Nvidia GeForce GTX 950 review: Bringing more oomph to budget gaming PCs
Nvidia's new GeForce GTX 950 delivers a better-than-consoles gaming experience for just $150.
By Brad Chacos
PCWorldAug 20, 2015 6:00 am PDT
When Nvidia launched the $150 GeForce GTX 750 Ti way back in the beginning of 2014, it served as the grand unveiling for the company’s new, supremely energy-efficient Maxwell graphics processor architecture. The insanely tiny card delivered a huge gaming boost over integrated graphics, and since it sipped a mere 60 watts of power, you didn’t even need to connect the card to your power supply—it could run off the juice from your motherboard’s PCI-E slot alone.
That radically changed the potential audience for the entry-level graphics market; you could even slap the GTX 750 Ti in a prebuilt PC (from Dell, HP, etc.) that had no free power supply connections. Maxwell was off to a roaring start.
Flash forward a year and a half: The GTX 750 Ti’s form factor is just as enabling as ever, but when it comes to sheer performance, AMD’s Radeon R9 270X kicks it in the teeth—so much so that we’ve long recommended the 270X over the 750 Ti unless space constraints dictate otherwise. And the older GTX 650—one of the most popular graphics cards among Steam users—is starting to get long in the tooth.
In the wake of the newly-released $150 AMD Radeon R7 370 (essentially a slightly tweaked, slightly faster version of the older R9 270, which is also still available) Nvidia had to do something to even the score in the crucial, high-volume sub-$200 graphics card market.
Meet that something: The $160 Nvidia GeForce GTX 950. This new addition brings some much-needed additional firepower to the sub-$200 GeForce lineup, complementing—but not replacing—the GTX 750 Ti, which will still be sticking around.
Will the GTX 950 appeal to people looking to game respectably at 1080p resolution without breaking the bank? Let’s dig in.
Inside the Nvidia GeForce GTX 950
The first thing you’ll notice upon peering at the GTX 950 is that it positively dwarfs the GTX 750 Ti. This is a full-size, dual-slot graphics card that requires supplemental power via a 6-pin power connector, unlike its predecessor (though some partner models will feature shortened board lengths).
That’s because the GeForce GTX 950’s beating heart is a cut-down version of the 28nm GM206 GPU found in Nvidia’s $200 GTX 960. Whereas the GTX 960 has 1024 CUDA cores, 8 streaming multiprocessors, and 64 texture units, the lower-cost GTX 950 packs 768 CUDA cores, 6 streaming multiprocessors, and 48 texture units—about a third reduction overall. Clock speeds have also been drastically reduced in the GTX 950, down to 1024MHz base/1188MHz boost.
For memory, you’ll find 2GB of GDDR5, clocked at a 6600MHz effective rate and chatting with the GPU over a 128-bit bus. That sounds paltry, but don’t sweat it; it’s more than enough for playing games at 1080p with normal- to ultra-level graphics detail settings, which this card aims for.
The card supports DirectX 12’s 12.1 feature level, and Nvidia’s also spent time optimizing the GTX 950 specifically for competitive MOBA games like Dota 2 or League of Legends, reducing the number of frames it buffers in the rendering pipeline to improve latency. Using the auto-optimize options in Nvidia’s GeForce Experience software will enable that and other latency-improving tricks (like running in borderless mode rather than fullscreen) with your having to manually tinker with various settings. Those optimizations will initially only be available to GTX 950 users, but Nvidia says to look for them to expand to other GeForce graphics cards in the future.
Speaking of GeForce Experience, Nvidia’s slick software is receiving an overhaul of its own in September, via a new beta version that adds a new in-game overlay menu that features direct-to-YouTube video sharing, and—more interestingly—GameStream Co-op, which lets you beam your games over the Internet so your pals can play along with you in the Chrome browser. Read all about it here.
Wrapping things up, the GeForce GTX 950 rocks a trio of DisplayPort 1.2 connections, a single HDMI 2.0 port, and a single DVI-I hook-up. Nvidia recommends using a 350-watt or higher power supply with the card, which rocks a TDP of a mere 90W. That’s 30W more than the GTX 750 Ti, but 30W less than the GTX 960’s 120W TDP.
EVGA’s GeForce GTX 950 SSC
The GTX 950’s release is a hard launch, meaning that Nvidia’s various board partners will have cards available immediately. Our review board is EVGA’s customized, GeForce GTX 950 SSC ($170 on Amazon), the second most powerful graphics card in EVGA’s GTX 950 blitz, which consists of four separate models.
This “Super Superclocked” card packs a hefty overclock out of the box, jacking the GPU’s base clock speed to 1190MHz—faster than the stock 950’s boost speed—and the boost clock speed all the way to 1393MHz. The memory clock speed remains untouched, though you can use EVGA’s superb PrecisionX overclocking software to give the card’s GPU and memory even more pep in their steps. (PCWorld’s guide to graphics card overclocking can help.) There is a tradeoff for those high out-of-the-box overclock speeds, however: The EVGA GTX 950 SSC requires an 8-pin power connection, rather than the stock GTX 950’s 6-pin connector.
The GTX 950 SSC boasts EVGA’s ACX 2.0 cooling system, which we’ve seen used to great effect before with the GTX 960 and various other GPUs. The dual fans on the card don’t even activate when GPU temps are hovering under 60C. Rather than diving into nitty-gritty details about ACX 2.0’s triple 8mm straight heat pipes and double ball bearings again, here’s a high-level look at the system.
Finally, the EVGA GeForce GTX 950 also offers a dual-BIOS selector: With the flip of a switch, you can change between two profiles with different fans curves. One pushes fan RPMs as low as they can go when the card is idle, to reduce noise levels, while the “SSC Performance BIOS” keeps the pedal to the metal.
Whew! Now that all that’s done, let’s dig into the fun stuff—gaming benchmarks.
Next page: Gaming benchmarks and testbed configuration details.
As usual, we’re reviewing the Nvidia GeForce GTX 950 using PCWorld’s dedicated graphics card testbed. For deep insight into the system, check out our DIY build guide for the machine, but here’s a high-level overview of the most relevant parts:
To get a feel for the GTX 950’s place in the world, we compared it against several other graphics cards, including the GTX 950 Ti and an older EVGA GTX 650 Ti Boost, as Nvidia’ press materials extensively compare the GTX 950 to the GTX 650. AMD and Nvidia’s step-up $200 graphics cards—the R9 380 and GTX 960, respectively—we also tested. For a more direct Team Red vs. Team Green matchup, we’ve included results from Visiontek’s R9 270X. Ideally, we’d test the GTX 950 against the newer R7 370, but AMD never sent us one as part of the bizarre Radeon R300-series launch. You still find ample R9 270X graphics cards in stock at retailers.
We tested the EVGA GTX 950 SSC two ways: With its native hefty overclock, and then by underclocking its base clock speed to 1024MHz to match the stock GTX 950’s speeds. After that, the boost speed still clocked in at 1227MHz, higher than the stock 1188MHz boost clock—but hey, you do what you can.
Update: A Nvidia representative contacted me after this review was published to stress that due to the way GPU Boost works, downclocking the EVGA GTX 950 SSC to stock speeds isn’t a direct simulation of the stock GTX 950’s behavior. That’s true, but given the GTX 950 SSC’s massive overclock, we still feel the effort is worthwhile so there’s some frame of reference as to how a stock GTX 950 might behave. Nvidia’s representative also pointed out that all initially available GTX 950 graphics cards are overclocked to some degree.
Every title was tested using its in-game benchmark, using the default graphics settings stated unless noted otherwise, with V-Sync and any vendor-specific features disabled. The Radeon cards were tested using AMD’s newest Catalyst 15.7 drivers, while the GeForce cards were powered by Nvidia’s 355.65 drivers.
First up: Grand Theft Auto V. This game’s memory requirements can murder higher-end cards at super-high resolutions, but to Rockstar’s credit, the title scales well all the way down to the GTX 950’s level. We tested the game at 1080p with FXAA enabled, all sliders in the Graphics menu cranked to the name, and all configurable detail settings placed to “normal.” This results in fairly high framerates across the board, but you can always work your way up from this baseline to add more visual oomph (which lowers framerates). I’d suggest boosting Texture Quality to “High” first, because man are GTAV‘s street textures ugly on Normal.
Nvidia’s drivers are clearly better optimized for GTAV than AMD’s, and the superiority of the modern hardware over the older 750 Ti and 650 Ti Boost immediately becomes obvious.
That situation flips in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, which must hurt Team Green because Nvidia’s logo gets its own splash page when the game loads. You’ll need to drop down to the “High” graphic level preset to hit that buttery-smooth 60fps barrier—an unrealistic frame rate goal in most games with these $150 cards—but you’ll still hit totally playable frame rates of 40 to 45 fps on the 270X and GTX 950, even with the settings cranked to the max at 1080p.
Dragon Age Inquisition was one of the best PC games of 2014, and one of the most gorgeous. Despite the abundant eye-candy, AMD and Nvidia’s dueling $150 graphics cards can handle DAI just fine at 1080p if you knock the graphics down to High—though again, you won’t crack that 60fps barrier. AMD’s cards hit slightly higher frame rates than their Nvidia counterparts here, too.
Alien Isolation is one of the most terrifying games ever, but it’s not quite so scary when it comes to graphical requirements. This game scales well across all hardware types, hitting north of 60fps with every single card tested despite using the highest graphics settings available.
Next page: Gaming benchmarks continued; 3DMark Fire Strike, heat, and power use results.
Bioshock Infinite is our obligatory Unreal Engine 3 title, and both AMD and Nvidia have had plenty of time to optimize their drivers for the game. As with Alien, frame rates are great across the board here even with the visuals cranked and diffusion depth of field enabled.
Finally, let’s wrap up our real-world tests with recent HD remakes of two gorgeous, wonderful games. First up, Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition. The game’s borderline unplayable at the Extreme graphics preset, hovering around 30fps or fewer, but it’s far more smooth—and still beautiful—at the High graphics preset.
We test Metro: Last Light Redux without SSAO enabled, since that drops frame rates in half and doesn’t add much to the final visual product. PhysX is also disabled in our testing. Every card runs the game well enough, though the pricier R9 380 and GTX 960 obviously have a leg up over the $150-ish options (as expected), and the EVGA GTX 950 SSC’s overclock pushes it ahead of the R9 270X.
In 3DMark’s Fire Strike test, a popular and widely used synthetic benchmark, the Radeon R9 290X’s overall score falls firmly between the results for the “stock” GTX 950 and EVGA’s GTX 950 SSC—something we saw in several of our gaming benchmarks.
As far as power usage goes, the sublimely energy-efficient GTX 750 Ti is still the head-and-shoulders winner here, consuming a full 100W less than the GTX 950. Power is measured by plugging the entire system into a Watts Up meter.
Nvidia’s pint-sized 750 Ti is also the clear winner in heat output, putting out a mere 53W under load. That’s still crazy. Heat is measured by running the worst-case-scenario Furmark benchmark for 15 minutes, then taking the GPU temperature at the end using Furmark’s built-in tool as well as the SpeedFan utility.
Final page: Conclusion
So where does all that leave us?
Tossing out Shadow of Mordor (a clear AMD win) and GTAV (a clear Nvidia win), the GeForce GTX 950 and Visiontek’s Radeon R9 270X pretty much go toe-to-toe. Testing on other sites show the “new,” rebadged R7 370 delivering roughly the same results as the 270X—usually a few fps worse, which makes sense since the R7 370 has fewer cores running at lower speeds than the R9 270X. While I don’t have a R7 370 on hand for testing—a darn shame—its relationship with the 270X seems to indicate that it would wind up slightly slower than the GTX 950 in most games.
EVGA’s slick GTX 950 SSC delivers anywhere from 3 to 10 fps higher results than the simulated “stock” GTX 950. It’s definitely worth picking up the GTX 950 SSC’s guaranteed overclock and enhanced cooling over a stock GTX 950 for a mere $10 premium.
It’s nice to see Nvidia bring the fight to AMD in the $150 to $175 price range once again, after the older GTX 750 Ti leaned heavily towards power efficiency at the cost of performance. Competition’s a great thing! Now, no matter which side you choose, you’ll get a card that delivers a solid, 45fps-plus 1080p experience at high graphics detail settings in all but the most punishing new games, and 60fps-plus in less demanding games. That’s nuts compared to where we were just a few years back.
By comparison, many games on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 struggle to hit 30fps at 1080p—and that’s typically with lower graphics fidelity than the High settings in PC titles! You’ll need to step up to a $200 GTX 960 or R9 380 if you want to consistently enable Ultra graphics or hit 60fps in most games at 1080p, however.
Bottom line: The Nvidia GeForce GTX 950 delivers a nice 1080p gaming experience at a price that won’t break your budget. Nvidia has a clear winner here.
Performance aside, there are other reasons to give the GeForce card the nod over the R7 370/R9 270X—most notably, Nvidia’s constant onslaught of Game Ready drivers and slick software ecosystem. Also, since the R7 370 is built around an ancient Pitcairn GPU from early 2012, it doesn’t support more recent technologies like HDMI 2.0 (for delivering 60Hz signals to a 4K monitor) or AMD’s stutter-killing FreeSync displays. The GTX 950 supports both HDMI 2.0—this thing would rock in a home theater PC—and Nvidia’s G-Sync display technology. It also supports a higher DirectX 12 feature level than the R7 370.
If you don’t mind missing out on those modern capabilities, however, you can save some real dough with no major performance loss by looking for a R9 270X fire sale. They’re going for as cheap as $130 after rebates on the big retail sites right now as everyone clears out stock for the newer R7 370—though non-fire sale models are selling for $160 and up. At that price, you’ll want to go for the GTX 950’s newer architecture instead.
Finally, the launch of the GTX 950 doesn’t automatically render the older GTX 750 Ti obsolete—that’s why Nvidia’s keeping it around. Its small design and freedom from supplementary power cables means it can fit into cases where the GTX 950 and R7 370 simply can’t, and while it doesn’t provide as much visual firepower as either of those cards, the GTX 750 Ti still provides a huge boost over integrated graphics. Even better, you can find one for prices hovering around $100 if you look around, despite its new official MSRP of $120.
There’s never been a better time to be a gamer on a budget.
Editor’s note: The conclusion of this article has been updated to clarify the performance relationship between the R9 270X and R7 370. Verbiage related to the 270X’s fire sale pricing was also tweaked.