To date, this is the fastest mid-range card we've tested, and that's not surprising considering the card's specifications. It's based on NVIDIA's latest mid-range GPU (graphics processing unit) - the GeForce 8600 GTS - which is DirectX 10-capable and is a perfect addition to any Windows Vista-based mid-range PC.
- Fast performance, Doesn't take up two expansion slots, DirectX 10-capable, runs quietly
- Doesn't come with a DVI-HDMI adapter, Produced slow frame rates in the Lost Planet DirectX 10 demonstration
Despite its slow showing in the Lost Planet DirectX 10 demonstration, it's still unclear how well this card will be able to handle DirectX 10-based games. But, for current DirectX 9-based games, this card will perform well and its price, along with its game bundle, make it an attractive mid-range option for any Vista-based PC.
Price$ 299.00 (AUD)
The standard specifications of the GeForce 8600 GTS are a clock speed of 675MHz for the GPU itself and 2GHz for the memory. ASUS' EN8600GTS TOP, however, runs the GPU at a default speed of 745MHz and it's 256MB of GDDR3 memory at 2.29GHz. Indeed, the 'TOP' in the model name stands for top overclocking performance.
We tested the card on an Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6700-based PC with 1GB of DDR2 800MHz RAM, a 650W Seasonic power supply a 150GB Western Digital Raptor hard drive. The card was run under Windows Vista Ultimate, using the latest Forceware drivers from NVIDIA's Web site at the time of writing (158.18).
In F.E.A.R, at a resolution of 1280x960 with 16x anisotropic filtering and 4x antialiasing enabled, the card recorded 47fps (frames per second), which is a playable result. Using the same image-quality settings, but turning the resolution down to 1024x768, the card produced a silky-smooth 70fps.
F.E.A.R is a DirectX 9-based game and currently one of the most taxing on the market, so it's a good indication on how this card will handle other DirectX 9-based games. To test the card's DirectX 10 capabilities, we used the in-built benchmark in the Lost Planet game demonstration. Lost Planet is a popular Xbox 360 game that has been converted to PC format and it incorporates some of the features of DirectX 10.
While it's still early days for this game, and DirectX 10 in particular, the performance results we observed aren't heartening for those of us with mid-range budgets. Using medium image quality, medium HDR, 16x anisotropic filtering and 4x antialiasing, the card scored 28fps at a resolution of 1024x768.
This result doesn't translate to smooth game play, especially if there's a lot of action on the screen, and means that a huge sacrifice is gong to have to be made in the image quality department if this card is going to produce a playable frame rate. If you're curious as to how the card performed when we turned the image quality to high, well, it barely averaged more than 2fps. Curiously, we were also able to run a DirectX 9 version of the same Lost Planet demonstration, where the card scored 35fps. The developer of Lost Planet claims that DirectX 10 is favoured over DirectX 9 due to the better processing speed it can provide (DirectX 10 is designed to take advantage of the unified shader architecture of the 8600 GTS GPU), so plenty of optimisations are going to have to be made if that performance benefit is to be realised.
The unified shader architecture allows any of the GeForce 8600 GTS' 32 parallel pipelines to work on any type of graphics data, be it vertex or pixel information, without having to use a specific pipeline. The data can be processed in any of the pipelines, at any time. The previous-generation mid-range GeForce GPU - the GeForce 7600 - had 12 pixel pipelines, 12 vertex pipelines and five shader pipelines. Only pixel data could enter the pixel pipelines, only vertex data could enter the vertex pipelines and only shader data could enter the shader pipelines. With the unified architecture, vertex, pixel and shader data can be processed in any of the 32 pipelines.
Gaming aside, the EN8600GTS TOP is HDCP compliant and has the ability to hardware-decode Blu-ray and HD-DVD high definition formats using NVIDIA's PureVideo HD technology. This means that a large load of processing will be taken off your CPU while watching these types of movies. ASUS supplies a breakout Component cable so you can access analogue high definition signals, but a DVI-HDMI adapter is not supplied.
As for its gaming bundle, the EN8600GTS TOP comes with the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R, which on its own costs about $90. Considering the retail price of the card, this is good value, especially if you've been considering buying this game anyway and are in the market for a new graphics card, too.
Physically, the card will only take up one expansion slot in the PC due to its thin heat sink and fan-based cooler and it wasn't loud at all during our tests. The card will require a supplemental PCI Express power cable to be plugged into it, so your power supply will need to have one of these, or at least two free hard drive-style Molex connectors if the supplied adapter is to be used.
Despite its slow showing in the Lost Planet DirectX 10 demonstration, it's still unclear how well this card will be able to handle DirectX 10-based games. But, for current DirectX 9-based games, this card will perform well and its price, along with its game bundle, makes it an attractive mid-range option for any Vista-based PC.
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