Nvidia’s Kepler graphics family is around the corner – slated for a release this month, it could change Nvidia’s positioning in the market as AMD has been ruling the roost for quite some time now. Nvidia last made waves with the Geforce 500 series back in October 2010 with the release of the GTX580 and GTX570  – it’s been over a year since release, and the cards are showing their age compared to AMD’s new Radeon HD7000 series.

That should change this month, if all goes according to plan. All over the net sites have popped up pictures of the reference GTX680, the flagship card that takes Nvidia back into the title fight for fastest single GPU to be released on the 22nd.

As expected, Kepler (hereafter referred to as GK104) has a bigger die than the outgoing GF104 designs. Although a lot of the architecture has been reworked, GK104’s inner workings are still a mystery; we’ll know more of the details later once all is revealed next month, but the prevailing theme is “more”: more texture shaders, more bandwidth, more Megahertz, more performance. Will that increase in performance come with the traditional “Nvidia Tax”? In a press release, Nvidia suggests that the GTX680 may be up to 40% faster than the competing Radeon HD7970. The below image is meant to be taken with a grain of salt, though, because if you look at the “scores” for the HD7970, they’re all equal.

Nvidia never revealed what test rig they used, or the complete settings for the application suites that they benched. The above graph isn’t meant to be accurate, it’s a marketing tool that’s meant to mislead you and give you the impression that their product is vastly superior. The graph doesn’t start at zero, so there’s no way to interpret this into frames per second. Other omissions made are heat generated and power draw – those will be revealed later, but for now let’s concentrate on promised performance.

 

 

 

 

To actually get a feel for what performance might be like, you’ll want to read over Tom’s Hardware’s in-depth review of the HD7970 again. Going over the benchmarks, three things will stand out: One, deriving more performance than a GTX590 in a card that only consumes 195w is extremely difficult. Nvidia’s had product delays for a very long time trying to get die yields of GK104 to be good enough for an actual launch. If they have instead been delaying the card’s release because performance isn’t adequate, it means they’ve done their utmost to match the HD7970 in power consumption – the GTX680 is more likely to be billed as a GTX590 successor with a few tweaks and sold in a lower price bracket.

Two, the GK104 design must have been massively re-worked to the same degree that AMD did for GCN. The HD7970 performs on average on the same level as the GTX590 – the GTX680 is said to be far faster than both. This would only be possible with a change to their method of executing code as GCN likewise did. Like VLIW4, Nvidia’s GF104 also had moments when large parts of the card were idle while waiting for instructions to complete themselves, wasting time and resources in the process. GK104 might change this as well, pushing AMD into another pricing war in order to stay relevant.

Three, it’s going to be expensive. Yes, you’re going to ask if I’m contradicting myself here, but I’m not . Nvidia is only aiming for performance-per-watt here, not value. If they can charge whatever for the crown king in performance, they’ll do exactly that. Initial estimations are around $550 for the GTX680 2GB, but given that launch prices have always been inflated, expect this to fetch over R6500 when it lands here.

I’ve said before on the Forums that Nvidia doesn’t usually change the status quo when releasing a new generation of graphics cards – the more things change, the more they stay the same. The “Nvidia Tax” has become such a commonality that I regularly use it to bring my recommendations to people in perspective when looking at a competing product. It’s still the case that if you want to use a GTX580 you’d better have a Core i5 and 4GB RAM powering the system behind it, or else you’re just wasting money and potential. With AMD’s CPUs and Radeon cards you can get away with a lot, but not here. That won’t change anytime soon, you can bet on it.

On the whole, though, I’m excited for the launch next week – we’ll finally see what the green guys have been up to, and as consumers it’ll benefit us in driving down prices of older products and force AMD to re-check their pricing models again. Good luck, Jensen. You’re going to need it in the coming months.