Zotac GeForce GTX 960 AMP! Edition Review

Zotac’s GeForce GTX 960 AMP! Edition sure looks good, thanks to its sleek metal shroud and dual fan design, but does it perform as good as it looks?

Introduction

Anyone familiar with Zotac knows that the company has a history of offering some of the best values for Nvidia-based graphics cards. Not only does Zotac often hit attractive price points, but its engineers also come up with some of the highest-clocked components. The board we're looking at today is no exception, sporting a 1266MHz base clock rate and GPU Boost rating of 1329MHz. Couple that with a $210 price tag, and we could be looking at one of the better GeForce GTX 960s out there.

Grab the GeForce GTX 960 AMP! Edition and you'll immediately notice how sturdily-built it feels. There is a solid metal back-plate that wraps around the top and rear of the card. This protects the PCB from damage during handling, while significantly improving the card's rigidity.

Not that stiffness is all that important in a card this size. The GeForce GTX 960 AMP! is one of the smaller overclocked boards in our lab. A standard PCB is around 117mm tall. This one comes in at 111.15mm. Its not a dramatic difference, but when you consider that the GTX 980 AMP! Omega is 133mm tall, more diminutive dimensions are refreshing. Not only is the 960 AMP! shorter than most of its competition, but it's also 208mm long, so its length measurement registers on the more compact side. And despite that beefy-looking heat sink up front, the card is quite light as well, weighing in at 590 grams.

Zotac does a commendable job with its aesthetics. The gunmetal-colored shroud with carbon fiber accents looks fantastic, and the wrap-around back plate really complements the card.

Hidden below that lovely shroud is a large aluminum sink with two copper heat pipes running through aluminum fins. To bring in fresh air, dual 90mm fans are used. Zotac calls this its IceStorm Cooling System.

Given the card's conservative power specification, the GeForce GTX 960 AMP! Edition uses a single six-pin PCIe connector. Zotac's maximum consumption is rated for 120W, which matches Nvidia's reference. That's interesting if only because this board is running at a higher clock rate, suggesting Nvidia's spec had some headroom built in or Zotac has some hand-picked GPUs.

When it comes to display outputs, Zotac has you covered. Again sticking closely to the reference design, we find one dual-link DVI-I connector, full-sized HDMI and three DisplayPort outputs. Four of the five can be used simultaneously. And as with all GeForce GTX 960s, there is only one SLI bridge connector, enabling two-way configurations.

There really isn’t much to say about the bundle. You get the graphics card, a driver disc and a user manual in the box. Additionally, there is a dual four-pin molex to six-pin PCIe adapter. There are no included games, nor any stickers or posters. You get what you need and nothing else.

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How We Tested

Test System Specs






Drivers

DirectXDirectX 11
Graphics
GeForce 344.16

Benchmarks

Battlefield 4Version 1.3.2.3825, Custom THG Benchmark, 10 Minutes

By now you undoubtedly know all about Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 960. If by some chance you missed the launch, check out Nvidia GeForce GTX 960: Maxwell In The Middle for thorough coverage of the card's features and performance.

In this piece, we're focusing on what makes Zotac’s GeForce GTX 960 AMP! Edition stand out from the rest by examining its thermal capabilities, power consumption and acoustic attributes. Naturally, we'll also be looking at this card's overclocking potential.

Normally we would compare our results against a reference GeForce GTX 960. But like the 970, Nvidia didn't create one. As such, we're dropping the frequencies of this board down to Nvidia's reference clock rates. And we're comparing it to offerings from Asus and EVGA as well.

Load Temperature

Since there is no reference cooler for GeForce GTX 960 cards, all we can do is test against competing models with the same GPU. For this metric, we're comparing Zotac's GeForce GTX 960 AMP! Edition to EVGA's GTX 960 SSC ACX 2.0+ and Asus’ GTX 960 Strix.

The graph above illustrates the thermal differences between all three cards. Zotac’s cooler is ample, but the GPU underneath runs much hotter than the competition. Nvidia specifies its processor for a 98-degree ceiling, and we're nowhere close to that. But still, if you plan to keep your hardware running reliably for several years, Asus' 20-degree advantage is unquestionably favorable.

Acoustics

Maybe Zotac is allowing those higher temperatures in a bid to attack acoustics though. In order to emphasize the noise each card makes, we stop all fans in the test system and take our measurement in a quiet room. Readings are collected two inches away from the card's rear I/O bracket.

The chart starts at 30 dB(A), which is the practical floor of what a human might consider silence. Given that the fans don’t even start to spin until Nvidia's GPU reaches 60 degrees, the noise levels at idle are essentially non-existent. Under load, the fans still don’t generate much audible noise. These are quiet graphics cards, to be sure.

What the graph fails to show is the brief spike when the fans first start up. They ramp up to a much higher RPM, generating quite a din for a second or two. Then, they throttle back to near-silence.

Power Usage

The floor of this chart is 80W, which is the approximate power draw of the system at idle minus its graphics card.

Zotac’s GeForce GTX 960 AMP! Edition consumes 8.2W at idle, which is slightly higher than the competition but hardly worth worrying about. Under full load, it's comparable to the other two 960s. The story changes under our torture test, though. The limitation of a single six-pin auxiliary connector becomes apparent by maxing out at 124W. This might cap our overclocking effort. Then again, if you're more interested in efficiency, that could be a good thing.

Overclocking Performance

Before we embark, remember that every GPU is different, and our results won't necessarily mirror yours. With that said, we still want to see what Zotac’s GeForce GTX 960 AMP! Edition can do, regardless of the variables beyond our control.

Back in November, Don Woligroski took a look at Zotac’s 980 AMP! Omega and had issues starting the company’s Firestorm overclocking utility. That was not the case this time around. Using version 1.0.44.008, we didn't need to launch the software as an administrator. Unfortunately, there has been no obvious attempt at making the interface easier to use. The 2D, 3D and 3D+ fields are still as ambiguous as they were previously. This card doesn’t have OC+, so the Gamer option isn't exposed, though there's nothing indicating why. 

Ironically, once you click on the “Advance” button, the options become easier to understand. The familiar GPU Clock Offset, Mem Clock Offset, GPU Temp Target and so on are all available. When Don looked at Firestorm, the GPU voltage slider was visible but not usable. Thankfully, that's no longer the case. The slider is locked by default, though clicking on the padlock icon enables it.

We started by adjusting the Power limit to its maximum of 108%. The GPU Temp Target rose to 95 °C in response. Next, we adjusted the GPU clock rate. Starting with modest increments of 20MHz, I got up to +120MHz before encountering instability. In the end, I was able to dial in a 1449MHz GPU Boost frequency, which was reported in-game as 1524MHz by GPU-Z.

After finding the highest stable GPU clock, we moved on to the memory. Fifty-megahertz bumps make the best use of time, since most of the Maxwell-based cards we've seen seem to be good for significant overclocks. That ended up being a smart strategy in this case, since the memory didn't have much headroom.

At +150MHz we couldn’t complete a run of 3DMark; it'd crash every time. Sadly, +125MHz wasn't stable either, so we dropped down to +100MHz and started adjusting in 5MHz increments. Ultimately, +120MHz was the best we could do.

Hoping for more, we started adjusting voltages (Firestorm lets you tune in 1mV steps). Unfortunately, that didn't seem to help. If anything, the GPU became even less stable after increasing the voltage setting.

Conclusion

Zotac’s GeForce GTX 960 AMP! Edition looks like a tunable card thanks to it aggressive cooler. From its beefy sink, high-quality materials, almost best-in-class stock clock rates and affordable price tag, this card has the makings of a winner.

While the company's Firestorm utility could still use some work, Zotac's hardware is what matters most to us. There are other overclocking tools out there, so don't worry too much about the bundled utility that seems a little half-baked.

We already know that Nvidia's GPU is both fast and efficient, even if the overclock we achieved wasn't particularly impressive. Unfortunately for Zotac, the competition's take on GM206 sells at a similar price, yet operates more quietly at lower temperatures. Other cards can pull more power for overclocking, too. You could do a lot worse than a Zotac GeForce GTX 960 AMP! Edition, but you could also do better.

Kevin Carbotte is an Associate Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware, covering Graphics. Follow us @tomshardware, on Facebook and on Google+.

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