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 GTcore 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 8600with half the number of stream processors and much lower clock speeds, performance won’t be even close to comparablebut 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.
One of many As one of the most prolific manufacturers in the business, Asus has quite an array of GeForce 8600 series cards. In total, the company offers five different 8600 models, three of which are based on the GTS. The EN8600GTS (which is technically the much more awkward EN8600GTS/HTDP/256M) is the most basic GTS in Asus’ lineup. Other GTS variants come with either passive cooling solutions or a copy of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
So this is the base model: stock clock speeds, active cooling, and no new game in the box. The card does come on a flashy blue board, though.
Copping a color from Gigabyte’s palette, Asus has draped the EN8600GTS in deep blue with just a hint of turquoise. That isn’t a standard reference board color, but the layout of onboard components looks identical to that of Nvidia’s GeForce 8600 GTS reference design. Asus appears to have switched a few of the capacitors, though.
Asus does follow the reference design when it comes to auxiliary power. There’s a six-pin PCIe power connector along the back edge of the card, which is something you won’t find on one of the GTS cards we’ll be looking at today. More on that in a moment.
Noisy reference coolers have traditionally been a sore spot on mid-range GeForce graphics cards, but Nvidia cleaned up its act with the 8600 GTS. Perhaps too little too late for Asus, which has fitted the EN8600GTS with a custom cooler that looks one part Zalman and one part old-school Thermaltake. You won’t find massive, billboard-sized stickers here, just a radial array of cooling fins topped by an 11-blade fan.
In a moment we’ll see just how cool this custom heatsink keeps the EN8600GTS’s graphic chip. However, we should note that it is a double-wide design, so it will block the expansion card slot directly beside it.
Apart from a custom cooler, you don’t get much with the EN8600GTS. There’s only one DVI-to-VGA adapter, despite the fact that the card has two DVI outputs. We’d at least expect a second adapter on a $200 graphics card. Asus should really include a six-pin PCIe power adapter, too, since users shopping for budget graphics cards may not have a power supply new enough to have a six-pin connector. At least Asus throws in a component video output dongle.
On the software front, Asus includes driver and manual CDs. They haven’t tried to pass off a bunch of washed-up, bargain-bin games as added value for the package, and you get a CD wallet to store the games you actually want to play.
Years of enjoying lifetime graphics card warranties from the likes of BFG Tech and others may have spoiled us a little, so the EN8600GTS’ three-year warranty doesn’t look all that impressive. But three years is a long time in the graphics world, so it’s hard to gripe too much.
Lots of options Like Asus, MSI is rolling out five different graphics cards based on the GeForce 8600. Instead of just sending us a base model, MSI provided its higher-clocked NX8600GTS and NX8600GT versions of the GeForce 8600 GTS and GT. To provide some additional perspective on how mid-range cards compare with more budget models, they also threw in a juiced up NX8500GT version of the GeForce 8500 GT.
MSI has traditionally been one of the more conservative add-in board makers, so it’s nice to see the company eager to offer higher-than-stock clock speeds, especially on budget cards like the NX8500GT. In fact, the NX8500GT enjoys the most aggressive core clock boost, from a stock 400MHz all the way up to 460MHz.
The NX8500GT is otherwise simple fare. This sub-$100 card may have a higher frequency graphics core, but its memory runs at the 8500 GT’s default 400MHz. You only get one DVI output, as well, although it’s still of the dual-link variety. Cooling is provided by a simple, single-slot fan similar to designs we’ve seen on slews of budget graphics cards.
Things get a little more interesting when we upgrade to the NX8600GT, which features 580MHz core and 800MHz memory clocks that outpace the 8600 GT’s stock 540MHz core and 700MHz memory speeds. The nearly 15% boost in memory clock speed should be particularly handy given the 8600 GT’s relatively narrow 128-bit memory bus.
Nvidia’s reference design for the 8600 GT doesn’t include an auxiliary power connector, and apparently, running the card at faster-than-stock speeds doesn’t significantly change its power requirements, because MSI didn’t add one. This card does sport an SLI bridge connector along with a pair of dual-link DVI outputs, though. Its cooler is also much beefier than what we saw on the 8500 GTstill a single-slot design, but with much more surface area and a shroud to direct airflow over the heatsink’s radiator fins.
Further up MSI’s NX8600 line, we find the GTS. This card has a 700MHz core clock and 1050MHz memory, only slightly faster than the GTS’s default 675MHz core and 1000MHz memory clocks. That won’t make it much faster than a stock-clocked 8600 GT, but the massive double-wide cooler could keep GPU temperatures lower and aid with additional overclocking.
The NX8600GTS’ dual-slot cooler features an array of cooling fins above the graphics chip and an elevated blower that’s a little louder than we expected. We’ll reveal the results of our noise level tests in a moment, but for now, note that the card’s expansion slot cover features extensive venting to allow warm air to be more easily expelled from the system. This arrangement won’t necessarily keep the graphics card cooler, but it should help to lower overall system temperatures.
As is customary for a GeForce 8600 GTS, the NX comes with auxiliary six-pin PCIe power connector tucked under the elevated blower. The board layout and components appear to directly follow Nvidia’s reference design, as well.
MSI doesn’t provide much in the way of software or flashy games with these cards, but they do pack in a generous collection of hardware. The NX8600GTS, for example, comes with a pair of DVI-to-VGA adapters, a six-pin PCIe power adapter, an output dongle that can handle S-Video and component output, and an S-Video cable. There are fewer extras included with the other cards, but only because they don’t need some of the accessories. The NX8600GT, for example, doesn’t come with a six-pin PCIe power connector because it doesn’t have an auxiliary power connector onboard. You lose one of the DVI-to-VGA adapters with the NX8500GT, as well, but that’s fine because the card only has a single DVI output.
All three cards are covered under a three years parts, two years labor warranty. That falls a little short of the three years of total coverage offered by Asus and Gigabyte, but it does guarantee the cards at their factory “overclocked” speeds.
Silent…ish There are only three GeForce 8600 series graphics cards in Gigabyte’s quiver, and the GV-NX86S256H sits in the middle of that range. On paper, the card doesn’t look particularly special. Gigabyte hasn’t tweaked the core or memory clocks to deliver better performance, and the card’s street price almost exactly matches the low end of Nvidia’s $199-$229 target price range for the 8600 GTS.
Yet there’s much more to the GV-NX86S256H than clock speeds and pricing, and it only takes a quick glimpse of the card to understand why.
Yes, this card comes equipped with passive coolingnot just any passive heatsink, but the largest chunk of industrial metal we’ve ever seen on a graphics card. The cooler’s flat grey finish is a little dull, perhaps, but it wouldn’t look out of place in Battlestar Galactica, and that’s all the cosmetic endorsement a PC enthusiast should need. Besides, when set against the blue board and polished copper heatpipes, I think the flat grey finish looks rather smart.
The cooler is a tricky affair, pairing a chunky heatsink that sits atop the graphics chip with a series of more intricate fins. Those fins jut out from the expansion slot cover, partially obscuring our view of the card’s dual dual-link DVI ports and its video output port. There’s also additional venting under the fins to encourage airflow.
Passively cooling a GPU running at close to 700MHz can’t be easy, so it’s no surprise the Silent Pipe 3 heatsink takes up two slots. What’s more surprising is the fact that the card doesn’t feature the six-pin auxiliary PCIe power connector present in Nvidia’s reference design. Gigabyte’s done a custom board for the GV-NX86S256H. In addition to dropping the power connector, they’ve juggled the layout, likely to accommodate the massive, passive cooler.
Perhaps they shouldn’t have.
You see, although the GV-NX86S256H is dead silent while idling on the Windows desktoplike any passively-cooled graphics card should befiring up a 3D application makes it whine and squeal like a stuck pop star. With some apps, you just get a hum that’s only annoying because of its relatively high frequency. But in others, like Oblivion, the card practically wails in protest and occasionally sounds like an old modem caught in a particularly offensive high-pitched handshake. The sound appears to be coming from the board’s surface-mounted electrical components, since there’s really nothing else that could be making any noise.
We’ve been through two of these cards, and they both exhibited identical behavior on our nForce 680i SLI-based test systema rig that hasn’t produced similar squealing with other cards. We even fired up the card on a new Intel P35 Express-based motherboard and were greeted by similar sounds, although this time it was more of an incessant buzz.
What’s even more bizarre, and perhaps related, is that the GV-NX86S256H comes bundled with a PCIe power adapteras if there were somewhere to plug it in. Hmm.
Gigabyte does supply a pair of DVI-to-VGA adapters in the box, alongside a dongle that feeds component and S-Video outputs. Those you can use.
The real gem in the Gigabyte box is a full copy of Supreme Commander, perhaps one of the most hotly anticipated real-time strategy games of the year. We don’t normally get excited about game bundles, but that’s because most include older titles long past their prime. Supreme Commander is about as fresh as they come, and it’ll cost you around $40 at retail, so it adds unique value to the package.
Gigabyte hasn’t done anything imaginative with the GV-NX86S256H’s three-year warranty, though. Parts and labor are both covered for the duration, but it’s still a long way from a lifetime.
Since we’ve narrowed today’s focus to the unique attributes offered by each of Nvidia’s add-in board partners, we won’t spend too much time testing 3D gaming performance. For a more in-depth look at how the performance of the GeForce 8600 series compares to that of a wide range of competitors, check out our initial review of the cards.
All tests were run at least twice, and their results were averaged, using the following test systems.
|Processor||Core 2 Duo E6400 2.13GHz|
|System bus||1066MHz (266MHz quad-pumped)|
|North bridge||Nvidia nForce 680i SLI SPP|
|South bridge||Nvidia nForce 680i SLI MCP|
|Chipset drivers||ForceWare 9.53|
|Memory size||2GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair TWIN2X2048-8500C5 DDR2 SDRAM at 800MHz|
|CAS latency (CL)||4|
|RAS to CAS delay (tRCD)||4|
|RAS precharge (tRP)||4|
|Cycle time (tRAS)||12|
|Audio||Integrated nForce 680i SLI MCP/ALC885 with Realtek HD 1.66 drivers|
|Graphics|| Asus EN8600GTS 256MB PCIe
MSI NX8600GTS 256MB PCIe
MSI NX8600GT 256MB PCIe
MSI NX8500GT 256MB PCIe
Gigabyte GV-NX86S256H 256MB PCIe
|Graphics driver||ForceWare 158.22 drivers|
|Hard drive||Western Digital Caviar RE2 400GB|
|OS||Windows XP Professional|
|OS updates||Service Pack 2|
Thanks to Corsair for providing us with memory for our testing. 2GB of RAM seems to be the new standard for most folks, and Corsair hooked us up with some of its 1GB DIMMs for testing.
Also, all of our test systems were powered by OCZ GameXStream 700W power supply units. Thanks to OCZ for providing these units for our use in testing.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at an 85Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.
All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
Performance is predictable at stock speeds. The MSI NX8600GTS’s revved-up clock speeds give it a bit of an edge over the stock-clocked GTS cards from Asus and Gigabyte, and the MSI NX8600GT’s faster-than-stock speeds allow it to keep up surprisingly well with the GTS field.
Unfortunately, even an overclocked core can’t help the NX8500GT overcome its fewer stream processors and pokey memory clock. The card may sell for half the price of an 8600 GTS, but it offers less than half the performance.
The handy automatic overclocking utility built into Nvidia’s graphics drivers and then relocated to its nTune system utility doesn’t seem to be working properly with the GeForce 8600 or 8500 series, so we had to kick it old-school with manual slider manipulation and loads of trial-and-error testing. In order to qualify as stable, each of our overclocked configurations had to loop successfully through three iterations of 3DMark’s Shader Model 3.0 tests at 1280×1024 with 4X antialiasing and 16X aniso, and then endure ten minutes of Oblivion at maximum detail levels.
We were able to hit the following core and memory clock speeds with each card (doubling the memory clock speed gives you the effective memory clock):
- Asus EN8600GTS 763MHz core, 1151MHz memory
- MSI NX8600GTS 765MHz core, 1169MHz memory
- MSI NX8600GT 686MHz core, 866MHz memory
- MSI NX8500GT 785MHz core, 505MHz memory
- Gigabyte GV-NX86S256H 763MHz core, 1048MHz memory
The real winner here is the MSI NX8500GT, whose 460MHz core ramped nearly 70% to hit 785MHz. It’s also interesting to note that all three 8600 GTS cards, including the passively cooled Gigabyte, hit around 760MHz for the GPU core. Overclocking success can vary from card to card, but the fact that all three eclipsed 760MHz suggests the 8600 GTS has plenty of headroom. Beyond that, you can see the numbers, but remember: it’s hard to draw definitive conclusions based on the overclocking performance of a single example of each product.
Overclocking doesn’t change the performance picture dramatically, but the NX8500GT gets a huge boost from its wildly overclocked core. Notice how the Asus and MSI cards offer nearly identical performance when they’re running at essentially the same speed.
Noise levels were measured using an Extech 407727 Digital Sound Level meter placed along the edge of the motherboard 1″ from the graphics card and out of the direct path of airflow. We recorded noise levels after 10 minutes idling at the Windows desktop, and again after 10 minutes rendering this stunning scene from Oblivion at 1280×1024 with all the in-game eye candy cranked. Cards were tested at both their default and overclocked speeds.
You don’t see scores for the Gigabyte cards at idle because noise levels were too low to register on our digital sound level meter, which bottoms out at 40 decibels. The second-quietest card of the lot is Asus’ EN8600GTS, followed closely by MSI’s budget NX8500GT. Both of those cards are much quieter than the NX8600GTS, whose dual-slot blower registered nearly 60 decibels while idling on the Windows desktop.
Firing up Oblivion doesn’t change the picture much for four of our cards. Asus is still the quietest of the actively-cooled cards, and the NX8600GTS is still the loudest. Note that its noise levels don’t really change at all from idle to load, either.
The big surprise here is of course the GV-NX86S256H, whose whiny tendencies make it the second-loudest graphics card of the lot. That’s shocking for a graphics card sporting a “Silent Pipe 3” heatsink, but it’s a testament to just how loud the buzzing gets when this card is doing its thing.
System power consumption was tested, sans monitor and speakers, at the wall outlet using a Watts Up power meter. We used the same idle and load conditions as our noise level tests.
The budget NX8500GT predictably pulls less at the wall outlet than the other cards, followed by the 8600 GT and then the wave of 8600 GTS cards. Power consumption is a little higher when the cards are overclocked than when they’re running at stock speeds, which is understandable.
Things get really interesting under load, where the Gigabyte pulls 20W more than any other GTS card at stock speeds, and close to 40W more when overclocked. This behavior was consistent with both of the Gigabyte 8600 GTS cards we tested.
We tracked GPU temperatures using Nvidia’s nTune system utility, which can log temperatures to a text file. Again, we used the same idle and load conditions as our noise level tests.
At idle, the MSI NX8600GTS’s noisy blower manages to keep the graphics chip cooler than any other 8600 GTS, but only by a degree over the much quieter Asus. The NX8500GT actually runs a little warmer than the 8600 cards, with the exception of the Gigabyte GTS.
Temperatures rise under load, and it’s here that the NX8600GTS’s blower really starts to pay off. The MSI card’s GPU is close to 10 degrees cooler than that of Asus’ EN8600GTS and even five degrees cooler than the NX8600GT. Of course, nothing compares to the GPU temperatures observed with the passively cooled Gigabyte, which hit 100 degrees after just 10 minutes under load on an open test bench. Toasty indeed.
Before I started testing the cards for this round-up, the Gigabyte GV-NX86S256H looked like a shoo-in for our Editor’s Choice award. Combining a GeForce 8600 GTS graphics chip with passive cooling and a copy of Supreme Commander for less than $200 is a recipe for success, especially compared with the competitors assembled today. Unfortunately, Gigabyte faltered in the execution, producing a card with a tendency to whine, buzz, and make otherwise undignified noises under load. Initially, we thought we had a bad card, but a second sample produced identical results, even on a completely different test system. Combine that with the card’s inexplicably high power draw, and the GV-NX86S256H simply isn’t a product we can recommend.
We’d also shy away from MSI’s NX8500GT, but for different reasons. This budget card may cost half what you’ll pay for an 8600 GTS, but you have to live with gaming performance that’s significantly lower than an 8600 GT. On a $100 graphics card, the GeForce 8500 GT just isn’t worth the compromise, even with juiced up clock speeds. This card’s saving grace may be its VP2 engine for HD video decoding, which could make it a solid choice for a video-intensive system that doesn’t need especially fast 3D graphics.
That brings us to another factory “overclocked” card, MSI’s NX8600GTS. This card is selling for $175 at Newegg, making it quite a bargain for a faster-than-stock 8600 GTS. Unfortunately, the NX’s dual-slot cooler makes a heck of a racket, registering nearly 15 decibels louder than Asus’ EN8600GTS at idle and 12 decibels louder under load. The cooler does keep the GPU nice and cool, but that didn’t translate into an advantage in our overclocking tests. We’d rather not put up with the noise.
So we’re down to two: MSI’s NX8600GT and Asus’ EN8600GTS. It’s actually easy to pick a winner between these two cards because the going rate for the Asus card appears to be around $215. That’s close to 60% more than the $137 NX8600GT, but Asus certainly doesn’t give you 60% more card for your money. In fact, if you look at the bundled extras, you actually get less.
Now, the Asus EN8600GTS does offer slightly better performance and a quieter cooler, but those factors alone aren’t worth the hefty price premium. Don’t get me wrong; the EN8600GTS is a good card. It just doesn’t pack the same value proposition as the NX8600GT, and when you’re shopping for a mid-range graphics card, value is what you want. That makes MSI’s NX8600GT our Editor’s Choice.