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Geforce GTX960 : Maxwell for the masses

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The inevitable has happened, after blitzing the high end graphics market with the superlative GTX 970 and its big brother the GTX 980, Nvidia GTX 960 cards are now on store shelves. For most users the mid-range is the sweet spot and predictably these cards sell extremely well. So if youíre keen on the latest budget performance parts, read on for the lowdown.

The GTX 960 is the first midrange card sporting the Maxwell GPU architecture and replaces the aging GTX 760, which has been holding the fort since its release in mid-2013.

The first consideration on whether you want and upgrade along the midrange curve is the feature-set. Maxwell came with a few tricks up its sleeve, including DirectX 12 support, Nvidia Voxel Global Illumination, Multi-Frame sampled AA and Dynamic Super Resolution. None of these features are a reason to buy one of these cards by itself, but itís nice to know some of the high-tech silicon has made its way down the price range.

The GM206 chip on the GTX 960 has about 43% fewer transistors when compared to the GTX 980 which translates to half as many CUDA cores. Thatís not bad when you consider the GTX 980 is a $500+ card and the GTX 960 will retail for about $200, depending on the model. It seems youíd be getting a pretty good deal all things considered. The problem here is the GTX 970, which trades blows with the 980, but only costs about $300 to $350. The GTX 960 isnít in the same league as this card, but the price gap is relatively tiny. The GTX 960 is about 30% slower than the GTX970 on average, depending on the application. It also takes a big cut in VRAM having only half of the 970ís 4GB. This means that high-resolution textures or other applications that need VRAM might fare much worse on the 960.

On the AMD side the GTX 960 is neck-and-neck with the Radeon R9 285, thereís almost no choice between these cards, trading blows on different benchmarks.

Things arenít much better for the 960 when comparing it to the card it replaces. It outperforms the 760, but not by much.

Maxwell was not however about performance. The big shock came when we saw how little power these GPUs used. You could swop one GTX 780 for two 970s without making any difference in PSU requirements. In general under an average gaming or graphics load the GTX 960 uses as much power as a GTX 650 Ti. If you have a machine that currently uses something in the GTX 650 Ti performance class the 960 could be a serious kick in the pants without having to uprate the rest of the system. Many models of 960 are equipped with very quiet coolers indeed and passive cooling is a definite possibility.

Seen from this perspective the GTX 960 is a more palatable deal, but still we find it hard to recommend as long as the GTX 970 exists with that relatively narrow price-gap. Even when you take SLI into consideration it doesnít make financial sense. When the 960 drops below the $200 mark and gets passive cooling however, it may be the small form factor or HTPC card of choice.