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Test notes
You may notice that I didn't engage in a lot of GPU geekery this time around. I decided instead to focus on testing these new video cards across a range of the amazing new games and game engines coming out. These GPUs are basically "refresh" parts based on existing technology, and their most compelling attributes, in my view, are their incredibly strong price-performance ratios.

In order to give you a better sense of perspective on the price-performance front, I've included a couple of older video cards, in addition to a whole range of new cards. Roughly a year ago, the Radeon X1950 Pro faced off against the GeForce 7900 GS at $199. This year's crop of similarly priced GPUs have some substantial advantages in terms of specifications and theoretical throughput, but as you'll see, the gains they offer in real-world performance are even larger—and they do it while delivering image quality that's sometimes quite noticeably superior to last year's models, as well.

You'll find results for both the X1950 Pro and the 7900 GS in several of our gaming tests and in our power and noise measurements. I've had to limit their participation to scripted benchmarks because these cards were generally too slow to handle the settings at which we tested manually with FRAPS.

That leads me to another issue. As I said, the older cards couldn't handle some of the settings we used because, well, they're quite intensive, with very high resolutions, quality levels, or both. We tested at these settings because we wanted to push the cards to their limits in order to show meaningful performance differences between them. That's hard to do without hitting a CPU or system-level bottleneck, especially with cards this fast running in multi-GPU configurations. We did test at multiple quality levels with a couple of games in order to give you a sense of performance scaling, which should help.

Also, please note that many of the GeForce cards in the tables below are clocked at higher-than-stock speeds. Nvidia's board vendors have made a practice of selling their products at multiple clock speeds, and some of our examples are these hot-clocked variants. For instance, the 8800 GTS cards are all clocked at 575MHz (or in the case of the one XFX 320MB card, 580MHz) core clocks and correspondingly higher shader clocks. Obviously, that's going to change the performance picture. We think it makes sense to include these cards because they're typically fairly plentiful and available for not much of a premium over stock-clocked versions. They're what we might buy for ourselves.

The one exception to that rule, at least right now, may be the GeForce 8800 GT. The first wave of these cards looks to have sold out at many online vendors, and all variants are going for something of a premium right now—especially the higher clocked ones. We have included one "overclocked" version of the 8800 GT (from MSI) in our tests in order to show you its performance. This card is very fast, but be aware that it is not currently a $199 or even a $249 option.

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:

Processor Core 2 Extreme X6800 2.93GHz Core 2 Extreme X6800 2.93GHz
System bus 1066MHz (266MHz quad-pumped) 1066MHz (266MHz quad-pumped)
Motherboard XFX nForce 680i SLI Gigabyte GA-X38-DQ6
BIOS revision P31 F5h
North bridge nForce 680i SLI SPP X38 MCH
South bridge nForce 680i SLI MCP ICH9R
Chipset drivers ForceWare 15.08 INF update 8.3.1.1009
Matrix Storage Manager 7.6
Memory size 4GB (4 DIMMs) 4GB (4 DIMMs)
Memory type 2 x Corsair TWIN2X20488500C5D
DDR2 SDRAM
at 800MHz
2 x Corsair TWIN2X20488500C5D
DDR2 SDRAM
at 800MHz
CAS latency (CL) 4 4
RAS to CAS delay (tRCD) 4 4
RAS precharge (tRP) 4 4
Cycle time (tRAS) 18 18
Command rate 2T 2T
Audio Integrated nForce 680i SLI/ALC850
with RealTek 6.0.1.5497 drivers
Integrated ICH9R/ALC889A
with RealTek 6.0.1.5497 drivers
Graphics XFX GeForce 7900 GS 480M 256MB PCIe
with ForceWare 169.01 drivers
Dual Radeon X1950 Pro 256MB PCIe
with 8.43 drivers
Dual XFX GeForce 7900 GS 256MB PCIe
with ForceWare 169.01 drivers
Dual Radeon HD 2900 XT 512MB PCIe
with 8.43 drivers
GeForce 8800 GT 512MB PCIe
with ForceWare 169.01 drivers
Dual Radeon HD 3850 256MB PCIe
with 8.43 drivers
Dual GeForce 8800 GT 512MB PCIe
with ForceWare 169.01 drivers
Dual Radeon HD 3870 512MB PCIe
with 8.43.1.071115a drivers
MSI NX8800 GT TD512E 512MB PCIe
with ForceWare 169.01 drivers
XFX GeForce 8800 GTS XXX 320MB PCIe
with ForceWare 169.01 drivers
EVGA GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB PCIe
with ForceWare 169.06 drivers
EVGA GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB PCIe
+ XFX GeForce 8800 GTS 678M 512MB PCIe
with ForceWare 169.06 drivers
XFX GeForce 8800 GTS XXX 320MB PCIe
+ MSI NX8800GTS OC 320MB PCIe
with ForceWare 169.01 drivers
EVGA GeForce 8800 GTS SC 640MB PCIe
with ForceWare 169.01 drivers
Dual EVGA GeForce 8800 GTS SC 640MB PCIe
with ForceWare 169.01 drivers
MSI GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB PCIe
with ForceWare 169.01 drivers
Dual GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB PCIe
with ForceWare 169.01 drivers
Radeon X1950 Pro 256MB PCIe
with 8.43 drivers
Radeon HD 2900 XT 512MB PCIe
with 8.43 drivers
Radeon HD 3850 256MB PCIe
with 8.43 drivers
Radeon HD 3870 256MB PCIe
with 8.43 drivers
Hard drive WD Caviar SE16 320GB SATA
OS Windows Vista Ultimate x86 Edition
OS updates KB36710, KB938194, KB938979, KB940105, DirectX August 2007 Update

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 PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750W power supply units. The Silencer 750W was a runaway Editor's Choice winner in our epic 11-way power supply roundup, so it seemed like a fitting choice for our test rigs. 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. 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.