Maxwell Arrives! High Performance & Efficiency takes the crown

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(This evaluation was originally published on AlienBabelTech by this author on September 18, 2014 as Nvidia’s NDA ended and was subsequently lost from the database in a hard drive crash in December and it has been republished and updated here)

 

Nvidia is using Game24 today to showcase and release their brand new Maxwell architecture, the GTX 980 and the GTX 970, to replace the Kepler GTX 770, 780 and 780 Ti.  They are promising some amazing performance and energy-saving improvements at 28nm without moving to a smaller process node.

At the same time, Nvidia is introducing their GTX 980 flagship pricing at $549, down from $700 for the now discontinued GTX 780 Ti at its launch.  With the GTX 970 coming in at $329 and the GTX 760 officially dropping to $219, Nvidia is putting strong pricing pressure on the competing AMD lineup as well as on their own newly EoL’d video cards.  Make no mistake that the GTX 980 is the new Nvidia GTX performance flagship, but at a lower price.

What makes Maxwell especially impressive is that the Kepler GK104 GTX 680 came out 2-1/2 years ago on a 256-bit bus and now we have its replacement on the same-sized bus and on the same 28nm process, but showing over 1.6 times the performance!  That means that the GTX 980 is almost as fast as GTX 680 SLI, especially when it is overclocked.  Surprisingly, the GTX 980 is only rated for 165W TDP, making it the most efficient architecture that Nvidia has ever created! In fact, we will bench the 300W TDP GTX 690 at GTX 680 SLI speeds to see if the 165W GTX 980 can catch it when overclocked.

ABT was invited along with the media to Nvidia’s Press Event in Monterey, California, last week for two intensive days of everything Maxwell-related.  There was so much information to digest that by the end of the event, many of the editors were under the impression that the GTX 980 wasn’t any faster than the GTX 780 Ti.  In fact, Nvidia expects the GTX 980 to be overall about 8% faster than the GTX 780 Ti that it replaces, making it the fastest GPU in the world, besides being the most energy-efficient.  So as to avoid this kind of confusion, this evaluation will be a simple introduction to Maxwell architecture featuring the GTX 980, and a summary of its features, with a special emphasis given to performance.

100_8420ABT specializes in bringing our readers the largest and most comprehensive 28-game benching suite anywhere, so our focus will be on the GTX 980’s frame rates in 28 modern PC games.  We will compare the stock and overclocked GTX 980 to the GTX 780 Ti, GTX 780, GTX 770, GTX 680 and GTX 680 SLI (using the GTX 690) to see where the new Maxwell card sits in relation to the Kepler top cards’ performance.

We also want to see how the competition compares, and we shall bench AMD’s top card, the R9 290X at Uber clocks, as well as the R9 280X which is a rebadged HD 7970 and the current competition to the GTX 770.

Pictured from right to left are the current cards that we have benchmarked for this evaluation which include reference versions of the GTX 980, the GTX 780 Ti, the GTX 780, and the GTX 770.  Below them, are pictured the red and black VisionTek R9 280X and the black and red PowerColor R9 290X PCS+.  Not shown is the reference GTX 690 which stands in for GTX 680 SLI, nor the reference GTX 680.  We did not have time to acquire a GTX 970 from one of Nvidia’s partners before the launch, but we will have one for review soon.  The expectations are that it has about 80% of the performance of the GTX 980, and it will etail for $329, putting more strong pressure on AMD’s lineup, especially on the R9 290, as overclocked the GTX 970 should at least match the R9 290X’ performance.

We will use Intel’s Haswell platform so as to not bottleneck our graphics – Core i7 4770K at 4.0GHz, 2x8GB of Kingston “Beast” 2133MHz DRAM, on a Z77 ECS flagship Golden motherboard.  Our resolutions for testing are 1920×1080 and 2560×1600.  First, let’s look at what’s new in Maxwell.

 

Key Features of the Maxwell GTX 980

The GeForce GTX 980 and GTX 970 GPUs support all-new graphics features currently available only to the GTX 980 and the GTX 970. Nvidia’s Voxel Global Illumination (VXGI) technology allows the new GPUs to render fully dynamic global illumination at playable frame rates bringing more realism and immersion to gamers.  It is not real-time ray tracing yet, but it a good step in that direction.

PC games can also perform and look better with new anti-aliasing modes like Multi-Frame sampled AA Aq(MFAA).  MFAA combines multiple AA sample positions to produce a result that looks like higher quality anti-aliasing but with better performance. From just briefly looking at MFAA, it appears to produce an image that looks similar to 4xMSAA at the performance cost of roughly 2xMSAA.  For now, MFAA is only available to the GTX 980 and the GTX 970.

DSR-4k-1080New GeForce Maxwell GPUs also support Dynamic Super Resolution (DSR) which is similar to driver-based SuperSampling which brings the crisp detail of 4K resolution to 1920×1080 displays. It looks great, but without a FCAT capture, cannot be shown here with Fraps.  These Maxwell GPUs retain and improve on features like ShadowPlay, which now supports recording at resolutions up to 4K at 60 fps. And with the new G-SYNC displays, gamers no longer have to put up with tearing or stutter as part of the current common gaming experience.

The next generation of games will not only look better and run faster on the GeForce GTX 980, they’ll also be more immersive thanks to virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift. With VR Direct, Nvidia has developed a number of advancements for virtual reality reducing latency, improving image quality, and bringing a whole range of new content to VR.

This editor got to experience an Oculus Rift demo created from Unreal Engine 4’s Infiltrator assets at the Press Event that is an awesome extension of S3D.  VR frame rates need to be locked to a minimum of 75 fps for fluidity – and they need to be rendered twice, once for each eye.  Eventually, as the resolution increases, the grainy look will disappear allowing for more realism, but at the price of requiring extreme graphics performance from the video card or cards.

Key Points of the Maxwell GM204 GTX 980

First a look at the diagram:

GeForce_GTX_980_Block_Diagram_FINALThe GTX 980 GM204 has 64 Raster Operating Units, double Kepler GK110’s 32.

There are 5.2 billion transistors packed into the GM204’s die size of 398 mm2.

Dynamic Super Resolution (DSR) brings 4K sharpness to 1080P.

New anti-aliasing modes like Multi-Frame sampled AA provide 4xAA IQ with only a 2xAA performance penalty.

Multi-Pixel Programmable Sampling, technology improves sample randomization and reduces artifacts.

The GTX 980 has only a TDP of 165W.

GeForce GTX 980 has HDMI 2.0 support and support for 4 displays

 

What’s New with the Maxwell GTX 980 besides performance and efficiency?

Nvidia’s chart comparing the Kepler GK104 GTX 680 GPU with the Maxwell GM204 GTX 980 GPU is very helpful.  Just two and one-half years ago, the GK104 GTX 680 was released as Nvidia’s Kepler flagship boasting good performance increases and energy efficiency over Fermi, and beating AMD’s then-flagship HD 7970 in price, energy-efficiency, and in performance.

In the meantime, months later, Nvidia released their big-die GK110 TITANs and the GTX 780 Ti series to secure the single-GPU performance crown at a much higher price.  And now, the midrange-die GM204 GTX 980 takes the overall single-GPU performance crown with formerly unheard of efficiency, and at a much lower price than any TITAN or GTX 780/Ti.

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The GM204 GeForce GTX 980 has doubled the SMs compared to the GK104 GPU used in the GeForce GTX 680. Because of the changes implemented in the new Maxwell SM, Nvidia engineers integrated twice the SMs without doubling the die size. With each SM containing its own dedicated PolyMorph Engine, GeForce GTX 980 also has twice the number of geometry units as the GTX 680 (and GTX 770).

Since eight texture units per SMM works best for Maxwell, the total number of texture units are the same 128 as with Kepler. Since the GeForce GTX 980 has higher clocks, the texture fill rate improves by 12%. To improve performance in high AA/high resolution gaming scenarios, Nvidia doubled the number of ROPs from Kepler’s 32 to Maxwell’s 64.  Adding up the changes, to the added benefit of higher clocks, pixel fill-rate is actually more than double that of GTX 680 – 72 Gpixels/sec for GTX 980 versus 32.2 Gpixels/sec for GTX 680.

Considering the architectural changes made, we expect to see a larger performance delta in favor of the GTX 980 at 1920×1080 and at 4K resolution, but slightly lower at 2560×1600 than the large die GK110’s GTX 780 Ti with its 384-bit interface.  We will be able to confirm this when ABT gets a 4K display, but we noted a slight drop at 2560×1600 compared to at 1920×1080.

How does the GTX 980 compare with its rival, AMD’s R9 290X?

This evaluation attempts to also analyze and compare GTX 980 and R9 290X performance and we will announce a performance winner. We expect that the GTX 980 will be solidly faster just as the GTX 780 Ti dominated, and we expect AMD to react with pricing cuts and game bundles which may have already started.  We will also look at the details to see what the new Nvidia Maxwell GPU brings to the table.

Before we do performance testing, let’s take a look at the GTX 980 and quickly recap its new Maxwell DX12 architecture and features.