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The NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 Review

Author: SKYMTL
Date: May 16, 2016
Product Name: GTX 1080 Founders Edition
Warranty: 3 Years
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A week ago we covered the announcement of NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 1080, a card which uses the new Pascal microarchitecture alongside a long list of other performance-enhancing features. What NVIDIA showed was nothing short of a quantum leap forward when compared against other GPU launches from over the last 7 years. Indeed, the last time anyone saw this kind of generational shift was when Fermi was initially launched to replace the respected 200 series. For an architecture that is supposed to supersede the wildly successful Maxwell, Pascal has a lot to live up to.

While Pascal and its broad range of capabilities has been discussed at length throughout the last year or so, the GTX 1080 and its 7.2 billion transistor GP104 core represent the first time it has been rolled into a gaming-focused product. That’s a particularly important distinction since Pascal’s initial reveal consisted of the massive compute powerhouse which is the 15 billion transistor P100 core. In its move towards there have been some fundamental changes which we’ll go into a bit later but its suffice to say the GTX 1080 represents a leaner, more efficient and substantially easier-to-produce iteration of Pascal.


Before I get too far into this review, there’s a need to discuss how the GTX 1080 breaks from a typical NVIDIA product unveiling. Ever since the GTX 480 there has been a slow but steady improvement of 25% to 35% when shifting from one graphics card generation to another. It happened between the GTX 480 and GTX 580, again between the GTX 580 and GTX 680 and so on right up until now. Even NVIDIA’s own documentation tended to compare new architectures to products from two year previously since that tended to be the natural progression for gamers’ system updates.

This time the Maxwell to Pascal upgrade path will net users some pretty substantial benefits (a claimed 60% in typical gaming scenarios) but the Kepler to Pascal move promises to be truly incredible with a mind-bending potential 110% performance boost if you’re looking to change out that GTX 780. Essentially, with the GTX 1080 NVIDIA has moved the logical performance yardsticks forward two whole years by acting as a direct competitor to the GTX 980 Ti rather than the GTX 980.

Much of this potential has been realized through the use of TSMC’s 16nm FinFET process. While the CPU segment has seen a gradual refinement of Intel’s tick / tock cadence of a node shrink followed by a new architecture, this market hasn’t seen GPU manufacturing process refinement since sometime in 2009 when 28nm was first used. And the benefits of 16nm are pretty straightforward: it allows for more transistors to be packed into a condensed space while also offering notable steps forward in terms of efficiency and clock speeds.


Even though I’ve discussed the GTX 1080’s specifications in our initial announcement coverage, some information was still under NDA until today. Starting at the top, this card has 2560 CUDA cores and 160 Texture Units, both of which represent substantial enhancements over the GTX 980. One area the GP104 core seems oddly lacking is with the number of ROPs it has access to; at just 64, that’s no more than the GTX 980 and a huge step back from what was available on the GM110.

Some may wonder how these relatively pedestrian specs lead to a card that is supposed to offer the groundbreaking performance I discussed above. Simply put, there are quite a few architectural enhancements going on behind the scenes (more about those on the next page!) and NVIDIA has been able to hit processing stage frequencies that are just this side of insane. Higher core speeds means information gets moved through the core at a faster pace, boosting overall performance metrics.

This is where that 16nm process enters into the equation as well. Due to the inherent efficiency it ushers in for NVIDIA’s already-frugal Pascal architecture, there was a massive amount of frequency overhead to play with before the GP104 core hit its TDP target. NVIDIA is also claiming that most, if not all, of the GTX 1080 cards will be able to overclock past the 2GHz mark which points towards the baseline specifications being quite conservative as well.


Likely the largest departure away from what many were expecting is the type of memory NVIDIA decided to use for the GTX 1080. Rather than the HBM modules AMD has saddled their Fiji cards with or the HBM2 used on P100, we’re seeing the first implementation of Micron’s GDDR5X.

Despite all of the attention being given to next generation standards, GDDR5X acts as an excellent bridge solution between GDDR5 and HMB. It offers substantially better power consumption numbers and bandwidth than GDDR5 yet it doesn’t come saddled with the costs HBM. Instead of being tied to first generation HMB’s low yields, middling capacity and complicated interposer-based design, NVIDIA looked elsewhere despite the technology’s potential upside of massive bandwidth. Through the use of effective color compression algorithms and an extremely fast 10Gbps transfer rate of GDDR5X, there’s supposedly no worry of bottlenecks from the memory subsystem.

This has all been accomplished while the GTX 1080 retains a TDP of just 180W. Think on this number for a moment; in one swift move, NVIDIA has basically doubled performance while increasing power consumption by about 10%. 180W makes me wonder if we’ll see a slightly more efficient version of this card in the notebook space sooner than most expect. Remember, the desktop GTX 980 has been available to for system integrators’ gaming notebooks for months now and the GTX 1080’s metrics are quite similar.

Among all of this excitement NVIDIA also announced the GTX 1070 though didn’t provide much in the way of information about it. Based on pricing alone, we’ll assume it utilizes the same GP104 core yet in a cut-down form but more details will be available closer to its launch date in June.


All of these aspects combine to make the GTX 1080 the most powerful single GPU graphics processor ever created. It is meant to overpower even the TITAN X while also outpacing pretty much everything AMD currently has. The GTX 1070 won’t be all that far behind since it is expected to trade blows with the TITAN X.

While the performance delta between something like the $999 TITAN X and this new card isn’t massive (about 10% to 15% or more in DX12 scenarios), the ramifications for NVIDIA’s entire GPU lineup are far-reaching. We expect the GTX 980 Ti and TITAN X to move quickly towards end of life status, though without any substantial price cuts since their relative inventory levels are presently quite low. Meanwhile, depending upon how quickly other Pascal-based cards are released, we may see the GTX 980 and GTX 970 remain around for a little while longer though at reduced price points.


Understanding the Founders Edition


Among all of the information NVIDIA has given out thus far, there was a bit of confusion among the press and our readers after the so-called Founders Edition was announced. At first we believed it to be a GTX 1080 with additional goodies and perhaps a binned core or at least something to warrant its price of $599. Well it turns out that the Founders Edition is in fact the artist formerly known as the Reference Card and yes, NVIDIA is treating it as a premium product this time around.

While it may be considered a reference card by another name, there is more to the Founders Edition than the standard plastic heatsink shroud, bargain-basement components and loud fan that used to grace such things. NVIDIA’s machined aluminum shroud, side-mounted LED, vapor chamber-based heatsink design and a full backplate are hallmarks of this card. Then again, they’ve been included in various forms on the GTX 980 Ti, GTX 780Ti and TITAN cards as well so the inclusions aren’t exactly unique either.


Other than those additions, that Founders Edition will also be equipped with an exclusive streamlined yet highly advanced power distribution system. Unlike previous designs, it is specifically engineered to enhance loadline ripple suppression thus lowering the amount of power loss between the PSU and GPU core while also enhancing overall efficiency.

But will this be enough to sway This could prove to be a huge challenge indeed within a market which has been spoon-fed for years with marketing points stating blower style coolers are inferior to their downdraft cousins.

With the Founders Edition NVIDIA are setting a precedent whereupon a standard-clocked GPU with a blower-style cooler commands a premium. However board partners are expected to sell their own designs alongside NVIDIA’s yet at lower price points. This situation could very well lead to higher performing pre-overclocked products commanding stratospheric prices or buyers looking at anything priced below the Founders Edition as an inferior product. Conversely, if a board partner decides to undercut NVIDIA’s $699 price yet offer enhanced components and higher clock speeds, the Founders Edition could be in a spot of trouble.

As such, more than a few questions remain. Do its features make the GTX 1080 a $699 graphics card instead of one costing $599? How many SKUs will actually hit that magical $599 price? With board partners selling what amounts to a “premium” NVIDIA-designed product, how will they upsell their own wares? I personally think NVIDIA is overreaching on this one but I also have to wonder what this situation will do to the GTX 1080’s future pricing structure. We could very well see a few $599 GTX 1080 SKUs launched and then slowly fade into obscurity.


Availability……With a Possible Twist

First and foremost while today marks the official NDA lift for the GTX 1080, you won’t be able to buy one so we can effectively state that this is NVIDIA’s first paper launch in quite a while. Considering the competition is still months away from announcing details of their upcoming architecture, availability will only come around on May 27th. Unfortunately, there’s more to it than what first meets the eye.

I asked above whether or not the Founders Edition’s features will convince buyers to shell out $100 more and the answer may be a bitter pill to swallow: come launch day on the 27th, you may not have a choice. Supposedly the Founders Edition may be the only version initially shipping to retailers and while NVIDIA assured us they are “actively working with board partners to insure the $599 price point is met”, we will see how quickly that will happen. Much will be riding this point alone.
 
 
 

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