Summary: In today's article we take a look at six different GeForce 8600 GTS cards. Wondering which card delivers the best cooling? Performance? Overclocking? Only one way to find out, read the article!!
The importance of tackling the mainstream graphics segment
With that in mind today we’re going to be taking a look at some of the best GeForce 8600 GTS cards on the market.
If you’re looking for a new DirectX 10 capable graphics card, but you’ve only got $200 to burn NVIDIA’s GeForce 8600 GTS is pretty much the only game in town right now. While it’s true that in many cases it’s outperformed by older mainstream offerings by AMD and NVIDIA like the GeForce 7900 GS and Radeon X1950 Pro, in shader-heavy games like Oblivion and STALKER, the GeForce 8600 GTS more than holds its own against these cards, despite its narrower 128-bit memory interface. As more next-gen content debuts later this year, it’s plausible that this gap could widen even further.
But which GeForce 8600 GTS should you choose? That’s where today’s article comes in. We’ve rounded up six popular GeForce 8600 GTS cards from manufacturers ranging from Albatron to XFX. Some of these cards ship with dual-slot coolers, while others stick with NVIDIA’s reference heatsink/fan unit. Clock speeds also run the gamut from tame to extreme. The following chart summarizes the key specs of the players in today’s article:
Although this is officially our first time to take a look at an Albatron graphics card in a roundup, they’ve been in the graphics business since 2002 – about the same amount of time as BFG. In that time they’ve put together some interesting products. Their WiseFan technology propelled cards in the GeForce 6800 generation to new heights – Albatron’s PC6800Q took home our best low noise design award at Computex 2005.
WiseFan was designed not only to deliver low noise, but also increased reliability. Albatron’s WiseFan cooler consisted of three fans; two fans actively cooled the GPU while a third fan could kick in if one of the fans failed. In practice, the system worked quite well and was integrated onto a wide range of GeForce 6 cards. Ultimately the design was copied by a few other card manufacturers.
Another innovation from Albatron developed around the same time as WiseFan was known as ATOP. With Albatron’s ATOP (AGP-to-PCI Express) bridge card, end users could upgrade to a PCI Express motherboard without having to purchase a new PCI Express graphics card. Say for instance you already had an AGP GeForce 6800 GT or Ultra and didn’t want to purchase another graphics card. With ATOP, simply plug your existing AGP graphics card into the ATOP card and you’re good to go.
Based on this spirit of innovation from Albatron, we’ve been eager to take a look at one of their cards. When the opportunity presented itself for this roundup, we jumped at the chance.
Unfortunately however, for their GeForce 8600 GTS GPU Albatron has decided to stick with NVIDIA’s reference board design. From end to end the card is a carbon copy of the GeForce 8600 GTS reference board.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. NVIDIA’s reference cooling is actually quite good. At the heart of the stock cooler is a copper base plate, which rests directly above the GPU. Heat from the GPU is absorbed by this plate and then transferred to an aluminum heatsink. NVIDIA’s heatsink is single slot and is composed of numerous fins to increase its performance. From there the cooler is paired to a small variable speed fan. The fan varies its RPMs based on temperature, and even under load generates very little noise. It’s not quite as quiet as NVIDIA’s cooler used on the GeForce 8800 GTX, but it gets the job done quite well.
Like all GeForce 8600 GTS cards, the Albatron GeForce 8600 GTS is built with two dual-link DVI outputs and supports HDCP. Albatron also sticks with the stock GeForce 8600 GTS clock speeds – no factory overclocking here.
Software and accessories
Albatron ships their card with a fairly standard array of hardware accessories and software. Albatron ships the card sans game bundle, instead opting to include the basic drivers you’ll need to get the card up and running. No additional software shipped with the card beyond the driver CD. Hardware accessories bundled with the card included a DVI adapter and component video cable. The card shipped without a second DVI adapter as well as a PCIe power cable.
For the GeForce 8600 GTS, ASUS offers multiple SKUs. For enthusiasts who crave the absolute best performance, we were hoping to see a factory-overclocked TOP model similar to the prerelease board we tested back in April, but unfortunately this card hasn’t hit the production line at ASUS, instead ASUS has opted to provide tamer cards – none of ASUS GeForce 8600 GTS cards are overclocked from the factory – yet with cooling units that are more elaborate than the reference NVIDIA heatsink/fan found on the prototype TOP card we tested a few months ago.
The cooler ASUS has implemented is larger than it initially looks, and reminds us in some ways of Zalman’s VF700 line of coolers. Like the VF700, the cooler on the ASUS EN8600GTS/HTDP/256M is dual-slot, so you will have to ensure that the expansion slot next to your PCIe graphics slot is empty in order for the ASUS card to fit. At the center of the cooler is a large 11-blade fan. This cooling fan generates very little noise, even under load with the card overclocked, and also does a very effective job of keeping the GPU cool.
We were quite impressed with the cooling unit ASUS has devised but it does have one small shortcoming – the memory modules aren’t a part of the package. Fortunately this isn’t a huge deal as the Samsung memory modules used on the card are designed to operate without cooling, but we still think it would have been nice if the ASUS board shipped with RAMsinks, especially since the stock NVIDIA 8600 GTS reference cooling does perform this function.
Because the ASUS cooler works so well, we were surprised by ASUS’ decision to stick with the stock GeForce 8600 GTS clock speeds of 675MHz on the graphics core, 1.0GHz memory (2.0GHz effective) and 1.45GHz for the stream processors. As we mentioned earlier, their prototype GeForce 8600 GTS TOP card put up very good performance numbers in our GeForce 8600 GTS preview article from April and it was outfitted with the stock NVIDIA cooling unit; now that they’ve developed their own custom cooler you’d think they’d be even more aggressive with the clock speeds but apparently they decided otherwise.
The rest of the EN8600GTS/HTDP/256M is pretty similar to the reference GeForce 8600 GTS board design from NVIDIA. ASUS uses different capacitors than the other manufacturers, but everything else is basically unchanged. Like all GeForce 8600 GTS cards, the board is equipped with dual-link DVI connectors and supports HDCP.
Software and accessories
It’s in this regard where you’ve got to play close attention with ASUS’ GeForce 8600 GTS cards. This is because ASUS offers the EN8600GTS with and without a game bundle. The standard EN8600GTS/HTDP/256M card we’re reviewing today ships with a DVI adapter, component video cable, and a leather CD wallet. This card ships without a game bundle and without a PCIe power adapter. However, ASUS provides a second GeForce 8600 GTS SKU, the EN8600GTS/G/HTDP/256M. The “G” in the card’s designation is important, as this card ships with a copy of the game STALKER on DVD-ROM. Unfortunately though, this SKU still only ships with one DVI adapter and also lacks the PCIe power cable.
When it comes to graphics, BFG is one of the most recognized names among enthusiasts despite the fact that they’ve only been around for nearly five years now. Why has BFG grown so quickly? Two reasons: their lifetime warranty program, and factory overclocking.
BFG was the first graphics card manufacturer to provide a lifetime warranty on their products. BFG’s lifetime warranty program is a true lifetime warranty – there are no strings attached: if something happens to your BFG card and it stops working, BFG will provide you with a new card provided you didn’t modify the card in any way, nor is the card physically damaged. BFG’s customer support/service is also very highly regarded. BFG provides 24/7 toll-free phone support for end users in North America.
When it comes to overclocking, BFG certainly wasn’t the first graphics card manufacturer to clock their cards higher than default speeds, but they were the first to implement top-to-bottom overclocking on their entire line of cards, including the 1st generation boards that are produced when a new GPU is introduced. Previously when a new GeForce GPU was released the first wave of cards would stick very strictly to NVIDIA’s reference specifications, including clock speeds. Then, a few months later, 2nd generation cards would be released that offered higher speeds, better cooling, superior game bundle, or some combination of the three. With their “OC” line of cards, BFG was the first manufacturer to overclock their cards right from the beginning of a new GPU’s lifespan. This gave their cards a performance advantage over their competitors.
Of course in more recent years, many other manufacturers have begun overclocking their boards from the factory also, and as a result, BFG’s tamer OC boards were beginning to fall behind in performance benchmarks. This is where the “OC2” line comes in.
OC2 boards are BFG’s second generation cards and are designed to deliver even better performance than the OC line. Basically, these cards are built for gamers and hardware enthusiasts who want the very fastest card based on any given GPU. On top of this though, BFG has added one new wrinkle to their GeForce 8600 GTS OC2: ThermoIntelligence.
ThermoIntelligence is the brand BFG has come up with for a series of cards that are designed to deliver improved cooling performance that goes beyond what stock cards can offer. In the words of BFG, “ThermoIntelligence series provides exceptional thermal performance without the draw backs of traditional custom and after market solutions. From our single-slot water cooled 8800 Ultra to the new 8600 GTS OC2, our new ThermoIntelligence enhanced products are “The Gamers’ Choice™”!”
BFG has setup a special website for the cards at http://www.thermointelligence.com where end users can learn more about the ThermalIntelligence line, as well as how their custom cooling solutions stack up against the reference (stock) coolers, and why better cooling is so important.
BFG has developed a new air-based heatsink/fan cooler for the GeForce 8600 GTS OC2 ThermoIntelligence. Unlike the stock NVIDIA cooler, which uses a combination of copper and aluminum to cool the graphics core and memory, BFG’s ThermoIntelligence cooler on the 8600 GTS OC2 is all-aluminum. Sitting directly atop the GPU is a heatsink composed of multiple rolled fins. Heat is further dispersed by an aluminum plate which surrounds this heatsink.
Supplying the cooler with fresh, cool air is a small fan. As you can see, BFG has placed the fan offset of the graphics core for enhanced cooling. In the words of BFG, the fan was placed offset “to eliminate a dead air zone”. We’ve been big fans of offset coolers in the past ourselves, we’ve found that by placing the fan offset of the graphics core, the fan has more room to duct more air across the GPU. In addition, by moving the fan from directly above the GPU, BFG has more room to incorporate a larger, more effective heatsink directly above the GPU. This area is where most of the heat on the graphics card is generated.
The real beauty of ThermoIntelligence is that it performs so effectively, yet it’s still single-slot. Many manufacturers that have chosen to develop their own custom coolers for the GeForce 8600 GTS use dual-slot coolers. By keeping their cooling design down to just one slot, the GeForce 8600 GTS OC2 ThermoIntelligence can still be used in cramped cases.
But a better cooler isn’t the only feature found on the card, as an OC2 board, BFG’s GeForce 8600 GTS OC2 is clocked to run with the best of them. The GPU on the board runs at 720MHz, an improvement of 45MHz over stock, while the stream processors run at 1566MHz, that’s an improvement of 116MHz. For added performance at high resolutions, the memory subsystem is also factory overclocked, running at 1110MHz.
Software and accessories
BFG ships the GeForce 8600 GTS OC2 card with the usual assortment of hardware accessories. Inside the box you’ll find two DVI adapters, a component video output cable, and power cable. As usual, BFG doesn’t ship the card with a game bundle or even DVD playback software. After all, with BFG cards, it’s the hardware you’re getting inside the box that counts, not the software.
EVGA is another highly respected manufacturer in the graphics card industry. Like BFG, EVGA’s cards are backed up by a lifetime warranty program, only EVGA goes one step further than BFG when it comes to their policy on card modding. Whereas BFG’s lifetime warranty is voided if you modify your card in any way, EVGA’s warranty allows for modifications as long as the card itself isn’t damaged in the process.
Say for instance you want to swap out the stock heatsink/fan cooling unit on your graphics card for a more powerful cooler, but still remain under warranty. Under EVGA’s lifetime warranty program this is allowed, but this is a strict no-no for BFG cards.
One important point to keep in mind with EVGA’s lifetime warranty is that the card must be registered within 30 days of the initial purchase. If you don’t register your card within the first 30 days, the lifetime warranty is replaced with just a 1-year warranty. Fortunately registration is a simple process that can be accomplished on evga.com.
EVGA also provides a line of factory overclocked graphics cards. Their “KO” line of graphics boards combine factory overclocking with highly effective custom-designed EVGA cooling units, while the “Superclocked” boards are just that, cards that are designed to run at superclocked clock speeds that are higher than NVIDIA’s reference specifications.
One unique feature that sets EVGA apart from all the other board partners however is their “Step Up” program.
EVGA’s Step-up program allows EVGA customers to trade-in their existing EVGA graphics card for the latest and greatest model available, as long as the upgrade occurs within 90 days of the initial card purchase. EVGA customers must simply pay the difference between the two cards in order to upgrade. If timed correctly, this feature can protect EVGA card owners from obsolescence; say for instance if NVIDIA were to release a new GeForce 8900 GPU tomorrow, gamers who have recently purchased EVGA cards could upgrade to the new GPU and get the full retail value of their older card on the trade-in. When the GeForce 8800 GTX was released last fall, numerous EVGA card owners stepped up from GeForce 7900 GTOs and 7950 GTs to the brand new 8800 GTX.
The only downside to Step-Up is that you can only use it once, so you should use it wisely.
For the GeForce 8600 GTS GPU EVGA has chosen to keep it simple rather than offer a decked-out card with ACS3 cooling and other extras. EVGA uses NVIDIA’s reference board design and cooling for the e-GeForce 8600 GTS Superclocked. No variations are made to the PCB or underlying components. The reason why? Price. Quite simply, the more bonus features you add to the design of the board, the pricier it gets, and if the card is priced too closely to the GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB, most gamers are going to opt for the GeForce 8800 GTS card instead.
As a Superclocked card however, EVGA has chosen to spice up the clock speeds on this board.
The GPU on the e-GeForce 8600 GTS Superclocked runs at 721MHz while the stream processors are clocked at 1560MHz. That’s an increase of 46MHz on the GPU, and 110MHz on the stream processors over the stock NVIDIA speeds. The board’s memory then runs at 1050MHz, a 50MHz improvement over stock.
Software and accessories
EVGA ships the e-GeForce 8600 GTS Superclocked with two DVI adapters, a power cable, and S-Video cable. Again, to keep costs down, EVGA is foregoing a game bundle this time around.
If you recall, it was Gigabyte who was first to offer a dual GPU GeForce graphics card with their 3D1. The Gigabyte 3D1 fused two GeForce 6600 GT GPUs on to one graphics board, each with their own pool of 256MB of graphics memory (512MB total onboard). The card was single slot and didn’t generate an exorbitant amount of noise
With media center PCs growing in popularity, the demand for a graphics card that can operate silently, or near silently has grown. To service this market, Gigabyte has developed their SilentPipe line of graphics cards. Instead of relying on traditional heatsink/fan cooling units, SilentPipe cards utilize heatpipe cooling to keep the graphics core cool. We’ve featured a couple of SilentPipe Gigabyte cards in the past and found the system works pretty effectively. The only downside has always been heat: heatpipes do an incredibly effective job of drawing heat off the GPU, but without an onboard fan, or air circulating nearby, this heat has nowhere to go. As a result, the PCB of the graphics card itself gets very hot.
The new cooling on Gigabyte’s GV-NX86S256H is designed to address this problem. The card uses Gigabyte’s third generation SilentPipe 3 technology to keep the graphics core and memory cool. At the heart of the cooler are two heat pipes. For increased effectiveness, the heat pipes are composed of copper rather than aluminum and are rather long, in the picture below you can see how the heat pipes run from one heatsink to the next.
If you couldn’t tell in the pictures, the SilentPipe 3 cooling on the GV-NX86S256H takes up two slots. Because of the size of the cooler, which is actually longer than the PCB of the card itself, some users may run into problems installing this card in smaller HTPC cases.
With such large cooling, Gigabyte had to come up with their own custom board design for the GV-NX86S256H. All of the board’s power circuitry had to be rearranged to accommodate the cooler. Another radical change Gigabyte implemented on the GV-NX86S256H when it comes to power delivery is external power: unlike the rest of the GeForce 8600 GTS cards in this roundup, the GV-NX86S256H lacks the 6-pin PCIe power connector that is a part of the GeForce 8600 GTS reference board design.
According to NVIDIA, the GeForce 8600 GTS draws up to 71 watts of power, this figure is just 4 watts shy of the 75 watts the PCIe interface is capable of delivering to the graphics card. NVIDIA’s reference design plays it safe by including a secondary power source although technically it isn’t absolutely required if NVIDIA’s 71-watt TDP is accurate.
In our testing, the lack of an external power source didn’t affect the stability of the GV-NX86S256H. The card was completely stable – regardless of what we threw at it, the card was 100% reliable. One strange quirk we did run into however is that the card would squeal when we fired up games. The amount of squealing varied depending on the game being run, loading up Half-Life 2 Lost Coast or Oblivion would result in the most noise. We wouldn’t say the squealing was unbearable, we’ve certainly heard cards that were noisier, but at the same time for a card that’s designed to run silently, this quirk could be unacceptable: when you pay money for a card that’s been billed as a silent card, you expect it to run silently. What makes the problem worse is that the Gigabyte card generates more noise than all of the other GTS cards in this roundup when Oblivion and HL2 are running.
Software and accessories
Gigabyte provides one of the best software bundles we’ve seen with the GV-NX86S256H. This is because Gigabyte ships the card with a copy of the game Supreme Commander. With a ton of positive game and end user reviews, Supreme Commander is one of the hottest RTS games on the market right now and represents a $40 value.
XFX’s claim to fame is their double lifetime warranty program. Unlike lifetime warranties offered by BFG and EVGA which only cover the original owner of the graphics card, XFX’s double lifetime warranty provides warranty coverage for the second card owner as well. With end users increasingly turning to forums and sites like eBay and craigslist to sell their old hardware, this double lifetime policy has proven popular with consumers. In addition, XFX recently revised their warranty policy to cover cards that have been modified with aftermarket coolers. Previously XFX voided the warranty if the card was modded in any way. With this new warranty policy, XFX card owners are free to swap out cooling without losing their warranty. As long as the card isn’t physically damaged, the card will remain under warranty.
The other notable aspect XFX’s cards are known for is performance and flair: XFX’s “XXX” line of cards are always clocked at speeds higher than most other manufacturers, while their “Extreme” line of cards have been known to mix factory overclocking with distinctive-looking cards sporting black PCBs and neon green DVI connectors. Just last year XFX was also the first manufacturer to passively cool the GeForce 7950 GT with the use of heat pipes.
At first glance, XFX’s GeForce 8600 GTS XXX may look like just another reference card, but if you look closely you can’t miss the black plate at the top of the card. This plate has one important purpose: to help keep the graphics card cool.
The plate acts as an additional heatsink of sorts for the entire graphics card, not just one component like the GPU or memory. As anyone who’s touched a high-end or midrange card while it’s running under load can tell you, today’s latest VGA cards can carry an enormous amount of heat – enough to burn your fingers if you aren’t careful. Often times this heat really has nowhere to go, which is why it’s so important to have fresh, cool air circulating on or near your graphics card.
XFX’s thermal plate addresses this by drawing this heat from the PCB of the graphics board, to the plate itself, which is made from aluminum. This heat is then dispersed by air. By drawing heat off the graphics card and its underlying components, this helps to keep the board temps down, especially when the card is under load.
The graphics core on XFX’s GeForce 8600 GTS XXX is clocked at 730MHz, that’s 55MHz higher than the stock GeForce 8600 GTS. Meanwhile the stream processors on the XXX run at 1566MHz, 116MHz higher than stock. Meanwhile, the memory runs at 1130MHz. These speeds are the highest of any other card in this roundup.
Software and accessories
Like Gigabyte, XFX has elected to include a game with their XXX board despite the added cost. The card ships with a copy of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter on DVD-ROM. Hardware accessories bundled with XFX’s GeForce 8600 GTS XXX include two DVI adapters, a component video cable, and power adapter.
Company of Heroes 1.3
World in Conflict Beta – DX9
F.E.A.R. – Direct3D
Oblivion – Direct3D
Oblivion – Direct3D
Half-Life 2 Lost Coast – Direct3D
Company of Heroes – Direct3D9
STALKER – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
Lost Planet – DX9
Honestly we wouldn’t weigh too much emphasis on the overclocking results presented above. While the BFG GeForce 8600 GTS OC2 board did overclock higher than the other GeForce 8600 GTS cards, we feel this is more likely due to the board’s age rather than BFG’s cooling. Whereas we just received BFG’s GeForce 8600 GTS OC2 a couple of weeks ago, we’ve had the other cards in this roundup for months. Quite simply, newer cards that are rolling off the GPU production line today should be capable of scaling to higher speeds than cards that were built back in April or May. We feel that’s all you’re seeing in the performance results above.
If price is no object though, and you’re willing to go all-out, BFG’s GeForce 8600 GTS OC2 with ThermoIntelligence clearly stands out. The card delivered some of the best 3D performance in our benchmarks, while at the same time running with very low thermals despite its high clock speeds. What’s most remarkable about all this is that BFG is able to pull all this off in a single-slot package. This is a tribute to the R&D BFG has put into their ThermoIntelligence cooler. It’s because all of this that we’re awarding the BFG GeForce 8600 GTS OC2 with our Editor’s Choice Award.
BFG’s GeForce 8600 GTS OC2 is currently priced significantly higher than the other cards in this roundup. Newegg for instance currently sells the card for a whopping $239.99, that’s almost as much as a GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB! Because of this, while we’re impressed with the potential of the BFG card, quite frankly it’s currently a terrible value at today’s prices. This is where EVGA’s e-GeForce 8600 GTS Superclocked and XFX’s GeForce 8600 GTS XXX Edition come in.
Both of these cards are factory overclocked from the factory, just like the BFG card, and both offer warranty policies that are honestly a little more flexible than BFG’s for enthusiasts who like to mod their cards with aftermarket coolers. Just remember to register your card immediately if you decide to buy the EVGA card and want the lifetime warranty.
Gamers who want good cooling but don’t necessarily need or want a factory overclocked GeForce 8600 GTS card would be well served by the ASUS EN8600GTS/HTDP/256M. We noted observed cooling performance that was comparable to the BFG board’s ThermoIntelligence cooler, the only downside is that the ASUS card is dual-slot rather than single slot, but most enthusiasts leave the slot directly adjacent to their graphics slot empty anyway so this shouldn’t be a concern for the EN8600GTS/HTDP/256M’s target audience.
With very attractive pricing, heat pipe cooling, and an excellent game bundle, the Gigabyte GV-NX86S256H is easily the best value of all the cards in this roundup: these cards are currently selling for under $200 at many online retailers. This makes the card an instant Bull’s Eye contender in our minds. The only downside to the GV-NX86S256H is its size, because the fins on the GV-NX86S256H’s SilentPipe 3 cooler are so large, it may have a hard time fitting in the HTPC cases it was intended for use in, and more importantly, the squealing noises we observed when the card was under load. Again, in some games the noise was hardly noticeable, while in others it was impossible not to notice.
Albatron’s GeForce 8600 GTS card is designed to appeal to the price conscious consumer who wants a GeForce 8600 GTS card that’s aggressively priced. Unfortunately it’s a bit tough to find in the US market at the moment, which also makes it tough to pick as a Bull’s Eye contender. In addition, there are a wealth of stock GeForce 8600 GTS cards that like the Albatron 8600 GTS, are complete replicas of the NVIDIA reference design. All of these cards are essentially competing for the same group of budget-minded consumers and as a result prices on these GeForce 8600 GTS cards have fallen rapidly; EVGA’s own e-GeForce 8600 GTS card can be found online for under $150 after mail-in rebate.
So there you have it, our take on a handful of the GeForce 8600 GTS cards that are available on the market right now. As you can see, manufacturers have designed multiple flavors of cards to appeal to different markets. ASUS for instance also carries a line of heat pipe-based Silent cards that are also quite popular.
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