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Asus Bravo 9500 - Asus Bravo 9500
For what it's worth, MediaShow Espresso is actually a decent piece of software that is easy enough to use with just the remote. Files convert quickly as the processing is offloaded onto the graphics card rather than your CPU (which is assumed to be a relatively low power unit to keep power consumption, heat, and noise down) and format support is superb. In our tests we were quickly able to load up three short video clips (2 x .mov HD trailers and an .mp4 HD clip) totalling 399 seconds/276MB and convert them into iPhone size/format. The conversion took a total of one minute and 19 seconds and the results were exactly the right size and aspect ratio and played back perfectly.
Moving onto the light sensor, it is on the same USB dongle that contains the remote sensor and works with Asus' software to automatically brighten or dim your monitor/TV depending on the ambient lighting conditions. It's quite a neat trick and could certainly be useful if you like to watch movies in a completely blacked out room. However, with it only affecting the computer's output, rather than the monitor's, you may still want to manually dim your display's backlight to get the best black levels and picture quality.
Another media-centric aspect of the Bravo line is the video enhancement effects available through the Splendid software. Now Splendid is actually available with many Asus cards, but here it is also integrated with the media centre software mentioned above. Essentially it enables you to choose from a selection of video modes that ‘enhance' the look of media you're viewing. ‘Picture' increases saturation and contrast to make photos look more vivid, ‘Gaming' enhances detail in darker areas, ‘Theater' softens the contrast for a more traditional softer look to your films, and ‘Auto' tries to pick what it thinks is the most appropriate for the thing you're currently doing. They all work as advertised to some degree but they also lead to colours being compressed (i.e. blown out highlights, loss of dark detail) and detail being lost. As with the light sensor, if you're watching on a TV you'd probably be better off leaving such tweaks to the TV's own processing to get the best results.
Getting back to the card itself, we were also slightly concerned by the presence of a small fan on the card. Small fans are notorious for getting annoyingly loud if required to spin fast, so we were keen to see how quiet this card could be. So, we popped our test bed into our sound isolation box and set our decibel meter to task. The ambient noise level in our noise isolation booth was 33dB and with the system idling, the noise from the graphics card brought this up to 42dB. We then ran our Crysis benchmark a couple of times but found the fan didn't spin up any more than it already had so our reading was still around the 42dB mark. This lack of increase in noise is most impressive, but the initial figure of 42dB isn't all that great considering you can get passively cooled, and thus silent, versions of this card.
Taking price into consideration, this card is about £10 more expensive than the average 9500 GT, but considering the extras you get, we think this is a fair price to pay. However, that's only if you want the extras and, all told, we're not really sure they're worth it. Sure, you get onboard HDMI whereas most alternatives require a DVI-to-HDMI adapter but we feel the remote, light sensor, and extra software will just end up discarded and seldom used.
With its Bravo 9500, Asus has tried to create the perfect media centre graphics card. It's low-profile and includes a remote and video enhancement software all of which sounds great. However, we just feel these extras don't actually bring enough to the party, so you're probably better off opting for a cheaper low profile version of the nVidia GeForce 9500 GT.