NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 Overclocking Video Card Review

The new NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 makes overclocking GPUs a ton of fun again. Its extremely high clock rates achieved when you turn the right dials and sliders result in real world gaming advantages. We will compare it to a GeForce GTX 780 Ti and Radeon R9 290X; all overclocked head-to-head.

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Performance Summary

Today we have taken a look at overclocking the $549 reference GeForce GTX 980 video card. We were told this video card would overclock well, and we were not disappointed. Who would have thought the 28nm manufacturing process still had this much headroom for performance with GPUs?

Everyone up till now thought we were being held back by the 28nm process, I think mostly because of what the AMD Radeon R9 290X delivered to us in terms of power and thermals. However, NVIDIA has shown us 28nm still has some leg room in that manufacturing process. Maxwell has improved efficiency using the 28nm manufacturing process and shown that performance can still be gained, and overclocking headroom can still be had.


Performance Summary

In our initial evaluation we found that the default clocked GeForce GTX 980 was faster than the GeForce GTX 780 Ti and AMD Radeon R9 290X. The new GTX 980 proved to be an appropriate replacement for the flagship of NVIDIA GPUs. The only question we had was what will performance look like when overclocked and can an overclocked GTX 780 Ti and R9 290X do better? I think we found our answer.

We have learned many things today from this evaluation. We have learned that overclocking a GeForce GTX 780 Ti does outperform a stock default clocked GeForce GTX 980. Where the GTX 980 outperforms a stock clocked 780 Ti, overclocking that 780 Ti does push performance over a stock GTX 980 again.

We then found that overclocking the GeForce GTX 980 flips the tables again and leap frogs over the overclocked GeForce GTX 780 Ti. An overclocked GTX 980 will outperform an overclocked GTX 780 Ti around 10%, depending on the game, sometimes more, sometimes less.

We also found that it takes overclocking a Radeon R9 290X just to reach close to default GeForce GTX 980 performance. Even then, only in one game was it slightly faster than a default GeForce GTX 980, in the rest it was still slower.

When we overclocked the GeForce GTX 980 it ran away with performance compared to overclocked R9 290X. There just isn't any comparison with differences as high as 30%+ in performance with an overclocked GTX 980 compared to overclocked R9 290X.

You know what the GeForce GTX 980 has done? The GeForce GTX 980 has made the AMD Radeon R9 290X look like last generation technology, even though the AMD Radeon R9 290X is AMD's current flagship video card for high-end gaming. The GTX 980 makes it look the AMD Radeon R9 290X look old. That is impressive.

Overclocking

The GeForce GTX 980 is the most overclockable, and highest overclocking video card we have seen to date. We don't think we've even scratched the surface with the potential for overclocking GTX 980 or GTX 970 for that matter. The only issues are the "low" TDP/Power Limit settings NVIDIA is forcing. Those are capping our potential for overclocking.

We know NVIDIA doesn't like this, but if some manufacturer out there could provide a version of the GTX 970 and 980 with a special BIOS mode that removes the power limit and we think only awesomeness would come of that decision.

It is because of this TDP/Power Limit that we must look at overclocking the GTX 980 and 970 differently. No longer can we just raise the voltage as high as possible and see where the overclock lands. Now, we must balance voltage with clock speed, keeping it as low as possible so that the power limits don't kick in and throttle the GPU. You may find moving forward that higher overclocks are achieved where leaving the voltage slider alone is the best option and instead letting GPU Boost do its thing automatically. This may result in lower power demand, meaning the potential for higher clock speeds.

Just like we have had to evolve the way we evaluate video cards over time, overclocking has to evolve. It is simply different now with the new technologies in play by NVIDIA and AMD. We have to evaluate overclocking as it pertains to hardware today.


Represent

There is another aspect about the GeForce GTX 980 and GeForce GTX 970 that needs to be discussed. We have noticed a lot of excitement and discussion about the GeForce GTX 980 and 970 from our readers on our forums. There is a lot of excitement that is positive about these video cards creating demand and people wanting to buy these video cards simply based on the overclocking potential. This is exciting for us to see you guys so excited, but it makes us think about the differences in the AMD Radeon R9 290X launch and the GeForce GTX 980 launch that need to be discussed. AMD, listen up.

The overall buzz and reputation that GPUs garner at initial launch affect sales. This is where NVIDIA has got it right with the GeForce GTX 970 and GeForce GTX 980 and AMD got it wrong with the AMD Radeon R9 290X. AMD could perhaps take a page from NVIDIA here and learn a few things that will help it sell more GPUs. This reputation primarily revolves around how AMD's PowerTune (PDF) technology works in comparison to NVIDIA's GPU Boost 2.0. It relates directly to clock speed, and perceived performance of the GPU from the get-go.

If you recall back to the AMD Radeon R9 290X launch the immediate initial concern that sprung up in a flurry of articles was how the AMD Radeon R9 290X did not maintain its clock speed but instead clock throttled its clock speed as much as 200MHz or more while gaming for longer than 15 minutes. When the AMD Radeon R9 290X was marketed to the consumer AMD said its clock speed was "up to" 1GHz. Everyone expected that the video card would run at 1GHz, as all video cards before it had always run at what these were specified to run at. However, we quickly found out this wasn't the case in games. The frequency could indeed "go up to" 1GHz, but often times it was throttling down much less than 1GHz. This means one would perceive the performance of the video card to be less than what is advertised.

AMD quickly re-enforced their stance stating that the clock speed was always an "up to" 1GHz potential, if the thermals allowed Power Tune to run at 1GHz. We found that surely enough, with custom video cards using custom coolers 1GHz could be maintained. However, the damage was already done. AMD garnered a first impression out of the gate of the AMD Radeon R9 290X throttling performance. It has a perceived performance impression that felt like you were getting less performance than advertised, because you possibly were! This created a bad reputation for the AMD Radeon R9 290X from the start.

This is where NVIDIA got it right. The GeForce GTX 970 and 980 use GPU Boost, which doesn't downclock the frequency, instead, it actually up-clocks the frequency in practice. Now, technically this power controlling feature can downclock the frequency if needed, it has that capability, but since GPU Boost has been a part of our GPU lives it never has done so in practice.

Instead, NVIDIA specifies a clock speed, a GPU Base Clock and a Boost Clock. As long as the GPU frequency never drops below the specified base clock no one would complain, and no one has. The GPU Boost frequency is what it can go up to, but again in practice it is actually usually better than that. The real-time frequency we see in games is always above the Boost Clock by some degree.

This creates a perceived performance that is better than what you expect out of the video card. You know the base clock, but if the real-time frequency is always faster than that, and even exceeds the specified boost clock, you are going to think "wow, this card performs better than I ever thought."

Then, add on to the equation that now the GeForce GTX 970 and 980 are overclocking to frequencies never seen before on reference designs. With frequencies exceeding 1.4, 1.5 and up to 1.6GHz on GTX 970 cards we are talking about frequencies at a high level never before talked about on stock parts.

With this extreme overclocking potential it re-enforces this perceived performance. It makes the consumer feel good about their purchase, it is very positive. Therefore, the reputation created for the GeForce GTX 970 and 980 are very positive, and you better believe this makes a difference in sales.

One should never underestimate the power of reputation. NVIDIA got it right in terms of the perceived performance and feelings associated with the GTX 970 and 980. People are excited about these GPUs just based on the fact they overclock so well. AMD can learn from this, and we hope it does.


The Bottom Line

This was "just" a reference GeForce GTX 980 and look what kind of overclocking we achieved. The fact of the GTX 980 is that it has some amazing performance potential. We got an average a 25% performance boost from its default clock speeds. That is a substantial performance increase that does improve the gameplay experience.

From what we have learned today we can make some suggestions. If you already have a highly overclocked GeForce GTX 780 Ti, it doesn't seem monetarily worth it to upgrade to a GeForce GTX 980. At the GTX 980’s default clocks, the overclocked GTX 780 Ti will perform better. The only upgrade that seems worth it is if you purchase a custom GeForce GTX 980 and also overclock it as much as possible. Only then would the GTX 980 truly be an upgrade to an overclocked GTX 780 Ti.

When comparing the GTX 980 to the AMD Radeon R9 290X the recommendation is a bit easier. In every way the GeForce GTX 980 is an upgrade to the AMD Radeon R9 290X. Even when overclocked the AMD Radeon R9 290X cannot touch the performance of the GTX 980 at default speeds. Overclock the GTX 980 and the rest is history, the R9 290X takes the backseat. The AMD Radeon R9 290X cannot compete with the GTX 980 in terms of performance, power efficiency, and thermal properties. We look forward to evaluating custom retail GTX 980 cards from ODMs.

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