Week in Tech: Nvidia Laptop Graphics Update

By Jeremy Laird on March 13th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.

Yes, we’ve done the Nvidia Maxwell graphics thing already. As a desktop GPU, the new GeForce GTXs 750 and 750 Ti aren’t all that exciting. But the same Nvidia GM107 chip rebadged Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M and stuffed into a laptop? Suddenly, things get a whole lot more interesting. The specifics aren’t official yet. But it looks like GM107 might just deliver twice the performance for the same power budget as its predecessor and that’s pretty exciting for thin-and-light gaming lappies. And remember, this is just the beginning for Maxwell – the arrival of second-gen 20nm Maxwell mobile GPUs could be spectacular. While we’re here, I thought a beginners guide to mobile GPUs would be useful for some of you. What with all the branding shenanigans both Nvidia and AMD get up to in the mobile space, keeping track of what’s actually on offer isn’t always easy.

A bit like last week’s look at the Intel Haswell refresh, we’re officially dealing with rumour here. (Since I wrote this official details have confirmed most of what we’re about to cover, see update below.) But for the most part it’s hardly speculative stuff. What we know for sure is that the first Maxwell GPU from Nvidia is codenamed GM107. In gaming terms, it’s a low-end chip and it’s been launched in desktop form as the GeForce GTXs 750 and 750 Ti.

We can also infer that it’s likely going-on-guaranteed that GM107 will turn up in laptops. Because that’s what happens. Why? Here’s that quick beginners guide to mobile GPUs. Nvidia and AMD don’t make dedicated gaming GPUs for laptops. They use the same chips found in desktop boards, albeit usually running different specs, including clocks, voltages or even parts of the chip fused off.

Nvidia Maxwell: A bit ‘meh’ on the desktop to date, but has the makings of ‘oh my’ as a mobile GPU

Mobile GPUs are also typically taken from the highest quality bins. In other words, chips are cut from the big, round wafers of silicon that come out of the manufacturing fabs and then tested for various operating properties. There can be quite a bit of variance in terms of stability at given voltages and clockspeeds and operating temperatures. I’m not sure if every chip cut from a wafer is tested for clocks and temps or a sample from each wafer runs the gauntlet and the remainder are assumed to be cut from the same cloth. But I do know all chips are tested for basic functionality, so perhaps it’s the former.

Either way, the cream of the crop tend to be siphoned off for mobile usage where temps and voltages are really critical. As it happens, Nvidia’s Maxwell is being pitched as the first GPU architecture designed for mobile first. If you want, then, you can view GM107 as a mobile chip that will also be used in desktops.

Anyway, thanks to some plausible looking posts on the Notebookreview forum, we have a pretty good idea of what GM107 will look like in notebooks. It’ll be known as the GeForce GTX 860M. Unfortunately, both Nvidia and AMD have been playing silly buggers with mobile GPU branding for a while.

In simple terms, the branding no longer aligns across the two platforms. A desktop Geforce GTX 750 is based on an entirely different chip or ASIC from the mobile 750M. As a rule of thumb, take the biggest, hairiest desktop GPU and discard it. Then take the second-rung desktop GPU and rebrand it with the discarded GPU’s name adding an ‘M’ for good measure. Now you have the top mobile GPU. Rinse and repeat as you drop down the product range.

It wasn’t always like this, more’s the pity. The high point was probably the GeForce Go 7800 GTX which was a gnat’s chuff from matching the desktop 7800GTX. For once, desktop and mobile graphics were at near parity.

Fancy a Razer Blade with double the graphics performance of the current model?

Whatever, a handy website for uncovering just what you’re dealing with for any given mobile GPU is Notebookcheck.net. It’s not completely infallible. And it’s worth noting that implementations of any given mobile graphics chipset can very dramatically from one laptop to the next. But it is pretty comprehensive and a very useful source of information including a massive array of benchmark results with a wide variety of games, the better to give you at least an idea of what to expect from any mobile GPU.

Back to the new 860M it looks like we’re talking 640 shader cores (yay) and a 128-bit memory bus (boo). Remember, that’s 640 Maxwell-style shader cores, so in raw performance terms arguably equivalent to 800-plus shaders from the Kepler generation.

Anyway, the really fun bit and where things do become a little speculative is power consumption. The 860M is thought to be in roughly the same ballpark as the old 660M GPU. So we’re talking about a chip with power consumption around the 40W mark.

Gigabyte’s P34G is one of relatively few thin-and-light gaming lappies

Given the early performance numbers it seems to be clocked at roughly 900MHz and kicks out roughly the same performance as the much more power hungry 770M. If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned what seems to be the obvious comparison GPU, the 760M, it’s because that chip is based on the GK106 GPU rather than the GK107, the latter being the real predecessor to GM107.

At this point I need to apologise for all these ghastly code names and reduce this down to some take-homes that actually mean something worthwhile. In really simple terms, what this all means is that thin-and-light laptops are just about to get twice as fast for gaming. Well, the ones lucky enough to have a Maxwell GPU, at least.

A properly gameable 14-inch thin-and-light has always been a prime form factor for me and GM107 looks like the chip that might just deliver. I reckon it’ll just about have the minerals for 1080p gaming at highish quality settings. Think of it as being roughly on a par with the new consoles for pure graphics grunt. Nice.

And remember, Nvidia has achieved all this with existing 28nm tech. When it starts knocking out 20nm second-gen Maxwell chips, odds are we are likely to see some spectacular mobile GPUs. Take the 14-inch Razer Blade and its GTX 765M GPU, aka GK106. Then imagine a GM106 chip (or possibly GM206 if that’s how the nomenclature rolls for 20nm Maxwells) with double the performance in the same power budget. Yes please.

Oh, no, not another Clevo clone?! Yup, it’s the 13.3-inch W230ST

The potential snag to all this is pricing. Gaming notebook pricing has proven frustratingly firm over the years and I suspect the 860M will be priced in a manner that reflects its impressive performance rather than the entry-level status of the GM107 ASIC. So my holy grail of a gameable 14-inch thin-and-light with a half decent screen for about £500 will probably remain tantalisingly out of reach.

The closest thing I’m aware of right now is probably something based on the 13.3-inch Clevo W230ST, which can be had specced with a low-end Core i3 plus GTX 765M, a small 120GB SSD and an IPS 1080p screen, all for about £700 from the likes of PC Specialist. I’ve never been a huge fan of Clevo systems, however, and I doubt this one breaks from the Clevo tradition of being a functional but unattractive brick.

P.S. If it feels like the graphics coverage has been a bit Nvidia centric of late, stay tuned for some AMD insights in the coming weeks.

Update:
Since I wrote this further details have emerged concerning the broader Geforce 800 Series mobile GPUs. They’re largely in line with everything above with one exception. There will apparently be two 860M GPUs, one as detailed here and based on Maxwell tech, another based on the old GK106 Kepler chip. This is completely baffling. As one commenter on Anandtech says, it represents a new low in GPU spec obfuscation and is utterly deplorable.

It’s also worth nothing that the 860M is the only model in the new line up based on Maxwell technology, so we are probably some time from seeing any second-gen 20nm Maxwell chips.

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37 Comments »

  1. Moraven says:

    I just got a Gigabyte P35G (15.6 screen instead of 14) in Dec, $1400/£842.56. Great laptop. Easy to remove the DVD drive and put my old SSD in there. (opted to skip the preinstalled SSD and/or blu-ray config) I felt the 14 was a bit to small (friend has the Alienware one) but I could see the benefit of having the smaller size.

    I am interested in their Battery Boost profiles with the 8xx and to see how well battery life is between old games (which it could easy downclock for) and high end games. Hopefully the 7xx get support.

    As always with tech, the new stuff is always around the corner! But it got used for a bit of traveling already, I do not feel to scorned.

    At least the the older 7xx and higher 6xx are getting Shadowplay and GameStream support.

    • joa says:

      How are these commenters possible here? When I signed up I had to provide an email address to confirm my email – bots cannot do this.

      • Uboa Noticed You says:

        All you need is to spam WordPress accounts.
        At the very least, they bold their text so you know to avoid them, which is awfully nice of them.

      • phelix says:

        It might also be real people being paid a few cents an hour just by working on the computer and copy/pasting spam texts. Last month their paycheck … well, you know the drill.

  2. waltC says:

    My opinion is that people who enjoy gaming stay as far away from laptops as is possible, and go all in on a nice desktop. Better still, build your own desktop–it’s easy–I’ve done nothing but since 1995. The gpus are better/faster, as are the cpus, and while you can put together a desktop to emphasize sheer performance and display resolution more than any other factors, *all* laptops are created to put the all-consuming dynamic of *battery life* first, as *the* primary design consideration under which all their internal components are selected, assembled, and programmed.

    I appreciate Laird pointing out to readers that laptop gpus and desktop gpus are very different even if their model numbers are similar or the same as desktop gpus made by the same company. I read posts regularly in which the poster is baffled and claims that his laptop gpu doesn’t keep up with the desktop gpu (of the same or similar model number) he read about in the review of a discrete desktop gpu. The notion that mobile gpus “are just as powerful but much smaller” than their desktop namesakes is seriously in error.

    I have nothing against laptops bought for a specific purpose outside of gaming, of course. Portability has its upsides, certainly. Consumers should definitely realize though that they are far more likely to spend more money on a laptop while getting considerably less in the way of power and performance than a desktop could provide–because portability has its very own additional price tag. You might even call it a “mobile tax”…;)

    Additionally, in a decent or even average desktop you can expect to see internal expansion options generally unavailable in a laptop at any price. Driver support for Tier 1 components in a desktop is generally far better than laptop driver support, because the latter are updated only sporadically and are usually available only from the laptop OEM–not the component manufacturer. For example, the AMD drivers for discrete Radeons are available continuously for public consumption, directly from AMD, immediately upon newer versions being released; and AMD offers so-called “mobility gpu” drivers, too, which are OK to use *unless* you bought your laptop from 3-4 of the biggest OEM laptop companies. If you own that brand of laptop then the only place to get your drivers is from the OEM–even if they advertise they use nVidia or AMD gpus!

    So, if you want to game the best way to do it is to build your own desktop, use Tier-1 components (that is, components manufactured by large companies with good multi-decade reputations, if possible.) The drivers will be much better and generally the individually purchased component *warranties* are better, too.

    Only one caveat, however: if you are not going to build your desktop but plan on buying one from an OEM, instead, then definitely *stay away* from Dell…! Dell deliberately introduces custom, non-industry-standard peripherals and components–for instance, I’ve seen one Dell desktop that shipped with a mirror-image ATX motherboard: ie, it was like an ATX, only backwards!…;) That makes it real hard for you to take out the Dell mboard and replace it with something else, or take out the Dell mboard and put it in a different case, and so on. Some of their designs support only half-height gpus, for instance, which are non-standard, too, keeping the cases so thin that you cannot replace the discrete Dell gpu with a discrete gpu bought somewhere else at retail, because it won’t fit! The PSU connectors can be *different* from industry standard, etc. It is all designed to keep you coming back to Dell for replacement parts and upgrades. With a desktop like that–hey, might as well have bought a laptop…;)

    • nrvsNRG says:

      What a completely unnecessary lecture.

      • Guzzleguts says:

        Every (I really mean EVERY) time there’s an article about laptops there is some smug git going on about how desktops, especially self-built, are SOOOO much better. Yeah, great, thanks. Apparently though, gaming on these rigs is not quite as fun as reading articles about ‘inferior’ tech that they purport to have no interest in. Funny that.

        • Premium User Badge

          P7uen says:

          To be fair, the guy says he’s done nothing but build his own desktops since 1995, so it’s to be expected he would feel strongly about it. He must have millions of the things by now.

        • Geebs says:

          He was previously going on about how great AMD CPUs are. Given his aversion to “inferior hardware” that means he’s still stuck somewhere around 2002.

    • SominiTheCommenter says:

      I wish I could. I would bin my laptop right away if I could. The thing is I’m a student and I need to take the PC with me on weekends, AKA when I actually have time to play games. I don’t have money for 2 good gaming rigs, so I need a gaming laptop.

      • Tams80 says:

        I just stopped reading right at the beginning because of this.

        As a student I do like to play games at home and at university. Two desktops that are similarly specced to my laptop and a laptop far exceed my budget. Not to mention having one device instead of three is far more convenient.

        It’s not like laptops are all bad either. I have one that isn’t a gaming laptop, but can play Sleeping Dogs, Battlefield 4 etc. all on high settings at 30fps at 1080p; sometimes with some AA. I’d have to spend quite a bit more to get to the next ‘milestone’ of either ultra settings or 60fps.

        These new Nvida GPUs are very interesting. The 870M the new Blade will have is capable of ultra settings at 30fps at 1080p, or medium settings at 3k. The 860M is in the same range as the HD8870M, though as some considerable benefits.

        What’s annoyed me a bit is AMD have almost disappeared from the mobile GPU space. They are available as options on gaming laptops at their highest end, but anything below the X9X0M GPUs have appeared in next to no laptops. In fact the one I’m using now is the only one with an 88X0M GPU that I could find. Yes they have released their mobile GPUs with their new branding, but I think I’ve seen one in a total of one laptop.

    • bhauck says:

      Another option for laptop users is to just lag a couple years on what games you play. I’m getting along happily with HD 3000 integrated graphics (how many of you just gasped in horror?), playing indies, medium-intense year-old games on low settings (Torchlight 2), and older games with (I think, it was months ago) normal settings (Arkham Asylum). If you never buy a game before it costs $5, you save a ton of money on games and can get by with a 2.5 year-old laptop with the worst specs you could ever imagine. It’s not like I don’t have a backlog of close to a hundred games picked up in various sales and bundles.

      (I don’t play multiplayer games, which might help. A friend tried to get me to play Planetside 2 with him and I couldn’t stop crashing. The Wildstar beta weekend was really rough but playable.)

      • Uboa Noticed You says:

        I need to game with an Intel Family Chipset.

        I’ll let the 20 fps-induced horror wash over you for a few hours.

        But anyway, yes, I absolutely NEED the portability for school and music, since I need to produce at multiple locations. A desktop rig would do me little good since I need a mid-high power PC to bring with me. My current laptop is doing me fine, I can run most games, albeit at low framerates with low resolutions and minimal settings, but at least it has taught me to appreciate games more for mechanics than graphics. Not that I don’t plan to upgrade, I do. I’m looking at Sager and perhaps Gigabyte for laptops.

    • Moraven says:

      Usually when you are buying a laptop, form factor and portability is the reason you are even looking at one to begin with. Unless you want to escort and haul my desktop for me, with battery case of course. 14-15.6 inch screens are a great portable size.

      Future Nvidia cards will be designed from the mobile prospective and have better battery life. Looks like we only get one Maxwell tho.

    • MSJ says:

      Hey, do you want to go to places like Somalia and do volunteer humanitarian work? I would advice you not to bother and instead spend several hundred thousand to a million dollars constructing a drone you can use to carry humanitarian aid stuff to those places. You can do this from your home, and where your non-mobile gaming desktop is!

    • adwodon says:

      Keep your opinions to yourself then mate.

      Some people value things other than raw specs, like the ability to sit around with friends and family whilst playing games as well as a myriad of other reasons. These people can be just as much a ‘gamer’ as intolerable tech fetishists such as yourself.

      And for the record, I work for a reputable hardware company which makes graphics cards, I debug the damn things and write drivers, I build my own PCs at home and enjoy them very much. I’m just not the sort arrogant tit who thinks that there is one opinion to rule them all while attempting to lecture those poor ‘less informed’ souls out there how right my method is.

    • Becalel says:

      My opinion is that people who enjoy gaming stay as far away from laptops as is possible, and go all in on a nice desktop.

      Funny. My 2009 Acer Aspire handles Fallout 1 & 2 quite well I must admit. But then again, YOUR opinion would probably be, that I don’t enjoy gaming. Well, not PROPERLY, of course.

    • TechnicalBen says:

      No.

      (Did not read, but I had a laptop I used for gaming for 5 years, and it did rather well, cost me a ton, £1200 mind, but was ace. Even had a desktop CPU in it).

  3. ThTa says:

    Doesn’t the 14″ version of the new series of Razer Blades feature a GTX 870M? (While the 860 is, somewhat bafflingly, used in the 17″ version.)

    Or is that still Kepler for some reason?

    edit: I suppose it is, or Anandtech says so, at least. That makes the decision to stick it in the model with less battery capacity and a worse thermal profile even more baffling.

    • Tams80 says:

      Apparently the 870M is considerably better than the 860M, in all but regards to battery runtime I guess…

      Notebookcheck don’t have it up yet.

      I’m not sure Nvidia could have messed up the naming scheme any more. Not only do the names bear no resemblance to the desktop GPUs, but the architectures and memory of the mobile GPUs are all over the place. That said it does make sense from a business perspective and may well be the best they could have done to not have multiple ranges. Hey, at least the GPUs are more powerful the higher the numbers in the name.

      Now about that DDR3 and GDDR5 discrepancy. I believe they did it for some of the 7XXMs. I know it is for OEMs to be able to have a choice, but Nvidia should really enforce how they are marketed such as 8XXMG for GDDR5 and 8XXMD for DDR3. Otherwise I think it is a bit disingenuous.

  4. Coflash says:

    I have a desktop equipped with 780s in SLI, but I still couldn’t do without my laptop for gaming.

    It’s a Macbook Air 13″. 2013 model with the i7 CPU option, 8GB RAM, IntelHD 5000 chip, and a 256GB SSD. Doesn’t sound great for gaming though, does it?

    After I put Bootcamp on it (it allows Windows) I configured my DualShock 4 controller to work over bluetooth and I can play a tonne of stuff both on the way to and from work. And in bed. Basically in any place I can sit down… This is what it looks like:

    http://www.coflash.com/stuff/ds1laptop.jpg

    People will probably bring up the price tag, but which other laptop is this thin, is this light, runs at 1440×900, has 2 HOURS of gaming time on battery at 75% brightness, with one of the the best touchpads for gaming out there? I beat HL2 + both episodes with that thing.

    Noteable games it runs that I have played (and finished) on it; Batman Arkham City, BG2: EE, Dark Souls, Bioshock 2, Bulletstorm, MW3 SP, Darksiders, Dragon Age Origins, Fallout 3, GTA:SA, Hitman 2/3, Just Cause 2, Mafia, Max Payne 2, Warband, RAGE, Risen, Shadowrun, Chaos Theory, XCOM: EU, and I’m currently on The Stick of Truth. It’s a very capable little thing. I don’t play games unless they can run at native res at a decent FPS either.

    I considered the P34G earlier this year, but the battery life is abysmal. The same for the Razer models.

    Of course I would always prefer to play these games on my desktop screen, but laptops can be fucking brilliant for gaming.

    • Burgmond says:

      Laptops are amazing for gaming, I’m here rocking a GT 650M myself. Besides, having a laptop, I can easily move into the living room and start playing on my TV, with a controller. If everyone seems to be going for that ONE SYSTEM TO RULE THEM ALL, sort of thing, like XBONE is doing, then laptops seem to be apart of that if PC gaming is to get in the living room easier.

    • Tacroy says:

      with one of the the best touchpads for gaming

      what.

      • Coflash says:

        Are you saying it’s not? Can you recommend a better touchpad for gaming?

        I’ve never been able to use a touchpad for anything other than browsing until I started using Windows on OSX machines. They’re really good, much more responsive than anything else I’ve tried.

        Or were you doing one of those ‘it’s not a mouse therefore it sucks’ type posts?

      • Geebs says:

        To be fair, the Air’s trackpad is better than anything else out there for everything. I’m impressed that the current model can game a bit though, the 3d performance of the Sandy Bridge integrated part was wretched and my old one overheated like crazy when trying to game.

        Still, for everybody who isn’t gaming, the Air remains the answer to the question “what laptop should I buy”.

        • Premium User Badge

          All is Well says:

          Don’t you think the price tag on the Air is a bit excessive if you’re mostly going to do typing, browsing and the like?

          I don’t know about UK/US prices but here in Sweden the Air is around $1600, and I got my 13″ Zenbook (just a couple of mm thicker than the Air) for $650 (750 if you include RAM and SSD upgrades).

          I mean, the Macbook is probably a lot better performance-wise, but when would you even notice that unless you were doing resource-intensive stuff?

          • Geebs says:

            Are you sure about that? In the UK, the Zenbook costs £999 – £1399; in the Swedish Apple store, the Air goes for the equivalent of £1000 – £1350.

            Given that Windows 8 is horrible on a laptop, I think I’m not going to be changing my advice :-)

          • Premium User Badge

            All is Well says:

            Well, perhaps my price examples weren’t the greatest – I did get my Zenbook at a discount and the Macbook price was sort of an average of non-discount prices (I ran a search at the price comparison site prisjakt.nu) which varied from ~9000kr (£850) to ~14000kr (£1300).

            Doing a similar search for Zenbook, I realise they retail for pretty much the same price as the Air – and that being the case I’d probably recommend the Macbook too, although I personally like Win 8 on my laptop :)

            That being said, the point I was trying to make was that there are probably laptops out there that don’t cost as much as the Air (or Zenbook!) that are fast enough for what most people need them for. They probably don’t look as nice though.

        • phelix says:

          Still, for everybody who isn’t gaming, the Air remains the answer to the question “what laptop should I buy when I have a nigh-infinite budget”.

          Fixed that for you.

  5. SuicideKing says:

    It’s also worth nothing that the 860M is the only model in the new line up based on Maxwell technology

    Um no even the GTX850M, 840M and 830M are Maxwell parts (look at the same AnandTech article you’ve linked to).

  6. Bugste81 says:

    So what is the GTX 860M equivelent to in a desktop PC e.g. 770GTX?

  7. Love Albatross says:

    I’ve got that 13.3-inch Clevo from PC Specialist. It isn’t anything special to look at and there are thinner and lighter 13-inchers out there, but it’s fucking fast, the screen is gorgeous and the keyboard is lovely. Nice touchpad, too, it actually has separate mouse buttons rather than one of those irritating all-in-one trackpads. Comfortably plays BF4 on high at 1080p with the config I’ve got. Worst part is the speakers, they’re garbage.

    • phelix says:

      Not sure if you’re a spambot, but thanks for the tip! Their laptops seem much more favourably priced than ye average prebuilt laptoppe.

      • Love Albatross says:

        No, I’m real…they really do put together good systems at the right price. I specifically wanted a 13-14″ gaming-capable laptop with configuration options, and that was one of the few places which offered it.

  8. TechnicalBen says:

    ” There will apparently be two 860M GPUs, one as detailed here and based on Maxwell tech, another based on the old GK106 Kepler chip. This is completely baffling. As one commenter on Anandtech says, it represents a new low in GPU spec obfuscation and is utterly deplorable.”
    New low? I don’t think you can get past the Even Horizon that is selling products by names that have no relation to the actual product.

    Imagine if we could do this in every industry?

  9. gruia says:

    Anyone who calls 750Ti unimpressive is an ignorant