For years now, desktop computer hardware just hasn’t been very exciting. Each successive generation brings the same trio of modest upgrades: an incremental speed increase, better power management, and a smattering of minor new features.
Nvidia GTX 1080
The GTX 1080 finally has the power to bring top-quality VR experiences to anyone with the cash to spare. Both the 1080 and the less expensive 1070 dramatically improve the quality of any game you throw at them. Great power management gives you a lot of oomph for a meager 185 watts. Even if you don’t have a 4K monitor, the GTX 1080 can render a scene in 4K then downsample to 1440p or 1080p for a crisper image.
It’s a beast, and you’ll need a big case. $650 is a lot to gamble on whether VR will ever truly take off. For most people, the 1080 and 1070 are excessive solutions to mundane problems.
Blame for that stems from the fact that hardware hasn’t needed to evolve. Games, the old drivers of high-end, consumer-grade tech, have mostly plateaued in their requirements. Sure, 4K screens are a bit tougher to render, and some games come with fancy doodads that might need extra oomph, but that’s it.
But graphics hardware maker Nvidia has accepted an extraordinary challenge—to make the guts of your PC exciting again. Its solution? Cards that can outpace its monstrous, high-priced line (appropriately christened “Titan”) at less than half the cost. The force driving the market toward powerful-yet-affordable graphics hardware is VR.
For virtual reality to really work, you need to keep framerates high and stable, and that takes an ungodly amount of computational power. Power a headset with lesser hardware that stutters and jutters, and players may feel that Chipotle start to come back up. Add in the fact that many VR games find themselves camped at the bottom of the uncanny valley, and you’ve got a recipe for demand. Nvidia isn’t the only company that’s picked up on that signal. AMD is wholly invested in VR, with its latest top-end card promising an affordable VR-ready graphics processor.
Together that gives a clear view of where everyone’s headed: to virtual worlds and the ever-elusive feeling of “presence.” With that, the market may finally have games and apps taxing enough to make top-end video cards useful again. So here we are. The GTX 1080 is just such a card.
Video cards are oddly large and weird-looking. The GTX 1080, Nvidia’s latest and greatest, is a $700 bulging hunk of steel and silicon that measures almost a foot long and weighs more than three pounds. You’d be forgiven for mistaking the beast for a late ’80s stealth bomber. It’s a delicate, pugnacious monster.
It is also an unprecedented piece of electronic precision—one that requires a full-size, gaming-ready desktop PC to house it, but which performs Herculean feats of computational strength once installed. My testing had the brute crunching through 4K video, perfectly rendering demanding games ranging from 2007’s Crysis to Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. The former is a notoriously challenging title even today, and the latter is a gorgeous, parkour-inspired odyssey through an Orwellian police state. The 1080 never faltered and rendered everything perfectly.
Stepping into VR, I trekked through the Himalayas, painted the air in Google’s Tilt Brush, and even dipped into The Funhouse, Nvidia’s VR tech demo. Each brought to life in stunning veracity and rendered with exacting detail. And it proved, without a doubt that these pixel-pushers had done it—for those with the cash, VR is now attainable.
Before my upgrade to the 1080, I was running the company previous high-end card, the GTX 980. While a stunning chip in its own right, hitches and stutters in virtual reality were common—especially for some of the more advanced games, like the 3D cyberpunk Galaga game, Space Pirate Trainer. I realized then that while HTC and Oculus had managed to make the VR headsets consumer friendly, raw computing power still wasn’t quite on par with VR’s ludicrous demands.
Oculus founder Palmer Luckey has gone on the record saying designers should strive to push 90 frames per second or higher to these headsets. Anything less is still perceptible to the human brain, especially when the display is so close to the eyes. Higher rendering speeds on your average 2D game are only of concern to fiddly obsessives eager to claim bragging rights. In VR, however, jumpy screens can confuse the brain, causing “simulator sickness,” an especially pernicious nausea.
With the 1080 and its lighter cousin the $450 1070, Nvidia has committed itself to its new strategy—chasing VR performance. And for now, I can’t see the need for any more power. The company nailed these two chips out of the gate, providing seamless excellence on its first earnest shot at VR-ready cards.
Plus, it’s brought a host of extraordinary features. Nvidia’s Ansel, for example, lets players pause a game anywhere and give them complete control over the camera. With it, you can take the perfect screenshot and apply a bevy of filters, a la Instagram. Right now, it only works with Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. But several more games, including The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, will be added in the coming months.
The hope here is that you’ll finally have the tools to document your digital adventures. Like Ansel Adams, for whom the software is named, you’ll be able to take just about any shot you can imagine. An entire subculture has already grown up around artfully framed video game screenshots—spearheaded by blogs like DeadEndThrills. Now that Facebook and other social media outlets are supporting 360-degree and VR photos, Nvidia believes that Ansel, and its related software, will make it easier to share what it’s like to be in the face of Skyrim‘s dragons, or to stand at the edge of a skyscraper that you climbed in-game. It blurs the border between our “real” and digital lives.
Nine years ago, Nvidia’s best was the GTX 8800, a card WIRED called a “pixel firehose.” It was the best money could buy, but even that wasn’t enough to run top-end games with the settings dialed all the way up. The 1080 and 1070, by comparison are more than enough to handle just about anything. In anything short of the highest-end VR and 4K games they are overkill.
Part of that stems from the fact that developers haven’t really focused on pressing graphical boundaries for some time. Whether it’s to retain compatibility with comparatively underpowered consoles, or the tens of millions of new gamers and veterans alike dipping into games like League of Legends, which you could just about run on a toaster, graphical fidelity just isn’t the all-consuming goal it once was.
With VR on the horizon, you may finally have a reason to dig into your PC and upgrade. If you’re a psychonaut and you’ve got the cash for a 1080 (Prices online start at $650, but could go up because of demand), the realm of the virtual is a playground.
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