Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 review: The most badass graphics card ever created

Hail to the new king of graphics cards, baby.

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High-bandwidth SLI bridges

Nvidia’s making some big changes to the way it handles multi-GPU support in the wake of DirectX 12. Starting with the GTX 1080, Nvidia will offer rigidly constructed high-bandwidth bridges dubbed SLI HB, which occupy not one, but both SLI connectors on the graphics card to handle the high flow of information flowing between the cards.

dsc00636 Brad Chacos

To match that design—and presumably to cut engineering costs on 3- and 4-way configurations that few people use—Nvidia’s graphics cards will officially support only 2-way SLI going forward, though 3- and 4-way configurations will be unofficially supported with help from an Nvidia tool you’ll have to download separately.

It’s a massive shift, and one we explore in more depth in a separate article about the GTX 1080’s SLI tweaks.

Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Founders Edition

The SLI changes don’t matter in this review, as we have only a single Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Founders Edition to test. Confusion reigned in the wake of the Founders Edition’s hazy reveal, but in a nutshell: It’s what Nvidia used to call its reference design. There’s no hefty overclock or cherry-picked GPUs whatsoever. Here’s the twist: While the MSRP for the GTX 1080 is $600, the Founders Edition costs $700.

While there’s no doubt a bit of an early adopter’s fee going on here—the Founders Edition is the only GTX 1080 guaranteed by Nvidia to be available on May 27—the pricing isn’t as crazy as it seems at first blush.

Nvidia’s recent GeForce reference cards are marvels of premium engineering. The GTX 1080 continues that trend, with an angular die-cast aluminum body, vapor chamber cooling that blows air out of the rear of your machine, a low-profile backplate (with a section that can be removed for improved airflow in SLI setups), and new under-the-hood niceties like 5-phase dual-FET design and tighter electrical design. It screams “premium” and oozes quality, and the polygon-like design of the metal shroud is more attractive—and subtle—than early leaks indicated it would be.

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The GTX 1080 (bottom) sports a more angular design than the GTX 980 (top). All the angles are more noticeable under direct light.

But previous-gen Nvidia reference cards were paragons sold at a loss only during the first few weeks around launch in order to kickstart adoption of new GPUs. Nvidia plans to sell its Founders Edition cards for the GTX 1080’s lifetime. That lets Nvidia faithful buy directly from the company and allows boutique system sellers to certify a single GTX 1080 model for their PCs over the lifetime of the card, rather than worrying about the ever-changing specifications in product lineups from Nvidia partners like EVGA, Asus, MSI, and Zotac. In fact, Falcon Northwest owner Kelt Reeves told HardOCP that he actively lobbied Nvidia to create these cards for just that reason.

You’ll probably be able to find graphics cards from those board partners rocking hefty overclocks, additional power connectors, and custom cooling setups for the same $700 price as Nvidia’s Founders Edition once the GPU starts rolling out en masse. In other words, the Founders Edition probably won’t be a worthwhile purchase going forward if sheer price-to-performance is your major concern. But that $100 premium is steep enough to keep EVGA and its ilk from getting pissed about the newfound direct competition from Nvidia, while still allowing Nvidia to satisfy system builders.

But enough chit-chat. It’s time to see how badass this beast really is.

Testing the GTX 1080

As ever, we tested the GeForce GTX 1080 on PCWorld’s dedicated graphics card benchmark system, which was built to avoid potential bottlenecks in other parts of the machine and show true, unfettered graphics performance. Key highlights of the build:

Along with upgrading the test system to Windows 10, we also updated our list of benchmarking games with a healthy mix of AMD Gaming Evolved and Nvidia-centric titles, which we’ll get into as we dive into performance results.

To see what the GTX 1080 Founders Edition is truly made of, we compared it against the reference $500 GTX 980 and $460 MSI Radeon 390X Gaming 8GB, and also the $650 Radeon Fury X and $1,000 Titan X. Because the GTX 980 Ti’s performance closely mirrors the Titan X’s—and Nvidia made a point to repeatedly compare the GTX 1080 against the Titan X—we didn’t test that card. Sadly, AMD never sent us a Radeon Pro Duo to test, so we can’t tell you whether the GTX 1080 or AMD’s dual-Fiji beast is the single most powerful graphics card in the world.

But the GTX 1080 is easily, hands-down, no-comparison the most powerful single-GPU graphics card ever released—especially when you overclock it.

Ignoring the auto-overclocking tools in the Precision X beta, I was able to manually boost the core clock speed by 250MHz and the memory clock speed by an additional 100MHz. Depending on what was going on in a given game’s given scene, and how Nvidia’s GPU Boost technology reacted to it, doing so resulted in clock speeds ranging from 1,873MHz to 2,088MHz. Yes, that’s clock speeds in excess of 2GHz on air, with no voltage tweaks.

In other words: Buckle up. This is going to be a wild ride.

Next page: The Division and Hitman benchmarks

At a Glance
  • The Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 is the first graphics card built using 16nm technology after GPUs stalled on 28nm for four long years. The performance and power efficiency gains are nothing short of astounding.

    Pros

    • Outrageous performance leap over GTX 980
    • Hugely power efficient
    • Attractive premium design
    • Numerous new features

    Cons

    • Doesn't blow away Radeon cards in heavily AMD-optimized games
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