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Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 review: The best 4K graphics card right now

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The Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 is no longer top dog in its GPU family – that honour now goes the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080Ti and, of course, the frankly ridiculous Titan Xp. However, with graphics card prices currently hitting all-time highs due to the rather ridiculous craze for cryptocurrency mining, the GTX 1080 is now our top choice for those after a 4K capable graphics card. If you don’t believe us, check out our best graphics card article to see why we’ve picked this one and not its Ti counterpart.

To help us discover why it’s our 4K graphics card of choice, we’ve got the economically monikered MSI Gaming X 8GB Twin Frozr VI. To the benchmarks!

Of course, many flavours of Nvidia’s new GeForce GTX 1080 wonder chipset are available, but all come with 2560 eye-candy-creating shader cores, 160 texture units, 64 rendering output units for spitting out finished pixels, a 256-bit memory bus and a healthy 8GB of memory. The standard core clock speed and boost clock (the latter roughly equivalent to turbo mode in a CPU) are 1,607MHz and 1,733MHz, but this MSI model 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. 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.

To see how it performs under pressure, I subjected it to Total War: Attila, The Witcher 3, Shadow of Mordor and GTA V under maxed out settings at 1080p, 1440p and 4K. Firstly, the GTX 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.

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.

The same goes for The Witcher 3. In fact, the GTX 1080 struggles just a little with The 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 with my 4K settings.

The step down to 2,560×1,440 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 1,920×1,080.

As for The Witcher 3, at first I thought the GTX 1080 had its measure at 2,560×1,440. 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 The Witcher 3 at 4K than lower resolutions. Of course, some games, like Shadow of Mordor, simply have laggy interfaces at any resolution. But the GTX 1080 doesn’t banish input lag to history.

All of which makes the conclusion regarding Nvidia’s GTX 1080 simple enough. It’s a clear and substantial step forward, there’s absolutely no question about that. It’s also not the multi-generational leap I was perhaps hoping for, nor the final answer to the will-it-play-4K question, but given today’s current price climate, it’s still a pretty good compromise either way. Unless you really want to fork out £900 for the GTX 1080Ti, of course.

It’s not like you’re saving much by dropping down to the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070Ti, either, as that’s just £50 less across the board. Really, you probably shouldn’t be buying a high-end graphics card like this at all right now – not at £650 and especially not at $1400 – but if you’re desperate to get something new and shiny for Final Fantasy XV, say, then the GTX 1080 is currently our top recommendation for 4K graphics.

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