Nvidia sets the standard so high for its gaming graphics cards that it’s actually hard to tell the difference between an Nvidia GPU that’s merely a winner and an Nvidia GPU that’s really special.
Nvidia has long been the dominant player in the graphics card market, but the company has from time to time been put under serious pressure by its main rival AMD, which has launched several of its own iconic GPUs. Those only set Nvidia up for a major comeback, however, and sometimes that led to a real game-changing card.
It was hard to choose which Nvidia GPUs were truly worthy of being called the best of all time, but I’ve narrowed down the list to six cards that were truly important and made history.
GeForce 256 The very first VGA Museum
Although Nvidia often claims the GeForce 256 was the world’s first GPU, that’s only true if Nvidia is the only company that gets to define what a GPU is. Before GeForce there were the RIVA series of graphics cards, and there were other companies making their own competing graphics cards then, too. What Nvidia really invented was the marketing of graphics cards as GPUs, because in 1999 when the 256 came out, terms like graphics card and graphics chipset were more common.
Nvidia is right that the 256 was important, however. Before the 256, the CPU played a very important role in rendering graphics, to the point where the CPU was directly completing steps in rendering a 3D environment. However, CPUs were not very efficient at doing this, which is where the 256 came in with hardware transforming and lighting, offloading the two most CPU intensive parts of rendering onto the GPU. This is one of the primary reasons why Nvidia claims this is the first GPU.
As a product, the GeForce 256 wasn’t exactly legendary: Anandtech wasn’t super impressed by its price for the performance at the time of its release. Part of the problem was the 256’s memory, which was single data rate, or SDR. Due to other advances, SDR was becoming insufficient for GPUs of this performance level. A faster dual data rate or DDR (the same DDR as in DDR5) launched just before the end of 1999, which finally met Anandtech’s expectations for performance, but the increased price tag of the DDR version was hard to swallow.
The GeForce 256, first of its name, is certainly historical, but not because it was an amazing product. The 256 is important because it inaugurated the modern era of GPUs. The graphics card market wasn’t always a duopoly; back in the 90s, there were multiple companies competing against each other, with Nvidia being just one of them. Soon after the GeForce 256 launched, most of Nvidia’s rivals exited the market. 3dfx’s Voodoo 5 GPUs were uncompetitive and before it went bankrupt many of its technologies were bought by Nvidia; Matrox simply quit gaming GPUs altogether to focus on professional graphics.
By the end of 2000, the only other graphics company in town was ATI. When AMD acquired ATI in 2006, it brought about the modern Nvidia and AMD rivalry we all know today.
GeForce 8800 GTX A monumental leap forward VGA Museum
After the GeForce 256, Nvidia and ATI attempted to best the other with newer GPUs with higher performance. In 2002, however, ATI threw down the gauntlet by launching its Radeon 9000 series, and at a die size of 200mm squared, the flagship Radeon 9800 XT was easily the largest GPU ever. Nvidia’s flagship GeForce4 Ti 4600 at 100mm had no hope of beating even the midrange 9700 Pro, which inflicted a crushing defeat on Nvidia. Making a GPU was no longer just about the architecture, the memory, or the drivers; in order to win, Nvidia would need to make big GPUs like ATI.
For the next four years, the size of flagship GPUs continued to increase, and by 2005 both companies had launched a GPU that was around 300mm. Although Nvidia had regained the upper hand during this time, ATI was never far behind and its Radeon X1000 series was fairly competitive. A GPU sized at 300mm was far from the limit of what Nvidia could do, however. In 2006 Nvidia released its GeForce 8 series, led by the flagship 8800 GTX. Its GPU, codenamed G80, was nearly 500mm and its transistor count was almost three times higher than the last GeForce flagship.
The 8800 GTX did to ATI what the Radeon 9700 Pro and the rest of the 9000 series did to Nvidia, with Anandtech describing the moment as “9700 Pro-like.” A single 8800 GTX was almost twice as fast as ATI’s top-end X1950 XTX, not to mention much more efficient. At $599, the 8800 GTX was more expensive than its predecessors, but its high level of performance and DirectX 10 support made up for it.
But this was mostly the end of the big GPU arms race that had characterized the early 2000s for two main reasons. Firstly, 500mm was getting pretty close to the limit of how large a GPU could be, and even today 500mm is relatively big for a processor. Even if Nvidia wanted to, making a bigger GPU just wasn’t feasible. Secondly, ATI wasn’t working on its own 500mm GPU anyway, so Nvidia wasn’t in a rush to get an even bigger GPU to market. Nvidia had basically won the arms race by outspending ATI.
That year also saw the acquisition of ATI by AMD, which was finalized just before the 8800 GTX launched. Although ATI now had the backing of AMD, it really seemed like Nvidia had such a massive lead that Radeon wouldn’t challenge GeForce for a long time, perhaps never again.
GeForce GTX 680 Beating AMD at its own game Nvidia
Nvidia’s next landmark release came in 2008 when it launched the GTX 200 series, starting with the GTX 280 and GTX 260. At nearly 600mm squared the 280 was a worthy monstrous successor to the 8800 GTX. Meanwhile, AMD and ATI signaled that they would no longer be launching high-end GPUs with big dies in order to compete, rather focusing on making smaller GPUs in a gambit known as the small die strategy. In its review, Anandtech said “Nvidia will be left all alone with top performance for the foreseeable future.” As it turned out, the next four years were pretty rough for Nvidia.
Starting with the HD 4000 series in 2008, AMD assaulted Nvidia with small GPUs that had high value and almost flagship levels of performance, and that dynamic was maintained throughout the next few generations. Nvidia’s GTX 280 wasn’t cost effective enough, then the GTX 400 series was delayed, and the 500 series was too hot and power hungry.
One of Nvidia’s traditional weaknesses was its disadvantage when it came to process, the way processors are manufactured. Nvidia was usually behind AMD, but it had finally caught up by using the 40nm node for the 400 series. AMD, however, wanted to regain the process lead quickly and decided its next generation would be on the new 28nm node, and Nvidia decided to follow suit.
AMD won the race to 28nm with its HD 7000 series, with its flagship HD 7970 putting AMD back in first place for performance. However, the GTX 680 launched just two months later, and not only did it beat the 7970 in performance, but also power efficiency and even die size. As Anandtech put it, Nvidia had “landed the technical trifecta” and that completely flipped the tables on AMD. AMD did reclaim the performance crown yet again by launching the HD 7970 GHz Edition later in 2012 (notable for being the first 1GHz GPU), but having the lead in efficiency and performance per millimeter was a good sign for Nvidia.
The back and forth battle between Nvidia and AMD was pretty exciting after how disappointing the GTX 400 and 500 series had been, and while the 680 wasn’t an 8800 GTX, it signaled Nvidia’s return to being truly competitive against AMD. Perhaps most importantly, Nvidia was no longer weighed down by its traditional process disadvantage, and that would eventually pay off in a big way.
GeForce GTX 980 Nvidia’s dominance begins Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Nvidia found itself in a very good spot with the GTX 600 series, and it was because of TSMC’s 28nm process. Under normal circumstances, AMD would have simply gone to TSMC’s next process in order to regain its traditional advantage, but this was no longer an option. TSMC and all other foundries in the world (except for Intel) had an extraordinary amount of difficulty progressing beyond the 28nm node. New technologies were needed in order to progress further, which meant Nvidia didn’t have to worry about AMD regaining the process lead any time soon.
Following a few years of back and forth and AMD floundering with limited funds, Nvidia launched the GTX 900 series in 2014, inaugurated by the GTX 980. Based on the new Maxwell ar