For the past year, Nvidia has engaged in an unusually extended launch schedule. It debuted its Maxwell architecture with a budget GPU in February of 2014, followed it up with the high-end GTX 980 and 970 late last year, and today, with its new midrange GPU — the GTX 960. While not as sexy as the high-end GTX 970 or 980, which retail for $ 330 and $ 550 respectively, it slips in at just $ 200, which makes it far more affordable and practical for a large number of PC gamers.
It’s also debuting into the teeth of AMD’s strongest current price/performance ratio. AMD has held a strong position in the $ 100-$ 300 price brackets, thanks to aggressive price cuts and the incremental improvements offered by GPUs like the Radeon R9 285. Can Nvidia break that lock? Let’s take a look.
The GTX 960 is based on Nvidia’s new GM206 GPU. The GM206 GPU is a midrange part that’s essentially exactly half a GM204. It retains the same architectural layout and resource allocation as that GPU, with 128 CUDA cores per Streaming Multiprocessor (SM). If you’ve read our previous Maxwell coverage, than GM206 has few surprises lurking inside it. The chip may be smaller, with just 1024 cores instead of GTX 980’s 2048, but the chip’s internal caches and resources are distributed in the same ratios.
The GTX 960: Mini Maxwell
One aspect of the card that’s likely to raise eyebrows is its reliance on a 128-bit main memory bus. While the GTX 960 uses fairly fast GDDR5, clocked at 1750MHz (7Gbps effective datarate), the main memory bus is tiny by modern standards.
A quick walk down memory lane shows just how odd it is for a GPU launching at the $ 199 price point to have a memory bus this narrow. The GeForce 8800 GT, which launched in 2007 at $ 249 had a 256-bit memory bus. All of Nvidia’s cards in this segment have historically used at least a 192-bit bus, with most opting for 256 bits and up.
This smaller bus fits with Nvidia’s general philosophy with Maxwell, which was to emphasize performance per watt and high overall efficiency over simply building a larger, more complicated chip. In fact, going solely on the numbers, the only thing extraordinary about the GTX 960 is that Nvidia is claiming it can hang with other $ 200 cards despite a limited memory bus and relatively few cores.
Nvidia claims the card is so efficient, it’s actually published “effective” memory bandwidth figures that inflate the card’s actual performance in an attempt to give an apples-to-apples comparison. The company is claiming that this represents an “effective” data rate as a way of communicating just how efficient the memory bus on the GTX 960 actually is. We’ll examine this in our review, but the disparity between the GTX 960 and its competition (at least on paper) is fairly significant. AMD’s R9 285, the most potent and applicable comparison card, at least as far as price is concerned, is has 176GB/s of memory bandwidth, compared to 119.2GB/s for 112GB/s for the Maxwell GTX 960.
That disparity shows up when we consider the GTX 960’s primary competition, at least on paper. AMD has multiple graphics cards clustered around the $ 200 price point, but the obvious card to compare against is the R9 285. That GPU is based on AMD’s “Tonga’ class hardware,” and it’s the latest refresh of the GCN architecture available on the market.
Next page: Performance testing
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