Asus GeForce GTX 950 Strix Review

Today we get our first look at Nvidia's latest GPU in Asus' GeForce GTX 950 Strix.

Introduction

Nvidia's new GeForce GTX 950 offers more performance than a modern console at a price point befitting gamers on a budget. It's being positioned as an entry-level card with enough muscle to play the latest titles at 1080p on a 1080p display at a $160 price point. The GPU is a cut-down version of the GTX 960's GM206 operating at a base clock of 1024MHz and a typical GPU Boost frequency of 1188MHz. Nvidia says the chip is highly overclockable, so there should be much faster versions available. This implementation of GM206 features 768 CUDA cores rather than the 1024 found in GeForce GTX 960, and its texture units are down 16 to a total of 48. The memory paired with the GTX 950 is somewhat slower than the 960's 7 GT/s modules. Instead, you get 2GB at a data rate of 6.6 GT/s on a similar 128-bit bus.

Nvidia has been rolling out Maxwell based GPUs for more than a year and a half now, with entries at pretty much every price point except the lowest tier. For gamers pinching their pennies, GeForce GTX 650 satisfied the hunger for affordable speed at 1080p. But with the introduction of its GTX 950, Nvidia expects that owners of GTX 650 cards will be looking to upgrade. That Kepler-based board lacks many of the new card's features, such as DX12 feature level 12.1 and HDMI 2.0 support. And, for the first time, this price tier offers the option to use SLI. The GTX 950 is also being billed as an excellent first GPU for those just getting into gaming, or currently using an on-board solution.

Compared to a GeForce GTX 650, which Nvidia says is still the eighth most popular GPU today, the GTX 950 purportedly offers as much as three times the performance and twice the performance per watt. The GTX 950's power rating is 90W, and, like other Maxwell-based GPUs, is designed to draw as little power as possible when not in use. Nvidia makes it a point to mention certain partner boards will offer a semi-passive mode for quieter operation at idle.

Of course, the GeForce GTX 950 supports technologies like G-Sync and Nvidia’s VisualFX suite, which includes the GameWorks toolset (FaceWorks, HairWorks, WaveWorks, etc.) and HBAO+. These cards also support the proprietary PhysX, FleX and OptiX technologies. Additionally, the GTX 950 enables MFAA, Nvidia’s proprietary anti-aliasing technology claimed to deliver 4x MSAA quality with the equivalent performance hit of 2x MSAA. There's a new video engine in there as well that supports native HEVC/H.265 decoding and encoding at the hardware level. The result is 4K playback at a smooth 60 FPS.

During the development of the GTX 950, Nvidia says it put a lot of emphasis on optimizing for MOBA players. Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games are incredibly popular, and getting more so every day. There are an estimated 30 million people who play MOBA games like DOTA II and League of Legends every month, and these titles demand extremely fast response time. Frame rates aren’t as important, since these games aren’t tremendously demanding. But responsiveness is the difference between winning and losing. So, starting with the GTX 950, GeForce Experience has the ability to optimize for this new metric. The company made changes to the way it renders games specifically to improve input response time. Specifically for MOBA-style games, multi-frame buffering is disabled. Nvidia said it found that this helped reduce response time from 80ms (on average) on a GTX 650 to 45ms on a GTX 950. Currently, these MOBA-specific presets are only available for GTX 950 owners, but Nvidia plans to expand this feature to the rest of the GeForce line-up at a later date.

The GeForce GTX 950 we're looking at today comes from Asus, which overclocked the board and topped it with DirectCU II cooling. Let’s see if it lives up to Nvidia’s claims.

Product 360

Asus' Strix-series cards are instantly recognizable by their familiar shroud design, styled in such a way to make them resemble the face of an owl. The company sticks with that aesthetic for the GeForce GTX 950 Strix. In fact, its shroud design appears to be nearly identical to that of the GTX 960 Strix we reviewed earlier this year.

The GTX 950 Strix's PCB is actually a fair bit larger than its more powerful counterpart. This card measures 218mm long and is 100mm tall, though the heat pipes extend out the top by an additional 10mm. Being on the budget end of its line-up, Asus doesn't include a backplate. As a result, the card is 39mm wide, which is 2mm narrower than the 960 Strix we looked at previously. Despite those sizable dimensions, the Strix only weighs 482g.

Asus arms its take on the GTX 950 with a DirectCU II cooler. But unlike many of the similarly-equipped boards of the past, the company only uses two heat pipes this time around. At least they're both beefy 8mm plated copper pipes, which pass through an array of horizontal aluminum fins. There's no ignoring the 950's pedigree though; the heat sink is noticeably smaller than what you'd find on more expensive graphics cards. 

The DirectCU II thermal solution only comes in contact with the GPU. The VRMs and memory modules are cooled by air passing over them. There is plenty of open space around the components, so provided your case has good ventilation, you shouldn't have an issue. Air gets sucked in over the heat sink and blown back into the case by this design.

Asus uses two 80mm fans to cool the GTX 950 Strix. They're designed to remain stationary until the GPU reaches 60 degrees C, after which they start ramping up slowly to remain as quiet as possible.

The GTX 950 Strix is built using Asus’ Auto-Extreme technology. Though it's not the first card produced this way, Asus remains the only manufacturer using a fully automated assembly process. Asus claims that automation allows the company to eliminate gloves from the assembly line, which further limits dust exposure.

These cards also feature Super Alloy Power II components, which are built with a special alloy that has magnetic- and heat-resistant properties, as well as corrosion resistance.

Power delivery is handled by a single six-pin PCIe connector facing upwards. The plug is oriented so that the clip faces out, making it easier to remove the power cable when needed.

Along the top edge of the card, near its I/O bracket, you’ll find a single SLI interface. The GTX 950 is capable of two-card SLI, which is something we haven't seen from this GPU class before. In the past, SLI support was reserved for higher-end cards.

Asus chose a unique layout for its video outputs. Stacked in the center (rather than the bottom) of the bracket, you’ll find two DVI connectors. One of them is DVI-D; the other is a DVI-I. Flanking either side of the DVD-I connector is one DisplayPort output and one HDMI port.

You won’t find a lot of extras inside the box, but Asus does a nice job on the packaging. Too often, the entry-level products arrive in a foam reinforced bag and a basic carton. Asus instead went with a box that offers plenty of impact resistance in case it is dropped or bumped during shipping.

Inside you’ll find the card, an instruction manual and a driver disc. The optical media includes GPU Tweak II for overclocking and XSplit Gamecaster to record and share game play. Asus does not include a DVI-to-VGA adapter, which may be a problem for owners of older monitors.

How We Test

Test System Components

All of the tests run on this card were performed using our reference system. Each reviewer for Tom’s Hardware has the same setup, which consists of an Intel Core i7-5830K running at 4.2GHz, paired with 16GB of Crucial Ballistix Sport DDR4 and a pair of 500GB MX200 SSDs. The board we use is an MSI X99S Xpower AC, and the system is powered by a Platinum-rated 850W power supply from be quiet!. All of the components are installed into a Lian-Li PC-T80 test bench.










Comparison Products

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Software & Drivers

Nvidia is marketing the card as an upgrade for gamers running a GTX 650 or less. We’ve included a GTX 650 in this test to show how much of an improvement the GTX 950 would be. We’ve also included a GTX 750 Ti and a GTX 960. The 960 is obviously a higher-end board, but it shows what some extra money will buy. The 750 Ti is included as a baseline to show what the 950 offers beyond it. All of the Nvidia cards are tested with the same pre-release GeForce 366.65 driver.

The direct competition for the GTX 950, in terms of cost, is AMD’s R7 370, and the next step up is the R9 380. We have samples of both on-hand, so they were added to the comparison. AMD's boards are tested using Catalyst 15.7.1

Direct XDirectX 11
Graphics DriversXFX Radeon R7 370 2GB Black Edition: AMD Catalyst 15.7.1
Sapphire Radeon R9 380 ITX: AMD Catalyst 15.7.1
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 650: Nvidia 355.65 driver
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 750 Ti: Nvidia 355.65 driver
Asus GeForce GTX 950 Strix: Nvidia 355.65 driver
Zotac GeForce GTX 960 AMP!: Nvidia 355.65 driver

Benchmarks

Middle-earth: Shadow of MordorBuilt-in benchmark, 40-sec Fraps, Very High preset
Battlefield 4Custom THG Benchmark, 100-sec Fraps, Ultra preset
Metro Last LightBuilt-in benchmark, 145-sec Fraps, Very High preset, 16x AF, Normal motion blur
Tomb RaiderVersion 1.01.748.0, Custom THG Benchmark, 40-sec Fraps, Ultimate preset
Far Cry 4Version 1.9.0, Custom THG benchmark, 60-sec Fraps, Ultra preset
Grand Theft Auto VBuild 350, Online 1.26, In-game benchmark sequence #5, 110-sec Fraps, FXAA: On, MSAA: off, Texture Quality: High, Shader Quality: Very High, Shadow Quality: Normak, Reflection Quality: Normal, Water Quality: Normal, Particles Quality: Very High, Grass Quality: High, Soft Shadows: Softer, Post FX: High, Anisotropic Filtering: 16x Ambient Occlusion: High

Noise

My sound measurements were taken in the same manner as the GeForce GTX 960 reviews that I’ve written this year. The test isn’t as detailed or accurate as Igor's, but I also don't have the same kind of equipment. Instead, I use a hand-held dB meter. It's only capable of detecting sound as quiet as 35 dB. Anything lower than that and the meter reads 0 dB. In the graphs, if there is audible noise that is not registered, the graph will show 34 dB to represent that there is some sound, but an unknown level. Seeing 0 dB on the graph means the card made no discernible sound.

Power

To test power consumption using our reference platform, a bit of creative math is needed. Since Haswell-E processors don’t have integrated GPU cores, we can’t boot the system without a discrete board installed to get a baseline. We are able to estimate consumption based on the approximate power draw of the test bench, though. In our observations, we’ve found that the approximate power draw from everything other than the GPU is 120W. By deducting that from the recorded wattage reported on our in-line power meter, we can calculate the approximate draw of the GPU.

Gaming

Most of our benchmarks use the same settings as the high-end GPU reviews. However, GTA V and Shadow of Mordor had to be toned down. The rest of the tests are run with the same settings we've used in the past.

All of the games were run at two resolutions: 1920x1080 and 1366x768. If you are buying a graphics card on this kind of budget, you likely aren’t buying a new display. Many older monitors sport that lower resolution, so we thought it appropriate to include it. In fact, Valve’s most resent Steam survey showed that more than 26% of gamers are running at 1366x768.

Game Tests

Battlefield 4


The first test I ran was Battlefield 4 at 1080p. Before graphing the results, it wasn’t immediately apparent just how well Asus’ GeForce GTX 950 performed. At this resolution, the 950 easily outperforms its competition and even nips the heels of Nvidia’s higher-tier GPU.


In Battlefield 4, Asus’ GTX 950 Strix offers an amazing experience running on a lower-res display. At no point did the frame rate dip below 60, all while running the highest available detail settings. AMD’s R7 370 just can’t keep up, and even the higher-end R9 380 delivers similar performance.

Far Cry 4


Far Cry 4 was tested next. It's one of the more demanding titles available today, and it is also one of the easiest to notice dips in performance. At 1080p, the GTX 950 Strix manages good performance, and again trails the more expensive 960 closely. The game remains fairly smooth, maintaining frame rates above 40. The R9 380, which we tested twice to be sure, isn't nearly as enjoyable. It often dipped into the low 30s.

You’d probably want to lower the settings a little bit for smoother game play, but you can easily get away with leaving the graphics maxed out like this.


Dropping the resolution to 1366x768 has predictable results. With maxed-out graphics settings, the GTX 950 Strix is able to keep the frame rate above 60 at all times, generally landing in the 80 FPS range.

Grand Theft Auto V


For the Grand Theft Auto V tests, I decided to lower the graphics settings somewhat. Even though the in-game slider bar isn't particularly precise, it was clear that our settings were going to blow past the GTX 950's available 2GB.

The average frame rate ended up in the 90s. The GTX 750 Ti was left in the dust again, but AMD’s R7 370 proved to be more competitive in this game. A GeForce GTX 960 delivers a decent advantage over the 950 in Grand Theft Auto V, too.


If you are gaming at 1366x768, you’ll want to boost the settings higher than I had them. The game was running at easily double the average refresh rate of a monitor that size. Interestingly, the GTX 750 Ti offered similar performance at these settings.

Metro: Last Light


Asus’ GTX 950 Strix maintains an average frame rate around 60 FPS. It dips as low as 38, which is too low for many gamers, so dropping the settings slightly in Metro: Last Light would likely be a favorable decision. To be fair, owning a GeForce GTX 960 wouldn’t change the situation; you'd still need to relax the detail preset. An R7 370 offers a similar level of performance in this game.


For gamers running lower-resolution panels, an Asus GTX 950 Strix offers excellent performance. With graphics quality maxed out, Metro: Last Light never dipped below 60 FPS. Meanwhile, a GeForce GTX 650 has no hope of running the game smoothly, making a GTX 950 a major upgrade.

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor


Shadow of Mordor is the other game in our benchmark suite that required altered settings (Very High, rather than the Ultra preset). This yielded performance numbers more than twice what we saw from the Ultra option.

At Very High, the Asus GTX 950 again performs well. Before overclocking, the card outpaced AMD’s R7 370 by a slight margin. And after overclocking it, the average frame rate remained above 60 FPS.


Because of the way that Shadow of Mordor scales resolution, without a 1366x768 panel, it lets you set 70% of 1080p, which ends up being 1344x756. With even fewer pixels to push, the game remains in the 60 FPS range at even its lowest point.

Tomb Raider


Tomb Raider was tested with maxed-out settings, but it could have used a reduction in quality for this class of GPU. While the average is within acceptable frame rates, the minimum drops way too low. A GeForce GTX 950 still delivers similar performance to the GTX 960, and again displays a significant lead over AMD’s R7 370.


Maxed-out settings work well at the lower 1366x768 resolution, yet we still encounter drops to 40 FPS in some cases. A GTX 950 just isn’t enough to run this game at its most demanding quality levels without seeing unacceptable minimum performance results.

Overclocking

If you’ve read one of my graphics card reviews, my disclaimer will be familiar. Our results should not be used as anything but an example; every GPU is slightly different. And try not to make drastic changes to the GPU or memory clocks. Small increments are key.

The first thing I do when I overclock a GPU is max out its power limit. In the case of the GTX 950, this setting can be boosted to 111%, which also increases the temperature limit from 80 to 95 degrees. Before modifying anything else, a baseline test was run using 3DMark Fire Strike. The same test was run with the power limit red-lined to ensure the extra power didn’t introduce any issues.

I like to start with 10MHz increments on the core and move down to 5MHz if I manage to surpass a 100MHz overclock. With this card, I was a little bit braver and started with 25MHz changes. My justification came from Nvidia’s reviewer’s guide: in internal testing, it found that most samples will hit 1400MHz without any voltage adjustments or extreme cooling. Nvidia actively encouraged reviewers to push their samples to see what they can do.

Nvidia's statement gave me the courage to try more aggressive increments. In the end, that sped up the process considerably because the peak overclock ended up being 145MHz over the stock clock rate. Once I hit +125MHz, the increments were lowered to 5MHz. Using this method, the GPU proved to be stable up to 1300MHz, which increased up to 1500MHz via GPU Boost.

After finding the maximum stable GPU overclock, I moved on to adjusting the memory. Tuning in 10MHz increments ended up being a wise choice. This particular sample wasn’t happy with data rates beyond its stock setting. I wasn't particularly surprised since Asus already uses an aggressive clock rate. The most I could get out of it and still maintain stability was +60MHz or 1710MHz, which is effectively 6840 MT/s. Considering higher-end GPUs are paired with 7010 MT/s memory, the best-binned memory chips are likely reserved for those cards.

In almost all tests, the adjusted GPU and memory clock rates yielded decent gains over the stock configuration. Occasionally, the results land Nvidia's GeForce GTX 950 in line with the higher-end GTX 960.

Audio, Thermal And Power Testing

Noise

Asus equips its GTX 950 Strix with pair of 80mm fans, so this card was never going to be loud. We’ve tested these fans before and found them to be nearly silent, and the DirectCU II cooler has proven itself to be a robust and capable heat sink. With the ability to have the fans spin down under GPU temperatures of 60 degrees, Maxwell-based cards are often completely silent at idle.

Asus’ GeForce GTX 950 Strix is no exception. In fact, it ended up being one of the quietest graphics cards I’ve tested. Since my equipment doesn’t read below 35 dB(A), and I could make out some noise in a silent room, I listed it as 34 dB(A) under load. It may be slightly quieter than this in reality. The only other card that was too quiet for my equipment was the MSI GTX 960 I tested back in May.

At idle, the fans don't move. The temperature sits around 40 degrees in this semi-passive mode. 

Temperature

Having worked with several different iterations of the Maxwell architecture, as well as a number of different DirectCU coolers from Asus, I had a pretty good feeling I would see excellent cooling performance from this card. Even with just two heat pipes and a much smaller fin array, I expected Maxwell's efficiency to shine.

In testing, the card never exceeded 67 degrees, even after overclocking. As you can see from the graph, the temperature ramped up quite a bit quicker with the GPU overclocked, but it settled back down at just two to three degrees warmer than the stock speeds under load.

There are two interesting observations here. First, the Radeon R7 370, which draws quite a bit more power, actually runs cooler than Asus' GTX 950 Strix. AMD cards have a reputation for running hot, so this caught my eye. Of course, I'm sure the outcome has a lot to do with fan speed, which is made apparent in our noise test. The other stand-out was how cool the GeForce GTX 650 runs. It's nowhere near as powerful, but you can see that it doesn’t generate anywhere near the same levels of heat either.

Power Usage

Nvidia’s Maxwell architecture is renowned for its efficiency. The company has made some incredible progress in improving performance per watt. Pair that with the value nature of the GTX 950, and it was pretty safe to assume that this card's consumption would be fairly low.

That assumption proved correct. Surprisingly, Zotac’s GTX 960 AMP idles slightly under the GTX 950 Strix, though just over half of one watt is negligible. The load power test was again surprising, as the GTX 960 managed to draw 6W less in Battelfield 4. Comparing Asus’ GTX 950 Strix to the Gigabyte GTX 650 tells a much better story. The older/slower GPU's power requirements are significantly higher than the new GTX 950, drawing as much as 45W more under load.

AMD’s R7 370 matches the idle power draw of the GTX 950, but Nvidia’s GPU is quite a bit more efficient when we tax it.

Conclusion

When I started this review, I expected the GeForce GTX 950 to deliver performance closer to Nvidia's GeForce GTX 750 Ti. That board served up excellent frame rates at a good price back when it surfaced. And it was the first Maxwell-based GPU, so I didn't believe big efficiency gains were still possible.

Nvidia has a habit of launching new cards aimed at replacing hardware from two generations prior. They often have similar performance characteristics as the outgoing series with a slightly lower price tag. A great example of this is the GTX 960, which was billed as an upgrade for GeForce GTX 660 owners and enabled similar frame rates as the GTX 760 at a lower price point. So, to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of Asus’ GeForce GTX 950 Strix would be an understatement. In almost all cases, the GTX 950 Strix barely trailed our GeForce GTX 960. After overclocking, it closed the gap even more.

AMD’s competition at this price point, frankly, doesn't keep up. There were no occasions in our testing where the Radeon R7 370 finished ahead of the Asus GTX 950 Strix. Not only that, but Nvidia’s GPU draws less power, too.

Nvidia is aiming the GTX 950 at gamers playing on 1080p panels. The company is putting a lot of emphasis on making this a great card for MOBA games, and I would tend to agree that the GTX 950 is a satisfactory solution there. Games like DOTA II and League of Legends benefit from high frame rates, yet demand far less from the GPU than the titles in our test suite. If a game like GTA V can be shown to run at high frame rates, DOTA II will perform significantly better.

Nvidia also claims it's enabling significant response time gains. Unfortunately, without modifying a mouse, there’s no real way to track this. I wasn’t able to quantify the company's message. However, simply increasing the speed at which frames are rendered will improve response time, and there’s every reason to believe that dropping a buffering level would improve that further.

I’ve reviewed several GTX 960s in the past year, and I’ve said over and over that card is a good value. My opinion changes today. With the performance difference between the new GTX 950 and our GTX 960s, it’s impossible to recommend the latter over the former at this point. The only real benefit you get from a 960 would come from 4GB of on-board memory, which might help at even higher resolutions in SLI.

Asus’ GTX 950 Strix is an excellent entry-level card. If you have a panel with a resolution lower than 1080p, you’d be doing yourself a disservice by spending more money on something else. For 1080p, if you aren’t willing to step up to a GeForce GTX 970 or Radeon R9 390, this GPU is likely your best choice, and Asus’ Strix model offers excellent cooling and quiet operation to go with its strong performance.

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Kevin Carbotte is an Associate Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware, covering Graphics.

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