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Zotac GTX 950 AMP! Review

Introduction

While most of the buzz in the tech world is centered on high end products like the GTX 980 Ti or Fury X, the truth is the prices of these cards keep them at a level where they re not even considered but the vast majority of gamers. It is the low to mid range where the interest lies. Nvidia and AMD know this and hotly contest this segment with all manufacturers desperate to differentiate their cards from their competitors to secure the gamers dollars. The majority of gamers still run 1080p or even lower resolution screens. It is these gamers that Nvidia and their partners are targeting with the GTX 950. Here today we have Zotac’s GTX 950 AMP! card for review.

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Nvidia GeForce GTX 950 Overview

Before we get to the Zotac GTX 950 itself, lets take a general look at the GTX 950, specifically the GM 206 chip. The GTX 950 replaces the first generation Maxwell GM107-based GeForce GTX 750. The 750 provided a glimpse of the features to come, introducing key performance improvements based around memory bandwidth efficiency, energy efficiency and also improved efficiency per CUDA core compared to older Kepler based GPUs.

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The GTX 950 uses the GM206 core at its heart. It is essentially the same GPU as found in the GTX 960 with  a quarter of the shader units removed (1024 vs 768) The key specs include 768 CUDA cores, 2Gb of GDDR5 memory, a 128bit bus, 48 TMU’s and 32 ROP’s.  In terms of transistor count, we have 2.94 billion. Direct X12 support, 2 way SLI and a TDP of just 90w are key features.

Cynics have been quite vocal in criticizing the 128 bit bus. While we agree that 256bit is more suitable for a 2015 mid range graphics card, we must acknowledge that Nvidia have put a lot of work into their compression algorithms meaning this narrow bus punches above its weight. They claim a 33% improvement in bandwidth efficiency compared to Kepler.  Nvidia point out that 2Gb of GDDR5 along with the memory bandwidth efficiency improvements make the GTX 950 a good contender for 1080P MOBA titles. The truth is many of the most popular MOBA games like DOTA, World of Warcraft and League of Legends really don’t need a massively powerful GPU. The GTX 950 will handle these titles with ease.

The GTX 950 is very well equipped to become the GPU of choice for Home Theater PC’s and applications. In addition to compelling low power, noise and heat levels, along with a compact size, the GTX 950 brings a couple of extra desirable features to the table, these being the inclusion of HDMI 2.0  and HEVC decoding. The inclusion of HDMI 2.0 is critical, as all HDMI equipped devices like TV’s, monitors and A/V equipment are transitioning to HDMI 2.0. This means the GTX 950 supports emerging technologies such as 4K at 60Hz, up to 32 channels of audio and interestingly, 21:9 ultra wide displays that are gradually becoming more prevalent.

The addition of HEVC decoding and HDCP 2.2 is key too. As the home theater transitions to 4k, h.264 encoders will slowly become obsolete, Huge files sizes and bit rates will put a strain on many systems making the more efficient and optimized HEVC a key feature going forward. The GTX 950 supports High Definition Content Protection v 2.2. Whatever your opinions towards content protection systems are, the mainstream consumer may well find themselves needing this as 4k blu ray players become available in the coming months.

Specifications and product showcase

Lets start off with a look at the specs of the Zotac GTX 950 AMP! When we compare the Zotac GTX 950 AMP! to the reference model, we see much a much higher base and boost clock, the addition of the superior IceStorm cooler as well as the inclusion of a backplate for rigidity and aesthetic purposes.

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The key spec here is the core clock. Zotac are known for their aggressive factory overclocks, a hallmark of their AMP! edition cards. Here we see a boost clock of 1405Mhz compared to 1188 for the reference model. As we’ll see later in the review, 1405Mhz is the bare minimum 😉 The Zotac also features a memory overclock, somewhat of a rarity even with OC focused models from many vendors.

 

Zotac GTX 950 AMP! Showcase

 The box itself is fairly standard, following the Nvidia reference branding. Eyeball burning marketing overload is also kept to a minimum on the rear thankfully.

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The inner box contains a cardboard shell that securely contains all the items inside. It’s a small thing, but the card is shipped inside a bubble wrap anti static bag which is a rarity. It adds that extra little bit of protection to the card during shipping, just in case a courier thinks your shiny new GTX 950 AMP! is in fact a football…

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The package includes the GTX 950 AMP! itself, driver CD & documentation, a case badge, DVI to VGA adapter and a twin molex to PCIe 6 pin power adapter.

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The GTX 950 AMP! uses the latest IceStorm cooler available from Zotac. This metal cooler really oozes quality with its solid feel and wrap around design.

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Moving on to the video outputs, we have a DisplayPort 1.2, HDMI 2.0, DVI-I (for use with the VGA adapter if required) and DVI-D connectors.

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Here we see the way the backplate and cooler effectively enclose the PCB. This is the view you would see when looking from the outside of a case. The sleek and subtle carbon fiber look should compliment most builds quite well. There’s no garish colors or blinding LED’s.

 

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The GTX 950 has a standard 6 pin PCIe power connector. With 75w available, plus another 75w from the PCIe slot, there’s a theoretical 150w available, which is more than enough for the 90w TDP of the card.

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The backplate itself adds some rigidity to the card while still allowing some ventilation. Its a subtle design that we like.

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Test Setup & Methodology

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Here is what GPUZ has to say about the Zotac GTX 950 AMP! Note that this is the latest available version, though obviously it’s needing an update to display some information. The information that is shown is correct though.

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Since the GTX 950 is aimed at the mainstream gamer, we are testing at 1920×1080. 1440p and 4K is a bit irrelevant to this class of card given its 128bit bus and 2Gb limitation.

Note that we used the older generation HD 7970 and 7850 cards. These can be considered underclocked R9 280X and R7 265 cards for comparison purposes. We run each benchmark 3 times and take the median result. Outlier results are discarded.

Benchmarks

Batman Arkham Origins is an action adventure game created by Warner Bros. Montreal and released in October 2013. It’s not the most demanding benchmark around, but with all the eye candy cranked up, is still a tough bench and needs a good card to keep above 60fps. In this case the 950 performs well and actually beats out the big brother GTX 960.

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Metro Last Light is a post apocalyptic first person shooter created by 4A Games. It was released in May 2013. It presents a very stern test of even the highest end GPU’s with its advanced DX11 features. We test with every graphical option at its highest setting, with the exception of Super Sample AA. With SSAA enabled, the performance hit is severe with only the highest end cards staying above 60fps even at 1080p. PhysX is also disabled. We are recording SSAA enabled results and will include these with high end cards ?

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Company of Heroes 2 is a World War II themed real time strategy game created by Relic Games. Modern RTS games usually respond well to increases in CPU performance, though as we see, it is a great stress tester of GPUs as well. Relic claim that the in game benchmark is designed to be a worse case scenario, meaning that your actual in game performance is going to be better than what you see in the benchmark itself. We set every option to its maximum setting with the exception of AA being set to medium. The 950 struggles a little here though we aren’t surprised given the level of detail seen during this benchmark.

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Shadow of Mordor is a role playing game developed by Monolith productions set in JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth universe. It is known for eating VRAM at higher texture levels, so for a fair comparison, we set it to Medium to avoid overly disadvantaging the 2Gb cards. Again a pretty good result for the GTX 950 AMP! which remains playable at 1080p.

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Tomb Raider is an action adventure game developed by Crystal Dynamics. It remains a difficult game to run with the TressFX enabled. We ran with the ultimate preset and TressFX enabled. This is an impressive result for the GTX 950 AMP, being able to match the recent era GTX 680.
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Futuremark’s 3DMark 11 is probably the most widely run benchmark for graphics cards. Though it has been superseded and the use of a 5960x inflates the overall score, it still provides a useful comparison for someone coming from an older system.

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3DMark Firestrike Extreme is a good test of even a high end multi GPU system. Like 3dmark 11, we include it as it provides an easy score to reference and is useful as a rough, yet quick and easy indicator of what sort of gain you will get coming from an older system.

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Benchmark Summary

We see the GTX 950 is able to compete with the GTX 960 in many scenarios, though if you are currently running a card like a GTX 660Ti or GTX 760, there is little incentive to upgrade based on performance grounds unless you are chasing better power consumption or specific features on offer such as HDMI 2.0. Still, if you are running an older platform system or a much older card like a GTX 400 or 5000 series AMD, then a card like the GTX 950 will make a decent upgrade whilst being cooler and quieter.

Temperatures & Noise Levels

To test the Zotac GTX 950 AMP! we ran a stress tester program and waited for the temperatures and fan levels to stabilize under load before taking this screenshot. As we can see, the Zotac in fact holds a fully stable boost clock of 1455Mhz! Very impressive! The temperature remains a perfectly acceptable 65c with fan speed just above 50%. It seems Zotac have programmed their cooler to keep the card cool and hence keep the card from any thermal throttling. As a result the fans do become audible, but really nothing to be concerned about.

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Measuring noise levels on some modern GPUs is becoming problematic, though its a good problem to have! Low TDP cards like the GTX 950 AMP! means noise levels are really non existent.  The card is completely silent at idle because the fans are idle. As load increases, so do the fans, which do spin up and become audible as temperatures increase.  The tone of the IceStorm cooler is far from intrusive though, producing a sound that can best be described as the sound of air movement rather than a mechanical whirr of some other high speed fans. In fact the quiet hum of our AIO CPU watercooler draws more attention, along with its triple fan radiator. This makes a dB reading somewhat irrelevant. Whilst perhaps not quite on the level of the excellent MSI Twin Frozr V cooler, the Zotac IceStorm is still a pretty damn good cooler whilst producing a discrete tone while under load.

Conclusion

When the GTX 960 launched, we had some reservations recommending it due to the performance of the of the GM206 GPU relative to its price.  If you were upgrading from something like a GTX 660Ti or a HD 7870 on the AMD side, the performance gains weren’t really there to justify upgrading. The situation is somewhat repeated with the GTX 950. The competing R9 285 provides stiff competition for just a few dollars more. While performance remains a key evaluation criteria, those seeking a card with excellent power consumption, heat and noise levels will be pleased. These 3 criteria add significant value to the GTX 950 AMP! If you want to play modern games at 1080P at reasonable settings and place particular importance on acoustics, noise and power consumption  then the GTX 950 looks pretty good.

We think there’s a real niche for this card when it is used in a HTPC or compact system. We’d say this, along with the GTX 960 are the only real choices right now. Users will be pleased to note the GM206 supports hardware based HEVC decoding and HDMI 2.0, meaning it is perhaps the most capable HTPC graphics card available. These two features are key for 4K media consumption going forward. especially as 4K increasingly penetrates the mainstream with on demand streaming from the likes of Netflix, as well as upcoming 4K blu ray players due late this year.

The Zotac GTX 950 AMP! is a classy little card with excellent build quality, a compact size and an hugely impressive factory overclock. We’re quite sure it is selling by the container load. While perhaps not the ultimate choice based on pure performance/price, when you add its HTPC features, acoustics and low power consumption, At around $160 USD, it brings quality, reliable 1080p gaming to the masses in a cool, quiet, compact and power thrifty package.

Pro’s

Quiet & Cool running: unless you live in a desert

Huge overclock out of the box including a memory overclock

Top notch build quality including a backplate

A great choice (perhaps THE choice) for a HTPC build.

 

Con’s

Needs to be a few dollars cheaper to become an unequivocal recommendation

 

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