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Five GeForce GTX 960 cards overclocked

How do I compare thee? Dunno, really
— 11:05 AM on February 12, 2015

I hate to brag, but I kinda know what I'm doing here. I've been reviewing PC components since the dawn of human history, or least since the last century, which is pretty much forever in Internet time. I've reviewed a lot of stuff, and a big chunk of that stuff has been video cards.

What I'm saying is that I should have the basics of this gig down pretty well by now. One would think.

Yet my attempt to cover a bunch of GeForce GTX 960 cards has left me flummoxed. I can't seem to get my head around how to approach it. Part of the problem is that I already looked at these five different flavors of the GeForce GTX 960 in my initial review of the GPU. I tested their power draw and noise levels, and I compared their performance. I then resolved to do a follow-up article to look at the individual cards in more detail, along with some overclocking attempts.

Seems simple, right? Yet as I sit here and attempt to pull together this article, I'm struggling to make it work.

What am I supposed to make of this bunch?

Part of the problem has to do with the nature of the GeForce GTX 960 and the video cards based on it. You see, with its Maxwell architecture, Nvidia has sought to make its GPUs much more power-efficient than in the past. The result is a chip that doesn't consume much more power than the old GeForce GTX 660 while offering tremendously more performance. Meanwhile, the video card makers have all been hard at work refining their coolers to evacuate lots of heat with very little noise. They've added more copper, more heatpipes, and more heatsink area. Twin fans are the norm, and one of these cards has triple fans on an extra-long cooler. Beyond that, all of these coolers have a nifty, semi-passive cooling policy where the fans don't spin up when the GPU is at idle or lightly loaded.

Both of these trends are good ones. Rising power efficiency is always welcome, as is more effective, quieter cooling. The convergence of these trends is a good thing, too. All of these GTX 960 cards—from the likes of EVGA, Gigabyte, MSI, and Asus—are truly excellent. The contrast with comparable offerings from just a few short years ago is striking.

Just look at this EVGA card with an ACX 2.0 cooler. Look at it!

As a reviewer, though, these cards present me with a real problem: they're too darned good. In the past, five different video cards based on the same GPU might perform about the same, but the cooling solutions and such would give me something to talk about, something to compare. When I tested this group of GTX 960s, though, they were all so quiet, they didn't exceed the noise floor of my tranquil basement lab—not even under full load running Crysis 3.

At the same time, none of the GPU temperatures reached the 70°C mark. As I said before, these coolers are complete freaking overkill—in the best possible way.

What am I supposed to complain about now?

Probably not these coolers. They're spectacular.

Some people seem to be disappointed that these GTX 960 cards don't ship with 4GB of RAM onboard. Perhaps I could muster some concern about that fact. But it's hard to do so when higher-end cards with 2GB have served me well for the past few years while gaming at 2560x1440—and the latest TR Hardware Survey tells me that over two-thirds of our readers still have monitor resolutions of 1920x1200 or lower. Also, no other GTX 960 cards out there have 4GB of RAM, nor does the competing Radeon R9 285. I could be persuaded that spending more for a faster video card with more RAM is a good idea. Heck, I'm all about dat GPU power. But I'm still convinced these GeForce GTX 960 2GB cards are best-in-class offerings.

Length Height
slot top
GTX 960 reference 1126 1178 1753 6-pin N/A N/A $199
Asus Strix GTX 960 1253 1317 1800 6-pin 8.5" 0.75" $209
EVGA GTX 960 SSC 1279 1342 1753 8-pin 10.25" 0.25" $209
Gigabyte Windforce GTX 960 1216 1279 1753 Dual 6-pin 10" 0.25" $209
Gigabyte G1 Gaming GTX 960 1241 1304 1753 Dual 6-pin 11.25" 0.3125" $229
MSI GTX 960 Gaming 2G 1216 1279 1753 8-pin 10.75" 1.125" $209-219

I guess I could spend some time worrying about installation requirements. After all, some of the boards are pretty long, and the MSI card in particular has heatpipes that sprout up over an inch beyond the top of the expansion slot covers. If the guts of your target PC case is too small, then you may want to avoid the larger cards.

The Strix is the lightweight of the bunch

Heck, there's a case to be made that the very best product in this crowd might be the Asus Strix GTX 960. It's the smallest of the lot, and it's alone among the group in requiring a single six-pin aux power input. When all of the options are pretty much equally whisper quiet, there's no need to go larger.

But then the Strix costs just as much as the boards with beefier hardware attached. If your case and PSU won't be strained by something more formidable, why not indulge?

I'd grab this MSI card anytime

See, I don't know. Pretty much all of these things are over-engineered. Do I take points off for being more over-engineered than the next guy? At the same price?

That said, there is one more way I can squeeze and strain these GTX 960 cards in order to bring out the differences between them.