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Test notes
This review was a complicated beast to put together for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is the fact that we decided to make the leap to Windows Vista—the 64-bit version, no less—for our graphics test platforms. We held off on making this move for quite a while out of concern over the Vista driver situation, but after checking with both Nvidia and AMD, we decided now was the time to make the leap. They both assured us that their Vista drivers were up to it, and they both claimed that 32-bit and 64-bit Vista driver development happens pretty much concurrently.

Turns out that's mostly true. We were able to conduct our testing without a major catastrophe, and most of the games we'd chosen to use installed and ran reasonably well on Vista x64. However, as we worked through the testing process, weaknesses in 64-bit Vista support became apparent, especially on the Nvidia side of things. The version of the nTune utility that we downloaded from Nvidia's website claimed to work with Vista x64, but it wouldn't install and run properly, leaving us unable to overclock the GeForce 8600 cards. (Though we did later get a beta version we haven't yet had time to try.) We found out that the new video processing capabilities of the 8600 series aren't yet supported in Vista x64, either. And we ran into a number of other minor catches that we'll address in the following pages. We chose to test with Vista x64 because, well, that's the version of Windows we'd want to install on a new PC for ourselves. Unfortunately, at least one of the two major graphics vendors may not be entirely ready to meet us there.

You'll also see some things in this review that are artifacts from a change we made partway though the testing process. Initially, we'd planned to test the GeForce 8600 GTS against the similarly priced GeForce 7900 GS and Radeon X1950 Pro in both single and dual-card configurations. But then a GeForce 8600 GT showed up on our doorstep this past Friday, unexpectedly early, and we decided to test it, as well, against the GeForce 7600 GT and Radeon X1650 XT. Thus, we abandoned our plans for multi-GPU action in order to make room for the 8600 GT and competitors. However, by then we'd already chosen the display resolutions and quality settings at which we would be testing, having defined those with the higher-end cards and dual-GPU configs in mind. As a result, the lower end cards had to struggle through some games at quality settings that are a bit above their pay grade. That's what happens when you zig rather than zag sometimes.

Moving to Vista did give us a nice opportunity to revamp our test platforms. Our nForce 4 SLI motherboards were getting a little long in the tooth, so we decided to upgrade to the newer nForce 680i SLI. XFX recently began selling motherboards based on Nvidia's excellent nForce 680i SLI reference design, and they agreed to provide us with this board for our test systems.


Our new Vista x64 test rig: nForce 680i SLI boards from XFX with 4GB of Corsair Dominators

One of the things testing in Vista x64 allows us to do is take advantage of more RAM, and some newer games like Supreme Commander seem to appreciate having more than 2GB on hand. With that in mind, Corsair was kind enough to supply us with four 1GB Dominator DIMMs for our testbeds. Thanks to XFX and Corsair for the support. We should be ready for R600 now!

Our testing methods
As ever, we did our best to deliver clean benchmark numbers. Tests were run at least three times, and the results were averaged.

Our test systems were configured like so:

ProcessorCore 2 Extreme X6800 2.93GHz
System bus1066MHz (266MHz quad-pumped)
MotherboardXFX nForce 680i SLI
BIOS revisionP26
North bridgenForce 680i SLI SPP
South bridgenForce 680i SLI MCP
Chipset driversForceWare 15.00
Memory size4GB (4 DIMMs)
Memory type2 x Corsair TWIN2X20488500C5D DDR2 SDRAM at 800MHz
CAS latency (CL)4
RAS to CAS delay (tRCD)4
RAS precharge (tRP)4
Cycle time (tRAS)18
Command rate2T
Hard driveMaxtor DiamondMax 10 250GB SATA 150
AudioIntegrated nForce 680i SLI/ALC850 with Realtek R1.64 drivers
GraphicsRadeon X1650 XT 256MB PCIe
with Catalyst 7.3 drivers
Radeon X1950 Pro 256MB PCIe
with Catalyst 7.3 drivers
EVGA e-GeForce 7600 GT 256MB PCIe
with ForceWare 158.14 drivers
XFX GeForce 7900 GS 480M Extreme 256MB PCIe
with ForceWare 158.14 drivers
XFX GeForce 8600 GT 620M 256MB PCIe
with ForceWare 158.14 drivers
XFX GeForce 8600 GTS 730M 256MB PCIe
with ForceWare 158.14 drivers
OSWindows Vista Ultimate x64 Edition
OS updates-

Thanks to Corsair for providing us with memory for our testing. Their quality, service, and support are easily superior to no-name DIMMs.

Our test systems were powered by OCZ GameXStream 700W power supply units. Thanks to OCZ for providing these units for our use in testing.

Unless otherwise specified, image quality settings for the graphics cards were left at the control panel defaults.

The test systems' Windows desktops were set at 1600x1200 in 32-bit color at an 85Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.

We used the following versions of our test applications:

The tests and methods we employ are generally publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.