Microsoft Surface Book's Secret Nvidia GPU: What is It?

By Gizmodo Australia on at

There’s an optional discrete graphics card available in higher-spec variants of Microsoft’s brand new Surface Book laptop; it’ll make the thin and light laptop powerful enough for a bit of casual gaming as well as demanding graphics applications like Adobe Photoshop. Probably, at least — we don’t actually know anything about it, and Microsoft and Nvidia are staying pretty quiet on the topic.

The base Surface Book’s integrated graphics are delivered by an Intel HD Graphics 520 processor, built into the silicon of the Core i5 or Core i7 CPU — par for the course for a thin and light notebook, with more than enough power for video decoding and web browsing and entry-level gaming. But from the 256GB/8GB/Core i5-6200U model upward, a discrete graphics chipset built by Nvidia promises more GPU compute power than you’d expect for a laptop of the Surface Book’s svelte and mobile design.

But we don’t know what graphics processor exactly that Nvidia and Microsoft are using in the Surface Book. There are eleven current mobile graphics chipsets currently available in Nvidia’s line-up for Microsoft to choose off the shelf, ranging from the extremely basic GeForce 910M and 920M to the more powerful GTX series, including the GTX 950M all the way up to the desktop-grade, power-hungry GTX 980 (non-M). The sweet spot is obviously somewhere in the middle, considering that the GPU is driving a high-resolution display but only has the keyboard dock’s thin chassis and relatively low-Wattage battery to work with.

The word from our Nvidia spokesperson is this: “Microsoft has announced a new laptop named the Microsoft Surface Book. The new laptop includes an NVIDIA GeForce GPU.” Microsoft has teased us in a couple of different ways, referring to the dGPU as an “optional NVIDIA GeForce Graphics Processor with dedicated 1GB GDDR5 high-speed memory”, with “the full power of hardware-accelerated graphics” — but there’s no more detail than that, at least for now. Nvidia does say that the GPU is new, and as yet unannounced, suggesting that it might be a semi-custom chip developed specifically for the Surface Book and sitting in between models in the existing line-up.

Nvidia tells us: “The new GPU is a Maxwell-based GPU, and was designed to deliver the best performance in ultra-thin form factors such as the Surface Book keyboard dock. With NVIDIA GeForce GPU powering this new hybrid, users will be able to speed up productivity apps such as Adobe Illustrator and Lightroom, and light PC gaming.” This suggests that it’s not a hugely powerful chip — maybe not even a GTX series chip — since Nvidia is talking more about productivity compute rather than 3D graphics compute. This would be a kick in the teeth for gamers, but the dGPU would still be genuinely useful for CAD work and professionals’ needs, architects and the like.

At Microsoft’s announcement, Devices boss Panos Panay said that “this [GPU] is for the gamer who plays League of Legends; this is for the architect who is building a building right now; this is for the scientist who is thinking about a cure for cancer”. Here’s where the plot thickens a little. League of Legends was exactly the title that Nvidia used to showcase its entry level desktop GeForce GTX 950 graphics card — an entry level discrete GPU, but with enough power to run LoL at 1920×1080 pixel resolutions and 60-plus frames per second.

Given that the GTX 950 is a desktop graphics card, but pushing a 1920×1080 pixel resolution (2.1-megapixel) in Nvidia’s benchmarks that is significantly less demanding than the Surface Book’s 3000×2000 pixel (6-megapixel) 13.5-inch panel, referencing LoL would suggest that it’s at least GTX 950-equalling in outright graphics power. Expecting constant 60fps performance at the Surface Book’s higher resolution is probably a little bit optimistic, but even then it’ll have to have a decent amount of grunt. The Nvidia GeForce GTX 950M cracks 67fps in NotebookCheck’s Dota 2 benchmark; the GTX 960M just tops 83fps. A semi-custom chip in between these two, or even as powerful as the GTX 965M is possible; I’m betting on something like an as-yet-unannounced GTX 955M.

Whatever it is, it’ll be a significant jump in power from the integrated Intel graphics of lesser models and of the tablet portion. The only big question remaining is whether it’ll be enough for anything more demanding than LoL and Photoshop. At the end of the day, all we know is that the Surface Book should be pretty well suited to MOBA games like League Of Legends, and it’ll do a better job of it than the Surface Pro 4 and probably any other thin and light notebook. We’ll have our hands on the new Surface Book very soon, so stay tuned.

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