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GeForce 8600 series graphics cards compared

A multitude of affordable DirectX 10 options

FOR A WHILE NOW, WE'VE decried the lack of variety among high-end graphics cards. Most of these cards are actually built by manufacturers under contract with AMD or Nvidia, and they're shipped to add-in board partners who often do little more than change the sticker on the heatsink. That's left plenty of room to poke fun at the art direction behind various heatsink stickers, but it's also made high-end graphics card round-ups a bit of a bore.

Fortunately, there's a lot more variety in the world of mid-range graphics cards like the GeForce 8600 series. These affordable alternatives to flagship products are the kinds of cards most of us end up buying anyway, and manufacturers have a lot more freedom to build their own boards, concoct custom cooling solutions, and mess with core and memory clock speeds. Each add-in board partner brings a unique flavor to the table, and we've rounded up a handful of GeForce 8600 series cards from Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI to see how they compare. Read on to see which of these manufacturers puts the best spin on Nvidia's latest mid-range GPUs.

Multiple mid-range flavors
Before diving into the cards, we should take a moment to briefly detail Nvidia's latest mid-range GPUs. Introduced just over a month ago, the GeForce 8600 series anchors the middle of Nvidia's GPU lineup and is based on the DirectX 10-class G84 GPU. In addition to its DirectX 10 credentials, this chip sports 32 stream processors, eight ROPs, a 128-bit memory interface, and a new video VP2 processing engine capable of decoding high-definition videos in H.264 format. Interestingly, the GeForce 8600's video processing engine is actually more advanced than what's found in the G80 GPU that powers Nvidia's high-end GeForce 8800s.

GPU Stream processors ROPs Core clock SP clock Memory bus width Memory clock
GeForce 8500 GT G86 16 8 400MHz 900MHz 128-bit 400MHz
GeForce 8600 GT G84 32 8 540MHz 1190MHz 128-bit 700MHz
GeForce 8600 GTS G84 32 8 675MHz 1450MHz 128-bit 1000MHz

You can get the GeForce 8600 in GT and GTS flavors, with the GTS offering higher clock speeds for the graphics core, stream processors, and memory. The GTS's clock speeds are more than just a little bit faster than those of the GT—core and stream processor clocks are up between 22% and 25%, and memory speeds have been boosted by close to 43%. Board vendors are also free to mess with clock speeds on their own, and we have a couple of "overclocked-in-the-box" variants in our roundup.

Slotted in just below the GeForce 8600 series, we find the budget-oriented GeForce 8500 line. The 8500 series isn't a direct competitor for the GeForce 8600—with half the number of stream processors and much lower clock speeds, performance won't be even close to comparable—but we've included one to give you an idea of what you stand to lose if you can't quite gather the funds for an 8600. The GeForce 8500 series has the same VP2 processing engine as the 8600s, potentially making it a compelling option for a home theater PCs.

From three angles
We're splitting our attention between five cards from Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI. For direct comparison, we have one GeForce 8600 GTS card from each manufacturer. We've also thrown in 8600 and 8500 GT cards from MSI to mix things up a little.

GeForce Core clock SP clock Memory clock Memory size Warranty length Street price
Asus EN8600GTS/2DHT/256M 8600 GTS 675MHz 1458MHz 1008MHz 256MB 3 years $215
MSI NX8600GTS-T2D256E OC 8600 GTS 700MHz 1458MHz 1050MHz 256MB 3 years parts, 2 years labor $175
MSI NX8600GT-T2D256E OC 8600 GT 580MHz 1188MHz 800MHz 256MB 3 years parts, 2 years labor $137
MSI NX8500GT-T2D256E OC 8500 GT 459MHz 918MHz 400MHz 256MB 3 years parts, 2 years labor
Gigabyte GV-NX86S256H 8600 GTS 675MHz 1458MHz 1008MHz 256MB 3 years

As you can see, the MSI NX8600GTS is the only GeForce 8600 GTS to deviate from Nvidia's stock core and memory clocks. The clock rate advantage isn't huge, but it should nonetheless give it an edge over the other cards. MSI actually gets its hands dirty with a little factory "overclocking" with all three of the NX cards we're looking at today. The NX6800GT enjoys a nice boost over the GeForce 8600 GT's core and memory clocks, and even the budget NX8500GT gets a 15% jump in core clock speed.

Pinning down SP clock speeds for our overclocked-in-the-box cards proved a little more difficult, since neither Asus nor MSI publish SP clock speeds. Fortunately, RivaTuner 2.01 has no problems reading SP clock speeds, and it revealed a few surprises. All three 8600 GTS cards posted the same SP clock, despite the fact that the MSI NX8600GTS comes with a factory "overclocked" core. The core clock speed boost MSI applies to its NX8600GT and NX8500GT doesn't appear to extend to the SP clocks, either.

Despite spanning mid-range and budget parts, each of the graphics cards in this round-up comes equipped with 256MB of memory. That's probably the right amount of memory for cards in this price range, and it's nice to see that none of these add-in board partners are trying to distract consumers with excessive amounts of onboard memory. Additional memory can be useful when running at high resolutions or with extremely high in-game detail levels, but these cards have limited pixel-pushing horsepower, which makes either scenario a stretch. That's not to say we wont' see GeForce 8500 series cards on display at Computex with 1GB of memory. Taiwanese board makers love their onboard memory.

Interestingly, they're not so keen on the lifetime warranties that have become all the rage with North American brands like BFG, EVGA, and XFX. Asus and Gigabyte limit their warranty coverage to three years, and MSI only covers labor for two. That's reasonable, I suppose, since these cards will probably struggle to play cutting-edge games released two to three years from now. We've grown accustomed to lifetime graphics card warranties, though, and we quite like the idea.

You'll notice we don't have real-time pricing for all of the graphics cards. The GeForce 8600 series is relatively new, and some of these specific models aren't yet available in our price search engine. With a little help from Froogle and Newegg, we were able to determine the lowest street prices for the other cards.

Although it's not listed in the chart, we should also note that all five of the cards here offer HDCP support to keep your content safe from, er, yourself. The GeForce 8600 and 8500 GPUs both support HDCP, but it's up to board vendors to implement it on their products via additional onboard hardware.