NVidia and AMD both define the ~$200 price-range as a zone of serious contention among graphics cards. The launch of the 960 held the card to high standards for 1080 gaming, a point nVidia drove home with data showing the prevalence of 1920x1080 as the standard desktop resolution for most gamers.
Our GTX 960 review employed ASUS' Strix 960, a 2GB card with a heavy focus on silence and cooling efficiency, but we've since received several other GTX 960 devices. In this round-up, we'll review the ASUS Strix, EVGA SuperSC 4GB, MSI Gaming 4GB, and PNY XLR8 Elite GTX 960 video cards. The benchmark tests each device for heatsink efficacy, framerate output (FPS) in games, and memory capacity advantages.
Before getting into the thick of it, here's some pertinent GTX 960 content that you should consider:
Note that benchmarks between previous articles may not be comparable to today's benchmark due to system configuration changes and driver updates. Also note that this is strictly a GTX 960 round-up, and so will feature no competing video cards. For cost analysis against AMD or other nVidia solutions, visit our original GTX 960 review.
GTX 960 Specs Comparison: ASUS, EVGA, MSI, PNY
|ASUS Strix||PNY XLR8 Elite||EVGA SuperSC||MSI Gaming 4G|
|Core Clock (GPU)||1291MHz||1304MHz||1279MHz||1241MHz|
|Effective Memory Clock||7200MHz||7010MHz||7010MHz||7010MHz|
|Dimensions||8.47 x 4.77 x 1.61”
210.52 x 120.12 x 40.09mm
|7.9 x 3.57 x 1.2”
200.9 x 90.8 x 30.9mm
|10.2 x 3.9 x 1.37”
260 x 100 x 35mm
|10.6 x 4.5 x 1.57”
270 x 115 x 40mm
Lifetime w/ registration
|Price||$210 (10% off now)||$230 (10% off now)||$240||$230|
Ignoring the present 10% discount on the PNY and ASUS devices (expires on 4/30), the prices are easily differentiated: The 4GB models cost $230 and $240 (MSI, EVGA) and the tested 2GB models cost $210 and $230 (ASUS, PNY). To this end, ASUS' GTX 960 Strix becomes the most immediately affordable (tested) 2GB solution. PNY's XLR8 Elite is left somewhat out of range of its many 2GB competitors' market positioning, encroaching on MSI's 4GB territory.
If we're counting the 10% sale, despite its limited duration, that'd bring the ASUS Strix card down to ~$189 – priced below reference – and the PNY XLR8 to $207.
The best argument in favor of the XLR8's price isn't its pre-overclock – as we'll find out momentarily – but its warranty. More on that below.
As for the 4GB devices, EVGA's SuperSC card ships at $240 with a “superclocked” frequency (1279MHz over reference 1126MHz) against MSI's slightly lower 1241MHz for $230.
We previously tested 4GB vs. 2GB devices and found somewhat noteworthy gains in certain applications – particularly 1% and 0.1% low metrics – but indicated that not all games utilize the capacity. More on that here.
What Differentiates a Video Card?
(Above: An image from our "Understanding CPU Coolers" article. This cross-section anatomy functions very similarly to GPU coolers).
This is something we've discussed in depth with non-reference devices, and the answer hasn't changed much since then.
Although the terms “GPU” and “video card” are regularly interchanged on message boards, the fact is that the two are greatly different. The GPU consists of the physical silicon – the semiconductor – fabricated and sold by nVidia. NVidia sells its chips to various board partners, to include the four listed here, who then apply varying levels of design and engineering to the accompanying hardware (resulting in the final AIC, or add-in card). Although nVidia will often offer reference PCBs and coolers, manufacturers will sometimes stray from the reference designs in order to provide a more unique product. This is regularly done with the intent of building an overclocking-specific card, though that's more seen at the high-end (see: GTX 980 options).
For the most part, manufacturers have the greatest flexibility to differentiate themselves through coolers and pre-overclocks. Other, more overlooked factors would include warranty options – like PNY's lifetime warranty (with registration, mind you).
Let's look at each of the cards in more depth.
ASUS Strix GTX 960 (2GB)
The Strix is among the smallest cards, dwarfing only PNY's XLR8 Elite. To this end, it's a versatile performer with applications in small form factor (SFF) enclosures that demand minimal space consumption. The Strix is designed to front an owl-like visage, using dual fans for the “eyes” and plastic molding for the “face;” the fans, as with all GTX 960s we tested, will spin down to 0RPM (outputting 0dBA) when insignificant load is detected on the GPU. The fans won't spin-up until the GPU exceeds 30W power consumption, ensuring silent operation when playing low-demand games like LoL.
The Strix implements a compact cooler with a 10mm heatpipe, advertised as “transporting 40% more heat away from the GPU” and boasting “performance that's three times quieter than reference.”
ASUS' Strix is equipped with a backplate, as seems to be this generation's trend. The backplate offers effectively zero functional advantage to such a small card – it's not prone to warping or bending under its own weight – but does tie together the aesthetic. On a device like this, a backplate is ultimately meant to hide some of the less-than-pretty solder points on the rear-side of the PCB.
Of the cards we're testing, the Strix offers the second-highest core clock (1291MHz), but second lowest boost clock (1317MHz). It is noteworthy that the Strix ships with a native memory clockrate of 190MHz higher than its competitors. The Strix uses a single 6-pin power connector. Our Strix had the highest power target percentage, allowing up to 115% of max TDP to be fueled to the card for overclocking.
EVGA GTX 960 SuperSC (4GB)
EVGA's SuperSC GTX 960 exudes high build quality, a fact amplified by its two metal plates flanking the PCB, providing a sturdy and aesthetically-pleasing exterior. The backplate has drilled holes that theoretically assist with thermal dissipation and expose critical voltage check solder points, with further beautification done in the form of cut-out EVGA branding.
The SuperSC uses similar fan technology to the Strix, spinning up only when necessary. EVGA's card – a significantly larger offering – hosts a comparatively massive aluminum heatsink and an additional 2GB of video memory on-device.
EVGA's GTX 960 under test uses the ACX 2.0 cooler, something we discuss here, and employs its fans to scoop hot air away from the heatsink.
MSI Gaming 4G (4GB)
MSI's card is a black-and-red behemoth, extruding out from the expansion slot with imperialistic demands for real-estate. The card offers a flat, wide stature, using two ~90mm torx fans and 8mm heatpipes for dissipation. MSI's card, like the others, spins-up only when under a triggering demand. We noticed that the Gaming 4G variant of the 960 managed to sustain lower thermals for longer than its competition, something we'll showcase below.
The 4G makes aggressive use of MSI's dragon branding, designed specifically to accompany the company's red-and-black product catalog in other component categories. MSI's unit hosts 4GB of VRAM, like the EVGA SuperSC card, and stands as the immediate competitor to EVGA's offering.
MSI makes use of a backplate, as the previous devices have, but doesn't have the flanking plates around the PCB that are present on the EVGA device. This may be a contributing factor to the slightly lower MSRP of MSI's 4GB GTX 960.
PNY XLR8 Elite GTX 960 (2GB)
PNY's XLR8 Elite is the smallest card we tested, using two minimally-sized push fans mounted atop an aluminum heatsink with what appear to be two 6mm heatpipes. The unit uses a single 6-pin power connector, but ships with the highest pre-overclocked frequencies. The XLR8 Elite is stock clocked to 1304MHz with a 1367MHz boost clock, pushing it just a bit above EVGA's SuperSC boost clock of 1342MHz. We'll find out below whether or not these clock speeds really matter.
The XLR8 is the only card on the bench not to use a backplate, instead exposing the black PCB to the user. Despite this, the card does have a 'faceplate' for the front of the card, similar to what EVGA does.
This card is a 2GB model, but is priced in the range of MSI's 4GB GTX 960. The premium is likely a result of the high pre-overclocked settings.
Continue to Page 2 for the test methodology & benchmarks.