Conclusion, Pricing, and Final Thoughts

Sitting down for lunch last week with Jonah Alben, one of the lead designers on Maxwell, I couldn't help but notice the excitement he had over this particular GPU. I previously talked with him before the Tegra K1 release and he quietly told me that so much of what they had learned in the development of that mobile SoC would dramatically change how they built desktop and notebook GPUs. At the time, I took it merely as fluff for the story on the K1, but looking through our results here today you can clearly see that he was being honest. The GM204 and Maxwell architecture is fundamentally better than any other GPU design that NVIDIA has built before, and maybe better than any other GPU available today, period. 

The performance of the GeForce GTX 980 is impressive, but doesn't quite mix-up the high end market as some people might have thought it would a year or so ago. My experiences gaming with the GTX 980 proved it was the best single GPU graphics card you can get today; better than the GTX 780 Ti, better than the Titan Black, and better than the Radeon R9 290X. Benchmarks and real-world game play proved that to be true: the GTX 980 was as much as 15% faster than the R9 290X and was only beaten by the AMD flagship card in one of our six games. The GTX 780 Ti falls into the same path as the R9 290X – faster in only a single competition (Skyrim) against the newest member of the GeForce family.

The GTX 970 might be a better overall package if you include pricing, but it's performance is also worth noting again. For just $329 it is able to outperform AMD's Radeon R9 290 and the GeForce GTX 780. And again, that advantage is up to 15%, and comes in a dead heat in a couple of cases.

What makes these wins for the GTX 980 and GTX 970 so impressive is not the scale or ratio by which they outperform the R9 290X or GTX 780 Ti, but that it is being done on fairly modestly pressed silicon. Keep in mind that the GTX 780 Ti has 2880 CUDA cores, while the GTX 980 has 2048. The GTX 780 Ti has a 384-bit memory bus, the GTX 980 a 256-bit bus. The GTX 780 Ti has a 250 watt TDP, the GTX 980 only 165 watts. The GTX 780 Ti launched for $699 last November, the GTX 980 launches at $549.

The same is true for the GTX 970 – fewer cores, smaller memory bus, less power, lower price. When the GTX 780 launched it did so at $649; now the GTX 970 sells for $329 out the gate. 

The GeForce GTX 980 does leave the door open slightly for AMD and the Radeon R9 290X. Before this article went live AMD was already sending out emails pointing out sales on the R9 290X on Newegg. You can find those parts for as low as $479 (sometimes under that even without a rebate) and that gives it a price advantage of $70 – not a small amount even on the high end of enthusiast graphics. Had NVIDIA gone with a $499 price though…it would be hard to see AMD not having to react.

NVIDIA has slammed the door shut with the GTX 970 and its aggressive $329 starting price point, well under the $389 you see the Radeon R9 290 selling for today. The next card down on AMD's stack, the R9 280X, just can't hold up a performance argument with the GTX 970 so AMD is going to have drop prices on the smaller Hawaii chip to play catch up.

UPDATE: The GeForce GTX 980 cards and GTX 970 cards are showing up on this morning. Don't worry, those 3-4 week shipping times are more than likely just filler as Amazon updates their stock counts.

NVIDIA has left quite a bit of space between the GTX 970 and the GTX 980 in terms of both pricing and performance. I assume it doesn't take a genius to figure out that a GTX 970 Ti might be coming down the pipe, sooner rather than later, to fill that spot AMD will assuredly snuggle into.

Did I forget to mention overclocking? Getting consistent clock speeds of nearly 1500 MHz provides jaw-dropping statistics but also provides a sizeable performance boost for any users willing to undertake the minor challenge.

If you have a GeForce GTX 780 Ti, GTX 780, or GTX 770 in your system and have been debating going for an SLI setup, you might want to set some pricing alerts. All three of those cards have been discontinued so when the stock that is out there is gone, they are gone. Even if you don't have one already, getting a GTX 780 Ti for $499 or $450 would be a great deal at this point.

From a features stand point, the GTX 980/970 and GM204 have some interesting additions to keep in mind. HDMI 2.0 support is pretty nice and the ability to run three DisplayPort connections on a single NVIDIA GPU is new as well. MFAA and its performance advantages have yet to be seen as NVIDIA is apparently still tweaking things to get the right before sending it out into the world for criticism. Dynamic Super Resolution is a cool trick that makes downsampling incredibly easy for PC gamers and should add some image quality to games that can't get it any other way and offers improved gaming experiences for users that are still using 1920×1080 monitors – which is apparently most of you.

Even though NVIDIA decided to not go as aggressive as I'd like on price with the GeForce GTX 980, the raw power efficiency of these two new graphics cards blows me away. The fact that our reference GTX 980 is able to outperform the R9 290X while using 130 watts LESS POWER says a lot. I mean, with a 165 watt TDP, that is almost another whole GTX 980 card worth of power being used. Even comparing NVIDIA to NVIDIA, the GTX 980 can beat the GTX 780 Ti while using 85 watts less power at the wall. The GTX 970 sees similar advantages to its competition: 80 watts lower than the R9 290 and 55 watts lower than the GTX 780. 

We have quite a few retail cards already in the office with these new GPUs so you can expect some reviews of them to find their way out over the next couple of weeks. But today, both of these cards are the top competitors in their respective market positions. The GTX 980 offers unmatched single GPU performance with power efficiency not seen before. If you choose to eschew that though, feel free to push those clocks to 1400-1500 MHz and crank up the power for more performance. The GTX 970 craters the AMD Radeon R9 290 in terms of price and performance, while again offering the same power and overclocking headroom.

I have a lot more to test, a lot more to review and I am really looking forward to how AMD counters this punch in 2014!

GeForce GTX 980 4GB

GeForce GTX 970 4GB

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