transistor Count 5.2B 5.2B 7.1B 3.5B
Manufacturing Process TSMC 28nm TSMC 28nm TSMC 28nm TSMC 28nm
Launch Date 09/18/14 09/18/14 11/07/13 05/30/13
Launch Price $549 $329 $699 $399

Today’s launch will see GM204 placed into two video cards, the GeForce GTX 980 and GeForce GTX 970. We’ll dive into the specs of each in a bit, but from an NVIDIA product standpoint these two parts are the immediate successors to the GTX 780/780Ti and GTX 770 respectively.  As was the case with GTX 780 and GTX 680 before it, these latest parts are designed and positioned to offer a respectable but by no means massive performance gain over the GTX 700 series. NVIDIA’s target for the upgrade market continues to be owners of cards 2-3 years old – so the GTX 600 and GTX 500 series – where the accumulation of performance and feature enhancements over the years adds up to the kind of 70%+ performance improvement most buyers are looking for.

At the very high end the GTX 980 will be unrivaled. It is roughly 10% faster than GTX 780 Ti and consumes almost 1/3rd less power for that performance. This is enough to keep the single-GPU performance crown solidly in NVIDIA’s hands, maintaining a 10-20% lead over AMD’s flagship Radeon R9 290X. Meanwhile GTX 970 should fare similarly as well, however as our sample is having compatibility issues that we haven’t been able to resolve in time, that is a discussion we will need to have another day.

NVIDIA will be placing the MSRP on the GTX 980 at $549 and the GTX 970 at $329. Depending on what you’re using as a baseline, this is either a $50 increase over the last price of the GTX 780 and launch price of the GTX 680, or a roughly $100 price cut compared to the launch prices of the GTX 780 and GTX 780 Ti. Meanwhile GTX 970 is effectively a drop-in replacement for GTX 770, launching at the price that GTX 770 has held for so long. We should see both GPUs at the usual places, though at present neither Newegg nor Amazon is showing any inventory yet – likely thanks to the odd time of launch as this coincides with NVIDIA's Game24 event – but you can check on GTX 980 and GTX 970 tomorrow.

Fall 2014 GPU Pricing Comparison
AMD Price NVIDIA
Radeon R9 295X2 $1000  
  $550 GeForce GTX 980
Radeon R9 290X $500  
Radeon R9 290 $400  
  $330 GeForce GTX 970
Radeon R9 280X $280  
Radeon R9 285 $250  
Radeon R9 280 $220 GeForce GTX 760

Finally, on a housekeeping note today’s article will be part of a series of articles on the GTX 980 series. As NVIDIA has only given us about half a week to look at GTX 980, we are splitting up our coverage to work within the time constraints. Today we will be covering GTX 980 and the Maxwell 2 architecture, including its construction, features, and the resulting GM204 GPU. Next week we will be looking at GTX 980 SLI performance, PCIe bandwidth, and a deeper look at the image quality aspects of NVIDIA’s newest anti-aliasing technologies, Dynamic Super Resolution and Multi-Frame sampled Anti-Aliasing. Finally, we will also be taking a look at the GTX 970 next week once we have a compatible sample. So stay tuned for the rest of our coverage on the Maxwell 2 family.

Maxwell 1 Architecture: The Story So Far
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  • atlantico - Friday, September 19, 2014 - link

    I'm sorry, but I couldn't care less about power efficiency on an enthusiast GPU unit. The 780Ti was a 250W card and that is a great card because it performs well. It delivers results.

    I have a desktop computer, a full ATX tower. Not a laptop. PSUs are cheap enough, it's even a question of that.

    So please, stuff the power requirements of this GTX980. The fact is if it sucked 250W and was more powerful, then it would have been a better card.
    Reply
  • A5 - Friday, September 19, 2014 - link

    They'll be more than happy to sell you a $1000 GM210 Titan Black Ultra GTX, I'm sure.

    Fact is that enthusiast cards aren't really where they make their money anymore, and they're orienting their R&D accordingly.
    Reply
  • Fallen Kell - Friday, September 19, 2014 - link

    Exactly. Not only that, the "real" money is in getting the cards in OEM systems which sell hundreds of thousands of units. And those are very power and cooling specific. Reply
  • Antronman - Sunday, September 21, 2014 - link

    Yep, yep, and yep again.

    For OEMs, the difference between spending 10 more or less dollars is huge.

    More efficient cards means less power from the PSU. It's one of the reasons why GeForce cards are so much more popular in OEM systems.

    I have to disagree with the statement about enthusiast cards not being of value to Nvidia.

    Many people are of the opinion that Nvidia has always had better performance than AMD/ATI.
    Reply
  • Tikcus9666 - Friday, September 19, 2014 - link

    For desktop cards power consumption is meaningless to the 99%
    Price/Performance is much more important. if Card A uses 50w more under full load than card B, but performs around the same and is £50 cheaper to buy at 15 p per kwh cost for energy it would take 6666 hours of running to get your £50 back. Add to this if Card A produces more heat into the room, in winter months your heating system will use less energy, meanning it takes even longer to get your cash back.... tldr Wattage is only important in laptops and tablets and things that need batterys to run
    Reply
  • jwcalla - Friday, September 19, 2014 - link

    At least in this case it appears the power efficiency allows for a decent overclock. So you can get more performance and heat up your room at the same time.

    Of course I'm sure they're leaving some performance on the table for a refresh next year. Pascal is still a long way's off so they have to extend Maxwell's lifespan. Same deal as with Fermi and Kepler.
    Reply
  • Icehawk - Friday, September 19, 2014 - link

    When I built my mATX current box one criteria was that it be silent, or nearly so while still being a full power rig (i7 OC'd & 670), and the limitation really is GPU draw - thankfully NVs had dropped by the 6xx series enough I was able to use a fanless PSU and get my machine dead silent. I am glad I don't need a tower box that sounds like a jet anymore :)

    I would love to see them offer a high TDP, better cooled, option though for the uber users who won't care about costs, heat, sound and are just looking for the max performance to drive those 4k/surround setups.
    Reply
  • Yojimbo - Friday, September 19, 2014 - link

    I agree that power consumption in itself isn't so important to most consumer desktop users, as long as they don't require extra purchases to accommodate the cards. But since power consumption and noise seem to be directly related for GPUs, power efficiency is actually an important consideration for a fair number of consumer desktop users. Reply
  • RaistlinZ - Sunday, September 21, 2014 - link

    Yeah, but they're still limited by the 250W spec. So the only way to give us more and more powerful GPU's while staying within 250W is to increase efficiency. Reply
  • kallogan - Friday, September 19, 2014 - link

    dat beast Reply

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