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ASUS EN9600GT TOP 512MB

Date: March 31, 2008
Author(s): Rob Williams

NVIDIA’s 9600 GT card is a great offering for the price range, but ASUS ups the ante by offering a TOP version that adds 70MHz to the core and 100MHz to the memory. Add in HDMI support and the ability to overclock the card even higher… then the EN9600GT TOP proves to be a great offering.



Introduction

If one thing is certain, it’s that NVIDIA has no intention to let AMD take reign of GPU performance anywhere on the ladder, which was evidenced when they unveiled the 9600 GT card in late February, an offering that directly competes with AMD’s HD 3870.

Of course, it’s pricing that can make or break a new launch, and NVIDIA managed to hit the target there as well. Although prices at the get go proved to be just under 8800 GT pricing, now that stock is plentiful, pricing is now far below any 8800 GT.

In fact, even though the 9600 GT is designed to take on the HD 3870, its pricing is more in line with the HD 3850… a card it chews up and spits out. AMD is in need of a price drop if it wishes to remain as serious competition in the mid-range market.

We were unable to get an ASUS 9600 GT card with reference clocks, so they sent us the next best thing. Well, rather, they sent us the next better thing, a TOP version of the card that boasts higher-than-reference clocks, meaning you get more performance right out of the box, all for doing nothing.

Well, except for paying more for the privilege. But as of right now, I am not sure what the premium is, since the card is not available anywhere. You can expect the premium to be around $20USD. However, since its launch, the 9600 GT has been well received as being a killer overclocking card, so there should be virtually no problem with you achieving the same clocks on this card with the regular EN9600GT or another companies offering.

Closer Look

Taking a look at the table below, we can see just where the 9600 GT card fits in – well above the 8800 GS, but right below the 8800 GT. Although the 9600 GT has faster clocks than the 8800 GT, it will be the lack of stream processors that will be the reason for the performance not being on par. Aside from that though, the memory density and bus width remains identical to its big brother, so we can expect some great performance in the pages ahead.

Model
Core MHz
Shader MHz
Mem MHz
Memory
Memory Bus
Stream Proc.
8600 GT
540
1190
700
256MB
128-bit
32
8600 GTS
675
1475
1000
256MB
128-bit
32
8800 GS
550
1375
800
384MB
192-bit
96
9600 GT
650
1625
900
512MB
256-bit
64
8800 GT
600
1500
900
512MB
256-bit
112
8800 GTS 320/640
500
1200
800
320/640MB
320-bit
96
8800 GTS 512
650
1625
970
512MB
256-bit
128
8800 GTX
575
1350
900
768MB
384-bit
128
8800 Ultra
612
1500
1080
768MB
384-bit
128

In the past, one thing I’ve ranted about with ASUS GPUs was with the packaging size. You would imagine that since a graphics card is far smaller than a motherboard, its packaging would reflect that. That was not the case, however. Rather, ASUS’ GPU packaging has almost twice the overall volume… completely ridiculous.

Not so with the EN9600GT TOP, though. I am unsure if this change will be reflected throughout their entire line-up, but we’ll soon see. This new box is far more modest, but still keeps the GPU itself secure. If I had to guess, I would say this new packaging has 5x less overall volume than the packaging from the other recent ASUS’ GPUs we’ve taken a look at.

Although some GPU manufacturers are sticking to bloated GPU coolers, ASUS scaled back and delivers a “fansink” called the Glaciator. Because of its small size (relatively speaking), it maximizes airflow and shows off the entire card. I personally like the look of the card, but I am sure opinions will vary from person to person.

With most graphic cards, if you dare to take off the cooler, you are likely to experience disgust at the amount of thermal paste used. On our EN8800GTS 512 sample, for example, I couldn’t believe how much paste there was, and wondered how the card was even able to breathe. However, after performing a few temperature comparisons (after cleaning the die off and applying my own paste), I found there to not be any real difference. That begs the question, why do they use so much in the first place, then?

In the case of the EN9600GT TOP, ASUS was unable to be messy with the paste, as it would show. In the picture below, you can see that the only portion of the cooler to actually touch the card is just large enough to cover the GPU itself. Their result is one that is extremely clean. I love it.

The back of the card contains numerous GPU cooler holes for the taking, should you want after-market cooling. After seeing the performance and overclocking ability of this card, however, I am in doubt that anyone would feel the need to upgrade the stock offering.

On the back, you will find two DVI ports and a TV-Out. The different DVI port colors are just for show.

In case you want to use an HDMI connection with the card, ASUS have included a DVI-to-HDMI adapter and also a DVI-to-VGA adapter, so all of your bases are covered. Both the DVI and HDMI ports offer HDCP support, so viewing high-definition content with degraded quality won’t be an issue.

On the next page, we will take a look at our current testing methodology, which we recommend you take a look at if you have not already. Our methodologies tend to be far different than most sites. On page 3, we will jump straight into our test results.


Testing Methodology and Test System

Regardless of the OS we are running or product being reviewed, there are a few conditions that are met to assure accurate, repeatable results.

Below is our testing machine, which remains untouched throughout all testing except for the graphics card.

Testing Machine

In previous GPU reviews, we’ve used Windows XP Professional due to it’s stability (when compared to Vista), but as Vista becomes increasingly popular and the choice for many, it makes sense for us to make the switch as well. We choose to use the 64-Bit version of the OS due to it being the logical choice for gamers who want to use more than 2GB of RAM in their machine.

Game Benchmarks

Depending on the graphic card being reviewed, we split up models into two different categories: Low-End to Mid-Range and Mid-Range to High-End. The former will see the GPUs tested using 1280×1024 and 1680×1050 resolutions, since those are the most common resolutions for gamers looking to purchase a GPU in that price-range.

For our Mid-Range to High-End category, we test GPUs at 1680×1050, 1920×1200 and also 2560×1600 to better reflect the resolutions for those looking for a solid GPU offering.

We do not use time demos in our reviews except where necessary, and in the case of our current GPU reviews, the only game to be subject to a time demo is Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. This is due to that game disallowing greater than 60FPS without the use of a time demo. But since the game is a popular choice for multiplayer gamers, it should be included in some form or another.

Manual Benchmarks

In an attempt to deliver “real-world” results, all games except the above mentioned title are played through manually, with the average FPS recorded with the help of FRAPS 2.9.4. In our personal tests, we have found that manual benchmarks are the best way to deliver accurate results, since time demos rely heavily on the CPU.

In order to deliver the best results, each title we choose is explored to find the best possible level for our benchmarking. Once a level is chosen, we play through in order to find the best route, and then in future runs, we stick to that route as close as possible. We are not robots, so we cannot make sure that each run is identical, but they will never be far off from each other. As we see in our results, scaling is good, so we are confident that our methodology is a good one.

Crysis

1680×1050
1920×1200
2560×1600



Call of Duty 4

1680×1050
1920×1200
2560×1600

Half Life 2: Episode Two

1680×1050
1920×1200
2560×1600

Call of Juarez

1680×1050
1920×1200
2560×1600



S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

1680×1050
1920×1200
2560×1600

Unreal Tournament III

1680×1050
1920×1200
2560×1600



Need for Speed: Pro Street

1680×1050
1920×1200


Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

1680×1050
1920×1200
2560×1600



Note that the reason we do not test Need for Speed at 2560×1600 is because it’s a resolution not supported by the game. EA tends to be a little slow when it comes to supporting high-end hardware.


Crysis, Call of Duty 4

Each graph for our benchmarking results are labeled with the resolution that the game was played at, while omitting secondary settings such as Anti-Aliasing, Anisotropic Filtering, texture quality, et cetera. To view all specific settings that we used, please refer to our testing methodology page, where we have screenshots for each game.

Crysis

It’s not often that a game comes along that truly pushes our hardware to the utmost limit. Crysis is one of those few games, and that will be the case for at least the next year. Don’t believe me? Boot up your top-end machine, max out your resolution and set the graphics to “Very High”. I guarantee tears will be shed within a few seconds of loading a level.

The level we chose here is Onslaught, also known as level five. We begin out in a tunnel, but what’s important is that we are in control of a tank. What could be more fun? Our run through consists of leaving the tunnel and hitting the other side of the battlefield, killing six or seven enemy tanks along the way.

It goes without saying that any level in Crysis would make for a great benchmark, but this one in particular is gorgeous. Using the “Medium” settings, the game looks spectacular and is playable on all of our graphic cards, so we stick with it. Throughout the level, there is much foliage and trees and also large view-distances. Explosions from the tanks is also a visual treat, making this one level I don’t mind playing over and over, and over.

Settings: Due to the intensiveness of the game, no AA is used at any resolution, and the secondary settings are all left to Medium.

Our EN9600GT shined throughout all of our testing, except for the 2560×1600 setting, where the EAH3850TOP managed to pull ahead by an incredibly small 0.1FPS. Personally, I find 15 – 20 FPS to be fine for playing this game, so considering that our sub-$200 GPU managed to run the game at the highest resolution possible and still remained fully playable… it’s an impressive feat.

Call of Duty 4

While Crysis has the ability to bring any system to its knees with reasonable graphic settings, Call of Duty 4 is a title that looks great no matter what setting you choose, even if you have it running well! It’s also one of the few games on the market that will benefit from having more than one core in your machine, as well.

The level chosen here is The Bog, for the simple fact that it’s incredibly intensive on the system. Though it takes place at night, there is more gunfire, explosions and specular lighting than you can shake an assault rifle at.

Our run consists of proceeding through the level to a point where we are about to leave a building we entered a minute before, after killing off a slew of enemies. The entire run-through takes about four minutes on average.

Settings: High details are used overall throughout all tests, although 4x AA is used for our 1920×1200 setting. That AA is removed in our 2560×1600. As we can see in the graphs below, both of those settings are quite similar in performance.

Here is where the HD 3850 begins to show its wear. The EN9600GT fell just below Palit’s stock-clocked 8800 GT card, so it’s a great showing overall. Please note that our EAH3850 TOP included only 256MB on-board memory, so the updated 512MB versions might prove it to be a better competitor.


Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Call of Juarez

Each graph for our benchmarking results are labeled with the resolution that the game was played at, while omitting secondary settings such as Anti-Aliasing, Anisotropic Filtering, texture quality, et cetera. To view all specific settings that we used, please refer to our testing methodology page, where we have screenshots for each game.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

If there is one game in our line-up that most everyone has played at some point, it would be Half-Life 2. The most recent release is Episode Two, a game that took far too long to see the light of day. But despite that, it proved to be worth the wait as it delivered more of what fans loved.

We are using the Silo level for our testing, which is a level most people who haven’t even played the game know about, thanks to Valves inclusion of it in their Episode Two trailers during the year before its release. During our gameplay, we shoot down a total of three Striders (their locations are identical with each run, since we are running a saved game file) and a barn is blown to smithereens.

Overall it’s a great level, but the Strider’s minions can prove a pain in the rear at times – most notably when they headbutt you. Nothing a little flying log won’t solve, however! This levels graphics consist mostly of open fields and trees, although there is a few explosions in the process as well, such as when you blow the Striders apart with the help of the Magnusson Device.

Settings: High graphic settings are used throughout all three resolutions, with 4x AA and 8xAF.

These results are a perfect example of just how great the EN9600GT is. With the help of its reasonable overclock, it was able to keep neck and neck with Palit’s much more expensive 8800 GT.

Call of Juarez

Western FPS games are not common, so when one hits, people notice. Luckily for FPS fans, Call of Juarez delivered great graphics, solid gameplay and a very high difficulty. It’s a great game to benchmark due to its ability to run in DX10 mode, under Windows Vista. This mode is far more demanding than the DX9 mode, but the results are better.

We take the role of Billy Candle in the level we chose, which is rather simple in concept. We begin out at the end of a linear path that we must follow in order to reach a ravine that we must cross.

The goal of the level is to sneak through a farm and ride off with a horse in order to make the jump, but since that process takes far too long, our run through consists of following the exact same path each time, which ends up on the opposite side of the farm near an edge with water below.

Settings: Very high graphic settings are used here, although AA is never used. The fact that the game uses DX10 is enough to drag performance down.

The EN9600GT TOP once again struts its stuff here, effectively blowing the EAH3850 TOP out of the water. Considering the EN8800GT TOP retails for around $240 and the EN9600GT TOP is around $200 (estimated), both cards offer very close FPS/$ ratios, so they scale with each other very nicely.


S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Unreal Tournament III

Each graph for our benchmarking results are labeled with the resolution that the game was played at, while omitting secondary settings such as Anti-Aliasing, Anisotropic Filtering, texture quality, et cetera. To view all specific settings that we used, please refer to our testing methodology page, where we have screenshots for each game.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

Post-apocalyptic FPS games have been done over and over, but S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl was unique in many ways. First was the fact that the story was loosely based off of a real-life tragedy, the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion, with the player starting out post-disaster working to survive in the now very brutal world.

One of the areas where the game excelled was with the depth. It was an open world with non-linear gameplay. AI was not top-rate, but reacted in a mostly realistic way, so it’s pretty much impossible to just stroll through the game and not expect to die. Coupled with the ability to keep an inventory and sell artifacts you find along your journey makes this game an immersive experience.

The level we use for our testing is a “Thumb Drive” mission that occurs earlier in the game. The premise is simple… walk into a small camp that’s being inhabited by enemy Stalkers, wipe them out and go deliver a thumb drive to a lone Stalker huddled around a campfire. The entire quest takes between four and five minutes from our starting point.

Settings: Static lighting and medium quality is used for our lowest resolution here, while 1920 and 2560 use full dynamic lighting along with high quality settings.

While games like Crysis remain playable with only 15 – 20 FPS, STALKER is an example of one game that should have at least 40FPS on average in order to remain easy on the eyes. In that case, the only cards to hit that target at 2560×1600 are the top three in our graph. But looking at 1920×1200 and lower, the EN9600GT TOP manages to deliver respectable results all around.

Unreal Tournament III

The Unreal series has always been one that’s pushed graphics to the next level. Surprisingly, though, as the graphics improve, the game still remains playable on a reasonable machine, with good FPS. How often is that the case?

“Gateway” is our level of choice for a few different reasons. The first and most notable is the fact that it’s a great level, and chock-full of eye-candy. The entire level consists of three different areas that can be accessed through portals, or “gateways”. The area we begin out in is a snow-filled wonderland, similar to Lost Planet’s winter levels, with a futuristic city and waterfall area also being accessible.

Settings: All in-game settings are maxed out, with physics and smooth frame rate disabled.

Once again, thanks to the overclocked settings of our EN9600GT, UTIII delivered identical performance on both that card and Palit’s 8800 GT.


Need for Speed: Pro Street, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

Each graph for our benchmarking results are labeled with the resolution that the game was played at, while omitting secondary settings such as Anti-Aliasing, Anisotropic Filtering, texture quality, et cetera. To view all specific settings that we used, please refer to our testing methodology page, where we have screenshots for each game.

Need for Speed: Pro Street

Electronic Arts is one of the largest game publishers in the world, and because of that, they have plenty of fans and plenty of enemies. Even if you don’t like them, it’s hard to dispute the fact that many of their games are solid, one being anything from the Need for Speed series.

“Pro Street” received rather poor reviews upon launch, and for mostly good reason. It removes the freedom of being able to explore a city at your leisure, which to many, is a huge step backwards. But despite that fact, it’s still a great game if you enjoy the series and want an offering that’s a little more realistic than previous versions (in terms of money and damage).

Our run through consists of racing through two laps at the Chicago Airfield, something that takes about three and a half minutes to accomplish from the moment we begin recording frames. The beginning of each race shows an automated camera fly-by over the cars in the race – we begin recording our FPS as soon as this clip begins.

Settings: Our lowest resolution uses fully default settings, while the 1920 resolution ups the AA to 4x and enables Anisotropic texture filtering.

Both of our AMD cards and the EN8800GTX performed horribly with this game, putting the EN9600GT far ahead of them all. The performance of our EN9600GT TOP again scaled well with our 8800 GT cards.

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

The last game we will be using in our benchmarks is ET: Quake Wars. This is also the only game in our testing that’s executed as a time demo, as opposed to the manual play through like the rest of our games. The reason for this is twofold.

The first reason is that we like to include at least one time demo, despite it’s CPU-boundedness, in order to see how our cards scale when run in such a situation. The second is the fact that this game caps its FPS at 60, except during time demos.

Our time demo takes place in the Area 22 level, with the main goal to destroy the jamming generator. The actual play through took around five minutes, but the time demo goes far quicker, as is the case with most time demos.

Settings: Maxed settings are used here for the most part. Our 1680 resolution uses 2x AA while 1920 and 2560 use 4x.

Interestingly, the Palit 8800 GT card fell a bit short of the EN9600GT TOP in both the 1920×1200 and 2560×1600 results. But, 50FPS at 2560 from a budget graphics card? Sounds good to me.


Futuremark 3DMark 06

Welcome to the most loved and hated benchmark on the planet, Futuremark’s 3DMark 06. This benchmark was launched back in January of 2006, so it’s tests are not exactly up to par with today’s graphic cards, but it’s still a decent way to gauge how today’s cards scale with each other. The next version of 3DMark, Vantage, will be a complete revamp of the benchmark we know today and will no doubt make our computers feel useless once it’s released.

On the next page, I’ll take a brief look at power consumption and I’ll wrap up with my final thoughts.


Power Consumption, Final Thoughts

In testing power consumption for our graphic cards, the system components are kept consistent to help keep accurate results. To capture wattage, a Kill-a-Watt is used. It is plugged straight into the wall and the PSU is plugged in directly to it. After the computer is booted into Windows and is left idle for five minutes, the idle wattage is captured.

To capture the average, a run of 3DMark 2006 is run while keeping an eye on the voltage for the first two minutes. I record the value that the Kill-a-Watt reported the majority of the time. Sometimes the wattage might go higher, but scale right back down, and vice versa.

As we saw in our charts throughout the review, the EN9600GT TOP managed to keep very close to both of our 8800 GT cards in all of the tests. It was never able to surpass those cards, but that’s a given with the lesser amount of stream processors. What’s important to note though, is that even though our EN9600GT TOP kept so close to the 8800 GT performance, it used far less power while doing so.

Final Thoughts

When NVIDIA first launched their 9600 GT, skeptics were abound. For good reason though, as the original prices left a bit to be desired. But a month has now passed, and 9600 GT stock is plenty throughout many e-tailers, so prices today are much more reasonable.

The ASUS EN9600GT retails for an average of $180, while the TOP version will probably be priced at $20 higher. At $200, it’s hard to out-right recommend this card, because the lesser-expensive 8800 GT models, which perform around >10% better, cost only $10 – $20 more. Some 8800 GT’s are retailing for exactly $200 at many e-tailers, so it will pay to shop around.

If you are looking to save even a little bit of money and want superb performance, it’s hard to go wrong with the 9600 GT. The non-TOP version of this card would be a far better deal though, since it retails for $180… a full $20 – $40 less than most 8800 GT cards.

Like most 9600 GT cards, overclocking is where the EN9600GT TOP shines, and I would expect no less of the non-TOP version. Reference clocks for the 9600 GT are 650MHz Core, 900MHz Memory and 1625MHz Shader, while ASUS TOP card ups those to 720MHz, 1000MHz and 1800MHz, respectively. Our top overclock ended up being 785MHz Core, 1100MHz Memory and 1962MHz Shader. Overclocking is what this card was made for.

I should note also that the overclocked settings were indeed very stable. To stress, I ran a loop of 3DMark 06 for five hours at 2560×1600 resolution and 2xAA, and afterwards, I played a few matches of UT III and also retested CoD4 and Crysis. In the end, our max overclock increased our avg FPS by 4 – 7%. Not bad for free!

It goes without saying that the 9600 GT is a fantastic GPU and ASUS improves on it with their TOP version. For those who want a great overclock out of the box without having to get their hands dirty, you can’t go wrong here. Sadly, no game is included with many lower-priced ASUS cards, but the addition of an HDMI adapter may sweeten the deal for some.

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