Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 Ti review: A ferocious graphics card at a ferocious price

How do you make one of the best graphics cards available today even better

Nvidia's GeForce GTX 980 already trumps the Radeon R9 290X in virtually every gaming benchmark--solidly in some tests, by a hair in others--while also running far cooler, quieter, and more efficiently than AMD's aging flagship. But with a new generation of powerful Radeons buoyed by cutting-edge high-bandwidth memory (HBM) and a rumored new Fiji GPU right around the corner, Nvidia couldn't stand still. So the question stands: How do you make one of the best graphics cards even better

Easy. Instead of trying to improve on the GTX 980's already winning formula, the new $650 GTX 980 Ti takes its beating heart from Nvidia's ferocious Titan X--the first single-GPU graphics card capable of gaming at 4K resolution.

But does it do so at the ultimate expense of the Titan X itself Let's dig in.

Meet the GeForce GTX 980 Ti

Nvidia's GTX 980 Ti ditches the vanilla GTX 980's GM204 graphics processor unit (GPU) in favor of a cut-down version of the $1000 Titan X's bigger, badder GM200 chip.

Where the GTX 980 packs 2048 CUDA cores running at 1050MHz (boosting to 1216MHz when needed), the GTX 980 Ti comes with a beefy 2816--a couple hundred shy of the Titan X's 3072 cores, but an utterly massive boost over the 980. The GPU's clocked at the same 1000MHz (1075MHz boost) as the Titan X itself, and the GTX 980 Ti has the same number of ROP units and just 16 fewer texture units than its big brother Titan. Our Titan X review has more detail about the GM200 GPU.

The GTX 980 Ti tops its namesake--which is seeing its price slashed from $550 to $500--in the memory department, too. The new graphics card packs 6GB of onboard GDDR5 memory clocked at a speedy 7GHz, and it uses a wider 384-bit bus than the 4GB GTX 980, which taps a 256-bit interface. It may not be HBM, but fear not--the GTX 980 Ti is no slouch even at high resolutions, as you'll see later.

Beyond the GPU, the GTX 980 Ti cribs more features from the Titan X. GM200 is a more power-hungry chip than GM204, so the GTX 980 Ti requires 6-pin and 8-pin power connections to draw its 250-watt TDP, compared to the GTX 980's dual 6-pins and 165W.

Port-wise, the card has a trio of full-sized DisplayPort connections, a lonely HDMI 2.0 port, and dual-link DVI. Design-wise, the GTX 980 Ti matches the same silver aesthetic Nvidia reference cards have been rocking since the 600-series days, rather than the Titan X's cool black exterior. The GTX 980 Ti also eschews the GTX 980's metal backplate in favor of open circuitry, ostensibly due to airflow concerns in multi-card setups.

The GTX 980 Ti also packs all the usual software features standard to Nvidia's Maxwell-based GPUs, like Voxel Global Illumination, Gameworks VR (formerly dubbed VR Direct) for virtual reality gaming, Dynamic Super Resolution, and Nvidia's impressive Multi-Frame-Sampled Anti-aliasing (MFAA) technology, which smooths jagged edges at a level similar to traditional MSAA, but with much less of a performance hit. They're all interesting and useful features, and we covered them in more detail when the GTX 970 and 980 were released  late last year.

In a prebriefing, Nvidia's Tom Peterson also stressed that the Maxwell GPU architecture uncerlying the GeForce 900-series--including the GTX 980 Ti--will be DirectX 12 feature level 12.1-compatible.

While the base 12.0 version of DX12 in Windows 10 includes the low CPU overhead, asynchronous compute, and closer-to-the-metal control options everybody's so excited about, supplementary feature levels add extra goodies.

Feature level 12.1 includes support for volume tiled resources, which use volumetric pixels to create more life-like smoke, fire, and fluid, as well as conservative rasterization, which more accurately determines whether a polygon covers part of a pixel. The effect's most noticeable with ray-traced shadows, Peterson says, which have fewer odd internal gaps and smoothed-out edges when rendered with conservative rasterization than with traditional tech. (Click the image above for an enlarged comparison.)

For a more detailed explanation, I highly recommend reading AnandTech's article on DirectX 12's new rendering features.

Enough stage-setting. On to the benchmarks!

Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 Ti benchmarks

As you might have guessed by glancing at the raw specifications, the GeForce GTX 980 Ti is an utter beast when it comes to PC gaming. Though it's a wee bit tamer than its big Titan X sibling, pretty much everything is--AMD's beastly dual-GPU Radeon R9 295x2 aside in games with proper CrossFire support.

Speaking of the Titan X, one area where the GTX 980 Ti differs significantly is in its onboard memory capacity. The new graphics card sports only 6GB of RAM.

Well, "only."

That may not sound like much in a world where the Titan X packs an insane 12GB of RAM and AMD's forthcoming flagship will arrive riding revolutionary HBM technology, but don't be mistaken--6GB is more than enough to handle today's games even at 4K resolution. Ultra-high resolutions consume far more memory than gaming at 1080p or even 2560x1440, especially as you ramp up anti-aliasing options, but 6GB of RAM should take everything you throw at it and come out smiling and still hungry.

And that's good, because while the GTX 980 Ti isn't quite as potent as the Titan X, it's still the second card ever with the firepower to game adequately at 4K resolutions by its lonesome--no multi-card SLI setup necessary.

But let's dive into the details before I get too far ahead of myself.

I tested the GTX 980 Ti using a 4K Dell UltraSharp monitor and PCWorld's dedicated graphics card testing rig. I detail the system in full in PCWorld's build guide, but here's the Cliffs Notes version:

Nvidia's MFAA technology can help boost your frame rates at home, but I disabled it during testing to avoid giving GeForce cards an unfair advantage. For comparison, the GTX 980 Ti is going up against the Titan X and the original GTX 980 (duh), as well as AMD's Radeon 290X and dual-GPU R9 295x2. You'll find the odd GTX 980 SLI results mixed in, as well.

I wanted to include GTA V results, but the game needs to connect to the Rockstar Social Club to validate its license every time your swap out your graphics card, and the GTX 980 Ti and its drivers weren't allowed to touch the 'Net prior to their official unveiling. Alas.

Next page: Performance benchmarks and a final verdict on Nvidia's GeForce GTX 980 Ti graphics card.

So first up, let's look at the benchmark results for Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. This critically acclaimed game (though not by us) offers an optional Ultra HD Texture pack that can murder your graphics card's frame buffer at high resolutions. In fact, the game warns you against using the texture pack if your GPU has less than 6GB of RAM (though you can still use it on cards with less memory). The game was tested by using the Medium and High quality presets, then by using the Ultra HD Texture pack and manually cranking every graphics option to its highest available setting (which Shadow of Mordor's Ultra setting doesn't actually do).

There's no Radeon R9 295x2 data available because the game constantly crashes every time I attempt to change any visual settings--including the resolution--with both AMD's stable WHQL drivers as well as its latest available beta drivers. Click any graph in this article to enlarge it.

Speaking of hammering hardware, Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition may be a recent remake of an older (and surprisingly great) game, but it still chews up and spits out graphics cards for breakfast. The latest and greatest graphics cards can't hit 60fps on Ultra settings in this bad boy--even at 2560x1600.

But the Radeon flagship fires both guns in the sublime Metro Last Light Redux, a recent remake of the gritty, atmospheric Metro Last Light. The GeForce GTX 980 Ti, meanwhile, falls just a few frames per second shy of the mighty Titan X, as it does in all the gaming benchmarks. We test the game with SSAA disabled, as it's an extreme form of anti-aliasing that slashes frame rates by 40 to 50 percent. You wouldn't use SSAA in-game, and we don't test with it.

Alien: Isolation is the most terrifying xenomorph experience since the original Alien movie. It's also a gorgeous game that scales well across graphics hardware of all types and potency.

Bioshock: Infinite is getting a bit long in the tooth and virtually every graphics card available today handles it wonderfully, but it's nevertheless a fine representative for the still-popular Unreal Engine 3. (UE4 can't come fast enough, though.)

Dragon Age: Inquisition is a gorgeous, massive game--one of the best of 2014, in fact. It runs on the same Frostbite 3 engine used to power Battlefield 4, but despite the close ties EA's technical team enjoys with AMD--and heavy AMD promotion for the game--DAI doesn't appear to play nice with the R9 295x2's dual GPUs, seemingly utilizing only one at a time no matter whether you're using AMD's WHQL or beta drivers.

I also tested the systems using two synthetic, but well-respected benchmarking tools: 3DMark's Fire Strike and Unigine's Valley.

To test power and thermal information, I run the grueling, worst-case-for-GPUs Furmark benchmark for 15 minutes, taking temperature information at the end using Furmark's built-in tool as well as SpeedFan. Power is measured on a whole-system basis, rather than the GPU itself, by plugging the PC into a Watts Up meter rather than the wall socket itself.

The Radeon R9 295x2 runs cool and quiet thanks to its integrated closed-loop water cooler, but none of these cards--barring the reference R9 290X--are loud whatsoever. Anecdotally, the GTX 980 Ti's sound levels are comparable to the Titan X's: louder than Nvidia's other 900-series Maxwell-based cards, to be sure, but still nowhere near noisy enough to bother you in a real-world scenario. Especially a gaming one.

The bottom line, and the existential question

There you have it: The Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 Ti is a beast. It's one of just two single-GPU graphics cards capable of gaming at 4K.

The same caveats apply as with the Titan X, of course. You won't be able to crank the eye candy to Ultra settings at 4K--you'll want to stick to High settings, lest your game devolve into a slideshow. And even on High settings, you'll see frame rates shy of the buttery-smooth 60 frames per second threshold in most titles.

That's perfectly acceptable for many gamers, but if it's not for you, you could disable anti-aliasing entirely--smoothing out jaggies isn't as necessary on such a pixel-packed screen, and AA comes with a sizeable performance hit--or investing in an Nvidia G-Sync-compatible monitor, which syncs the refresh rates of your GPU and your display to kill screen tearing and stuttering. G-Sync simply creates a superior, smoother visual experience overall. Or you could always turn to an SLI or CrossFire setup--if you're willing to deal with the headaches inherent with a multi-card solution in exchange for more raw firepower.

But forget all that. What's really interesting about the GTX 980 Ti is that it even exists, at least in its current form.

This graphics card brushes up against the $1000 Titan X's lofty performance for $350 less and  a free copy of Batman: Arkham Knight--essentially eliminating the practical need for PC gamers to consider the pricier card whatsoever. There's little reason to spend $1000 for a Titan X over a $650 GTX 980 Ti even if you've got cash spilling out of your pockets.

Yes, the Titan X offers an insane 12GB of RAM, but frankly, that's overkill for today's games. Beyond gaming, its lack of double-precision floating point performance severely limits the Titan X's appeal for many GPU compute tasks, though the card still excels at single-precision performance. 

The GTX 980 Ti's 6GB of memory is more than enough for gaming unless you're going nuts with the anti-aliasing settings at 4K resolution, and it will likely be enough for a while. Sure, if you're running a multi-monitor setup with several 4K displays for 8K or 12K gaming, you're going to want the larger 12GB frame buffer of the Titan X--and a SLI setup that essentially dedicates a Titan X to each screen. But if that's you, you're not just the 1 percent, you're the 0.00000001 percent.

Further reading: Tested: Nvidia GeForce and AMD Radeon graphics cards for every budget

So why does the GeForce GTX 980 Ti even exist Just look at its reveal timing.

After a long delay, AMD's scheduled to reveal its new flagship Radeon graphics card any day now, powered by a new Fiji GPU and that revolutionary high-bandwidth memory, which should theoretically rock at ultra-high resolutions. But it's also rumored to be capped at 4GB memory capacity.

A-ha. Suddenly the $650 GTX 980 Ti--and its not 4GB, not 8GB, but 6GB  of RAM--starts to make a lot more sense, even if it obliterates most of the Titan X's positioning in the market.

And suddenly, I'm a lot more interested in seeing the price and performance details for AMD's forthcoming flagship, because this is what Nvidia used to counter the Radeon's release, and the GeForce GTX 980 Ti is nothing short of one hell of a graphics card at one hell of a price.


Brad Chacos

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