Computex is now the distant past. Gamescom is on the horizon. Surely all the major hardware announcements are complete for this summer?
You must be joking, and NVIDIA is here to make a mockery of all expectations. Not content with the blockbuster launch of the GeForce GTX 1080, followed up by equally eye-popping GTX 1070 and 1060 release, the inventors of the GPU are now seeking to shake up the gaming notebook market like never before. Ladies and gentlemen, Pascal has come to the laptop.
NVIDIA GTX 10-Series Gaming Notebook Launch
Today NVIDIA are bringing a degree of parity to the desktop and notebook platforms with the launch of three – yes, three – new GPU models designed specifically for gaming notebooks. The GeForce GTX 1080, GTX 1070 and GTX 1060 bring Pascal to the platform for the first time, and with it unrivalled power efficiency and extreme performance at a variety of price points starting to suit many wallets. New models will replaces existing products equipped with GTX 970M and greater GPUs, finally retiring the ‘M’ suffix from the range in favour of implicitly equating performance expectations with their desktop brethren.
In September of last year NVIDIA floated the concept of uniting the naming schemes for their desktop and notebook GPU line. Beginning with the GTX 980 for notebooks, the usual ‘M’ suffix used to denote a mobile model would be dropped in favour of greater transparency and platform parity, parity which was largely only possible due to the power efficiency of their top-end Maxwell design. Limited numbers entering circulation meant that this principle wouldn't filter down past enthusiast user groups and so could have been cancelled with minimal fuss, so credit to NVIDIA for following through.
It is not quite three months since NVIDIA’s Pascal architecture debuted on desktops, and even then new notebook designs were being teased. OEMs made bold claims that new models would be ‘faster than a 980Ti’, claims that seemed hard to credit despite the numbers coming out of advanced GTX 1080 reviews. Then again, few had reckoned with the power efficiency of Pascal, nor realised that the GPUs created were living up to the hype.
Gaming Notebooks – A Growing Sector
According to NVIDIA’s own estimates the install base of gaming notebooks – notebooks equipped with a GeForce GTX-class GPU, topped 20 million this year. Whilst that might not seem particularly impressive alongside the 52 million of the Playstation 4, or even the 29 million of the XBOX One, the killer figure that interests them and their partners is sales growth. At a time when the desktop system market is contracting, NVIDIA are estimating that 'Gaming Notebooks' will buck the trend and see 30% sales growth year on year, and it’s clear why.
In the transition from 28nm to 16nm silicon GPUs have jumped ahead in both performance and efficiency, efficiency which wasn’t too shabby to begin with when the Maxwell-based GTX 980 was ruling the roost. As a result enthusiasts can now expect to see desktop-quality performance in a platform which is inherently compact, making the question of desktop vs notebook one about choice rather than necessity for pretty much the first time. Plus unlike games consoles the PC is an open platform, ensuring the widest selection of games and software irrespective of the GPU your system is kitted out with.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a 2016 GPU launch without mention of VR. In the previous generation the flagship GTX 980-equipped notebook designs were the only ones which met the stringent hardware requirements for either Oculus or HTC VIVE premium VR experiences. Despite an understandable clamour from developers keen to showcase their VR titles on that hardware, ordinary consumers were to some extent priced out. The entirety of the GTX 10-Series released thus far however conform to VR requirements; whilst you’ll still need to pay attention to CPU and RAM specs, even the humble GTX 1060 would leave you ready to go.
Getting Technical – GTX 10-series by the numbers
The GeForce GTX 1080, 1070 and 1060 are all launching today, but it should be stressed that these SKUs aren’t absolutely identical to their desktop equivalents. The rigours of a notebook form factor, including power delivery and cooling solution, mandated some flexibility in how each GPU was configured to ensure that OEMs could integrate the new models into their existing chassis with a minimum of fuss. Bearing in mind the often enormous disparities in desktop and mobile CPU performance, NVIDIA are targeting overall notebook system gaming performance to within 10% of a fair desktop equivalent. As you’ll see, the largest on paper disparity is between desktop and mobile GTX 1070 models; however each has a few tweaks.
Most impressively, the GTX 1080 once again features a fully enabled GP104 GPU with 2560 CUDA cores and 256-bit memory bus connected to 8GB GDDR5X memory. Base Clocks are a little down, however an identical Boost Clock of 1733MHz means that when paired with an adequate cooling solution it is a match for its desktop counterpart. Even accounting for some flexibility in expectations that should comfortably put many new 10-series-equipped notebooks ahead of desktop-class GTX 980 Ti systems, something which would have been crazy talk a mere 12 months ago.
In a fascinating twist the GTX 1070 for notebooks actually features more CUDA cores than its desktop sibling – 2048 vs 1920. That will partially offset the mobile part’s slightly lower Base and Boost clocks, and show NVIDIA’s commitment to hitting that 10% performance envelope. In fact their own internal benchmarks show this beefy GTX 1070 edging out its desktop equivalent in many instances, especially when not impeded with a typically weedy notebook CPU.
Unlike a GTX 1070 the GP106 within the notebook GTX 1060 is near identical to its desktop equivalent – 1280 CUDA cores, 192-bit wide memory bus and tooled with up to 6GB GDDR5 VRAM. Despite this overall performance might be slightly undermined by a much-reduced Base Clock, down over 100MHz from the desktop. The intention here is clearly to provide a set of reference specifications which could be used in ultra-thin notebooks such as the Razer Blade, and we should expect to see OEM models with more elaborate cooling really exploit the potential of the GTX 1060 beyond the baseline.
The new GPUs are being provided to OEMs in both 'board down' and MXM packages. That flexibility is another reason why we can expect a huge range of designs to be available in the very near future.
Direct comparisons between the GTX 10-series and 9-series on notebooks is always going to be a little difficult due to the pace at which models are refreshed with new features and technology, but despite this NVIDIA have sought to put a figure on just what consumers should expect.
At the top end is the GTX 1080 SKU, replacing the GTX 980 which itself was introduced just last September. On the desktop side generational improvements were substantial, and it's also echoed here where NVIDIA expect gaming performance improvements on the order of 60%. Most notable however is high resolution 4K performance, where the greater memory bandwidth and frame buffers leads to 90-100% improvements.
Although they won’t get the headlines, both the GTX 1070 and GTX 1060 are also expected to exceed 50% net gains against the parts they replace – the GTX 980M and 970M respectively. That’s especially attractive for the GTX 1060-equipped notebooks, the most affordable of the models and the current entry-level point for the range.
So, what does that translate to in real terms? Essentially the GTX 1080 should be capable of up to 120Hz gaming on the most popular AAA titles - games such as Overwatch or Battlefield - at very high/ultra quality settings and appropriate resolutions, as well as embodying the NVIDIA VR Ready experience. Where appropriate 4K gaming should be around the 60fps 'sweet spot', with G-SYNC frame syncing technology picking up some of the slack if frame rates dip under that. Lesser GPUs will be shades below that, but always seek to max out the capabilities of the panel.
G-SYNC For The Next Generation
What is a great GPU without a similarly great screen to match it with? NVIDIA and their partners began integrating G-SYNC technology into their designs fairly early on but have also kept up the pace of development to ensure that quality remains high. A lack of choice in the mobile space shouldn’t mean a lack of quality - whilst the number and feature range of desktop panels has ballooned, notebooks tended to focus on core requirements. With this release, and thanks to the enormous range of models set to be available in the coming months, G-SYNC on notebooks will now be available at more price points and with performance only previously seen on desktop.
Headlining is the incorporation of 120Hz G-SYNC panels for both 1080p and 1440p resolutions. Previously 90Hz was the limit for notebook G-SYNC, but that has now been blown out of the water with the introduction of the new panels. That’s a feature that hardcore gamers have come to expect, and now will see on the platform.
To satisfy a range of budgets, a huge range of panels will be used throughout the new range. These include different requirements for colour reproduction, ghosting performance etc. and will feature a full range of panel technologies from affordable TN all the way through to high-end IPS.
At the very high end of the spectrum notebook designs with 4K resolution G-SYNC panels will also be released. The performance requirements of this sort of resolution pretty much mandates at least a GTX 1070 so wouldn't be expected on more budget-oriented models, but you certainly shouldn’t need to look too hard to find one with appropriate hardware to match.
Overclocking returns to notebooks through the use of NVIDIA’s own API, as was the case with the GTX 980. GPU overclocking will be highly dependant on the cooling solution of the notebook being used, but one can still expect substantial overclocks where the OEMs have specifically implemented it with overclocking in mind. Just like desktop Pascal, notebook GPUs with this architecture respond well to pushing the envelope; if a Maxwell GTX 980 could hit a 150MHz OC, NVIDIA expect an equivalently cooled GTX 1080 to reach up to a 250MHz OC (or even beyond).
Some (understandable) restrictions continue in this generation. Unsurprisingly no access is given to voltage control, an area of the laptop subsystems which remains strictly off-limits. Similarly fan control is restricted to simple offsets intended to improve cooling rather than reduce noise. An upper thermal limit of 83C is inherited from the desktop arena, a requirement which will push standard cooling designs. These boundaries are there to reassure the OEMs that users will stay within sane guidelines when tweaking the GPU, and (one hopes) preventing a raft of RMAs from reckless users.
Those wanting more punch from their GPU right out of the box can look forward to factory overclocked models in the coming weeks and months. Although the specifications outlined above are a guideline for manufacturers, they can go wild if their chassis supports it. You can bet that ASUS, MSI and GIGABYTE in particular will take full advantage of that lattitude.
For their part NVIDIA have defined a set of standards – minimum cooling, power delivery, etc. – to ensure that users won’t be stung by a poorly configured chassis that can’t deliver what it promises. They’ve not gone the whole hog and released ‘Founder’s Edition’ laptops, but their diligence should help to maintain a high minimum quality.
Price and Availability
Notebook models equipped with a GeForce GTX 1080 and Intel Skylake CPU are expected to be available in large quantities today. Many will re-use chassis designs from previous generations with new components swapped in where appropriate, so don’t expect any huge aesthetic surprises from Day 1 (although at Day 30 the story could be very different).
Over thirteen Notebook OEMs are part of the GTX 10-series launch across the North America and EMEA region, and no major manufacturer has been left out. Even system integrators such as Scan and PC Specialist in the UK will be releasing their own models, making this the most comprehensive generational update ever in the gaming notebook market.
Entry-level GTX 1060-equipped models will be on the market from $1300 (~£1200 inc. V.A.T.), which for a fully-fledged and capable gaming laptop is pretty reasonable indeed. As is always the case with enthusiast-class notebooks costs for the high-end designs will balloon swiftly, but the simultaneous release and competition means that potential customers are strongly incentivised into shopping around for their perfect system. New models will be released deep into Q4 2016, so if your need isn't urgent there may be something suited to you just around the corner.
For more information on GTX 10-series Gaming Notebooks visit GeForce.com.