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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  • squngy - Wednesday, November 19, 2014 - link

    It is explained in the article.

    Because GTX980 makes so many more frames the CPU is worked a lot harder. The W in those charts are for the whole system so when the CPU uses more power it makes it harder to directly compare GPUs
    Reply
  • galta - Friday, September 19, 2014 - link

    The simple fact is that a GPU more powerful than a GTX 980 does not make sense right now, no matter how much we would love to see it.
    See, most folks are still gaming @ 1080, some of us are moving up to 1440. Under this scenarios, a GTX 980 is more than enough, even if quality settings are maxed out. Early reviews show that it can even handle 4K with moderate settings, and we should expect further performance gains as drivers improve.
    Maybe in a year or two, when 4K monitors become more relevant, a more powerful GPU would make sense. Now they simply don't.
    For the moment, nVidia's movement is smart and commendable: power efficiency!
    I mean, such a powerful card at only 165W! If you are crazy/wealthy enough to have two of them in SLI, you can cut your power demand by 170W, with following gains in temps and/or noise, and and less expensive PSU, if you're building from scratch.
    In the end, are these new cards great? Of course they are!
    Does it make sense to up-grade right now? Only if you running a 5xx or 6xx series card, or if your demands have increased dramatically (multi-monitor set-up, higher res. etc.).
    Reply
  • Margalus - Friday, September 19, 2014 - link

    A more powerful gpu does make sense. Some people like to play their games with triple monitors, or more. A single gpu that could play at 7680x1440 with all settings maxed out would be nice. Reply
  • galta - Saturday, September 20, 2014 - link

    How many of us demand such power? The ones who really do can go SLI and OC the cards.
    nVidia would be spending billions for a card that would sell thousands. As I said: we would love the card, but still no sense
    Again, I would love to see it, but in the forseeable future, I won't need it. Happier with noise, power and heat efficiency.
    Reply
  • Da W - Monday, September 22, 2014 - link

    Here's one that demands such power. I play 3600*1920 using 3 screens, almost 4k, 1/3 the budget, and still useful for, you know, working.
    Don't want sli/crossfire. Don't want a space heater either.
    Reply
  • bebimbap - Saturday, September 20, 2014 - link

    gaming at 1080@144 or 1080 with min fps of 120 for ulmb is no joke when it comes to gpu requirement. Most modern games max at 80-90fps on a OC'd gtx670 you need at least an OC'd gtx770-780. I'd recommend 780ti. and though a 24" 1080 might seem "small" you only have so much focus. You can't focus on periphery vision you'd have to move your eyes to focus on another piece of the screen. the 24"-27" size seems perfect so you don't have to move your eyes/head much or at all.

    the next step is 1440@144 or min fps of 120 which requires more gpu than @ 4k60. as 1440 is about 2x 1080 you'd need a gpu 2x as powerful. so you can see why nvidia must put out a powerful card at a moderate price point. They need it for their 144hz gsync tech and 3dvision

    imo the ppi race isn't as beneficial as higher refresh rate. For TVs manufacturers are playing this game of misinformation so consumers get the short end of the stick, but having a monitor running at 144hz is a world of difference compared to 60hz for me. you can tell just from the mouse cursor moving across the screen. As I age I realize every day that my eyes will never be as good as yesterday, and knowing that I'd take a 27" 1440p @ 144hz any day over a 28" 5k @ 60hz.
    Reply
  • Laststop311 - Sunday, September 21, 2014 - link

    Well it all depends on viewing distance. I use a 30" 2560x1600 dell u3014 to game on currently since it's larger i can sit further away and still have just as good of an experience as a 24 or 27 thats closer. So you can't just say larger monitors mean you can;t focus on it all cause you can just at a further distance. Reply
  • theuglyman0war - Monday, September 22, 2014 - link

    The power of the newest technology is and has always been an illusion because the creation of games will always be an exercise in "compromise". Even a game like WOW that isn't crippled by console consideration is created by the lowest common denominator demographic in the PC hardware population. In other words... ( if u buy it they will make it vs. if they make it I will upgrade ). Besides the unlimited reach of an openworld's "possible" textures and vtx counts.
    "Some" artists are of the opinion that more hardware power would result in a less aggressive graphic budget! ( when the time spent wrangling a synced normal mapped representation of a high resolution sculpt or tracking seam problems in lightmapped approximations of complex illumination with long bake times can take longer than simply using that original complexity ). The compromise can take more time then if we had hardware that could keep up with an artists imagination.
    In which case I gotta wonder about the imagination of the end user that really believes his hardware is the end to any graphics progress?
    Reply
  • ppi - Friday, September 19, 2014 - link

    On desktop, all AMD needs to do is to lower price and perhaps release OC'd 290X to match 980 performance. It will reduce their margins, but they won't be irrelevant on the market, like in CPUs vs Intel (where AMD's most powerful beasts barely touch Intel's low-end, apart from some specific multi-threaded cases)

    Why so simple? On desktop:
    - Performance is still #1 factor - if you offer more per your $, you win
    - Noise can be easily resolved via open air coolers
    - Power consumption is not such a big deal

    So ... if AMD card at a given price is as fast as Maxwell, then they are clearly worse choice. But if they are faster?

    In mobile, however, they are screwed big way, unless they have something REAL good in their sleeve (looking at Tonga, I do not think they do, as I am convinced AMD intends to pull off another HD5870 (i.e. be on the new process node first), but it apparently did not work this time around.)
    Reply
  • Friendly0Fire - Friday, September 19, 2014 - link

    The 290X already is effectively an overclocked 290 though. I'm not sure they'd be able to crank up power consumption reliably without running into heat dissipation or power draw limits.

    Also, they'd have to invest in making a good reference cooler.
    Reply

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