The NVIDIA GTX 960 Performance Review

Author: SKYMTL
Date: January 22, 2015
Product Name: GTX 960
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Within the graphics card market the $199 to $250 price point has historically been a space where manufacturers have offered a near-perfect blend of price and performance for gamers who can’t justify spending $400 and more for an upgrade. This also happens to be where AMD and NVIDIA move a ton of volume so getting the formula right is a key component towards success or failure of a given generation. With the new $199 GTX 960, NVIDIA is hoping they have a card which appeals to the millions of buyers still sporting cards like the GTX 460, GTX 560 and GTX 660.

With the GM206-based GTX 960 intending to replace some of the most popular cards NVIDIA has ever produced, there are some huge expectations riding on it. However, it finds itself within a hotly contested segment that’s full of excellent alternatives. On AMD’s side there’s the newer $210 R9 285 which incorporates their Tonga architecture and a full stable of high end features like TrueAudio and Freesync from the higher end R9 290-series.

Meanwhile, we can’t discount the R9 280X from this equation either. It may be a rebranded HD 7970GHz Edition which means there’s a lack of TrueAudio and Freesync support but with a price that starts around the $220 mark and 3GB of memory, it could be a perfect solution for those looking for raw performance rather than a wide feature set and lower power consumption.

The GM206 core represents the Maxwell architecture in miniaturized form since it only has a pair of GPC modules compared to the quad GPC layout from the GM204 used on NVIDIA’s GTX 970 and GTX 980. However, the primary building blocks from the current flagship parts have been carried over en masse so within each GPC there is a quartet of Streaming Multiprocessors. Every one of these SMMs contains 128 CUDA cores alongside eight texture units.

Tertiary functions also receive a pretty drastic cut-down with only a pair of 64-bit memory controllers alongside two banks of 16 ROPs and 1024K of L2 cache. This, alongside the obvious transistor space needed for native DX12 support adds up to a die size of 227mm˛ and 2.94 billion transistors.

With 1024 CUDA cores, 32ROPS, 64TMUs and a 128-bit memory interface granting a narrow 112.16 GB/s of memory bandwidth, the GTX 960 certainly doesn’t look like an impressive card on paper. As a matter of fact, other than memory and core frequencies, its specifications are significantly eclipsed by its predecessor, the GTX 760.

Luckily there’s more to this card that what first meets the eye since it has been designed to do more with less. While it may be down in core count, Maxwell’s architecture has a number of efficiencies built into its processing pipelines which allows for much higher performance across the board. The memory interface has also received a significant upgrade in the form of enhanced compression algorithms which allows it to overcome some of the apparent bandwidth limitations. Accordingly to NVIDIA, this technology allows the 7Gbps, 128-bit interface to be effectively used at over 9Gbps granting an effective bandwidth of about 149 GB/s. This is still much less than what the GTX 760 offers but it should still allow the GTX 960 to overcome some of its memory handicap.

One of the real stars of this show is the GTX 960’s TDP which is pegged at just 120W, or 50W less than the GTX 760. This should make it very appealing for small form factor cases and could eventually lead to compact single slot cooling solutions as well. Core cutting only goes so far though since 25W is all that separates the GTX 960 from the GTX 970, a card that offers significantly more performance.

The ASUS STRIX OC card we will be looking at in this review is an interesting addition to the GTX 960 lineup since it offers much higher clock speeds for just $15 more than the reference design. In the standard Gaming Mode there’s a frequency uplift over 100MHz for the Base and Boost while OC Mode (accessed through ASUS’ GPU Tweak utility) pushes things a bit further. In this review, we’ll be using the OC Mode for comparison purposes.

One of the completely justifiable concerns here is that the GTX 960 may just not have the performance mustard to become a worthy replacement for NVIDIA’s GTX 760. This is likely one of the reasons NVIDIA is launch it into the $199 price point rather than at the $250 segment initially targeted by their 760. There’s also fairly yawning price and performance canyon between the GTX 970 and GTX 960, so there’s room for another SKU to bridge the gap if NVIDIA were inclined to go that route.

With NVIDIA firmly targeting the GTX 960 towards the 1080P crowd, its aspirations are fairly mundane but there are some extremely tempting options from AMD in this same bracket. The real question is whether or not this new card will really offer enough for gamers who waited out the GTX 760 in the hope Maxwell would offer them something more in the performance department.

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