Summary: With 64 shaders and a 256-bit memory interface, you may not expect the 9600 GT to outperform a GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB, but that's exactly what it did in our testing. In fact, its performance sometimes rivals the GeForce 8800 GT! See what makes this card so special in today's article!
Let’s just say that many enthusiasts were terribly disappointed with the performance of these first generation DX10 mainstream cards.
The GeForce 8600 GTS debuted back in April with much fanfare. We were all eager to see how powerful NVIDIA’s latest mainstream offering would be. If you recall, NVIDIA had just released a trio of new mainstream DX9 GPUs just prior to the 8600 GTS’ release that included the GeForce 7900 GS, the 7950 GT, and the 7900 GTO. The EVGA e-GeForce 7900 GTO in particular had really struck a chord with us as it offered performance that was near that of a 7900 GTX, but at a much more affordable $250 price tag. So when the GeForce 8600 GTS debuted delivering performance that was roughly on par with the 7900 GS, gamers were left scratching their heads: the 8600 GTS was hardly an improvement over the GeForce 7900 GS or Radeon X1950 Pro. Many gamers plucked up these cards and passed on the 8600 GTS.
AMD’s Radeon HD 2600 launch wasn’t any better in the eyes of enthusiasts. The 2600 was actually slower than the GeForce 8600 GTS and Radeon X1950 Pro!
For the most part, enthusiasts shopping the $200 graphics market opted to hang on to their GeForce 7900 GS and X1950 Pro cards hoping for something better to come along. As the months passed, nothing came. Those that could afford it picked up the GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB, but with its $300 price tag even it was a little too much coin for some to stomach. The GeForce 8800 GT delivered such an incredible price/performance ratio that a lot of gamers that were holding out ultimately picked one of these cards up, but shortages and retailer markups significantly hampered things early on.
Then in November the market finally got what it wanted thanks to AMD’s Radeon HD 3850: an inexpensive, sub-$200 graphics card that was a compelling upgrade over the X1950 Pro and 7900 GS. Sure, it wasn’t as fast as the GeForce 8800 GT, but it cost roughly $80-$100 less and frequently outperformed the GeForce 8600 GTS by over 30%, making it the fastest sub-$200 graphics card on the market.
The 3850 became an overnight sales success for AMD with thousands of boards being sold just ahead of Christmas.
NVIDIA and their board partners tried to counter the 3850 with the 8800 GT 256MB, but they just couldn’t get their pricing in line with estimates and the lower frame buffer memory really curtailed performance at higher resolutions. The GeForce 8800 GS was most recently concocted to rival the Radeon 3850, but with its continued use of the G92 graphics core it just wasn’t a cost effective way to counter AMD’s $180 offering. A new GPU that was cheaper to produce was needed, and it was needed fast. This is where the G94 GPU comes in.
The G94 GPU used in today’s GeForce 9600 GT launch was rushed into service to take on the Radeon HD 3850. G94 uses fewer transistors than G92 – 505 million versus 754 million – making it cheaper to manufacture for NVIDIA. But what about performance? That’s what we’re here today to find out!
As we stated earlier, the GeForce 9600 GT consists of roughly 505 million transistors, over 200 million less than G92. So where did all the transistors go? From the stream processors. Whereas the G92 GPU boasts up to 128 stream processors, G94 has half that number, consisting of just 64 stream processors.
65-nm manufacturing process
Not mentioned in the chart above is the GeForce 9600 GT’s estimated MSRP: $189. The card essentially replaces the GeForce 8600 GTS, which will now do battle at the $150 and under mark. We should also note that G94 offers the same improved video introduced with G92 and the chip also supports HDMI as well as DisplayPort. NVIDIA’s board partners have the option of including HDMI or DisplayPort natively on the back plane of the card, or including HDMI support via an adapter. In fact, one of the 9600 GT cards we’re looking at today supports all three display options!
When it was first launched the GeForce 8800 GT was criticized by some users for its high operating temperatures. While the card was designed to operate at high temps, users were upset that the card generated so much heat inside their system. NVIDIA and their board partners rectified the situation by integrating a slightly larger fan onto their boards. The larger fan ran at the same RPMs as the previous fan, but thanks to its larger design it was able to draw more air over the GPU, helping to keep temps in check. Last year we tested two GeForce 8800 GT boards, one with the original cooler, and a second card with the larger fan. In our testing we noted a difference of 25 degrees Celsius at load with the larger fan!
So what kind of temps should you expect out of the GeForce 9600 GT? In our open testing environment we saw temps of 42 degrees Celsius at idle, and 58 degrees at load. We’ll take another look at temperatures once we get more 9600 GT boards in for a roundup.
The reference GeForce 9600 GT is equipped with two dual-link DVI outputs with full support for HDCP, allowing you to watch Blu-ray and HD DVD movies on monitors up to 2560x1600 at full resolution. One change we were hoping to see but unfortunately isn’t present on the GeForce 9600 GT is a second SLI connector for 3-Way SLI. Leading up to the 9600 GT launch NVIDIA boasted that two 9600 GT cards were capable of outrunning a single GeForce 8800 GTX, so we’d be curious to see how three boards would fare. In addition, the 9600 GT’s closest natural competitor, the Radeon HD 3850, supports 4-Way operation, so the 9600 GT is technically at a disadvantage to the 3850 in this regard.
Up for eval today are four shipping GeForce 9600 GT cards.
ASUS EN9600 GT
The ASUS EN9600 GT is the latest card we’ve received. ASUS’ card is a mirror replica of NVIDIA’s reference board design, using all the same components as NVIDIA. ASUS also clocks their board at the same speeds as NVIDIA’s reference specifications. Disappointed by this? Don’t be, considering ASUS’ rich tradition of factory OC’ed TOP cards, we have no doubt such a board is likely in the works.
The EN9600 GT does support ASUS’ GamerOSD software, which can be used to provide real-time frames per second monitoring, video capture, and screenshot capture. GamerOSD can even be used to automatically overclock the GPU while you’re gaming. The card also ships with ASUS’ Smart Doctor software, which allows you to overclock the cards’ graphics core, memory, and stream processors. Smart Doctor can even be used to monitor the card’s fan speed, temperature, and voltages, as well as automatically adjust the card’s clock speeds. It’s a pretty neat utility that we’ve enjoyed over the years.
Besides bundling the card with two DVI adapters, ASUS includes one DVI adapter and one HDMI adapter. The card also ships with a power adapter and a component video cable.
The ASUS EN9600 GT sells for an MSRP of $189.
BFG GeForce 9600 GT OC
Like the ASUS card, BFG’s GeForce 9600 GT OC is based on NVIDIA’s reference board design and cooling, although obviously as an “OC” card the BFG board is overclocked from the factory. BFG clocks their board at 675MHz memory/1687MHz shaders, and 900MHz on the memory.
BFG’s GeForce 9600 GT OC will carry an MSRP of $229.99 and is backed by their famous lifetime warranty. We’re crossing our fingers for an even higher clocked 9600 GT OC2 model, but nothing has been announced on that front just yet.
EVGA e-GeForce 9600 GT SSC Edition
EVGA’s e-GeForce 9600 GT SSC is the fastest GeForce 9600 GT board we’ve received so far, running at speeds of 740MHz/1850 on the graphics core and stream processors and 975MHz on the memory. The card uses NVIDIA's reference board design and stock cooling. Whereas previous EVGA cards we've tested have come with game bundles (including games such as Crysis), EVGA skips bundling a game with the e-GeForce 9600 GT SSC to keep costs down. Instead this card is all about performance, and with its 740MHz core, it certainly delivers in this regard.
Palit GeForce 9600 GT Sonic
Palit has incorporated a number of changes into their 9600 GT Sonic. Whereas the other cards tested in this article are based on NVIDIA’s reference board design, the Palit board features its own custom board design with 3-phase power (versus 2-phase in the other cards), a dual-slot cooler, factory overclocking, and display connectivity that’s unrivaled on any GeForce board we’ve seen – on the back plane of the Palit Sonic card you’ll find two DVI outputs and HDMI and DisplayPort connections!
So how high does Palit clock the 9600 GT Sonic? How does 700MHz core/1750MHz shaders/1.0GHz memory sound? Palit also bundles the card with their VDOTool software, which allows you to overclock the graphics core, stream processors, and memory. VDOTool can also dynamically adjust clock speeds as well as providing hardware monitoring functionality.
Palit says their 9600 GT Sonic will sell for $219.
Obviously with the debut of a new mainstream GeForce GPU, AMD is under pressure to respond in some way. The solution they’ve come up with isn’t price cuts, rather we should be seeing factory OC’ed Radeon HD 3850 cards from their board partners that offer better cooling and 512MB of memory.
An example of this is the HIS Radeon HD 3850 TurboX. The card features HIS’ 3rd generation dual-slot IceQ heatsink/fan unit and is clocked at 736MHz core/982MHz memory. Right now the card can be found on Newegg for as low as $173.99, making it slightly cheaper than the launch price of the original Radeon HD 3850 256MB! We’ve included this card, as well as a Radeon HD 3870 in this article so we can see how the Radeon cards stack up to the 9600 GT boards.
Intel Core 2 Duo E6750
EVGA nForce 780i SLI motherboard
4GB Corsair TWIN2X2048-6400C4
ATI Radeon HD 3870
ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2
HIS Radeon HD 3850 TurboX
GeForce 8800 GTX
GeForce 8800 GT 512MB
GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB
GeForce 8600 GTS
GeForce 7900 GS
ASUS EN9600 GT
BFG GeForce 9600 GT OC
EVGA e-GeForce 9600 GT SSC Edition
Palit GeForce 9600 GT Sonic
300GB Western Digital Caviar SE
Windows Vista 64-bit w/Service Pack 1
Company of Heroes 1.71
Crysis High – Direct3D
Today’s introduction of the GeForce 9600 GT raises the bar even further.
In comparison to its direct predecessor, the GeForce 8600 GTS, the 9600 GT delivers a performance improvement of 2X in DX9 apps, and often runs 2.5 times faster in DX10 games. This is a phenomenal jump in performance, and as you saw in our benchmarks, the GeForce 9600 GT is even faster than the GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB, which was a $300 graphics card last year. In comparison, GeForce 9600 GT cards are expected to sell anywhere from $169-$229.
When paired up against the competition from AMD, the GeForce 9600 GT continues to perform well. In stock form the GeForce 9600 GT ran up to 28% faster than the overclocked Radeon HD 3850 512MB board from HIS in DX9 apps such as F.E.A.R., Episode Two, and Company of Heroes. Generally as the screen resolution increased in these games, the 3850 closed the gap to as little as 4%. The 3850 delivered superior frame rates in Lost Planet DX9 and in Oblivion, the 9600 GT trailed the HIS card by as much as 6% in Oblivion and about 12% in Lost Planet. The GeForce 9600 GT ran anywhere from 9-12% faster than the Radeon 3850 in Call of Duty 4 as well.
The stock GeForce 9600 GT swept the overclocked Radeon HD 3850 in all of our DirectX 10 benchmarks.
Factory OC’ed boards pulled away even further from the Radeon HD 3870, suggesting that AMD will need to counter these boards with factory OC’ed 3870 cards. A quick glance at Newegg shows that HIS’ own overclocked 3870 board currently sells for $275. Depending on how fast that card is, that price probably needs to come down another $40-$50 to be competitive with the factory OC’ed 9600 GT boards.
Quite honestly, with just 64 stream processors we weren’t expecting much from NVIDIA’s GeForce 9600 GT. We knew it would be a strong competitor to the Radeon HD 3850, but we had no clue it would deliver performance that rivals the GeForce 8800 GT in some cases!
So how did NVIDIA manage to pull it off? Obviously the 9600 GT doesn’t have the pure shading horsepower of the 8800 GT, sporting just 64 stream processors compared to the 8800 GT’s 112, but other than the shading unit deficit the two GPUs are quite similar architecturally. Texture filtering and addressing capabilities are the same, as are the number of ROPs. In addition, they both offer the same peak memory bandwidth and the same z and color compression enhancements. This is important as we’re testing these games with the eye candy cranked up and with AA. In these types of situations, the GPU is often bound by its memory subsystem. Also keep in mind that the 9600 GT sports higher graphics core and stream processor clocks than the 8800 GT.
When you combine this with the OC’ed clocks found on the cards we tested, these 9600 GT cards actually offer more ROP fill and memory bandwidth than a bone stock GeForce 8800 GT board.
With the introduction of the GeForce 9600 GT, NVIDIA’s finally provided a compelling sub-$200 DirectX 10 graphics part. If you’re a gamer on a budget who craves the best performance in DX9 and DX10 games, the GeForce 9600 GT is the best card on the market right now.
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