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Nvidia facing legal action over GTX 970 specs

UPDATE: Nvidia boss: "We won't let this happen again."

UPDATE 25/02/2015: Nvidia boss Jen-Hsun Huang has issued a statement on the controversy surrounding the company's GTX 970 graphics card.

Nvidia faces a lawsuit that alleges Nvidia "engaged in a scheme to mislead consumers nationwide about the characteristics, qualities and benefits of the GTX 970". It cites incorrect specs supplied to the tech press.

Responding, Jen-Hsun Huang said he understood why some were "disappointed", and promised not to repeat the mistake - but he stopped short of apologising.

His statement, published on the Nvidia blog, is reproduced below, in full.

Hey everyone,

Some of you are disappointed that we didn't clearly describe the segmented memory of GeForce GTX 970 when we launched it. I can see why, so let me address it.

We invented a new memory architecture in Maxwell. This new capability was created so that reduced-configurations of Maxwell can have a larger framebuffer - i.e., so that GTX 970 is not limited to 3GB, and can have an additional 1GB.

GTX 970 is a 4GB card. However, the upper 512MB of the additional 1GB is segmented and has reduced bandwidth. This is a good design because we were able to add an additional 1GB for GTX 970 and our software engineers can keep less frequently used data in the 512MB segment.

Unfortunately, we failed to communicate this internally to our marketing team, and externally to reviewers at launch.

Since then, Jonah Alben, our senior vice president of hardware engineering, provided a technical description of the design, which was captured well by several editors. Here's one example from The Tech Report.

Instead of being excited that we invented a way to increase memory of the GTX 970 from 3GB to 4GB, some were disappointed that we didn't better describe the segmented nature of the architecture for that last 1GB of memory.

This is understandable. But, let me be clear: Our only intention was to create the best GPU for you. We wanted GTX 970 to have 4GB of memory, as games are using more memory than ever.

The 4GB of memory on GTX 970 is used and useful to achieve the performance you are enjoying. And as ever, our engineers will continue to enhance game performance that you can regularly download using GeForce Experience.

This new feature of Maxwell should have been clearly detailed from the beginning.

We won't let this happen again. We'll do a better job next time.


ORIGINAL STORY 23/02/2015: Nvidia finds itself in hot water as the debate surrounding its GTX 970 graphics card rages on, with the firm now facing a class action lawsuit, as reported by PC World. The suit alleges that Nvidia "engaged in a scheme to mislead consumers nationwide about the characteristics, qualities and benefits of the GTX 970", citing incorrect specs supplied to the tech press. Plaintiff Andrew Ostrowski bought two GTX 970s, and apparently "soon after installing these devices in his personal computer, Plaintiff noticed that when using a high resolution monitor, the devices caused applications to slow, sputter and cease working. He also noticed that video games requiring higher levels of performance would not work properly."

We recommend Anandtech's deep-dive on the subject for a more in-depth discussion on the specs, and the implications on performance, but the bottom line is this: the GTX 970 ships with 56 ROPs, not 64 as previously indicated while L2 cache is reduced from 2MB to 1.75MB. However, the big point of contention concerns the 4GB of onboard GDDR5 memory, which is split into two partitions of 3.5GB and 512MB respectively. Bandwidth on the larger area is now rated at 192GB/s rather than the 224GB/s previously advertised. It's the last 512MB that causes the real concern though - it only runs at 28GB/s. In a world where games now often recommend over 3GB of video RAM for 1080p gameplay, the suggestion is that running at higher resolutions can see memory utilisation move into the slower area of RAM, causing stutter.

We've been looking into this issue where time allows for a while now. We've even re-benched the GTX 970 across more titles for our recent graphics card upgrade guide, and found that the card operates as it should, whether we are running at 1080p or 2560x1440 (1440p). All of our benchmarks use FCAT frame-time analysis, so every single frame output by the GPU is rated and visualised. Here we see that the GTX 970 is effectively a slower version of the 980, without any additional frame-time variance. However, there's a multitude of potential PC settings that could put more demands on the area of slower RAM, and that might cause issues.

From our perspective, there are two major issues surrounding the whole GTX 970 situation - the product's performance and trust in the vendor, Nvidia. The firm says that there was a miscommunication between the engineers and technical marketing, resulting in the wrong specs given to the press. On the one hand, the notion of a deliberate misinformation campaign doesn't seem quite right. Nvidia would have little to gain and a whole lot more lose in doing so - as we are now seeing. In terms of reviews, performance is king, and the GTX 970 would still have received excellent reviews, though perhaps the RAM issue would have been the focus of deeper investigation. On the other hand, the corrected specs only came to light once enthusiasts quite rightly kicked up a fuss about the memory allocation, and the notion that nobody at Nvidia spotted the error and corrected it does seem strange.

Our most recent testing of the GTX 970 at 2560x1440 resolution (2.5K) should give the controversial memory sub-system a challenge, especially on titles like Assassin's Creed Unity, but in all the titles tested, the card operates as a slower version of its more capable brother, the GTX 980, without additional micro-stutter.

Trust in Nvidia in the wake of this situation is an an issue then, but this lawsuit is all about the performance deficit apparently incurred by the spec reduction. Right now, we're still testing and re-testing the GTX 970 both as a single card and in SLI, and our feeling is that it remains an exceptional product despite the controversy. On the demanding games we enjoy playing, and with those we routinely benchmark, the card runs as we would hope - and that's borne out by the analysis above. However, the partitioned memory situation clearly should be put through its paces. In revisiting the product, the question we're asking ourselves is just how the product should be tested in order to best put the 512MB partition of slow memory to the test.

In the wake of the spec correction, there are no shortage of complaints about the GTX 970 now - the GeForce forum thread is 366 pages long as of this writing, and it's an interesting and lively melting pot of discussion, outrage and first-hand reports on how to demonstrate the card's apparent inadequacies. It's as good a place as any to figure out exactly what the performance penalty of the card might actually be.

Engaging extreme levels of multi-sampling anti-aliasing or super-sampling down from higher resolutions - seemingly the preferred technique of demonstrating 970 performance issues - is mentioned a lot. This will almost certainly cause performance challenges on any card, whether you have 3.5GB or 4GB of video RAM. Even the most powerful modern GPUs are not recommended for a good 4K experience, whether they're made by AMD or Nvidia, though it is worthy of investigation for those who've invested in cards for SLI purposes, where running two cards or more in parallel should offer the horsepower required for 4K gaming at high frame-rates - when matched with reasonable quality presets.

But getting good, accurate, comparative data is the challenge here. The big question isn't really whether you can cause stuttering on the GTX 970. After all, it's a relatively easy procedure to bring any graphics card to its knees. For us, the real issue is whether we can find games that have obvious issues on the GTX 970, while running just fine on its bigger, more expensive brother - the GTX 980, with its full-fat 4GB of RAM. We'll report back with our findings, plus some thoughts from developer contacts, later this week. In the meantime, if you're a GTX 970 owner and have issues you'd like to see investigated, feel free to drop us a line.

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About the author

Richard Leadbetter

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry  |  digitalfoundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.


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