Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 review: The 4K gaming heavyweight

Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 review: The 4K gaming heavyweight

Putting the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 through its paces involves quite a bit of double-checking.

With its super-fast frame rates and surprisingly low power consumption, there were quite a few moments in our tests where we found ourselves saying “hang on, that can’t be right”. But it is right: the GTX 1080 is an exceptional graphics card that stomps over all its predecessors.

Predictably, that comes at a price that will stomp all over your bank balance. As with the performance figures, we had to double-check it – so we can confirm that an Nvidia-branded “Founders Edition” (sic) card will set you back a whopping £677 inc VAT.

That branding means you get a standard PCB design, along with an Nvidia reference cooler. Nvidia says it’s seen strong demand to make such cards available: understandably, gamers like to buy the exact card they’ve seen benchmarked, and a standard layout makes it easier to fit third-party cooling gear, such as waterblocks. The Founders Edition is quiet too, and it looks great, with a tasteful grey case and a cool light-up logo on the side.

All the same, it’s no surprise that some board partners are offering cheaper implementations of the card: we’ve seen GTX 1080 cards from Palit and Innovision going for almost £100 less. That’s better, but still a pretty lumpy price to swallow.

Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080a

Peeking into Pascal

From a technical perspective, the big news about the GTX 1080 is Nvidia’s new Pascal architecture. It’s the first GPU to be manufactured using 16nm FinFET transistors, which enables Nvidia to squeeze more transistors into the silicon package than ever before – 7.2 billion of them, to be precise – and it comes with a grand total of 2,560 stream processors.

That might not sound too groundbreaking: the last-generation GeForce GTX 980 Ti has 2,816 stream processors. However, those are based on the old Maxwell core: thanks to improvements in the core design, Nvidia claims that the GTX 1080 will not only outpace the older card, it will outperform a pair of GTX 980 cards in SLI configuration.

Another advantage the GTX 1080 has over its predecessor is clock speed. Its core has a base clock of 1.61GHz, boosting to 1.73GHz – a big jump from the GTX 980 Ti’s 1GHz core clock. Memory gets an even bigger leap: the GTX 1080 sees Nvidia moving to GDDR5X memory via a 256-bit memory interface, which in this case is clocked at an effective 10,000MHz (effective) – a massive step up in bandwidth from the 7,010MHz memory of the GTX 980 Ti.

New interfaces

Another area that’s had an overhaul is Nvidia’s SLI interface, which combines the power of multiple GPUs. Previously, if you wanted to use more than two cards together, you had to effectively combine two independent two-way SLI interfaces. With the GTX 1080, multiple GPUs can now be linked properly together using a new dual-link SLI mode, increasing the bandwidth between the GPUs. To make use of it you’ll need a new SLI HB (high-bandwidth) bridge: you can still use an old SLI bridge to connect two cards, but you won’t get the full performance benefit.

Another new interface worthy of note is HDMI 2b. This provides more display bandwidth than HDMI 2, which enables you to display full 10-bit colour at 4K with a 60Hz refresh rate. That’s enough colour depth for full HDR imagery on a compatible TV or monitor. The GTX 1080 also supports hardware HEVC decode, which helps out with streaming 4K content from Netflix and other services.

Performance

So, on to the big question: just how fast is the GTX 1080? The answer, as you’d probably guessed, is very fast. It goes without saying that 1080p gaming is no problem for this card: even at 2,560 x 1,440, the GTX 1080 almost never dropped below 60fps in our test games. The exception was Fallout 4 at 2,560 x 1,440, but even then, the minimum of 56fps was very smooth.

But let’s face it, you’re not going to buy a GTX 1080 for gaming at these resolutions. It’s when you switch to 4K resolution that the GTX 1080 really shows off its power. In all our standard tests it stayed comfortably above 30fps, with a stunning minimum of 50fps in Doom at Ultra settings, and 43fps in The Witcher 3 at High detail.

To see how far we could push it, we then switched The Witcher 3 to Ultra settings with HairWorks enabled: even then the GTX 1080 didn’t dip below 30fps. Nor did the extremely demanding Crysis 3 faze the GTX 1080: with Very High detail, its minimum framerate was 37fps. Again, the only outlier was Fallout 4, and even that game remained playable at Ultra settings – a result we’ve never seen before from a single GPU.

Impressively, while all this was going on, the total system power consumption (measured when running Unigine Valley) was just 306W. By comparison, the same system with a GeForce GTX 980 Ti at stock speed drew 386W; with an AMD Radeon R9 Fury X installed it hit 412W. It’s remarkable to see such a jump in performance accompanied by a big drop in power consumption.

Verdict

The GeForce GTX 1080 is a phenomenal technical achievement. Clearly, the Pascal core offers a significant step up from the best Maxwell chips in terms of both performance and power efficiency. If you want to play 4K games without juddering framerates, and without mucking around with multi-GPU tech, there’s nothing out there to match it.

The only sore point is the price. That may fall over time, but even the cheapest cards are currently a lot more expensive than the GTX 980 ever was. If you’re in the market for a GTX 1080, we’d advise you to look closely at your third-party options – or, consider stepping down to the GTX 1070, which is still a very powerful card, and rather more reasonably priced.

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