Review: The Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti is the first real 4K GPU, but who drives it better, AMD or Intel?

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GTX1080Ti-Feature

Today, Nvidia launched the GTX 1080 Ti ($699), its new highest-end consumer GPU. This release follows a pattern Nvidia established with the GTX 700 series back in 2013 of releasing a new workstation / prosumer GPU at the highest end of the market (the original Titan back then), followed by a cheaper consumer variant some months later. The “Ti” cards have historically been much better values than the Titan family, and we expect to see that trend continue here as well.

GTX1080Ti-card

The GTX 1080 Ti is a GP102-based design with 3,584 GPU cores, 224 texture units, and 88 ROPS (3584:224:88). Its base clock is 1480MHz with a 1582MHz boost clock, and it features 11GB of RAM as opposed to the 12GB buffer on the Titan X. Nvidia has stated they expect the GTX 1080 Ti to equal or surpass the Titan X’s performance, making this card a far more cost-efficient choice compared with its $1,200 predecessor.

G5XDDR

Part of those gains come courtesy of the 1080 Ti’s increased memory speeds (courtesy of cleaner RAM signaling, as shown above). While it uses an unusual 352-bit memory bus compared with the Titan X’s 384-bit architecture, the 1080 Ti compensates for its narrower pipe with higher memory clocks. Where the Titan X used 10Gbps RAM, the 1080 Ti relies on 11 Gbps memory, for a very slight increase in overall memory bandwidth (480GB/s versus 484GB/s).

1080Ti-Cooler

The cooler is familiar, but power efficiency improvements and better cooling performance (according to NV) make this a new twist on a classic design.

Nvidia has promised that the GTX 1080 Ti will be an average of 35% faster than the GTX 1080, and while we don’t have a 1080 to directly compare against, our comparisons against the 1070 suggest they largely hit that target.

Product positioning, review focus

The 1080 Ti arrives at an unusually quiet time in the GPU industry. When AMD announced that it would refresh its midrange GPUs with its 14nm Polaris architecture, it implied that its new high-end GPU family, codenamed Vega, would arrive by the end of the year. That schedule has since slipped by a full six months, with Vega now expected sometime in the second quarter.

By delaying, AMD has opened an unprecedented gap in its own high-end GPU lineup. By the time the RX Vega launches, it will have been nearly two years since AMD launched Fury X. It’s not unusual for AMD or Nvidia to enjoy a 3-6 month lead over the other, and longer periods are not unheard of, but two years is higher than anything we’ve seen from either company… ever.

Unfortunately, our ability to compare the GTX 1080 Ti against other Nvidia GPUs is limited as well. Nvidia was neither able to provide nor assist us with acquiring a GTX 1080 (the most logical point of comparison) and our own efforts to secure a sample in time for this review were unsuccessful. The GTX 980 Ti and older Maxwell Titan X were both available for testing, but we already know how those cards perform — they’re between 0 and 10% slower than the GTX 1070 we’ve already tested.

At its core, a review is designed to answer questions that a reader might have about a particular part. Rather than writing a 3,000-word exercise to answer a question we already know, we decided to tackle the 1080 Ti from a different angle. Last week, AMD launched Ryzen, its biggest CPU architectural refresh in 15 years. While the Ryzen 7 1800X is an amazing chip in most respects, its 1080p gaming performance was significantly lower than Intel’s Broadwell-E in our handful of gaming tests.

The launch of the GTX 1080 Ti gives us an interesting opportunity to examine whether AMD’s new Zen architecture can compete against Intel in multiple games and resolutions, including extremely demanding 4K gaming scenarios. Testing against the most powerful GPU on the planet helps ensure we’re getting the best look at the long term scaling prospects for Ryzen that we can. We’ve also tested the GTX 1070, to see how both CPU manufacturers’ fare with a lower-end, but still quite powerful, Pascal GPU.

Test Setup

There were two plausible CPUs to pick for this review — either the Broadwell-E 6900K, which compares directly with the Ryzen 7 1800X in core count and clock speed, or the Core i7-7700K, which is Intel’s top mainstream part (there wasn’t time to benchmark a third system). In this case, we opted for the 6900K, since that’s the Intel CPU closest to Ryzen’s overall value proposition. Chances are, if you buy a $500 CPU, you’re buying it for multi-threading, with gaming as an important option to serious hobby.

We had to compromise somewhat on memory configurations due to early Ryzen motherboard BIOSes offering limited compatibility with high-speed, high-capacity DDR4-3200. We tested Ryzen 7 1800X with 16GB of DDR4-3200 (two DIMMs), and our Broadwell-E system with 16GB (4 DIMMs) of DDR4-2667. The Broadwell-E still enjoys a substantial memory bandwidth advantage over Ryzen thanks to its quad-channel memory configuration, the while Ryzen 7 1800X has the best memory configuration we could give it.

Our GTX 1070 tests were run using the Nvidia Forceware 376.88 driver, while our GTX 1080 Ti used the 378.78 release driver. We attempted to use the 378.78 driver for our GTX 1070 tests as well, but the card proved unstable and we fell back to the earlier release for both our Intel and AMD benchmarks. Speaking of the GTX 1070, we’re tapping the Gigabyte G1 Gaming GPU we reviewed last fall for this review.

Benchmark results

All our benchmarks were run 3x and averaged. We use different levels of antialiasing depending on the title; this is disclosed in the graphs themselves. Note that while we ran some of the same benchmarks in our Ryzen 7 1800X review, we used different detail settings and resolutions in every case. The results are not comparable. As always, you can enlarge each slide in the slideshow below by clicking on it. The slide will open in a new window.

COH-1800Ti LastLight-1080Ti Ashes-1080Ti Hitman-1080Ti ShadowofMordor-1080Ti RotTR-1080Ti DiRTRally-1080Ti CivVI-1080Ti CivilizationVI-99th

Evaluating the GTX 1080 Ti

The Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti isn’t just a faster GPU than anything we’ve seen at this price point before, it’s also the first genuine 4K GPU I’d argue we’ve ever seen on the market.

GTX10Ti-Bare

The GTX 1080 Ti, sans cooler. Click to enlarge

Oh, sure, both AMD and Nvidia have talked about 4K gaming. They’ve talked about it for years. But look back at GPU reviews, and you find reviewers often making compromises to hit these higher resolutions at playable frame rates. With the 1080 Ti, you don’t have to make compromises on anything. Even in our Metro Last Light Redux and Rise of the Tomb Raider benchmarks, both of which use super-sampled antialiasing, the GTX 1080 Ti returns playable frame rates — and you could nearly double its scores just by turning SSAA off.

I would’ve liked, of course, to include a GTX 1080 or to have a GPU from AMD that could compete at this level of performance, but in this case, the math speaks for itself. How good a deal the GTX 1080 Ti is over the 1070 is a matter of what resolution you intend to play at. At 1080p or 1440p, the gains are smaller and the 1080 Ti is less of a good deal, unless you know you plan to upgrade your monitor in the near future. At 4K, the 1080 Ti almost always improves performance by 1.5x – 1.6x over the 1070. While that’s not in-line with the card’s MSRP (at $700 it costs 2x what the 1070 does), it’s hard to argue it’s a bad value when the objective improvement to performance is high enough to move games at top detail levels from “slow-ish” to “fluid” in so many cases.

Should you buy one?

This is always a tricky question to answer with luxury cards. $700 is a lot of money to spend on anything, including a graphics card. Whether you consider a GPU like the 1080 Ti should really hinge on when you intend to make the jump to a resolution like 3440×1440 or 4K.

If your primary display is a 1080p or 1440p panel and you don’t plan to upgrade for at least the next 12 months, I wouldn’t buy a 1080 Ti right now. By the time you’re ready to pull the trigger on a monitor that would benefit from a card like this, Vega (and possibly even Nvidia’s next-generation Volta) will both be in-market. If, on the other hand, you’ve either recently upgraded or plan to do so in the next few months, the 1080 Ti is literally impossible to beat. Vega may offer it some competition come June, but I recommend hardware based on what you can do with it today, not how it may perform against an unlaunched part three months from now.

As of today, the GTX 1080 Ti is the first GPU that can drive 4K at 60 FPS or above with little-to-no need to turn down visual settings. That’s worth a recommendation all on its own.

The AMD vs. Intel question

So how did AMD’s Ryzen 7 1800X fare against Intel’s Core i7-6900K? The graph below compares the average difference between the two CPUs at every resolution. A score of 100% would mean that Ryzen and Broadwell-E tied; a score of 101% means that Broadwell-E was 1% faster than Ryzen across our entire battery of tests, etc.

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