NVIDIA GTX 1080: A Big Leap, But Not Quite A 4K Slayer

GPU season is in full swing on the PC, and in typical fashion I’m ambling nautical miles behind the action as the interwebs battle to be the first with the benchmarks. But why be first when you can be 33rd? More to the point, why wheel out eleventy-six benchmarks when the web is already creaking under the strain of metrics in every conceivable manner? Instead, I shall cast objectivity to the four winds and deliver a more subjective take on Nvidia’s new top-end graphics card, courtesy of the economically monikered MSI Gaming X 8G Twin Frozr VI GeForce GTX 1080. After all, if you can’t feel the difference, what is the point?

What I’m mainly interested here is whether the new GTX 1080 feels like the double-generational jump I’ve mentioned previously. Is it truly that good?

Of course, many flavours of Nvidia’s new GeForce GTX 1080 wonder chipset are available. So best to begin by clarifying the specifics of the card in question, the MSI Gaming X 8G. There are some hard points defined by Nvidia’s GP104 chip that lies at the heart of the GTX 1080 card / chipset / whatever.

An MSI Gaming X 8G Twin Frozr VI GeForce GTX 1080, yesterday

So, that’s things like 2,560 eye candy-creating shader cores, 160 texture units for, you know, texturing stuff, 64 render output units for spitting out finished pixels, a 256-bit memory bus and a healthy 8GB dollop of memory. All of that applies to any 1080.

Beyond that, retail cards differ from Nvidia’s so-called reference chipset. The standard core clockspeed and boost clock (the latter roughly equivalent to turbo mode in a CPU) are 1,607MHz and 1,733MHz. This MSI board tops out at 1,708MHz and 1,847MHz respectively.

The MSI also cranks the memory speeds up, but by such a tiny amount that I won’t bother with the details. Truth be told, the tweaks to the operating frequencies don’t amount to anything you’re ever going to feel in games. What you might notice is the cooling solution.

A standard Nvidia board has an enclosed or ducted impeller-type fan for pumping hot, GPU’ed air straight out of the chassis. Sounds like a good idea? Yup, but as it happens sound is the problem. That kind of cooling is relatively noisy. So MSI, like a lot of non-reference designs, has ditched all that in favour of larger and more conventional fans.

Custom cooling makes for silent running

In fact, MSI has rigged this board to power down the fans under low load, making it totally silent. Long story short, this kind of cooling setup typically makes for less din.

If that’s how MSI Gaming X 8G stacks up against the Nvidia reference board, my yardstick will actually be a Sapphire AMD Radeon 290 board. Obviously the 290 is a fairly old card now. So this isn’t about direct comparisons for purchase. Instead I’m interested in both how the 1080 feels in isolation and also the question of whether it really does dramatically improve on the subjective experience of a high-end card from a couple of generations back.

For logistical reasons too abstruse to divulge, my virtual playgrounds in this case extend to Total War: Attila, Witcher 3, that bloody Mordor game and GTA V. As for graphics settings, the general rule is maxxed out, but I’ve flipped a few knobs to ‘off’ that either can’t be used across both Nvidia and AMD cards (like Nvidia Hairworks) or I summarily and unilaterally judge to be waste of GPU cycles. Neither the game title choices nor the settings are scientific. It’s not the point. Complaints on a postcard, which will be filed in the circular receptacle beneath my desk with an autocratic flourish.

Two cards, one review…

Oh, and resolution-wise I sniffed around each game and with each card at 1,920 by 1,080, 2,560 by 1,440 and ye olde 4K, otherwise known as 3,840 by 2,160 pixels. Anyway, that’s how I’m rolling and the scene is set. But what did I learn?

First, the 1080 is not a universal 4K panacea. It batters Shadow of Mordor and its orcish malevolence into submission at 4K, no question. Ditto GTA V. Both feel super slick and super smooth on the 1080 at 4K. That’s not something you can say about the Radeon 290. Think just about playable but slightly juddery and you’ll have the right idea.

Then there’s Total War: Attila. At first, I thought the GTX 1080 had that nailed, too. Then I zoomed right in among the troops and surprisingly but undeniably noted that the buttery smoothness gave way to the unmistakable staccato that accompanies fewer frames being rendered.

Time to dust off that old Radeon 290…

The same goes for Witcher 3. In fact, the 1080 struggles just a little with Witcher, generally. It’s playable, but not truly effortless. I don’t want to get bogged down with talk of frame rates, but if I had to guess, I’d put the GTX 1080 at the low 30s in Witcher with my 4K settings.

The 290, of course, is a total mess in Attila at 4K, thoroughly unpleasant and unplayable. It copes a bit better with Witcher, but 4K is frankly beyond it. So the new card is a big step forward. And yet not actually the 4K killer I’d hoped for.

The step down to 2,560 by 1,440 is where I was confident coming in that Nvidia’s new chip would render all comprehensively asunder. And yet, the harsh truth is that it doesn’t. Not quite. Again, zoom into among the troops in Attila and a very slight drop off can be felt. And before you blame that on CPU limitations, that doesn’t happen at 1,920 by 1,080.

This is where even the mighty new GTX 1080 comes unstuck

As for Witcher 3, at first I thought the GTX 1080 had its measure at 2,560 by 1,440. But knock things down to ‘1080’ and there’s a tangible uptick in smoothness and response. It’s subtle, but it’s definitely there.

Speaking of response, that remains a relevant issue for the GTX 1080. There’s definitely noticeably more input lag running Witcher 3 at 4K than lower resolutions. Of course, some games, like Shadow of Mordor, simply have laggy interfaces at any resolution. But the new 1080 doesn’t banish input lag to history.

All of which makes the conclusion regards Nvidia’s new chip simple enough. It’s a clear and substantial step forward, there’s absolutely no question about that. But it’s not the multi-generational / er-me-gerd leap I was hoping for nor the final answer to the will-it-play-4K question.

That’s a problem when you factor in this particular MSI board’s frankly staggering £695 price (I won’t mention the B-word, but it seems the US price doesn’t look quite as bad, coming in a little over $700). It’s a very nice board, be in no doubt. It runs super silent, it’s very nicely made and it’s compact enough to be compatible with a wide range of systems. But, even though slower and less impressively-cooled variants up to £100 cheaper are available, Nvidia has nonetheless priced the GTX 1080 chipset up in the stratosphere and there’s a mismatch between that and the performance on offer.

As ever, of course, the bang-for-buck sweetspot is rarely to be found near the top of the GPU pile. Watch this space…

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57 Comments

  1. axfelix says:

    Hum, OK. The Titan X was good enough for smooth 1440p with Gsync, so I’d expect this to work for 1440p without Gsync, but maybe not good enough for 4k, even with Gsync. Have to wait for the rumoured next Titan for that, but given how high the aftermarket prices are on the 1080 right now, I don’t think it’s coming anytime soon.

  2. Jediben says:

    Just buy two. Simple.

  3. Rodman1_r2 says:

    Don’t play games at 4k. Simple. Play in 1920×1080 and use AA instead.

    • gunny1993 says:

      …. Never played @4K have you? Hell 1440 with AA isn’t as good as 4K with no AA the pixel density just wins out everytime.

      • epeternally says:

        1440 with antialiasing is definitely the sweet spot from where I’m sitting, and I say that as someone making full time use of a 4k monitor. The extra resolution just doesn’t look good enough to warrant the massive performance cost. The difference between 1080 and 1440 is huge, both in games and in interface, the jump to 2160 is a lot more subtle. A 1440 IPS panel will serve most people better than a 2160 TN panel. If I were to replace mine, that’s definitely the direction I’d go, at least with the market as it is right now.

  4. Dale Winton says:

    nice card but far too expensive , especially in the UK

    • Malcolm says:

      FWIW the price premium in the UK appears to be about 10% at current exchange rates, after taking VAT into account.

    • vorador says:

      AMD still lacks a response to nvidia higher-end cards, so sadly they can put whatever price they want since there’s no real competition.

  5. Kamikaze-X says:

    Saying that this card is not CPU limited at 1080p is wrong. I own a 1070 (I play at 2560×1080 but benchmark 1080p) and that is limited if I leave my 4690K at 4.0Ghz. To really get proper performance out of a 1070, and especially the 1080 you need to be looking at CPU speeds approaching 4.7-4.8Ghz. At 4.0Ghz my 1070 hits approx 19K graphics score in Fire Strike but with my CPU at 4.7Ghz will do nearly 21K. Framerates are clearly higher in most games too. Also, adding in overclocking both the 1080 and the 1070 will hit 2.1Ghz easily. If you have one of the AIB cards,they will maintain this speed for ages, and most are able to clock the RAM to 9Ghz effective (the 1080 even higher).

    • Jeremy Laird says:

      I didn’t say the card isn’t CPU limited at 1080p. In fact, I implied the opposite.

      • Kamikaze-X says:

        “Again, zoom into among the troops in Attila and a very slight drop off can be felt. And before you blame that on CPU limitations, that doesn’t happen at 1,920 by 1,080.” I have a tired brain but this implies to me as I read it and re-read it that there is no CPU limitation at 1080p, when there certainly is. Because FPS is higher at lower resolution doesn’t mean the CPU isn’t limiting the absolute performance available from the GPU.

        • Sakkura says:

          Nah, the idea is that when performance is better at 1080p than at 1440p, it must have been the GPU holding performance back at 1440p, not the CPU (or not the CPU alone, anyway).

        • Unclepauly says:

          I also want to add that CPU limitation is different on a per-game basis. Some games are CPU limited at almost 4k res while others are cpu limited at 720p. All depends on the game engine. There’s no way you can state cpu limitation in 3d mark means a gpu is limited by the cpu in all games. That’s not how games work.

  6. Kamikaze-X says:

    *damn no editing* and to add, the price in comparison to performance, on raw numbers, is good. It is faster than a Titan X which retails at £900 on amazon. The 1070 is just about faster than a Titan X too and I got mine for £400 on the nose. That is what this generation is about – its performance that most can only dream of at reduced power and lower, little bit more reasonable price. My 1070 is an investment and just in my price range, and will last me a good few years from now.

    • Moraven says:

      So a little leap like the past few generations?

      • sosolidshoe says:

        Not really, we’re effectively seeing previous-gen best performance + a touch more from what are, fundamentally, the midrange enthusiast cards of the new gen. The B-word and lack of competition from AMD mean the pricing on the new cards is higher than it should be, but these *are* the midrange cards, so 30%-ish additional performance over the previous gen equivalent cards with less noise & power draw is pretty acceptable, and the pricing should calm down over time(though not as much as it should until AMD pull the finger out).

        The new versions of the Ti and the Titan will be the “4K killers” of this gen. I’m still upgrading to the 1080, both because I’m coming from a 7970 so the difference to me will be night & day, and because I don’t cack gold bars so the Ti and Titan will be out of my pricerange regardless(I managed to lock-in a preorder on and Inno3d 1080 for £580 before the prices went totally wonko, at present prices I’d have been forced to get a 1070 instead).

  7. ScubaMonster says:

    This is why I’m in no rush to upgrade to higher resolutions. I’ll make that leap when GPUs easily handle those resolutions without breaking the bank. I could be in for a long wait, but that’s fine by me. Also why I got a 1070 and don’t bother with top end. I just finally replaced my 550 ti because the Doom demo was hammering it pretty hard (though I still managed to play it, just not under ideal circumstances by any means). I’ll be set for a good long while. Hopefully when it’s time to upgrade again 4K will be doable without paying $600-$700 for a GPU.

    • Cederic says:

      Yeah, I went 1070 for my 2560×1440 screen and the 4k monitor can wait for the graphics card capable of driving it.

      By then I may be too old to read text on a 4k screen anyway.

  8. TrentTech says:

    I just built a machine with this exact card, luckily sniped it the other week when Ebuyer got its first stock and hadn’t ramped up the price though logistics led to only building the rig this week.

    Having come from a 3 year old 1080p notebook with a 780m the performance leap is mindblowing. Every game I have tried so far runs substantially faster at higher settings at a higher resolution. I haven’t had it long but I really can’t fault it so far, worth every penny for me.

    I certainly get that it’s probably not worth it at the price if you’re coming from something more recent or more powerful like a 980, but if you’re looking for a major upgrade from something a few years old and relatively low powered by today’s standards then I’d say a 1080 is definitely worth it.

    • Imaginary Llamas says:

      I too am upgrading from a 1080p laptop, although it has a 660M so I’ll see an even bigger performance leap. Given that I’m perfectly happy playing at 1080p as well, the GTX 1080 should last me a good long while.

      • Unclepauly says:

        A gtx 1080 is a complete waste of a card. The 1060 is enough for that res. You are wasting half the cards performance.

        • Unclepauly says:

          I meant waste of a card at 1080p lol brainfarts are fun

          • Imaginary Llamas says:

            I forgot to mention that I am doing a bit of VR development at the moment soooooo actually it isn’t a waste.

  9. zat0ichi says:

    Read a review (i know I’m sorry i read other sites) of 1070’s in SLI.

    Cost a bit more and can just about 4k at 60fps some of the big games of the season.
    But not all and the max/min frame rates do differ by 15%.

    So 4k is not here, the next GPU update will be incremental and so we’re looking at 3 or 4 years I guess.

    By then 4k displays will be affordable.

  10. TWChristine says:

    I might’ve completely misunderstood everything, but I could have sworn that when these (1080 and 1070) were announced, they were saying that the 1080 would be better/faster than a Titan, but also less than the cost of the 980 at launch. Same with the 1070, it would be better than the 980 and cheaper than..something. Anyway, am I to understand either that A: I misunderstood this, or B: was the 980 actually over $700 when it came out?

    My 680 (I think..) died several months ago, and JUST before I was about to drop around $400 on a 980, these were announced, so I’ve held off. While I didn’t expect the 1080 to be close to $400, I also didn’t expect it to be 300 more! I’m also wondering if maybe I should just wait even longer to see what all AMD is going to do and where there cards will stand in comparison.

    • gunny1993 says:

      Nah, Nvidia have just been pulling some serious wank level price gouging, they have 2 editions the FE edition and the normal edition, only the FE edition is out currently and it costs 100 more, allegedly the non FE edition should be out soon and bring prices down.

      • Premium User Badge

        PoulWrist says:

        This MSI card is a non-founders edition. The FE is just nVidia saying they won’t compete with their board partners, so they priced it artificially high, but can still say that a new card is only whatever the msrp is. Except of course it just means that all cards will be this much more expensive.

        I have a 680 as well, it still lives, but 1440p is beginning to be too much for it. I played Doom at reasonable framerates at medium and 90% resolution, but that is about as high as modern titles will go on it and still sit over 45fps.

        Going to wait more, though. The board partner Radeon 480 cards are more interesting to me than nVidia overpriced stuff, and it’s more fun to have less than the best possible. Depends on their prices, though, and I might just wait until the end of the year to see what AMDs top end looks like.

  11. mattevansc3 says:

    So will we be seeing more subjective articles? I feel its more the RPS style, a Wot I Think for hardware.

    Seeing as you’ve gone more subjective would you be veering further away from reviews and looking at more “real world” issues?

    Most reviewers use the best CPUs available to remove bottlenecks but as someone with a i5 4750(?)K and 8GB DDR3 I’d rather know at what point my PC will act as the bottleneck and I stop seeing gains on a better GPU.

    • Sakkura says:

      Good point. Using the best possible CPU etc. to isolate GPU performance is the right thing to do in the “scientific” GPU reviews, but going in with an everyman kind of build would make a ton of sense for RPS hardware Wot I Thinks.

    • gunny1993 says:

      Except in vary rare situations (ARMA, TotalWarhammer) you’re pretty freaking unlikely to see a bottleneck on that CPU, and even then it’s not going to be a hard bottleneck. I mean, Even in Warhammer I would be damned surprised to see more than a few (5 or 6) FPS difference.

      • gunny1993 says:

        BTW, that number is based on the FPS differences between my cpu (2500K) and my buddy who has a more recent i7 but the same GPU.

        Also lets not forget overclocking my 2500K goes up to like 4.8 GHZ

    • Jeremy Laird says:

      Yes, there will be more pieces like this on the new GPUs. Well, at least one more as I already have a certain card in hand.

      Assuming access, I’ll do all the major new GPUs that have and will launch this GPU season.

    • sosolidshoe says:

      Put it this way – I’m upgrading to a 1080, but rather than buy a new CPU I bought a Kraken X61 AIO cooler for a fraction of the price of a new CPU/Mobo/RAM triad and intend to overclock my 3570K, and I don’t expect to see a CPU bottleneck except in one or two games.

      Sad fact is if you have any of the unlocked midrange-enthusiast cores from the last 7 or 8 years you can whack a modest OC on it and almost always get performance in gaming terms equivalent to the latest i7. CPU advances of late have been pretty meaningless unless you do heavy editing and design work with software that can actually fully exploit parallelism. Maybe in another couple of cycles, after DX12 and Vulkan have properly bedded in, you might need to upgrade your CPU for gaming, but unless you’re rocking something truly archaic you should be fine.

  12. causticnl says:

    this is quite possibly the worst time to buy a gfx card. all the brands are at the start of their developing cycle, with all the problems related to that, and the prices at their highest.

    • Grant says:

      A month ago you had to pay $1,000 (Titan X) and you’d still get less performance than the new $450 model (the 1070). This is the worst time this cycle to buy a new gpu but the new models are better performance and lower electricity consumption for the same price. Things certainly haven’t gotten worse in the last month, they’ve actually gotten much better.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Herzog says:

    Nice card, but not for me. Currently waiting for the GTX1050 or RX460 as a replacement for my GTX750ti. Low wattage gpu power ftw!!!

  14. Sakkura says:

    Yeah my money was (and still is?) on the GTX 1080 Ti as the card that will finally make “core” gaming in 4K a really solid experience. Of course it’s probably going to cost an arm and a leg, and who knows when Nvidia will actually serve up that card.

    And meanwhile AMD is focusing on much cheaper mainstream cards, so they’re just entirely out of the 4K conversation for the time being.

    • ooshp says:

      …except for the 490 which is specifically described as a 4K card and should be launching very soon.

  15. Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

    Hi Jeremy, should I buy a gtx 1060 when it comes out? Currently have 2 r9 270s in crossfire, and I’m really looking for a clean single GPU solution. I will be buying a 2k monitor with a high refresh rate in future, so what do you think?

    • gunny1993 says:

      1060 would probably be a bad investment @ 1440 (or 2K) you’re going to have to sacrifice some quality or FPS ate some point, would be better to get a beefier card and then it would be best to wait to see what AMD does to compete with the 1070 and see if they can drive each others prices down.

      Ofc i’m assuming you wana play the latest games looking as best as possible.

    • Jeremy Laird says:

      Watch this space for coverage…

      • Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

        Thanks Jezza, consider this space watched. I’m in no huge rush anyway. It’ll be nice to hear from you what i can do, as googling for this kind of information tends to either leave me lost at sea, surrounded by pointless benchmarks, or it leaves me irritated about all the people pretending to know more than they do. What you say is always succinct and believable :)

  16. GenialityOfEvil says:

    Does that 290 have a leaf on it?

  17. OmNomNom says:

    I managed to bag myself a couple of asus 1080 strix oc for about 620 each. Both oc to 2075/11000 or so, happy with the purchase so far. BF1 alpha definitely enjoyed the perf boost.
    1440p all the way. Even if you have two, imo.

  18. Anti-Skub says:

    While I understand the logic of not getting too bogged down in specifics in this article, I can’t help but feel that the only conclusion you actually came to here is that “1080p feels smoother than 2k”, which I don’t think really required saying…you’re so unspecific that the article is almost pointless.

    • Veles says:

      No, the point of the article is to point out that there’s still no single card solution that can comfortably handle 4k. Also that even in 2k things aren’t as smooth at all times that people would hope for from such an expensive card.

  19. Vesperan says:

    The 1070/1080’s are hugely out of my price range. I’m looking forward to the AMD Radeon RX 480’s being in stock somewhere. Its hard to tell whether they’re selling like hotcakes, or if there are no hot cakes.

    Nvidia’s coming hard and fast with that 1060 though, they’re not giving AMD any quarter. Once we have good availability of all of these cards in a month or two it will be a fantastic time to get a new graphics card, no matter your budget.

    • Whelp says:

      Same here. I’ll give it 3 more months to see how the 1060’s price settles and how the third-party 480s are gonna turn out.

  20. Blackrook says:

    Is there anyone else out there who reads these higher end hardware/VR articles in the same way other people look at property porn. Can look and drool a bit, but the wife’s not going to like it!

    • gunny1993 says:

      You certainly can’t use the excuse “But it’s an investment for the future” with high end hardware …. not that you can do that with UK houses anymore anyway.

  21. Chaz says:

    So my 980Ti I bought last November for £500 is still a good buy then?

    There was a lot of hoo haa made about these cards over the past months about how they were going to be twice as fast as a Titan X and way cheaper, like in the £300-£350 ball park.

    “Sell your 980Ti now! You’ll be lucky to get £200 for it when the Pascal cards come out.” Sure, I didn’t think that would be the case some how. So just a bit faster than a Titan X and still hideously expensive.

  22. Premium User Badge

    Grizzly says:

    It should be noted that Attila’s max settings, “Extreme”, means that the game is cranked up beyond any notion of optimilization. It’s there purposefully to be a challenge to the next gen. Crank the slider down one notch and it should work a bit more splendidly.

    • Premium User Badge

      Grizzly says:

      It does look proper lovely though. Reminds me of what I have been missing thus far, just like the RPS Forum Screenshot thread posting pictures of Dirt Rally at full crop.

      I mean…
      Wow.

  23. dax45 says:

    i’m running a 3.4 ghz i5-3570 cpu, 24 gigs DDR3, 980 GTX and a 49 inch 4k LG TV with a true rate of 60 hz for computer.

    i’m running most games at 3840 x 2160 at the highest settings and they run fine like Witcher 3.

    they one i get stutter on is Arkham Knight, still, and have to use lower settings for it to be smooth.

    they are making 120hz TV’s and not sure when they are coming out but playing games on 4k is totally viable even now

    darren