NVIDIA Maxwell GPU GeForce GTX 980 Video Card Review

Today NVIDIA launches its newest Maxwell GPU. There will be two new GPUs, the GeForce GTX 980 and GeForce GTX 970. These next generation GPUs usher in new features and performance that move the gaming industry forward. We discuss new features, architecture, and evaluate the gameplay performance against the competition.

Big Max

The "Big" Maxwell is here! Well..."the "bigger" Maxwell is here," would be more accurate. The much anticipated next generation GPU from NVIDIA is ready for prime time. We've actually seen a hint of what NVIDIA had in store for us with the release of the GeForce GTX 750 Ti back in February of this year. The GeForce GTX 750 Ti was actually the first next generation Maxwell chip release from NVIDIA.

One of the key features of the GeForce GTX 750 Ti is its tremendous power savings and efficiency over previous generation GPUs at the price point of ~$149. We've evaluated several GeForce GTX 750 Ti's and have raved about the power efficiency which leads to smaller cards, less extreme cooling mechanisms required, and less power requirements. While GeForce GTX 750 Ti was just a hint at what was to come, NVIDIA now has the bigger, enthusiast level Maxwell ready to go now. If you are not familiar with the GTX 750 Ti video cards, we have reviews here, here, and here from various board builders.

What you are going to find as we explore Big Maxwell, also known as GM204, is that Maxwell is more about feature additions, rather than revolutionary architecture changes. If you were hoping this included Project Denver with ARM cores and 3D memory cell stacking, this is not that. This however is an evolutionary advancement over Kepler that leads to a faster architecture that is more power efficient. Maxwell has more features that will hopefully push the next generation of games forward in 3D technology. NVIDIA's goal for Maxwell is: "Best gaming experience, regardless of what PC they have."

We will start first by going over the new additional features, as this will be the most important to get across what Maxwell offers. Then we will look at the architecture, which has some specific advancements that are important to how this GPU improves performance, with less memory bandwidth and CUDA cores. Then we will look specifically at the GeForce GTX 980 and GeForce GTX 970 and finally our complete evaluation of gaming performance.

GTX 980 & GTX 970 Pricing and Availability

First, what is being released? Maxwell will be released in two GPU variants currently; the GeForce GTX 980 with an MSRP of $549 and the GeForce GTX 970 with an MSRP of $329.

This is a hard launch, though you will probably find more GeForce GTX 970 cards at launch than 980 cards while Add-in-Board manufacturers ramp up 980 cards in the next few weeks. NVIDIA is also moving the MSRP of the GeForce GTX 760 down to $219. As of writing this we can already find GTX 760 cards for ~$230 after MIR.

In addition to the movement in price for the GTX 760, NVIDIA has explained to us that the GeForce GTX 780 Ti, GeForce GTX 780, and GeForce GTX 770 are going discontinued as of this launch.

Dynamic Super Resolution aka DSR

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Let's start with features that will improve your gameplay experience. The first new feature, exclusive to GeForce GTX 980 and 970 is called Dynamic Super Resolution aka, "DSR." This idea is not new, but the implementation and ability to have it work on "all" of your game is new.

The premise is that you run your game at a higher resolution than your display supports, and downscale the image to your display size. There are a handful of games that support this feature as part of the game's graphics option, one of those is Battlefield 4. We have evaluated the Resolution Scale feature in that game previously.

With NVIDIA's DSR this is going to work in every game, even if the game has no such option built in. Game developers will have to do nothing to support this. The feature will be enabled in GeForce Experience software with the "Optimal" settings if you apply the profiles to your games in GFE. If you don't wish to use DSR, naturally you do not have to, and you can even enable the feature globally in NV Control panel with a slider to scale up the resolution in multiples.

We sat down with NVIDIA to make sure DSR was an optional setting that if a user did not want to use, they do not have to. NVIDIA assured us user control and customizability is not going away. If you wish to disable DSR, you can do that. Naturally, if you do not install the GeForce Experience software in the first place, it will not apply any profiles to your games to change the settings. If you don't install the GFE software, you can still use NV Control panel to enable the feature globally, or per game.

DSR will need to be enabled either through the GFE software or the NV Control Panel as there are no in-game options to do this currently.

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So What Does DSR Actually Do?

Let's say you have a 1080p display, with DSR you can actually run your game at 4K resolution (3840x2160) and the DSR NVIDIA filter downsamples the image to your display size/resolution. In addition to the downsample filter, there is also a 13-Tap Gaussian blur added. So what does that get you? That gets you improved sharpness and improved sample grids that provide better resolution and image quality on things such as alpha textures and transparencies, to name the most noticeable benefit.

In the screenshots above notice that in the 1080p screenshot the grass is very jagged, with lots of aliasing. In fact, the blades of grass don't even form a coherent line because the resolution is so "low." If you look across the top edge of the grass you will surely notice the grassy dots sticking up in the air. In the second screenshot you can see that 3840x2160 DSR enabled at 1080p display size has enough resolution to reduce the aliasing on the grass and make it look much more realistic. If this all sounds familiar to you, that is because it is. Supersampling AA does the same thing, it scales up resolution and scales it back, full-scene. This is another way to achieve the same effect, full-scene, with potentially less impact on performance. The result again is a sharper image, and less aliasing.

This is an image quality feature that is going to improve your gameplay experience, especially on older games, or games that lack sufficient AA settings. Older games that perform very well have the performance headroom to be scaled up to higher resolutions. However, if you don't have a 4K display then you are stuck at your native resolution in these games. Well, with DSR you aren't stuck, you can run that game at 4K on your 1080p display and benefit with improved image quality on those older games, or games that lack AA options to improve IQ.

Naturally, newer games that are already demanding at 1080p or 1440p are going to be even more demanding at 4K, and so a different form of AA may be preferred. The beauty of DSR is that it can run on any game with user control, and no developer involvement. We look forward to testing this feature, which we will do in a separate article. Right now we lack the technology on the desktop to do simple screen grabs that capture the way DSR enabled games actually look on our desktop screens. We expect to have a solution to show the benefits of this shortly.