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Week in Tech: Nvidia's New GPUs Are Stupidly Good

My Oculus Rift is better than yours...

Last week, Nvidia's unstoppable NDA force ran up against the immovable object that is Week in Tech's Thursday slot. Now it's all out in the open and we can take in just what Nvidia has achieved with its new high performance Maxwell graphics. And not at an altogether offensive price either, at least for one of the new 3D chipsets Nvidia wheeled out last Friday, the £250 / $320 Nvidia GeForce GTX 970.

Is the 970 the new no brainer, the default weapon of choice for any of you lot with around £250 / $300 to spend on graphics? As I write these words, yes. Nvidia really has produced something very special. But then I'm writing these words roughly 24 hours before you'll read them and by then it's just faintly possible Nvidia's main rival AMD might very well have buggered things up for me with its own announcement. Again! It was ever thus in the graphics card silly season...oh, and we have a little update on AMD vs Nvidia in the battle for virtual reality rendering supremacy.

Mighty Maxwell, part 2
Let's put the latest round of rumours on the back burner for now and talk about what we actually know – Nvidia's new graphics cards. As ever, I'll stick a brief TL;DR précis at the bottom for those of you who simply want to be told what to think and whether to buy. For the rest, the full narrative now follows.

Mercifully, there are just two new graphics cards from Nvidia and they're almost names we can all actually grasp. The newbies are the Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 and 970. They effectively replace Nvidia's high-end GeForce GTX 700 series GPUs - cards like the GTX 780 and 780 Ti. The take home fact is this: you get more performance for less money. In some cases, a lot more for a lot less.

It all started with the dinky little 750 Ti back in February

So, what makes them tick? It's the Maxwell architecture we first saw in the GTX 750 Ti back in February . Yup, that means the 750Ti is a Maxwell GPU. The new 980 and 970 are Maxwell. And the GeForce GTX 800 series has basically been skipped on the desktop (it's been used as a badge for some mobile graphics chips).

It's frustrating and I have no idea why Nvidia (and AMD, to be fair) insists on making its branding as confusing as possible. But it is what it is. Like I said, there are only two of them and 980 / 970 are at least unambiguously 'newer' than the old 700 series.

At this point I would normally drag you through the speeds and feeds. You know, the shader counts (sodding CUDA cores in Nvidia parlance), the ROPs, the textures, the clocks, the bus width. But not this time. Anandtech has a table that handles that well enough for those of you who want to tally up shader counts. Instead, I reckon it's much more worthwhile to understand the character of these new chips.

What makes Maxwell so good?
What you need to grasp is that, in some areas, the new chips are less complex than the ones they replace. The new GTX 980 has fewer shaders than the old 780 Ti, for instance. And yet it's faster pretty much all round in games. That's the brilliance of Maxwell.

The performance for every watt of power used by these things is off the map. They are simply miles more efficient than before. You might think that doesn't matter much on the desktop. We're only talking about an energy-efficient light bulb or two at most in terms of the energy saved.

The £250 / $320 GTX 970 is a bona fide no brainer

In those terms, I'd agree. But where the efficiency really pays is pricing. Truth be told, the new GM204 graphics chip that underpins these new 3D cards (the 'M' in 'GM' stands for Maxwell) is really a mid-range item in terms of size and complexity. But it has ungodly high end performance thanks to that clever Maxwell architecture.

The sordid matter of money
And that's why you can buy the GTX 970 version of GM204 for as little as £250 in the UK and $320 in the US. The 980 isn't nearly as impressive value at £425 and $550.

Actually, there's one more benefit to that efficiency – overclockability. I don't normally even mention overclocking graphics cards given the typically meagre results. But everybody around the web seems to be consistently squeezing at least 1.4GHz out of these things. A GTX 970 running at 1.4GHz is an awful, awful lot of PC gaming grunt for the money.

Put it this way. The 970 overclocked is pretty much on a par with big money beasts from Nvidia's outgoing generation, GPUs like the GTX 780 Ti and GTX Titan Black. It's that good.

So, yes, I'm gushing despite being aware that £250/$320 is hardly throw-away money for most of us. I still believe £200/$250 should be the target for a GPU like the GTX 970. But it's a while since we had something around that price point with anything like this much punch compared to the big money cards from the previous generation. And from such an efficient, relatively unstressed card, to boot. It's a big step in the right direction.

As for the GTX 980, obviously it's faster still. But it's so much more money, I'm not sure I care.

Killer VR cards?
One final point involves VR and the Oculus Rift, the DK2 variant of which Alec happens to have recently had a sniff around. Among the usual guff related to new features – you know, spectacularly tedious new forms of anti-aliasing, lighting models you wish you never knew existed, that sort of thing – was one potentially valuable nugget.

Nvidia reckons Maxwell GPUs will be killer for VR gaming...

Nvidia claims to have hard wired Maxwell for virtual reality rendering. The details probably don't matter, but the key claim is a halving in latency from 50ms on current hardware to 25ms with Maxwell GPUs.

What we're talking about here is the time taken for the image to respond to a movement of your head. And that's critical in terms of both immersion and minimising motion sickness. This is something I haven't had a chance to verify. I'm also not sure if it's truly a feature only Maxwell-based GPUs can deliver or something Nvidia is restricting to Maxwell for marketing purposes.

Moreover, having looked into this a little more it may be that this feature isn't unique to Nvidia. See the AMD update below.


Nvidia GTX 970, £250 / $320
The new price-performance king. Similar performance to the mega-money cards from the outgoing generation for about half the price. Stupidly efficient. Overclocks like a mentalist. Crazy fast for the money. Buy one. Well, unless AMD has come up with something today (see below).

Nvidia GTX 980, £425 / $550
Nvidia's new single-GPU killer. Super impressive technically. But stupidly over priced compared to the 970.

Relevant to both new GPUs:
Nvidia is claiming Maxwell GPUs will cut latency in half during virtual reality rendering (think Oculus Rift), increasing immersion and reducing motion sickness. Jury is out on this feature, but it could be critical.

AMD update:
False alarm. The announcement turned out to be some AMD FirePro cards being relaunched. In India.

However, the noise around a possible AMD launch did have me looking a little deeper into Nvidia's claims for VR and Oculus Rift optimisations with Maxwell. According to Tom Forsyth, Oculus VR's Software Architect, the very same lag-mitigating optimisations are already available in AMD's GCN GPUs. So that's Radeon HD 7000 series or newer. Oh, and GCN-based consoles, ie Xbox One and PS4. However, Forsyth also seemed to indicate that AMD may not have fully exposed its version in software.

This is very much emergent technology so it will take a while to unpick any technical advantages that may exist re AMD vs Nvidia and VR rendering. Which is probably fine since VR in general and products like the Oculus Rift aren't ready for mainstream adoption. But it certainly wouldn't be the first time Nvidia oversold a feature. And it equally wouldn't be the first time AMD didn't make the most of one.

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Jeremy Laird