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Test notes
So look, we've done the typical review site thing and compared this range of graphics cards using a test rig based on a very high end processor, the Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650. Why would we do such a thing? Well, hear me out.

First, we wanted to be sure that we were pushing the graphics cards as hard as possible, so they would live up to their potential. Using a top-end CPU ensures that the processor doesn't become the performance constraint. Second, in reality, the gap between our QX9650 and the actual processors you may find in many enthusiast systems isn't as great as you might think. We've easily taken a $120 Core 2 Duo E7200 to over 3GHz on a basic air cooler. Yes, we're using a quad-core CPU, but having more than two cores doesn't tend to make much difference in gaming performance just yet. Third, our two GPU test rigs are outfitted with identical QX9650 processors, and honestly, without matching processors, our testing time would have been quite a bit longer.

One area where having a high-end CPU could skew our results is video playback testing, where we look at CPU utilization while playing a Blu-ray disc. For those tests, we swapped in just about the slowest Core 2 processor we could find, a Core 2 Duo E4300 clocked at 1.8GHz.

Our testing methods
As ever, we did our best to deliver clean benchmark numbers. Tests were run at least three times, and the results were averaged.

Our test systems were configured like so:

Processor Core 2 Extreme QX9650 3.0GHz
System bus 1333MHz (333MHz quad-pumped)
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-X38-DQ6
BIOS revision F9a
North bridge X38 MCH
South bridge ICH9R
Chipset drivers INF update
Matrix Storage Manager 7.8
Memory size 2GB (4 DIMMs)
Memory type Corsair TWIN2X40966400C4DHX
at 800MHz
CAS latency (CL) 4
RAS to CAS delay (tRCD) 4
RAS precharge (tRP) 4
Cycle time (tRAS) 12
Command rate 2T
Audio Integrated ICH9R/ALC889A
with RealTek drivers
Radeon HD 4670 512MB GDDR3 PCIe
with Catalyst 
8.53-080805a-067874E-ATI drivers
Diamond Radeon HD 3850 512MB PCIe
with Catalyst 8.8 drivers
Asus Radeon HD 4850 512MB PCIe
with Catalyst 8.8 drivers
Zotac GeForce 9500 GT ZONE
with ForceWare 177.92 drivers
EVGA  GeForce 9600 GSO 384MB PCIe
with ForceWare 177.92 drivers
BFG  GeForce 9600 GT OCX 512MB PCIe
with ForceWare 177.92 drivers
Palit GeForce 9800 GT 1GB PCIe
with ForceWare 177.92 drivers
GeForce 9800 GTX+ 512MB PCIe
with ForceWare 177.92 drivers
Hard drive WD Caviar SE16 320GB SATA
OS Windows Vista Ultimate x64 Edition
OS updates Service Pack 1, DirectX March 2008 update

Thanks to Corsair for providing us with memory for our testing. Their quality, service, and support are easily superior to no-name DIMMs.

Our test systems were powered by PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750W power supply units. The Silencer 750W was a runaway Editor's Choice winner in our epic 11-way power supply roundup, so it seemed like a fitting choice for our test rigs.

Unless otherwise specified, image quality settings for the graphics cards were left at the control panel defaults. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.

We used the following versions of our test applications:

The tests and methods we employ are generally publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.