by Yaroslav Lyssenko , Alexey Stepin,
07/08/2008 | 03:13 PM
ATI and Nvidia are both drawing public attention to their graphics card series by pompous launches of top-range products but the developers’ desire to introduce the world’s fastest solution for uncompromising gamers does not mean that affordable mainstream solutions are disregarded. Taking an example from another industry, everyone is excited about Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche, but it is Ford and Toyota that sell the best. The same goes for graphics cards: everyone is talking about $300 and higher products but the manufacturers profit the most from performance-mainstream solutions. It is in this sector where the real competition is.
Right now, the struggle is between ATI’s Radeon HD 3870/3850 and Nvidia’s GeForce 8800 GT/9600 GT. Every product of these is a modification of the previous generation of graphics cards rather than something really new, so none of them can attract the customer with a promise of special capabilities.
Realizing how difficult it is to promote their products in such a highly competitive environment, graphics card vendors look for ways to make their products different somehow. The ASUS EN9600GT Top card we are going to review today uses Nvidia’s reference design but has a special feature of its own. Will this be enough to win the customer?
The packaging is quite typical for ASUS’s products of this price segment. There are valkyries on the cover just as on boxes with some other cards but the EN9600GT Top 512MB is hard to be confused with any other product thanks to the large captions and color scheme.
The black-and-green cover is perhaps not too appealing, but ASUS’s designers have tried to highlight every possible advantage of the EN9600GT Top 512MB over its opponents. The pictures on the face side of the box tout the exclusive cooling system called Glaciator Fansink and report that the card’s GPU is pre-overclocked by 10%. The cardboard box contains a foam-rubber tray with the card. Besides it, we found the following accessories in there:
This is just the basic set of accessories. There is no free software in it. This is quite normal nowadays for the product category the GeForce 9600 GT falls into.
We guess the lack of software for HD video playback is a problem. Every graphics cards with Nvidia’s G92, G84 or G94 chip has a hardware decoder of HD video formats (H.264, VC-1, WMV-HD, and MPEG2-HD) and a HD video post-processor. Thus, such cards can be bought for playing games as well as for installing into a home multimedia system. The GeForce 9600 GT suits this purpose especially well due to its relatively low power consumption. Considering that Microsoft’s Windows Media Player and other free players support neither Blu-ray nor HD DVD, the user has to buy third-party player software for about $50.
So, the packaging of the EN9600GT Top 512MB is quite standard. We have no complaints about it. The accessories are up to the product class although the lack of a HD video player may require an additional investment on the user’s part.
ASUS’s card is no different from Nvidia’s reference sample in terms of PCB design except for the color. The EN9600GT Top 512MB is blue instead of Nvidia’s traditional green.
The placement of the power circuit elements is the same as on the reference card (i.e. as described in our Gigabyte GV-NX96T512H-B review). The card is provided additional power through a standard 6-pin PCI Express 1.0 plug.
There are eight chips of GDDR3 memory on board. These K4J52324QE-BJ1A chips have a capacity of 512Mb (16Mb x 32), 1.9V voltage, and a rated frequency of 1000 (2000) MHz. Such memory was also installed on Gigabyte GV-NX96T512H-B and Gainward Bliss 9600 GT 512MB GS cards we reviewed earlier.
Targeted at enthusiasts, the card comes with a pre-overclocked memory frequency. Instead of the reference card’s 900 (1800) MHz, the memory frequency of the ASUS card is 1000 (2000) MHz. Thus, the EN9600GT Top 512MB has a memory bandwidth of 64GBps as compared with 57.6GBps of the reference GeForce 9600 GT.
The card’s GPU is revision A1 and pre-overclocked, too. Its frequencies are 720/1800MHz (main domain/shader domain) as compared with the reference card’s 650/1625MHz. The core has a standard configuration with 64 universal scalar ALUs, 16 texture units (16 filter units and 32 address units), and 16 rasterization modules grouped in four sections.
Based on the reference design developed by Nvidia, the EN9600GT Top has the same inputs/outputs as any other such card: two dual-link DVI ports and a universal analog video output. Besides, the card has an onboard 2-pin S/PDIF connector for the sound card’s digital input in order to enable audio-over-HDMI.
The card is equipped with the Glaciator cooler developed by ASUS.
It resembles Zalman’s solutions. The heatsink is made from aluminum that makes the cooler lighter and cheaper than if it were made from copper. The large size of the heatsink ensures proper cooling performance. The cooling system is secured on the PCB with four spring-loaded screws. This fastening mechanism should be safe for the GPU die.
Despite the pre-overclocked frequency, there are no heatsinks or heat-spreaders on the memory chips. They are cooled by the air from the GPU cooler.
The Glaciator is quite massive and blocks the neighboring PCI slot. You may find it difficult to install the card into small system cases.
The cooling system of the ASUS EN9600GT Top 512MB differs greatly from the reference cooler and may be different in terms of noisiness.
We checked this out with a digital sound-level meter Velleman DVM1326 using A-curve weighing. The level of ambient noise in our lab was 36dBA and the level of noise at a distance of 1 meter from the working testbed with a passively cooled graphics card inside was 43dBA. Here are the results:
Thanks to its large diameter and low fan speed the Glaciator is nearly silent in comparison with the reference cooler. The fan speed is constant irrespective of load.
The Glaciator’s performance is impressive: the core temperature is 35-37°C in idle mode and 48°C under load. For comparison, the GeForce 9600 GT is 46°C and 62°C hot when idle and under load, respectively.
The efficient cooler said its word when we overclocked the card. The highest GPU frequency the card was stable at was 810/2025MHz. It is considerably better than what we achieved with the Gainward card that employed a nonstandard cooler, too. The lack of cooling elements on the memory chips prevented the latter from beating the 1100 (2200) MHz barrier typical of K4J52324QE-BJ1A series chips.
The EN9600GT Top 512MB proved to be perfectly compatible with every PCI Express 1,0a and 1.1 mainboard we tried it with.
For our performance tests we put together the following testbed:
According to our testing methodology, the drivers were set up to provide the highest possible quality of texture filtering and to minimize the effect of software optimizations used by default by both: AMD/ATI and Nvidia. Also, to ensure maximum image quality, we enabled transparent texture filtering - Adaptive Anti-Aliasing/Multi-sampling for ATI Catalyst and Antialiasing – Transparency: Multisampling for Nvidia ForceWare. As a result, our ATI and Nvidia driver settings looked as follows:
For our tests we used the following games and synthetic benchmarks:
First-Person 3D Shooters
Third-Person 3D Shooters
We selected the highest possible level of detail in each game using standard tools provided by the game itself from the gaming menu. The games configuration files weren’t modified in any way. The only exception was Enemy Territory: Quake Wars game where we disabled the built-in fps rate limitation locked at 30fps. Games supporting DirectX 10 were tested in this particular mode.
Besides ASUS EN9600GT Top 512MB we have also included the following graphics accelerators to participate in our test session:
The tests were performed in the following resolutions: 1280x1024/960, 1600x1200 and 1920x1200. If the game didn’t support 16:10 display format, we set the last resolution to 1920x1440. We used “eye candy” mode everywhere, where it was possible without disabling the HDR/Shader Model 3.0/Shader Model 4.0. Namely, we ran the tests with enabled anisotropic filtering 16x as well as MSAA 4x antialiasing. We enabled them from the game’s menu. If this was not possible, we forced them using the appropriate driver settings of ATI Catalyst and Nvidia ForceWare drivers.
Performance was measured with the games’ own tools and the original demos were recorded if possible. Otherwise, the performance was measured manually with Fraps utility version 2.9.4. We measured not only the average speed, but also the minimum speed of the cards where possible.
This game doesn’t support display resolutions of 16:10 format, so we use a resolution of 1920x1440 pixels (4:3 format) instead of 1920x1200 for it.
It is no secret that every modern graphics card from the mainstream or high class can run this game at a comfortable speed.
When overclocked, the ASUS card shows a 10% performance boost at resolutions of 1600x1200 and higher. On the other hand, the reference card offers a frame rate of over 60fps even at 1920x1440, so there is no practical benefit from overclocking.
BioShock doesn’t support FSAA when running in Windows Vista’s DirectX 10 environment. We benchmark graphics cards without FSAA in this game.
The speed of the game and test scene depends on the GPU clock rate, particularly on the speed of texture mapping and rendering. The diagrams show that the EN9600GT Top 512MB is ahead of the Nvidia GeForce 9600 GT as well as ATI Radeon HD 3870.
The Call of Juarez benchmark abounds in pixel shaders and does not depend much on the texture-mapping speed. The ASUS card can keep up with the ATI Radeon HD 3870 at 1280x1024 but cannot compete with the opponent’s advanced memory subsystem and 64/320 shader processors at higher resolutions.
The test results in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare show the superb operation of the optimized OpenGL driver from Nvidia’s ForceWare suite. ASUS’s effort hasn’t been fruitless, either. Thanks to its increased frequencies the EN9600GT Top 512MB is about as fast as the GeForce 8800 GT which has more shader processors.
This game is tested at the High level of detail, excepting the Shaders option which is set at Very High. This way we try to achieve a compromise between image quality and speed.
The ASUS EN9600GT Top 512MB leaves the opposing Radeon HD 3870 far behind, but the frame rate is not high. The average speed doesn’t make it to 30fps and you won’t have smooth gameplay in Crysis, especially in scenes with lots of enemies, unless you lower the level of detail.
The frame rate is fixed at 30fps in this game as this is the rate at which the physical model is being updated at the server. Thus, this 30fps speed is the required minimum for playing the game.
There is an interesting competition in Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. The EN9600GT Top 512MB wins the first display mode easily but is overtaken by its opponents in the higher display modes. It must have something to do with the MegaTexture technology because ATI’s solutions haven’t been good in OpenGL but (talking about the Radeon HD 3870) feature high math1ematical performance as well as high memory bandwidth.
It is odd we can see no performance gain from the higher GPU and memory frequencies in Half-Life 2: Episode Two.
This game belonging to the first-person shooter genre, the EN9600GT Top 512MB offers enough speed in the lowest display mode only. On the other hand, the card is again comparable to the GeForce 8800 GT and leaves the Radeon HD 3870 based solutions far behind.
The game doesn’t support FSAA when you enable the dynamic lighting model, but loses much of its visual appeal with the static model. This is the reason why we benchmarked the cards in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. using anisotropic filtering only.
This game is still a problem for graphics cards with ATI’s chips. The ASUS is close behind the GeForce 8800 GT while being about two times as fast as the Radeon HD 3870. The 10% performance growth due to the factory overclocking helps the EN9600GT Top 512MB ensure smooth gameplay thanks to the high minimum of speed.
The pre-overclocked EN9600GT Top 512MB starts out from second position but falls behind the GeForce 8800 GT at higher resolutions. Anyway, none of the cards can deliver a comfortable speed at the highest settings. You can try switching the settings from High to Medium to get a higher speed while losing little in terms of visual quality. The difference in quality is hard to catch with a naked eye.
One of the games to be the longest on our list of benchmarks, Tomb Raider: Legend shows good performance scalability depending on the GPU and allows us to evaluate the highs and lows of each GPU for their worth.
The ASUS card is true to its developer’s promise: the performance gain is 10%, allowing the EN9600GT Top 512MB to take second place behind the far more advanced GeForce 9800 GTX.
The high frequencies of the GPU and memory leave no chance to the opponents. The GeForce 8800 GT based solutions and the fastest single-chip card from the ATI Radeon camp prove to be slower than the EN9600GT Top 512MB because of the increased frequency of its texture-mapping and rasterization units. The minimum speed is quite low, however, and the game may be jerky at a resolution of 1920x1200.
If you feel your gaming experience uncomfortable, you may try to disable full-screen antialiasing here.
The game loses much of its visual appeal without HDR. Although some gamers argue that point, we think TES IV looks best with enabled FP HDR and test it in this mode.
The ASUS EN9600GT 512MB is competitive against the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT and ATI Radeon HD 3870 at the lower resolutions but falls to the back of the pack when the load on the memory subsystem grows too much from using very high display modes.
The new add-on to Company of Heroes is tested in DirectX 10 mode only since it provides the highest quality of the visuals.
Lots of shaders plus full-screen antialiasing plus anisotropic filtering – it is all too heavy a burden for the EN9600GT Top 512MB. The ASUS card is far behind the GeForce 8800 GT and has to contend with the Radeon HD 3870 in bottom positions. High resolutions are not suitable for the ASUS card.
The expansion pack to C&C 3: Tiberium Wars having a frame rate limiter, you should consider the minimum speed of the cards in the first place.
The new expansion pack doesn’t change anything in the standings of the cards. Although the EN9600GT Top 512MB reaches the speed limiter in every display mode except for 1920x1200, its minimum speed is somewhat lower than that of the other tested cards.
The overall performance level is low in this benchmark, so we should compare the results we have in the 1280x1024 mode. The game’s code is so complex that the overclocking is unrewarding. Although the EN9600GT Top 512MB outperforms the Radeon HD 3870, it cannot catch up with the more advanced GeForce 9800 GTX and GeForce 8800 GT 512MB.
The overclocked EN9600GT Top 512MB is about as good as the Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX and GeForce 8800 GT 512MB, but all of them are substantially slower than the ATI Radeon HD 3870.
The ASUS card behaves exactly like the GeForce 8800 GT 512MB in this test but there is no competition with the Radeon HD 3870. ATI’s solution doesn’t cope with full-screen antialiasing and has no advantage as in the overall scores.
The ASUS card notches a score of 1,000 3DMark06 points. The EN9600GT Top 512MB is as fast as the ATI Radeon HD 3870 and Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT.
The pre-overclocked card from ASUS is impressive in the SM2.0 tests. It scores 500 points more than the more advanced Radeon HD 3870 solution.
The EN9600GT Top 512MB looks worse in the SM3.0/HDR tests, losing to every other card. On the other hand, the gap from the Radeon HD 3870 is not really big.
The standings do not change much when we turn on 4x FSAA. The Radeon HD 3870 is hamstringed by its texture processor design with one filter unit per each two texture address units. The EN9600GT Top 512MB is far ahead as the consequence.
The ASUS EN9600GT Top 512MB is as fast its famous precursor GeForce 8800 GT 512MB in both SM3.0/HDR tests. The additional megahertz of frequencies help it compete with the Radeon HD 3870 which features a much high computing capacity.
Midrange products such as the Nvidia GeForce 9600 GT are in the focus of many potential customers. The test results of ASUS’s version of this card prove the high performance of this very inexpensive product. It has been substantially faster than Nvidia’s reference card across a number of tests.
Notwithstanding its modest specs, the ASUS EN9600GT Top 512MB is equal to or even faster than such graphics cards as ATI Radeon HD 3870 and Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT 512MB.
As for drawbacks, the card’s cooler blocks the neighboring slot and you have to move your PCI cards away from the graphics slot. The EN9600GT Top 512MB does not have DisplayPort or HDMI connectors although the G94 chip supports DisplayPort and the card itself is equipped with an internal S/PDIF connector for audio-over-HDMI as well as DVI-to-HDMI adapter. The lack of a HD video player in the kit is an obstacle to using the card in a HTPC, too. Removing this obstacle will require an additional investment from the user. For the sake of truth we have to say that Asustek Computer also has EN9600GT Silent graphics card in the lineup, which is positioned for HTPC and features passive cooling, hence, will definitely be a better solution for use inside home-theaters compared to the EN9600GT Top, which is aimed primarily at gamers.
Summing it up, ASUS has come up with a high-quality and fast graphics card. Boasting higher performance than the reference sample, the EN9600GT Top 512MB will be a good choice for any gamer who doesn’t have a fortune to spend and who doesn’t play at high display resolutions. The card is optimally balanced and delivers superb performance for its class at resolutions of 1280x1024 and 1600x1200/1680x1050. The ATI Radeon HD 3870, the market alternative to the ASUS card, is slower in quite a lot of tests.