For the last few years notebooks, and especially gaming notebooks, have been stuck in something of a rut. Whilst their desktop PC counterparts have diversified into fantastical new form factors, reached ever-higher performance levels, and seen the dawn of VR, so the notebook paradigm has focussed on homogenised lighter and thinner designs. It seems like everyone is trying to look like the new Apple MacBook, rather than try something new.
This slowing down has partially been down to the twin limitations of notebooks: power and heat, and the compromises these issues require to solve. Although ‘desktop replacement’ laptops exist they have in the past been huge, with mobility a strictly theoretical feature. Similarly they’ve been outclassed by desktops in performance even then, relying on neutered ‘mobile’ graphics which don’t reflect the performance of their desktop counterparts. The GTX 980M is a case in point; whilst a solid performer, it really cannot compare with a full-fat GTX 980.
The underlying performance disparity has been thrown up in stark relief this year with the launch of affordable 4K displays (including 4K notebook displays) and VR, neither of which are in the performance envelope for mobile graphics. That’s led to innovative new solutions from the likes of Alienware and MSI, who created an external docking station for high-end desktop graphics cards that interfaces with a slimline laptop, but doesn’t quite address the underlying issue: mobile graphics aren’t powerful enough.
Or at least they weren’t, until today.
A New Class of Notebook
NVIDIA and their notebook manufacturing partners ASUS, MSI, AUROS, Clevo put their heads together to thrash out a long-term solution to the problem of underpowered gaming notebooks, and have seized on what isn’t exactly a novel solution: use a desktop GPU. Of course the engineering involved is far more complex than that would indicate, and as first steps goes it’s a doozy. Thankfully, the time appears to be ripe.
First up you have NVIDIA’s 2nd generation Maxwell GPU architecture. We’re already aware of just how efficient Maxwell can be, especially in the GM204-equipped GTX 980 and 970 which have a TDP of less than 170W, and high-end laptop models were already able to cool SLI GTX 980M’s. Cooling a single GPU with similar TDP is more challenging, but heatpipe technology has progressed to the extent that it’s feasible. As a result, it’s now possible to run a fully-fledged desktop GeForce GTX 980 GPU in a notebook chassis that doesn’t have absurd dimensions, so let’s start with that.
Next you have the efficiency of Intel’s latest generation of Core processors. The 6th Generation, AKA Skylake, include quad-core performance mobile SKUs which top out at 45W TDP and the new power-efficient DDR4 memory type. One of these SKUs, the Core i7-6820HK, is also unlocked; suddenly a new realm of possibilities, of laptops designed for overclocking enthusiasts, open up.
The final piece of the puzzle are the manufacturers themselves. As rigorous as their validation process for notebooks has to be it still takes gumption to gamble that there is a market for true high-performance gaming on notebooks, and that the R&D dollars are worth investing. NVIDIA are more than happy to discuss technical possibilities, but it’s up to ASUS et al to bring fully-realised designs to market.
And so, in the coming months a host of manufacturers are bringing you the Enthusiast Class of Notebooks. Featuring desktop-level performance, premium components and overclocking. Oh, and they’re the first class of notebook to reach the minimum-standard of performance for Oculus VR.
The central component for this new range of notebooks is the GTX 980, which has the same specifications as the desktop model:
- 2nd Generation Maxwell Architecture GM204
- 2048 CUDA Cores
- 1126 MHz Base / 1216MHz Boost
- 4GB or 8GB GDDR5 VRAM
- 256-bit Memory Bus
- 7Gbps effective data rate
- 2048 CUDA Cores
- 1126 MHz Base / 1216MHz Boost
- 4GB or 8GB GDDR5 VRAM
- 256-bit Memory Bus
- 7Gbps effective data rate
You might expect the GM204’s to have been aggressively binned, but NVIDIA claim that this isn’t the case. Some binning has occurred – where a typical desktop 980 operates at 83-85C the notebook variant would be around 81C – but that has just allowed them to keep voltages down overall. It’s not as rigorous as EVGA recently endeavoured to be with their GTX 980 Ti K|NGP|N for instance.
However the smaller GPU package required for a notebook design has been augmented, especially compared to the GTX 980M. In particular power delivery is now through 4-8 phase power, significantly improving the quality provided to the GPU and associated components. As a whole the package can safely draw up to 50% higher peak current, which will be important for a key enthusiast feature: overclocking. More on that later
Each of the models announced for the 2-month launch window will also support NVIDIA’s G-SYNC technology. Notebook G-SYNC panels are currently limited to 75Hz (rather than 144Hz on desktop monitors), but that’s still vastly better than a fixed refresh rate design and the underlying technology remains the gold-standard for refresh-rate syncing technology. Triple-monitor gaming (3 x 1080p) is also supported by the GPU, and will be supported by most enthusiast notebook designs in a two HDMI/ one DisplayPort configuration.
Also expect the designs to be paired with at least Intel’s Core i7-6820HK, a 45W quad-core hyperthreaded CPU that supports DDR4 memory. The performance of the CPU will be far less of a bottleneck than most mobile designs would have been, ensuring that there’s parity between desktop and notebook performance benchmarks.
Fundamentally, NVIDIA and their partners have designed GTX 980-powered enthusiasts notebooks to perform as well as, and as much as possible encompass the feature-set of, a desktop system with a GTX 980 GPU. At an event unveiling the new notebooks demonstrations of two such systems showed both Notebook and Desktop exhibiting near-identical frame rates in Unigine Heaven, adding strength to that argument. As shown above, the new notebook systems achieved FireStrike Extreme scores of over 6300, a result which desktop gaming systems would be proud of. However the most glowing praise comes down to three quotes from current leaders in the demanding arena of VR Gaming:
The demands have been crippling for many notebook and desktop systems, and there’s a reason why Oculus’ recommended minimum specifications for the consumer Rift are a desktop GTX 970 or R9 290. VR devices, for example the HTC Vive, leverage a very high resolution and frame rate to generate ‘presence’, i.e. making you feel as if you are in the game.
The HTC Vive has a combined output resolution of 1680x3024, which at 5m pixels is 2.5x that of 1080p. More punishing still are the framerate requirements of at minimum 90fps, whereas most gaming systems still max out at V-SYNC (i.e. 60fps). In total that’s almost four times the pixels per second, with no room to drop below this.
It’s no surprise to hear that GTX 980 enthusiast notebooks are the only ones on paper capable of meeting the minimum requirements for gaming VR, and also no surprise to hear that the developers of the demonstration demos are very interested in these new notebook models.
Of course, until you see independent benchmarks in conditions not controlled by NVIDIA you should take any performance claims with a pinch of salt. Expect to see those from tech websites in the coming weeks.
Until now overclocking on notebooks has always been something of a grey area. The liability concerns of notebook manufacturers have in the past taken precedence, restricting what’s possible in the GPU-space whilst also reflecting restrictions Intel imposed on their own notebook CPUs. At the same time NVIDIA’s own enthusiasm has waxed, waned and sometimes been disabled altogether in driver updates. This new range seeks to change that.
The key is in the name – true PC enthusiasts expect both performance and the potential to overclock the system, and so ideally enthusiast notebooks should offer this fundamental feature. With Intel on board offering an unlocked K-series CPU, and NVIDIA graphics already offering overclocking features, the only piece of the puzzle left was the manufacturers. Thanks to support from NVIDIA they’ve opened things up, but in a manner that reflects the realities of the notebook platform.
With the GTX 980 notebooks GPU overclocking is performed in a similar manner to how you might have already approached it on the desktop with vender-supplied tools. Increasing both GPU core and memory frequencies is elementary, and once again live demonstrations showed an elementary overclock of 200MHz on GPU and Memory. That’s particularly noteworthy as the desktop GTX 980 is a very overclockable design, and indicates that the notebook variant shares much of its heritage.
A compromise needed to be made however in terms of both cooling and power controls. If they claim a configuration is overclockable it must be validated as such, and the manufacturers assume a certain amount of liability if things go wrong. This includes overheating components or damage due to too much power being drawn, making them particularly wary of any claimed support.
As a result power limits cannot be changed and fan control is limited to a simple baseline offset in the fan profile. Maximum fan RPM and GPU throttling occurs at ~80C, but it’s likely that the typical operating range during gaming will be a manageable 60-70C, depending on the cooling solution used.
Overall, whilst it not be quite as comprehensive as the desktop implementation, you will still have far more tools at your disposal than ever before within a notebook form factor.
Talk is Cheap; Let's See the Hardware
As we mentioned ASUS, MSI, AUROS and Clevo are all launching enthusiast notebook designs in the coming months, and we're able to give you a sneak peak at half a dozen models. They range from the sublime - a particularly attractive AUROS model which was shown driving a triple-monitor display configuration - to the rediculous - a watercooled ASUS that has to be seen to be believed.
Perhaps the most standard-looking enthusiast notebooks might just Clevo P870DM and P770DM, which you may see badged as either SCAN or XMG in the UK. Outwardly unassuming, the chassis have a metal skeleton and solid plastic exterior which, although unassuming, won't have you paranoid about every scratch. As with all the GTX 980 notebook models, the most surprising facet is just how light and thin they are, portable where 'desktop replacement' designs simply haven't been. Each are also equipped with NVIDIA Battery Boost technology, which means that they can operate for quite some time under battery power and will kick in to a low power gaming mode when appropriate.
Next up comes the AUROS X7 DT, and the photos don't really do it justice. The exterior design of the demonstration model was very sleek and had a real premium feel, and even whilst gaming with three panels the noise was pretty low. Gaming on the X7 DT with a headset should be a great experience. This model also comes equipped with two HDMI and one Displayport, as well as also supporting legacy VGA-out.
The GT72 Dominator from MSI was as you should have come to expect from their notebook design team - exceptionally well put together with a few exclusive gaming features such as illuminated SteelSeries keyboard. Anyone who has had good experiences with MSI laptops in the past probably won't hesitate to pick on up given the option. Also coming from MSI is a GT80 model with SLI GTX 980, a design which will be considerably thicker than the GT72 thanks chiefly to the far greater cooling requirements of this configuration.
SLI GeForce GTX 980. In a notebook. Crazy.
Anyway, finally we come to the most unique of the launch designs, the ASUS GX700VO. Given that it's a part of the Republic of Gamers brand you'd expect something special, and ASUS don't disappoint. The model features a dedicated water-cooling dock, with hot-pluggable ports in the rear of the chassis to hold it in place and allow liquid to flow between the laptop and external radiators. You can see the dock below, and when undocked it's designed to be as good as any of the other models (and has a lovely brushed metal finish to boot).
In principle the design allows for huge overclocks thanks to the design's far greater cooling potential, without compromising undocked cooling. The inspiration is similar to that of the Poseidon GPU cooling solution in the desktop world, taken to it's logical notebook-based conclusion. It's awesome, utterly bonkers, and enriches the range just by virtue of its existence. ASUS are also planning an enthusiast model with 4K panel, which should be a sight to behold.
At this precise moment in time pricing for these new designs haven't been communicated, but expect them to replace GTX 980M models as the halo product in their respective gaming notebook ranges. Naturally models such as the ASUS GX700VO will command a further premium on top of this by virtue of their additional complexity.
So, there you have it: a new class of notebook powered by NVIDIA's desktop GPUs and with overclocking not just supported, but actively encouraged. It's allowed the partner firms to really flex their design muscles, and hopefully they will continue to do so as the line matures and genuine performance GPUs become more common in notebooks. The performance requirements of this generation of Virtual Reality means that they won't be going away, and given sufficient demand more desktop GPUs will start to filter down the notebook range as time progresses.
What does the mean for the 'M'-class NVIDIA GPUs? Well, for now not much; the brand is still a strong one and there's sufficient differentiation between 980 and 980M to ensure that customers aren't confused. In the fullness of time however it won't be surprising to see the nomenclature is shaken up to better reflect the new paradigm.