When it rains, it pours. First, Nvidia took the world by surprise by launching its high-end GeForce GTX 1080 and 1070 GPUs in early May, and managed not only leave its own previous flagships in the dust, but also pip prime competitor AMD by a significant margin. AMD shot back with the Radeon RX 480, not exactly in the same leagues, but at least trying to carve out a market and identity of its own.
Even as the RX 480 launched, leaks of Nvidia's rival, a purported GeForce GTX 1060, started appearing. Nvidia has in previous years spaced out its launches, but now there seems to be a concerted effort to wipe out any appeal the Radeon has. Sure enough, Nvidia paper-launched its mid-range offering two weeks ago, and pre-release samples have been circulating since then. Today, we can share benchmark scores and draw some conclusions about which team has won this generation's mid-range battle, the red or the green.
That result might seem obvious going into this review, but there are some fascinating factors that might make conventional logic go right out the window. First of all, as we stated when wrapping up our Radeon RX 480 review, AMD has no real price advantage in India because its evidently higher margins wipe out the $50 that international buyers would save by choosing a 4GB RX 480 card over a GTX 1060. Secondly, AMD's emergency driver release to make up for a power draw issue managed to raise performance scores by a significant margin, and there's more of that to come. Third, new DirectX 12 and Vulkan software has been released this past week, which could throw light on previously unknown capabilities. It's all boiling over in our review; read on to find out more.
The GeForce GTX 1060 GPU and Nvidia Founders' Edition
The GeForce GTX 1080 is codenamed GP104, and the GTX 1070 is the same chip, but with some of its hardware disabled in order to scale performance down. The new GTX 1060, on the other hand, is a different GPU called GP106, which was designed from the outset to be smaller. GP106 is based on the same Pascal architecture and uses the same 16nm manufacturing process. On an architectural level, the two are siblings and have the same features and capabilities, just to different extents.
Those capabilities include simultaneous multi-projection and Nvidia's Ansel tool, the two headlining features of Nvidia's 10-series. SMP allows for the GPU to output multiple perspectives of the same scene to individual frames without duplicating the entire render pipeline, as in the past. This vastly improves efficiency for applications like VR and multi-monitor gaming, in which multiple frames need to be synchronised and pushed out as quickly as possible. In particular, you can now adjust the perspective of the frames on all your monitors so they match the physical angles at which they are placed relative to your eyes.
Ansel was hyped at the original unveiling of the GTX 1080, but has only just become available to users of all three new Nvidia GPUs. In supported games, you can take control of the viewport camera and adjust not only its zoom level and direction, but also its physical position, even so far as to get angles that wouldn't be possible to see as a game character moving around. You can capture flat screenshots at resolutions well beyond the usual output to your monitor, and even 3D spheres that you can use with a smartphone or Google Cardboard headset. The only two games supported at launch are Mirror's Edge: Catalyst and The Witcher 3, but more are coming.
As for the GPU's hardware, Nvidia has gone with 1280 programmable instruction units in 10 clusters, all running at 1506MHz with the potential to boost that speed up to 1708MHz when demand is high. Total board power is rated at a pleasantly low 120W, which means that heat and noise should be well within reason even for compact SFF PCs. You get 6GB of GDDR5 memory on a 192-bit bus. There have been rumours of GTX 1060 cards with 3GB of RAM, but Nvidia says it has no such plans at launch time.
In a very interesting move, Nvidia has entirely stripped SLI capabilities from all GPUs lower than the GTX 1070. We should have seen this coming, after SLI was restricted to two-way on the GTX 1080 and 1070, and de-emphasised even then. Nvidia now says that multiple cards were only ever used by enthusiasts, and the ideal upgrade path for mid-range gamers is a single higher-end GPU. We can't really fault that logic, and we don't think anyone will mind the loss. Keep in mind that DirectX 12 can be used by game developers to harness multiple GPUs regardless of physical connections and in fact regardless of manufacturer and type - we'll see if this kind of GPU linking catches on.
Nvidia generally doesn't push out reference designs for its mid-range cards, but this year things have changed with the Founders' Edition programme. The company has created its own GTX 1060 graphics card and it does cost a premium, but unlike the GTX 1080 and 1070 Founders' Editions, this one is only being sold by Nvidia itself, and that too, only in Germany, France, and the UK. Third-party manufacturers will not be selling their own versions of the same card, so all launch models in India will have custom designs.
The GeForce GTX 1060 Founders' Edition uses Nvidia's favoured blower-style cooler and has silver and black accents similar to those of its higher-end siblings, but it isn't all metal and doesn't feel as premium. It looks like a full-sized graphics card, but is actually quite a bit shorter with the cooler hanging over the end. It has three DisplayPorts, one HDMI port and one dual-link DVI-D port on the rear, and a single six-pin PCIe power connector which is thankfully placed at the far inner end of the card rather than the awkward arrangement we saw on the similar Radeon RX 480 reference card.
Nvidia sent us one of these Founders' Edition cards, and it's a nice point of reference for the GTX 1060's base capabilities. We can't help but wonder why it won't be sold more widely - Nvidia just says this is how it sees the market, and maybe it just doesn't want to step on its partners' toes too much.
The MSI GeForce GTX 1060 Gaming X
MSI has taken a totally different approach to design with its Gaming X, which is physically a lot bigger than it needs to be, perhaps to seem beefier to buyers. It looks a lot like the GeForce GTX 1070 Gaming X, though slimmer and less imposing. The shroud has the same red and black design with RGB LEDs under the MSI logo and red ones embedded around the right fan.
The card is both taller and wider than Nvidia's reference design, and uses custom power delivery circuitry with an eight-pin PCIe connector. You can also see heatsinks over the power regulators, and a backplate, which might not strictly be necessary, but looks good. The red port covers which are common to MSI's high-end cards are also included, but there's nothing else in the box. This will appeal to overclockers and basically anyone who wants to show off.
MSI continues to ship cards to reviewers with clocks set to the highest profile by default, but at least now they've learnt to be upfront about it. The GTX 1060 Gaming X's bundled software lets you switch between three modes: OC, Gaming, and Silent. Gaming is the default that consumers get, but our sample was set to run in OC mode constantly, which raises the clock by a small amount. We tested the card as it came, and it had no problem running in OC mode all the time, which means that users can expect a small performance boost.
The Zotac GeForce GTX 1060 Amp Edition
On the other hand, we have Zotac's first GTX 1060 variant, which looks dramatically different. It's a lot smaller and simpler - there are no fancy LEDs, port covers or other extravagant touches here. The circuit board is actually the same size as that of the Founders' Edition, but without the blower extending that far out, Zotac's Amp Edition looks more like the mid-range cards we're used to seeing.
This approach could work really well for people who don't like showing off flashy components, or who want to fit a powerful card into a small PC. It will be interesting to see how effective this small cooler is, though Pascal GPUs have so far proven to be excellent in terms efficiency, which means heat and noise shouldn't be a problem anyway. Sure enough, even these smaller fans spin down and stay off quite a lot of the time, proving that the GTX 1060 doesn't need very aggressive cooling.
Zotac bundles a Molex-to-PCIe power adapter which shouldn't really be necessary for anyone with a relatively modern PC, but is a nice touch nonetheless. The whole package seems geared at more modest gamers, especially those who are upgrading from something a few years old.
We tested all three of our GeForce GTX 1060 samples on exactly the same test bench, which has remained consistent across our previous tests of the GTX 1080, GTX 1070, and Radeon RX 480, except for an update to driver version 368.64 required by the new GPU.
We began with synthetic tests which can be replicated across different graphics cards in order to establish whether there's any significant performance difference between them. The Founders' Edition card isn't a retail product but we'll use its synthetic test scores as a baseline. We're also reproducing the Radeon RX 480's scores where relevant in order to draw comparisons.
First up, we ran 3DMark's Fire Strike standard, Extreme and Ultra tests. We followed that up with Unigine Valley, and Star Swarm. We also ran the benchmarks built into Ashes of the Singularity, GTA V, and Metro: Last Light Redux, in order to ensure that runs were automated and thus comparable, rather than manual playthroughs. Ashes of the Singularity is the only test with a robust DirectX 12 mode, which we used for our tests.
|Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 Founders' Edition ||MSI GeForce GTX 1060 Gaming X ||Zotac GeForce GTX 1060 Amp Edition ||AMD Radeon RX 480 Reference |
|3DMark Fire Strike ||11017||11421||11142||10268|
| 3DMark Fire Strike Extreme ||5807||6017||5864||5097|
|3DMark Fire Strike Unlimited ||2987||3168||3049||2637|
|3DMark Time Spy ||4054||4273||4136||4067|
|Unigine Valley (fps) ||65.5||68.9||66.1||51.4|
|Star Swarm (fps) ||88.47||86.7||76.7||48.23|
|Ashes of the Singularity 1920x1080, Extreme (fps) ||45.7||47.1||45.8||42.3|
|Metro: Last Light Redux 1920x1080, Very High ||54||57||55||46|
|GTA V 1920x1080, 16xMSAA ||105.97fps, 9.44ms||110.24fps, 9.07ms||108.44fps, 9.22ms||82.87fps, 12.065ms|
|GTA V 2560x1440, 16xMSAA||67.44fps, 14.83ms||70.34, 14.21||68.47fps, 14.60ms||54.1fps, 18.48ms|
|GTA V 4K, 16xMSAA ||32.47fps, 30.79ms||34.53fps, 28.97ms||32.97fps, 30.33ms||26.66fps, 37.5ms|
As you can see by these results, the Founders' Edition generally scored the lowest of all three, with the Zotac Amp Edition exhibiting slightly improved performance, and MSI's Gaming X card topping the list. That isn't surprising, considering that the MSI card is factory overclocked. The scores were also enough to conclusively show performance superior to that of the Radeon RX 480 in nearly every test. Ashes of the Singularity showed a negligible difference, but Star Swarm was a surprising exception with drastically lower performance for the Radeon, unless run in Mantle mode, in which case the score jumped from 48.23 to 70.68.
Things got interesting with the brand new 3DMark Time Spy DirectX 12 test, which was released just a few days ago. We pulled our Radeon RX 480 review unit out of dispatch and reinstalled it on our test bench to check its score, and while it was good enough to beat the Founders' Edition, it was still a tad behind the custom GTX 1060s. Also in the time since we published our Radeon RX 480 review, a new Vulkan patch for Doom has been released, and AMD has been happy to show off scores that indicate that the RX 480 can beat a GTX 1080, putting it leagues ahead of the GTX 1060s here. AMD might have engineered its latest silicone with forward-looking technology in mind, even at the cost of launch-day performance and test scores. New games, patches, and drivers that take advantage of AMD's work will emerge over the next few weeks and months, and so the balance between these two competing GPUs as it stands right now might not hold true over the course of their lifetimes.
Moving on to real-world game tests, we attempted to see how well the two third-party GTX 1060 cards handled games at demanding resolutions quality settings. While Nvidia promotes this GPU as ideal for gaming at 1920x1080, it seems that there's enough muscle to push 2560x1440 or even 4K 3840x2160 in some situations.
Doom (2016) (Review) ran flawlessly at 4K even at Ultra quality. We've come to expect great performance on all kinds of hardware, but it was great to see just how smoothly we could dance through its intense gunplay and phenomenal environments. The GTX 1060 has more than enough power for this game, without being overkill.
Rise of the Tomb Raider (Review) is a bit more demanding, but we still saw solid performance at 4K with the quality set to Very High. There were no visible stutters or tears on screen, and even cutscenes played out perfectly well.
Far Cry 4 ran well at 4K, with very slight visible stuttering. It was perfectly smooth at 2560x1440 and 1920x1080 though. Today's gamers should be more than happy knowing that they have plenty of headroom for games at these resolutions. Both frame rates and frame times were excellent, with tight graphs and few outlying points signifying deviations from the average.
While not really a recent game, Battlefield 4 has some fantastic graphics and can scale to all kinds of hardware. We ran through the Shanghai mission at 4K with the Ultra preset and once again, both GTX 1060 samples did very well for themselves.
While MSI's card has a slight edge in synthetic tests, it's hard to measure it with real-world games, in which things never go the same way twice. The more important takeaway is that the GeForce GTX 1060 GPU, in any incarnation, is powerful enough for mainstream gamers. Not many have monitors with resolutions higher than 1920x1080, and they should be happy with either of these cards even if they upgrade a year or two down the line. Both cards ran cool and quiet, certainly more so than the Radeon RX 480. Their fans idle a lot of the time, even when running tests. Those who wish to overclock will be better off with MSI's option, with its heavier heatsink and more robust power handling capabilities, but the Zotac and Founders' Edition never felt inadequate.
There has never been a better time to be a gamer, especially one whose pockets aren't bottomless. The GeForce GTX 1060 is priced to kill, and it's a worthy step up from the Radeon RX 480. Now while Nvidia announced a price of Rs. 22,999 which would effectively kill its competitor, the reality of the situation is that the Zotac GeForce GTX 1060 Amp Edition is priced at Rs. 24,999 and MSI's GeForce GTX 1060 Gaming X is priced at an even Rs. 26,000. That still leaves some wiggle room for AMD, at least where the 4GB version of the Radeon RX 480 is concerned, and it's up to the market now to decide whether various manufacturers will compete by offering discounts. Those who wanted to spend more for the 8GB Radeon would be better off with the 6GB GTX 1060 though.
In a sea of options, MSI's card stands out for being beefy and offering robust cooling and power hardware, though at a premium. Zotac's stands out as a value proposition, for buyers who aren't fussed about showing off. Availability will vary, so choose the one that best suits your needs. It's probably for the best that the Founders' Edition isn't going to be available here, since it would command a price premium equivalent to 50 Euros, and we aren't sure there'd be any takers when performance isn't the best it could be.
One thing's for certain though; Nvidia's previous-generation GTX 980 and 970 are well and truly dead. The GTX 970 in particular has been one of the most popular GPUs of the past year, but now there is absolutely no reason to buy one. The GTX 1060 is far more powerful, displacing this GPU rather than the GTX 960, despite Nvidia's numbering scheme. That also leaves a lot of room for future launches, such as that rumoured 3GB GP106, perhaps in the form of a hypothetical GTX 1050. Meanwhile, AMD will push towards the same territory with its upcoming RX 470 and 460 - that should be an interesting battle too.MSI GeForce GTX 1060 Gaming X