Closing the Performance Gap with Desktops

If we look back at the past several generations of GPUs from NVIDIA, the GTX 480 launched in March 2010 and had 480 CUDA cores clocked at 700 MHz with a 384-bit memory interface and 3.7GHz GDDR5 (177.4 GB/s). The mobile counterpart GTX 480M officially launched just a couple months later (though it wasn't really available for purchase for at least another month), but it was a rather different beast. It used the same core chip (GF100) but with a cut-down configuration of 352 cores clocked at 425 MHz and a 256-bit memory interface clocked at 3.0GHz. In terms of performance, it was about 40-45% as fast as the desktop chip. GTX 580 came out in November 2010, with 512 cores now clocked at 772 MHz and 4GHz GDDR5; GTX 580M appeared seven months later in June 2011 with 384 cores at 620 MHz and 3GHz GDDR5, and it used a different chip this time (GF114 vs. GF110). Performance was now around 45-55% of the desktop part.

The story was similar though improved in some ways with GTX 680 and GTX 680M. 680M had 1344 cores at 720 MHz with 3.6GHz GDDR5 while GTX 680 had 1536 cores at up to 1058 MHz with 6GHz GDDR5. They were three months apart and now the mobile chip was around 55-65% of the desktop GPU. GTX 780/780M were basically announced at the same time (though mobile hardware showed up about a month later, in June 2013), and as with 580/580M the notebook part used a smaller chip than the desktop (GK104 vs. GK110). The performance offered was again around 55-65% of the desktop part. Then of course there's GTX 880M, which is sort of the counterpart to GTX 780 Ti. It uses a full GK104 (1536 cores) while 780 Ti uses a full GK110 (2880 cores), and the delay between the 780 Ti and the 880M launches was four months, and while the desktop GPUs never saw the 800 series, GTX 880M is down to around 50-60% of the top desktop GPU, the GTX 780 Ti.

That brings us to today's launch of the GTX 980M/970M. You might say that there have been patterns emerging over the past few years that hint where NVIDIA is going – e.g. Kepler GK107 first launched on laptops back in March 2012, with desktop GPUs coming a month later – but the higher performance parts have almost always been desktop first and mobile several months later, with at best 50-65% of the performance. Now just one month after NVIDIA launched the GTX 980 and 970, they're bringing out the mobile counterparts. What's more, while the mobile chips are yet again cut-down versions of the desktop GPUs, clocks are still pretty aggressive and NVIDIA claims the 980M will deliver around 75% of the performance of the GTX 980. Here's a look at the specifications of the new mobile GPUs.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 900M Specifications
  GTX 980M GTX 970M
CUDA Cores 1536 1280
GPU Clock (MHz) 1038 + Boost 924 + Boost
GDDR5 Clock 5GHz 5GHz
Memory Interface 256-bit 192-bit
Memory Configuration 4GB or 8GB 3GB or 6GB
eDP 1.2 Up to 3840x2160
LVDS Up to 1920x1200
VGA Up to 2048x1536
DisplayPort Multimode Up to 3840x2160

The specifications are actually a bit of a surprise, as the core clocks on the 980M are right there with the desktop parts (though it may or may not boost as high). The 980M ends up with 75% of the CUDA cores of the GTX 980 while the memory clock is 29% lower. In terms of pure theoretical compute power, the 980M on paper is going to be 70-75% of the GTX 980. Of course that's only on paper, and actual gaming performance depends on several factors: GPU shader performance and GPU memory bandwidth are obviously important, but the CPU performance, resolution, settings, and choice of game are just as critical. In some games at some settings, the 980M is very likely to deliver more than 75% of the GTX 980's performance; other games and settings may end up closer to 70% or less of the desktop. Regardless, this is as close as NVIDIA has ever come to having their top notebook GPU match their top desktop GPU.

A big part of this is the focus on efficiency with Maxwell GM204. NVIDIA doesn't disclose TDP for their mobile parts, but the top mobile GPUs usually target 100W. NVIDIA went after efficiency in a big way with Maxwell 2, dropping TDP from 250W with GTX 780 Ti down to 165W with GTX 980, all while delivering a similar (often slightly better) level of performance. With further binning and refinements to help create a notebook GPU, the TDP target would be 60% of the GTX 980 and power requirements tend to scale quite a bit near the maximum stable clocks for any particular microprocessor. Reduce the memory clocks a bit and disable some of the SMM units and getting 75% of the performance with 60% of the power requirement shouldn't be too difficult to pull off.

Moving on to the GTX 970M, NVIDIA is still using GM204 but it has even more SMM units disabled leaving it with 1280 CUDA cores. The memory bus has also been dropped to a 192-bit interface, but with a slightly lower core clock and fewer cores to feed, the GTX 970M should do well with a 192-bit bus. The smaller memory bus also translates into less total memory this round, so NVIDIA isn't doing any asymmetrical memory interface on the 970M; it will have 3GB GDDR5 standard, with an option to go with 6GB. It's good to see the potential to get more than 3GB RAM, as we're already seeing a few games that are moving past that target.

In terms of theoretical compute performance (cores * clock speed), the GTX 980M will be about 30-35% faster than the GTX 970M in GPU-bound situations. If you're curious, the GTX 970M will also offer around 55-65% of the performance of the desktop GTX 970, so the second tier GPU ends up being closer to what we've seen with previous generations of NVIDIA mobile GPUs.

With the launch of the new GTX 970M and GTX 980M, it's also worth mentioning that NVIDIA is officially discontinuing some of the existing mobile parts. The current lineup of mobile GPUs from NVIDIA now consists of GeForce 820M, 830M, and 840M for the casual/less demanding market. The 820M is actually a Fermi-derived part, while 830M and 840M use GM108 with 256 and 384 cores, respectively. At the top of the product stack, the GTX 980M and 970M replace the GTX 880M and 870M, while GTX 860M and 850M continue as the "mainstream gaming" notebook GPUs; 860M also continues to be offered in two variants, a Maxwell GM107 version and a Kepler GK104 version, though the latter hasn't been widely used.

Introducing Mobile Maxwell: GM204 for Notebooks GTX 980M and 970M Notebooks and Conclusion
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  • chizow - Tuesday, October 7, 2014 - link

    To finish the thought, I would be a lot more open to something like a Shield Tablet or Portable and use the remote GameStream feature to remotely play games on my PC, but of course that is hit or miss depending on the quality of connection where I am travelling. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, October 7, 2014 - link

    Heh, the market research is from NVIDIA, who is in turn citing... I'm not entirely sure. And keep in mind that when NVIDIA moved the 850 series from the GT to the GTX line, they inherently gave "gaming notebooks" a much larger piece of the pie. I also have to say that Optimus has helped a lot with the sales of gaming notebooks, as there's less need to compromise these days. Then toss in some nice designs like those from Razer and gaming notebooks can even be sleek and sexy as opposed to big and boxy.

    I have no doubt NVIDIA is selling more GPUs for gaming notebooks today than three years ago, and perhaps it's even 5X as many, but certainly a big part of the increase comes from the plateau in gaming requirements. If you're willing to turn off AA (especially SSAA) and run at High detail instead of Ultra, a very large percentage of games run quite well on anything above GTX 670M (or equivalent). Will we continue to see that sort of sales growth for the next three years? Probably not.
    Reply
  • chizow - Tuesday, October 7, 2014 - link

    Ah ok that makes sense, Nvidia does tend to throw out some interesting figures and given they are on the supply end of things, that can make their counts pretty accurate (ex: Jensen Huang revealed during his Game24 keynote GTX 680 sold ~10m units). They also have the deep pockets to pay for the research from firms like JPR, Mercury Research, Gartner etc.

    But I guess you are right as well regarding a lot entrants into this market. About a decade ago it was just Alienware and FalconNW, then it was CyberPower, iBuyPower etc, then the big Taiwanese OEMS got into the game and now you have gaming centric companies like Razer breaking into the market. They are all obviously going after a pie that is getting bigger or they wouldn't bother.

    Looking forward to the test results, but again, for my own current usage patterns I can't see myself buying a gaming notebook. When I travel now its usually local, short-term or all business and I carry my work Dell Ultrabook or Surface Pro 3, no time for gaming. Competent laptop gaming would be interesting though for a student or business traveler that travels for most of the week or 50%+.
    Reply
  • jtd871 - Tuesday, October 7, 2014 - link

    Where these could really shine is in SFF/Brix/NUC-like units, especially if the thermals and prices are reasonable. Steamboxen, anyone? Reply
  • chizow - Tuesday, October 7, 2014 - link

    Yeah absolutely, but for Steamboxes you can already go with a full-sized GTX 970/980 (if you can find one!). But yes these would go great in a BRIX unit, although I personally think the BRIX units with GTX 760 were asking a little bit too much (like $700 I think?). Reply
  • nathanddrews - Tuesday, October 7, 2014 - link

    Where are the integrated G-Sync laptops? Seems like a PRIME market for such a technology. We're already talking high-end prices, so what's another $100-200 for something that mobile GPUs most definitely need? Reply
  • BigT383 - Tuesday, October 7, 2014 - link

    +1. I was wondering this as well- As a laptop manufacturer, when you're selling the display and the GPU as a single unit it seems like it would be even easier to support the G-Sync technology. Reply
  • Kevin G - Tuesday, October 7, 2014 - link

    This would be an interesting development and something a premium manufacturer could use to justify their premium price and/or differentiate from themselves from the crowd.

    I suspect there isn't room for the the additional circuitry used in G-sync displays. There is also the power factor which isn't great has to be accounted for in a notebook vs. stand alone monitor.

    Basically until nVidia fully integrates their G-Sync technology into a chip, I'd be surprised to see it in a laptop.
    Reply
  • chizow - Tuesday, October 7, 2014 - link

    Yeah, the module and heatsink probably could not be easily integrated into a laptop chassis and the premium on G-Sync is still pretty high at $150-200 over comparable non-G-Sync module. Add to that the possibility some users might choose to dock the laptop to a TV or bigger display and you'd lose G-sync functionality. Reply
  • nathanddrews - Tuesday, October 7, 2014 - link

    Not if you connect to a G-Sync display using DP (assuming the notebooks have DP out). Reply

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