Nvidia GeForce GTX 780 3 GB Graphics Card Review: +30% Everywhere

The flagship graphics accelerator from Nvidia’s new line-up was introduced quite unexpectedly. It raised not only the performance bar, but also the price maximum. Our today’s review will unveil how big of an increase occurred on all fronts.

by Sergey Lepilov
06/21/2013 | 03:00 AM

The preparations for the release of Nvidia’s new flagship graphics card have been rather fast, skipping the phase of a couple of months of rumors, info leaks and discussions of different versions of specifications. Contrary to some skeptical predictions, Nvidia has managed to introduce its new top-end solution quickly, and largely because the company had released the special GeForce GTX Titan before. The new GeForce GTX 780 is just based on the Titan design and uses the same GK110 GPU.

 

Why do we call the GeForce GTX 780 the flagship product if we know beforehand that the Titan is even faster? Well, the Titan is an image-making product which is extremely expensive and has a very small target audience. The GeForce GTX 780, on its part, is a fast but standard graphics card. As its name suggests, it is meant to lead Nvidia’s new product line-up. There’s also one more reason for calling the GTX 780 a flagship product but we’ll explain it in the course of this review.

Specifications and Architecture

The Nvidia GeForce GTX 780 specifications are listed in the following table in comparison with the specs of the reference Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan and GeForce GTX 680:

The Nvidia GeForce GTX 780 is based on the same GPU as the Titan: the GK110 chip with Kepler architecture. One SMX subunit is turned off, however, in its GPU, so the total number of CUDA cores is reduced from 2688 to 2304, or by 14%.

The number of texture-mapping units is reduced from 224 to 192 but the number of raster operators has remained the same at 48. The GPU works at a somewhat higher clock rate: 863 MHz in 3D applications (up to 902 MHz in boost mode). The memory clock rate is still 6008 MHz but the new card has 3 rather than 6 gigabytes of it, which affects its price and PCB design. On the other hand, the GeForce GTX 780 has the same power requirements as the Titan: 250 watts at peak load. A 600-watt PSU is recommended for a computer with one GTX 780 inside.

Its recommended price is $649, which is 30% higher compared to the GeForce GTX 680 ($499 – but the actual retail price is lower now) and 35% lower compared to the Titan.

Graphics Card Design and Features

The new GeForce GTX 780 looks like a copy of the GeForce GTX Titan except for the text on the cooler casing and the lack of memory chips on the reverse side of the PCB.

You may be pleased to know that the GeForce GTX 780 has the same highlighting on its top edge as the Titan:

The new graphics card is equipped with three video outputs: dual-link DVI-I and DVI-D, HDMI 1.4a and DisplayPort 1.2.

Thus, you can connect as many monitors to the GTX 780 simultaneously as to the Titan. There are no differences in terms of the power and SLI connectors:

 

The PCB of early samples of the GeForce GTX 780 card is an exact copy of the Titan’s PCB.

Except for the mentioned changes on the reverse side of the PCB, everything is identical. The GPU voltage regulator includes six phases based on DrMOS transistors, and there are three more phases for the memory chips and PLL.

Like on the Titan, the power system is managed by an NCP4206 controller from ON Semiconductor.

It is possible that off-the-shelf GeForce GTX 780s will have a different PCB, though.

The GPU of our sample was manufactured in Taiwan on the 36th week of 2012. So, Nvidia had working GK110 chips as far back as the early September of the last year.

The GPU die is 561 sq. mm large and marked as GK110-300-A1 (the Titan die is marked as GK-110-400-A1). Just as officially specified, the GPU is clocked at 867/902 MHz in 3D applications at a voltage of 1.162 volts. The clock rate is dropped to 324 MHz in 2D applications and the voltage is lowered to 0.875 volts.

On the face side of the PCB, under thermal pads, there are 12 FCBGA-packaged chips of GDDR5 memory for a total capacity of 3 gigabytes. These Samsung Semiconductor chips are marked as K4G20325FD-FC03:

In 3D mode the GeForce GTX 780 has a memory frequency of 6008 MHz. Coupled with the 384-bit bus, this yields a peak bandwidth of 288.4 GB/s, just as with the Titan.

The latest version of the GPU-Z utility is already familiar with the GeForce GTX 780:

The cooling system is a copy of the Titan's, too. It has a vapor chamber in its base, an aluminum heatsink, a metallic frame and a radial fan with optimized rotation speed.

The hot air from the cooler is exhausted out of the computer case.

The GeForce GTX 780 features a new adaptive fan regulation algorithm, so the fan changes its speed smoothly under 3D loads.

To check out the card’s temperature we used five runs of the Aliens vs. Predator (2010) benchmark at the highest visual quality settings, at a resolution of 2560x1440 pixels, and with 16x anisotropic filtering and 4x MSAA.

We used MSI Afterburner 3.0.0 beta 10 and GPU-Z version 0.7.1 for monitoring of temperatures inside the closed system case, which configuration is discussed in detail in the following chapter of the review. All tests were performed at 25°C room temperature.

With the cooler’s fan regulated automatically, the GPU quickly got as hot as 82°C and stayed like that for the duration of our test. The fan accelerated to 2350 RPM to prevent a further temperature rise.


Auto fan mode

Max fan speed

When the radial fan was rotating at its maximum 4270 RPM, the GPU was only 57°C hot. We can also note that the peak GPU clock rate was 1006 rather than 902 MHz during our tests (the Power and Temp Targets had been set at their maximums). That’s GPU Boost 2.0 for you.

The noise level of each cooler was measured between 1:00 and 3:00 AM in a closed room about 20 m2 big using CENTER-321 electronic noise meter. The noise level for each cooler was tested outside the system case when the only noise sources in the lab were the cooler and its fan. The noise meter was installed on a tripod and was always at a 150 mm distance from the cooler fan rotor. The tested cooling systems were placed at the edge of the desk on a sheet of polyurethane foam. The lowest noise reading our noise meter device can register is 29.8 dBA and the subjectively comfortable noise level in these testing conditions was around 36 dBA (do not mix it up with low noise level). The fan(s) rotation speed was adjusted in the entire supported range using our in-house controller by changing the voltage with 0.5 V increment.

The noise level of the Nvidia GeForce GTX 780 is compared in the diagram with that of the reference AMD Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition:

Indeed, Nvidia’s card is quieter throughout the entire speed range. Even at the maximum speed of its fan, the GeForce GTX 780 is not as loud as the Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition. On the other hand, the new card can't be called really quiet in 3D applications. 3-5 minutes into a benchmark or 3D game, the sound of the GTX 780's cooler would rise above the background noise of our computer. At the speed of 2350 RPM we’ve seen above in the temperature tests the noise level was too high for the card to be called comfortable. It is only in 2D mode that the GeForce GTX 780 would quiet down and get lost among the other computer noises. Hopefully, the original GeForce GTX 780 cards with alternative coolers that have been already announced aplenty will be both cool and quiet.

Overclocking Potential

We checked out the overclocking potential of our GeForce GTX 780 using EVGA Precision X version 4.2.0. The Power and Temperature Targets were set at their maximums:

For the temperature not to interfere with our overclocking experiments, we set the fan at 75% speed, which was about 3200 RPM. With such cooling, the GPU temperature was no higher than 71°C, even though at a very high level of noise.

After all that we managed to increase the graphics card’s frequencies to 1018/1057/7168 MHz.

The overclocked GPU would work at 1150 MHz in our tests.

We guess it's a rather good, even though not record-breaking, result for a reference GeForce GTX 780 without any modifications.

Power Consumption

We measured the power consumption of our testbed equipped with different graphics cards using a multifunctional Zalman ZM-MFC3 panel which can report how much power a computer (without the monitor) draws from a wall outlet. There were two test modes: 2D (editing documents in Microsoft Word or web surfing) and 3D. In the latter case the load was created by four runs of the introductory “Swamp” scene in Crysis 3 game at 2560x1440 with maximum image quality settings, but without MSAA.

The power consumption of the GeForce GTX 780 configuration is compared with configurations that include an ASUS GeForce GTX 680 DirectCU II TOP (at the standard GTX 680 clock rates) and a reference NVIDIA GeForce GTX Titan.

The GeForce GTX 780 needs more power compared to its predecessor. Its configuration consumes 74 watts more than the GTX 680 configuration. When the GTX 780 is overclocked, its configuration is almost comparable to the GeForce GTX Titan one in terms of power draw. The difference from the Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition isn’t large at only 18 watts under peak load.

Testbed Configuration and Testing Methodology

All participating graphics cards were tested in a system with the following configuration:

As you can see from the testbed description on the Nvidia side the new GeForce GTX 780 will compete against GeForce GTX 680 from Asus working at the nominal frequencies, and against the reference GeForce GTX TITAN:

 

 

As for AMD, we included a Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition from HIS:

In order to lower the dependence of the graphics cards performance on the overall platform speed, I overclocked our 32 nm six-core CPU with the multiplier set at 48x, BCLK frequency set at 100 MHz and “Load-Line Calibration” enabled to 4.8 GHz. The processor Vcore was increased to 1.38 V in the mainboard BIOS:

Hyper-Threading technology was enabled. 16 GB of system DDR3 memory worked at 2.133 GHz frequency with 9-11-10-28 timings and 1.65V voltage.

The test session started on May 23, 2013. All tests were performed in Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate x64 SP1 with all critical updates as of that date and the following drivers:

We tested the graphics cards performance in two resolutions: 1920x1080 and 2560x1440. The tests were performed in two image quality modes: “Quality+AF16x” – default texturing quality in the drivers with enabled 16x anisotropic filtering and “Quality+ AF16x+MSAA 4x(8x)” with enabled 16x anisotropic filtering and full screen 4x or 8x antialiasing, in those cases when the average fps rate remained high enough for comfortable gaming experience. We enabled anisotropic filtering and full-screen anti-aliasing from the game settings. If the corresponding options were missing, we changed these settings in the Control Panels of Catalyst and GeForce drivers. We also disabled Vsync there. There were no other changes in the driver settings.

Our benchmarking suite includes two popular semi-synthetic benchmarks and 10 resource-consuming games of various genres:

If the game allowed recording the minimal fps readings, they were also added to the charts. We ran each game test or benchmark twice and took the best result for the diagrams, but only if the difference between them didn’t exceed 1%. If it did exceed 1%, we ran the tests at least one more time to achieve repeatability of results.

Performance

3DMark (2013)

The GeForce GTX 780 takes a brisk start, beating the GeForce GTX 680 by as much as 30-35% in 3DMark (2013). It is a mere 3-4% behind the Titan but overtakes the latter by 3-5% when overclocked. That’s a promising beginning, really.

Unigine Valley Bench

The GeForce GTX 780 feels at ease in this benchmark, too. It is 6.5 to 10% behind the Titan and 27 to 43% ahead of the GeForce GTX 680. When overclocked, it easily becomes the fastest graphics card of this test.

Metro 2033: The Last Refuge

The GeForce GTX 780 is an impressive 46-53% ahead of the previous single-GPU flagship from Nvidia in this game, which is actually the largest advantage it will enjoy in this test session. It is also 6.1 to 8.5% behind the Titan. Do you keep in mind the difference in price between them? Overclocking makes the GeForce GTX 780 even faster than the Titan!

We can also note that the AMD Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition looks very good in Metro 2033: The Last Refuge.

Total War: Shogun 2 – Fall of the Samurai

The gap between the GeForce GTX 780 and the GTX 680 is smaller than in the previous test, yet still amounts to 23.3 - 37.9%. The new card is only 10% slower than the Titan but overtakes the latter by 2.6 – 6.8% when overclocked.

Battlefield 3

The difference between the fastest single-GPU graphics cards should be smaller in the less resource-consuming Battlefield 3, yet the GeForce GTX 780 turns out to be 28-38% better than its predecessor. The Titan is 8-11% faster still, but the GTX 780 can easily overtake it when overclocked.

Sniper Elite V2 Benchmark

The GeForce GTX 780 adds the same 30% to the previous flagship’s performance in Sniper Elite V2, too. And it differs from the Titan just like in the previous tests, both at the default and overclocked frequencies.

Sleeping Dogs

The GeForce GTX 780 has a smaller advantage over the GeForce GTX 680 in Sleeping Dogs, yet the gap is still 25 to 28%. The Titan, on the contrary, enjoys the largest advantage in this test session: 7 to 13%. The GeForce GTX 780 can be overclocked to bridge that gap, though. The Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition is quite competitive against the new Nvidia flagship in this game.

Hitman: Absolution

The Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition is fast compared to the other cards in this game as well:

The undoubtedly successful AMD-based product aside, the new flagship from Nvidia is faster than the GeForce GTX 680 by 25-56% and slower than the Titan by a mere 3-6%. Overclocking makes the GeForce GTX 780 faster than the Titan.

Crysis 3

The GeForce GTX 780 is 29 to 35% ahead of the GeForce GTX 680 in Crysis 3. It is also slower than the GeForce GTX Titan by 6-10% at the default clock rates and 7-11% faster when overclocked.

Tomb Raider (2013)

The difference between Nvidia’s new and previous flagship products is 33 to 37% in Tomb Raider. The new card is 8-10% slower than the GeForce GTX Titan, which isn't much, especially as overclocking makes the GTX 780 the winner of this test.

BioShock Infinite

This game doesn’t have anything new to tell us:

The only thing that’s different from the previous tests is the low bottom frame rate of the Nvidia-based cards. The AMD Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition is much better in this respect.

Metro: Last Light

Metro: Last Light is the newest and the most resource-consuming test on our list. The GeForce GTX 780 is 31-48% ahead of the GTX 680, depending on the display resolution and visual quality settings. We can see the same picture if we turn off the Advanced PhysX technology:

Here is a table with the full test results, so we can proceed to our performance summary charts.

Performance Summary

First of all, let’s check out the difference between the GeForce GTX 780 and GTX 680 at their default clock rates, the latter card serving as a baseline.

We see a consistent performance growth across all the games. It is especially large in Metro 2033: The Last Refuge and, with enabled antialiasing, in Metro: Last Light and Hitman: Absolution. The new card is an average 30-31% faster than the GeForce GTX 780 without antialiasing and 37-38% faster with antialiasing turned on. We guess that’s quite a lot.

The next pair of our summary charts helps compare the GeForce GTX 780 and the GeForce GTX Titan at their default clock rates. Let’s see how slower the GTX 780 is in comparison with the $1000 Titan.

The gap is only 8%, so the new card from Nvidia is very attractive. And it is even more attractive if we compare the overclocked GeForce TX 780 with the standard GeForce GTX Titan:

Of course, the Titan can be overclocked as well and will easily beat the GeForce GTX 780 if both are overclocked to the same extent. Anyway, the 35% less expensive card can deliver the same performance as the standard Titan, which is another point in favor of the GeForce GTX 780!

Nvidia GeForce Experience

We want to say a few words about Nvidia’s GeForce Experience utility which may help you find optimal visual quality settings by using a large and constantly updated database of lots of games. When the utility identifies a supported game, it accesses Nvidia’s cloud service and suggests settings which should ensure the best possible visual quality at a comfortable frame rate on your hardware.

According to Nvidia, such software optimization may boost performance by 40% and more.

It is the gamer rather than the utility who makes the decision about applying the suggested optimizations.

Besides, GeForce Experience with ShadowPlay technology can record video clips in H.264 format (every Kepler family GPU offers hardware H.264 support).

The GeForce Experience utility is now part of Nvidia’s driver suite but you may opt out of installing it.

Conclusion

Quoting bare numbers, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 780 3GB is 30% more expensive than the ex-flagship GeForce GTX 680 in terms of recommended price and is an average 30% faster. So, everyone involved, meaning Nvidia and gamers, get his 30% and everyone should be happy. On the other hand, the GeForce GTX 780 announcement doesn't trigger on a change in GPU generations. The higher performance comes at a higher price while the GeForce GTX 680 doesn't leave the market as far as we know. There's no competition with AMD: the Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition is slower but much cheaper. That’s why the other new product from Nvidia, the GeForce GTX 770 model, looks more interesting and we will test it in an upcoming review.

That said, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 780 is indeed worthy of attention of every gamer who appreciates high-quality visuals and high frame rates. We mean those gamers who want a very fast graphics card but find the $1000 GeForce GTX Titan too expensive. Thanks to its good overclocking potential, the GeForce GTX 780 makes the Titan’s market perspectives dubious as it easily overtakes the latter when overclocked. Offering all of the Titan's benefits, save for the hardly useful 6 GB of memory, the new GeForce GTX 780 looks more attractive as a premium-class solution. Nvidia has also managed to keep the new card's TDP at the same level as the previous flagship's and equip it with a quieter cooler.

Now, the last paragraph is going to be a sad one. Currently, the GeForce GTX 780 has no rivals in its price range. So, what can we expect in the future? Can AMD respond with a new single-GPU product of its own? Probably. It is not impossible to achieve a 30% performance growth when changing GPU generations. But will AMD limit itself to the current price of the HD 7970 GHz Edition? We don't think so. So while we used to buy top-end graphics cards for $499, we will have to buy them $150 more expensive in the future or choose less advanced products. That's not a bright perspective but time will show.