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The GeForce side of the equation
Truth be told, Nvidia has many answers for the low-end video card market—perhaps too many. Those answers start at under $60 with the GeForce 9500 GT, most directly a competitor for the Radeon HD 4650. Our example of the 9500 GT has one big thing going for it.

Yep, that's a passive cooler. Zotac's ZONE edition of the 9500 GT comes completely fanless, with an HMDI adapter and no need for an auxiliary power connection. It also has 512MB of relatively quick GDDR3 memory running at 800MHz (or 1600MT/s). This is a new product we've not yet found for sale online, but Zotac does expect something of a premium for its passivity: the suggested retail price is $79.99. I can see paying that for something this well-suited to an HTPC build. Happily for the penny pinchers among us, though, you can grab a fan-cooled Zotac 9500 GT with the same 550MHz core clock and slower GDDR2 memory for $69.99 at Newegg, along with a $15 mail-in rebate, taking the pretend price down to $54.99. That's pretend cheap!

The GPU that powers the GeForce 9500 GT is known as G96, and you can see it pictured above. The G96 quietly debuted along with the 9500 GT a little while back, but this is the first time it's made it into Damage Labs. The G96 has the same basic capabilities and functional blocks as the G84 chip that first saw duty in the GeForce 8600 series of graphics cards. That includes two thread processing clusters for a total of 32 stream processors and 16 pixels per clock of texture filtering capacity, along with two ROPs partitions (what AMD calls render back ends) for a total of eight pixels per clock of output and a 128-bit path to memory.

The G96 is quite a bit smaller than the G84, though, thanks to a process shrink from 80nm to 65nm. In fact, with only about 314 million transistors, the G96 is smaller and less complex than the RV730. By my shaky measurements, this chip is roughly 121 mm². I believe we have the 65nm version of the G96 here, but Nvidia plans to transition the G96 to a 55nm fab process without renaming it, so some G96s may be even smaller.

As the G9x designation suggests, the G96 does have some improvements over its G8x predecessor, including support for PCIe 2.0, better shader instruction scheduling, improved color compression, DisplayPort support, and a couple of new PureVideo features—dynamic contrast enhancement and dual-stream video decoding for picture-in-picture commentary on Blu-ray discs.

Feature-wise, then, the G96 is pretty capable. But despite its similar size and 128-bit memory interface, the G96 is a much less potent GPU than the RV730 in terms of both shader power and texture filtering throughput. That is, perhaps, why Nvidia has chosen an old product with a new name to counter the Radeon HD 4670.

Here's the GeForce 9600 GSO. This product was previously known as the GeForce 8800 GS, but it has been dusted off and renamed as part of the GeForce 9 series. Confusingly, the 9600 GSO isn't based on the G94 GPU that GeForce 9600 GT cards are. Instead, it's driven by the same G92 graphics processor that's inside everything from the GeForce 8800 GT to the GeForce 9800 GTX, only here it's been chopped down to six thread processing clusters and three ROP partitions. The net result is 96 stream processors, 48 texels per clock of filtering power, and a 192-bit memory interface. Strange, but true.

EVGA sells the card pictured above with a 555MHz core clock, 1350MHz shaders, and 384MB of GDDR3 memory clocked at 800MHz. Nvidia would like to position this product directly opposite the Radeon HD 4670, and in terms of basic capabilities, it's quite close. But they're playing pricing games to get there. You can buy the 9600 GSO at Newegg for $99.99, and it comes with a preposterous $50 rebate.

Hmmmmm. That's over half the value of the product. What do you think they're expecting the redemption rate to be on that one?

Nowhere in our price search engine can you buy the 9600 GSO for less than $99.99 straight up, and many places are offering a rebate of only $20. All of this seems dicey to me, but if you're willing to take the risk of getting fleeced by a rebate company, I suppose the 9600 GSO is potentially competitive with the 4670. It will, however, require case clearance for a 10"-long card and an auxiliary PCIe power connection.

If you're going to make those sorts of accommodations, you might well do better to drop 125 bucks straight up for a GeForce 9600 GT. That's what the BFG Tech 9600 GT OCX pictured above costs, and it comes complete with a swanky "ThermoIntelligence" custom cooler and much higher-than-stock clock speeds of 725MHz core, 1850MHz shaders, and 972MHz memory. Since it's based on the smaller, narrower G94 GPU, the 9600 GT doesn't have quite as much shader or texturing power as the 9600 GSO, but it has vastly more memory bandwidth.

If you're not yet bewildered by your choices, then what the heck, gaze upon this GeForce 9800 GT card from Palit. The 9800 GT is simply a renamed version of the venerable GeForce 8800 GT, complete with a set of core and memory clocks comparable to a bone-stock 8800 GT. As the model numbers indicate, this card is a little upscale compared to the 9600 GT, both in terms of price and performance. The card you see pictured above from Palit has an exceedingly quiet, shrouded custom cooler and 1GB of GDDR3 memory. For these things, you'll pay a little more; this card costs $169.99 at the 'egg and has a $20 rebate attached. However, you can get virtually the same thing with 512MB of RAM and no shroud for $129.99, too, which would seem to make the 9600 GT we mentioned above pretty much superfluous.

The fine gradations of Nvidia's product lineup don't end there, either. The final card that fits within our basic price parameters is the GeForce 9800 GTX+. The "plus" is there to designate that this is the 55nm version of the G92 chip, and the GTX+ is intended to do battle with the formidable Radeon HD 4850. Again, rather than price the GTX+ straightforwardly against the 4850, though, Nvidia has elected to create a byzantine pricing infrastructure that would make even a phone company jealous. You can find this card listed on Newegg at $199.99. Err, excuse me, that's $199.99. When you click to put it into your shopping cart, the price then shows up as $189.99. If you were to buy it, you'd then be entered into the great rebate lottery, in which winners will be awarded $30 each. Potential bottom line: $159.99, which is less than the list price of that Asus Radeon HD 4850, but more than the after-rebate net cost.

Phew. So those are the cards we're considering. We've thrown a lot of specs at you, but don't be daunted. We're going to offer some direct comparisons in terms of theoretical capacities and then test performance, so you can see exactly how these various choices compare.