NVIDIA Video Card Driver Performance Review

We take the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 Ti and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 for a ride in 11 games using drivers from the Windows 10 release to the latest drivers in January of 2017. We will see if and by how much game performance has changed over the course of time on NVIDIA GPUs. Have drivers really improved performance?

Introduction

Last week we published our evaluation AMD Video Card Driver Performance Review - Fine Wine? In it we tested multiple driver versions on AMD GPUs from GPU launch date (or first Windows 10 driver) to the most current AMD Crimson ReLive Edition driver. The goal was to find out how well AMD has improved performance over time via driver performance updates. We utilized an AMD Radeon RX 480 and also an AMD Radeon R9 Fury X.

In that evaluation we found overall performance has improved in games in a linear progression that was quite evident. The boost in performance wasn’t large, but it was consistent. There were some games that had a bigger impact, most likely due to bug fixes or new game support added. Generally speaking the outlook of driver updates over the last year and a half have been positive for the AMD Radeon R9 Fury X, and even the newer AMD Radeon RX 480. The AMD Radeon RX 480 also pulled about a 5-6% performance improvement over time via drivers just in the last six months it has been released.

Article Image

Now it is time to jump on the Green Side of things and test the competition. In this evaluation we are going to be doing the exact same thing we did in the previous evaluation but with NVIDIA drivers and video cards. We are going to cover driver versions from GPU launch (or first Windows 10 driver) to the most current driver to test performance over time. We are going to include the latest GPU architecture, a Pascal GeForce GTX 1080 and one step back, a Maxwell GeForce GTX 980 Ti just like we did with AMD.


History Lessons

Let’s remind ourselves what the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 and GeForce GTX 980 Ti were all about since we will be using it in this evaluation. The NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 was released in September of 2014. The NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 Ti was released in June of 2015.

The GeForce GTX 980 and GeForce GTX 980 Ti utilize the Maxwell GPU architecture on a 28nm manufacturing process. The GeForce GTX 980 has 2048 CUDA Cores, 64 ROPs, 128 Texture Units and is clocked at a Base Clock of 1126MHz and a Boost Clock of 1216MHz. It has 4GB of GDDR5 on a 256-bit memory bus at 7GHz.

The GeForce GTX 980 Ti has 2816 CUDA Cores, 96 ROPs and 176 Texture Units. It has a Base Clock of 1000MHz and a Boost Clock of 1075MHz. It has 6GB of GDDR5 on a 384-bit memory bus at 7GHz. For reasons discussed below, we will be using the GeForce GTX 980 Ti in this evaluation.

The other video card we will be using is the new NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 launched in May of 2016. This video card uses the newer Pascal architecture on a 16nm FinFET process. It has 2560 CUDA Cores, 64 ROPs and 160 Texture Units. The Base Clock is 1607MHz and the Boost Clock is 1733MHz. There is 8GB of GDDR5X on a 256-bit memory bus at 10GHz.


Video Card and Driver Setup

As we mentioned, the GeForce GTX 980 was released in September of 2014. At that time Windows 8 was the latest OS. Drivers supporting Windows 8.1 existed, but there were of course no Windows 10 drivers yet. Up until the summer of 2015 the only drivers available for use would be Windows 8.1 drivers as Windows 10 wasn’t released until July of 2015. Since we are using Windows 10 as our OS for both evaluations we can only go back as far as the first official Windows 10 release driver for each video card. We also did the same in the AMD evaluation.

GeForce GTX 980 Ti Drivers

Moving forward in time then we find that the GeForce GTX 980 Ti was released in June 2015, a month before Windows 10 release in July of 2015. Therefore both video card existed when Windows 10 was officially released in July 2015. Therefore we can go ahead and use the GeForce GTX 980 Ti in our evaluation since both video cards share the same driver that was released with official Windows 10 support.

That driver is the GeForce 353.62 WHQL driver released on July 29th, 2015 alongside the official Windows 10 OS release. This is the first driver to officially support the release version of Windows 10 on the GeForce GTX 980 and GeForce GTX 980 Ti. Therefore this is the earliest driver we are able to use for the GeForce GTX 980 Ti testing. This dates back 18 months or 1.5 years, so it is a very good look at the past into the present with driver updates. We will work our way up to the latest driver released this month, January of 2017.

There have of course been a ton of driver releases in those 18 months. We cannot of course test every single one. You can view a complete list of all the versions available on Guru3D. Since we cannot test all of them we need to be very picky about what we test. We decided to test four total driver versions, all WHQL releases.

The first one of course is stated above, the second one is driver version GeForce 361.75 WHQL. This driver is the first (non-Hotfix) driver to be released in 2016 and is a Game Ready driver. The next driver is GeForce 368.81 WHQL released in July 2016, mid-year. It is also a Game Ready driver and supports many new games that we are using here in this evaluation released in that first half of 2016 as well as GTX 1080 support. Then the last driver is the latest one released in January 2017.

In this way we are showing you a driver from mid-year 2015, then beginning of 2016, then mid-year 2016, then the beginning of 2017. We are hoping to see some big performance jumps between these, hoping to, at least. We shall see.

GeForce GTX 1080 Drivers

We are also testing the GeForce GTX 1080 video card. With this video card being released in May of 2016 we can start with its first official launch driver and test up to present day January 2017 driver. The launch driver for the GeForce GTX 1080 is GeForce 368.25 WHQL released on May 26th, 2016. We will test up to the latest driver released also in January 2017. This will represent 7, almost 8 months of driver development for the GeForce GTX 1080.

For the GeForce GTX 1080 we are also testing four driver versions. The first one is the launch driver as explained, from May 2016. The second driver is GeForce 372.54 WHQL released in August of 2016. This is a Game Ready driver that has support for a game we are using in our evaluation. The next driver is GeForce 375.95 WHQL. This driver represents a driver toward the end of 2016. Then the final driver will be the most current January 2017 driver tested, described below.

The Latest January 2017 NVIDIA Driver

Simply put, the official WHQL driver currently available on GeForce.com is not the latest and best driver for performance. When you go to GeForce.com and search for GeForce GTX 1080 or GeForce GTX 980 Ti drivers you will find GeForce 378.49 WHQL listed as the latest driver released on January 24th, 2017. While this is true, this driver has a major bug that has affected a lot of people that is being discussed on NVIDIA’s forums.

There is a bug that will run video cards with custom manufacturer overclocks down to the Founders Edition clock speeds. The bug is related to the fact that Debug mode is enabled in this driver by default and cannot be disabled. It is a documented and known bug and discussed quite at length in the NIVDIA forums.

Thankfully NVIDIA has very recently released a GeForce 378.57 Beta Hotfix driver that fixes this problem. Discussion Here. This driver was released on January 31st 2017. In light of this bug fix, and to ensure the absolute best performance from our video cards (which are stock reference clocked cards) we are going to go ahead and use this Beta Hotfix driver to represent the latest and best driver NVIDIA has. The bug however only affects the clock speed on manufacturer overclocked video cards. We are going to use this driver just to make sure we represent nothing but the latest NVIDIA has to offer, like we did in our AMD evaluation using the latest ReLive beta driver.

NVIDIA has stated that the next WHQL driver release will contain this Debug bug fix. Therefore, in our graphs you will see "NVIDIA GeForce 378.57 Beta Hotfix" displayed at the top of the bar graphs representing the latest and best performing driver NVIDIA has currently. This driver works on GeForce GTX 980 Ti and GeForce GTX 1080.

Games

Similar to our previous AMD driver evaluation we are we are going to include a lot of games today, a lot more than we usually do. We need to pull out games that are old, to games that were present when the video card we are testing were at their highest popularity, to new games that are out today. You will find that the games go in order of oldest game, to newest game.

We are going to represent the average framerate of real-world run-throughs in each game on bar graphs so that we can show you the results in one easy to read graph format.