In terms of high-end PC gaming, two technologies are really pushing the need for gamers to spend $500 or more on a video card: 4K gaming and virtual reality. People who are playing games on 1080p or even 1440p displays should be satisfied with the performance of cards in the Nvidia GeForce GTX 780 or GTX 970 range, even with graphics turned up. The increase in pixels needed to be rendered for 4K and upcoming VR headsets are more demanding, but we're only starting to see cards that can run games at smooth framerates at those native resolutions. Nvidia's Titan X, which was only released two months ago, was the first card I tested that could run 4K at close to 60 frames per second on the latest games. But maxed-out Maxwell costs $1000. Today's announcement and release of the GeForce GTX 980 Ti fills in the gap between the 980 and Titan X, and the good thing is that its price is closer to the former while its performance is closer to the latter.
From a technical specifications perspective, there's actually not a lot to say about the GTX 980Ti. Based on the same Nvidia GM200 GPU found in the Titan X, it's actually a very close sibling to that flagship--almost a twin. They both share the same 1GHz core clock (1075MHz boost), 7GHz memory clock, 96 ROPs, and 250W TDP. The differences lie in two areas: CUDA cores and VRAM. For this release of GM200, Nvidia simply turned off 2 of the chip's 24 streaming multiprocessors (SMM), so the GTX 980Ti has 8% fewer CUDA cores and Texture Units (2816 and 176, respectively). RAM is also cut in half from the Titan X's future-proofing (read: ridiculous) 12GB of GDDR5 to 6GB, still 2GB more than the GTX 980. No game today needs 12GB of VRAM, but games like GTA V, Shadow of Modor, and the Witcher III will guzzle up video memory if you want to enable supersampling on high-resolution displays. Theoretically, the technical delta means performance should just be scaled down by 8% from a Titan X. But in my tests, the framerate differences are even smaller.
I've been benchmarking the GTX 980Ti for the past few days, running it specifically at the UHD resolution of 3840x2160. Here's what you should know about the this new card, and my recommendations for what you should get if you need to buy a video card today vs. if you want to get a card for 4K and VR.
|Benchmark||GeForce GTX 980||GeForce Titan X||GeForce GTX 980 Ti|
|3D Mark Firestrike 4K||3011||4063||3956|
|Batman: Arkham City GOTY||49fps||58fps||55fps|
|Metro: Last Light (no AA)||31.1fps||36.4fps||36.48fps|
|Tomb Raider (2013)||30.8fps||42.9fps||42.3fps|
Looking at the numbers, it's clear that the GTX 980Ti performs very close to the Titan X, and distances itself from the GTX 980 (which had its price dropped $50 to $500). In benchmarks like Unigine and 3D Mark, the new card reaches 97% the results of Titan X, and framerates are even more closely matched in real-world gaming tests. Both cards are overclockable, and you can easily push the GTX 980 Ti's clockspeed and memory clock another 10% without significant noise increase, just power draw. Of course, neither the GTX 980Ti or Titan X can comfortably play games maxed out at above that magical 60fps average, so these are cards that are best paired with G-Sync monitors if you want to really run games at 4K with no in-game setting compromises. 40fps on the Acer XB280HX 4K monitor looks silky smooth, and IPS 4K G-Sync monitors are on the horizon (Computex is this week, after all).
So, my recommendations. If you're gaming on a 1080p or 1440p monitor and plan on staying that way for the next year or so, the GTX 970 is still the sweet spot for price and performance. It's also the declared minimum GPU spec for the Oculus Rift, so you're at least covered for that launch. If you currently have a 4K monitor want to play high-end games at native resolution, I would get the GTX 980 Ti at $650 instead of two GTX 970s. The GTX 980 at $500 is in a tough spot, since it trails noticeably behind GM200 and really can't cut it as a 4K gaming card. The $150 price difference is worth it for the framerates, and Nvidia is bundling Batman: Arkham Knight with the GTX 980Ti as well. You definitely don't need a Titan X.
But if you're thinking about buying a card today for a future 4K monitor purchase, or just for the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, you should hold off. There's still plenty of time for AMD to show its hand (and Nvidia to respond with product or pricing) before VR leaves the dev kit stage. Without consumer-ready products, virtual reality performance is still a theoretical; driver improvements and VR-specific optimizations like Nvidia's Gameworks VR (more on that later) need real-world testing before we can draw the line on what graphics card you'll need. Spending $500 or more for a technology that you won't take advantage of until next year is never advisable. Wait and see how 4K monitor pricing and technologies settle, as display fabs scale up production. The GPUs may be ready to push those pixels today, but those two graphics-demanding technologies are still in their relative infancy, and aren't ready for prime time.