Nvidia said Tuesday that it has hit a true milestone for portable gaming with its new GeForce GTX 980 laptop GPU—true 1:1 performance with its desktop counterpart.
That’s right, there’s no ‘m.’ The new GPU is essentially the same as putting a desktop GeForce GTX 980 into a laptop. In fact, Nvidia said, the new laptop GPU is the exact same desktop chip. It has the same 2,048 CUDA cores, the same memory bandwidth, and the same 256-bit memory bus. With the laptop GeForce GTX 980, it says, a consumer can now buy a single-GPU laptop or desktop and get the same graphics performance.
Why this matters: Never before has single-GPU performance ever been at parity between laptops and desktops. That meant consumers who needed to take their gaming on the go have always had to compromise. That era ends with the new GPU.
How Nvidia did it
So how do you take a ginormous GPU like the desktop GeForce GTX 980 with its 165-watt thermals and power requirements and jam it into a laptop? Very carefully.
Kaustubh Sanghani, a general manager with Nvidia, said to pull off such a feat, the chips are first sorted for power requirements. Known as “binning,” chips can be sorted like diamonds for certain characteristics. Sanghani said the chips with the best power characteristics make the GeForce GTX 980 what it is.
You might think this approach means it’s a limited-edition vapor part that vanishes once the cream of the crop is exhausted, but Nvidia said it’s not. The company, in fact, is going out the gate with no fewer than six laptop models from partners including Aorus, Asus, Clevo, and MSI.
Besides the binning, Sanghani said cramming a desktop GPU into a laptop also took an enormous amount of engineering to shrink down the board. One issue Nvidia said it had to solve was the trace routes, or the path of the wires that run between the GPU and the RAM. For the utmost in performance, graphics cards use very wide parallel memory buses, which means cramming identical-length wires into a tiny amount of space. This can lead lead to interference that can kill performance, but Sanghani said the new card can hit the same exact same memory bandwidth of the desktop card.
When asked if the use of HBM memory would have been easier, Nvidia officials said this new GTX 980 hit the RAM speeds it needed to with what it has, and oh yeah, unlike HBM, you can actually get the GDDR5 used in the new GPU. AMD and its RAM partner SK Hynix have never commented on the yields of the new HBM memory, but there’s growing suspicion in the industry that the hard-to-get next-generation RAM could be holding back wider availability of AMD's new Fury lineup. It’s mostly an academic discussion anyway, as the GeForce GTX 980 was always designed for GDDR5.
You want overclocking, you get overclocking
Sanghani said the other engineering feat in the new GeForce GTX 980 is supplying enough power to run it. While the GeForce GTX 980m uses three-phase power, he said, the GeForce GTX 980 was designed to be built with four to eight phases.
If you think of a phase as an individual channel, adding more phases generally means each channel has to work less, which in theory increases reliability and stability. With the new design, Sanghani said there's 50 percent more peak current available to the GPU than there is for the GeForce GTX 980m.
Normally this wouldn’t matter that much, but Nvidia also intended for the new GPU to be very overclocker-friendly and overclocking usually requires access to a very clean, stable power source. Overclocking implementation can be decided by the notebook builder and will be dependent on the capabilities of the platform, but one demonstration showed the card running with about a 200MHz boost overclock.
The same design flexibility goes for thermals. Nvidia didn’t release details of the thermal design profile of the new GPU, saying it’s dependent on the laptop design.
VR capable, and surround gaming as well
Nvidia said the new laptop GeForce GTX 980 is the first mobile GPU capable of running VR. The company demonstrated an Oculus Rift DK2 running several games and demos.
While you might think the tiny screen in a VR headset doesn’t require much graphics power, it actually needs more. Gaming on a standard two-megapixel, 1920x1080 monitor at 60 fps takes about 120 million pixels per second, Sanghani said. But gaming on, say, the HTC Vive requires the GPU to push 1680x1512 per eye and also run at 90 fps. That means the GPU now has to push about 450 million pixels per second.
That’s something the GeForce GTX 980m can’t hack, but the new GeForce GX 980 can, the company says. For the record, the minimum GPU for the the Oculus Rift DK2 is a GeForce GTX 970.
While I can see someone hauling around a gaming laptop with a DK2, the second use case for all this power seems a little less likely. Surround gaming has been possible on a laptop for sometime, but Nvidia said the GeForce GTX 980 can now push it all in a single GPU. It showed off another Clevo unit running Project CARS on three 1920x1080 monitors in surround.
Read on to see the lineup of GeForce GTX 980 laptops and their performance.
Initially, six laptops will be introduced with the new chip. Some will be familiar.
The most graphically powerful of all the laptops introduced may very well be the refreshed MSI GT80. I can’t give the final word until I test a unit, but it has a leg up over all the other laptops: It runs two GeForce GTX 980 cards in SLI. The previous version that I reviewed is among the fastest gaming laptops I’ve seen. I covered MSI’s new lineup but back then, there was no word on the GPU. Now we know why. The company’s GT72 also gets the GeForce GTX 980 buff.
Nvidia also had on hand Asus’ wild laptop, the GX700 which will be the first laptop with a docking water cooling system. Asus actually unveiled it at IFA, but the GPU was a secret. We still have no idea how it works exactly. Asus let Nvidia show the laptop but we weren’t allowed to turn it on or undock it. Foo.
The other laptop I want to highlight here is the Aorus X7 DT. This appears to be updated version of the Aorus X7 Pro Sync. Aorus’ approach with the X7 was to find a way to offer a ton of performance in a thin laptop. It’s no ultrabook, but at 23mm it’s not bad.
The way Aorus pumped up the performance was to use two GeForce GTX 970 cards in SLI. That actually put it well above the performance of a single GeForce GTX 980m, and it may actually be as fast as the GeForce GTX 980 in some tasks. SLI doesn’t come without costs, though, and in some games, the GeForce GTX 980 will indeed be faster. Still, this is a lot of performance in one thin laptop.
Of the six laptops Nvidia showed off, five were running G-sync panels. I’m torn. G-sync on a desktops OK. G-sync on laptops that can’t push more than 60 fps, even better. But G-sync works best for me when frame rates dip to the 30 to 40 fps range. With a GeForce GTX 980 paired with a 1920x1080 panel, you’d really have to get the frame rates to dip below 60 fps for it to pay big dividends.
That's on today’s games of course. The strength of G-sync is that in two to three years, when new games drag the frame rates to low ranges, it’ll still look good on a G-sync laptop.
If you’ve come this far, you need to go on because we’ll get into the actual performance of the GeForce GTX 980 vs. a desktop part.
Fer real? Looks like it
If you still can’t believe Nvidia has all the performance of a GeForce GTX 980 in a laptop you’ll have to peep this. To prove it’s real, Nvidia showed off a Clevo laptop outfitted with a laptop GeForce GTX 980 and a desktop—yes desktop—Intel Skylake Core i7-6700K CPU running next to small-form-factor desktop PC with a desktop GeForce GTX 980 and Core i7-4770K. Here’s the screenshot I snagged of the score from the desktop PC here after it finished:
Here's proof of the GeForce GTX 980 in a laptop's performance right here, boom:
Of course, we’ll withhold judgement until we actually see a machine in our hands but it’s highly unlikely the company is making this up to fall flat on its nose. Stranger things have happened in tech but for now, we take it at its face value.
Besides 3DMark Extreme, we were also allowed to run Tomb Raider at 1920x1080 on both GeForce GTX 980 parts. I also threw in the results from our reference desktop with a Core i7-4770K.
Before you go off one-third cocked about the CPUs being different among the tested systems, keep in mind that again, this is not the final verdict, this is just the results of the demo to whet your appetite. You can also look at the GPU score in 3DMark Extreme above which isolates just graphics performance. The two parts, according to 3DMark, perform the same.
Nvidia has actually been working up to this day for some time. With the original launch of the GeForce GTX 980m in Oct. 2014, the company said it had gotten mobile to within 75 percent the performance of its desktop counterpart. This was seen as quite an accomplishment when compared to the 2012-era GeForce GTX 680, which was about 60 percent the performance of its desktop counterpart, and the 2010-era GeForce GTX 480 which was 40 percent of the desktop GPU. Today we have the laptop GPU hitting true 1:1 parity with its equivalent desktop part—albeit almost a year after the introduction of the desktop part.
Of course, cynical nerds will point out the GeForce GTX 980 is also far from top dog in the kennel. That goes to the GeForce Titan X and the GeForce GTX 980 Ti. Both of which support up to four GPUs in a desktop configuration.
So no, anyone who thinks this milestone is another nail in the desktop’s coffin needs to check themselves. This doesn’t threaten the gaming desktop in the least. But let’s at least sit back and take a moment to mark the event on our calendar.