GTX 800M; NVIDIA’s Maxwell Goes Mobile

Author: SKYMTL
Date: March 11, 2014
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NVIDIA’s introduction of the Maxwell-based GTX 750 Ti represented a turning point for the desktop GPU market, moving it towards a new level of performance without an associated increase in power consumption. If anything, the GTX 750 Ti blew preconceptions away and redefined what could be achieved within a low wattage framework. These advances are now partially making their way into the notebook market with the GTX 800M’s introduction.

The notebook segment has been quite volatile as of late with a large number of users gravitating towards the “good enough” approach offered by inexpensive tablets and, to a lesser extent, the latest crop of superphones. With a simple wireless keyboard, a $300 tablet can be converted from a basic media consumption device to a pretty capable platform for content creation. As a result, sales of some traditional low and mid range notebook categories are suffering while Ultrabook sales have been decimated.

This might sound like an odd preamble since by all indications the downturn in notebook interest should sound a death knell for stand-alone mobile GPUs, right? Not so fast. While the segments that include basic entry level systems may be in trouble, recent studies have shown that PC gamers are keeping both the desktop and notebook markets humming. The potential for sales of those specifically targeted notebooks represents a potential cash cow and builders are rushing to adapt. As we saw at CES, more and more big-name companies are now refocusing of their efforts on gaming-oriented systems while slimming down any mid range offerings being savaged by tablets.

This is where the 800M series factors into the equation. It represents a full court press in every part of the notebook market but there’s one common thread running throughout the new product stack: these new GPUs are made for the new realities of today’s demanding users. While outright performance is still essential, equal amounts of development have been put into lowering power consumption, boosting battery life and optimizing the way the core architecture interfaces with other components.

With the GTX 8xxM and GT 8xxM, there's truly something for everyone; from slim and light notebooks with a perfectly capable graphics subsystem to higher end gaming monsters with 17” screens and a bevy of other features. However, Maxwell’s introduction largely focuses on the former situations while NVIDIA’s Kepler is coming back for an encore in specifically tailored “gaming first” applications.

As you will see in the chart below, several of these new GPUs look like simple rebrands of NVIDIA’s GTX 700M series but there are some major differences as well. Through the use a refined 28nm manufacturing process and other on-die improvements, NVIDIA has managed to offer much higher clock speeds without an associated increase in TDP. Several other features have been added as well but we’ll get into those later.

Sitting at the top of NVIDIA’s lineup is the GTX 880M, an updated version of the Kepler-based GTX 780M. It features 1536 CUDA cores, a 256-bit memory bus and up to 4GB of GDDR5 operating at 5Gbps which, on paper at least, nearly equals the desktop GTX 770’s specifications. There are several similarities between the previous generation flagship and this one but we can’t consider this a straight up rebrand since the GTX 880M’s performance has received a substantial boost through higher Base and Boost frequencies.

Another GK104 carryover is the GTX 870M which shares its core layout with the GTX 775M, but also uses much faster memory and greatly increased engine clocks. From a price / performance standpoint, we’ll likely see this become one of the more prevalent GPUs in this new lineup.

The GTX 860M is where things start to get interesting since it’s where Maxwell begins to see the light of day. Technically, there will be two SKUs of this GPU: a Kepler-based GK104 part for standard notebooks and the efficient Maxwell for thin and light gaming applications. Even though there’s a massive specification discrepancy between these two cores, both feature approximately the same performance due to Maxwell’s architectural enhancements and its much higher core speeds. We’d also image the Maxwell version will cost partners slightly more due to its compatibility with smaller chassis.

Rounding things out is the GTX 850M, another mobile part which uses the GM107 core. Its specifications are similar to the GTX 860M but lower core clocks should lead to a performance difference of about 20% and substantially lower power consumption.

NVIDIA is claiming some impressive across-the-board performance uplifts for every one of these new parts. Take the GTX 880M and GTX 870M as a prime example of how an existing architecture (in this case Kepler) can be optimized over the course of its life to deliver much better gaming potential as new improvements are rolled into it. Through the judicious application of higher clock speeds, these two cards are respectively 15% and 30% faster than their predecessors, the GTX 780M and GTX 770M.

Naturally, Maxwell’s rollout into the GTX 860M and GTX 850M is the real story here since the new architecture delivers vastly better framerates. We’re talking about (supposedly) up to 60% for the lower end GTX 850M which is a huge step forward for more affordable notebooks.

At this point you may be wondering where AMD is in all of this but we don’t have a conclusive answer. Their M290X is based off of two year old Pitcairn technology (which was also used in the HD 7970M and 8970M GPUs) while the Hawaii architecture hasn’t yet scaled down into the mobile market. Judging from their desktop renaming scheme for everything below the R9 290 series, it may be a while until we see a substantial notebook update from them. Plus, the latest generation of Kaveri APUs tends to hold their own quite well against mainstream discrete solutions so there’s no real rush for them to update an already-strong lineup.

One of NVIDIA’s main talking points for this round of graphics cards is how quickly technology has progressed in the last few years. We are now seeing the GTX 850M providing quite a bit more 1080P gaming potential as a GTX 580M, the top-dollar mobile GPU from three years ago. More importantly, the newest Maxwell architecture can achieve its numbers while fitting into the slim and light systems that on-the-go gamers are looking for.

With the GTX 800M series being NVIDIA’s premier mobile platform, they get the full suite of technologies. Some old friends like GPU Boost, PhysX, CUDA and GeForce experience have been given another chance to shine with compatibility running throughout the lineup. These are augmented by some new features like Battery Boost, GameStream and Shadownplay. The only exceptions to this are the Maxwell-based GTX 860M and GTX 850M which don’t receive SLI support since they’re meant to satisfy requirements in the thin and light segment.

Whether or not Maxwell will make a tangible difference in a market that’s been struggling is anyone’s guess but it does make noteworthy strides in areas that have been highlighted as deficient. Enthusiasts want battery longevity and smaller form factors for their portable gaming fix and, as evidenced by the success of high performance notebooks, they’re willing to pay a premium for that. However, the best parts of these mobile Maxwell parts lie "beyond the silicon" so-to-speak since they come with some envious features. We’ll get into that on the following pages which will give you a concise overview in preparation for our full review coming up in the next few weeks. But first, there are three more launches today that we need to discuss: the GT 840, GT 830 and GT 820.

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