Asus Strix GTX 960
January 22, 2015
Everyone knows by now that NVIDIA’s new Maxwell architecture is really good with the performance it offers per watt. Maxwell cards have been launched at the mid-range segment with the GTX 750 and 750 Ti. The top end is also covered by the GTX 980 and the GTX 970. This leaves a yawning gap in the upper mid-range that AMD’s R9 285 is currently occupying comfortably. That is about to change on January 22, 2015 with the launch of NVIDIA’s newest offering, the GTX 960.
The card has exactly half the CUDA cores and ROPs as the flagship GTX 980 at 1024 and 32 respectively, which is a lower core count than its predecessor the GTX 760. The Core clock matches the 980 at 1126MHz but the boost clock is lower at 1178MHz for the stock card. The Asus Strix GTX 960 bumps these up to 1228MHz and 1291MHz. The VRAM is also half at 2GB as against 4GB for the GTX 980 and clocked just 10MHz higher at 7010MHz for the stock card. The Asus Strix GTX 960 comes with 2GB of GDDR5 VRAM clocked at 7200MHz.
The launch price (MSRP) for the GTX 960 varies from ₹16,490 to ₹22,900. The Asus Strix GTX 960 has a MSRP of ₹19,500.
Build Quality and Packaging
The Asus Strix GTX 960 features Asus’s DirectCU II cooling design. Its Red, Grey and Black colour scheme with a matte finish and the stickers on the fan centres give it an Owl-like look, which incidentally is the mascot of the Strix brand. The card has a PCB that is shorter than its cooler with measured dimensions of 22.5cmX14cmX4cm, making it small enough to consider in a HTPC build based on an ITX board. The Strix has its USP on the 0dB technology which means they only begin operating once the GPU temperatures cross a thermal threshold of 55°C and scale back to zero once the temperature drops below 55°C. This means the card will be silent in idle usage scenarios and the fans will have a longer life. While we have tested this card in the winter when ambient temperatures are low, we wonder how well this will work out with the higher temperatures of summer. The threshold temperature of 55° for actuation of the fans is closer to the sweet spot to provide enough of a buffer to arrest the temperatures before they hit the design limits even in the hot ambient temperatures of summer. One might just want to scale back on the overclock in the summers to be on the safer side.
The top of the card is covered by a Heat Sheath, though it only extends for the length of the PCB, leaving the cooling fins exposed. The heatsink has a large copper base and multiple heatpipes using DirectCU II pipe layout. The cover above the heatsink feels a little flimsy when trying to insert or remove the card from the motherboard inside the case. The only LED on the card is the helpful White/Red power connector indicator to show whether the connection is fitted properly or not.
The GPU package comes with a quick start guide, a Strix Sticker, a software DVD and a DVI to VGA adapter. The DVI-I connector gets a protective cap as do the pins on the PCB for the PCI-E slot and the SLI connector. The Disc does not contain the drivers though, instead asking the user to install the GeForce Experience application to download and install them. It seems even Hardware now requires a one-time internet connection to be able to work.
We tested the Asus Strix GTX 960 not only for the average Frames per Second (FPS) but also for the 99th Percentile Frame time which tells us about the performance of the GPU within the second. Within the Second testing is useful to understand micro-stutter which can render a game unplayable despite FPS being high. Fraps 3.5.99 allowed us to calculate both.
The card is an upper Mid-range card that can push some games to their limits at the test resolution, so we decided to use highest possible settings in our benchmark games and compare with other Top End GPUs. We tried to disable CPU dependent settings or minimise their impact where possible. We also scaled back VSync and frame buffering were disabled for testing. All tests were run at 1920×1080 on a single monitor configuration.
CPU: AMD Phenom II X4 965 BE C3 @ 3.8GHz
Motherboard: ASRock 970 Extreme 3
RAM: 2x4GB G.Skill Sniper CL9 1600MHz, 2x2GB G.Skill Ripjaws CL9 1600MHz
PSU: Corsair TX650 650W (for GTX 980, Matrix Platinum 780 Ti, Mars GTX 760), Seasonic S12II Bronze 620W (for others)
HDD: 2xSeagate Barracuda 7200.12 1TB, 1xWesten Digital Red 3TB
OS: Windows 8.1 x64
NVIDIA Driver: 334.89 for older benchmarks
NVIDIA Driver: 344.07 (Beta Driver) for GTX 980
NVIDIA Driver: 347.25 for Asus Strix GTX 960
AMD Driver: 14.3 Beta 1 (Beta Driver)
While this system may not look like a purpose built test rig, we decided to use a normal usage PC so as to better reflect real world scores of the card. The games were also tested with a few applications like Antivirus, Browser, VOIP tool and others running in the background to get a realistic usage scenario. All HDDs were thoroughly defragmented prior to usage. Due to lack of equipment we were unable to conduct acoustic and power testing.
3DMark 11 Firestrike
3Dmark is an artificial Benchmarking tool whose Firestrike Test is very thorough on DirectX 11cards powering High-end PCs. The full test run for Firestrike includes 2 GPU only tests, a CPU dependent Physics Test and a Combined Graphics and Physics Test. The Tool is also useful for stress testing a GPU when run on loop.
Given that we are looking for the Performance of the Card itself, one should look at the Graphics score and the FPS for Graphics tests 1 and 2. The Physics and Combined tests are CPU dependent, which is the limiting factor of our test rig.
2014 Benchmark Games
We used a set of games as Benchmarks in our GPU reviews for 2014. Looking at the performance of some games in this set, we decided that they were too easy on the latest GPUs and needed to be switched for other, more demanding games.
We have presented a summary of benchmarks from the old set and have posted detailed benchmarks from our new set. The Games in the old set were Batman Arkham Origins, Battlefield 4, Bioshock Infinite, Company of Heroes 2, Crysis 3, Far Cry 3, GRID 2, Sleeping Dogs, Tomb Raider (2013) and Total War Rome II, with Thief (2014) for some overclocking benchmarks. Our new set retains Battlefield 4, Company of Heroes 2, Tomb Raider (2013) and Total War: Rome II. New additions are Far Cry 4 (replaces Far Cry 3), Grid Autosport (replaces GRID 2), Metro Last Light Redux (replaces Bioshock Infinite), Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (replaces Batman Arkham Origins), Ryse: Son of Rome (replaces Crysis 3) and Thief (2014)(replaces Sleeping Dogs). Since we didn’t have other cards to compare with in the new set, you will only see the standalone performance of two GTX 960 variants.
Batman Arkham Origins is a game that’s been supported by NVIDIA and utilises their PhysX technology to handle physics. We used highest possible settings. PhysX was also set to Enhanced. We ran the inbuilt benchmark tool with a FRAPS timed run of 120 seconds. Since this benchmark was picked mainly to showcase the NVIDIA exclusive PhysX performance, one should ignore the AMD card results which are generated sans PhysX.
The Striker 760 is an overclocked GPU and it manages to outperform both the GTX 960 variants. The Asus Strix GTX 960 does manage a higher minimum framerate though. Note that the GTX 960 performs at roughly two thirds of the GTX 980.
The Unreal Engine 3 powered Bioshock Infinite really pushed the boundaries of visual effects achievable with the ageing engine. It comes with a built in benchmark mode which runs for a lower time period than the standard 120s we used in other tests.
The GTX 960s are neck and neck in this and barely edge past the Striker. Again the performance is two thirds of the GTX 980 with the AMD card slotting in in between, but losing on the 99th percentile frametime and minimum FPS.
CryEngine 3 was built to push the PC Hardware to its limits with Crysis 3 and deliver Maximum Eye Candy. We used the highest possible settings for the purpose of our test. The test run consisted of a section of the first mission for 120s as the game surprisingly offers no benchmark tool.
We consider Crysis 3 to be the true graphical benchmark for GPUs given how little it varies in performance across CPUs. The Asus Strix GTX 960 manages to edge out the MSI GTX 960 GAMING 2G by a whisker, but that is enough to bring the average FPS above the 30 mark. The Striker is well and truly beat. The GTX 960s perform at 60% of the GTX 980.
Far Cry 3 is a visually impressive game that lacks a benchmark mode. We used highest possible settings and the test run consisted of a 120s sample from the game’s single player campaign where we spent some time goofing off in the open world.
The GTX 960s are again in a close race with the Asus Strix GTX 960 winning on two counts but dipping lower in minimum FPS. The Striker loses out to both but manages to beat the MSI GTX 960 GAMING 2G in the 99th percentile frametime and the minimum FPPS for both GTX 960s. The GTX 960s again perform at roughly 60% of the GTX 980 with the AMD card slotting in in between.
GRID 2 from Codemasters is one of the few games in our test suite that has no allegiance to either NVIDIA or AMD, which makes it a neutral candidate to better judge the GPU’s performance. We used highest possible Settings to run the benchmark tool offered by the game.
The GTX 960s spring a real surprise in this game with 90% of the performance of the GTX 980 and beating the Striker and the AMD card soundly. Even the minimum FPS is just 1 short of the GTX 980. The Asus Strix GTX 960 edges ahead once again.
While the game is ageing, Sleeping Dogs is still a stunner when it comes to running benchmarks. We pushed the settings to highest possible and ran the game’s built in benchmark run.
The GTX 960s perform quite poorly as related to other benchmarks. They barely manage to beat the Striker and are roughly 55% of the GTX 980. The Asus Strix GTX 960 manages to stay ahead of the MSI GTX 960 GAMING 2G on the average FPS but loses in the 99th percentile frametime. The AMD card performs much better.
2015 Benchmark Set
Since we didn’t have other cards to compare with in the new set, you will only see the standalone performance of two GTX 960 variants for some of the new games.
Company of Heroes 2
Relic’s Company of Heroes 2 is a tough nut to crack for quite a few GPUs, though it’s dependent on CPUs to a great degree as well. We used highest possible Settings with Physics turned off and Low AA for the short 45s benchmark run the game offers.
The MSI card manages to edge out both the Asus Strix GTX 960 and the AMD card, with both GTX 960s easily outperforming the Striker. In this game, the GTX 960 performs at roughly three quarters the GTX 980’s output.
The game is CPU heavy and the large fluctuations in the frametime graph show it, since the CPU is a bottleneck. The FPS stays above the playable 30 for the most part.
Far Cry 4
Far Cry 4 adds even more visual effects to the DUNIA engine of Far Cry 3 and it has some NVIDIA specific effects like God Rays and realistic Fur as well. This makes for an absolute visual treat when all settings are cranked up to the max like in our 2 minute benchmark run.
The Asus Strix GTX 960 seems to perform rather poorly with all of Far Cry 4’s bells and whistles on. Perhaps the additional power available to the MSI GTX 960 GAMING 2G helps it perform better, though neither card manages to breach the playable 30FPS framerate. Looks like this NVIDIA tech showcase is not quite ready for the midrange.
There are a lot of spikes and the stuttering was noticeable as the game warped in objects in the distance. The FPS was also all over the place. Seems Far Cry 4 needs more optimisation given how NVIDIA’s latest midrange cards struggle on it.
GRID Autosport is the next game in the GRID series from Codemasters that has specific effects reserved for Intel GPUs, which makes it great to judge the performance of NVIDIA and AMD cards as it provides an even playing field. We used the highest settings and used game’s benchmark in a 2 minute run.
The graph is tightly packed in the frametimes with no major spikes. Even the fps looks quite stable.
Metro Last Light Redux
4A Games have really cranked up the eye candy in Metro Last Light, and the Redux version comes with even more improvements to visuals. The game looks beautiful in its cramped corridors as well as its open outdoor environments and cranking up the settings can easily bring a GPU to its knees in the menu screen itself. We used the highest settings available except for SSAA that was set at 2x, since 4x was simply unplayable. The game has no inbuilt benchmark, so we chose a particular area to conduct out tests run in for a time of 2 minutes.
Metro wouldn’t let us push it to its limits so we had to settle for a little lower. Curiously, the MSI GTX 960 GAMING 2G manages to win in the average FPS, but loses in the minimum FPS and 99th percentile frametime to the Asus Strix GTX 960. The game stays barely playable and setting may need to be further lowered.
Barring a few noticeable spikes, the game stays consistent for the most part. There was noticeable stuttering where the spikes occurred. The FPS stays pretty consistent too.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Monolith have used some fancy effects to add some visual appeal to the dreary land of Mordor. Shadow of Mordor also uses PhysX for particle effects. The rain though doesn’t quite look natural and the game requires up to 6GB VRAM for using its Ultra HD textures. Curiously, it scales the game based on the screen’s natural resolution instead of offering resolution options. We used the highest available settings for the inbuilt benchmark, which runs for less than the standard 2 minutes of our other benchmarks.
Another even contest going by a whisker to the Asus Strix GTX 960. Mordor did run horribly when we tried pushing the textures beyond the RAM limit, but the game stayed easily playable for entirety of the run.
Other than the large spike at the start which was caused by activating the benchmarking in FRAPS, there are a couple of noticeable spikes and the game did stutter a bit. The FPS curve is relatively smooth.
Ryse: Son of Rome
Ryse pushes the newest iteration of the CryEngine to its limits as claimed by Crytek on the PC. It doesn’t have a benchmark mode, so we ran a fixed scenario for 2 minutes. The settings were set to the highest possible. This game scales the game as per the resolution of the screen instead of offering resolution options.
While the Game possesses a playable frame rate if one turns super sampling off, we decided to go for the maximum setting leading to the poor score you see here. Even then, the Asus Strix GTX 960 manages to sneak ahead of the MSI GTX 960 GAMING 2G.
There is a huge spike initially but the 99th percentile graph can be ignored given the unplayable FPS. The FPS graph remains pretty constant giving a good idea of the card’s limits.
Thief (2014) is a game that boasts support for AMD’s Mantle and its TrueAudio tech. It is a graphical showcase and has a built in benchmark, though the run time is less than our standard 2 minutes. We set all settings to the highest possible.
The Frametime graph shows two large spikes but is tight for the most part. The FPS graph doesn’t show huge fluctuations either.
Tomb Raider (2013)
Tomb Raider introduced us to a new Lara with fabled TressFX hair that behaves a lot more realistically than the pre-rendered mop we were used to. However the card does not seem to cope well with this technology and we had to drop it in our test run. We used highest possible settings with TressFX on. The Test run was shorter since the benchmark tool offered by the game runs for less than out 120s target time.
TressFX is really heavy on the NVIDIA cards with all performing relatively poorly. The GTX 960s perform at roughly 60% of the GTX 980 and there isn’t much between them though the MSI GTX 960 Gaming 2G has a very slight edge. Both barely manage to retain a playable framerate and some options might need toning down.
The spikes on the frametime graph are caused by the CPU bottlenecking the GPU. The graphs are pretty smooth for the most part though they dip below playable framerates for half the run.
Total War: Rome II
Total War: Rome II is another CPU heavy game that offers significant visual goodness. It offers a benchmark tool that focuses more on GPU power though and that is what we used for our test run of 120s. We set the game to Extreme and Unit Size to Small so as to reduce the impact of the CPU. Unlimited Video Memory was off so the game could scale down visual settings if it reached a bottleneck.
The GTX 960 is a major improvement over the Striker in this CPU heavy game. While both GTX 960s dip below playable framerates, once again the MSI GTX 960 Gaming G2 emerges superior to the Asus Strix GTX 960 in a CPU intensive game though it loses out in the 99th percentile frametime. The performance is roughly three quarters that of the GTX 980 once again, with the AMD card slotting between them.
The graph shows a lot of heavy spikes thanks to the bottleneck caused by the CPU. The FPS graph stays above playable for the most part but plunges below 30FPS in close up scenes.
Our acoustics testing consisted of trying to determine how noticeable the noise output from the card was, when kept in a case at 1m distance with the side panel closed, as it might be in a real world scenario. Noise is a very relative characteristic that depends not only on the person hearing, but also the background noise of their surroundings. During the course of our testing, we found that the card barely went over 50% fan speed even at full load and overclocked, which was silent to our ears. However, setting the fans at 100% rpm makes a noticeable din that sounds like a fly buzzing close to one’s ear.
At idle the card hovered in the 34°-36°C range with an ambient temperature of 24°C which is average. The card easily went to 62°C under load. While overclocked it would plateau out at 66°C as the fans kicked into action, though they never needed to go beyond 55% speed. This goes to show the effectiveness of Asus’s DirectCU II design that manages to keep the card cooler than the competition despite having part of the heatsink fins exposed. This is a great improvement over the stock cooling solution.
The card comes in a single 6 pin power connector configuration which rates it at 150W TDP theoretically though it matches the stock card with a 120W TDP. The card requires a good PSU for overclocking. The power efficiency of the Maxell family is well known and this card does not stray from that norm.
Using Asus’s GPU Tweak utility, we were able to push the core clock to 1380MHz with boost clock at 1443 MHz and the Samsung VRAM chips to 1900 MHz (7600 MHz effective) which is a total overclock of about 11.8% over stock for the core clock and about 5.5% for the VRAM. On the stock card, with its lower clocks these gains translate to 22.5% for the boost clock and 8.4% for the VRAM. GPU tweak automatically detects the safe overclock ranges for Asus cards and displays its sliders accordingly. With MSI Afterburner, we found we could bump the core clock by a further 8 MHz though the gain is too minor to be noticeable in actual performance. These are good figures for overclocking without any alterations to the card or without increasing the voltage. The Voltage can be increased to improve stability of the overclock though these settings are borderline stable with a power target of 115%. For regular usage one should stick with more stable clocks of 1350MHz core and 1875MHz (7500MHz effective) for the VRAM. All our tests however, were conducted in the stock configuration.
We ran 3DMark to check improvements in the overclocked performance and the graphics score increased from 6129 to 6570, which is marginally lower than the MSI GTX 960 Gaming 2G at the same overclocked settings. It realistically translates into a .1 fps difference and lies within the statistical margin of error to be ignored and one can assume both card perform roughly the same at this overclock, with the Asus having 2 pins less on its power connector and better cooling performance.
We also ran the benchmark offered by the game Thief to get a real world idea of the performance gains. We used the Very High settings for our runs which concluded in less time than our standard 120 second runs. One must note that Thief is slightly unreliable as a benchmark due to inconsistency in results across various runs. Curiously this showed with the Asus Strix GTX 960 performing slightly worse when overclocked on average with a higher 99th percentile frametime.
Asus has their GPU Tweak utility for tweaking the settings of this card. With NVIDIA’s GeForce Experience, the card can support features like Shadowplay and game streaming. The card also lets one use a technique called Dynamic Super Resolution that can be used to enhance the visual quality of shoddy console ports. It is also DirectX 12 ready and can work with G-Sync monitors that are just making their way to India. It also touts a new video engine that makes it ideal to power HTPCs by being able to output resolutions up to 5k with support for up to four 4k displays.
The Asus Strix GTX 960 is a great card. Its performance improves on not just the GK 104 parts it’s derived from with much less power than those cards. It performs at roughly two thirds of what the elder sibling GTX 980 outputs. Given that its price is less than half of the latter and the specifications are exactly half, that kind of performance is quite commendable. A curious issue with the Asus Strix GTX 960 seems to be that it slightly struggles with CPU intensive games, especially when the CPU is a bottleneck. Also, some AMD optimised games still cause hiccoughs with NVIDIA cards.
The DirectCU II cooling design is efficient at keeping the card cool but has some scope for improvement. The smaller PCB with exposed heatsink may not appeal to some buyers but the cooling performance is worth it. The only concern we have is with the 0db fan technology performing well when the ambient temperatures are really high as in the summers in India, especially if one is looking to run the card overclocked, though we feel the actuation temperature of 55°C should provide enough of a buffer.
The overclocking performance of the card is decent (Since these cards are factory overclocked the relative gains are much lesser) and the performance gains are quite noteworthy. The power efficiency of the GPU adds another dimension when judging its value for money, since we also get more value in the operating costs. The pricing and the potential overclocking performance offered by the card make it excellent value for money. Considering all the findings of our tests, we award this card the iLL Gaming Gold award.
We are extremely grateful to NVIDIA, MSI and Asus for providing us with test samples for reviewing prior to launch.
+Excellent performance per watt
+Excellent cooling solution
-Struggles in AMD optimised games