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

geforce gtx 980 ti stylized 4

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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.

geforce gtx 980ti front

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.

gtx 980 ti presentation

The Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 Ti's technical details. (Click to enlarge.)

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.

geforce gtx 980ti back

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.

directx 12 conservative raster

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.

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The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt running at 4K. Damn, that game has some gorgeous sunsets. (Click to enlarge.)

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.

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