Pack a full GTX 980 on the go!

If you want the power of a full-size, desktop class GTX 980 in your notebook, NVIDIA has you covered.

For many years, the idea of a truly mobile gaming system has been attainable if you were willing to pay the premium for high performance components. But anyone that has done research in this field would tell you that though they were named similarly, the mobile GPUs from both AMD and NVIDIA had a tendency to be noticeably slower than their desktop counterparts. A GeForce GTX 970M, for example, only had a CUDA core count that was slightly higher than the desktop GTX 960, and it was 30% lower than the true desktop GTX 970 product. So even though you were getting fantastic mobile performance, there continued to be a dominant position that desktop users held over mobile gamers in PC gaming.

This fall, NVIDIA is changing that with the introduction of the GeForce GTX 980 for gaming notebooks. Notice I did not put an 'M' at the end of that name; it's not an accident. NVIDIA has found a way, through binning and component design, to cram the entirety of a GM204-based Maxwell GTX 980 GPU inside portable gaming notebooks.

The results are impressive and the implications for PC gamers are dramatic. Systems built with the GTX 980 will include the same 2048 CUDA cores, 4GB of GDDR5 running at 7.0 GHz and will run at the same base and typical GPU Boost clocks as the reference GTX 980 cards you can buy today for $499+. And, while you won't find this GPU in anything called a "thin and light", 17-19" gaming laptops do allow for portability of gaming unlike any SFF PC.

So how did they do it? NVIDIA has found a way to get a desktop GPU with a 165 watt TDP into a form factor that has a physical limit of 150 watts (for the MXM module implementations at least) through binning, component selection and improved cooling. Not only that, but there is enough headroom to allow for some desktop-class overclocking of the GTX 980 as well.

Let's take a quick look at the new mobile variant (which is the same as the desktop variant) of the GeForce GTX 980, and let's see how it compares to the previous top of the line mobile GeForce product, the GTX 980M.

  GTX 980 (mobile) GTX 980 (desktop) GTX 980M
GPU Code name Maxwell Maxwell Maxwell
GPU Cores 2048 2048 1536
Rated Clock 1126 MHz 1126 MHz 1038 MHz
Texture Units 128 128 96
ROP Units 64 64 64
Memory 4GB 4GB 4GB
Memory Clock 7000 MHz 7000 MHz 5000 MHz
Memory Interface 256-bit 256-bit 256-bit
Memory Bandwidth 224 GB/s 224 GB/s 160 GB/s
TDP 150 watts (?) 165 watts 100 watts
Peak Compute 4.61 TFLOPS 4.61 TFLOPS 3.18 TFLOPS
MSRP ?? $499 ??

It's easy to see in a table format how the GTX 980 found in the desktop graphics add-in cards and the new version used in upcoming gaming notebooks are evenly matched. The mobile version only differs in the TDP rating, which is the key to getting this GPU in a mobile form factor (even those as large and robust as the MSI GT72 and ASUS GX700).

But if you look at how the GTX 980 and the GTX 980M compare, there are some critical differences. First, the GTX 980M only has 1536 CUDA cores while the full GTX 980 has 2048, which is a 33% increase. Texture units also scale by the same amount though pixel processing. ROP count remains the same between both GPU options. Other than a modest clock speed increase (1126 MHz base clock versus 1038 MHz base clock), the other major move is an increase in memory clock rate from 5.0 GHz to 7.0 GHz. This raises available memory bandwidth from 160 GB/s to 224 GB/s – this is important to match the shader performance increases.

How did they do it?

The obvious question is how did they do it? How did NVIDIA finally find a way to get a full GTX 980 GM204 GPU in a notebook chassis? The answer is binning. Without diving to far into the world of silicon manufacturing, some chips just perform better than others. That "better performance" can be in terms of raw clock speed or it is being able to run at lower than expected voltages. It's that latter option that is key for mobile form factors – running at lower voltages means the GPU can run at lower temperatures and is more conducive to being installed in a notebook.

NVIDIA wasn't specific about what the exact TDP of this GPU was, only that it was "a little lower" than the desktop version of the GTX 980. Looking at the MXM specifications, we find a 150 watt limit on current designs, so it's likely the limit that this new GPU will run at.

These select GTX 980s, along with improved power phase efficiency, combine with higher clock speeds, higher memory clock speeds and availability of higher currents to produce a mobile graphics chip that is truly unique and targeted, not just at mobile gamers, but mobile gaming enthusiasts.

This translates into better gaming, higher image quality settings and higher frame rates in the latest PC gaming titles. Being able to run any game, including GTA V and The Witcher 3, at 1920×1080 with Ultra quality settings on a mobile platform is impressive. Based only on the specifications of the GPUs above, you should expect to find platforms using the GTX 980 to run 20-30% faster than those shipping today with the GTX 980M. And though not on hand during our briefing, you can expect to find SLI configurations of the GTX 980 in larger systems like the MSI GT80!

NVIDIA is setting a bare minimum clock speed and performance level for GTX 980 certification, though you will see some OEMs overclock the GPU out of the box if the integrated coolers can handle it. Because of that, you will see that different systems will perform differently with those changes having been made. In much the same way that retail GTX 980 graphics cards can improve cooling capability with a new heatsink design, the same can and will be done on the notebook side, allowing for more differentiation for MSI, ASUS and others.

Overclocking Gets an Upgrade

Part of this being an enthusiast GPU, and not only a mobile gaming product, is the inclusion and upgrades to the overclocking capability on the GTX 980. Most of the features and abilities of the desktop overclocking ecosystem carry over to the mobile GTX 980.

Users will be able to adjust GPU clock offset, memory clock offset and even fan curves. Voltage adjustment and power target are off limits though. The addition of fan curve control will allow users and OEMs to increase fan speeds to help with cooling or even to adjust it down to improve acoustics. Each OEM will likely be building its own software package for control of fans and clock speeds, but you'll be able to utilize MSI Afterburner or EVGA Precision X on day one.

In our short time with the MSI GT72 demo system (shown in the video above) I was able to set a +175 MHz GPU clock offset without stability issues. (That equates to a 1301 MHz base clock.) Yes, the fans spun up and were pretty loud, but, if you are using a quality headset or speakers turned up, I think you'll be willing to sacrifice for the performance at hand.

Advanced Features: Surround and VR Gaming

This kind of performance previously unavailable on a mobile platform creates some interesting new options for gamers using notebooks exclusively. First, as we showed in the video above, running triple monitor NVIDIA Surround is now possible.

Though likely limited to a triple 1080p setup due to performance concerns, the fact that we saw a GTX 980-based gaming notebook running Grand Theft Auto V on a set of three 1920×1080 screens with very reasonable image quality settings just blew me away! The number of people that will actually integrate this configuration is going to limited, obviously, but for a performance demonstration it's hard to beat.

Maybe more important for the future of PC gaming, the GTX 980 becomes the first GPU that exceeds the performance requirements for VR gaming as set forth by Oculus earlier this year. To meet the 90 FPS requirements on the current VR screens, Oculus has recommended a GTX 970 desktop part, which the GTX 980M was a step below. With the GTX 980 in a gaming notebook, you will be able to take your VR experience on the road; this is perfect for mobile enthusiasts or devs looking to demo on the go.

Pricing and Schedule

Though NVIDIA refused to talk specifics on GPU pricing or around the price of the retail units that are being announced today and in the coming weeks, I was able to get some direction from them on what to expect. You should see systems based on the GTX 980 to have a ~25% price premium at the system level compared to similar hardware using the GTX 980M. That means a $1500 gaming machine today with the 980M will run you around $1875 with the upgraded GPU. Obviously our mileage is going to vary based on the OEM and any other changes made to the platform, but you aren't going to find any of these systems in the budget rack.

We are still a few weeks out from getting retail systems in our hands or on store shelves, but the lineup based on the GTX 980 looks to be impressive. The old, reliable MSI GT72 will be getting an upgrade and this configuration will likely be the most price competitive this year. Clevo has a pair, Gigabyte's Aorus brand has the slimmest design and ASUS will introduce its new water cooled GX700 design with the GTX 980 later in the fall. Oh, and let's not forget the MSI GT80, the mechanical keyboard-sporting design with an 18+ inch screen and 4K resolution!

Clearly the new GeForce GTX 980 built for mobile gaming is going to provide the highest performance for PC gamers and enthusiasts that want a portable machine. You won't want to carry these notebooks around in your bag for very long, or depend on them for extended use in battery-only situations, but for LAN parties and tight quarters (dorm rooms), this NVIDIA GPU provides a previously unavailable gaming experience. This hardware is going to be expensive and the coolers are likely to be louder than we are used to (dissipating a 150 watt GPU is tough!) but if you want a no-compromise gaming solution on the go, the new GeForce GTX 980 is easily the king of the hill.