MSI GeForce GTX 960 Gaming 2G Review

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?

Introduction

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.

Product 360

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

DirectXDirectX 11
Graphics DriverAll tests were performed using Nvidia 353.06 driver

Benchmark Suite

Battlefield 4Custom THG Benchmark, 100-sec Fraps, Ultra 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: 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

Comparison Units

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Gaming

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.

Load Temperature

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.

Acoustics

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.

Power Usage

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 Performance

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.

Conclusion

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.

MORE: Best Graphics Cards For The Money
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MORE: How Well Do Workstation Graphics Cards Play Games?

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

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    Top Comments
  • crisan_tiberiu
    I am a bit confused in the decision of Tom's, not to compare data with the red team. All i can see is the comparison of 4 identical chips.
  • Other Comments
  • HideOut
    The price is for the best cooler in the field. Would be excelent in a higher end HTPC/gaming combo machine where silence or near silence would be nice.
  • crisan_tiberiu
    I am a bit confused in the decision of Tom's, not to compare data with the red team. All i can see is the comparison of 4 identical chips.
  • chimera201
    Anonymous said:
    I am a bit confused in the decision of Tom's, not to compare data with the red team. All i can see is the comparison of 4 identical chips.


    Tom's is comparing the different brand offerings for GTX 960 - that is what everybody wants right? You will find comparison with other cards in the reference card review (they didn't get the reference card though)
  • bigpinkdragon286
    AMD doesn't have new cards to compare the GTX 960 to. The only segment this card is competitive in is power consumption, otherwise beaten by 4 year old cards.
  • Wisecracker
    It looks exactly like the MSI Radeon R9 380 Gaming 2GB ...



    Near identical acoustic performance, too.
  • Covaylent
    "In the graph, MSI’s card is listed at 34 degrees."
    Did you mean decibels?

    Also, there was no mention of the HDMI version included with this card. For clarity, is this HDMI 2.0?

    Thanks!
  • CompuTronix
    Precise overclocking frequency is not specified. Only +150 is mentioned.

    Reference +150?
    Gaming Mode +150?

    +150 = what frequency?
  • kcarbotte
    Quote:
    I am a bit confused in the decision of Tom's, not to compare data with the red team. All i can see is the comparison of 4 identical chips.


    This came down to availability of cards, and timeframe. I only had this card in hand for 4 days to do the testing. I'm fairly new to Tom's (having started in January) and had not yet reviewed any AMD cards. As such, I did not have any on hand.

    It should be noted that this review has been in the queue for a while now but was delayed to make room for the 980ti, Fury X and Fury releases.
    Quote:

    It looks exactly like the MSI Radeon R9 380 Gaming 2GB ...



    Near identical acoustic performance, too.




    The tests were all done in May, long before AMD released the R9 380 to compare it against. MSI uses the same fans and near identical cooler, so the accoustic performance should be on par.


    Quote:
    Precise overclocking frequency is not specified. Only +150 is mentioned.

    Reference +150?
    Gaming Mode +150?

    +150 = what frequency?


    My apologies, it wasn't meant to be confusing.

    The overclocking was done from the base Gaming Mode clock speed.
    "Gaming Mode is the default setting; its GPU clock setting is 1190MHz, while GPU Boost is increased to 1253MHz"

    1190 + 150 = overclocked speed of 1240Mhz.
  • kcarbotte
    1340Mhz - stupid type
  • macer1
    Nice article, but the Gigabyte GTX 960 G1 is the clear champion of the GTX 960's.
  • Eggz
    Good review! Note the small correction below.

    GRAPH ERROR: The frame rate graphs at 1080p list the MSI card twice and omit the EVGA card.
  • Kawi6rr
    Was this an Nvidia sponsored test?
  • mapesdhs
    Quote:
    Was this an Nvidia sponsored test?


    Read the author's responses above.

    However, this particular article aside, the 960 is IMO the worst of the current NV lineup. It's the one part of the price/performance spectrum where I'd be tempted to recommend an AMD instead, the gap between the 960 and 970 is just too large. NV really needs a 960 Ti, but they'd probably price it too high. Either way, the 960 is just too weak overall I reckon (people forget once again that situations where one might benefit from 4GB are precisely those where the 960's raw power isn't going to be remotely enough, in which case just hang it and get a 970 or somesuch). Personally, if I had a budget equivalent to a new 960, I'd just hunt down one or two used GHz-edition 7970s instead, very potent (faster than a 980), though the CF driver issues are a pain. Either that or two 3GB 580s which cost squat these days, though the power/heat/noise are what prompted me to gladly switch to a 980 a few months ago.

    Anyway, I schmeugh the 960, not impressed with the card at all overall. It's just too far down below the 970.

    Ian.
  • Giroro
    Quote:
    The price is for the best cooler in the field. Would be excelent in a higher end HTPC/gaming combo machine where silence or near silence would be nice.


    Maybe it would work in a HTPC if it wasn't an absurd 11" long. It is especially absurd considering it is a low-power, midrange GPU. I don't think this will even fit inside my mid-tower case... or it might just barely since the power connector comes out the side instead of the back....
    I just don't think many people building HTPCs are going to use a full-tower, and most people building a PC that size are probably going to use a more powerful GPU.
  • mapesdhs
    Indeed, I used a 750 Ti, much nicer older option for an HTPC. Isn't there a mini version of the 970 atm?

    Ian.
  • Shankovich
    Or just get the R9 380 for around the same price....
  • mapesdhs
    No thanks, I refuse to assist such blatant rebranding, no matter who's doing it.

    Ian.
  • ozicom
    Well,
    After HDMI, USB, DisplayPort we learn that it matters with the numbers following them. So why are manufacturers, producers, sellers and testers still give us those numbers? Is that hard to mention what version comes with the product? Or are you trying to hide something? Why don't you tell us what version it uses? Also why don't you add 60hz gaming with HDMI to your test list?
  • ubercake
    Quote:

    ...
    Maybe it would work in a HTPC if it wasn't an absurd 11" long. It is especially absurd considering it is a low-power, midrange GPU. I don't think this will even fit inside my mid-tower case... or it might just barely since the power connector comes out the side instead of the back....
    I just don't think many people building HTPCs are going to use a full-tower, and most people building a PC that size are probably going to use a more powerful GPU.


    The GTX 960 is a great mid-range gamer and ideal for 1080p, but I agree. Why make a mid-range card even longer?

    I use the MSI 9.5" standard-blower version (which is extremely quiet itself) in my HTPC that easily fits in the smaller DS Cube case. I am really impressed with the GTX 960 in general and its ability to game at 1080p. I'm using it with an i3-2100 and it's video capability is well beyond that of any of the new consoles.

    I'm not so sure there's any practical value to getting 2 or 3 more frames per second and 2.5dB quieter while adding an inch and a half to the size as with this card, but if you're running 1080p, and this card can be had for a deal and fits in your case, it wouldn't be a bad thing. The thing is, even if the card itself is quieter than stock, the heat is dissipated into the case which may cause your other internal temps to rise and the fans, in turn, to crank up. I guess I wouldn't seek something like this out necessarily, but would not be opposed to buying it if it were a good deal.
  • junkeymonkey
    '' I'd just hunt down one or two used GHz-edition 7970s instead''

    I like that. look to get them old cards with all the newer ones to choose from -- I look at all these newer cards and then look at my poor old hd7000 and give it a pat on the back and say good job..

    sure seems a lot of junk out there today and a bad time to be in need of a card