Nvidia’s GTX 970 launch exceeded even the most ambitious expectations and added severe pressure to AMD’s r9 290 GPU given the surprisingly low price point of the 970. Significantly lower power consumption, reduced temperatures, 0db idle silent mode on certain SKUs all made the 970 an attractive proposition for the mainstream gaming market. This brought a level of concern for AMD as units struggled to move on the shelves. However, AMD were adamant that prices couldn’t be lowered on the 290, 290x or 295×2. The surplus of stock forced retailers like Scan and Overclockers UK to cut prices to better compete with the GTX 970.
The old adage of something looks too good to be true is extremely relevant here as recent reports indicate the quoted 4GBs at 224 GB/s is incorrect since 3.5GB runs at this figure whilst the remaining 0.5 operates at 1/7 of the 3.5GB memory speed. So how does this translate to real world performance? Basically, the card has two pools of memory, and any game that utilizes less than 3.5GB of VRAM will run without any problems. Newer titles such as Shadow of Mordor start to hitch and stutter because of the transition to the slower 0.5GB. For more technical information, please visit this superb PC Perspective article.
This situation is an unholy mess when you start to use these cards on higher resolutions panels. This is especially the case at 4K. Despite this, I never considered even the GTX 980 to be a 4k capable card. Some consumers, myself included, spent nearly £600 on an 970 SLI setup expecting it to perform well and utilize the entire 4GB framebuffer. Nvidia have released a canned response stating, “The GeForce GTX 970 is equipped with 4GB of dedicated graphics memory. However the 970 has a different configuration of SMs than the 980, and fewer crossbar resources to the memory system.
Memory Is The Key
To optimally manage memory traffic in this configuration, we segment graphics memory into a 3.5GB section and a 0.5GB section. The GPU has higher priority access to the 3.5GB section. When a game needs less than 3.5GB of video memory per draw command then it will only access the first partition, and 3rd party applications that measure memory usage will report 3.5GB of memory in use on GTX 970, but may report more for GTX 980 if there is more memory used by other commands. When a game requires more than 3.5GB of memory then we use both segments.
I’ve spoken with a number of customers who state the vendors have a similar attitude and refuse to accept the card under an RMA process. The purpose of this article isn’t to go into the technical detail or analyse if Nvidia’s intentions but to make a clear, direct message about consumer rights. Nvidia claim that the performance difference above 3.5GB is negligible but that doesn’t justify the unplayable stutter caused due to this manufacturing decision. I’ve tested quite a few graphically intensive games and at 1440p the hit when going above 3.6GB is absurd. Interestingly, it seems like various titles are coded to avoid anything above the 3.5GB limit.
Does Nvidia have to refund disgruntled customers by law? It depends on a number of factors and unfortunately, USA customers don’t have the consumer rights of their European counterparts. In the UK, it is technically possible under the Sale of Goods Act (1979) to demand a full refund since the product wasn’t as described. Now, the issue here is explaining how the 0.5GB of VRAM doesn’t operate at the quoted speed is nigh-on impossible. However, Nvidia has admitted that the information was wrong and the card has 56 rops and not 64. Similarly, the L2 cache is 1.75mb instead of 2.0. These clear numbers may offer a route to a legal case or bodies like Trading Standards will be more open to hear your claim.
Refunds can only be offered via the retailer and practically every major company at the moment is waiting to hear back from Nvidia to see if they will foot the bill. I do feel a lot of sympathy for these stores since the product details they acquired are from Nvidia’s official documentation and it could bankrupt some smaller outlets if they had to refund the 970s. Nevertheless, this shouldn’t be the customer’s concern; if they were missold an item, they are well within their rights to push for a refund. I can imagine these companies are being inundated with requests and currently they don’t know how to proceed. Some people have dismissed the whole situation and think the media and consumers are being overly dramatic. While one person might be content with their GPU, another could feel aggrieved by the 3.5GB limit.
Frankly, it’s not about the % or fps, you cannot sell a product that isn’t as described. It’s not like this has occurred a few days after the 970 launch, it’s been some time and Nvidia have dismissed this as a communications issue between departments. While that might be true, it isn’t a viable excuse and seems like they are underestimating this grave situation. It’s obvious that Nvidia are hoping the media frenzy and public’s reaction will calm down and meander off into the distance. This isn’t going to happen, in fact it’s just getting more heated. Overclockers UK forum an 80 page thread on this and the official Geforce forums main thread has 148 pages, 2204 replies and 305,178 views with discussions about a class-action lawsuit.
It’s my own personal opinion that Nvidia should offer a refund, swap for GTX 980 or a free upgrade to Nvidia’s next line of GPUs. Game codes, small partial refunds and similar incentives are not going to wash with people who are getting increasingly angry. Nvidia, your reputation is in tatters already, the best thing to do is act now, apologize and try to rebuild trust with the gaming community. Yes, it’s going to cost you a lot of money to recall/replace the cards, but it might be the better option than simply brushing the issue off and making people AMD customers for the rest of their lives.