The NVIDIA GeForce GTX 660 Review: GK106 Fills Out The Kepler Familyby Ryan Smith on September 13, 2012 9:00 AM EST
Bringing our review of the first GK106-based video card to a close, it’s difficult not to sound like a broken record at times. The launch of the GeForce GTX 660 and the accompanying GK106 GPU is very much a by-the-numbers launch. This is by no means a bad thing, but it does mean that it’s a launch with very few surprises.
As far as NVIDIA’s execution goes, GK106 and the GTX 660 is exactly what they’ve needed to start filling in the gap between $100 and $300. Truth be told we would have liked to see the GTX 660 come in at $200 so that NVIDIA had a clear $200 contender – an always-popular price point – but given the performance of the GTX 660 that’s being a bit wishful on our part. Furthermore NVIDIA would still need to leave enough room for the eventual launch of the next GK106 part, which will be whatever goes between GTX 650 and GTX 660. So much like the GTX 460 1GB two years before it, the GTX 660 launches at $229.
To that end NVIDIA has done their launch planning well, and for $229 it’s hard to argue that they haven’t hit the right balance of price and performance. GeForce GTX 660 offers around 88% of the performance of the GTX 660 Ti at 1920x1200, making it a strong performer in its own right and the logical follow-up to the GTX 660 Ti. However on that note I think this is going to be one of the more unusual launches due to how inconsistent the performance gap between NVIDIA’s cards is, as the GTX 660 offers anywhere between 80% to 100% of the performance of the GTX 660 Ti, owing to the much different shader-to-ROP ratio of the GTX 660. In the right scenario the GTX 660 is every bit as fast as the GTX 660 Ti, though these scenarios are admittedly few and far between.
The real question of course isn’t how the GTX 660 compares to the GTX 660 Ti, but rather how it compares to the Radeon HD 7870 in the face of AMD’s earlier price drops. Even with a more balanced shader-to-ROP ratio for GTX 660, the question of who wins remains to be heavily dependent on the game being tested. AMD controls their traditional strongholds of Crysis, DiRT, and Civilization V, while NVIDIA controls Battlefield 3, Starcraft II, and Portal 2. The end result is that the GTX 660 is on average 4% ahead of the 7870, but once again this is an anything-but-equal scenario; even swapping out a single game could easily shift the balance, reiterating the importance of individual games when relative performance is so inconsistent.
Meanwhile when it comes to physical metrics like power consumption, temperature, and noise, NVIDIA does have a clear edge thanks to another efficient rendition of the Kepler architecture with GK106. GK106 doesn’t enjoy nearly the same advantage over Pitcairn that GK104 did over Tahiti, but it’s still enough to get the same job done with less power consumed and less noise generated. It’s also just enough to make GTX 660 the preferable card over 7870 (at least as far as reference cards go) though by no means is 7870 suddenly a poor choice.
The real wildcard for today’s launch is going to be the prevalence of factory overclocked cards, which are going to be showing up at the same $229 price point as reference cards. Factory overclocked cards will sacrifice GTX 660’s edge in power consumption, but of course they’ll extend the GTX 660’s performance lead. For major launch articles we’re always going to base our advice on reference clocked cards since those are by definition the bare minimum level of performance you can expect, but you’ll want to come back later today for our companion article that takes a look at some of the $229 factory overclocked cards launching today.
Ultimately how well the GTX 660 is received is up to AMD more than it is NVIDIA. The 7870 is already priced close enough to the GTX 660 that the price difference is negligible, and meanwhile AMD and their partners could easily trim another $10 or $20 off of the card’s price to match or beat NVIDIA’s pricing (all the while still offering a bundled game), at which point the sweet spot would once again shift back to AMD. Otherwise AMD is still not in a bad position, even if the GTX 660 is technically the better card.
Wrapping things up, as we briefly discussed earlier NVIDIA’s biggest hurdle isn’t AMD so much as it is themselves. The GTX 660 is a clear multi-generational upgrade over particularly old cards like the 9800GT and GTX 260, but compared to the Fermi cards of the last two years the performance jump isn’t quite as grand. Contrasting the launch of the GTX 660 to the launch of the GTX 460 1GB two years ago, NVIDIA is actually doing far better in this respect thanks to the fact that the GTX 660 offers an impressive 75% jump in performance over the GTX 460 1GB. But at the same time we’re now approaching a more frugal market segment; enthusiasts gamers can justify spending $300+ every 2 years for a next-generation video card even if the gains are only 50%, but mainstream gamers need a bigger jump. GTX 660 is unquestionably a meaningful upgrade to an aging Fermi card – these days Fermi is going to have a hard time hitting playable framerates at 1920 with a high degree of quality – but given the fact that we’re still on the Direct3D 11 generation of video cards holding on to Fermi for one more generation wouldn’t be hard to justify for the cash-strapped mainstream gamer.