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9/10

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MSI RX2600XT - MSI RX2600XT

Except for the low end 2400s all of ATI's latest lineup of graphics cards have near identical output configurations, which consist of two HDCP compliant dual-link DVI connectors and one HDTV-out connector that can output either component or composite and S-Video (using the included dongles). By combining the DVI connections with either DVI to VGA or DVI to HDMI dongles (one of each is included in the box) you have a huge number of connection options at your disposal.

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As we've mentioned before, having HDCP compliant DVI ports is essential if you plan on using your graphics card to playback protected high-definition video (i.e. commercial HD DVD and Blu-ray discs), which is something you're very likely to do on an HTPC. At the moment most nVidia boards below the 8600 GTS don't have HDCP compliant ports so they're no competition on this front. However, we've heard that in the next few months most board partners will be offering this on nVidia's entire range of cards.

As with all of ATIs current range of graphics cards the RX2600XT is completely CrossFire capable and two connectors for the CrossFire interconnects sit in their usual place on the top edge of the card. Curiously, though, no interconnects are included in the box.

Another great feature of this new range of cards from ATI is the cableless audio pass through. This retrieves the audio signal from your sound card straight from the PCI-E bus and passes it out to the DVI ports which, when combined with a DVI to HDMI adapter, can be connected to a TV for a one cable A/V connection. Some of nVidia's cards are offering a similar feature but they require you to pass a separate cable from your sound card to the graphics card to achieve the same result.

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Both nVidia and ATI have video decoding capabilities built into the silicon of their latest graphics chips and the MSI RX2600XT is no exception. By offsetting the computationally intensive task of decoding high-definition video, these free up the CPU to perform other tasks like run a virus scanner or record a TV program. To test this we watched the Blu-ray edition of Casino Royale on our usual test bed loaded with an Intel Core 2 Duo X6800 (with one core disabled) and monitored the CPU utilisation. Throughout our viewing, the CPU utilisation hovered around 25 per cent which leaves plenty of spare processing power for other tasks. Disabling the hardware acceleration checkbox in Cyberlink Power DVD saw the CPU usage shoot up to 100 per cent, and frames start to drop, so the effectiveness of the assisted decoding is clear to see. It really does make for an impressively simple setup to just add a Blu-ray or HD-DVD drive and this card to any old PC and be able to play full 1080p video - it's such a shame the drives are still so expensive.

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