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NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 Review: Does Maxwell Bring Maximum Gameplay?

Date: September 18, 2014
Author(s): Rob Williams

NVIDIA’s next-gen GeForce series is here, and it brings with it a slew of new features and enhancements worth knowing about. Based on Maxwell, the GTX 900 series delivers much-improved performance-per-watt, with the GTX 980 in particular performing better than the 780 Ti – but with a TDP of 85W less. You read that right. Let’s dig in.



Introduction

Seven months ago, NVIDIA released a graphics card that captivated me. It was called the GeForce GTX 750 Ti, and it cost a mere $150. Admittedly, it looked like a card that cost even less, and it didn’t even have a power connector. So at first, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but after diving into testing, I quickly realized that the modest 750 Ti had some serious brawn.

Under the hood of that 750 Ti? A chip packed with NVIDIA’s latest architecture, Maxwell. After seeing that the lowly 750 Ti could handle all of today’s games at 1080p and with decent framerates, I couldn’t help but wonder what Maxwell could do for the higher-end part of NVIDIA’s product stack. I didn’t realize it’d take more than half a year to find out, but nonetheless, the wait is over.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 900 Promo Shot

Today, NVIDIA’s releasing two Maxwell-equipped graphics cards: The $329 GTX 970, and the $549 GTX 980. We’re going to kick things off with a look at the GTX 980, and you can expect our look at the GTX 970 to follow shortly.

Anyone familiar with NVIDIA’s last-gen high-end cards will immediately recognize the cooler used here. Without a doubt, I consider this cooler to be the best graphics card cooler ever built, so I’m glad to see that NVIDIA didn’t decide to forego it this round. While it’s sometimes nice to see a fresh design each and every year, it simply wasn’t needed here, and because of that decision, any NVIDIA fan who skipped over the 700 series generation now has a second chance at owning a card featuring this hardcore looking cooler.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 Graphics Card - Flat

But while on the surface, the 900 series coolers look like those from last-gen, there are a couple of improvements, both under-the-hood and on it. For starters, both the 980 and 970 have a backplate for improved cooling, and on this backplate is a removable section that aides further with the goal of improved airflow for those who have window-mounted fans.

The photo below shows us a new triangular design that graces the barren area of the panel, but that’s not what’s important here. What is, is the fact that NVIDIA’s culled one of the DVI ports on its reference card in order to make more room for two more DisplayPort connectors. That gives the 980 a total of 3x DisplayPort connectors, 1x HDMI, and 1x DVI.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 Graphics Card - Naked

For those planning to go the multi-monitor route with displays that all use DisplayPort, this is fine, but clearly, that’s a small percentage of people. Because of this, I’d wager that most vendors will opt for a different collection of connectors. For those that do go with the 3x DP configuration though, it seems likely that there would be a DisplayPort-to-DVI adapter included in the box.

It should come as a surprise to no one that Maxwell delivers a higher performance-per-watt over Kepler, but because of that, the table below isn’t quite as useful this time around as it normally is. Based on core counts alone, it looks like the TITAN Black would blow the GTX 980 out of the water, but that’s not the case. Instead, the only “on paper” spec worth noting here is that both the 980 and 970 (finally) include a 4GB framebuffer. Don’t let that 256-bit interface fool you. I’ll cover on the next page why despite its tighter bus, Maxwell is more memory-efficient than Kepler.

NVIDIA GeForce SeriesCoresCore MHzMemoryMem MHzMem BusTDP
GeForce GTX 980204811264096MB7000256-bit165W
GeForce GTX 970166410504096MB7000256-bit145W
GeForce GTX TITAN Black28808896144MB7000384-bit250W
GeForce GTX 780 Ti28808753072MB7000384-bit250W
GeForce GTX 78023048633072MB6008384-bit250W
GeForce GTX 770153610462048MB7010256-bit230W
GeForce GTX 76011529802048MB6008256-bit170W
GeForce GTX 750 Ti64010202048MB5400128-bit60W
GeForce GTX 75051210202048MB5000128-bit55W

Note that with this launch, NVIDIA is officially discontinuing the GTX 780 Ti, 780, and 770.

Here’s the table that really matters:

NVIDIA GeForce SeriesGFLOPsTDPGFLOPs Per Watt
GeForce GTX 9805,000165W30
GeForce GTX 9704,000145W27.5
GeForce GTX TITAN Black5,100250W20
GeForce GTX 780 Ti5,050250W20
GeForce GTX 7804,000250W16
GeForce GTX 7704,000230W17
GeForce GTX 6803,000195W15

With its peak performance of 5 TFLOPs and its power rating of 165W, the GTX 980 delivers 30 GFLOPs-per-watt. That might not seem like a big deal without some context, but that’s 50% more performance-per-watt over the GTX 780 Ti, and 100% more than the GTX 680. That’s quite an impressive gain in just two-and-a-half years.

Even a table like this doesn’t tell the whole performance story, though. Take for example the fact that the 780 Ti and 980 offer roughly the same amount of performance. What we’ll actually see in our testing is that the 980 is about 10% faster than the 780 Ti in most cases. Some gain comes as a direct result of the Maxwell architecture, but the higher clocks of the 980 don’t hurt either.

Due to time and having felt under-the-weather all week, I was unable to fully benchmark the GTX 970 in time for launch, but I wanted to give a tease of what model we’ll soon be talking about. It’s from ASUS, and it’s called the “STRIX” edition. The name might be a little strange (at least, it is to me), but this is one card I can’t wait to dig into:

ASUS GeForce GTX 970 STRIX Edition

Every single graphics card vendor on earth touts their cards as being “quiet”, but with STRIX, ASUS might actually be able to live up to that promise. On the box is mention of “0dB silent gaming”, and while Maxwell’s power efficiency no doubt deserves some of the credit for making that possible, the interesting looking fans no doubt play a role as well, as well as ASUS’ own blend of power optimizations.

You’re probably all desperate to see what the GTX 980 brings to the table in terms of performance, but first, we’ll take a look at Maxwell’s most important features. If you just want to see performance, hop on over to page four.

What Maxwell Brings to the Table

NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 750 might have introduced the world to Maxwell, but in reality, that chip should have been called “Maxwell Light”. Since that release, NVIDIA’s piled on more features and capabilities, most of which are far beyond what you’d want to be running on a lower-end part.

The most interesting features of Maxwell include DSR, an interesting resolution scaler; MFAA, a low-cost anti-aliasing setting; VR Direct, enhancements beneficial to peripherals like the Oculus Rift; VXGI, a truly comprehensive voxel-based lighting technology; as well as memory compression.

Memory Compression

Let’s start with the latter, memory compression. Like any other type of data compression, the goal here is to store the same amount of information in a smaller footprint, something easily done when a patch (in this case, 8×8 pixels) contains a lot of the same color. To the left in the example below, 8 identical colors are stored in order within this grid of 64 pixels. The box directly next to this shows that this information can be perfectly compressed with an 8:1 ratio, which dramatically reduces the memory footprint. In some cases, you may only be able go 4:1 or 2:1, but any gain is still a gain. In the event that a grid can’t be compressed, it’s simply left alone.

NVIDIA Maxwell - Memory Compression

It’d be easy to believe that many games wouldn’t benefit from memory compression, especially those that have extremely varied scenes – but you might be surprised. Below is a screenshot from one of the GRID games, and here, all of the purple represents blocks that were able to be compressed. Of course, not all of these blocks would have been compressed to the same degree; some might be 8:1, while others could be 2:1. Because of memory compression’s success here, VRAM usage is far less on Maxwell than it would be on Kepler – something I find a little humorous since Maxwell gives us more VRAM to deal with.

NVIDIA Maxwell - Memory Compression Result

On average, NVIDIA expects that VRAM usage will decrease between 17% and 29% on average. Further, assuming that an average of 25% could be compressed, that’d “effectively” increase the VRAM speed from 7Gbps to 9.3Gbps – a potential boon to higher-end resolutions (such as 4K).

Voxel Global Illumination

The most complex technology discussed during the Maxwell briefing is VXGI, or Voxel Global Illumination. GI in itself isn’t new, and neither is VXGI for that matter, but on Maxwell, the tuned architecture allows it to run far more effectively. Its goal is to increase the realism of global illumination, making scenes much more believable, thanks to very in-depth sampling led by voxelization (turning objects into a series of blocks) of a scene.

NVIDIA Maxwell - VXGI

In terms of hyper-realistic lighting, no technology could compete with ray tracing, but VXGI’s goal is to offer as close to ray tracing’s realism as possible without requiring an enormous amount of GPU horsepower. From previous GPU-related events, I’ve seen immensely ray traced scenes that have run at about 1 FPS while backed by multiple high-end GPUs, and that right there is why VXGI is a far more likely technology to be implemented into our games. It goes without saying that VXGI’s realistic lighting will come at a higher cost than other global illumination methods, but with today’s GPUs as powerful as they are, that hit could be nearly meaningless.

To help prove VXGI’s usefulness, NVIDIA went through the painstaking effort of recreating a famous photograph from the Apollo moon landing. With it, the company tries to prove the skeptics wrong by debunking a couple of arguments – mostly those due to lighting. In one particular argument, there’s a bright light seen as Buzz Aldrin descends out of the craft. Many people interpret this as being the sun, which complicates things because other photographs show the sun on the other side. But with VXGI, NVIDIA was able to prove that this bright light was in fact Neil Armstrong – it just happened to be that his spacesuit reflected light extremely well.

NVIDIA Maxwell - Apollo Landing VXGI

In order to create this demo, which will be released to the public in the near-future, all of the materials that appeared in these photos were accounted for, with their relative properties adjusted appropriately. This demo will have a default mode that will match one of the famous photographs, but as you’d expect, you’ll be able to tweak numerous settings and generally have a lot of fun skewing such an important part of history.

Dynamic Super Resolution

We see evidence with every high-end graphics card review we do that today’s options are ridiculously powerful. While the GTX 980 and even 970 are capable of driving resolutions higher than 1080p, there are still likely to be those who decide to stick with that resolution and simply crank detail levels to great heights. If you happen to fall into that camp, then DSR is for you.

NVIDIA Maxwell - DSR Off
Dynamic Super Resolution Off

DSR in effect runs your game at a much higher resolution than your native, scaling it down in real-time. Similar to anti-aliasing, this is designed to smooth out the picture, but DSR’s goals go beyond that. Picture a scene from The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, or Dark Souls II, where you’re out in a field of grass. I am sure you’ve all seen the issue here: The grass in the background doesn’t have great detail, and often the tip of the strands will have gaps. DSR aims to fix that.

NVIDIA Maxwell - DSR Sampling
Left: 1080p Snippet; Right: DSR Sampling Higher-res Snippet

Scaling-down a higher resolution isn’t enough to give us the effect NVIDIA wants, though; for that, a filter is applied that samples many more pixels than it’d be able to at lower resolution, and then applies a 13 tap Gaussian blur. The difference is very noticeable.

NVIDIA Maxwell - DSR On
Dynamic Super Resolution On

DSR is yet another graphics option that NVIDIA’s adding to its GeForce Experience application, so if you’re running a modest GPU but can still run a game at 4K (or at least a higher resolution), GFE will tell you so. Those who like to do things the manual way are going to be able to do so as well. From within the NVIDIA Control Panel, you’ll be able to increase the resolution of your game from between 2x ~ 4x. Even at 2x, you might still notice some good benefit, and it might be a nice option for 1440p gamers.

MFAA – No, It Doesn’t Stand For That

MFAA stands for Multi-Frame Sampled Anti-aliasing (the “S” is apparently silent here). This is an anti-aliasing mode that aims to deliver the quality of 4xMSAA but with the performance hit of 2xMSAA. It works by sampling random points of each pixel, rather than the same points of each pixel, and the result looks very convincing.

NVIDIA Maxwell - MFAA Example

If you use anti-aliasing in games, MFAA is definitely a setting you’ll be wanting to try. 2xMSAA rarely induces that much of a performance hit, where as 4xMSAA does, so to have the latter quality-wise with the former performance-wise is extremely tempting.

VR Direct

Virtual reality is something that NVIDIA takes pretty seriously, and so it’s developed a series of related technologies that fall under the “VR Direct” branding. These technologies include low latency, VR SLI, VR DSR, MFAA, auto asynchronous wrap, and auto stereo.

NVIDIA Maxwell - VR Latency Reduction

One of the biggest issues surrounding VR at the moment is latency, and that’s one area that NVIDIA wanted to improve things in. With a couple of different technologies, especially asynchronous wrap, the company was able to halve the latency from 50ms to 25ms. Some of this required some aggressive optimization, but it got the job done. The company showed these improvements at its briefing last week, and every single person I talked to was effectively “wowed” by it.

Along with all of these technologies, NVIDIA talked a lot about updates to its GameWorks game development library as well as which upcoming games are taking advantage of which features, but I’m going to wait until after the launch to talk about that. With all of this covered, it’s now time to peer into the performance results, but not without a look at our testing methodology first. For those who don’t care about that, you can jump right on over to page four.

Test System & Methodology

At Techgage, we strive to make sure our results are as accurate as possible. Our testing is rigorous and time-consuming, but we feel the effort is worth it. In an attempt to leave no question unanswered, this page contains not only our test-bed specifications, but also a detailed look at how we conduct our testing.

Test Machine

The below table lists our testing machine’s hardware, which remains unchanged throughout all GPU testing, minus the GPU. Each card used for comparison is also listed here, along with the driver version used.

Graphics Card Test System
ProcessorsIntel Core i7-4960X – Six-Core @ 4.50GHz
MotherboardASUS P9X79-E WS
MemoryKingston HyperX Beast 32GB (4x8GB) – DDR3-2133 11-12-11
GraphicsAMD Radeon R9 290X 4GB – Catalyst 13.12
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 770 2GB – GeForce 340.52
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 3GB – GeForce 331.93
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti 3GB – GeForce 331.93
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 4GB – GeForce 344.07
AudioOnboard
StorageKingston HyperX 240GB SSD
Power SupplyCooler Master Silent Pro Hybrid 1300W
ChassisCooler Master Storm Trooper Full-Tower
CoolingThermaltake WATER3.0 Extreme Liquid Cooler
DisplaysASUS PB278Q 27″ 2560×1440
Dell P2210H 22″ 1920×1080 x 3
Et ceteraWindows 7 Professional 64-bit

Notes About Our High-end System

The goal of our performance content is to show you as accurately as possible how one product compares to another – after all, you’re coming to us for advice, so we want to make sure we’re giving you the best possible information. Typically, one major step we take in ensuring that our performance results are accurate is to make sure that our test systems are void of all possible bottlenecks, so for that, high-end components must be used.

In the case of our graphics card test system, the processor chosen has six-cores and is overclocked far beyond reference clocks. Most games nowadays are not heavily CPU-bound, but by using such a chip, we feel that we completely rule it out as a potential bottleneck. The same can be said for the use of an SSD (as opposed to latency-ridden mechanical storage), and even our memory, which is clocked at the comfortable speed of DDR3-2133.

Why this matters to you: Our test PC is high-end, and it’s very likely that you’d encounter a bottleneck quicker than us. Our goals are to rid all possible bottlenecks, whereas yours is to build the PC you need. In our case, we need to go overboard to attain as accurate a representation of a graphic card’s performance as possible.

If your PC has at least a modern (~2-years-old) quad-core or better processor, and at least 8GB of fast memory (DDR3-1866+), that chances of you running into a bottleneck with today’s hottest game is admittedly low. If you’re using lower-end gear, you can absolutely expect that the rest of your system could be a bottleneck. It should be noted, though, that if you’re seeking out a lower-end graphics card, the importance of a bottleneck would of course be lessened.

Unfortunately, we’re not able to test a single card on multiple PC configurations; each single card we test takes at least 3 hours to test, with another 2 hours added on for each additional resolution, and at least another 1~2 hours for our Best Playable results (for up to 11 hours of mostly hands-on testing for a high-end model).

Please bear all of this in mind. If you’re unsure if your PC could prove to be a bottleneck, our comments section exists for such questions.

When preparing our test-beds for any type of performance testing, we follow these guidelines:

General Guidelines

To aid with the goal of keeping accurate and repeatable results, we alter certain services in Windows 7 from starting up at boot. This is due to the fact that these services have the tendency to start up in the background without notice, potentially causing inaccurate test results. For example, disabling “Windows Search” turns off the OS’ indexing which can at times utilize the hard drive and memory more than we’d like.

The services we disable are:

For further fine-tuning, we also use Windows’ “Classic” desktop theme, which gets rid of the transparency that can sometimes utilize a GPU in the background.

Vendor Favortism

Sometimes, either AMD or NVIDIA will work with a game studio to help their development process along. As history has proven, this often results in a game that is tuned better for one vendor over the other, although sometimes the tides can change over time, resulting in the competing vendor offering the better experience.

One of our goals is to provide as neutral a benchmarking suite as possible, so while it’s impossible to avoid games sponsored by either of these companies, we can at least make an effort to achieve a blended list. As it stands, our current game list and their partners are:

(AMD) – Battlefield 4
(AMD) – Crysis 3
(AMD) – Sleeping Dogs
(NVIDIA) – Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
(NVIDIA) – Metro: Last Light
(NVIDIA) – Splinter Cell Blacklist
(Neutral) – GRID 2
(Neutral) – Total War: SHOGUN 2

With that, let’s move on to a quick look at the game settings we use in our testing:

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag Benchmark Settings

Battlefield 4

Battlefield 4 Benchmark Settings

Note: The “High” preset is used for multi-monitor configurations.

Crysis 3

Crysis 3 Benchmark Settings

Crysis 3 Benchmark Settings

Note: The “Medium” preset is used for multi-monitor configurations.

GRID 2

GRID 2 Benchmark Settings

GRID 2 Benchmark Settings

GRID 2 Benchmark Settings

Metro Last Light

Metro Last Light Benchmark Settings

Sleeping Dogs

Sleeping Dogs Benchmark Settings

Sleeping Dogs Benchmark Settings

Splinter Cell Blacklist

Splinter Cell Blacklist Benchmark Settings

Splinter Cell Blacklist Benchmark Settings

Total War: SHOGUN 2

Total War SHOGUN 2 Benchmark Settings

Unigine Heaven

Unigine Heaven 4 Benchmark Settings

Game Tests: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Battlefield 4

Given the sheer number of titles in the Assassin’s Creed series, it’s a little hard to believe that the first game came out a mere six years ago. You could definitely say that Ubisoft hit the ball out of the park with this one. To date, we’ve never considered an AC game for benchmarking, but given the number of graphical goodies featured in the PC version of Black Flag, that trend now ends.

Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag - 1920x1080

Manual Run-through: The saved game starts us not far from the beginning of the game under a small church which can be climbed to synchronize with the environment. To kick things off, I scale this church and rotate the camera around once, making sure to take in the beautiful landscape; then, I climb back down and run all the way to the water (the top of this small church and the water can be seen in the above screenshot).

Note: For some reason, Ubisoft decided to cap the framerate to 60 FPS in Black Flag even if Vsync is turned off. For most games, this would ruin the chance of it appearing in our benchmarking, but because the game is graphically intensive, I’ve chosen to stick with it, as at higher resolutions, reaching 60 FPS is a perk that will belong only to high-end graphics cards.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (1920x1080)

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (2560x1440)

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (5760x1080)

In late 2007, with the advent of higher resolutions and more powerful GPUs, I retired the 1280×1024 resolution from our test suite. Fast-forward some five years later, and I had to do the same thing with 1680×1050. Looking at the 1080p results above, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it will soon be time to retire that resolution as well – at least when it comes to high-end cards. In fact, while I was producing the graphs for this review, I debated whether I’d include 1080p results at all. In the end, I decided to, simply to highlight the fact that today’s high-end GPUs are truly overkill for that resolution.

Even at 1440p, the top three cards can guarantee 60 FPS on average, and that’s with the game running with maxed-out detail levels (not counting the special high-end shadow and anti-aliasing options). In our multi-monitor resolution, which involves 6.2 million pixels (4K is 8.3 million, by comparison), the cards are put to better work. With all high-end settings left in tact, the 980 is still able to help us keep ahead of the 50 FPS mark. An overclocked card would no doubt bring us very close to 60 FPS.

Battlefield 4

Thanks to the fact that DICE cares more about PC gaming than a lot of developers, the Battlefield series tends to give us titles that are well-worth benchmarking. Battlefield 3 offered incredible graphics and became a de facto benchmark immediately, so it’s no surprise, then, that BF4 follows right in its footsteps.

Battlefield 4 - 1920x1080

Manual Run-through: The Singapore level is the target here, with the saved game starting us on an airboat that must be driven to shore, where a massive battle is set to take place. I stop recording the framerate once the tank makes its way to the end of this small patch of beach; in all, the run takes about 3 minutes.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Battlefield 4 (1920x1080)

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Battlefield 4 (2560x1440)

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Battlefield 4 (5760x1080)

None of the four cards featured here has an issue with 1080p, though the fact that the 980 managed to gain 20 FPS over the 780 Ti on the minimum front is quite something. Moving upwards, the men began to be separated from the boys, with the 980 remaining the only card to keep ahead of the 60 FPS mark. Interestingly, the multi-monitor resolution doesn’t sway much from the 1440p results at all – the 980 still delivers 63 FPS.

Game Tests: Crysis 3, GRID 2

When the original Crysis dropped in late 2007, it took no time at all for pundits to coin the phrase, “Can it run Crysis?“, almost to the point of self-parody. At the time, the game couldn’t have its graphics detail maxed-out on even top-of-the-line PCs, and in reality, that’s a great thing. I’d imagine few are opposed to knowing that a game could actually look better down the road as our PCs grow into them. As the series continued, Crytek knew it had a legend to live up to, and fortunately, Crysis 3 (our review) lives up to the original’s legacy.

Crysis 3 - 1920x1080 Single Monitor

Manual Run-through: There’s no particular level in Crysis 3 that I could establish was “better” for benchmarking than another, but I settled on “Red Star Rising” based on the fact that I could perform a run-through with no chance of dying (a great thing in a challenging game like this one). The level starts us in a derelict building, where I traverse a broken pipe to make it over to one rooftop and then another. I eventually hit the ground after taking advantage of a zipline, and make my way down to a river, where I scurry past a number of enemies to the end spot beneath a building.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Crysis 3 (1920x1080)

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Crysis 3 (2560x1440)

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Crysis 3 (5760x1080)

Can it run Crysis 3? The answer would be “yes” to all four of these cards, with resolutions up to 1440p being no problem at all when using the High detail settings. If you wanted to use Very High, you’d have to opt for a second GPU, or keep to 1080p. At 5760×1080, the Medium detail setting gives us playable results on all of the cards, with the 980 and 780 Ti interestingly performing the same there.

GRID 2

For those who appreciate racing games that are neither too realistic nor too arcade-like, there’s GRID. In GRID 2 (review), the ultimate goal is to build a racing empire, starting from square one. Unlike most racing titles that have some sort of career, the goal here isn’t to earn cash, but fans. Whether you’re racing around Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina or tearing through a gorgeous Cote d’Azur coastline, your goal is simple: To impress.

GRID 2 - 1920x1080 Single Monitor

Manual Run-through: The track chosen for my benchmarking is Miami (Ocean Drive). It’s a simple track overall, which is one of the reasons I chose it, and also the reason I choose to do just a single lap (I crash, often, and that affects both the results and my patience). Unlike most games in the suite which I test twice over (save for an oddity in the results), I race this one lap three times over.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - GRID 2 (1920x1080)

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - GRID 2 (2560x1440)

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - GRID 2 (5760x1080)

Even the “lowly” GTX 780 manages to deliver 100 FPS at 1080p here, so that resolution is good for little more than a laugh. The same could really be said with 1440p, and perhaps 5760×1080 – the 980 there comes 6 FPS ahead of the 780 Ti, with AMD’s 290X creeping very close behind.

Game Tests: Metro Last Light, Sleeping Dogs

Crysis has become infamous for punishing even top-end systems, but let’s be fair: The Metro series matches, if not exceeds its requirement for graphical horsepower. That was proven by the fact that we used Metro 2033 in our testing for a staggering three years – only to be replaced by its sequel, Last Light. I’m not particularly a fan of this series, but I am in awe of its graphics even at modest settings.

Metro Last Light - 1920x1080 Single Monitor

Manual Run-through: Because this game is a real challenge to benchmark with for both the reasons of variability in the results and the raw challenge, I choose to use the built-in benchmark here but rely on Fraps to give me more accurate results.

Note: Metro Last Light‘s built-in benchmark is not representative of the entire game; some levels will punish a GPU much worse than this benchmark will (namely, “The Chase”, which has lots of smoke and explosions). What this means is that while these settings might suffice for much of the game, there might be instances where the performance degrades enough during a certain chapter or portion of a chapter to force a graphics setting tweak.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Metro Last Light (1920x1080)

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Metro Last Light (2560x1440)

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Metro Last Light (5760x1080)

All of the cards handle this benchmark just fine at 1440p and under, and for the most part, the same could be said about our multi-monitor resolution. The 780 Ti and 290X fall a bit behind the 980 (which is to be expected), but they still settle in at 60 FPS. Again though, this benchmark is not representative of real gameplay at all (this and SHOGUN 2 are the only ones in our suite that fall into this camp); like 3DMark, it’s simply a benchmark to see what each card is capable of in a perfect scenario.

Sleeping Dogs

Many have called Sleeping Dogs (our review) the “Asian Grand Theft Auto“, but the game does a lot of things differently that helps it stand out of the crowd. For example, in lieu of supplying the player with a gazillion guns, Sleeping Dogs focuses heavily on hand-to-hand combat. There are also many collectibles that can be found to help upgrade your character and unlock special fighting abilities – and if you happen to enjoy an Asian atmosphere, this game should fit the bill.

Sleeping Dogs - 1920x1080 Single Monitor

Manual Run-through: The run here takes place during the chapter “Amanda”, on a dark, dank night. The saved game begins us at the first apartment in the game (in North Point), though that’s not where I begin capturing the framerate. Instead, I first request our motorcycle from the garage. Once set, I begin recording the framerate and drive along a specific path all the way to Aberdeen, taking about two minutes.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Sleeping Dogs (1920x1080)

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Sleeping Dogs (2560x1440)

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Sleeping Dogs (5760x1080)

Sleeping Dogs might have come out two-years-ago, but I’d argue to the death the fact that it’s still one of the best-looking games out there. Once again, the only resolution to prove challenging is 5760×1080, but reducing the anti-aliasing to “Normal” (which admittedly won’t make a large difference in game) would boost the top three cards past 60 FPS, and the 780 close to it.

Game Tests: Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Total War: SHOGUN 2

Tom Clancy is responsible for a countless number of video games, but his Splinter Cell series has become something special, with each game released having been considered “great” overall. The latest in the series, Blacklist, is no exception, and thankfully for us, its graphics are fantastic, and not to mention intensive. For those who love a stealth element in their games, this is one that shouldn’t be skipped.

RIP, Tom Clancy.

Splinter Cell Blacklist - 1920x1080 Single Monitor

Manual Run-through: From the start of the ‘Safehouse’ level in Benghazi, Libya, we progress through until we reach an apartment building that must be entered – this is where we end the FPS recording.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Splinter Cell: Blacklist (1920x1080)

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Splinter Cell: Blacklist (2560x1440)

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Splinter Cell: Blacklist (5760x1080)

The further we peer into these results, the clearer it becomes to me that we’re going to be due for another GPU suite overhaul soon. Most PC gamers out there run 1080p, but as we’ve seen up to this point, none of these cards struggle with 1440p, which has 77% more pixels. Clearly, we’d be seeing far greater deltas at 4K. I still believe the hype surrounding 4K is severely overblown, but it seems inevitable that I’ll be adding it to our suite at some point soon.

Total War: SHOGUN 2

Strategy games are well-known for pushing the limits of any system, and few others do this as well as Total War: SHOGUN 2. It fully supports DX11, has huge battlefields to oversee with hundreds or thousands of units, and a ton of graphics options to adjust. It’s quite simply a beast of a game.

Total War: SHOGUN 2 - 1920x1080 Single Monitor

Manual Run-through: SHOGUN 2 is one of the few games in our suite where the built-in benchmark is opted for. Strategy games in particular are very difficult to benchmark, so this is where I become thankful to have the option of using a built-in benchmark.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Total War: SHOGUN 2 (1920x1080)

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Total War: SHOGUN 2 (2560x1440)

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Total War: SHOGUN 2 (5760x1080)

SHOGUN 2 is the only game in our suite which shows that a single 980 isn’t even enough to deliver silky-smooth gameplay at 5760×1080. Granted, that’s with anti-aliasing and every other setting maxed, so it wouldn’t be hard to reach 60 FPS if it were that important (and I’d argue that it is).

Best Playable: Single Display

For about as long as GPU-accelerated games have existed, an ideal performance target has been 60 frames-per-second. Owing thanks to this is the standard 60Hz monitor, which delivers its best result when the framerate matches its refresh rate. To make sure the monitor’s refresh rate and game’s framerate keep aligned, to avoid visible tearing, VSync should be enabled.

While I believe our Best Playable results will appeal to any gamer, they could especially prove useful to those intrigued by livingroom gaming or console replacements. The goal here is simple: With each game, the graphics settings are tweaked to deliver the best possible detail while keeping us as close to 60 FPS on average as possible.

Because our Metro Last Light and Total War: SHOGUN 2 tests are timedemos, and because this kind of testing is time-consuming, I am sticking to six out of the eight games I test with for inclusion here.

 Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
MinimumAverage
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 9805160
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Environment:Very HighShadow:Soft Shadow High
Texture:HighReflection:High
Anti-aliasing:FXAAGod Rays:High
Ambient Occlusion:HBAO+ HighVolumetric Fog:On
Motion BlurOn 
Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti5261
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Environment:Very HighShadow:High
Texture:HighReflection:High
Anti-aliasing:FXAAGod Rays:High
Ambient Occlusion:SSAOVolumetric Fog:On
Motion BlurOn 
Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
AMD Radeon R9 290X5161
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Environment:Very HighShadow:High
Texture:HighReflection:High
Anti-aliasing:FXAAGod Rays:High
Ambient Occlusion:SSAOVolumetric Fog:On
Motion BlurOn 
Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag - Best Playable - AMD Radeon R9 290X

Both AMD’s Radeon R9 290X and NVIDIA’s last-gen top-end GTX 780 Ti were able to handle Black Flag at the settings we use in our apples-to-apples comparisons, but because the GTX 980 offered a bit more oomph, I decided to test out HBAO+ and soft shadow modes. When all said and done, I was able to go with the High mode for each, while hitting exactly 60 FPS on average.

 Battlefield 4
MinimumAverage
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 9804763
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Texture Quality:UltraTexture Filtering:Ultra
Lighting:UltraEffects:Ultra
Post Processing:UltraMesh:Ultra
Terrain:UltraTerrain Decoration:Ultra
Anti-aliasing Deferred:4x MSAAAnti-aliasing Post:High
Ambient Occlusion:HBAO  
Battlefield 4 - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti4362
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Texture Quality:UltraTexture Filtering:Ultra
Lighting:UltraEffects:Ultra
Post Processing:UltraMesh:Ultra
Terrain:UltraTerrain Decoration:Ultra
Anti-aliasing Deferred:2x MSAAAnti-aliasing Post:Medium
Ambient Occlusion:SSAO  
Battlefield 4 - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
AMD Radeon R9 290X4360
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Texture Quality:UltraTexture Filtering:Ultra
Lighting:UltraEffects:Ultra
Post Processing:UltraMesh:Ultra
Terrain:UltraTerrain Decoration:Ultra
Anti-aliasing Deferred:2x MSAAAnti-aliasing Post:Medium
Ambient Occlusion:SSAO  
Battlefield 4 - Best Playable - AMD Radeon R9 290X

Both the 290X and 780 Ti had to see their anti-aliasing dropped slightly in order to attain 60 FPS on average, but with the GTX 980, not only could 4xAA be retained (an Ultra preset), but so too could the higher-end HBAO mode (versus SSAO).

 Crysis 3
MinimumAverage
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 9804465
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Anti-aliasing:FXAATexture:Very High
Effects:HighObject:Very High
Particles:HighPost Processing:High
Shading:HighShadows:High
Water:HighAnisotropic Filtering:x16
Motion Blur:MediumLens Flares:Yes
Crysis 3 - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti4266
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Anti-aliasing:FXAATexture:High
Effects:HighObject:High
Particles:HighPost Processing:High
Shading:HighShadows:High
Water:HighAnisotropic Filtering:x16
Motion Blur:MediumLens Flares:Yes
Crysis 3 - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
AMD Radeon R9 290X4161
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Anti-aliasing:FXAATexture:High
Effects:HighObject:High
Particles:HighPost Processing:High
Shading:HighShadows:High
Water:HighAnisotropic Filtering:x16
Motion Blur:MediumLens Flares:Yes
Crysis 3 - Best Playable - AMD Radeon R9 290X

The GTX 980 once again shows the other two cards just what it’s made of. Instead of sticking to the same settings I use for normal benchmarking, this card managed higher texture and object detail while delivering well over 60 FPS.

 GRID 2
MinimumAverage
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 9806988
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Multisampling:4x MSAANight Lighting:High
Shadows:UltraAdvanced Fog:On
Particles:UltraCrowd:Ultra
Cloth:HighAmbient Occlusion:Ultra
Soft Ambient Occlusion:OnGround Cover:High
Vehicle Details:HighTrees:Ultra
Objects:UltraVehicle Reflections:Ultra
Water:HighPost Process:High
Skidmarks:OnAdvanced Lighting:On
Global Illumination:OnAnisotropic Filtering:Ultra
GRID 2 - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti7383
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Multisampling:4x MSAANight Lighting:High
Shadows:UltraAdvanced Fog:On
Particles:UltraCrowd:Ultra
Cloth:HighAmbient Occlusion:Ultra
Soft Ambient Occlusion:OnGround Cover:High
Vehicle Details:HighTrees:Ultra
Objects:UltraVehicle Reflections:Ultra
Water:HighPost Process:High
Skidmarks:OnAdvanced Lighting:On
Global Illumination:OnAnisotropic Filtering:Ultra
GRID 2 - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
AMD Radeon R9 290X6776
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Multisampling:4x MSAANight Lighting:High
Shadows:UltraAdvanced Fog:On
Particles:UltraCrowd:Ultra
Cloth:HighAmbient Occlusion:Ultra
Soft Ambient Occlusion:OnGround Cover:High
Vehicle Details:HighTrees:Ultra
Objects:UltraVehicle Reflections:Ultra
Water:HighPost Process:High
Skidmarks:OnAdvanced Lighting:On
Global Illumination:OnAnisotropic Filtering:Ultra
GRID 2 - Best Playable - AMD Radeon R9 290X

In truth, 8xMSAA could have been enabled for any one of these configurations, but I’d argue that it’d be a bit pointless. The performance on all three of the cards is outstanding, and when not even the minimum dips below 60 FPS, that’s a very good thing.

 Sleeping Dogs
MinimumAverage
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 9806578
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Anti-aliasing:HighHigh-res Textures:On
Shadow Resolution:HighShadow Filtering:High
Ambient Occlusion:HighMotion Blur:High
World Density:Extreme 
Sleeping Dogs - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti5471
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Anti-aliasing:HighHigh-res Textures:On
Shadow Resolution:HighShadow Filtering:High
Ambient Occlusion:HighMotion Blur:High
World Density:Extreme 
Sleeping Dogs - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
AMD Radeon R9 290X5970
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Anti-aliasing:HighHigh-res Textures:On
Shadow Resolution:HighShadow Filtering:High
Ambient Occlusion:HighMotion Blur:High
World Density:Extreme 
Sleeping Dogs - Best Playable - AMD Radeon R9 290X

Like the lowbie cards, the GTX 980 stuck to our regular benchmark settings, which includes the mid-range anti-aliasing setting. The top-end AA setting was a no go, as it’s hardcore enough to bring us from a comfortable 78 FPS to about 55 FPS.

 Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist
MinimumAverage
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 9805060
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Texture Detail:UltraShadow:Ultra
Parallax:OnTessellation:On
Texture Filtering:16xAmbient Occlusion:Field AO & HBAO+
Anti-aliasing:TXAA 2x 
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti5871
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Texture Detail:UltraShadow:Ultra
Parallax:OnTessellation:On
Texture Filtering:16xAmbient Occlusion:Field AO & HBAO+
Anti-aliasing:FXAA 
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
AMD Radeon R9 290X5465
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Texture Detail:UltraShadow:Ultra
Parallax:OnTessellation:On
Texture Filtering:16xAmbient Occlusion:Field AO & HBAO+
Anti-aliasing:FXAA 
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist - Best Playable - AMD Radeon R9 290X

For the first time in a Best Playable result, I’ve enabled NVIDIA’s TXAA with Blacklist. To use that and keep a truly playable framerate, 2x had to be used, and with that, we’ve managed to keep the 60 FPS we fight so hard to retain.

Best Playable: Multi-Display

With the results seen on the previous page, we learned that all three of the cards included can handle today’s games at the resolution of 2560×1440 without much issue. In most cases, the detail levels in each game can be cranked right up, and I think it’s safe to say that you’ll probably get liveable framerates by doing that with any modern game (let’s ignore Crysis 3 at Very High detail for a moment).

As great a resolution as 1440p is, though, it’s only 3.68 megapixels. Contrast that to our multi-monitor resolution of 5760×1080, which is 6.22 megapixels. Clearly, that will require even more GPU horsepower to tear through, so let’s see how all of these cards – especially the GTX 980 – fare.

 Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
MinimumAverage
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 9805260
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 5760×1080
Environment:Very HighShadow:High
Texture:HighReflection:High
Anti-aliasing:FXAAGod Rays:Low
Ambient Occlusion:OffVolumetric Fog:On
Motion BlurOn 
Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag - Best Playable Multi-Monitor - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti4859
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 5760×1080
Environment:HighShadow:Normal
Texture:HighReflection:Normal
Anti-aliasing:FXAAGod Rays:Low
Ambient Occlusion:OffVolumetric Fog:On
Motion BlurOn 
Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag - Best Playable Multi-Monitor - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
AMD Radeon R9 290X4456
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 5760×1080
Environment:HighShadow:Normal
Texture:HighReflection:Normal
Anti-aliasing:FXAAGod Rays:Low
Ambient Occlusion:OffVolumetric Fog:On
Motion BlurOn 
Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag - Best Playable Multi-Monitor - AMD Radeon R9 290X

Right off the bat, we see proof of just how much more power the GTX 980 can avail when pushed hard. While with the 290X and 780 Ti, I had to drop some of the detail levels, I was able to largely retain them with the GTX 980. The exception is with AO, which had to be turned off, and God Rays, which was dropped from High to Low (there’s no Medium, for some reason). Not only did the GTX 980 manage to run with higher detail levels, it even gives us better framerates overall.

 Battlefield 4
MinimumAverage
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 9805163
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 5760×1080
Texture Quality:HighTexture Filtering:High
Lighting:HighEffects:High
Post Processing:HighMesh:High
Terrain:HighTerrain Decoration:High
Anti-aliasing Deferred:OffAnti-aliasing Post:High
Ambient Occlusion:HBAO  
Battlefield 4 - Best Playable Multi-Monitor - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti4355
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 5760×1080
Texture Quality:HighTexture Filtering:High
Lighting:HighEffects:High
Post Processing:HighMesh:High
Terrain:HighTerrain Decoration:High
Anti-aliasing Deferred:OffAnti-aliasing Post:Medium
Ambient Occlusion:HBAO  
Battlefield 4 - Best Playable Multi-Monitor - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
AMD Radeon R9 290X4961
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 5760×1080
Texture Quality:HighTexture Filtering:High
Lighting:HighEffects:High
Post Processing:HighMesh:High
Terrain:HighTerrain Decoration:High
Anti-aliasing Deferred:OffAnti-aliasing Post:Medium
Ambient Occlusion:SSAO  
Battlefield 4 - Best Playable Multi-Monitor - AMD Radeon R9 290X

In Battlefield 4, the GTX 980 retains the same detail levels of the GTX 780 Ti, but tosses 8 FPS extra onto the average. Where an FPS and the 60 framerate mark is concerned, that’s a very good thing.

 Crysis 3
MinimumAverage
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 9804058
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 5760×1080
Anti-aliasing:FXAATexture:Medium
Effects:MediumObject:Medium
Particles:MediumPost Processing:Medium
Shading:MediumShadows:Medium
Water:MediumAnisotropic Filtering:x16
Motion Blur:MediumLens Flares:Yes
Crysis 3 - Best Playable Multi-Monitor - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti4257
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 5760×1080
Anti-aliasing:FXAATexture:Medium
Effects:MediumObject:Medium
Particles:MediumPost Processing:Medium
Shading:MediumShadows:Medium
Water:MediumAnisotropic Filtering:x16
Motion Blur:MediumLens Flares:Yes
Crysis 3 - Best Playable Multi-Monitor - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
AMD Radeon R9 290X3755
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 5760×1080
Anti-aliasing:FXAATexture:Medium
Effects:MediumObject:Medium
Particles:MediumPost Processing:Medium
Shading:MediumShadows:Medium
Water:MediumAnisotropic Filtering:x16
Motion Blur:MediumLens Flares:Yes
Crysis 3 - Best Playable Multi-Monitor - AMD Radeon R9 290X

Crysis 3 has proven to be a bit too much for the GTX 980, disallowing us to go higher than Medium. Sticking to that setting, we just about scratch the 60 FPS mark. Interestingly enough, the 780 Ti doesn’t fall far behind here, nor does the 290X for that matter. This game, along with this huge resolution, begs for a second GPU.

 GRID 2
MinimumAverage
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 9805561
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 5760×1080
Multisampling:4x MSAANight Lighting:High
Shadows:UltraAdvanced Fog:On
Particles:UltraCrowd:Ultra
Cloth:HighAmbient Occlusion:Ultra
Soft Ambient Occlusion:OnGround Cover:High
Vehicle Details:HighTrees:Ultra
Objects:UltraVehicle Reflections:Ultra
Water:HighPost Process:High
Skidmarks:OnAdvanced Lighting:On
Global Illumination:OnAnisotropic Filtering:Ultra
GRID 2 - Best Playable Multi-Monitor - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti5763
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 5760×1080
Multisampling:4x MSAANight Lighting:High
Shadows:UltraAdvanced Fog:On
Particles:UltraCrowd:Ultra
Cloth:HighAmbient Occlusion:High
Soft Ambient Occlusion:OnGround Cover:High
Vehicle Details:HighTrees:Ultra
Objects:UltraVehicle Reflections:Ultra
Water:HighPost Process:High
Skidmarks:OnAdvanced Lighting:On
Global Illumination:OffAnisotropic Filtering:Ultra
GRID 2 - Best Playable Multi-Monitor - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
AMD Radeon R9 290X5460
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 5760×1080
Multisampling:4x MSAANight Lighting:High
Shadows:UltraAdvanced Fog:On
Particles:UltraCrowd:Ultra
Cloth:HighAmbient Occlusion:Ultra
Soft Ambient Occlusion:OnGround Cover:High
Vehicle Details:HighTrees:Ultra
Objects:UltraVehicle Reflections:Ultra
Water:HighPost Process:High
Skidmarks:OnAdvanced Lighting:On
Global Illumination:OffAnisotropic Filtering:Ultra
GRID 2 - Best Playable Multi-Monitor - AMD Radeon R9 290X

The 290X had to see global illumination dropped in order to bring us to 60 FPS, while the 780 Ti saw that, as well as AO decreased a tad. The GTX 980, by contrast, ran just fine with everything maxed-out.

 Sleeping Dogs
MinimumAverage
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 9807085
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 5760×1080
Anti-aliasing:NormalHigh-res Textures:On
Shadow Resolution:HighShadow Filtering:High
Ambient Occlusion:HighMotion Blur:High
World Density:Extreme 
Sleeping Dogs - Best Playable Multi-Monitor - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti5178
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 5760×1080
Anti-aliasing:NormalHigh-res Textures:On
Shadow Resolution:HighShadow Filtering:High
Ambient Occlusion:HighMotion Blur:High
World Density:Extreme 
Sleeping Dogs - Best Playable Multi-Monitor - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
AMD Radeon R9 290X5973
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 5760×1080
Anti-aliasing:NormalHigh-res Textures:On
Shadow Resolution:HighShadow Filtering:High
Ambient Occlusion:HighMotion Blur:High
World Density:Extreme 
Sleeping Dogs - Best Playable Multi-Monitor - AMD Radeon R9 290X

With so few graphics options to work with, it’s probably not much of a surprise that all of these Best Playable settings match. Despite the fact that the GTX 980 peaked at 85, the performance hit from putting AA on High was too much.

 Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist
MinimumAverage
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 9805672
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 5760×1080
Texture Detail:UltraShadow:Ultra
Parallax:OnTessellation:On
Texture Filtering:16xAmbient Occlusion:Field AO
Anti-aliasing:FXAA 
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist - Best Playable Multi-Monitor - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti5371
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 5760×1080
Texture Detail:UltraShadow:Ultra
Parallax:OnTessellation:On
Texture Filtering:16xAmbient Occlusion:Field AO
Anti-aliasing:FXAA 
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist - Best Playable Multi-Monitor - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
AMD Radeon R9 290X5065
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 5760×1080
Texture Detail:UltraShadow:Ultra
Parallax:OnTessellation:On
Texture Filtering:16xAmbient Occlusion:Field AO
Anti-aliasing:FXAA 
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist - Best Playable Multi-Monitor - AMD Radeon R9 290X

Similar to what we saw with our Crysis 3 results, there really is no difference at the top-end between the 780 Ti and GTX 980 with Blacklist.

Synthetic Tests: Futuremark 3DMark, 3DMark 11, Unigine Heaven 4.0

We don’t make it a point to seek out automated gaming benchmarks, but we do like to get a couple in that anyone reading this can run themselves. Of these, Futuremark’s name leads the pack, as its benchmarks have become synonymous with the activity. Plus, it does help that the company’s benchmarks stress PCs to their limit – and beyond.

3DMark

While Futuremark’s latest GPU test suite is 3DMark, I’m also including results from 3DMark 11 as it’s still a common choice among benchmarkers.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Futuremark 3DMark

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Futuremark 3DMark 11 - Performance

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Futuremark 3DMark 11 - Extreme

Both 3DMark suites agree that the GTX 980 is about 13% faster than the 780 Ti, and that seems fairly accurate given the real-world results we just pored over. While we haven’t tested with the TITAN Black, the GTX 980 pretty-well aligns with it. That’s not bad considering the fact that the 980 will retail for $549 – $450 less than the TITAN Black.

Unigine Heaven 4.0

Unigine might not have as established a name as Futuremark, but its products are nothing short of “awesome”. The company’s main focus is its game engine, but a by-product of that is its benchmarks, which are used to both give benchmarkers another great tool to take advantage of, and also to show-off what its engine is capable of. It’s a win-win all-around.

Unigine Heaven 4.0

The biggest reason that the company’s “Heaven” benchmark is so relied-upon by benchmarkers is that both AMD and NVIDIA promote it for its heavy use of tessellation. Like 3DMark, the benchmark here is overkill by design, so results are not going to directly correlate with real gameplay. Rather, they showcase which card models can better handle both DX11 and its GPU-bogging features.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Unigine Heaven 4.0 (1920x1080)

3DMark told us that the 980 performs 13% better than the 780 Ti, but Heaven, with its heavy use of tessellation (even at moderate), keeps the cards level.

Power & Temperatures, Final Thoughts

To test graphics cards for both their power consumption and temperature at load, we utilize a couple of different tools. On the hardware side, we use a trusty Kill-a-Watt power monitor which our GPU test machine plugs into directly. For software, we use Futuremark’s 3DMark to stress-test the card, and AIDA64 to monitor and record the temperatures.

To test, the general area around the chassis is checked with a temperature gun, with the average temperature recorded. Once that’s established, the PC is turned on and left to site idle for ten minutes. At this point, we open AIDA64 along with 3DMark. We then kick-off a full suite run, and pay attention to the Kill-a-Watt when the test reaches its most intensive interval (GT 1) to get the load wattage.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Temperatures

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Power Consumption

Like the GTX 780 and 780 Ti, the GTX 980 has a temperature cap of 80°C (don’t ask me how the Ti broke past that), though compared to those cards, it idled a bit higher. What’s really impressive here is the improvements with the power draw – the GTX 980 drew 80W less than the 780 Ti – yet it’s the faster card of the two.

Final Thoughts

When any GPU vendor releases a brand-new series that’s more powerful, more power-efficient, and has more features, that alone shouldn’t be enough to “wow” us – that’s progression, and we’ve seen similar examples of it time and time again. But Maxwell is a bit different. I find myself being more impressed than usual, and I have a handful of reasons to quantify it.

Let’s start at the top: The GTX 980 is the fastest graphics card (not counting the duals) that NVIDIA’s ever produced. It’s even faster than the $999 TITAN Black, but costs $450 less. Of course, TITAN Black still has an even larger framebuffer, and also high double precision performance, but for the normal gaming enthusiast, neither of those perks will matter.

NVIDIA Maxwell Wallpaper
(Click image for a wallpaper version)

When the 780 Ti launched last year, it retailed for $649. The GTX 980 today, by contrast, is at least 10% faster, and retails for $549. Granted, I kind of wish it retailed for $499, as I believe the card would have really flown off the shelves, but it’s not just the performance boost that matters here. The GTX 980 shaves 85W off of the 780 Ti / TITAN Black’s TDP. As our above results show, that’s not just “on paper” – we saw a difference of 80W between the 980 and 780 Ti in our testing.

Until a couple of generations ago, I didn’t even realize that I cared about power efficiency. When things really struck me was with the launch of the GTX 750 Ti. At the time, and even today, I am surprised at the amount of performance that a modest card without a power connector can muster. So when I look at the 980 and see a card that’s faster than the previous flagship, yet requires 80W less power, I’m seriously impressed.

On top of all that, Maxwell brings a number of cool enhancements, including multi-frame sampled AA, memory compression, dynamic super resolution (one feature I’m looking forward to using in particular), as well as the seriously robust lighting system VXGI.

With the GTX 980 featuring some 2,000 cores and a 165W TDP, it goes without saying that we’re going to see some truly high-end cards coming from NVIDIA before the 900 generation is through.

Pros

Cons

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 - Techgage Editor's Choice
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980

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