Nvidia GTX 950: The Cheap GPU We Were Waiting For?

Monster GPUs, 4K screens, zillions of pixels pumped per picosecond. These things are exciting. But are they relevant to most of us? When a top graphics card costs over £500 and arguably has an optimal working life of about 18 months to two years, I’m not so sure. Either way, most of us simply don’t buy that kind of clobber. Instead we buy things like the Nvidia’s new budget offering, the £120 / $160 GeForce GTX 950. And we buy them because, well, they’re actually affordable. But what exactly is life like at the more prosaic end of the pixel-pumping spectrum? To find out, I’ve been slumming it with the new 950. This is what I have discovered.

First, let’s deal with some speeds and feeds. You might expect given the ‘950’ moniker that this is Nivida’s new entry-level graphics card. But not quite. The older GeForce GTX 750 and 750 Ti boards live on.

That’s actually good news, because it suggests the 950 should be more than just a generational step over the 750 boards. It’s a critical segment higher in the GPU pecking order.

The 750 was always impressive in terms of the performance it delivered given its meagre specification. But even at launch, I didn’t think it was truly gaming viable.

Anyway, here’s how the new 950 lines up spec-wise. And remember, the 950 sports Nvidia’s second-generation Maxwell technology. That means you can’t simply look at the number of shaders in older ‘Maxwell’ cards like a GTX 750 Ti or GTX 770 and draw simple conclusions, though up to a point that is possible with other Maxwell 2 cards like a 960 or a 970.

Zotac’s AMP Edition GTX 950 is a little higher clocked than the norm, if you care about that kind of thing

On that note, the graphics chip inside the new 950 is indeed exactly the same silicon as the found in the existing GeForce GTX 960 board. It’s known as GM206 in Nvidia’s kerazee GPU codex. Of course, the 950 is cheaper than the 960, and that means they’ve turned bits off.

You still get 32 render outputs. But the texture units drop from 64 to 48 and the shader core counts shrinks from 1,024 to 768. In practice, numbers like that aren’t always a good guide to performance. But all other things being equal, the more fancy visual effects a given game has, the more shader count in particular will limit performance.

Meanwhile, the 128-bit memory bus remains and clockspeeds for both memory and GPU core haven’t shifted much. Oh, and we’re talking 2GB of graphics memory. Which may or may not be an issue for you – more on that here.

Anyway, re specifics the card I have in is Zotac’s AMP Edition GTX 950 which goes for an extra £20 / $30 or so and bumps the stock clockspeeds by about five per cent. Whichever 950 you go for, it’ll be a pretty compact board, though it’s worth noting that it does require a single six-pin power rail. You can’t just run these boards off the PCI Express socket, sadly.

Note the six-pin power rail. You can’t just run off PCI Express power

If that’s the particulars squared away, what’s this thing like to game and generally live with? Inevitably, that’s a complicated question. Part of the problem is how clever games have become. Many will autodetect your GPU and disable certain rendering features. That means hitting the ‘ultra’ button in the settings menu doesn’t always do the same thing. It varies according to the card in question.

Much of the time, that makes sense. There’s little point, for instance, in a game allowing you to enable settings that take the graphics memory usage well beyond the card’s frame buffer. That simply always destroys frame rates.

It’s a budget board but it’s still nicely built

Of course, you can usually force settings via config files. But it’s generally worth being aware how this stuff works.

With that in mind, let’s talk GTA V. Here’s a game that does quite a bit of this background load balancing in order to keep the memory footprint inside the available memory budget.

At a glance, GTA V running 950-stylee looks thoroughly familiar…

Max GTA V out via the in-game menu at 1,920 by 1,080 pixels with the 950 and the result is 1.6GB’s worth of memory usage. That’s far less than you’d see doing the same thing with, say, a 4GB card.

The good news is that it runs pretty nicely thus configured. It feels smooth and the input lag levels are low. Fire up Fraps and the frame counter reveals numbers typically in the mid to high 30s. In other words, just enough.

The catch to all this is the image quality. I’m pretty sure the texture quality has gone south versus a high end card. What’s more, the game has also definitely nixed some of the fancier shader effects. With a high end card, you get bump mapped sand on the beach. With the 950, it’s just a flat texture. How much you care is up to you, but achieving playable frame rates does come at a cost.

Dimples in sand are not bump or ‘normal’ mapped. The humanity…

That said, you can bump the resolution up to 2,560 by 1,440 and not suffer much of a drop in frames rates. Impressive. However, the input lag then becomes pretty unpleasant. Less impressive.

Next up, Witcher 3. Hit the ‘Ultra’ button when running at 1080p and the GTX 950 isn’t playable. Fraps will tell you the frame rates are in the mid 20s, but the lag is pretty horrendous and the overall experience is clunky and unpleasant.

However, step down a notch in the global settings from Ultra to High and the frame rates jump up into the 40s and the input lag largely disappears. What’s more, as the screen shots below show, the step down in visual quality is relatively subtle. Nice.

Witcher 3 running in full reheat in ‘Ultra’ mode above. Plain old ‘High’ below. Yeah, it’s not that dramatic a difference

Running at 2,560 by 1,440 pixels and High knocks the frame rate back to the mid 20s and our old friend input lag returns. Still, it’s undeniably impressive to see a card like this coming close to playability at that resolution in a game as pretty as Witcher.

Next up is Total War: Rome II. Of all the games I tried, this was the best match for the 950. At ‘Extreme’ graphics settings and 1080p, Rome is genuinely very playable and comes without any obvious compromises in terms of image quality. Frame rates, for the record, are in the 30 to 40fps range.

Even better, Rome is actually playable at 2,560 by 1,440 on this board. It’s still mostly smooth and largely lagless. In fact, the overall feel is not dramatically different from the MSI GTX 980 I’ve had installed for the last month or two.

Strategy games like Rome II are probably the best fit with a budget board like the 950

Of course, that reflects the fact that Rome is a relatively CPU-limited game. Moreover, some hardware glitches recently have seen me fall back temporarily to an older six-core Intel Gulftown CPU, which is a few generations old. So that CPU limitation will be even more apparent.

Overall, then, the 950 gets a lot done with a little. That 128-bit memory bus will always make me feel a bit uncomfortable. Ditto the 2GB of memory. But there’s also no denying that Nvidia clearly has some very clever data compression tech going on. The 950 does things that you simply wouldn’t think possible when you look at the numbers on paper.

Rome even runs pretty sweetly at 2,560 by 1,600 pixels

OK, you will need to keep expectations in check. You’ll also need to get your hands dirty tweaking the settings in those games that don’t do it for you, though Nvidia’s GeForce Experience utility can help you with that.

But the simple answer is, yes, you can have a genuinely good gaming time with the new 950. I also think that it’s cheap enough that my default advice re stretching to a £200 / $250 board if you can doesn’t necessarily apply. Yes, I still think you should stretch to that kind of price level if you are serious about your gaming. But if for whatever reason you are unwilling or unable, the good news is that you and the new GTX 950 will make a decent goer of things.

55 Comments

  1. Penguin_Factory says:

    Still rocking my GTX 660, and it’s running most games (including MGS V) just fine. When I do eventually upgrade I intend to jump as far up the price ladder as I can so I don’t have to do it again for a long time.

    • Premium User Badge

      Risingson says:

      I’d say don’t do that. Spend about 150-200 pounds, unless you are going to upgrade everything else.

      • SirRoderick says:

        I’d say it’s always better to buy ONE good card every so often instead of a lower end on every 1-2 years. Right now something like a GTX 970 seems to be the best idea.

        • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

          Always depends on standards and what you seek though, for me 2 years is the maximum lifespam of the most high end freshly released card ( Titans and dualGPU excluded ).

          I think one would be better served to stay in the same time range while adjusting the price according to budget, otherwise you run the risk of buying something big for what you think is extra futureproofing and what happens instead is that you get used to a level of quality/performance that “ruins” your expectations forever.

          Well that’s what happened to me at least, first time i jumped into something more juicy i realized i couldn’t ever go back.

    • GamesBrit says:

      GTX 650 over here!

      • Premium User Badge

        Harlander says:

        I’ve got something in that range as well. I’ve not looked at it in so long I can’t even remember the number of it. 670, maybe?

        The trouble I have with these articles is they always compare the cheap card to the super-expensive one, when I’d find a comparison to my current cheap card much more useful.

        • EKSelenc says:

          You can always use anandtech.com’s great bench data to compare. If your current GPU is ‘too old’ to be listed in the later tests – roll back a bit and find a card that remains longer in production and it’s possible to compare it for the next couple years.
          For instance, my oldie GTX 460 is almost on par with GTX 650 Ti, and latter is in 2014 bench at least.

    • TigerWolfe says:

      Still using 2 GTX 460TIs, haven’t encountered anything they won’t handle at at least an acceptable level. I would like to upgrade though.

    • vorador says:

      Ditto. While i need to dial back the settings on some games, everything runs fine on my 660 Ti. I was thinking of upgrading this year, but with VR coming soon, i’d rather wait for Pascal.

    • Carra says:

      Got a 670. But looking at recent games it looks like it’s about time to upgrade. MGS? Min 650. Witcher 3? Min 660. And I want to run my games at a native resolution of 2560×1440.

  2. Simes says:

    Given the way prices are at retail at the moment, it seems like you’d be better paying roughly the same money for a GTX960 card instead. Am I off base on that?

    • Sakkura says:

      In the US, it’s a $30 difference, and in the UK it’s a £25 difference. Given the small performance gap, that makes the 950 pretty attractive.

  3. Sakkura says:

    You’re saying the GTX 770 is an older Maxwell card, when it is actually a Kepler card.

  4. spoileddecayingmaggots says:

    I am running GTX 965M 2 gig on Laptop with 1920×1080 with an i7 4720. I am not very knowledgeable concerning PC gaming specs, but that is exactly what I was assured this ASUS gaming PC would do…perform quite well for PC gaming as far as next-gen. DA-I looks pretty damn nice..no lag at Ultra..perfect. I am on the fence with giving Witcher 3 a try as I found W2’s control scheme very clunky…but SO biting my nails waiting for Sword Coast Legends.

    Honestly I am really just wondering what your take on my above specs might be, how long I can possibly look forward to gaming in a stable condition in this current “next-gen” (PS4/Xbox One/etc) era, and lastly how does it compare to the GTX 950 you discussed above.

    Thanks for your time!

    Sid

    • Sakkura says:

      The GTX 965M has the same hardware resources as the GTX 960, but runs at lower clocks. Performance should be roughly comparable to the GTX 950.

  5. Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

    So I guess that two r9 270s crossfired are gonna perform better? What single gpu could I get (preferably nvidia) that would give me a noticeable boost in performance?

    • Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

      I’d like to add that I am, and will be for the foreseeable future, gaming on 1080p.

      • Person of Interest says:

        Are you playing games that have poor/non-existent crossfire support? Anandtech says the GTX 970 is slightly more than twice as fast as a single R9 270, so upgrading to that card will benefit you somewhere between “a little” and “a lot”, depending entirely on how the game benefits from crossfire.

        But a 970 is more than what is necessary for 1080p @ 60Hz, unless you insist on setting every graphical option to Ultra, or are severely bothered by the occasional frame drop or screen tear.

        What is it about your current setup that you aren’t happy with? Your cards should perform better than a single 950 or 960 in games with crossfire support, as long as you also have an Intel i5/i7 CPU, or the equivalent AMD CPU.

    • Pulstar says:

      No need to upgrade this year if you’re running two R270s. DirectX12 should breathe a bit of life into them as well.

    • lanelor says:

      DO. NOT. CROSSFIRE.

      Save for a better single card or limit the framerate. My dual R9 280 configuration crossfired Skyrim, FarCry3 on DX9, FarCry4, TombRaider … and that’s it … + Divinity: OriginalSin.

      Most games require extra work from devs and driver writers just to be able to utilize a second GPU and from there to proper utilization are many month of waiting (if ever). I have gone thru Witcher 3 about 3 times while waiting for proper CF support. Then again if I waited another 6 months may have bought the game with patches and expansions for less than 50E, but that’s another line of thought.

      tl:dr 2nd GPU usage is very game specific, mostly isn’t worth it

  6. Universal Quitter says:

    What about SLI’ing them, since they’re so cheap? Would the end result be inferior, superior, or indistinguishable from a 960, or even the good ol’ 770?

    • Person of Interest says:

      According to TechPowerUp’s review, the 950 is essentially half of a 970: half-price, half-power consumption (at load; same at idle), and half-performance. The 960 is similarly about 2/3rds of a 970.

      There’s no reason to fuss with SLI: if you want higher performance, you should simply buy a higher-performing card.

  7. Sin Vega says:

    Er… um… does it do blue? I like blue.

    • Robslap says:

      No. Can I interest you in a sort of teal?

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      phuzz says:

      If you want real blues then you have to go with an ATI card, nVidia just can’t cut it below 525nm.

  8. ThomasHL says:

    I don’t think I could pick out the ultra screenshot from the high screenshot in a blind test. The biggest difference in the images seems to be the sun in a slightly different position.

    After looking for some graphical differences, I think Ultra has slightly more and better looking shrubbery and might be applying some fancy effect to the shadows on Geralt’s chainmail.

    • ThomasHL says:

      Oh there are some additional rocks on Ultra too

      • steves says:

        If you get a 980Ti you can see ALL the rocks. And they are extra rocky!

        Seriously though, trying to judge your experience of graphics quality in game by closely inspecting low-res static images is insane.

        That’s not how your eyes and brain work.

        It’s mostly about motion, or the illusion of at least. Anything slightly wrong there, you will notice – inconsistent frame times, screen tearing, the odd wobble, you pick up on that shit.

  9. pfooti says:

    Hmm, so the question (in general) is: when should I start budgeting to replace my 760? I can still run the games I’m actually playing just fine, but I tend to play older games anyway. It seems like this wouldn’t be a huge upgrade for me at this time, and maybe I should wait another generation to get whatever’s next in the pipeline at the $250 level.

    • Person of Interest says:

      It seems like the graphics requirements for AAA games tend to jump when a new generation of consoles is released, and then holds rather steady. The 760 is adequate to play last-gen games (PS3/Xbox360 era) 1080p @ 60Hz and current-gen games (PS4/Xbone era) 1080p @ 30Hz. So if you are content with that level of performance, you can probably keep your 760 for several more years!

      If you think you might be interested in VR, then maybe it’s a good idea to wait until the end of the year when the Oculus and Vive will have been benchmarked. Oculus says a 970 is the minimum, but until these devices have been widely tested it’s probably wisest to wait and see if that’s truly the case.

      • emertonom says:

        This is good advice. I’ve currently got a 560, but I’m psyched about VR, so I’ll be upgrading next spring–I’m hoping by then nVidia’s HBM offerings will be surfacing, and driving down some prices on the current-gen offerings.

    • Kefren says:

      I’ve just upgraded to a 750Ti so I could play Witcher 3 (I had a GTX 9800 before, which had always seemed fine to me). I’m happy with the 750, can’t imagine needing anything faster until VR is settled in and I think about trying it. I rarely run games with all the settings on anyway (in fact, I turn off blur and depth of field and all that; V Sync is the only thing I generally need).

    • Timbrelaine says:

      The 950 is one generation newer and a lot less GPU than the 760. I’d wait at least one more generation if I were you.

  10. racccoon says:

    I pretty happy with my GTX650.
    I am Waiting/Watching on GTX980 to drop.
    So that’s my next upgrade the GTX980.

    • JustAchaP says:

      I’m in the exact same boat as you. Except I’ll just settle for 970 because Australian prices.

  11. Wedge says:

    I like that the power requirements are only 350W, which is feasible with a compact power supply. Unfortunately nobody bothers to make low-profile GPU’s that would make this matter.

    I feel like there’s a huge marketing disconnect between all the short length GPU designs and compact cases, because all the compact cases either advertise how they fit large GPU’s despite their size, or are low-profile and don’t fit any GPU.

    I want to be able to build a console sized PC with decent gaming capabilities, but every “small” PC case still has the same width as my mid-tower desktop, which doesn’t help much to make it significantly more portable (like being able to carry it in a shoulder bag or something).

    • Wedge says:

      And thinking about that got me to look into it with very specific Googling words, and I found Silverstone DOES make thin PC cases that use PCI-E risers to accommodate GPUs. So maybe it is possible, though the short GPU’s are still pointless in a case like that.

    • Asurmen says:

      Fury Nano seems to meet your requirements.

  12. sfury says:

    Bought a second-hand r9 290 last month for $160. (lots of people in my country sell their bitcoin mining rigs, read somewhere it actually wears GPUs less than gaming high-spec games, plus I tested said card for 3 days and didn’t find any problems and guy that sold it to me was upfront how long it had mined ~6 months)

    I think I’m set for life now, not gonna think of a card change for the next 4-5 years. :)

  13. Premium User Badge

    Tkrens says:

    950 eh? Well sirs, I still have an old 250gts from a year or six ago, if it isn’t more. Do you think I can sell it to a museum for enough money to buy a 950?

    • SuicideKing says:

      If it had an Apple logo on it, maybe you could have! :p

  14. BTAxis says:

    I use a GTX 480, which still groks everything I throw at it (which, granted, isn’t much). I am thinking about upgrading it though, but my consideration here is mostly the noise – the 480 gets *hot*, and also loud.

    • bobbobob says:

      I still have a 460GTX, which I think was an old Laird recommendation. I’m still really happy with it, but it IS starting to creak a bit – and the lights dim across town when it fires up.

    • BTAxis says:

      I had a look at a PassMark comparison, so yeah, probably not interested in a 950.

    • SirRoderick says:

      970 is the best product on the Nvidia side for sure. Obviously more expensive, but it’d last you a good long while.

  15. d70cw says:

    probably best to wait to next lot of dx12 cards now anyways

    • SirRoderick says:

      This card is compatible with DX 12, it is based on Maxwell after all and all thosecards are DX 12 capable.

      • vorador says:

        Nah, Maxwell lacks Asyncronous Computing support. While it runs dx12 with that disabled, it does badly. Right now the only game with support for dx12 (Ashes of Singularity) actually ran worse on dx12 mode on Maxwell cards.

        It might improve with a driver update, or it might not. It’s still too early.

  16. Dale Winton says:

    Best buying a 280x on ebay for £100. Much faster and more memory

  17. lglethal says:

    OK I may end up regretting this but I’m going to ask the hive mind for suggestions on where to buy kit as I’m looking to build my first new desktop in over 10 years. For the last 4 years I’ve been using a fantastic gaming laptop (Asus G73 series) but its finally beginning to give up the ghost. When I play modern games it sounds like a jet engine, and puts out about the same amount of heat out the back. Still its been a great laptop. But now its time to settle back down with a nice gaming desktop (something i7, with an Nvidia 970 or similar).

    Where oh brilliant RPS HiveMind should I start looking for the pieces to build? Oh and I live in Germany, so European distributors please.

    • pepelepew says:

      fellow german here, i built my rig using mindfactory and hwv (hardwareversand) as well as e-bay and the forum at pcgameshardware (you need to be an active forum member with >200 comments before you can access the buy/sell subforum though),
      also there’s a site called zackzack.de were you can find limited time offers that sometimes are good bargains, right now there’s some cheap ram and a very decent asus main board to be found on there. and always double-check prices with geizhals.de, best page for comparing hardware prices. if you’re lucky you can find monster deals on e-bay ( got my i7 4770k, noctua nh-d14, asus xonar dx, nanoxia case and hd 7970 ghz edition from there with between 15% to 40% savings, it takes some scouting but e-bay still is a good place to find cheap stuff)

      hope that helped

      • lglethal says:

        Vielen Dank pepelepew. I’ll be looking into all of those sites. That motherboard is very tempting but I’m not quite ready to start purchasing things yet (need to wait for the end of the month and my next paycheck), but its soo tempting…. Darn you! :P

  18. Jenks says:

    Hanging onto my GTX 560 ti until I’ve got a VR headset ordered.