It's fair to say that nVidia's been ruling the roost over the past year or so when it comes to the high-end of the graphics card market. Only recently has ATI been able to offer up a solution that can compete at the bleeding edge of performance, and even then its method is one we weren't one hundred percent confident in. However, for those of us less willing to spend upwards of £200 just to play a few games, the market has been a lot more competitive.
Ok, so the 'midrange', as it's known, was a bit rubbish in the middle part of last year with the ATI HD 2600 XT and nVidia 8600 GT/GTS performing way below expectations but since then things have livened up quite a bit. First was the nVidia 8800 GT that, although a bit expensive to truly call midrange at £150-£180, offered massive performance for a much more realistic price than the 8800 GTS and GTX.
Following this, the refreshed ATI lineup arrived at the tail-end of last year, bringing with it a cracking midrange part, the HD 3850. It combined decent performance, a low price, and, with ATI still offering slightly better HD video support than the competition (nVidia are still relying on board partners to push this side of things), it had the best multimedia capabilities on the market. So compelling was this part's price/performance ratio, in fact, that nVidia felt compelled to release the 8800 GS to fill the obvious gap in its range.
All of which means, right now the graphics market is as good as it's been for quite some time. No matter what your budget there's a card that will offer you a fair level of performance without compromising on features. So, with this in mind nVidia's latest card is going to have to make a big splash if it's to establish itself. Indeed, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is why nVidia has chosen now to start the rebranding of its cards under the 9000-series moniker - it's a higher number, so it must be better! However, we rather suspect the opposite is true and the 8800 GT and 8800 GTS 512 should've been the first 9000-series parts. The reason they weren't, though, is the new parts would've killed off sales of the older, more expensive, 8800 GTS/GTX parts that were still in the channel. By holding off on the rebranding, nVidia ensured this old hardware was sold at competitive prices.
nVidia are also emphasising the fact this card represents the largest generational increase in performance they've ever released and being that it has twice the number of shaders as the 8600 GT/GTS, this is no surprise. However, this fails to take into account the fact the 8600 series offered hardly any increase in performance over the previous generation, the 7600 GT, so if you want to look at it that way it's actually more like a two-fold increase in performance over two generations, which isn't quite so impressive.
Whatever the reasons and regardless of the market situation, though, the nVidia GeForce 9600 GT has arrived and it's here to stay. So over the next few pages we're going to give it a thorough once over, put it through its paces in a variety of games, and ultimately see if it is the choice card in this sector.