I had the privilege of testing the Founder's Edition of the card, which is something unique for NVIDIA. Previously, the company released fairly plain reference editions of its cards, which would inevitably be one-upped by partners with more-elaborate cooling designs. But NVIDIA is positioning the GTX 1080 Founder's Edition as a premium offering. The company claims the materials used to build the card, including the aluminum vapor chamber cooler (a step up from plain-old air cooling) and more-efficient power components, justify its $100 premium. But that's a bit hard to stomach when its reference cards had similar cooler designs in the past.
NVIDIA went for a bit more flair this time around. The sharp angles around the 1080's cooler feel more reminiscent of a Ferrari than the company's past design. That's a fitting way to represent just how fast it is: It's capable of pumping out nine teraflops of computing power. The 1080 runs at 1,607MHz (up to 1,733MHz in boost mode) and packs in 8GB of Micron's new GDDR5X RAM. In comparison, last year's 980 Ti card clocked in at 1,000MHz with 6GB of standard GDDR5 memory. Unlike CPUs (which now reach into the 4GHz range), video cards haven't seen massive megahertz bumps over the years, so the 1080's numbers are seriously impressive.
You can chalk up much of the GTX 1080's upgrades to NVIDIA's new Pascal architecture. It first appeared on the P100 card for data crunchers, but this is the first time we've seen what it looks like in consumer hardware. The big benefit with Pascal is its new 16nm FinFET architecture (a type of 3D transistor technology). It allows NVIDIA to reach higher clock speeds as well as make the card much more power efficient.
In terms of connectivity, the 1080 Founder's Edition features three DisplayPort connections, one HDMI port and a single DVI socket. It would have been nice to see another HDMI port, but I'm sure there are plenty of professionals out there who are still running fancy monitors over DVI.
Getting the GTX 1080 up and running isn't any different than with your typical video card. It's a big piece of kit, so you'll want to make sure there's enough room in your case for it to fit, but otherwise it snaps right into a PCI-E slot and it's powered by a single 8-pin power connector. Unlike the Radeon R9 Fury X, which required me to move some case fans around to make room for its water cooler radiator, the GTX 1080 was a cinch to install. After grabbing some fresh drivers from NVIDIA (and making sure any traces of old drivers were gone for good), I was off to the benchmarking races.
NVIDIA wasn't lying: The GTX 1080 is a beast. I only had the R9 Fury X to compare it to on my gaming rig (which consists of a 4GHz Core i7-4790K CPU, 16GB of 2400Mz DDR3 RAM and a 512GB Crucial MX100 SSD on a ASUS Z97-A motherboard), but that's a powerhouse GPU that easily keeps pace with the GTX 980 and Titan X. And for every major benchmark, the 1080 was significantly faster.
In 3DMark online comparisons with similar systems, the 1080 was typically ranked better than 92 to 95 percent of results. It was only bested by scores from machines running multiple 980 and 980 Ti cards in SLI mode (which would also cost a lot more than the 1080 to put together).
Average FPS performance in 4K with all graphics set to maximum
Benchmarks are one thing, but I was more interested in how the GTX 1080 performs in actual games. And once again, it didn't disappoint. Compared to the R9 Fury X, it reached around 43 frames per second in the Witcher 3 while running in 4K with all the settings set to Ultra. That made the game much more playable in such a high resolution: The Fury X averaged around 35 fps, and it would sometimes dip below 30, which makes things unbearably jerky. For Hitman, the 1080 reached a smooth 48 fps on average, whereas the Fury X hovered around 38.
I was particularly impressed with the card's performance in Fallout 4 (after turning off that game's frame limiter). It was playable on the Fury X, reaching around 42 fps, but on the GTX 1080 it more often hovered between 50 and 55 fps in most environments. Sometimes it would shoot upward of 60 fps indoors, and in wide-open areas it would dip to 40 fps. That wouldn't make for the smoothest experience, but it's certainly a lot more playable in 4K.
Thanks to the elaborate heat sink design, the GTX 1080 Founder's Edition was also cooler than I expected. It idled at a mere 33c, and under full load it reached between 65c and 70c. I also had no trouble overclocking the GPU by 250MHz (reaching around 1.95GHz under load) and the memory by 200MHz without any significant temperature changes. NVIDIA reps managed to push the card past 2.1GHz during a stage demo without any additional cooling. If you're into overclocking, this card was basically made for you.
Last year I wasn't sold on the viability of 4K gaming -- if a $600 card like the R9 Fury X couldn't always handle it, why even bother? -- but the GTX 1080 actually makes it viable with a single card. But while it's nice to see significant progress in high-res gaming, I still prefer bumping down to a lower resolution like 2,560 x 1,440 to ensure a silky 60 fps experience. Most people wouldn't notice the marginal difference in rendering resolution, but they'd certainly pick out when frames start to stutter in 4K. (Check out this gallery for a look at the below screenshots in full 4K resolution.)