It's been almost a year since the GeForce GTX 750 and 750 Ti GPUs launched, bringing the low-power Maxwell architecture to desktops for the first time. Maxwell improved upon its predecessors not only by raising the bar for performance, but also drastically cutting power consumption. It was unusual for Nvidia to debut a new architecture in an entry-level card, and as it turned out, we had to wait a very long time for Maxwell to show up at the high-end. When it did, we were treated to the powerhouse GTX 980 and GTX 970 – Nvidia even claims it skipped a digit in its numbering scheme because this generation of cards is just so good.
That left quite a gap in the middle, and as everyone knows, the number of people who actually buy top-end graphics cards is pretty low. You don't really need that much horsepower to run today's games on a single 1080p monitor and have a good time. That's why we've been waiting for the inevitable launch of the GTX 960 for ages. As Nvidia points out, its x60 parts have long been the sweet spot for most gamers and enthusiasts.
In India, where taxes and import duties add 30 percent or more to the US dollar price of a graphics card, the value segment is all the more important. Sure, you might not be able to push every slider all the way to the right, but as long as modern games are playable and enjoyable, buyers will be satisfied. Nvidia's current offering, the GTX 760, is currently looking a bit weak compared to AMD's Radeon R9-280 and R9-285. The two might not have been meant to compete with each other initially, but price adjustments have led to some interesting market dynamics.
Cards based on the GTX 960 will need to be priced reasonably, and offer performance that isn't too much less than that of the very capable GTX 970. Let's see if Nvidia has pulled it off, and if board partners such as Asus, Zotac, Gigabyte and others will be able to bring compelling products to the market.
The GeForce GTX 960 GPU
The GTX 960 is not a cut-down version of the GTX 980 and 970, which share a basic block design codenamed GM204. The GTX 960 is based on a different design, known internally as GM206. This is pretty significant because Nvidia has made very clear distinctions which place the GTX 960 firmly in a lesser class.
GTX 960 cards, at least those launching on day one, will come with 2GB of GDDR5 RAM on a 128-bit memory bus. Halving the bus width results in a 50 percent reduction in memory bandwidth. That seems disappointing, with new games coming out every few months that push bigger and more demanding textures. This is the sort of thing that might be okay now, but could prove to be a bottleneck a year or two down the line. Nvidia promises new compression and caching that should compensate for these relative limitations, but we wouldn't be surprised at all to see 4GB GTX 960 cards coming out in the not-so-distant future.
GM206 has half the number of CUDA cores that GM204 has. The 1024 cores are organised in blocks of 32, each with its own power and scheduling resources. These blocks are further organised in clusters of four, each of which has a small pool of cache memory. This design results in improved efficiency compared to the previous-generation Kepler architecture, which means that both power consumption and heat generation are reduced despite staying on the aged 28nm fabrication process.
Nvidia also has a few other advancements to boast of. Maxwell-generation cards will support DirectX 12, the more efficient multi-frame sampled antialiasing mode, and what Nvidia calls "Dynamic Super Resolution". This involves rendering games at a resolution greater than that of the connected monitor and then downsampling them to the monitor's native resolution, for example forcing 4K frames onto a 1080p screen, which makes visuals appear sharper. GTX 960 cards will be able to accelerate H.265 HEVC video encoding and decoding, which even the GTX 980 cannot fully do.
Nvidia's GTX 960 GPU has a stock speed of 1126MHz which can go up to 1178MHz. The GDDR5 RAM runs at 7010MHz. However, manufacturing partners are free to set their own base and boost speed thresholds, and Nvidia proudly proclaims that the GTX 960 is very highly overclockable. The TDP is a pleasantly low 120W which means you should be able to run this card even with a 400W power supply. Nvidia says power consumption could be as little as 30W when playing less demanding games. Double-slot coolers are still required though we might see some innovative low-profile designs down the road.
Nvidia has not sent out its own reference cards this time around, probably because of the emphasis on overclocking. Instead, our first tastes of the GTX960 come in the form of the Asus Strix GTX960 DC2OC and the Zotac GeForce GTX960 Amp! Edition. Both cards come with clock speeds set well above the reference spec, so the performance numbers that follow should not be considered indicative of all GTX 960 cards.
Asus Strix GTX960 DC2OC
This is a pretty elegant card, which carries forward the designs of Asus' previous models based on the well-proven DC2 cooler. Examining it up close, it's clear that the card's PCB is a lot shorter than the cooler and its plastic shroud, which means those with SFF PC cabinets should check its exact measurements before assuming it will fit.
The custom cooler is understated, which suits the GTX960's mid-range positioning. The shroud is almost entirely black with only a few red highlights. The sides are open to improve airflow, so you can see the silver heatsink fins. Asus has also decided to use a solid backplate to help support the cooler's weight, though this doesn't seem to have been necessary.
The two fans are supposed to be whisper quiet – Asus claims 0db noise levels, which refers to the fact that the fans spin down completely when the load isn't too heavy. Sure enough, we noticed that the fans stayed off when games weren't running. Even when booting our test bench, the initial burst before the fan controller takes over was nowhere near the jet-engine blast that most graphics cards produce.
Nvidia's official spec calls for a single 6-pin PCIe power connector, but says board partners are free to bump this up for the purpose of overclocking. Asus hasn't taken it up on this offer, which means it's confident enough that more power won't be needed. One nice touch is an LED that lets you know if you forget to plug in the PCIe power or if it's loose. There's also a single SLI connector for those who want to use two GTX960s in tandem.
Asus has gone with 1253MHz as the base clock and a 1317MHz boost speed. The card also sticks to the official port layout, with a single DVI, one HDMI, and three DisplayPort outputs. For those who really want to go old-school, a DVI-to-VGA adapter is bundled in the box. Asus also includes a CD with its drivers and overclocking utility, but in most cases you'll be better off downloading the most recent versions from Asus and Nvidia's websites.
Zotac GTX960 Amp! Edition
Similar to Asus' offering, Zotac's sample has a dual-fan cooler, though this one is completely shrouded in black plastic and doesn't look as slick. The card seems closer to Nvidia's reference design in terms of appearance, with a triangle-patterned grille on the rear. The port cluster layout is the same as the Strix's, though Zotac doesn't provide a VGA adapter. Instead, there's a Molex-to-PCIe power adapter, which is more likely to prove useful.
This card also has a single 6-pin PCIe power connector and subtle graphics. The backplate wraps around the card's exposed edges, and so you can barely see the heatsink fins. This gives it a stealthy, all-black appearance which is more subtle, but doesn't look particularly interesting. The SLI connector is in its standard spot and there isn't much else to note about the card's appearance.
Zotac settled on 1266MHz and 1329MHz base and boost clock speeds for a very marginally higher pixel fill rate of 40.5GPixels/s compared to 40.1GPixels/s with Asus' model. Other core specs of course remain common between the two.
The fans are quiet, but not as quiet as the ones in Asus' cooler. While Zotac doesn't explicitly claim total silence, these fans also spin down to zero when the card is idle. On the other hand, the company does boast about other things inherent to all GeForce GTX 960 cards, such as ShadowPlay game streaming, remote playback on a Shield tablet or console, and the aforementioned MFAA and DSR features.
The two cards we tested had their own default clock speeds but it should come as no surprise that benchmark scores showed a negligible difference between the two. Most of the standardised benchmark tests we used gave us results that made it seem like the two cards were identical. Even when we played through games, results were amazingly similar despite the fact that there should always be variances.
We tested both cards on a rig built around an Intel Core i7-4770K CPU, an Asus Z87-Pro motherboard, 16GB of Adata DDR3-1600 RAM, a Cooler Master Nepton 280L cooler, Adata SX910 SSD, Cooler Master V1000 power supply, and Dell U2711 monitor. Nvidia provided the Asus card in lieu of a stock reference unit, and Zotac sent us theirs directly. We tested with the brand new 347.25 driver.
3DMark's Fire Strike test is designed to stress modern GPUs. The Asus and Zotac cards returned scores of 6841 and 6729 respectively. For the sake of comparison, our reference GTX 980 scored 10,690. GFXBench's scores were even closer: 59.81fps vs 59.82fps respectively in the T-Rex onscreen test at 1440p, and 263.55fps and 262.7fps in the Manhattan offscreen test at 1080p. Unigine Valley averaged 36.1fps and 35.4fps respectively as well.
Tomb Raider (2013)'s built-in benchmark told the same story: identical scores of 38.8fps for both cards, running at 2560×1440 at Ultra quality settings with 16xAF. We assumed our manual game tests, in which the computer isn't generating identical scenarios with each session, would illustrate some differences between the cards, but to our great surprise this turned out not to be the case.
We ran Battlefield 4 first at 2560×1440 with the settings at Ultra. Average scores were 36fps and 40fps for the Asus and Zotac cards respectively. Frame times told the real story, with significant gaps between the overall average frame time and the 99th percentile. While it still quite playable at these settings, things were noticeably smoother when we stepped down to 1920×1080 and the settings at High. Our averages jumped to 93fps and 100fps respectively and the frame time graph smoothened out indicating fewer variances.
Crysis 3 proved to be more of a challenge and was simply unplayable at 2560×1440 with 8xMSAA and all settings at Very High. Average frame rates were 14fps and 15fps for the Asus and Zotac cards respectively, with atrocious frame times. Reducing the resolution to 1920×1080, settings to High and the MSAA to 4X improved scores dramatically, and we then recorded 45fps and 44fps respectively. There were still laggy patches but things were a whole lot smoother. Reducing settings further will ensure smooth gameplay, but this game really tested the limits of the GTX 960 GPU.
Throughout our time testing both cards, we were very happy with the low noise levels and heat output. It seems that GTX 960 cards such as the two we tested would be very well suited to mini-ITX or other small-form-factor enclosures.
As per Nvidia's official recommendation, stock GeForce GTX 960 cards should cost Rs. 16,490. At that price level, there's a lot to like about the GTX 960 GPU, and it fits in quite nicely beneath the GTX 970. However, prices announced by partners are slightly higher than this. Zotac's standard model, with a custom cooler but stock clocks, will sell for Rs. 17,499 while the Amp! Edition we reviewed comes in at Rs. 18,499. Asus is launching with only one model, the Strix GTX 960, which it has priced at Rs. 19,500.
That's right in Radeon R9-280 and R9-285 territory, and AMD will probably cut prices in response since it won't have anything new to launch for a while. The GTX 960 definitely has an edge in terms of power consumption and noise levels, and plus there's the appeal of overclocking for those who are interested.
If you are playing games at 1080p using any graphics card more than two years old, you'll feel a massive difference by stepping up to any modern card. Any GTX 960 card would work well now, but the overriding concern is whether it will stand up to games that release over the next few years. As we found out, the low memory capacity and narrow bus are not dealbreakers for current-day games, but future titles will of course be more demanding. If you have plans of stepping up to 1440p or insist on pushing all settings up to the max, a higher-end GPU such as the GTX 970 would give you better value over its lifetime. A 4GB GTX 960 would change this equation, and it isn't impossible to imagine a GTX 960 Ti or some such variation popping up in the future.
Given the price difference between the Asus and Zotac cards we tested, and the fact that performance figures are pretty much identical, the Zotac GeForce GTX 960 Amp! Edition would seem like the better bargain. However, the Asus Strix GTX 960 DC2OC has quieter fans, promises high-quality components that will stand up to high overclocks, and arguably looks a little better. Both are good products and either will suffice if the other isn't available for any reason.
Asus Strix GTX960-DC2-OC: Rs. 19,500
Zotac GTX960 Amp! Edition: Rs. 18,499
- Reasonable price-to-performance ratio
- Low noise and power consumption
- Will work in small-form-factor PCs
- 2GB memory and low bus width could cause bottlenecks
Ratings (Out of 5)
- Performance: 4
- Value for Money: 4
- Overall: 4
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