Nvidia GeForce GTX 960 graphics card review: Maxwell meets PC gaming's sweet spot

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We’re comparing the GTX 960 cards against a slew of similarly priced offerings: The EVGA GTX 970 FTW with ACX 2.0, a Zotac GTX 760 AMP! Edition, a Visiontek Radeon R9 270X, and an Asus R9 280X DirectCU II TOP. Nvidia’s reviewer’s guide compares the GTX 960 against the Radeon R9 285, but alas, I don’t have one on hand.

Got it? Good. Let’s dig into frame rates. You can click on any graph to enlarge it.

First up: Bioshock Infinite. Virtually all modern graphics cards handle Columbia’s floating islands with aplomb, but it’s a sterling representative of the Unreal 3 engine. One thing that raw frame rates don’t show is how deeply GeForce cards can occasionally stutter running this game. Every Nvidia card we’ve tested recently dips into single-digit minimum frame rates during Bioshock Infinite’s benchmark. It’s rare for the frame rate to plunge so low, but it causes notable stuttering when it does happen.

bioshock infinite

Next, we tested the cards with Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition’s built-in benchmarking feature.

sleeping dogs 1080p high
sleeping dogs 1080p extreme

We test Metro: Last Light Redux with SSAA disabled, because it slashes frame rates in half and the game looks gorgeous enough without it. We also disable Advanced PhysX.

metro 1080p high
metro 1080p very high

Alien: Isolation is a gorgeous, terrifying game with a built-in benchmark. It seems CPU-bound to some degree and scales well across all hardware configurations.

alien isolation ultra

Finally, we also tested the GTX 960 cards using the Unigine Valley and 3DMark 11 Fire Strike tools, which were specifically designed for benchmarking graphics capabilities.

3dmark firestrike
unigine valley

When you look at wattage use under full load, Maxwell’s energy efficiency shines. The GTX 960 positively sips power.

power load

Which brings me to my next point…

Overclocking the GTX 960

Nvidia’s press materials stress the GTX 960 is an overclocker’s dream, and you know what? That’s entirely accurate. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to squeeze much extra out of the cards given the beefy overclocks Asus and EVGA apply out of the box, but boy, was I wrong.

Using the overclocking software included with each graphics card, but without touching temperature profiles or voltage, I was able to achieve significant additional overclocks on each card.

EVGA SSC clock speeds

  • Base: 1279MHz core, 1342MHz boost, 1753MHz memory
  • Overclocked: 1366MHz core, 1429MHz boost, 1940MHz memory

Asus Strix clock speeds

  • Base: 1253MHz core, 1317MHz boost, 1800MHz memory
  • Overclocked: 1400MHz core (!!!), 1464MHz boost, 1933MHz memory

Nvidia’s press materials say it’s been able to hit 1450MHz overclocks with the reference cooling design, all without tweaking card voltage or fan speeds. We didn’t quite hit those lofty speeds, but a 1400MHz clock speed is still insane. Remember: The GTX 960’s default reference speed is 1126MHz.

The Asus Strix and EVGA SSC could be pushed even further if you wanted to roll up your sleeves and start tweaking voltages and fan speeds—possibly a whole lot further. Both cards were still humming away happily at their stock load temperatures when they began demonstrating overclock instability. In other words, each should take a lot more heat if you wanted to apply more juice and crank the clock speeds even higher.

So what do those extra speeds get you in term of frame rate? I’m glad you asked. The frame rate leaps aren't mind-blowing, but again, remember that these cards had hefty overclocks out of the box. The gains would be much more dramatic on a GTX 760 that started at reference clock speeds—assuming it overclocked as well as these models.

sleeping dogs 1080p high oc
metro 1080p high oc
bioshock infinite oc

Nvidia GeForce GTX 960: Finding the sweet spot

The GTX 960 is everything you could ask for in a graphics card for the mainstream enthusiast. The models we tested delivered a firm 60 fps in every title tested with “high” graphics presets—and that should be boosted even higher when using MFAA. The GTX 960 runs cool. The GTX 960 runs amazingly quiet. And best of all, the GTX 960 is cheap.

Nvidia’s positioning the GTX 960 as a killer upgrade for people currently rocking an older GTX 560 or 660, and compared to those the GTX 960 is clearly a vast step up in performance and power efficiency. (It’s a less compelling upgrade if you already own a GTX 760, or even a GTX 670.) But really, the GTX 960 puts immense pressure on the next generation of AMD’s Radeon graphics cards before the next generation of Radeon graphics cards has even been announced.

asus strix gtx960 dc2oc 2gd5 3d

The technical superiority of the GTX 980 and especially the $330 GTX 970 have already forced AMD to dramatically slash prices on its highest-end graphics cards. The cost-cutting will very likely carry over to the mainstream pricing segment now that the GTX 960 is here. By pricing the GTX 960 at $200, rather than the $250 that enthusiast 1080p cards like the GTX 760 and Radeon R9 285 have typically cost at in the past, Nvidia’s signaling that it’s taking the battle for your wallet very seriously indeed.

AMD’s GTX 960 counterpart, the Radeon R9 285, will have to drop to at least $200 to remain relevant—and likely lower, given the Nvidia card’s overwhelming power efficiency dominance. (You can already find many, but not all, models at that price after rebates.) AMD’s Never Settle game bundles don’t appear in effect any more, either—at least on Amazon and Newegg—eliminating that differentiating Radeon benefit.

Would I have liked to see a bigger jump in performance from the GTX 760 to the GTX 960? Sure. And a larger memory frame buffer wouldn’t hurt in an era of rapidly expanding games. But Nvidia’s GTX 960 does what it’s designed to do—play current games at playable rates and 1080p resolution with most graphical features enabled—very, very well indeed. You'd be very happy with either the Asus Strix or the EVGA SSC.

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