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Nvidia release the most powerful GPU ever for the fourth time in under a year - but why?

Scared of the new Xbox, or scared of AMD?

Featured post It hungers for --new blood--

I appreciate that headline inclines a little towards melodrama, but this is really the situation: with AMD having spent the past year as something of a sleepy giant, Nvidia have been engaged in serial one-upmanship with themselves. Just under a year ago, their GTX 1080 GPU became handily the world’s most powerful consumer graphics card, followed by the even beefier 2016 Titan X shortly afterwards, which was then marginally pipped by the comparatively affordable GTX 1080 Ti last month. Now they’ve leapfrogged themselves once again with a new $1,200/£1,180 brute known as the GTX Titan Xp.

Specs’n’that below, but I think the bigger question here is ‘why are they doing this?’ Are they scared of AMD’s long-delayed riposte, or are they trying to trounce yesterday’s reveal of Microsoft’s new 4K Xbox?

Here’re the main numbers for the already-available Titan Xp:

NVIDIA CUDA Cores: 3840
Boost Clock (MHz): 1582
Memory Speed: 11.4 Gbps
Standard Memory Config: 12 GB GDDR5X
Memory Interface Width: 384-Bit
Memory Bandwidth: 547.7 GB/s

It’s a higher-spec refresh of the existing Pascal architecture rather than new-new, but the main thing it does is re-establish Nvidia’s ‘Titan’ brand as their biggest dog – the 1080 Ti having recently trumped (sorry) 2016’s Titan X for around two-thirds of the price.

Here’re the Ti’s numbers for comparison:

NVIDIA CUDA Cores: 3584
Boost Clock (MHz): 1582
Memory Speed: 11 Gbps
Standard Memory Config: 11 GB GDDR5X
Memory Interface Width: 352-Bit
Memory Bandwidth: 484 GB/s

So it’s a leap, but maybe not a gigantic one – the cores are the most meaningful gain there, as the other improvements can be obtained via surprisingly pain-free Ti overlocking. Make no mistake, the Titan Xp is more about bragging rights than anything else. A status symbol both for the company that makes it and for well-monied PC owners. Sucks to be anyone who bought a Titan X last year though (other than all the ways it doesn’t because they’re surely swimming in gold).

In many respects, the Xp is a repacking of the $5000 Quadro P6000 workstation card, which makes it a relative bargain if you’re a professional rendering sorta person. But though it’s based on the same Pascal GP102 chip, RAM is halved from 24GB to 12GB.

Anyhoo: while undeniably an impressive and desirable slab of technology, especially so soon after the last time Nvidia did this, no-one outside of that industry actually needs this card. There are very, very few usage scenarios where all that power will provide a meaningful benefit over what the £700 GTX 1080 Ti can do – multi-monitor gaming and absurd amounts of anti-aliasing at 4K, perhaps. It might be slightly longer before you ‘need’ to upgrade again, but if you’re the sort of person who can even begin to countenance spending $1200 on a graphics card then I imagine that’s an academic issue anyway.

Onto the why. I have three theories for you.

1) Because they can. 2016’s Pascal’s clearly been a particularly fruitful architecture for them and, for whether long-term planned-for or not, they seem able to keep on raising its ceiling in a way. In the absence of new top-end competition from AMD, who have stuck to smartly-priced mid-tier cards for the past year or so, they’ve had an open goal for free PR. They could possibly have jumped straight to 1080 Ti-level specs for the initial 1080, but this way they get more rounds of publicity (hello sorry).

2) Because they’re terrified of AMD’s much-anticipated Vega GPU, and are doing all they can to sell cards and/or overtake it in the performance stakes before its planned Q2 release (which, not being sure whether they mean real Earth quarters or AMD financial year quarters, could be any time or now, or not until deep into summer). No-one outside of AMD and their partners (including Bethesda, who they recently announced something of an alliance with) knows the full capabilities of Vega, but it has been seen running maxed-out 4K Doom at super-high frame rates, which at the very least suggests toe-to-toeing with the 1080, in the right games at least.

It may be that it whips anything Nvidia has to offer, or it may be that if offers similar performance for a fraction of a cost – either would be be a big shake-up for the market. Hence, speculation that Nvidia have been putting out new cards like there’s no tomorrow and released the Titan X-beating 1080 Ti for ‘just’ $700 because they’re running scared of Vega is understandable, if as yet unproven.

If that has been the thinking, I imagine it’s been successful too. Anecdotal I know, but I’ve been holding out for Vega to power my 3440×1440 Freesync monitor for quite a while, but gave up waiting and, though it’s cost me adaptive sync, now have a 1080 Ti all but guaranteeing me my sixty frames for the next couple of years and hopefully beyond. I very much doubt I’m alone, particularly because the vanilla 1080 saw a price cut in the wake of the Ti.

Though the AMD vs NVIDIA war is fought loudly and constantly on the internet, for most of us there’s no brand loyalty – it’s just about which card will best offer us a good whack of performance for a good amount of time, and that’s been a conversation Nvidia have been able to control for the past year. Although, conversely, AMD’s smartly-priced RX 480 has done a grand job of tying up what is now the lower tiers of the mid-range. Anyway: Vega’s going to be fascinating, as either it’s an enjoyably rug-pulling strike back or Nvidia’s stream of recent new cards has set the bar impossibly high.

3) Yesterday saw Eurogamer/Digital Foundry’s world exclusive reveal of the hardware powering Microsoft’s Xbox One Point 5, aka Project Scorpio, aka whatever they actually end up calling it. You should read their piece for full details and oh-so-many numbers, but the long and short of it is on-paper PS4 Pro-beating 4K performance (and a boost to 1080p performance to boot).

Scorpio uses a custom GPU that reads like a turbo charged Radeon RX 480 and is, in practice, liable to fall somewhere between the capabilities of a GTX 1060 and GTX 1070. (Though actual game performance is likely to be significantly better than that might imply, thanks to their being optimised for a fixed console spec, something that PC gaming does not enjoy).

More to the point, Scorpio’s GPU uses AMD architecture, which means the red team get to brag that they’re powering the world’s beefiest console. The Titan Xp can thus be read as a “yeah, but check this out” on Nvidia’s part.

Or, all of the above. Or, this was was always the pipeline. Alls I know is that, given how much has happened since, last year was, in hindsight, a bad time to buy a graphics card, even though it seemed like the opposite was true at the time.

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Alec Meer

Senior Editor

Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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