The mid-range graphics market is one of the most hotly contested right now. Both ATi and nVidia are offering DirectX 9 cards that provide real gaming power at reasonable prices. I first looked at the Radeon 9600XT last December, and with its decent performance and attractive bundle it made a good impression. However, since then nVidia has hit back not once, but twice - first with the GeForce FX 5700 Ultra and then the GeForce FX 5900XT. Both of these stole the thunder from the Asus mid-range boards so I was interested to see if the Hercules mid-range ATi card would turn up any surprises.
The 3D Prophet line has a long heritage, stretching back to the original GeForce card released back in early 2000. Hercules has an even longer history in the graphics market so it’s no surprise that the 3D Prophet 9600XT is a pretty polished package.
The card it based on the standard ATi Radeon 9600XT. This has been manufactured using a 0.13 micron process with low-k dielectric technology enabling a high clock speed of 500MHz for the core GPU. The 128MB of DDR1 memory is rated at 325MHz, giving an effective clock of 650MHz, 50HZ faster than the standard 9600XT speeds. The rest of the architecture is a cut down version of the ATi Radeon 9800 Pro, featuring four rather than eight pixel pipelines and a 128bit memory architecture, versus a 256bit interface on its bigger and far more expensive brother. As we’ll see, this latter aspect of the design is the card’s Achilles heal.
As usual, there’s both DVI and D-SUB outputs so you can make use of multi-monitor support and there’s also a TV-Out. A cable is supplied with outputs for both S-Video and composite.
Hercules is something of a luxury brand so it was no surprise to see that this board was somewhat plusher than your average piece of silicon. It’s a fetching blue colour adorned with heatsinks on the memory, which in theory should help with overclocking.
Potential overclockers should note however that as the card doesn’t use an additional power connector it draws all its power from the AGP slot. As I discovered, this makes it sensitive to the AGP slot being overclocked. Therefore if you do want to up the front side bus on your motherboard, you’ll need to use a board that enables you to lock the clock speed of the AGP and PCI buses, otherwise you’ll be limited in your system overclocking ambitions.
The other neat feature of the card is its fan even though it’s not as quiet as the one on the MSi GeForceFX 5700TD Ultra. It does however sport a glowing blue LED. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker from blue lights, but this seems rather an odd inclusion to me. To get the benefit of this lightshow you’ll need to have a transparent side to your case. But surely anyone that’s so into their PC that they want to see inside of it all the time, will want a top-of-the-line card rather than one of these. That said it really is very nice to look at.