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The lineup
As you've probably heard, the Radeon HD 2900 XT didn't deliver enough performance punch to knock the overall GPU performance crown off of Nvidia's ever-expanding noggin. AMD didn't even try to introduce an outright competitor to the GeForce 8880 GTX or Ultra, preferring to stick with the safe plan of offering a strong value at $399 to compete with the GeForce 8800 GTS. Since that development, many ATI/AMD fans have looked forward longingly to the launch of the Radeon HD 2600 series, expecting AMD to capture some glory in the form of the mid-range GPU crown. After all, AMD indicated it was aiming the Radeon HD 2600 XT at the $199 price point, where it would face the incumbent GeForce 8600 GTS. If the new Radeon could win that matchup, it would be a very compelling value in a graphics card for gamers.

However, as I've noted, AMD sent off warning signs as the Radeon HD 2400 and 2600 launch approached by trimming its projected prices. The Radeon HD 2600 line's range dropped from $99-199 to $89-149, and the 2400 series went from "$99 and below" to "$85 and below." That means, among other things, that AMD will have no answer to the GeForce 8600 GTS at around $199. Despite having a 100 million transistor advantage on the G84 GPU and comparable memory bandwidth, the RV630 evidently wasn't up to the challenge.

AMD does seem committed to offering a compelling value where it can. I like this approach much better than the one ATI took with the Radeon X1600 XT, asking $249 for a graphics card that couldn't match the competition's $199 model. With the prices adjusted down, the initial low-to-mid-range Radeon HD lineup now looks like so:

GPU Core
clock (MHz)
clock (MHz)
Radeon HD 2400 Pro RV610 525 400-500 64 bits $50-55
Radeon HD 2400 XT RV610 700 800 64 bits $75-85
Radeon HD 2600 Pro RV630 600 500 128 bits $89-99
Radeon HD 2600 XT RV630 800 800-1100 128 bits $119-149

AMD and its partners will be offering two versions of the Radeon HD 2600 XT: one with GDDR3 memory clocked at 800MHz and another with GDDR4 memory clocked at 1100MHz. I'd expect the GDDR4 version to sell for closer to $149 and the GDDR3 version for closer to $119. (These are the sort of hard-hitting insights we deliver daily here at TR. Step back!)

We have several representatives from this lineup on hand.

The Radeon HD 2600 XT GDDR4

Here's the Radeon HD 2600 XT, complete with a single-slot cooler and a set of connectors for internal CrossFire connections. Notice the absence of an auxiliary power plug. This puppy gets by on the 75W supplied by the PCIe slot alone. At nine inches, though, the 2600 XT is over an inch and a half longer than the GeForce 8600 GTS and over two inches longer than the 8600 GT.

The Radeon HD 2600 Pro

This 2600 Pro packs a small cooler and twin dual-link DVI ports, but there's a notable omission: CrossFire connectors. Those wanting to build a multi-GPU config with the 2600 Pro will have to settle for passing data between the cards via PCI Express.

The Radeon HD 2400 XT

Oddly enough, the 2400 XT comes with a pair of CrossFire connectors, causing us some puzzlement. Why put 'em on this card and not on the 2600 Pro? Strange. The 2400 XT uses the same cooler as the 2600 Pro, but with its big cutout, the card itself is as tiny as the GPU onboard, relatively speaking.

We don't have one, but I expect some 2400 Pro cards to be passively cooled, making them practically ideal for a home theater PC or similar device.

The competition
Figuring out the proper competitive matchups in the low end of the graphics card market is insanely tricky. Especially among Nvidia's partners, card configurations and clock speeds tend to vary, prices can range widely for very similar products, and rebate deals can muddy the waters. That said, we can take a look at some street prices and get a sense of the market.

MSI GeForce 8500 GT card is currently selling for $74.99 at Newegg (plus a $10, ugh, mail-in rebate). Meanwhile, the XFX 8500 GT costs $79.99 at ZipZoomFly (plus a $20.00 mail-in rebate). Both cards run at Nvidia's base clock speeds for the 8500 GT.

XFX offers multiple versions of the 8600 GT. The 540M variant, with a 540MHz core and 700MHz memory, is selling for $129 at TigerDirect and $134.99 at two other vendors. The 620M model has a 620MHz core and 800MHz memory. You can order it from Mwave for $136.97 and then send off for a $20 rebate. A host of other stores is selling this same card for $149.99 with the same rebate offer.

Finally, there's the GeForce 8600 GTS. AMD has decided not to take this one on directly, but it's still a notable presence in the market. XFX's 730M variant has a 730MHz core and 1.13GHz memory, and it will set you back $224.99 at Newegg—not cheap. However, we can't help but take notice of cards like this MSI 8600 GTS going for $164.99 at Newegg, plus a $10 rebate. The MSI's 700/1050MHz clock speeds aren't far off of the XFX card's.

XFX's GeForce 8500 GT and 8600 GT cards

So what do we make of all this? Here's my best guess about how things will match up in the market once AMD's new Radeons arrive in force. First, the GeForce 8600 GTS is positioned above anything in the Radeon HD 2600 series. That's pretty clear. The closest competition for the Radeon HD 2600 XT GDDR4 is arguably cards like the XFX GeForce 8600 GT 620M, while the GDDR3 version of the 2600 XT will face off against the likes of the GeForce 8600 GT 540M.

From here, the waters get murkier. My sense is that the closest competition for the Radeon HD 2600 Pro will probably be the GeForce 8500 GT, although current prices put the 8500 GT closer to the Radeon HD 2400 XT's projected list. I expect once things really shake out, the 2400 XT will end up doing battle against the GeForce 8400 GS for most of its lifetime.

With that in mind, we can set up the matchups you'll see on the following pages. We've pitted the Radeon HD 2600 XT GDDR4 against XFX's GeForce 8600 GT 620M in single-card performance. In SLI, we've added another XFX GeForce 8600 GT to the mix, but it's the 540M model. Both cards in the pair will drop to its clock speed in order to work together. (Sorry, but we had to work with what we could get.)

The Radeon HD 2600 Pro will face off against the GeForce 8500 GT in single-card mode. We don't have a second 2600 Pro, so we won't have any CrossFire scores for it. Nonetheless, we've tested a pair of 8500 GT cards in SLI. Unfortunately, the MSI card in the pair lacks an SLI connector, so we're doing SLI data transport via PCIe.

A couple of our contenders don't have a direct competitor in the mix. The GeForce 8600 GTS showed up ready to fight, but AMD backed down. And we failed to snag a GeForce 8400 GS to test against the Radeon HD 2400 XT. Apologies for that. Just keep in mind that the presence of three cards from AMD and three from Nvidia doesn't indicate three perfectly symmetrical price matchups, or reading our test results will be confusing.