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The cards
I've already told you about the 9600 GT's basic specs, but the products you'll see for sale will have a few other common parameters. Among them is this very nice development: cards will come with 512MB of GDDR3 memory, standard. I'm pleased to see this memory size becoming the new baseline for enthusiast-class products. Not every game at every resolution requires more than 256MB of memory, but a mid-range card with 512MB is a much nicer compromise, especially given RAM prices these days. On top of that, running two GPUs in SLI makes a lot more sense with 512MB of memory than it does with 256MB, where you're facing a serious mismatch in GPU horsepower and available memory.

Most 9600 GTs will sport a single-slot cooler similar to the one on the 8800 GT. Nvidia rates board power consumption at 95W, so the 9600 GT requires the help of a single six-pin PCIe aux power connector. And, as we've hinted, prices should slot in just below the 8800 GT at about $169 to $189, according to Nvidia.

Of course, there will be a range of GeForce 9600 GT cards on tap from various board makers, and many of them will be clocked at higher frequencies than Nvidia's defaults. That's decidedly the case with the 9600 GT we have in the labs for review, Palit's flamboyant GeForce 9600 GT Sonic.

Do you find Palit's palette palatable?

This puppy's dual-slot cooler is shrouded in bright Lego/Tonka yellow, which pretty effectively broadcasts that this isn't a stock-clocked creation. In fact, Palit has turned up the GPU core clock to 700MHz, the shader clock to 1.75GHz, and the memory to 1GHz.

Also, there's an atomic frog. With, I think, a flamethrower. I've learned a lot about video cards over the years, but some things I will never fully understand.

Anyhow, Palit has loaded this thing up with more ports than the Pacific rim. Check it out:

There are two dual-link DVI outputs, an HDMI out, a DisplayPort connector, and an optical S/PDIF output. You'll need to connect an audio source to the card's two-pin internal plug (using the supplied internal audio cable) in order for HDMI audio and the S/PDIF output to work, since unlike the RV670, the G94 GPU lacks an audio device. Still, that's a very impressive complement of ports—the most complete I've seen in a video card in some time. You've gotta give these guys credit for making something different here.

Unfortunately, different isn't always better, as we found out when we tried to plug the six-pin portion of our adaptable eight-pin PCIe aux power lead into the card. Regular six-pin-only connectors work fine, but the eight-pin one didn't fit.

Such problems could be resolved fairly easily by removing the shroud altogether, which exposes the card's nifty cooler and would probably lead to better cooling anyhow. All other things being equal, I'd prefer a cooler designed to exhaust warm air from the case, like most dual-slot coolers do these days. However, I have to admit that this cooler did a fine job on our test card and made very little noise. This puppy has it where it counts, too, with a copper base connected to copper heatpipes routed into aluminum fins. The fan is speed controlled, and although it can be quite noisy when first booting or in a pre-boot environment, it's impressively quiet in Windows—even when running a 3D application or game.

Palit's festival of transgression against the reference design continues at the board level, where the firm has replaced the standard two-phase power with a three-phase design, intended to enhance board longevity and overclocking potential. Again, we like the initiative, and we'll test the board's overclocking headroom shortly.

This card ships with a copy of Tomb Raider Anniversary, which apparently isn't a bad game, as hard as I find that to believe. Palit says the card's MSRP is $219, but it's currently selling for $209 on Newegg. Obviously, you're paying extra for all of the bells and whistles on this card, which take it nearly into 8800 GT territory. Palit has a more pedestrian model selling for $179, as do a number of other board makers, including XFX and Gigabyte. MSI even has one with a 700MHz GPU core selling at that price.

The competition hits the juice
AMD has no intention of ceding ground to Nvidia in this portion of the market without a fight, which is good news for you and me. In order to counter the 9600 GT, AMD and the various Radeon board makers have recently slashed prices and juiced up their Radeon HD 3850 cards. Clock speeds are up, and many of the boards are now equipped with 512MB of GDDR3 memory, as well.

Diamond kindly agreed to send us its latest 3850 for comparison to the 9600 GT. This card is emblematic of the new wave of Radeon HD 3850s. It's clocked at 725MHz with 512MB of GDDR3 memory running at 900MHz, and it's selling for $169.99 right now. Those clock speeds put it darn near the base clocks of the Radeon HD 3870, although as we learned in our recent video card roundup, 3870 clocks are making something of a northward migration, as well.

Diamond isn't alone in offering this class of product. In fact, we paired up the Diamond card with a similarly clocked HIS Hightech TurboX 512MB card for CrossFire testing.