A sweet 16 mid-range graphics cards compared

We are living in perhaps the most exciting time in recent history for PC graphics. What’s particularly striking about this latest flurry of excitement is that it isn’t tied to a new standard in performance set by high-end “halo” cards that few enthusiasts can actually afford. Instead, it’s being driven at an almost grassroots level, fueled by the class of graphics cards that most of us seem to end up actually buying—cards in the $200 range. These cards don’t incite as much geek lust as those higher up the line, but they’re far more attainable and often boast a better value proposition than the latest flagships.

I speak, of course, of the GeForce 8800 GT and Radeon HD 3800 series—the latest mid-range contenders battling for sweet spot supremacy. Launched not long ago and finally available with some semblance of consistency and adherence to prescribed pricing, these cards are selling like hotcakes. Given the fresh bounty of quality—and more importantly, demanding—PC titles we’ve been treated to over the last few months, it’s no wonder gaming-worthy graphics cards are such a popular upgrade item.

If you’ve read our extensive coverage of the GeForce 8800 GT and Radeon HD 3800 series, you probably have an idea of which one best suits your needs and budget. That puts you one step closer to settling on the right card, but there’s another important decision to consider: among the 8800 GTs and HD 3800-series cards available from various add-in board partners, which are the best? There’s more variety here than one might think, since manufacturers tweak clock speeds, board layouts, cooling solutions, and even bundled games and extras in order to separate themselves from an increasingly crowded pack of contenders drawing from the same bin of chips.

Set on finding the finest mid-range graphics cards on the market, we’ve rounded up an appropriately sweet 16 cards from the likes of Asus, Gigabyte, HIS, MSI, Palit, PowerColor, Sapphire, VisionTek, XFX, and Zotac. Read on to see which set themselves apart from the masses.

A trio of options

We start at the core with the RV670 and G92 graphics chips powering this latest salvo of mid-range wunderkinds from AMD and Nvidia. Since this round-up will focus on the unique attributes of cards being offered by various add-in board partners, we won’t dwell on the architectural intricacies that make these chips tick. For an in-depth look under the hood of each, I highly suggest reading our initial reviews of the Radeon HD 3800 series and GeForce 8800 GT.

Most of what you need to know about the Radeon HD 3800 series and GeForce 8800 GT can be summed up in a couple of handy charts. This first one covers the basics.

Graphics chip

Core clock speed

Shader clock speed

Memory clock speed

Typical memory size

Memory bus width

Reference cooler

GeForce 8800 GT
G92 600MHz 1.5GHz 1.8GHz 512MB 256-bit Single-slot

Radeon HD 3850
RV670 670MHz NA 1.66GHz 256MB 256-bit Single-slot

Radeon HD 3870
RV670 775MHz NA 2.25GHz 512MB 256-bit Dual-slot

As you can see, there are two members of the 3800 series: the 3850 and the 3870. Both use the same RV670 graphics chip, differing on clock speeds and memory configurations rather than GPU silicon.

Before going any further, we should note that the specs above are those of reference designs from AMD and Nvidia. Add-in board partners are free to take liberties with clock speeds, memory configurations, and cooling solutions, and we have numerous examples of each in the round-up. Don’t worry about the lack of shader clock speeds for the Radeons, either; they don’t have independent shader clocks.

One of the most obvious differences between these competing offerings comes in the clock speed department, where the GeForce 8800 GT looks a little ill-equipped to take on the Radeons. The GT’s 600MHz core clock is 70MHz lower than that of the 3850 and a good 175MHz short of the 3870. Don’t read too much into core clock speeds, though. Graphics architectures differ in the amount of work they can complete in a given clock cycle, and as you’ll see in a moment, the GT doesn’t necessarily need higher clock speeds to be competitive with even the 3870.

Things are a little different on the memory front, where all three cards use a 256-bit bus to talk to DDR memory. Memory bandwidth isn’t as dependent on GPU architecture as it is on clock speed and bus width, giving the Radeon HD 3870 a big leg up on the 8800 GT. Even the 3850’s 1.66GHz memory clock is within shouting distance of the GeForce. In all fairness, however, AMD only calls for 256MB of memory to be paired with the 3850—a potentially serious handicap at higher resolutions with the latest games.

AMD’s RV670 graphics chip

Nvidia’s G92

Combining clock speeds with key characteristics of each graphics chip’s underlying architecture allows us to calculate peak theoretical performance expectations, which we’ve presented below.

Peak pixel fill
rate (Gpixels/s)

Peak bilinear
texel filtering rate (Gtexels/s)

Peak bilinear FP16
texel filtering rate (Gtexels/s)

Peak memory
bandwidth (GB/s)

Peak shader
arithmetic (GFLOPS)

GeForce 8800 GT
9.6 33.6 16.8 57.6 504

Radeon HD 3850
10.7 10.7 10.7 53.1 429

Radeon HD 3870
12.4 12.4 12.4 72.0 496

Relatively slower clock speeds hinder only the GeForce 8800 GT’s peak pixel fill rate. Otherwise, the GT offers higher filtering and shader capacity than the Radeon HD 3870. Peak shader arithmetic stats are relatively close between the two, although estimating relative shader throughput for different architectures isn’t an exact science.

Here we can also see the Radeon HD 3870 leverage its higher clock speeds to offer substantially more memory bandwidth than the GeForce 8800 GT. A 14.4GB/s gap is a lot to make up, and things are about to get a lot more interesting as we dip into retail cards that benefit from factory overclocking.

Lining up the competition

Board makers are eager to differentiate their products from the rest of the field, so we’re looking at a batch of cards that offers quite a bit of variety when it comes to clock speeds and memory configurations. Prices and warranty coverage can vary quite a bit from manufacturer to manufacturer, as well. High demand for these graphics cards has some models dipping in and out of stock, if they’re even available for sale. If you don’t see a price listed for a given card in the chart below, that’s either because it’s gone out of stock or isn’t listed at all in our price search engine.


Core clock

Shader clock

Memory clock

Memory size

Warranty length


Asus EAH3870 TOP
Radeon HD 3870 850MHz NA 2.25GHz 512MB GDDR4 3 years

Asus EN8800GT TOP
GeForce 8800 GT 700MHz 1.75GHz 2GHz 512MB GDDR3 3 years

GeForce 8800 GT 600MHz 1.5GHz 1.8GHz 512MB GDDR3 3 years

Gigabyte GV-NX88T512HP
GeForce 8800 GT 700MHz 1.7GHz 1.84GHz 512MB GDDR3 3 years

Gigabyte GV-RX387512H
Radeon HD 3870 775MHz NA 1.9GHz 512MB GDDR3 3 years

HIS HD IceQ3 Turbo
Radeon HD 3870 850MHz NA 2.38GHz 512MB GDDR4 1 year

HIS HD IceQ3 TurboX
Radeon HD 3850 735MHz NA 1.96GHz 512MB GDDR3 1 year

GeForce 8800 GT 660MHz 1.65GHz 1.9GHz 512MB GDDR3 3 years parts, 2
years labor

Palit 8800GT Super+
GeForce 8800 GT 600MHz 1.5GHz 1.8GHz 1GB GDDR3 3 years

PowerColor AX3850
Radeon HD 3850 720MHz NA 1.8GHz 512MB GDDR3 1 year

PowerColor AX3870
Radeon HD 3870 800MHz NA 2.4GHz 512MB GDDR4 1 year

Sapphire HD 3850
Radeon HD 3850 700MHz NA 1.65GHz 1GB GDDR3 2 years

VisionTek Radeon HD
Radeon HD 3870 800MHz NA 2.3GHz 512MB GDDR4 Lifetime

XFX GeForce 8800 GT
Alpha Dog Edition 256
GeForce 8800 GT 650MHz 1.6GHz 1.6GHz 256MB GDDR3 Double lifetime

XFX GeForce 8800 GT
Alpha Dog Edition 512
GeForce 8800 GT 625MHz 1.5GHz 1.8GHz 512MB GDDR3 Double lifetime

Zotac GeForce 8800 GT
Amp! Edition
GeForce 8800 GT 700MHz 1.7GHz 2GHz 512MB GDDR3 2 years

Clock speeds have the biggest impact on performance, so that’s where we’ll start. On the GeForce front, the factory “overclocked” cards from Asus, Gigabyte, and Zotac offer the highest core speeds. Interestingly, the 256MB XFX Alpha Dog Edition enjoys faster-than-stock core and shader clocks but a slower memory clock. Factory overclocking hasn’t been as popular among Radeon board makers, but there’s no shortage of higher clock speeds among these HD 3800-series cards. The 3870s from Asus and HIS lead the way, pushing the RV670 to 850MHz. We only have three Radeon HD 3850s on the bench, and each of them comes with tweaked clock speeds right out of the box.

Tweaked clocks are just one way these cards vary. Board vendors have been slapping extra—and sometimes unnecessary—memory onto graphics cards for years now, and this latest crop of mid-range cards isn’t immune to the trend. Palit and Sapphire both include 1GB on their entries, which may be a little, er, ambitious. Memory upgrades are probably a good idea for the Radeon HD 3850, though, and all three we’ve rounded up bypass the reference 256MB memory size. HIS and PowerColor show more restraint than Sapphire here, only opting to upgrade the 3850’s memory to 512MB.

Warranty terms are all over the map, led by XFX’s “double lifetime” warranty, which covers cards through their first resale. VisionTek’s “single” lifetime warranty is just as good for most practical purposes, and then there’s a huge gap down to the Asus, Gigabyte, and Palit cards with three years of coverage. A three-year warranty seems reasonable for a graphics card in this price range, and I can even live with MSI’s three years parts, two years labor deal. However, the two years of coverage on the Sapphire and Zotac cards starts to look a little stingy. The single year of coverage on the HIS and PowerColor cards is downright cheap, if not completely unacceptable.

Speaking of cheap, the lowest price among cards listed in our price search engine is shared by Gigabyte’s Radeon HD 3870 and PowerColor’s 3850. The most affordable GeForce is predictably the 256MB XFX Alpha Dog, although you can get the 512MB MSI for just $16 more. XFX’s own 512MB card is only $20 more than its 256MB model.

Video outputs and bundled goodies

Different mixes of video outputs and bundled goodies also set the cards apart from one another—in ways that may have even more practical impact on how you use them. All of the cards in our comparo are equipped with dual DVI outputs and an S-Video connector. If you’re looking to play back DRM-encrusted content over a digital connection, all support HDCP, as well.






PCIe power adapter

Game bundle

Asus EAH3870 TOP
1 0 Y N Y Y Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts

Asus EN8800GT TOP
1 0 Y N Y Y Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts

2 0 Y N Y Y Neverwinter Nights

Gigabyte GV-NX88T512HP
2 0 Y N Y Y Neverwinter Nights

Gigabyte GV-RX387512H
2 0 Y N Y Y Neverwinter Nights

HIS HD IceQ3 Turbo
1 1 Y Y N N None

HIS HD IceQ3 TurboX
1 1 Y Y N N None

1 0 Y Y Y Y None

Palit 8800GT Super+
1 1 Y Y Y Y None

PowerColor AX3850
1 1 Y Y Y N None

PowerColor AX3870
1 1 Y Y Y N None

Sapphire HD 3850
1 1 Y Y Y Y None

VisionTek Radeon HD
1 1 Y Y Y N None

XFX GeForce 8800 GT
Alpha Dog Edition 256
2 0 Y N Y Y Lost Planet

XFX GeForce 8800 GT
Alpha Dog Edition 512
2 0 Y N Y Y Company of Heroes

Zotac GeForce 8800 GT
Amp! Edition
1 1 Y N Y Y None

A number of differences present themselves as we skim the chart, however. For example, nearly all of the Radeons come with DVI-to-HDMI adapters that magically pass audio through without the need for additional cables or connectors. Only the Palit and Zotac 8800 GTs come equipped with DVI-to-HDMI adapters, and even then, only the Zotac includes the S/PDIF cable needed to include audio in the HDMI bitstream.

On the analog side of things, of this lot, only the HIS Radeons forgo component outputs. Meanwhile, only Gigabyte and XFX offer a pair of DVI-to-VGA adapters with their cards should you wish to power two analog displays.

Five cards lack molex-to-PCIe power adapters, which is a concern because all of them require auxiliary power through a six-pin PCI Express connector. Most recent PSUs come with at least one six-pin PCIe connector, but if you’re looking to upgrade a system with an older power supply, you’ll want to avoid cards that lack the necessary adapter or source one on your own.

Game bundles are one of those things that we can take or leave depending on the quality of the title. Most of the cards we’re looking at don’t come with any games at all. Of those that do, the copy of Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts included with the Asus is the newest. Released in September of last year, Opposing Fronts scored an 87 on Metacritic. The original Company of Heroes is bundled with the XFX 512MB Alpha Dog, while XFX’s 256MB card includes a copy of Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, which only scored a 66 on Metacritic. Lost Planet will at least take advantage of DirectX 10-class graphics hardware. Neverwinter Nights 2, which comes with all three Gigabyte cards, is too old to be DX10-aware, although it’s good enough to have earned a score of 82 on Metacritic.

Asus’ EAH3870 and EN8800GT TOP
TOP of the class?

Industry heavyweight Asus makes just about everything, so it’s no surprise to find a couple of the company’s graphics cards in this round-up. Asus offers a full range of cards based on the GeForce 8800 GT and Radeon HD 3800 series, including the EN8800GT and EAH3870 TOP models we’ve included today. TOP designates factory-overclocked cards, and in this case, both share the same Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts game bundle, cable payload, and three-year warranty. The cards also come with a cheesy CD wallet that I suppose one could use to store Company of Heroes, since it only comes in a paper slipcase.

Beyond higher clock speeds and a CoH sticker that dominates its dual-slot cooler, the EAH3870 appears to be identical to AMD’s reference design for the Radeon HD 3870. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. The 3870’s dual-slot cooler may eat an extra slot, but it also exhausts warm air out of the case, which should make for lower system temperatures. The additional surface area should allow for lower—and more importantly quieter—fan speeds than single-slot designs.

Asus gets creative with the cooler for its EN8800GT TOP, ditching the GT’s single-slot shroud in favor of a circular heatsink that sits atop the graphics chip. This cooler is tall enough to take up a second slot, but it doesn’t stretch the length of the card, leaving the memory chips exposed. Additional cooling for the card’s voltage regularly circuitry is provided by a smaller passive heatsink.

When they’re done right, beefier cooling solutions can add a lot of value to a graphics card. With a dual-slot cooler, the EN8800GT is off to a bit of a rough start, especially since this cooler won’t direct warm air out of the back of the system. We’ll have to see how noise levels and temperatures shake out before passing final judgment on the cooler, though.

HIS’s IceQ3 Radeons
HIS and hers

Otherwise known as Hightech Information System Limited, HIS isn’t a big name in North America. Despite this relative obscurity, the company’s latest Radeons are among only a few that are currently in stock at major etailers like Newegg and TigerDirect. There is a catch, though, and it’s a big one. HIS’s warranty term is just a single year—a tough sell for cards in this price range, where three years of coverage is about the norm. The little screwdriver/flashlight/level that HIS throws into the box with its cards doesn’t quite make up for it, either.

HIS at least deserves some props for spicing things up. What looks like a blue Radeon HD 3870 reference design is in fact a 3850—the IceQ3 TurboX version, to be exact—with a custom dual-slot cooler. The cooler looks similar to AMD’s reference heatsink for the 3870, but it employs more isolated memory heatsinks and a different blower design. The basic idea remains the same, with warm air piped outside the case through a set of exhaust vents.

And here we have the IceQ3 Turbo 3870, which for whatever reason didn’t quite make the grade for TurboX status. I’m not quite sure why, because the card appears to be all but identical to the 3850 TurboX. HIS uses the same cooler here as it does on the 3850. Cooling is particularly important for these cards since both boast higher-than-stock clock speeds.

Gigabyte’s GV-NX88T512H-B, GV-NX88T512HP, and GV-RX387512H
A healthy dose of alphabet soup

We have a trio of Gigabyte cards, and while they offer similar bundled extras, the same three-year warranty, and equally awkward names, the cards themselves are actually quite different. We’ll start at the bottom, which in this case, is the least interesting among the three.

Behold the GV-NX88T512H-B, which is essentially a GeForce 8800 GT reference design. Gigabyte has shown admirable restraint here, electing to only apply a small sticker with its name on the cooling fan. The heatsink is otherwise devoid of the half-naked women, generic video game characters, and bold proclamations of Xtremeness.

Moving upmarket, here’s the GV-NX88T512HP, which ditches the GeForce 8800 GT’s reference cooler for one of Gigabyte’s own choosing. This cooler was designed by Zalman and features a couple of heatpipes that loop up from the GPU and through a tight array of cooling fins inlaid with a fan. This design takes up two slots and doesn’t provide any direct cooling for the memory or voltage regularly circuitry.

There’s more to this card than its cooler, though; it also falls under Gigabyte’s “Ultra Durable 2” family, whose models make use of higher quality MOSFETs, chokes, and solid-state capacitors. Gigabyte has another little trick up its sleeve for overclockers. The card features a voltage regulation chip that, with a little help from software Gigabyte provides, allows users to change the GPU voltage from a standard 1.1V to 1.05 or 1.20V. This isn’t much range to play with, but it’s more than you get with the other cards in this round-up. Gigabyte also uses the voltage regulation chip to lower power consumption—something we’ll put to the test a little later.

On the Radeon side of the fence, the HD 3870-based GV-RX387512H gets the Ultra Durable 2 treatment and a different Zalman cooler. Unlike its 8800 GT counterpart, this card doesn’t have a fancy voltage regulation chip. If you want to overvolt its RV670 graphics chip, you’ll have to resort to more extreme measures.

MSI’s NX8800GT
Early out of the gate

MSI’s NX8800GT was the first example of the GeForce 8800 GT to hit our labs, so it holds something of a special place in our hearts. We’re also noting the card’s age because Nvidia has made some subtle changes to the GT’s reference cooler since it first introduced the card. Pay particular attention to the size of blower and venting on the heatsink shroud, since they’re both a little different with some of the newer cards.

MSI slaps a massive sticker on the GT’s reference cooler, complete with eye candy that looks as if it’s been pulled from a role-playing game. The card itself is just about as stock as they come save for factory overclocking that touches the core, shader, and memory clocks. None of the clocks are pushed high enough to thrust the NX8800GT into contention as one of the fastest GeForce 8800 GT’s of the lot we’ve assembled, but the card should be faster than straight-up reference designs.

MSI’s warranty coverage is three years for parts and two for labor, and that’s fine, except that other industry giants like Asus and Gigabyte offer a full three-year, parts-and-labor warranty. MSI would do well to at least match its competition.

Palit’s 8800GT Super+
Piling on the memory

Palit’s 8800GT Super+ is an interesting beast on a couple of fronts, one of which is its gigabyte of onboard memory. Piling on extra memory has always been an easy way for board vendors to make their cards stand out. However, because mid-range cards are usually a little short on the pixel-pushing power needed to drive smooth framerates at the extremely high resolutions, it rarely improves performance. The only case where we can see the additional memory being truly useful, beyond bragging rights, is in SLI configurations. SLI configs are essentially bound by the memory size of a single card, and pairing two of these up effectively the GPU doubles horsepower available.

Many aspects of the Super+ hint that Palit is going after overclockers. There’s the chunky dual-slot cooler, which ties into heat spreaders mounted on the memory chips. You also get a passive heatsink for the voltage regulation circuitry and some venting on the PCI back plate. The venting doesn’t pipe airflow directly from the cooler, though, so at best it will only provide exhaust through natural convection.

Palit further deviates from the norm by equipping its card with three-phase power—one more phase than is called for by the 8800 GT reference design. This should help the card deliver cleaner power to the graphics chip, particularly when it’s heavily loaded.

Flipping the card reveals another cooling element: a flat heat spreader that covers a number of memory chips. This back-plate sticks out a little, but not so much that I’d be worried about it creating clearance problems.

With extra power phases and some of the most elaborate cooling we’ve seen on an 8800 GT, one might expect the Super+ to benefit from some aggressive factory overclocking. And one would be wrong. The card comes clocked at stock speeds for the 8800 GT, and while you’re free to push things on your own, Palit’s three-year warranty doesn’t cover overclocking. None of the graphics card warranties we’ve seen do.

PowerColor’s AX3850 and AX3870
Big on copper

Factory overclocked and sporting some of the lowest prices in this round-up, PowerColor’s AX3850 and AX3870 look pretty good on paper—until you get to the piece of paper detailing their single-year warranty. We didn’t cut HIS any slack on this front, and none will be forthcoming for PowerColor, either. One year just doesn’t cut it. PC graphics may move at a torrid pace, but a Radeon 3800-series card is still going to be more than viable a year from now.

The first of PowerColor’s Radeons is the AX3850, which sits in the middle of the pack in terms of clock speeds. Cooling is provided by a custom copper unit that wraps an array of radiator fins along a circular heatpipe that surrounds the cooling fan. This is a dual-slot design, but you get 512MB of memory here, which is something you don’t necessarily get with every 3850. The memory chips are tied into the card’s cooler via copper heat spreaders.

Looking largely identical is PowerColor’s AX3870. Like its little brother, this card is moderately pushed beyond stock speeds, and it features the same dual-slot copper cooler and passive heatsink on the voltage regulation circuitry. You have to look pretty carefully to see differences between this card and the AX3850, but a few telltale cues are visible, including a slightly different capacitor layout.

Sapphire’s HD 3850
‘Mo memory

I’m not sure why graphics card makers insist on putting entirely too much memory on some graphics cards, but a gigabyte of memory seems grossly inappropriate for a Radeon HD 3850. Not even AMD’s flagship Radeon HD 3870 X2 features a true gigabyte of memory (the card may have a gig onboard, but it’s split between two GPUs in a CrossFire configuration that yields an effective memory size of only 512MB).

Perhaps Sapphire packed more memory onto its HD 3850 because the card runs at higher-than-stock speeds, but with a 700MHz core and 1.65GHz memory, it’s not running much faster than stock.

Sapphire has stuck with the Radeon HD 3850’s single-slot profile, but this cooler differs from AMD’s reference design for the 3850. AMD’s default cooler is quite a bit larger, with seemingly more cooling fins but a smaller fan.

VisionTek’s Radeon HD 3870
Overclocked for a lifetime

Lifetime warranties have long been de rigueur in GeForce circles, but they’re considerably scarcer in the Radeon world. It’s fitting, then, that ex-Nvidia-partner VisionTek has brought a little lifetime love to red team. VisionTek was doing lifetime warranties way back in the GeForce Ti 4600 days, and they’re now offering similar coverage on their Radeon HD 3870.

You might be tempted to write this off as another reference card, too, but it looks more generic than it is. The card comes with tweaked clocks, and the cooler is slightly different than AMD’s default heatsink for the 3870. VisionTek’s blower packs more fins and more external heatpipes.

XFX’s Alpha Dog GeForce 8800 GTs
256 or 512MB?

XFX has really picked it up in recent years, aggressively pushing factory overclocking while maintaining a “double-lifetime” warranty for its graphics cards that extends coverage through a first resale.

With an almost unbelievable 12 GeForce 8800 GT models to choose from, XFX’s mid-range lineup certainly isn’t lacking for choice. Near the bottom we find the 256MB Alpha Dog Edition. This card comes with faster-than-stock core and shader clock speeds, although its memory runs a little slow at an effective 1.6GHz. We’ll see how that balance pans out in our gaming benchmarks.

Despite the black board, the Alpha Dog is largely standard fare. It does benefit from Nvidia’s latest 8800 GT cooler, which maintains a single-slot footprint while offering expanded venting and a larger blower. XFX also puts a metal rail along the top edge of the card.

Our 512MB Alpha Dog Edition is visually indistinguishable from its 256MB counterpart. XFX does a few little things to spice up the card, such as using a dark PCI back-plate with green DVI ports, but we’re essentially looking at another reference design—one whose GPU core gets a 25MHz clock speed boost, mind you.

Zotac’s GeForce 8800 GT Amp! Edition
Proper HDMI for the 8800 GT

A division of industry giant PC Partner, Zotac is making a play for a chunk of the enthusiast market in North America. The company’s latest creation is the GeForce 8800 GT Amp! Edition, and it comes with the requisite tweaked GPU and memory clocks. Zotac has also gone the extra mile on the HDMI front. Not only does the card ship with a DVI-to-HDMI adapter (it’s one of only two 8800 GTs in this round-up that does), but it also includes the S/PDIF cable necessary to pass audio over HDMI with GeForce graphics cards.

You won’t find much in the way of striking details on the card itself. Zotac appears to be using the latest version of Nvidia’s reference cooler, albeit with a tweaked fan shroud that moves the vents around a little. This at least preserves the single-slot profile of the GT, but it will be interesting to see how the cooler fares against the dual-slot implementations on some of the other cards.

Our testing methods

We’ve narrowed our focus on the unique attributes each board vendor brings to their cards, so we won’t be spending too much time detailing each GPU’s gaming performance. Instead, we’re going to toss up a few game tests to highlight the impact of factory overclocking and spend most of our time probing noise levels, power consumption, and operating temperatures.

If you’d like to get an idea of how the GeForce 8800 GT and Radeon HD 3800 series fare against each other and numerous other graphics cards across a much wider range of games and resolutions, be sure to check out our Radeon HD 3870 X2 review and our coverage of the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB.

Since Palit sent over a couple of its GeForce 8800 GTs, we’ve run them together in SLI and as a single card config. That should give us a quick frame of reference for how multi-GPU performance scaling can impact frame rates.

To make things easier to read, I’ve colored-coded the bars in most of our graphs according to GPU. Cards based on the GeForce 8800 GT are green, those built on the Radeon HD 3870 are red, and those equipped with the 3870 are yellow.

All tests were run three times, and their results were averaged.


Core 2 Duo E6750 2.66GHz
System bus 1333MHz (333MHz

Bios revision 2.053.B0
North bridge nForce 780i SLI
South bridge nForce 780i SLI
Chipset drivers ForceWare 9.46
Memory size 2GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type

CAS latency

RAS to CAS delay
RAS precharge
Cycle time
Audio codec Integrated nForce
780i SLI/ALC888S

with Realtek 1.86 drivers
Catalyst 8.1


Hard drive

Western Digital Caviar RE2 400GB


Windows Vista Ultimate x86

OS updates
KB938194, KB938979, KB940105

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.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

We tested Call of Duty 4 by recording a custom demo of a multiplayer gaming session and playing it back using the game’s timedemo capability. We cranked up the in-game detail levels, including texture filtering, and set the resolution to 1600×1200 with 4X antialiasing.

Score one for the 8800 GT, at least when it has 512MB of memory or more. The GeForce cards have a huge performance advantage in Call of Duty 4, and among them, Asus’ EN8800GT rises to the, er, top. This result is expected given that the card has the highest clock speeds of the 8800 GTs. However, even this most extreme example of factory overclocking of an 8800GT is only good for about a 10% boost in framerates over the stock-clocked models.

There’s a much bigger gap between the pack of 8800 GTs and the lowly 256MB Alpha Dog, which is actually slower than a couple of Radeon HD 3850s. Clearly, 256MB of memory isn’t cutting it here, although it would probably be fine at lower resolutions and quality levels. Note, also, that we’re seeing far from perfect scaling with SLI; a pair of the Palit cards running together is only 1.66 times faster than one on its own.

HIS’s IceQ3 3870 comes out ahead in the Radeon world, just edging out Asus’ take on the same graphics chip. Scores are pretty close across the 3800 series, with only six frames per second separating the fastest 3870 from the slowest 3850. Keep in mind that we’re not running any 3850s with 256MB of memory. The Sapphire card, which is the slowest of the lot, obviously isn’t gaining much from its gigabyte of RAM.

Crysis is easily the most demanding PC game on the market, and we were able to get reasonably playable frame rates on all the cards with the game’s high-quality settings. Of course, we ran at a relatively modest 1024×768 display resolution without antialiasing. The scores below come from a custom timedemo recorded in the game’s first level.

The GeForce cards dominate again, but not by nearly as much as they did in Call of Duty. SLI scaling is relatively unimpressive, with our dual Palit cards losing out to a number of single-card configs that offer higher clock speeds. Note that we have seen better SLI scaling on the 8800 GT with Nvidia’s 169.28 beta drivers.

Asus’ EN8800GT comes out ahead again. However, the card is barely three frames per second faster than the slowest 8800 GT. That doesn’t count the 256MB Alpha Dog, though; it’s mired near the back of the pack with the 3850s.

Among the Radeons, we have the 3870s out ahead again. Performance here seems largely dependent on GPU clock speed, although as you can see, higher clocks don’t buy much in the way of extra frames per second. Even the 3870s only have a couple of FPS on the 3850s.

Noise levels

Noise levels were measured using an Extech Model 407727 Digital Sound Level Meter placed 1″ from each graphics card’s PCI back-plate and out of the path of direct airflow. Measurements were taken after 10 minutes idling on the Windows Vista desktop and after an additional 10 minutes in Crysis with a view of the sunrise. All testing was conducted on an open test bench.

So much for fancy aftermarket coolers. While most of the field settles in between 45 and 46 decibels at idle, a number of cards are quite a bit louder, presumably because they make no use of temperature-based fan speed control. Palit and VisionTek tie for the lead here, although everything up to the Alpha Dog’s 46.6 decibels is reasonable.

Things start getting louder when we hit the Asus cards, and louder still with the Sapphire and Gigabytes. The PowerColors are just a joke, though. There’s just no way the Radeon HD 3800 series needs 56 decibels of fan noise to keep cool at idle.

The pack starts to spread out when we put the cards under load. Here, it’s the HIS 3850 taking top honors with a noise level that’s barely louder than idle. Early reference coolers on the Gigabyte and MSI 8800 GTs take the number two and three spots followed by the Asus and Palit cards with custom cooling solutions.

What’s really striking to me is the fact that the GeForce cards are generally quieter than their Radeon counterparts—four of the top five are 8800 GTs. They’re not all that quiet, of course. The XFX cards and custom-cooled Gigabyte are six to sever decibels louder than the quietest GTs. However, those cards still make less noise than our loudest Radeons, whose noise levels eclipse 57 decibels.

Power consumption

Power consumption was measured at the wall socket for the entire system, sans monitor or speakers, using a Watts Up? Pro meter. We used the same idle and load conditions as in our noise level tests.

Finally, the Radeons get a spot in the sun. The 3800-series cards consume less power at idle than the 8800 GTs, by as much as 20W in some cases. You’d expect the factory overclocked cards to consume more power, but that’s not always the case. HIS’s IceQ3 has the lowest power consumption of the lot, yet it also sports the highest 3850 clock speeds.

Between the GeForce 8800 GTs, Zotac and Palit are surprising low-power leaders. One packs higher-than-stock core and memory clock speeds, while the other has to power twice the memory of its competitors, but both consume less power than the 8800 GT 512MB pack at idle.

Firing up Crysis changes the picture dramatically. In the top seven, we have all three of our 3850s peppered with a quartet of 8800 GTs. The 3870s have to settle for the middle and back of the field, where they’re joined by the rest of the GeForce crowd.

Interestingly, while 30W separated our single-card configurations at idle, the spread shrinks to 24W under load. SLI isn’t as huge of a power drain as one might expect, either. Adding a second card only increases system power consumption by 52 watts.

GPU temperatures

We’ve separated our temperature results by GPU because we weren’t able to gather the same temperature data from each card. We used Everest Ultimate to track temperatures, and while the app reported GPU and memory temps for the GeForce cards, it would only coax a GPU diode temperature from the Radeons. The same idle and load conditions were used as in our noise level and power consumption tests.

The incredibly noisy coolers on the PowerColor cards pay off, delivering GPU diode temperatures a good five degrees cooler than the competition at idle. That advantage expands to close to 20 degrees under load, which is impressive to say the least.

Gigabyte’s 3870 maintains a consistent hold on third place through our idle and load conditions, followed by Sapphire’s 3850. With some of the highest clock speeds of the lot, it’s no wonder that the Asus, VisionTek, and HIS cards run a little warmer than their counterparts.

For whatever reason, the Asus 8800 GT doesn’t report temperature data to Everest or even to Nvidia’s own system utility, so it has to ride the pine for this round of tests. Our SLI rig has two sets of temperature data—one for each graphics card—but we’ve reported the highest of the two values.

As we saw with the Radeons, the loudest card delivers the lowest GPU temperatures. The Zalman-cooled Gigabyte comes out ahead of the field at idle and under load, followed at a distance by the cards from XFX, Zotac, and Palit.

What’s interesting to note here is the difference in cooling performance between the MSI NX8800GT and Gigabyte GV-NX88T512H-B, both of which use Nvidia’s older 8800 GT heatsink, and the XFX cards, which have the new one. The old design was certainly quieter in our noise level tests, but its GPU temperatures are close to 30 degrees higher under load. I’m not sure I’d want my GPU running that hot, and apparently neither does Nvidia, otherwise it wouldn’t have sacrificed noise levels to improve cooling performance with the updated heatsink.

Memory temperatures largely mirror the GPU temperature results.


If nothing else, the breadth of this round-up illustrates just how many options consumers have when choosing a mid-range graphics card. There are plenty of attractive models out there (and enticing graphics cards too), but there are also some we’d sooner avoid. We’ll summarize our opinions on each card in a moment, but first, I’m going to climb up onto the soapbox to highlight a couple of big issues that affect a number of cards in the field.

In the past, we’ve chided graphics board vendors for selling little more than restickered reference designs. We’d still like to see manufacturers offer custom board designs, coolers, and other unique features. However, we’re not interested in different for the sake of being different—different also has to be an improvement over the reference design. Numerous cards in this round-up ditched perfectly good reference coolers that intelligently control fan speeds based on GPU temperatures in favor of heatsinks that take up extra slots, generate more noise, and aren’t smart enough to throttle fan speeds at idle. That’s just not a good trade-off.

Warranties are also an important consideration for us, so we were disappointed to see a number of cards with only a single year of coverage. Not good enough, especially when the rest of the field is offering two-year, three-year, and even lifetime warranties.

Now that that’s off my chest, on to the cards.

Asus EAH3870 TOP — Asus went to town with EAH3870 TOP clock speeds, producing one of the fastest 3870s we’ve seen. They’ve also thrown in a copy of Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts to sweeten the pot. The end result is a very solid card, and an affordable one at $240. However, the performance just isn’t there to challenge 8800 GTs, and this isn’t the best 3870 of the bunch. Noise is an issue, particularly under load, where the EAH3870 is six decibels louder than our favorite 3870.

Asus EN8800GT TOP — If you’re looking for the fastest card in the round-up, here it is. The EN8800GT TOP delivered the highest frame rates in our gaming tests thanks to Asus’ factory overclocking. Although its custom cooler takes up two slots and isn’t temperature-controlled, it actually maintained reasonably low noise levels at both idle under load. Throw in Company of Heroes and a respectable three-year warranty, and we have the makings of a possible Editor’s Choice. Unfortunately, this particular card is incredibly scarce online. Even the few retailers that list it don’t appear to have stock, and they’re asking for close to $300 anyway. If you can find the EN8800GT TOP at a good price, it’s highly recommended.

Gigabyte GV-NX88T512H-B — The GV-NX88T512H-B is essentially a GeForce 8800 GT reference design, so there isn’t much to get excited about, particularly when you consider the next card up the line. Sure, you get a copy of Neverwinter Nights 2 and a three-year warranty, but you also get stock clock speeds and Nvidia’s original cooler design for the 8800 GT. The cooler is the real problem, delivering blissfully low noise levels at the expense of GPU temperatures that can sail 30 degrees higher than those of other cards. That’s a dangerous compromise and one that Nvidia has already rectified with an updated cooler design. So it’s not Gigabyte’s fault, at least. If you can find this same card equipped with Nvidia’s newer cooler, though, it may be more worthy of your consideration.

Gigabyte GV-NX88T512HP — Fortunately, we have two of Gigabyte’s 8800 GTs to choose from. This HP model boasts higher clock speeds, upgraded electrical components, and even the ability to manipulate the GPU core voltage. Throw in a three-year warranty and a $260 street price, and this card looks pretty good. Except for one thing: the cooler. Gigabyte has replaced the GT’s stock heatsink with one that reduces GPU temperatures, but this cooler takes up an extra slot and apparently makes no use of intelligent fan speed control. What you end up with is the loudest 8800 GT at idle by nearly five decibels, and that just ruins the card for us.

Gigabyte GV-RX387512H — With a comparatively slow memory clock, the GV-RX387512H sits somewhere between the Radeon HD 3850 and the 3870. Fortunately, it’s priced closer to the former at just $210 online. That’s a pretty impressive price for a card that comes with a copy of Neverwinter Nights 2 and a three-year warranty. Unfortunately, Gigabyte doesn’t appear to have made use of any temperature-based fan speed control with the card’s custom Zalman cooler, resulting in idle noise levels that are more than five decibels higher than the quietest Radeon. The GV-RX387512H could have been a contender if it were quiet at idle, but it’s not.

HIS HD IceQ3 Turbo 3870 — The fastest Radeon in our gaming tests is also among the quietest, which is a pleasant surprise. Of course, there’s a catch. Two of them, in fact. First is the card’s $280 street price, which makes it more expensive than a number of 8800 GTs that offer better performance. Even worse is HIS’s paltry single-year warranty. We’ll pass.

HIS HD IceQ3 TurboX 3850 — This IceQ3 card is quite an upgrade over the standard 3850, scaling clock speeds and adding a dual-slot cooler that’s quieter than any other in this round-up at idle. However, at $220 online, this is a little expensive for a 3850—even one with higher-than-stock clock speeds. HIS’s one-year warranty doesn’t help matters, either; we’d avoid the card on that basis alone.

MSI NX8800GT — The NX8800GT is the most affordable example of the 8800 GT 512MB in this round-up at only $245 online, but it’s also saddled with Nvidia’s original reference cooler. This cooler is incredibly quiet, but at the same time, it lets the GPU and graphics memory run hot—too hot for our tastes, and apparently for Nvidia’s, as well. If you can find the NX8800GT with the updated reference cooler, it’s worth a look.

Palit 8800GT Super+ — Although its gigabyte of onboard memory is unnecessarily excessive, there’s a lot to like about Palit’s 8800GT Super+. The dual-slot cooler is very quiet and delivers decent cooling performance, for example, and we like the addition of three-phase power for the 8800 GT. Unfortunately, Super+ cards run around $300 online, putting them at the expensive end of the GT spectrum. That’s a tough sell for a card that you’ll have to overclock on your own to keep pace with faster GT variants.

PowerColor AX3850 512MD3-PH — The custom cooler design PowerColor uses on the AX3850 is incredibly loud, even at idle, where it apparently makes no use of temperature-based fan speed control. Sure, this setup delivers low GPU temperatures that should improve the card’s overclocking potential, but at the cost of 10 decibels on our sound level meter. The AX3850 may only cost $210 online, but considering its one-year warranty, I wouldn’t take it over the Gigabyte 3870, which has the same street price.

PowerColor AX3870 512MD4-PH — The problems that plague the AX3850 aren’t solved by PowerColor’s take on the 3870. The cooler is far too loud, sacrificing noise levels that everyone will immediately notice in favor of temperatures that few will ever bother to check. With a $250 price tag, this card has to compete with 8800 GTs that offer with three times the warranty coverage and superior performance. No thanks.

XFX GeForce 8800 GT Alpha Dog Edition 512MB
Zotac GeForce 8800 GT Amp! Edition
February 2008

Sapphire HD 3850 — The Radeon HD 3850 lacks the pixel-pushing horsepower to make effective use of this card’s gigabyte of memory, even with a slightly overclocked graphics core. Couple that with only two years of warranty coverage and cooler that’s quite noisy for a 3850, and we’re not too keen on this Sapphire offering.

VisionTek Radeon HD 3870 — Of all the Radeons in this round-up, VisionTek’s Radeon HD 3870 is easily the most attractive. Not only does it rise above the poor warranty coverage offered by HIS and PowerColor with a lifetime term, but it also has the lowest noise levels of any 3870 and a very reasonable $234 street price. If you have your heart set on the Radeon HD 3800 series, this is a better card than the alternatives we’ve looked at today, and so it’s TR Recommended.

XFX GeForce 8800 GT Alpha Dog Edition 256 — A double-lifetime warranty and copy of Lost Planet are highlights for the 256MB Alpha Dog, but the card’s memory size is not. It doesn’t help that the memory is running a little slow at only 1.6GHz. You’re not saving buckets of cash, either. At $230 online, the 256MB Alpha Dog may be the least expensive 8800 GT, but it only costs about $20 more to get a 512MB version.

XFX GeForce 8800 GT Alpha Dog Edition 512 — Speaking of which, we have the 512MB Alpha Dog at $250. You get the same great warranty and a decent game in Company of Heroes, except this time with enough memory to make the 8800 GT really sing. And the Alpha Dog does, although it howls a little too loud under load. That’s really its only flaw, not a huge one considering that none of these cards are perfect. Given the 512MB Alpha Dog’s balanced mix of performance an extras, we have our first Editor’s Choice recipient.

Zotac GeForce 8800 GT Amp! Edition — With an S/PDIF cable and HDMI adapter included in the box, this Zotac card is the best 8800 GT we’ve seen for use with high-definition TVs. There’s more to its appeal than HDMI output, though. Factory overclocking keeps the Amp competitive with its direct rivals, while the cooler maintains low noise levels and reasonable temperatures. The only fly in the ointment is the two-year warranty, which is a little light considering the three-year and lifetime coverage being offered elsewhere. We’ll swallow that flaw given the card’s $250 street price. In fact, we’ve selected the Amp Edition as our second Editor’s Choice.

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