Nvidia, like most companies, has boasted in the past about "world first" achievements it may or may not have innovated, but this time around it would be hard to argue with that point. Nvidia, along with partner OEMs, has put desktop-class graphics performance (and all of its benefits) into laptops. Not just any graphics card either; a full-sized GM204 Maxwell-based graphics card, better known as the Nvidia GeForce GTX 980.
Love At First Sight
When the flagship GTX 980 first launched, we were impressed by the fully-enabled GM204's performance and the second-generation Maxwell architecture's capability to do more with less. Energy consumption and temperatures were lower, performance was higher, and its pricing was disruptive to the graphics card market, redefining the limits of graphics horsepower in a single card and presenting consumers with hardware powerful enough to drive up to six million pixels and future innovations such as VR devices and 4K displays.
The reference design for the GTX 980's 2048 CUDA cores runs at a 1126 MHz base clock rate with a rated 1216 MHz GPU Boost frequency with 4 GB of GDDR5 clocked at 1725 MHz, or 7 GT/s, and the mobile version of this graphics card does not compromise on any of those specs or capabilities. It's a graphics processor in a laptop hitting a 7 Gbps memory clock. We were even shown a few side-by-side comparative benchmarks that pitted a sample laptop against a desktop with a GTX 980, and the results were nearly identical (the difference in score from a 3DMark bench was only 15 points).
The Thermal Challenge
Putting a full-sized GTX 980 into a laptop doesn't come without a few challenges. Giving it the same overclocking headroom as its desktop counterpart makes it even more difficult. In the past, power consumption and thermal output was much higher, and the Maxwell architecture was a prime candidate for premium performance at low thermal and power ceilings. The advent of unlocked Skylake processors in the mobile space also allowed the performance ceiling for laptops to significantly rise, and the PCB of the GTX 980 was redesigned to fit into laptops. But those alone aren't enough to implement such a feat. There needed to be an effective method to cool these powerful components.
OEMs Lend A Hand
Partner OEMs had to redesign their thermal solutions to accommodate the inclusion of unlocked processors and graphics cards in a laptop, and several are already on board. So far, Asus, Clevo, Gigabyte and MSI answered the call, and Nvidia announced several models from those companies sporting the GTX 980 and featuring G-Sync displays and unlocked Skylake processors, with some even offering water cooling (another first) and SLI configurations. We'll take a closer look at these powerful gaming laptops as full specs become available from the OEMs, but they all had to overcome the same thermal challenges, and were successful in doing so, from the demos we saw.
Even More "Firsts"
Redesigning the thermal solution included adding native fan control, which Nvidia claimed is another first for laptops. Although some OEMs have added the ability to toggle fan speeds in the past, the keyword in that statement was "native," and the new feature is hardwired right into the PCB. Allowing enthusiasts to manipulate fan speeds lets the user decide the balance of noise and performance, and ultimately the overclocking headroom. OEMs also had to accommodate for the increased power requirements, so these new laptops come with 4- to 8-phase power supplies. Yet another first, according to Nvidia.
Along with the other aforementioned "firsts," these new laptops will be capable of supporting VR devices such as the Oculus Rift. The powerful combination of an unlocked Skylake processor and Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 offers more than minimal specifications for running the new technology.
Coming Soon. Very Soon.
The best part about this announcement is that this isn't some far-off fairy tale or concept development. These laptops will be available very soon. Asus, MSI, Gigabyte and Clevo will be among the first to market with the new innovation, with more OEMs likely to follow suit. This development has basically created a whole new market segment: the mobile enthusiast, with laptops designed for record performance with premium components that are built for overclocking.
We'll have to see how the battery life on these systems hold up, but we can't imagine you'll be gaming very long on it with horsepower like this.