Nvidia’s mainstream Pascal graphics card, the GTX 1060, launched in a Blaise of glory, knocking the RX 480 off its performance perch and giving a swift shoeing to the ageing GTX 980 on the way past.
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The Nvidia GTX 1060 was the first mainstream Pascal-powered card to come out of the GeForce stable, and featured a different GPU to the GTX 1080 and 1070, though still sported all the architectural goodness which made those cards such desirable pixel pushers.
Nvidia delivered gaming performance on par with last generation’s GTX 980 and, arriving at a $249 (£239) price point, the GTX 1060 was almost the mainstream card of our dreams. We're almost a year down the line and there is still a real battle royale going on between the AMD RX 480 and the GTX 1060, though it's now opened up into a bit of a Mexican stand-off with the red team also introducing a Radeon RX 580 to the mix too.
If you're an impatient sort, click below to be taken directly to architecture info, our benchmark data, and that all-important out-of-10 score:
Nvidia GTX 1060 specs
Nvidia and AMD took almost entirely opposing tacks with their mainstream graphics card releases. Nvidia stuck with their traditional approach, launching essentially their range-topping card, the GTX 1080, closely followed by the slightly cut-down GTX 1070, straight out of the gate. AMD though came in at the other end, aiming to nail down the volume graphics card segment before going after the higher-margin, high-end GPU arena.
Their plan was to release a well-priced card, with decent performance, to capture the hearts and minds of the mainstream upgrade crowd. And that’s what they did with the AMD RX 480; a card with impressive mid-range gaming performance at a price that isn’t going leave your wallet weeping. Then came the recent RX 580 rebrand which seemed to encourage AMD's partners to start making crazy-expensive versions with few reference-clocked cards to plug the gap.
Nvidia’s GTX 1060 was the green team's response to the Polaris mainstream assault, aiming to make trouble for the AMD RX 480 by clawing back the mainstream audience using the twin pillars of higher performance and lower power.
The headline specs see the GP106 GPU in the GTX 1060 delivering half the CUDA cores of the GTX 1080 on the same 16nm FinFET production process, with all the performance and efficiency enhancements that smaller lithography creates. And that extra efficiency means this speedy little graphics card is still capable of producing the gaming goods with a TDP of just 120W.
This first release sports a healthy 6GB of GDDR5 memory, running at 8,000MHz. Nvidia also released a 3GB version of the GTX 1060 which provides a decent level of gaming performance, but lacks its big brother's chops at higher resolutions.
In terms of 6GB pricing we’re looking at another Founders Edition situation. The Pascal reference card was rebadged as a ‘Founders Edition’ and comes with a blower cooler which is just about up to the job. Once more the Founders Edition cost more and you can only buy it from Nvidia’s own online store.
That means it's easy to ignore them and just buy the partner cards instead where even the stock-clocked variants are liable to have better cooling. We also tested the seriously overclocked, and overclockable, MSI GTX 1060 Gaming X 6G. It's a great platform for the overclockers looking to push their GPU further, but again is rather pricey compared with the stock-clocked cards.
MSI extended the PCB to allow for extra cooling and space for improved power components, but there are also mini-ITX versions of the card too as the reference PCB is shorter even than that of the RX 480. Zotac announced a micro version which should be the darling of the small form factor crowd as it's also one of the cheapest versions of the full 6GB card that you can buy.
The GTX 1060 rocks a separate graphics core based on Nvidia’s Pascal GPU architecture. Where the GTX 1080 and GTX 1070 use the GP104 chip, the GTX 1060 uses a smaller, cut-down GP106 design. The GP106 has roughly half the graphics logic of its big brother, almost split straight down the middle, but is only physically a little smaller because it houses more than 60% of the transistors the GP104 contains.
It’s using the same 16nm FinFET lithography as the other Pascal cards, as well as the same architectural design fitting 128 CUDA cores into each streaming microprocessor (SM). The full GP106 core has ten of these Pascal SMs inside, making up a total of 1,280 CUDA cores. While that means it’s got half the cores of the GTX 1080 and half the texture units, because the aggregated memory bus hasn’t been halved (it’s 192-bit against the GTX 1080’s 256-bit bus) the GP106 retains an impressive 48 render output units (ROPs).
If we take the GTX 1060 as the generational successor to the GTX 960 - last gen’s 120W mainstream card - then the architectural improvements are massive. The GTX 960’s GM206 chip has 1,024 CUDA cores inside it and uses the 28nm process to stuff 2.94billion transistors into its package. The GP106 GPU though has 4.4billion transistors, with more cores and more logic in a much smaller die size. And in terms of performance it’s almost twice as quick.
Realistically though that’s not a fair comparison. The GTX 960 traditionally retailed around $200 (£160), while the GTX 1060 comes in at a much higher price point. In terms of generational parity I’d say the pricier GTX 970 is the card that makes for a better comparison. Except the GTX 1060 trounces that in performance terms too. On that count then it’s the GTX 980 which the mainstream Pascal card has in its sights and that makes it quite the big game hunter.
At the time of its launch the GTX 980 was the top card of the Maxwell generation and has remained a $450 - $500 part for most of its life. It’s also rocking far more CUDA cores - 768 to be precise - more texture units, more ROPs and a wider memory bus too. And in terms of the GPU head-to-head the GP106 is around half the physical size of the GM204 yet only a little shy of its 5.2billion transistors.
Still the Pascal architecture in the GP106 is able to keep up.
In the GTX 1060 Nvidia have created a card capable of matching the Maxwell generation's one-time fastest card, the GTX 980, for around half the price and with a GPU that’s half the size. If that doesn’t convince you of the gaming benefits of matching an efficient graphics architecture with a new, smaller production process, nothing will.
It's also still faster across most of our game testing suite than both the AMD RX 480 and RX 580 cards. Those are still the fastest graphics cards that you can buy sporting the Radeon branding, at least until AMD get around to releasing the new Vega architecture in a few months.
The extra 2GB of video memory sported by the RX 480 and RX 580 doesn't seem to really have much of an effect on the comparable benchmarks, even when we put them to the test at 4K, though that is when the 3GB GTX 1060 really comes unstuck.
The GTX 1060 doesn’t quite have it all its own way, however. The DirectX 12 version of Hitman gives the Radeon cards the win, as does the DX12 version of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Nvidia's architecture also struggles with the only other low-level graphics API around, Vulkan. In the Vulkan version of Doom the RX 480 pulls ahead of the GTX 1060, which you'd probably expect given that it's based on AMD's own (now-extinct) Mantle API.
It's was particularly harrowing at 1080p settings where the Radeon card had a 51% lead over the competing GTX 1060 when Vulkan was used. Thanfully Nvidia have worked hard at their Vulkan performance and have narrowed the gap considerably.
Where there is a big disparity though is in the energy efficiency of the two GPU architectures. The Nvidia chip draws much less juice than the AMD cards, most especially if you look at the performance of a heavily overclocked RX 580. At full speed the GTX 1060 is almost 100W lighter at the plug than the STRIX version of Asus' RX 580 card.
Well this is really tricky. Since launch it's been the GTX 1060 and RX 480 going head-to-head as our pick of the best graphics cards of this generation and that shows little sign of changing. Even the launch of the RX 580 hasn't changed anything with so many 400-series cards still out in the shops.
For our money the RX 480 still just about gets the nod for the simple fact that the performance delta between the two cards is pretty negligible these days - thanks to continually improving drivers from both teams - and it's the cheaper GPU. As stock dwindles and it's only expensive RX 580s that can be found then Nvidia's impressive mainstream card may well take back its place atop the throne, but only time will tell.
That said, if you're already signed up to the Nvidia ecosystem, either through your GSync monitor or the feeling you really can't do without GameStream or GeForce Experience, then of course the GTX 1060 is your go-to GPU. It's a fantastic 1440p card for the money, offering the same level of gaming performance as the Maxwell generation's one-time top card, the GTX 980.