Nvidia GeForce GTX 960: Maxwell In The Middle

Once Nvidia introduced the GeForce GTX 970 for $330, it stuck the GeForce GTX 760 and 770 in no man’s land. The latter is far too expensive compared to this new card, while the former looks even worse up against the superior Radeon R9 285. Nvidia really needs some of that Maxwell magic between the $150 GeForce GTX 750 Ti and its $330 GeForce GTX 970. And that’s exactly what it's doing today with the launch of GeForce GTX 960.

It feels like we’ve been waiting a long time for the GeForce GTX 760 replacement. Eleven months have passed since since Nvidia introduced its efficient Maxwell architecture alongside the mid-range GeForce GTX 750 series, and it replaced the high-end GeForce GTX 780 and 780 Ti with GeForce GTX 970 and 980 four months ago.

In the interim, GeForce GTX 760 struggled against the firepower of AMD's Radeon R9 280 and 285. Can Nvidia’s value-conscious fans breathe easier with the arrival of an all-new GM206 GPU?

Rumors circulated that the GeForce GTX 960 would use a cut-down version of GM204, already familiar from the GeForce GTX 970 and 980. This isn't the case, though. GM206 is a distinct piece of silicon, significantly smaller than GM204.

The GeForce GTX 960’s specifications add up to half of what a GeForce GTX 980 gives you: two Graphics Processing Clusters, eight Streaming Multiprocessors, 1024 CUDA cores, 256 load/store units, a 128-bit memory interface, 64 texture units, 32 ROPs, eight PolyMorph Engines, two render back-ends, two 64-bit memory controllers, and 1MB of L2 cache shared across the GPU.

Despite its smaller size, GM206 boasts the exact same improvements inherent to GM204. Each SMM has a 96KB chunk of shared address space for compute tasks, the L1/texture cache size is 24KB per two CUDA core processing blocks (48KB per SMM), and so on.

The GeForce GTX 960 runs at an 1126MHz base clock (similar to the GTX 980, by the way) with an 1178MHz-rated GPU Boost frequency (that’s 38MHz below the 980’s ceiling). It wields 2GB of GDDR5 memory set to 1750 MHz, yielding a 7GT/s data rate. But how does the GeForce GTX 960 compare to the GeForce GTX 760 it replaces and the Radeon R9 285 it's poised to compete against?


GeForce GTX 760
GeForce GTX 960
Radeon R9 285
Shader Cores
1152
1024
1792
Texture Units
96
64112
ROPs
32
32
32
Fabrication process
28nm28nm
28nm
Core Clock
980/1033MHz1126/1178MHz
Up to 918MHz
Memory Clock
1502MHz GDDR5
1752MHz GDDR5
1375MHz GDDR5
Memory Bus
256-bit
128-bit
256-bit
Memory Bandwidth
192.2GB/s
112.2GB/s
176GB/s
Idle/Max Thermal
Design Power
170W
120W
190W
Power Connectors:
2 x 6-pin1 x 6-pin
2 x 6-pin
Typical Price
$220 to $275
(Newegg)
$200
(MSRP)
$210 to $260
(Newegg)

The elephant in the room is GeForce GTX 960’s 128-bit memory interface and 112.2GB/s of peak memory bandwidth. Both the GeForce GTX 760 getting replaced and Radeon R9 285 it’s destined to fight feature 256-bit memory interfaces enabling 192.2 and 176GB of theoretical bandwidth, respectively. Nvidia claims that the GeForce GTX 960’s third-generation color compression engine is efficient enough to make it competitive, despite less available bandwidth. And, based on what we’ve seen from the GeForce GTX 970 and 980, it probably is. There may be high-resolution settings where limited throughout could be a limiting factor though, and we’ll look for those in the benchmarks.

Something else to consider: the 960’s less complex memory interface might give Nvidia more flexibility to lower prices in the future. This probably has a lot to do with today's estimated $200 price tag. For reference, the GeForce GTX 760 debuted at $250.

Now check out that TDP. Maxwell established itself as the most efficient desktop graphics architecture, and GeForce GTX 960 continues the trend. Its 120W ceiling is 50W lower than the GeForce GTX 760 it replaced and 70W below the Radeon R9 285. A single 6-pin PCIe power cable is all this card requires. Nvidia recommends a modest 450W power supply.

GeForce GTX 960 has fewer CUDA cores and texture units compared to the GeForce GTX 760, but that's partially offset by a higher core clock rate. By now, we’re well aware that the Maxwell architecture does more with less, so we expect the GeForce GTX 960 to keep up with its predecessor and compete aggressively with the Radeon.

H.265 (HEVC) Video Decoding Engine

One advantage the GM206 GPU holds over GM204 is its new video engine. While the GeForce GTX 970 and 980 support H.265 (HEVC) video encoding, only the GeForce GTX 960 decodes this forward-looking format. The GeForce GTX 960 promises to be an excellent choice for home theater PCs with the ability to play back 4K video at low power, and natively supporting HDCP 2.2 content over HDMI 2.0. 

Otherwise, the GeForce GTX 960 ticks the same check-boxes as GeForce GTX 970 and 980, including DirectX 12 compatibility, VR Direct support, Voxel Global Illumination (VXGI), Multi-Frame Sampled Anti-Aliasing (MFAA) and Dynamic Super Resolution (DSR). For a refresher on those features, check out Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 And 980 Review: Maximum Maxwell.

Nvidia’s latest drivers add DSR support for not only Maxwell-based cards, but older Fermi and Kepler-based GeForce boards as well. While it isn’t especially useful in more demanding titles, DSR is an interesting option for folks who enjoy games with high frame rates. MOBAs like League of Legends and DOTA 2 fit this category, and DSR offers a way to increase graphical fidelity on a 1080p monitor.

We’re also keen to try out MFAA on the GeForce GTX 960. This feature wasn’t ready when the GeForce GTX 970 and 980 launched, but arrived last November in the 344.75 build. It's just the kind of technology that might help compensate for low memory bandwidth, so it’s right up the GTX 960’s alley.

Nvidia didn't supply reference cards to reviewers this time around, choosing to rely on board partners to provide hardware. We’ll look at the different flavors of GeForce GTX 960s being introduced at launch.

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226 comments
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    Top Comments
  • ykki
    The damn arrows are STILL blocking the charts!
    75
  • damric
    The R9 280 is the fast and cheap elephant in the room that was never mentioned in this review,
    36
  • Novuake
    Anonymous said:
    The damn arrows are STILL blocking the charts!


    I am not the only one! Thank you!
    17
  • Other Comments
  • Novuake
    This seems meh... Impressive but not phenomenal power consumption to performance numbers. Especially compared the GTX970/980.

    Would have liked to see two more things.

    1. More extensive AA. post processing and memory bandwidth testing. Pretty sure Nvidia hamstrung the card a bit in some scenarios with a 1280bit interface. I had to read it 4 times before I believed it and still am skeptical.

    2. Overclocking benchies.


    So otherwise I guess we are back to the "old" ti-designation setup where the GTX960ti SHOULD be based on GM206 and vanilla GTX960 is not.
    7
  • sconzen
    I may be blind, but I don't see the Zotax Amp! edition in the temperature and noise tests. Confirm?
    3
  • damric
    The R9 280 is the fast and cheap elephant in the room that was never mentioned in this review,
    36
  • Grognak
    Well, I'm not saying a 10% improvement on top of a reduced power consumption isn't nice, because it really is, however we're still quite far away from the 770. I suppose Nvidia has a card planned to fill the massive performance gap between the 960 and 970, one at 4Gb of VRAM maybe?
    6
  • ykki
    The damn arrows are STILL blocking the charts!
    75
  • sconzen
    I may be blind, but I don't see the Zotax Amp! edition in the temperature and noise tests. Confirm?
    -1
  • ykki
    Great review.
    Now AMD, time to bust out the 270x!
    4
  • ykki
    Lol I meant the 370x!
    5
  • Novuake
    Anonymous said:
    The damn arrows are STILL blocking the charts!


    I am not the only one! Thank you!
    17
  • ykki
    Novoake, I am very sorry but I stole your comment from an earlier review.
    But seriously, those arrows can block out the sun if tom's put 'em right.
    8
  • ImDaBaron
    The Gainward version of this card has to be the ugliest video card I've ever seen
    2
  • maestro0428
    Yes, the arrows on the charts bug me too. I am a bit let down by the performance here. Sure, the efficiency is great, but bandwidth is just to low to play above 1080p. I was hoping to put two of these in SLI, but I am afraid it won't do my Surround set up justice. Looks like I may be going with a single 980 or eventually two 970s. Bummer.
    8
  • Novuake
    Anonymous said:
    Novoake, I am very sorry but I stole your comment from an earlier review.
    But seriously, those arrows can block out the sun if tom's put 'em right.


    I do not recall posting such a comment? But I may have been frustrated that day. Hehe I am quite outspoken.
    2
  • silverblue
    Not bad at all. R9 285 or better performance for 2/3 the power (or better), and for a little cheaper as well - a great 1080p card.
    4
  • xXComputer_Nerd1625Xx
    Honestly I'm a little let down by the specs. I know specs aren't everything, but I really would've liked to see a beefier GPU compared to the last-gen 760 (which on paper looks better) and that also surpassed the last-gen 770, which this card can hardly do. I've got to admit though, at $200 it still is a great card, and maybe I'm asking for too much.
    7
  • gudomlig
    power charts seem questionable to me. 10 minutes running furmark drew an average of 280 watts with my sapphire 7950 boost and draws about 330 watts with my MSI gaming gtx 970. the power consumption torture charts show GTX 970 running at less watts than a 7950...I call BS. Even the older reviews here on Tom's show GTX 970 draws more power than 7950 boost so not sure where they pulled these numbers and makes me question the integrity of the entire article
    5
  • Agera One
    Why don't you always put the Anti-aliasing GIF on a screen with no moving objects? That would be more accurate to see what changes !!
    4
  • cmi86
    I appreciate what this card was able to do in regards to the lower TDP and slightly higher performance than the 760. That said I don't think this card did enough to win my vote. I am currently shopping for a new GPU and was really looking forward to this release thinking it would be a huge game changer like the 760 but it just wasn't. Now I'll be waiting for the 3XX release before making a decision.
    6
  • mapesdhs
    Where are the EVGA ACX 2.0 960 results?

    Ian.
    3
  • elbert
    It requires an overclock to match the 280/285 in 1080p and totally gets crushed in 4k. While costing more than 280. Most of the gtx960 8 pin overclocking versions are more than the 285. The power saving may offset one disadvantage but costing more while under performing lol.

    I was planing on buy two but this so bad ill wait and check out GTX960ti 1280sp.
    12