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Week in Tech: Is Nvidia’s New £150/$200 Graphics Good?

Real-world weapons of choice...

Ah, the glories of high-end graphics chips. The billions of teensy little transistors. The preposterous pixel pumping power. All terribly impressive. But not hugely helpful if you simply want half-decent frame rates on a plain old 1080p monitor without re-mortgaging everything short of the shirt on your back. In an ideal world, what most of us really need is an affordable £150/$200 graphics card that'll hook up to that 1080p monitor and run almost anything you chuck at it without worrying about optimising the settings. Well, it just so happens Nvidia has a new GPU that fits the bill, on paper at least. It's the Geforce GTX 960. Is this the mainstream marvel we've all been waiting for?

In RPS posts passim, I may have shown a teensy weensy tendency to preach LCD panels with epic pixel grids. 1440p at a minimum, better yet 4K. That sort of thing.

Back in the real world, the latest Steam survey data shows that 1080p (or 1,920 by 1,080 pixels) remains by far the most popular screen resolution for PC gamers. 1440p and beyond? A glint in the game developer's eye.

Thus, what most of us need is a video card that cranks out decent frame rates at 1080p. 4K graphical frolics simply don't factor. You could, of course, make the case for high-end graphics by arguing that overkill today is future proofing tomorrow. And that would be true.

However, graphics cards undeniably suffer from diminishing returns. A £300 / $400 card usually isn't twice as fast as a £150 / $200 card. Moreover, if you bought a £150 card today and then another in two or three years, you will likely be better off with that second card than soldiering on with the elderly £300 / $400 card bought today.

The new GTX 960 is based on the same Maxwell gubbins as the mighty 980

At worst, performance with a newer £150 / $200 board would likely be on a par. And for sure, you'd have a newer architecture with better future prospects for driver and software support.

All of which brings us to the new Nvidia GeForce GTX 960. It's ticks the cutting-edge tech box by virtue of its Nvidia Maxwell graphics architecture, which in my not altogether humble opinion is currently the best in the world.

In that sense, the 960 is actually pretty easy to understand. We've seen Maxwell graphics in the GTX 750Ti and more recently in the GTX 980 and 970 boards. And we know that it's particularly good in terms of performance efficiency.

In other words, Maxwell delivers far more usable gaming performance both per transistor and per watt of power than both Nvidia's older Kepler architecture and AMD's competing GCN graphics tech, which is found in every AMD graphics card of the last few years, along with the Xbone and PS4 consoles.

Anyway, the GTX 960 is based on a new graphics chip. Not that it really matters, but it's codenamed GM206. The important numbers are these: 1,024 shaders, 64 texture units, 32 render outputs, a 128-bit memory bus and 1,126MHz core clockspeed.

For context, the desirable but pricey GTX 970 is 1,664 shaders, 104 textures, 56 render outputs (that's a newly revised figure following a bit of a balls-up by Nvidia), a 256-bit memory bus and 1,050MHz clockspeed. Oh, and the 750Ti rocks in at 640 shaders, 40 textures, 16 outputs, 128-bit bus and 1,020MHz core clock.

AMD's Radeon R9 285: Bigger bus equals better bet

Really roughly, then, what we're looking at is a card that falls pretty neatly between Nvidia's current high end and what you might call the lowest rung of genuinely gaming-capable graphics in the 750Ti. With one exception. The memory subsystem.

The 128-bit memory bus on the new 960 looks stingy. If you look back on Nvidia's recent past, the 760, 660 and 560 all had wider buses and – here's the kicker – more memory bandwidth. Yikes. The 2GB frame buffer is a slight concern in this age of uber textures, too.

But the GTX 980 and 970's relatively modest 256-bit bus (in high-end terms) hasn't stopped those GPUs from being seriously quick. So, perhaps 128-bit and 2GB is good enough combined with 7GHz data-rate graphics memory and the Maxwell architecture's colour compression cleverness at 1080p?

Nvidia knows what it's about and how to price its graphics cards, so the answer is largely yes. But in somehow slightly unsatisfactory style. On the one hand, you're looking at solidly playable frames rates at least in the 40s and 50s with the details set either to mostly high or maxed out at 1080p in modern / graphically zingy games. Crysis 3, Rome, Alien Isolation, Battlefield 4, Metro: Last Light, Mordor – all very doable at pretty high 1080p settings.

However, really ramp things up and the wheels do begin to fall off. This card conspicuously doesn't like Shadow of Mordor's high-res textures, for instance. More to the point, what the 960 isn't is overwhelmingly faster than the old 760. Which is what you really want given that the 960 ostensibly replaces the 760. It's faster much of the time. But not always and not often by all that much.

Mordor's high-res textures will give the 960's memory bus a battering

AMD's Radeon R9 280 and 285 alternatives can make for some uncomfortable comparisons, too. In some ways it's a real mismatch. The 280 especially is a hunky old thing with a 384-bit memory bus that's no less than three times wider than the 960s.

That the 960 trades blows with the likes of the 280 is kind of impressive. But, generally, I remain a little uneasy about that meagre 128-bit bus. Even at 1080p, I worry about future games with even more memory-intensive textures and whether they'll start bunging up the 960's bus.

Saving graces? I would like to say overclocking. Most, maybe all, GTX 960 cards on sale are factory overclocked, for starters, and it looks like core clocks not a million miles away from 1.5GHz are usually realistic if you want to get your hands dirty. With a memory bump, you're looking at about 10% additional performance. That's nice, but not really enough to make a huge difference to the subjective experience.

Power consumption and noise are certainly upsides. This thing draws way less power than anything else with comparable performance and that makes it ideal for teensy PCs or silent systems in living rooms.

Long story short? I'm not recommending the new 960 as a no brainer. It'll fit well in certain scenarios where power and noise are critical. But thanks to that memory subsystem, it's not a simple case of setting everything to high and letting rip. Existing cards like the GTX 760 and Radeons R9 280 and 285 with wider memory buses and optionally a bump to 3GB of graphics memory are pretty clearly better bets despite being based on older technology.

It's a pity, because a £150 / $200 Nvidia Maxwell card ought to be the perfect affordable gaming solution. But on this occasion, Nvidia has just missed the target.

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