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New GPU is more powerful, but also quieter, cooler; beats AMD's similar offering in price

In January, Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) shipped the world's first 28 nm graphics processing unit, Tahiti.  Leveraging AMD's long-awaited new architecture, Graphics Core Next, the ensuing Radeon HD 7950/70 card snatched the performance crown away from rival NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA).  

In the months that follow AMD fleshed out its lineup with four more cards, the Radeon HD 7750/70 and the Radeon HD 7850/70  While pricing was a bit high, in all but the Radeon HD 7700 series the AMD card was the best buy because NVIDIA's 28 nm counterpunch Kepler was missing in action.

I. The New Gaming King

Missing in action, that is, until now.  A week after a Kepler-powered ultrabook popped up, NVIDIA has pulled the wraps off of its flagship desktop Kepler graphics card, the GeForce GTX 680.

Almost everything in the GK104 architecture chip has been improved.  The die is a petite 294 mm2, with 3.5b transistors onboard, versus AMD's 365 mm2 4.3b transistor Tahiti.  Likewise, NVIDIA not only one-ups AMD in core clock speed (1008 MHz on the GTX 680 vs. 925 MHz on the Radeon HD 7970), but it also installs a promising new dynamic clocking system, which allows smartphone-esque throttling up or down, based on performance demands.  

Meet the Kepler GK104 [Image Source: NVIDIA]

In "unlocked" card models, NVIDIA expects the card to dip as a low as 325 MHz at idle allowing massive power savings.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, in times of extremely demanding performance, unlocked cards can dynamically clock up over the 1.1 GHz barrier, all automatically.

GTX 580 side GTX 580 side, naked
(Click to enlarge) [Image Source: NVIDIA]

NVIDIA's frame buffer (memory) is a bit smaller -- 2 GB of GDDR5 vs. 3 GB of GDDR5 in the Radeon HD 7970, and the bus is narrower -- 256-bit vs. 384-bit.  Despite NVIDIA holding a slight edge in memory clock (6.008 GHz v. 5.5 GHz), memory throughput will like favor AMD.

GTX 580 3/4 view GTX 580 3/4 view
(Click to enlarge) [Image Source: NVIDIA]

Gaming-wise AnandTech's testing shows it to be faster in almost all games, though the AMD flagship manages to eke out a win in some tests.  In power and heat NVIDIA has dramatically improved over the 500 series, but it only earns a tie with AMD.  However, it is much quieter than AMD's cards.

II. GPU Computing -- Some Steps Forward, Some Spinning of the Wheels

The new card mostly impresses when it comes to GPU computing.  

The card streamlines the Fermi architecture, eliminating the high performance, but divergent higher shader clock.  In its place it uses the core clock ubiquitously in all its computing functional units.  As a result, most of the components of its functional units doubled -- such as the number of CUDA cores, load/store units, and special function units.  For example, the CUDA core count in a block within a functional unit doubles from 32 to 64 16 to 32.  As a result, NVIDIA is able to keep pace on a functional unit level even while eliminating its higher performance shader clock.

To move things forward, NVIDIA then doubles the number of "blocks" of cores from 3 to 6 per functional unit, effectively doubling performance.  In total 192 CUDA cores (6 blocks of 32) now lurk inside a GK104 streaming multiprocessor (SM), vs 96 48 per SM (3 blocks of 16 cores) in the previous generation architecture.

SM level
[Image Source: NVIDIA]

SMs are grouped in blocks called GPCs.  There's twice as many GPCs (4) as Fermi (2), but they each half half the number of SMs (2 vs 4 in Fermi), so the SM count stays the same.

A couple remaining oddities are that it declines to boost the shared memory space from 64 kB (a disappointment considering 192 cores are now sharing the resources previously shared by 96 cores).  Also it offers 8 special CUDA cores per function unit that offer full 1/1 64-bit floating point (FP64) performance, versus 32-bit floating point.  This is the first GPU computing chip to ever offer 1/1 FP64 vs. FP32, however that achievement is dulled by the fact that there are only 8 of these cores per functional unit, meaning an effective speed of 1/4 FP64 per functional unit or 1/24 FP64 per SM.

Still for all its gains in GPU computing, Anandtech's benchmarking shows it to only be roughly on par with AMD's flagship card, winning in some GPUCompute benchmarks, losing in others.  Of course a tie still works in NVIDIA's favor as it has arguably the best supported GPU programming API -- CUDA -- which is slightly easier to learn and master than OpenGL, thanks in part to the large amount of resources and support NVIDIA throws at developers.

III. Buy One if You Can

NVIDIA's card is available today for $500 USD.  NVIDIA is going to tell you that it's the fast card on the market and toss out terms like "revolutionary".  The good news, is that when it comes to gaming it is a solid card, though its less of a revolution and more of a nice iterative bump.

Still, that bump is enough to make it the new king of the graphics market on the high end.

The choice is now easy for customers -- buy a GTX 680.  That's the good news.

The bad news is that the choice may not be that easy.  Anandtech writes that NVIDIA indicated that launch supplies may be slightly scarce.  Thus it's very possible that GTX 680s could be sold out, taking this option off the plate temporarily.

This all gets back to the yield difficulties reportedly experienced by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Comp., Ltd. (TPE:2330) on their new 28 nm node.  Like AMD, NVIDIA is likely aggressively binning the good chips coming off the line for use in its flagship cards, but the problem is that higher quality 28 nm silicon appears to be having very low yields.  As a result, expect supply of NVIDIA's unannounced lower-end Kepler derivatives to be a bit more liberal, but that they'll have lower clock speeds similar to AMD's chips.

So get your hands on the GTX 680 if you can find one -- it's the best thing you can find -- for now -- until the rumored "Big Kepler" comes along.

Sources: NVIDIA, Anandtech

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Did I buy too soon?
By Lanister on 3/23/2012 12:26:50 PM , Rating: 2
I don't get the specs of Video cards so need some help. I just upgraded to an evga 560Ti overclocked from the factory for $280. I can still return it, so the question I have is did I pull the trigger too soon? I am happy with the card as it runs everything I play at max settings but I hate knowing if I had waiting another week or two that for the same price I could have had a better card. I can't justify $500 for a videocard so a 580 was out of the question.

RE: Did I buy too soon?
By davanata on 3/23/2012 12:30:46 PM , Rating: 1
I bought a 480 GTX right after it released. I really think that buying a video card that early is overrated. There's nothing (gaming) that even needs that kind of power atm. By the time there's a game that it is recommended to have a 680GTX they'll be under $200 (or less) and that'll be another year or more away.

RE: Did I buy too soon?
By bug77 on 3/23/2012 12:47:09 PM , Rating: 2
You're fine. As long as the card handles everything you throw at it, you did the right choice. Faster video cards are released so often, it's not worth trying to keep up.

Bottom line is: if your card lets you play everything at max settings, what will a faster card do for you? Nothing.

RE: Did I buy too soon?
By EricMartello on 3/23/2012 5:03:13 PM , Rating: 2
Bottom line is: if your card lets you play everything at max settings, what will a faster card do for you? Nothing.

WRONG! It will let me tell people on the internet that I have the fastest videocard ever!

RE: Did I buy too soon?
By Taft12 on 3/24/2012 10:19:49 PM , Rating: 5
WRONG! It will let me tell people on the internet that I have the fastest videocard ever!

Just do what I do and tell people that you have it anyway.

--posted from my GTX680 tri-SLI rig.

RE: Did I buy too soon?
By Bioniccrackmonk on 3/24/2012 10:28:46 PM , Rating: 2
Just do what I do and tell people that you have it anyway.


--posted from my GTX680 quad-SLI rig.

RE: Did I buy too soon?
By nafhan on 3/23/2012 1:27:05 PM , Rating: 3
If you can return it for full price... I would consider doing so. If not, you have a great card, enjoy it!

If you do return, I would consider the Radeon 7850 in that price range. I would also consider waiting a couple weeks and seeing if the 560 Ti prices take a nose dive...

RE: Did I buy too soon?
By TakinYourPoints on 3/23/2012 6:21:47 PM , Rating: 1
I am happy with the card as it runs everything I play at max settings but I hate knowing if I had waiting another week or two that for the same price I could have had a better card.

Hang onto your card then, you're fine. No reason going past your budget if you can max out games on your current display.

The GTX 680 is mainly for people with very high resolution displays or who do multimonitor gaming. I game on a 2560x1440 display, and I'm also hooked into a second 24" display and an HDTV. The 680 allows me to consolidate my SLI setup and a GT 520 into a single card while getting me better performance, which is why I'm buying it. If I was gaming on a standard 1920x1080 display then I wouldn't think about dropping $500 on a card, at that resolution there are serious diminishing returns the more you spend on a card.

RE: Did I buy too soon?
By Reclaimer77 on 3/23/12, Rating: -1
RE: Did I buy too soon?
By Flunk on 3/23/2012 8:24:24 PM , Rating: 2
That's still a preitty good card, you overpaid a bit but just because a new card comes out doesn't mean that everything else is suddenly worthless. Plus, you just said you don't want to drop $500 on a video card (a good call by the way).

RE: Did I buy too soon?
By derricker on 3/24/2012 11:31:42 AM , Rating: 2
No, you will be ok for a couple of years, unless you are using 30" monitors or a 3-6 monitor setup there's no reason for you to spend more money.

The next gen of consoles will be released some time from now to the next year, maybe a little more, it means PC games will finally get the "green light" to move to real DX11 level.

By the time true DX11 games, like BF3, will be flooding the market then the 8xxx/7xx generation, perhaps even the next, of cards will be out.

In fact I'm going to skip this generation of cards because of that.

RE: Did I buy too soon?
By ShaolinSoccer on 3/25/2012 12:08:25 PM , Rating: 2
I just upgraded to an evga 560Ti

That's a very good card. Keep it. You won't regret it.

RE: Did I buy too soon?
By Nfarce on 3/25/2012 8:17:41 PM , Rating: 1
By a second 560Ti down the road SLI for and don't worry about the 680 owners you left behind.

By Roji on 3/23/2012 10:03:01 PM , Rating: 1
This article is so biased it's pitiful. Every benchmark and review of the 680 I've found has the 7970 raping it and the 7950 tying it. I have all 3 cards myself and the 7970 is faster and the 7950 is just as fast save for maybe a slight difference in games or applications that favor Nvidia.

RE: What?
By someguy123 on 3/23/2012 10:34:03 PM , Rating: 3
I don't know what benchmarks you've seen but pcper, toms, techpowerup and anand all seem to agree that it's a bit above the 7970, with its price point setting it as the better buy.

also, why on earth do you have 3 different model high end cards...with one from a completely different company?

RE: What?
By WLee40 on 3/26/2012 10:50:29 AM , Rating: 2
see Taft12 post. LOL

RE: What?
By bug77 on 3/24/2012 6:03:01 AM , Rating: 2
You do know that when it comes to FPS, longer bars are better, don't you?

RE: What?
By tviceman on 3/24/2012 3:03:13 PM , Rating: 3
I want to know where all these bridges are you people come out from under.

RE: What?
By TakinYourPoints on 3/24/2012 10:18:23 PM , Rating: 2
The 680 is faster in nearly all cases (and way ahead in BF3), cheaper, draws less power, and generates less heat than the 7970.

Graphs aren't that hard to understand dude

RE: What?
By Nfarce on 3/25/2012 8:23:05 PM , Rating: 1
Another AMD fanboy having issues with reality. Keep telling yourself the sky is brown, the sea is red, the sun rises in the west, and that we never landed on the moon.

The rest of us will go on with our lives in the real world. Right now, the real world is that the 7970 is the 680's abused bitch.

By sportcenter on 3/23/2012 12:14:53 PM , Rating: 2
So, to paraphrase:

-Slightly better than a 7970 in some ways, about the same in many others.
-About the same price... but you can't have one. They'll be too rare at first and they've only just come out.

Alternately, you can go to Amazon and order as many 7970's as you want.

I know what you think my conclusion will be. Well, psyche, cause I'm willing to wait for a 680.

RE: Paraphrased:
By Amiga500 on 3/23/2012 1:22:52 PM , Rating: 2
- Slightly better than a 7970 in most ways, about the same in pretty much all others, slightly slower in a very few cases.
- $50 cheaper than a 7970.

It will be interesting to see if AMD release a "7980", which has a higher clockspeed than the 7970 (due to the significant Tahiti headroom when overclocking).

RE: Paraphrased:
By geddarkstorm on 3/23/2012 1:30:12 PM , Rating: 4
I'm interested in seeing what Nvidia will do. The 680 is actually supposed to be the successor of the 560 ti. But since the 7970 is so expensive, and the 680 trounces it in the majority of games, Nvidia has no reason to price the 680 around the 560's point (the 680 is also a small "cheap" chip to make, so there's no reason for the high price other than lack of price competition). However, once the successor to the 580 (codenamed GK110) comes out, that'll change things. The question is how good will that massive chip preform?

No matter how you slice it though, there should be some incredible price wars and drops once the GK110 hits. That'll be the best time to pick something up like the 680. For now, we'll just have to live with inflated prices a bit longer, it seems.

I'll pass thanks
By TourGuide on 3/23/2012 12:27:15 PM , Rating: 1
At these prices - I'll pass on this generation.

Hell, I HAVE to in order to save up for the next.

RE: I'll pass thanks
By nafhan on 3/23/2012 1:28:31 PM , Rating: 2
...or just wait 3-6 months. The prices WILL drop.

Confusion or real suggestion?
By tamalero on 3/23/12, Rating: 0
RE: Confusion or real suggestion?
By davanata on 3/23/2012 12:27:16 PM , Rating: 1
I think the author messed up.. he went from 680 to 500 series to buy the 580... i believe this is all meant to be 600 and 680. Kinda of a major typo.... :S

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