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The GeForce GTX 970 and 980

Nvidia's new silicon has spawned a pair of video cards, the GeForce GTX 970 and 980. Pictured above is the 980, the new high end of Nvidia's consumer graphics card lineup (excepting the ultra-expensive Titan series.) Here's the lowdown on the two new GeForce models:

GTX 970 1050 1178 64 104 1664 256 7 GT/s 145W $329
GTX 980 1126 1216 64 128 2048 256 7 GT/s 165W $549

At $549, the GeForce GTX 980 ain't cheap. What you'll want to notice, though, is its lethal combination of clock speeds and power rating. The GTX 980's full-fledged GM204 runs at a "boost" speed of over 1.2GHz—and that's a typical, not peak, operating frequency in games. The card's 4GB of GDDR5 memory runs at a nosebleed-inducing 7 GT/s, too. That's one way to squeeze the most out of a 256-bit memory interface. Meanwhile, the GTX 980's TDP is just 165W—well below the 250W rating of the GeForce GTX 780 Ti or the 195W rating of the previous-gen GTX 680. That's quite a testament to the efficiency of the Maxwell architecture, especially since all of these chips are fabbed with 28-nm process tech.

Thanks to its frugal power needs, the GTX 980 requires only a pair of 6-pin aux power inputs—and it could darn near get by with just one of them. Although this card has the same familiar, aluminum-clad reference cooler as the last crop of GeForces, its port configuration is something new: a trio of DisplayPort outputs, an HDMI port, and a dual-link DVI connector. Given the ascendancy of DisplayPort for use with 4K and G-Sync monitors, this is a welcome change.

GeForce GTX 980 cards in the form you see above should be available from online retailers almost immediately, as I understand it. Nvidia had the first batch of cards produced with its reference cooler, and I expect custom designs from board makers to follow pretty quickly. Many of those are likely to be clocked higher than the reference board we have for testing.

I've gotta admit, though, that I'm more excited about the prospects for the GeForce GTX 970. This card has a much lower suggested starting price of $329, and rather than produce a reference design, Nvidia has left it up to board makers to create their own GTX 970 cards. Have a look at what Asus has come up with:

This is the Strix GTX 970 OC Edition, and it's pretty swanky. The headline news here is this card's 1114MHz base and 1253MHz boost clocks, which are quite a bit higher than what Nvidia's reference specs call for. Heck, the boost clock is even higher than the GTX 980's and could go a long way in making up for the loss of three SMMs in the GTX 970. Since the GTX 970 has the same 4GB of GDDR5 memory at 7 GT/s, this card's delivered performance should be within shouting distance of the GTX 980's. The price? Just $339.99.

Asus has tricked out the Strix with a bunch of special features, which I'd be happy to talk about if I hadn't just received this thing literally yesterday. I have noted that the cooler's twin fans only spin when needed; they go completely still until the GPU temperature rises above a certain level. For some classes of games—things like DOTA 2—Asus claims this card can operate completely fanlessly.

On the downside, I'm a little disappointed with the move back to dual DVI outputs and a single DisplayPort connector. I suppose the more conventional port setup will appeal to those with existing multi-monitor setups, but it may prove to be a frustrating limitation in the future.

On the, er, weird side, Asus has elected to give the Strix 970 a single aux power input of the 8-pin variety. That's unusual, and Asus touts this config as an advantage, since it simplifies cable management. I suppose that's true, and perhaps 8-pin power connectors are now common enough that it makes sense to use them by default. Still, I was surprised not to see a dongle in the box to convert two 6-pin connectors into an 8-pin one.

Here's another version of the GTX 970 that just made its way into Damage Labs. The MSI GTX 970 Gaming 4G has the same clock speeds as the Strix, but its cooler is even flashier. MSI says this card will sell for $359.99. I haven't yet managed to test this puppy completely, but we'll follow up on it in a future article.

Nvidia is trimming its lineup to make room for these new GeForces. The firm is so confident in the Maxwell cards that it's ending shipments of GeForce GTX 770, 780, and 780 Ti cards, effective now. Meanwhile, the GeForce GTX 760's price is dropping to $219. That should be a pretty good clue about how the newest GeForces alter the landscape.