Nvidia dropped its other GPU shoe today, taking the wraps off the mobile version of its “Big Maxwell” architecture, embodied in the GeForce GTX 970M and GeForce GTX 980M mobile graphics processors. The new parts have the same advanced feature set as the GeForce GTX 970 and GTX 980 desktop GPUs that Nvidia announced on September 18.
We covered these new technologies—Voxel Global Illumination, Multi Frame Anti-aliasing, Dynamic Super Resolution—in some depth in our coverage of Nvidia’s new desktop processors. You can read that story here. Nvidia has also made significant improvements to the BatteryBoost power-management technology that’s unique to its mobile processors. I’ll have more on this later.
Perhaps more importantly, the new parts narrow the gap between laptop and desktop performance. In an embargoed briefing last week, Kaustubh Sanghani, Nvidia’s general manager of notebook GPUs, said “the GeForce GTX 980M can deliver 70 percent of the performance of its desktop counterpart.” Sanghani also said that “Maxwell delivers twice the performance per watt compared to Kepler.” Kepler is Nvidia’s previous-generation graphics architecture.
According to Nvidia, 75 percent of gamers play in multiple locations, whether that’s different rooms inside their home, at a friend’s house, or at a LAN party. More of these gamers would buy a gaming laptop over a desktop PC if they could get the same performance with games. Sanghani said the four new technologies in Nvidia’s Big Maxwell architecture, combined with Nvidia’s improved BatteryBoost technology, work to close the gap between playing games on a desktop and playing games on a laptop.
The typical gaming laptop needs 230 watts of power to run full tilt, according to Sanghani. That’s not a problem when the laptop is plugged into the wall, but a laptop’s battery can deliver only about 100 watts when it’s not plugged in.
“The [earlier-generation] GeForce GTX 680M can deliver an easy game like League of Legends at about 35 frames per second,” said Sanghani, “but a mid-range game like Grid 2 or a difficult game like Tomb Raider are unplayable [on that part] because the system throttles the GPU to manage overall power consumption.”
With BatteryBoost, gamers can click one button to optimize a game for running on battery power. A predefined profile automatically reduces some settings to ensure the laptop can deliver a good experience within its battery-power envelope. Picky gamers can open and tweak these predefined settings even further, trading frame rate for image quality and vice versa.
Between BatteryBoost and the improved efficiency of the Maxwell architecture compared to Kepler, Nvidia says a GeForce GTX 980 should be able to deliver an easy game like League of Legends at 150 frames per second on battery power, a mid-range game like Grid 2 at 85 fps, and a demanding game like Tomb Raider at 69 frames per second.
Enabling BatteryBoost will let you play games longer on battery power, too: League of Legends for 117 minutes, compared to 90 minutes without it; Grid 2 for 102 minutes, versus 79 minutes without it; and Tomb Raider for 76 minutes compared to just 49 minutes without it.
The gaming laptop market is on fire
Sanghani says the rapid improvement in mobile GPU performance has spurred a fivefold growth in gaming notebook sales over the past three years.”It’s almost a new category,” said Sanghani. “More and more OEMs want to participate. Gamers now have all kinds of choices: Thin and light, different screen sizes, and so on.”
In 2010, the GeForce GTX 480M made it possible to play games at 1080p resolution with visual quality at high, according to Sanghani. In 2012, the GeForce GTX 680M made it possible to play games at that same resolution with visual quality at ultra. Nivida says its GeForce GTX 980M is the first GPU that can move notebook gaming beyond 1080p while keeping visual quality at ultra: All the way to 2560×1440.
Why this matters: Gaming has been the last bastion of the desktop PC. Powerful user-upgradeable video cards are one of the only reasons why people buy tower or even small-form-factor PCs these days. When the performance gap between mobile and desktop GPUs closes entirely, the only factor that will keep desktop PC sales afloat will be the difference in cost between laptops and desktops.
As Sanghani points out, more and more OEMs are jumping into the gaming laptop market, joining the ranks of Origin, Razer, and Alienware. Lenovo, for instance, offers the affordably priced Y40 and Y50, and Acer recently announced its entry into this space with the Aspire V Nitro.
I think it will be a long time before boutique builders give up on the tower form factor. But as sales in that segment continue to shrink, mainstream manufacturers such as Acer, Dell, HP, and Lenovo will exit the market altogether. In an ideal world, these bigger players will combine mobile GPUs like these with their manufacturing know-how and efficiency to build new generations of all-in-one, NUC, and super-small form factor desktop PCs that can finally deliver satisfying experiences with AAA titles. The competition should also help drive down the cost of pure gaming laptops.
What are your thoughts on graphics processors and gaming laptops. Are you thinking of making the switch, or will they need to pry your tower from your cold, dead hands? Let us know in the comments section, below.
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Michael is TechHive's lead editor and covers the smart home and home entertainment markets. He built his own smart home in 2007, which he uses as a real-world test lab when reviewing new products. Michael also reviews routers and networking products for TechHive and PCWorld.