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

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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.

980 ti shadow of mordor 4k
980 ti shadow of mordor 2560

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.

980 ti sleeping dogs 4k
980 ti sleeping dogs 2560

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.

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980 ti metro llr 2560

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.

980 ti alien isolation

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.)

980 ti bioshock infinite

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 gameDAI 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.

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

980 ti 3dmark fire strike
980 ti unigine 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.

980 ti power use

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.

980 ti max temperature

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.

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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.

gefoce gtx titanx front

The GeForce GTX 980 Ti removes the need for all but the most demanding gamers to consider the beastly Titan X (pictured).

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.

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