With NVIDIA’s release of the GTX 960 GPU today, ASUS was kind enough to provide a pair of their STRIX GTX 960 OC Edition cards for us to check out. Obviously, having two of these will allow us to perform SLI testing in addition to our normal test routine. The ASUS STRIX GTX 960 comes complete with a factory overclock (OC Edition) and their proprietary DirectCU II cooler featuring 0dB fan technology. The GTX 960 series of graphics cards is intended to be an affordable option that still offers the Maxwell GPU performance, low power consumption, and excellent thermals we’ve come to appreciate in the GTX 970 and GTX 980 models that preceded it. So, let’s find out what NVIDIA and ASUS have in store for us this time around!
Specifications and Features
Looking at the specifications below, we can see the base and boost clock numbers can be set two different ways, either OC Mode or Gaming Mode. You can select your preference by using the bundled GPU Tweak software. You’ll see a base clock increase of either 102 MHz or 127 MHz over the reference design specifications, depending on the mode you select. When you compare the specifications, the GM206 GPU core used on the GTX 960 series graphics cards is basically half of the GM204 GPU core found on the GTX 980 series. The STRIX GTX 960 also comes with a factory overclock on the memory, which we don’t often see. The 2 GB of onboard memory is set to 7200 MHz (effective) and sits on a 128-bit interface. One DVI, one HDMI, and three DisplayPort connections round out the connectivity options.
A look at GPU-Z gives us confirmation of what we see above and a few other details as well. The first thing to note is if you don’t manipulate the settings in GPU Tweak between the OC and Gaming Modes, the card will default to the OC setting of 1253 MHz base clock/1317 MHz boost clock. So, even if you’re not one that uses desktop overclocking software with your video card, rest assured, the STRIX GTX 960 will be running at peak performance. We usually see a much higher actual boost clock than rated specifications, and that held true here as well. During our testing, the actual boost clock settled in at a constant 1366.7 MHz.
A deeper look at the specifications show a ROP count of 32 and a shader count of 1024. In addition to the GDDR5 memory specifications we listed above, we can see it offers up to 115.2 GBs of bandwidth.
The slide below gives an overview of a few high-level features and ASUS performance claims. Faster gaming, cool and quiet operation, and an advanced power delivery design are the keys here.
ASUS performed several in-house performance tests, which show anywhere from 6.5% to 12% better performance when compared to the reference design cards. That’s a nice little bonus provided by the factory overclock ASUS implemented.
As the slides below indicate, the STRX GTX 960 promises much cooler and quieter operation than the reference design cards. I have no reason to doubt the claims ASUS makes here as the DicectCU II cooler has always proven to be one of the best proprietary coolers there is. I don’t expect that to change this time around either. The 0dB fan technology feature is one of our favorite things about the STRIX line of graphics cards from ASUS. Basically, it means the vBIOS has been programmed to keep the fans from spinning until the GPU reaches the 55 °C to 57 °C range. This is a testament to how confident ASUS is in the DirectCU II cooler’s ability to work as both a passive and active cooling solution.
On the power delivery side of things, ASUS uses their 5-phase Super Alloy Power design. This consists of SAP chokes that offer decreased whining noise, dedicated SAP CAPs located directly behind the GPU, SAP capacitors that offer a 2.5X greater lifespan than traditional capacitors, and SAP MOSFETs that are said to have a higher voltage threshold than the standard design.
The STRIX GTX 960 uses only a single 6-pin PCI-E power lead, and the connector on the card is reversed from what we normally see. This makes removing the power lead much easier because you can easily grab the release lever when it’s not sandwiched between the cooler and the power socket. There is also a pair of LEDs next to the power socket that illuminate. The red one lights up if you forgot to plug the cable in or did it incorrectly. The white one illuminates if all systems are go.
GPU Tweak is a full fledged desktop utility for use with your ASUS graphics cards. You’ll find a copy on the enclosed support CD, or you can download it from the ASUS website. GPU Tweak provides overclocking options, monitoring capabilities, and can automatically check for and install vBIOS updates. If you look at the first slide below, you can see how to toggle between the Gaming Mode and OC Mode settings we discussed earlier.
Beginning March 1st 2015, ASUS and XSplit Gamecaster will offer a customized version of the software tailored for use with GPU Tweak. Once available, a free 1-year license will be offered for ASUS graphics card users. The software will integrate with GPU Tweak and allow monitoring, game streaming, and recording. It will also allow you to use profiles that have been saved in GPU Tweak.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t spend a few minutes talking about the new GM206 GPU’s architecture. The GTX 960 is a great option for people that might not have the funds to purchase the flagship GTX 980, but still long for the new features the Maxwell GPUs offer. Another nice thing about the GTX 960 series is its low TDP of just 120 watts through a single 6-pin PCI-E power connector. The low TDP will go a long way towards keeping the heat and noise levels to a minimum.
NVIDIA’s G-Sync display technology is supported with the GTX 960 series cards. With the use of a G-Sync display, you can put an end to input lag or screen tearing that often happens when using or not using VSync. NVIDIA display partners have offered G-Sync ready displays in resolutions from 1920X1080 to 3840X2160 (4K), but soon will be offering G-Sync ready monitors with an IPS panel. In fact, ASUS announced their ROG Pg27AQ at CES 2015. It will be ASUS’ first 4K display with G-Sync support and an IPS panel. Good stuff on the horizon for sure!
The new GM206 GPU core features all the key designs found on the flagship GTX 980, albeit with the wings clipped a bit. NVIDIA sent along a press guide that does a great job explaining how the Maxwell architecture is designed and the benefits it offers over the previous Kepler GPU core design. So, I’ll step aside and let them describe it to you.
“The Maxwell SMM is partitioned into four distinct 32-CUDA core processing blocks (128 CUDA cores total per SM), each with its own dedicated resources for scheduling and instruction buffering. By giving each processing block its own dedicated resources for instruction scheduling and dispatch, we’re able to keep the GPU’s CUDA Cores fully utilized more often, improving workload efficiency and reducing wasted power
To improve the efficiency of the GPU’s onboard caches, we’ve also made a number of changes to the cache hiearcy in Maxwell. Each of GM206’s SMM units features its own dedicated 96KB shared memory, while the L1/texture caching functions are combined into a 24KB pool of memory per pair of processing blocks (48KB per SMM). Prior generation Kepler GPUs had a smaller 64KB shared memory function that was also shared as L1 cache.
As a result of these changes, each GM206 CUDA core is able to deliver roughly 1.4x more performance per core compared to a GK106 Kepler CUDA core (the direct predecessor of GM206), and 2x the performance per watt.
The memory subsystem of GM206 has also been revamped. Our third-generation delta color compression engine offers new modes for color compression, allowing the GPU to more effectively use its available memory bandwidth. When combined with the aforementioned caching improvements in the Maxwell SM, GM206 uses roughly 25% fewer bytes per frame compared to prior generation Kepler GPUs. This means that from the perspective of the GPU core, a Kepler-style memory system running at 9.3Gbps would provide effective bandwidth similar to the bandwidth that Maxwell’s enhanced memory system provides.
Ultimately the 128-bit, 7Gbps memory interface in GM206 is able to effectively provide slightly more bandwidth than its direct predecessor, GK106, as a result of the efficiency improvements in Maxwell’s new memory subsystem (148.8GB/sec effective in GTX 960 vs 144.2GB/sec in GTX 660).
Like GeForce GTX 980, the GeForce GTX 960 has a new display engine capable of supporting resolutions up to 5K with up to four simultaneous displays (including support for up to four 4K MST displays). GeForce GTX 960 also supports HDMI 2.0.
Because of its low power operation, some potential GeForce GTX 960 users may wish to use this GPU inside their home theater PC. Therefore to satisfy the needs of this audience, one new addition that’s been added to GM206 is support for H.265 (HEVC) encoding and decoding. GTX 980’s NVENC video engine offers native support for H.265 encode only, no decode. With the amount of 4K content expected to explode in the coming years, GM206 also adds native support for HDCP 2.2 content protection over HDMI.”
For a visual explanation of what’s described above, here are the block and SMM diagrams.
At this point, you should have a good idea of what the ASUS STRIX GTX 960 and the new GM206 GPU core are all about. So, let’s get these boxes on a bench and have a look around.
The STRIX themed packaging we’ve come accustomed to seeing carries on here. A heavy emphasis is put on the DirectCU II cooler as you make your way around the box. At the back, ASUS provides a good amount of information on specifications and features to let the potential customer know what they are buying into.
Inside the outer carton is another black box that houses the graphics card and accessories. The card is well protected and wrapped in an anti-static bag. Accessories include the support CD, DVI to VGA adapter, user’s guide, and a STRIX sticker.
Before we take an up-close look at the STRIX GTX 960, here are some pictures taken from a few different angles. Enjoy!
The ASUS STRIX GTX 960 Up Close
The STRIX GTX 960 is PCI-E 3.0 compatible as witnessed by the first picture below. As mentioned earlier, the card uses a single PCI-E 6-pin power lead. If you’ve been paying attention up to this point, then you also know the GTX 960 series is 2-way SLI ready. The display connection area consists of a single DL-DVI connection, three DisplayPort, and one HDMI.
The DirectCU II cooler is easily removed with four screws. Once off, we can see the four copper heatpipes are perfectly centered over the GPU core. The two heatpipes in the center are slightly larger than the two on the outside and appear to be 6 mm and 8 mm in size. Each of the four copper heatpipes travel through the base plate and weave there way through the aluminum fin stack. The shroud that houses the fans is attached to the fin stack with four clips that are molded into the shroud itself. I really like this design as it makes it easy to remove the shroud if you ever want to give the card and cooler a deep cleaning. The fans themselves are branded FirstD, which is commonly found on ASUS Proprietary coolers. I measured the fans and came up with right at 70 mm across the blades. It’s pretty easy to see how well the DirectCU II cooler is constructed by looking at the series of pictures below.
Adding to the cooling solution is another heatsink sitting on top of the MOSFETs, which uses a thermal pad for thermal interface material. Around the back of the card, ASUS installed a back plate that adds rigidity, PCB protection, and a bit of added cooling as well.
Exploring the PCB, we find a 5-phase power design with the voltage regulation provided by uPI semiconductor’s uP1608TK digital controller. The 15 MOSFET ICs are from UBIQ Semiconductor and include ten of part number M3506M and five of part number M3504M. The 2 GB of onboard GDDR5 memory is Samsung’s K4G41325FC-HC28, which is rated for 1750 MHz (7000 MHz Effective) at 1.5 V. As we mentioned earlier though, the memory is factory overclocked to 1800 MHz (7200 MHz effective). The last image below is of the NVIDIA GM206-300-A1 GPU core.
Performance and Overclocking
|Test System Components|
|Motherboard||ASUS Maximus VII Formula|
|CPU||Intel i7 4790K Devil’s Canyon|
|Memory||G.SKill TridentX DD3-2400 MHz 2x8GB @ 1866 MHz 9-9-9-24|
|SSD||Samsung EVO 500 GB SSD|
|Power Supply||Corsair HX1050 Professional Series|
|Video Card||ASUS Strix GTX 960 OC Edition ( Single & SLI)|
|Cooling||EKWB Supremacy EVO Water Block – 360 mm Radiator – MCP35X Pump|
For comparison, we’ll run the STRIX GTX 960 in a single card configuration and again with two of them in SLI. We’ll also run both single card and SLI configurations overclocked. Comparison samples will include both AMD and NVIDIA cards that are above and below what the expected performance of the GTX 960 is supposed to be. Supposedly, the GTX 960 will compete with AMD’s R9 280/280X series of cards… we’ll find out.
We’ll stick with the Overclockers.com GPU test procedure that’s been in place since the Haswell platform was released. If you’re not yet familiar with our methodology, then click on the link provided for additional information. For quick reference, below is the down and dirty version of what we do.
Minimum System Requirements
- i7 4770K or i7 4790K @ 4 GHz
- Intel Z87 or Z97 Chipset Motherboard
- Dual Channel DDR3 @ 1866MHz 9-9-9-24
- GPU @ stock and overclocked
- Monitor capable of 1920×1080
- 3DMark Vantage – DirectX 10 benchmark running at 1280X1024 – Performance preset.
- 3DMark 11 – DirectX 11 benchmark running at 1280X720 – Performance preset.
- 3DMark Fire Strike – DirectX 11 benchmark running 1920X1080 – Standard test (not extreme).
- Unigine Heaven (HWBot version) – DX11 Benchmark – Extreme setting.
- Batman: Arkham Origins – 1920X1080, 8x MSAA, PhysX off, V-Sync off, The rest set to on or DX11 enhanced.
- Battlefield 4 – 1920X1080, Ultra Preset, V-Sync off.
- Bioshock Infinite – 1920X1080, Ultra DX11 preset, DOF on.
- Crysis 3 – 1920X1080, Very high settings, 16x AF, 8x MSAA, V-Sync off.
- Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn – 1920X1080, Maximum preset.
- Grid 2 – 1920X1080, 8x MSAA, Intel specific options off, Everything else set to highest available option.
- Metro Last Light – 1920X1080, DX11 preset, SSAA on, Tessellation very high, PhysX off.
ASUS Software – GPU Tweak
GPU Tweak offers everything you need to get the most from your graphics card. The overclocking options you have will be dependent on the actual card you’re using; but in this case, we have a full array of options. An integrated copy of GPU-Z gives you specifications at a glance, and the utility also offers detailed real-time monitoring capabilities. Five profiles can be saved to GPU Tweak, or you can toggle between the Gaming Mode and Overclock Mode by hitting the Default button (Gaming Mode) or the “0” button in the row of profile numbers (Overclock Mode).
GPU Tweak has a full set of options in the settings area, which let you control the behavior of the utility. There is also a Live Update option that will automatically check for any updates to your graphics card. The slideshow below will give you a good idea of all the settings that are available to customize GPU Tweak to your liking.
Overclocking the STRIX GTX 960 was a painless affair and yielded excellent results. We were able to get both cards perfectly stable at 1375 MHz base clock/1438 MHz boost clock. This resulted in an actual boost clock of a steady 1488 MHz… very nice! On the memory side, we were able to get that stable at 1950 MHz (7800 MHz effective) on both cards, which again is a very nice result. We’ll use those overclock settings for the purpose of our comparison graphs below.
As you look through the benchmark results below, you’ll see a consistent pattern of the STRIX GTX 960 (single card) beating the HIS R9 280 IceQx2 and swapping blows with the HIS R9 280X IceQx2 Turbo. We expected the GTX 960 series cards to land somewhere between those two AMD based cards, and that’s exactly what happened. Once both cards were used in a SLI setup, we recorded results that were on par with the big hitters in the GPU world. When the SLI setup was overclocked, it actually sat atop of all, but a couple, of our benchmarks… Good stuff there!
Temperatures and Power Consumption
The DirectCU II cooler didn’t disappoint and performed excellent throughout all testing conditions. Both of the cards we have on hand were tested, and the results were darn near identical between the two. Overclocked and under full load, the highest temperature recorded was a mere 62 °C with the fan speed left at its auto setting. When we ramped the fan speed to 100%, temperatures were kept well below the 50 °C mark under all testing scenarios. With the DirectCU II cooler able to keep temperatures that low, there really isn’t a need to take them off the auto setting. In fact, leaving the fans on the auto setting might even allow for completely silent gaming, depending on the game at hand.
The power consumption numbers are pretty amazing, even with two cards in SLI. With a single card installed, the maximum total system power draw was just 237 watts with the card overclocked. With both cards installed and overclocked, the maximum total system draw was an impressively low 336 watts. The power draw numbers are enticing to those looking to upgrade their video card(s) without having to incur the expense of a new power supply. I would venture to say a good quality 550 watt power supply would be enough to run two of the STRIX GTX 960s in SLI and still leave a bit of room for overclocking your CPU.
We don’t typically run video cards with 2 GB of memory through our NVIDIA Surround testing, as in most cases Surround gaming requires at least 3 GB of onboard memory for decent performance when using our maxed out in-game settings. Other than the GPU killing Crysis 3, the results were better than we expected. When a single card was tested, none of the five games in our suite reached a playable 30 FPS. However, if you’re willing to reduce a few in-game settings, you can probably obtain an enjoyable Surround gaming experience. When we tested both cards in a SLI configuration, results were much better. Still limited by only having 2 GB of onboard memory available, two of the five benchmarks surpassed the 30 FPS threshold we call playable. Metro: Last light and Battlefield 4 were pretty close to 30 FPS, but Crysis 3 didn’t do much better than when a single card was tested, it simply needs more memory in this scenario. Remember, these tests were run with all in-game settings maxed out.
Pushing the Limits
For a final push, we were able to get the STRIX GTX 960 set to 1387 MHz base/1450 MHz boost and complete a run of 3DMark Fire Strike. This resulted in a steady actual boost clock of 1502 MHz, which is quite impressive. The memory was able to go a bit further as well, topping out at 2000 MHz (8000 MHz effective). Again, very impressive. We were able to duplicate these settings in a SLI configuration too, and the results of the single card and SLI configuration runs are below.
There are several factors that make the STRIX GTX 960 an enticing choice for anyone looking to upgrade their graphics performance. Low power consumption, low noise, and a cooler that’s capable of keeping the card cool under all operating scenarios are just a few of the attractive features. If you’re not immersed in a GPU demanding application, you’ll appreciate the 0dB fan technology that lets you perform less demanding tasks with no noise generated from the graphics card. That’s definitely a great feature when enjoying movies, music, surfing the internet, or when using productivity applications.
In a single card and single 1920X1080 monitor configuration, the STRIX GTX 960 surpassed the 30 FPS threshold in all our game tests, except for Crysis 3. Falling short in Crysis 3 isn’t a big surprise though as the two AMD cards (R9 280 and R9 280X) this card stacks up against weren’t able to accomplish it either. The STRIX GTX 960 was above the 30 FPS we like to see in all of our other benchmarks and by a substantial margin in most cases. Once we tied two of these cards together in SLI, the performance numbers were on par with the highest-end video cards currently on the market. With both cards overclocked and running in SLI, they ruled the roost in all, but a couple, of our benchmarks… Impressive to say the least.
We weren’t able to get the MSRP for the STRIX GTX 960 at the time of publishing, but we should have that information shortly. However, given pricing we were made privy to from various sources, we’d expect this card to land anywhere from $210 to $220. If that holds true, it will be perfectly positioned between the AMD R9 280 and R9 280X. Putting two of these together for a SLI setup becomes an attractive option at that price range. You’ll be well under the price of a single GTX 780 Ti or GTX 980 (around $100 in most cases), but right on par performance wise where single monitor gaming is concerned. Even if the price ends up being a little higher than what we project, it’s still going to be a heck of a value. Price, performance, and a great cooler in the DirectCU II all add up to an easy upgrade path or even a good option for your next system build.