To call the launch of NVIDIA's Maxwell GM204 part impressive is something of an understatement. You can read our full coverage of the GTX 980 for the complete story, but here's the short summary. Without the help of a manufacturing process shrink, NVIDIA and AMD are both looking at new ways to improve performance. The Maxwell architecture initially launched earlier this year with GM107 and the GTX 750 Ti and GTX 750, and with it we had our first viable mainstream GPU of the modern era that could deliver playable frame rates at 1080p while using less than 75W of power. The second generation Maxwell ups the ante by essentially tripling the CUDA core count of GM107, all while adding new features and still maintaining the impressive level of efficiency.

It's worth pointing out that "Big Maxwell" (or at least "Bigger Maxwell") is enough of a change that NVIDIA has bumped the model numbers from the GM100 series to GM200 series this round. NVIDIA has also skipped the desktop 800 line completely and is now in the 900 series. Architecturally, however, there's enough change going into GM204 that calling this "Maxwell 2" is certainly warranted.

NVIDIA is touting a 2X performance per Watt increase over GTX 680, and they've delivered exactly that. Through a combination of architectural and design improvements, NVIDIA has moved from 192 CUDA cores per SMX in Kepler to 128 CUDA cores per SMM in Maxwell, and a single SMM is still able to deliver around 90% of the performance of an SMX of equivalent clocks. Put another way, NVIDIA says the new Maxwell 2 architecture is around 40% faster per CUDA core than Kepler. What that means in terms of specifications is that GM204 only needs 2048 CUDA cores to compete with – and generally surpass! – the performance of GK110 with its 2880 CUDA cores, which is used in the GeForce GTX 780 Ti and GTX Titan cards.

In terms of new features, some of the changes with GM204 come on the software/drivers side of things while other features have been implemented in hardware. Starting with the hardware side, GM204 now implements the full set of D3D 11.3/D3D 12 features, where previous designs  (Kepler and Maxwell 1) stopped at full Feature Level 11_0 with partial FL 11_1. The new features include Rasterizer Ordered Views, Typed UAV Load, Volume Tiled Resources, and Conservative Rasterization. Along with these, NVIDIA is also adding hardware features to accelerate what they're calling VXGI – Voxel accelerated Global Illumination – a forward-looking technology that brings GPUs one step closer to doing real-time path tracing. (NVIDIA has more details available if you're interested in learning more).

NVIDIA also has a couple new techniques to improve anti-aliasing, Dynamic Super Resolution (DSR) and Multi-Frame Anti-Aliasing (MFAA). DSR essentially renders a game at a higher resolution and then down-sizes the result to your native resolution using a high-quality 13-tap Gaussian filter. It's similar to super sampling, but the great benefit of DSR over SSAA is that the game doesn't have any knowledge of DSR; as long as the game can support higher resolutions, NVIDIA's drivers take care of all of the work behind the scenes. MFAA (please, no jokes about "mofo AA") is supposed to offer essentially the same quality as 4x MSAA with the performance hit of 2x MSAA through a combination of custom filters and looking at previously rendered frames. MFAA can also function with a 4xAA mode to provide an alternative to 8x MSAA.

The above is all well and good, but what really matters at the end of the day is the actual performance that GM204 can offer. We've averaged results from our gaming benchmarks at our 2560x1440 and 1920x1080 settings, as well as our compute benchmarks, with all scores normalized to the GTX 680. Here's how the new GeForce GTX 980 compares with other GPUs. (Note that we've omitted the overclocking results for the GTX 980, as it wasn't tested across all of the games, but on average it's around 18% faster than the stock GTX 980 while consuming around 20% more power.)

Average Gaming Performance - 2560x1440

Average Gaming Performance - 1920x1080

Compute Performance

Wow. Obviously there's not quite as much to be gained by running such a fast GPU at 1920x1080, but at 2560x1440 we're looking at a GPU that's a healthy 74% faster on average compared to the GTX 680. Perhaps more importantly, the GTX 980 is also on average 8% faster than the GTX 780 Ti and 13.5% faster than AMD's Radeon R9 290X (in Uber mode, as that's what most shipping cards use). Compute performance sees some even larger gains over previous NVIDIA GPUs, with the 980 besting the 680 by 132%; it's also 16% faster than the 780 Ti but "only" 1.5% faster than the 290X – though the 290X still beats the GTX 980 in Sony Vegas Pro 12 and SystemCompute.

If we look at the GTX 780 Ti, on the one hand performance hasn't improved so much that we'd recommend upgrading, though you do get some new features that might prove useful over time. For those that didn't find the price/performance offered by GTX 780 Ti a compelling reason to upgrade, the GTX 980 sweetens the pot by dropping the MSRP down to $549, and what's more it also uses quite a bit less power:

Gaming Power Consumption

This is what we call the trifecta of graphics hardware: better performance, lower power, and lower prices. When NVIDIA unveiled the GTX 750 Ti back in February, it was ultimately held back by performance while its efficiency was a huge step forward; it seemed almost too much to hope for that sort of product in the high performance GPU arena. NVIDIA doesn't disappoint, however, dropping power consumption by 18% relative to the GTX 780 Ti while improving performance by roughly 10% and dropping the launch price by just over 20%. If you've been waiting for a reason to upgrade, GeForce GTX 980 is about as good as it gets, though the much less expensive GTX 970 might just spoil the party. We'll have a look at the 970 next week.

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  • tomvs123 - Friday, September 19, 2014 - link

    I'm as excited now as I was for the GTX 670 launch (which is a lot). While AMD tempted me temporarily with their R9 2XX series, their throttling issues and huge power consumption kept me away. I will have a GTX 970. I just hope AMD responds with either a big price drop or new GPUs to keep the performance/price war going.
  • Treynolds416 - Saturday, September 20, 2014 - link

    1000 words? You could have cut a couple to make it 980
  • Subyman - Saturday, September 20, 2014 - link

    Cutting a couple would make it 998 words though. :P
  • Phelim - Saturday, September 20, 2014 - link

    I'd hate to be schmuck who finally decided to cave and go ahead and purchase a new PC with a Titan Black GPU, and less than two weeks later see he could have afforded dual 980s for the same price, less power consumption and undoubtedly far better performance.

    Yeah, I'd hate to be that idiot.

    *Hangs head*
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, September 20, 2014 - link

    You still get much higher FP64 performance at least. If you need that, it's useful to have Titan.
  • D. Lister - Sunday, September 21, 2014 - link

    Aww man... :(
  • Syphadeus - Sunday, September 21, 2014 - link

    My question to you would be; if you're both wealthy enough to afford those GPUs and enough of an enthusiast to be reading and commenting this article, why on earth would you have bought such pricey hardware literally weeks before a new launch? It's not as if it was a well kept secret, it's been known for months that September was the golden month. Can never get my head around people spending so much money with so little research into the product beforehand.
  • D. Lister - Sunday, September 21, 2014 - link

    Super computer builders are going to love the 980, or its fully unlocked Quadro/Titan variant with 8-12GB GDDR5. A SC built with those, plus the new Xeons, is going to put up some record breaking numbers in performance and efficiency.
  • TiGr1982 - Sunday, September 21, 2014 - link

    Presumably, based on how things were with Kepler GPUs, GK204 Maxwell GPU has relatively low FP64 performance, so its usage in HPC (High Performance Computing) will be somewhat limited.

    The supposed Big Maxwell (GM200 or GM210, whatever the name), however, is then expected to be a computing monster with full FP64 performance.
  • Wolfpup - Wednesday, September 24, 2014 - link

    Wow, I'm pointlessly saying what I said in response to the other argument...that is really impressive. Noticeably better performance than a Geforce 780 TI for 64 watts LESS power on the same die process.


    Even if the 980 was the end of it, it would STILL be a nice replacement given significantly less power with better performance, but of course things get even more exciting when you consider they can probably go bigger than the 980 next year...think of a part with 2880 or whatever cores with Maxwell's efficiency... It's equally as exciting as notebooks. From my mobile 680 to the mobile 880 they've managed to (surprisingly) eke out quite a nice boost of performance between having one more set of cores active and surprisingly faster clocks, but Maxwell will be a really nice boost on top of that.

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