The Story Of How GeForce GTX 690 And Titan Came To Be

When something impresses me, I want to know more, whether it's wine, music, or technology. Months ago, Nvidia dropped off its GeForce GTX 690 and I didn’t know whether to game on it or put it in a frame. This is the story of its conception.

When Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 680 launched, it was both faster and less expensive than AMD’s Radeon HD 7970. But the GK104-based card was still pretty familiar-looking. Despite its conservative power consumption and quiet cooler, the card employed a light, plastic shroud.

That’s not really a big deal in the high-end space. For as far back as I can remember, $500 gaming boards employed just enough metal to support the same plastic shell, but lacked any substantial heft. Cooling fans typically ranged from tolerable under load to “…the heck were they thinking?” And power—well, I was just stoked to see a flagship from Nvidia dip below 200 W.

But then came GeForce GTX 690. And then Titan. And then 780. And then 770. Nvidia’s reference design for each was—and I’m going to sound like a total hardware dweeb—beautiful. Not femininely beautiful à la Monica Bellucci’s lips, but mechanically, like a DBS. The 690 introduced us to a chromium-plated aluminum frame, magnesium alloy fan housing, a vapor chamber heat sink over each GPU covered with a polycarbonate window, and LED lighting on top of the card, controllable through a software applet that companies like EVGA make available to download.

The models that followed actually used slightly different materials for the shroud, and weren’t quite as chiseled. But the aesthetic was similarly high-end. Each time a shipment of cards showed up, I was excited…and that doesn’t happen very often.

Nvidia's GeForce GTX 690 concept explorationNvidia's GeForce GTX 690 concept exploration

It’s Not Easy To Impress An Old-Timer

Alright, at 33 I’m not really that old. But I started reviewing hardware back when I was 18—more than 15 years ago. In the last decade and a half, only a few components really got my blood pumping. Previewing a very early Pentium III and 820-based motherboard with RDRAM months before Intel introduced the platform was cool. So too was the first time I got my hands on ATI’s Rage Fury MAXX. When AMD launched its Athlon 64 FX-51 CPU, it shipped a massive high-end system that I used for months after in the lab. And who could forget the Radeon HD 5870 Eyefinity 6 Edition, if only for the novelty?

I was easily as excited about GeForce GTX 690. I have a dead one in my office, and I swear it needs to live out the rest of its days in a frame on the wall.

The GeForce GTX 690 concept gets refinedThe GeForce GTX 690 concept gets refined

Of course, when I’m evaluating a piece of hardware, good looks rank relatively low on the list of attributes that dictate a recommendation. Performance, power, noise, and pricing are also natural considerations. So, in the conclusion for GeForce GTX 690 Review: Testing Nvidia's Sexiest Graphics Card, we pointed out that two GTX 680s are faster and better equipped to handle the heat they generate. Then I brought up then-dismal availability. But all the while, I wanted someone at Nvidia to tell me what it took, at a company level, to make the card’s industrial design a reality when it clearly seemed “overbuilt.” Who was responsible? Would GeForce GTX 690 forever alter the minimum acceptable bling on a high-end gaming card?

At the time, Nvidia still had GeForce GTX Titan, 780, and 770 in its back pocket. When I approached Nvidia’s PR team for a more intimate look at what went into 690, it said “we’ll see.”

The GeForce GTX 690 preliminary design freezeThe GeForce GTX 690 preliminary design freeze

That was more than a year ago though, and now Nvidia’s plans are all much more public. Several months back, during a trip up to Santa Clara for a deep-dive on Tegra 4, I sat down with Andrew Bell, vice president of hardware engineering, and Jonah Alben, senior vice president of GPU engineering to talk about the conception of this design that I admired so much and what it took make a reality.

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  • CaptainTom
    You could build cars that go 300 MPH, get 60 MPG, and are as strong as tanks; but if it costs as much as a house... Who cares? Yeah more money buys more. What is so impressive here?

    Granted it sure as hell is more impressive than the gains intel makes every year, but then again everything is impressive compared to that...
  • jimmysmitty
    741589 said:
    You could build cars that go 300 MPH, get 60 MPG, and are as strong as tanks; but if it costs as much as a house... Who cares? Yeah more money buys more. What is so impressive here? Granted it sure as hell is more impressive than the gains intel makes every year, but then again everything is impressive compared to that...

    If you consider that Intel is working in a much tighter TDP then it makes sense as to why they don't have massive jumps every year. With the ability to throw billions of transistors due to the 2-3x TDP, you can fit more and more every time you do a die shrink in the same area.

    As well, it's not like AMD is pushing Intel to do much anyways. FX is not competitive enough to push the high end LGA2011 setup and barley pushes LGA1155 let alone 1150.

    As for the design, I will admit it is beautiful. But my one issue is that with said aluminum shroud comes more weight and with more weight means more stress on the PCIe slot. Cards are getting bigger, not smaller. I remember when I had my X850XT PE. It took up one card slot and was a top end card. Even the X1800 took only one sans non reference designs. Now they take up two minimum and are pushing into 3. My 7970 Vapor-X pushes into the 3rd slot and weight a lot too.

    Soon we will have 4 slot single GPUs that push into the HDD area.
  • bystander
    @the above
    Realize that GPU's do parallel processing, and a good chunk of the improvements on GPU speed is due to adding more and more processors and not just speeding up the processor itself. Intel works with CPU's, which do linear operations, and they cannot just add more processors and speed things up.

    Imagine if CPU's could just add more cores and each core automatically sped things up without having to code for it. That is what GPU's can do and that is why they have been able to advance at a faster rate than CPU's.
  • CaptainTom
    ^ Yes but Intel could get rid of the HD 4600 on the desktop i5's and i7's to add more transistors so the thing is significantly faster. Maybe it would use more power, but its better than Haswell's side-grade over Ivy Bridge.
  • emad_ramlawi
    I am AMDer when it comes to GPU`s, but got handed to Nvidia, the Titan and anything chopped off from GK110 looks impressive, its really great that the stock heat sink design is superior from the get-go, notice how many GK110 cards from different manufacturers that looks the same thing with the same heat sink, and usually same price they just slap there label on it, however in the same time, using top-notch material that costs 600-1000 is not evolutionary, and i don't believe in trick-down economy .
  • scrumworks
    Gotta "love" how Tom's is so loyal nvidia fan. Bias will never stop until couple of those key persons leave and I don't see that happening any time soon.
  • kartu
    What a biased article...

    690 is a dual GPU card, Titan is not.
    690 is about 20% faster than Titan.


    7990 is 25% faster than Titan.

    Source: xbitlabs
  • Fennecbutt
  • yannigr
    Titan is an impressive card. 690 is an impressive card. 7990 is an impressive card. The 9800 GX2 that I had in my hands 2 years ago was a monster, truly impressive card. If only it had 2GB of memory (2X1)....

    Anyway, all those are old news now. The article is interesting but the fact is that we are waiting to see more news about Hawaii and later about Mantle and in a few months about Maxwell.
  • iam2thecrowe
    222405 said:
    What a biased article... 690 is a dual GPU card, Titan is not. 690 is about 20% faster than Titan. NEWSFLASH: 7990 is 25% faster than Titan. Source: xbitlabs

    newsflash, the 7990 is hotter and noisier and suffers from poor frame latency, particularly when running multiple displays where nearly 50% of frames are dropped completely before they reach the monitor.......
    Seriously, Toms are more often AMD biased than Nvidia, so Don't complain about just one article.
  • jbdumbass
    Just in time for the 290x release. I have been a loyal reader of toms since the 90s and rarely do you see an article simply outlining design. Titan is good yes, worth 1300aud not a chance. Employ a massive die size and you get low yield and less chips per wafer thus we poor saps pay 1300 for a card... to me the 7970 is more elegant smaller die cost effective and affordable, frame pacing is an issue but one that amd to their credit are and have addressed. Mantle api could be the wind in the sails they have needed to push them forward.
  • emad_ramlawi
    Oh i forgot one thing, if Toms Hardware have free time and web-space to write main article about Nvidia old flagship, where is the Toms Hardware featured article about AMD14 GPU coverage ?
  • cypeq
    Nothing like a nice knob polishing. Cream all over tom's face. This site is amusing up to journalistic prostitution.
  • rokit
    Just one question "Who cares?". Isn't AMD right now the spot of events? Isn't it better to make such articles about news maker product? Hint - that is not Nvidia right now.
  • m32
    I can't believe I enjoyed an Nvidia article......but great article!!!
  • realibrad
    @ Chris Angelini
    I'm not sure why you say that Nvidia gambled on the 680 104 to the 7970 Tahiti. The 680 was launched 3 months after the 7970. Benchmarks were being seen well before launch, and I'm sure that Nvidia knew full well how its cards stacked up against the Tahiti cards. Did someone at Nvidia tell you that they gambled on the GK 104, because if not that is a pretty large speculation on your part.

    Working for TH, I'm sure you get a pretty good idea about the power of a card well before its "launched." Nvidia launched its cards 3 months after Tahiti and in that time realized they had beat AMD's high end chip with their GK 104 chip, and GK 110 was not needed as a launch card.
  • wdmfiber
    Yes, good read. Enjoyable:)

    Sadly thou... it's just future eWaste.
    And the near future too, only fruit goes bad sooner.
  • bloodroses75
    This cards remind me of a Delorean. Beautiful metal bodies. Internals that won't last more than 2 years without dying. I really wish Nvidia would spend more time on reliability than looks.
  • slomo4sho
    The GTX 690 was released back on April 2012 and the Titan was released back on Feburary 2013... What is the relevance of this article? Your AMD's 2014 GPU write up was conveniently filed away under the "Latest News" section of this site and the writeup was barely 15% of the length of this completely irrelevant article(it may have had relevance 6-8 months ago). This piece actually feels like an advertisement... can you at least make an effort to put up an illusion of unbiased reporting?
  • internetlad
    The Story Of How GeForce GTX 690 And Titan Came To Be

    Some guys with money wanted more money, so they paid some guys with brains to build some fancy ass video cards. The guys with money then sold the fancy ass video cards to people who wanted to use them.

    The End.
  • Absentsa
    This is an article about the fact that there is so much more to the experience of owning a high end card than just graphics performance. Unfortunately I think that most of the comments here miss the point entirely.

    Interesting article, thoroughly enjoyable read, thanks.
  • codyleemanofaction
    Great article, fun read. Nice to break up the reviews with all the charts and what not! Granted, I love those reviews... but I enjoyed this for the "behind the scenes" look. Thanks Chris!
  • chumly
    Too bad the GPGPU performance makes them unbuyable for me. I need a card that can make its money back in its off-time.
  • ddpruitt
    When I read the title I thought this was an inside look on who the chip went from conception to production, something I as an engineer at heart couldn't resist. Instead I got how nVidia spent boatloads of time making it look pretty. This is like giving a telling me how the new Mustang was designed without talking about the engine or taking it for a spin, kinda pointless.

    This article has fanboy written all over it.