MSI’s GeForce GTX 960 Gaming 2G has the largest cooler and biggest fans of the GTX 960 cards we’ve tested so far, but does it perform any better?
Back in January, Nvidia launched the GTX 960. When it was first announced, many people criticized the small 128-bit memory bus, and 2GB of GDDR5, complaining that these specs won’t deliver the performance needed for today’s games. We’ve already tested three versions of GTX 960 and have proven it is a very capable GPU for FHD gaming, but each one offers a somewhat different set of features and benefits. Some are overclocked. Some have larger heatsinks than others. Some have a single 6-pin power connector, others have 8-pins. Some are tailored to be more silent than anything else. MSI has opted to combine all four of those benefits into a single option to try and stick out among the competition.
The MSI GeForce GTX 960 Gaming 2G is built on a custom PCB with a factory-overclocked GM206 GPU under MSI's latest thermal solution, the Twin Frozr V, to keep it cool and quiet. As of this writing, you can find the card on Newegg for $215.
MSI has been using its Twin Frozr coolers for a number of years now. Each generation, the company tries to improve the solution's performance, while lowering noise output. Currently on the fifth version, Twin Frozr V is said to be smaller and quieter, armed with stronger fans than the previous version.
A few key components make up the cooling solution. MSI installs 10.1cm Torx fans onto the Twin Frozr V. Using a combination of two different fan blades, the company claims to be able to move air more efficiently. Each blade alternates between standard fan blades designed to push air downwards and dispersion blades designed to maximize air flow.
The fans use the company’s Zero Frozr technology, which was introduced in 2008. Most Maxwell-based GPUs now have the same kind of capability. The fans can be stopped completely in idle and low-load situations to keep noise levels down. In addition, MSI adds the ability for its firmware to control the fans independently. In low-heat situations, it’s possible for only one fan to be spinning rather than both (or neither, for that matter).
The Twin Frozr V cooler is also built using airflow control technology, which MSI says helps push more air onto the four nickel-plated copper heat pipes that are in turn attached to a large nickel-plated copper base.
As a gaming card, this board is about more than just function. MSI adds an LED to light the company's dragon logo and name on the top edge. When the PC powers on, the light turns on and can then be controlled by the company’s Gaming app. The same software is also used to control the factory overclocks, of which there are three.
MSI’s GTX 960 may be optimized for cooling, but that seems to come at a price. This card is the largest of all GeForce GTX 960s we've tested. It weighs in at 763g and measures 280mm long, 140mm tall and 37mm wide. By comparison, Asus’ Strix 960 is only 215mm by 121mm.
The card is capable of driving four displays simultaneously through a combination of DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort interfaces. The outputs are arranged in the same pattern as Nvidia’s reference GeForce GTX 970 and 980.
Power is delivered through a single eight-pin connector on the top edge. The plug is oriented so that the lock is facing outwards from the card. Along the same edge, a single SLI interface is available for two-way configurations.
MSI does a good job with the packaging. The graphics card is surrounded in soft foam on all sides, and all of the extras are inside a box separated from the hardware. Inside, you’ll find a user’s guide, a small catalog of other MSI products, a driver disc that includes the software used to control the overclock and lighting effect, and a DVI-to-VGA adapter.
How We Tested
The evaluation today focuses on MSI’s GeForce GTX 960 Gaming 2G graphics card and its specific merits and shortcomings. Tests will be run on this card and a Zotac GTX 960 AMP! Edition with the same drivers and settings. Power draw and thermal numbers are compared against past GTX 960 reviews.
All of the tests we've run thus far on GM206 have employed Zotac's card clocked down to reference speeds. This time around, the MSI card is used for that test. One of the three presets from MSI specifies Nvidia's stock frequencies. Zotac’s offering is consequently benchmarked at its factory settings.
As always, thermal capabilities, power consumption and acoustic levels will be measured, and we’ll be teasing the maximum clock rates out of both the GPU and memory.
All tests were performed on the lab PC. Each one of our locations has a system with the exact same specifications to keep our tests normalized across the website. The current test rig has the following specs:
Test Bench Components
Software & Drivers
|Graphics Driver||All tests were performed using Nvidia 353.06 driver|
|Battlefield 4||Custom THG Benchmark, 100-sec Fraps, Ultra preset|
|Far Cry 4||Version 1.9.0, Custom THG benchmark, 60-sec Fraps, Ultra preset|
|Grand Theft Auto V||Build 350, Online 1.26, In-game benchmark sequence #5, 110-sec Fraps, FXAA: On, MSAA: Off, Texture Quality: Normal, Shader Quality: Very High, Shadow Quality: High, Reflection Quality: Very High, Water Quality: High, Particles Quality: Very High, Grass Quality: High, Soft Shadows: Softer, Post FX: Very High, Anisotropic Filtering: 16x|
The GeForce GTX 960 is often criticized for its 128-bit memory bus and 2GB frame buffer, which is seen as insufficient for gaming in 2015. This card was designed for 1920x1080 though, so we'll have to see if FHD's demands really tax GM206's back-end.
The EVGA card is currently at one of our other labs, but we were able to compare the Asus and Zotac cards to MSI’s offering. Unfortunately, due to a lack of time with this sample, only a small selection of our benchmark suite could be run.
In Battlefield 4, the Ultra preset was no problem for each of these cards, showing that Nvidia's GM206 is perfectly capable of running this popular game at 1080p. The custom overclock we specified showed no appreciable improvement over the card's default clock rates.
Grand Theft Auto V is one of the hottest games out right now. While its settings are nowhere near topped-out in this benchmark, quality is still very good and the frame rate is perfectly smooth across our field. The 960 is certainly capable of playing this game at 1920x1080.
Also, overclocking has a noticeable effect on performance, adding an average of eight FPS.
MSI’s card is the fourth GTX 960 we’ve tested, and therefore we’re including data from the previous tests.
The Twin Frozer V heat sink does its job well. Asus’ Strix 960 keeps the GPU cooler by a few degrees. However, today's test was also run during a warmer time of the year, when ambient temperatures were a few degrees higher.
To test the sound levels coming from each graphics card, all other devices in the area are turned off to avoid outside noise contamination. After running a 10-minute benchmark in Battlefield 4, a decibel meter is placed two inches from the rear of the exhaust outlet.
The meter used for this test is not as accurate as the tools used in some of our labs; this one starts reading at 35 decibels. This hasn't been an issue in the past, though this time around we're flirting with the instrument's floor.
In the graph, MSI’s card is listed at 34 decibels. This is done to represent just how quiet the Twin Frozr V solution really is. The meter wouldn't register a reading two inches from the rear panel, even when the fans started up.
To test this further, the meter was placed one inch from the fans on the inside. Only then did we measure 36.5 dB. The fans are almost imperceptible. The Zotac 960 AMP! was tested in the same way and registered 39.5 dB next to the fan.
MSI may have targeted audio levels, but the power draw numbers aren’t as competitive. At idle we measured 8.5W, which is the highest of our tested 960s. Load was even higher compared to the rest; 112W is 8W more than the closest competitor.
Torture test power draw was somewhat different, landing at 143W. That’s on par with the Asus Strix card, which only has a six-pin power connector. With an eight-pin connector, EVGA managed 155W, which could be helpful when overclocking.
Overclocking results will always vary, and the speeds we attain with our samples won’t necessarily coincide with your own tests. With that said, we still want to explore the headroom of our samples.
For most of these evaluations, there’s a specific software suite that goes along with the card in question. Asus has GPU Tweak, Zotac has FireStorm and EVGA has PrecisionX. All of these applications are actually derivatives of MSI’s own software, Afterburner. We used this application to do our custom overclocking. However, MSI also created software that goes along with its Gaming line of products. The Gaming app has a button to set the fans to 100% temporarily, and it has a calibration menu to change the card's color options. It also allows for single-click overclocking using factory presets.
Silent Mode sets the GPU clock down to Nvidia’s reference speed of 1127MHz with a GPU Boost clock of 1178MHz. Gaming Mode is the default setting; its GPU clock setting is 1190MHz, while GPU Boost is increased to 1253MHz. OC Mode is the most aggressive preset, pushing the GPU to 1216MHz and Boost to 1279MHz. Each settings runs stably, with comparable acoustics.
After testing the factory overclock settings, MSI Afterburner was used to further optimize the frequencies. The software works exactly the same as when MSI's competitors rebadge it. There are slider bars for core voltage, power limit, temperature limit, the core clock rate, memory frequency and fan speed. Profiles can also be saved to five configurable slots, allowing for unique settings on a per-application basis.
Before doing any overclocking, the power target was set to maximum, which is 108% on this card. The temp limit remained linked and set itself to 95 degrees.
Using 10MHz increments, we underwent the painstaking process of finding the top stable clock of 150MHz. Initially I thought +160MHz would work. However, during the temperature testing in Battlefield 4, significant texture glitches were observed after five or six minutes of game play. Backing down to +150MHz solved this.
Interestingly, the Gaming Mode's setting is 50MHz slower than the clock rate when MSI's Gaming app is not running. It actually displayed -50MHz on the core clock slider in Afterburner when the Gaming app is running in the background. The fan control is also overridden by the app, leaving Afterburner’s fan control completely useless.
After finding the top stable core clock, memory was put to the test. Since memory clocks tend to run much higher than GPU cores, 30MHz increments were used. Eventually, +500MHz was found to be the best our card could muster without issues during extending gaming.
The overclocking performance graph omits the results from EVGA’s card because it was not on-hand to re-test. Results with the new driver and a new version of 3DMark are so dramatically different that the previous numbers aren't comparable. Upon re-testing the Zotac card, this theory was confirmed as the result was over 300 points higher than the previous configuration.
MSI’s GeForce GTX 960 Gaming 2G is the fourth card I’ve tested with Nvidia's GM206 GPU. Going into today's review, I already had a solid idea of what to expect. Each card performs somewhat differently, demonstrating strengths and weaknesses. But I knew I'd see good cooling performance. The heat sink on MSI’s interpretation is quite a bit larger than the previous GTX 960s I tested, and the temperatures of the competing cards aren't what I would consider high.
What I did not expect was such quiet fans. Without the use of any kind of instrument, I can tell you with certainty that, short of a passively-cooled card, I’ve never encountered a quieter thermal solution. Even at full speed, the fans are barely audible in a silent room. Additionally, the reported GPU temperature rarely exceeded the 65-degree threshold necessary to start them in the first place.
Overclocking performance on this sample was respectable, comparing well to the other cards we’ve tested. Clock speeds aren’t the fastest we’ve seen on a 960, but hardly anything to complain about.
There are only two issues that come to mind that may leave some customers displeased. For some reason, power draw was a fair bit higher than the previous three GTX 960s we tested. The impact isn't dramatic, but it's still enough to raise eyebrows. Second, there's the price tag. Of the four cards we've tested, MSI’s variant is $10 higher than the competition. This is not a difference that would break the bank, but when everything else is cheaper, it's hard to justify the costlier option.
Kevin Carbotte is an Associate Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware, covering Graphics.