Nvidia brings the GeForce GTX 980 to gaming laptops

If you read that headline and wondered if you've been transported back in time, you may not be alone. You see, Nvidia already sells a mobile graphics chip known as the GeForce GTX 980M, and now we're hearing that the GeForce GTX 980 is coming to laptops. So what's the deal?

Well, mobile graphics products like the GTX 980M are typically cut-down versions of desktop parts meant to fit into much smaller power envelopes. So the desktop GeForce GTX 980 and the mobile GTX 980M share similar names, but they're not really that close to one another in performance. The names are similar mostly for marketing purposes.

What Nvidia has decided to do now is something different: bring more or less a full-fledged version of the familiar desktop product into certain gaming laptops.

So the GTX 980M and the, uh, mobile version of the GTX 980 are two different things.

Fortunately, the performance difference between the two products should be fairly stark, even if the names are oddly similar. The new mobile GTX 980 is based on a fully-enabled version of the GM204 chip, just like the desktop part, with the same unit counts, including 2048 stream processors. Also, its GDDR5 memory is clocked at 7Gbps.  (By contrast, the 980M has 1536 stream processor, 5Gbps memory, and a lower power envelope.)

The mobile GTX 980 has one other desktop-like trick up its sleeve: overclocking support.

See, this GPU is meant for gaming laptops of the big and luggable variety. Nvidia tells us it has worked with the makers of those laptops to encourage the right sort of power delivery—with designs between four and eight phases—to enable higher clock speeds. The spec calls for "50% higher" peak current than, uh, some point of reference. Meanwhile, Nvidia itself has performed "additional screening" to make sure that these GTX 980 chips respond well to additional voltage.

The green team doesn't quite expect the mobile GTX 980 to reach desktop-like clock speeds, but it does expect "good" headroom.

To make the most of that headroom, Nvidia has encouraged notebook makers to produce software for their GTX 980-based system that offers both overclocking options and fan speed control. So users should be able to crank up the fans to keep that overclocked GPU cool.

PC makers already have six systems in the works built around the GTX 980. The funky water-cooled laptop that Asus showed off at IFA is among them, but it may not reach the market until November. Others from MSI and Clevo should be hitting the market in the next week or two.

I believe all but one of those systems makes use of a common display type: a 17" LCD panel with a 1080p resolution, a 75Hz peak refresh rate, and G-Sync variable refresh support. That ought to be a killer configuration for a gaming laptop. The one exception is MSI's upcoming system with dual-GPU SLI and an 18.4" panel. Which is bonkers.

The mobile GTX 980 ought to pair well with Intel's unlocked mobile K-series processors, so I'd expect many of these laptops to feature one of those CPUs. One can imagine a pretty powerful system built around that combo.

Beyond regular old lugabble gaming, Nvidia has a couple of other missions in mind for notebooks equipped with the GTX 980. Many of the systems should include multiple outputs for external displays, making it possible for a notebook to drive a triple-display surround gaming setup. More notably, this GPU should meet the minimum spec for the Oculus Rift, making these systems the "world's first VR notebooks," in Nvidia's words. They should sell quite a few just for VR demos, I'd expect, along with the convenience of offering an all-in-one system for folks to buy if the VR craze really takes off.

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