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Week in Tech: Desktop Vs Laptop, Kinda

Time to ditch that desktop?

Sometimes, the numbers aren't enough. When you compare what the new Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M looks like on paper with what it will actually do stuffed into a laptop PC, grudgingly you concede this is one of those times. Nvidia's latest graphics chip for laptops looked good at launch, but a few weeks later I've now had a play and it's burst right through my cynical, dessicated, world-weary attitude to the technology refresh cycle. This thing takes laptop gaming to a new level. Great. But here's the real question. Is it good enough to finally put that desktop vs laptop debate to bed? Time to find out...

Now, I know I just said the numbers aren't enough. But they are a starting point. We've been over this before, but for context the GTX 980M is based on Nvidia's GM204 GPU, which forms the basis of the new GeForce GTX 970 and 980 desktop video cards.

They're performance graphics boards, but the GM204 is more of a mid-sized graphics chip, rather than the power-hungry GK110 monster that first appeared as the GeForce GTX Titan. That's important, because it makes it suitable for use in laptop PCs.

It's also based on Nvidia's Maxwell graphics tech. And that's important because Maxwell majors on efficiency more than anything else. Again, ideal for a laptop PC.

Anyway, for context GM204 is cut down from 2,048 of those pixel-processing shader things in this mobile format to 1,536. That's the same shader count, it just so happens, as the desktop GeForce GTX 680 board, which two years ago was just about the fastest pixel pumper you could buy.

A marketing image from Nvidia, yesterday.

Except, these are Maxwell shaders, not the Kepler shaders of the 680. And that means they do roughly 30 per cent more, er, graphicsing than a Kepler shader every clock cycle. And the mobile 980M is clocked actually a tick higher than the desktop 680, so...

Of course, I knew all this before. I've mentioned most of it before, too. But it still doesn't truly prepare you for seeing proper games rendered smoothly in full detail at 2,880 by 1,620 pixels.

Yes, that's right, 2,880 by 1,620 bloody pixels in a 15-inch notebook. The laptop in question is the new Gigabyte P35X v3, a full review of which I've penned for my long-time benefactor PC Format mag and I am duty bound to say will be on the shelves in a few weeks (other PC magazines are available).

Anyway, it's not actually the Apple Retina refugee I thought it might be since Apple still does 16:10 screens, and that means 2,880 by 1,800 pixels. But it's still overkill, right?

I'm not so sure. You see, the pixel pitch is so tight, the need for anti-aliasing is marginal. There's still a little pixel walk along the edges of some objects. But you really have to be looking out for it. And the 980M, astonishingly, will render GPU killers like Metro: Last Light pretty smoothly at 2,880 by 1,620 so long as you don't crank up the AA.

Nvidia giveth, and Ubisoft taketh away...

Intriguingly, that super-fine pixel pitch also means you can play at 1,920 by 1,080 interpolated without games looking blurry and washed out. So that's your other option – dropping down to 1080p with AA enabled.

If you're looking for specifics in terms of frame rates, well, at 2,880 by 1,620 in really demanding games, most have minimums in the mid to high 20s and averages around 40. Drop to 1080p and add AA and it's more like 30-something and 50 respectively.

The fact that the 980M can actually handle the higher res of the 2,880 by 1,620 panel is pretty staggering and bodes well for the longevity of the 980M as a gaming chip. Hard core early adopters will love the high res panel and the options it gives you. But I think most people will be better off with a plain 1080p panel in a gaming notebook. Paired with the 980M you'd have a portable that can handle just about anything you can chuck at it today without the need to tune the settings with most games. Just whack everything to maximum.

Including Ass' Creed Unity? I didn't try. But that's a game with frame rates limited more by corporate fecklessness than any technological shortcomings the 980M might have.

What's more, observe the Gigabyte lappy in question and you might also think Nvidia's Maxwell architecture is so clever it enables all this in a properly thin-and-light chassis. And it does. But only with a level of fan noise that would wake the dead. In a different time zone. Of a parallel universe. Oh, and also by pumping out air so hot, you suspect that hissing sound is partly electrons fizzing away from atomic nuclei. Well, nearly.

Very thin. Tolerably light. Unbelievably noisy.

This is the 980M's one obvious weakness. It's incredibly quick, but still not, I don't reckon, suitable for slim portables despite that clever Maxwell technology. So, the Gigabyte P35X is bloody impressive, but I struggle to imagine how it's not going to develop cooling problems with use. Just about every gaming laptop I've ever had, and there have been plenty, has developed heat management problems over time.

In practice, then, you probably need one of those uber-brick systems to have a hope of containing the 980M's thermals properly. But they're barely laptops in portability terms, so you may as well go for a small-form factor PC with a desktop GPU. And then suddenly you begin to wonder what the point of it all is.

Metro at 2,880 by 1,620 on a laptop is quite a sight...

The other problem is pricing. The Gigabyte laptop in questions is £1,600-plus (not clear if it's available in the US, but must be a roughly $2,000 system) and that puts it out of reach of most of us. I certainly wouldn't pay that much for a laptop that you can't upgrade (ie nearly all of them). Actually, I wouldn't pay that much for any laptop.

For the record, there's also a slightly less powerful GeForce GTX 970M which I haven't tried but will allow for slightly cheaper portable rigs. But at best it might shave £100 off when really I'd rather the price was cut in half.

All of which means I've started off with boundless enthusiasm and somehow managed to convince myself that nothing has really changed. Gaming laptops are still conspicuously poor value. Desktops still make far more sense as gaming rigs. And Maxwell doesn't do quite enough to change that.

I'm also uneasy about the sense that Nvidia is increasingly dominating the graphics scene right now. It's not entirely true - AMD still has some compelling graphics cards for PCs at certain price points. But at the same time there's a worrying lack of genuinely new graphics tech from AMD. And there's certainly no denying Nvidia has the performance end of the gaming laptop market sown up right now with these new Maxwell GPUs.

If you've money (and upper thighs) to burn, of course, there's also no denying the new 980M makes for one hell of a gaming portable. You pays your money. You takes your choice.

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