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Palit GeForce 9600GSO Sonic 768MB

Date: May 22, 2008
Author(s): Rob Williams

On a budget and need the best bang for the buck? NVIDIA’s new 9600 GSO might be the answer, despite not being that different from a 9600 GT. We are taking a look at Palit’s Sonic version of the card, which comes pre-overclocked, doubles the memory and includes adapters for both HDMI and VGA.



Introduction, Closer Look at Palit’s 9600GSO Sonic 768MB

NVIDIA’s 9-series cards came out only a few months ago, and while the overall selection is slim, there seems to be a card for everyone. The 9800 GX2 is for those who crave insane power (and also run high resolutions), while the 9800 GTX is for those who want the best single-GPU solution available, and as we found out in our review of ASUS’ version, it’s a great card indeed.

Then we come to the 9600 GT, a mid-range card that first retailed for just over $200, but now hovers between $125 – $150, thanks in part to generous mail-in rebates from popular vendors. Out of all the 9-series cards, the 9600 GT became my favorite after being able to first toy with it. For the price, it offers incredible performance… and there’s really not much else to say.

So today we have the 9600 GSO, which is a bit odd. Not to mention a little ironic. Around the same time that this card was launched, NVIDIA pledged to simplify their product line-up, so that the regular consumer can differentiate different models. Well, the GSO goes straight against that, and it manages to confuse even me.

Overall, its specs are quite close to the 9600 GT, give or take in certain areas. With the GTX 200 launch next month, I think it’s clear that NVIDIA wanted to first unload as much G92 stock as possible, and from that thought, the 9600 GSO was born.

Closer Look at Palit’s 9600GSO Sonic 768MB

Compared to the 9600 GT, the GSO has slower frequencies overall, in addition to less available memory and a lower memory bus. What would have made sense to me is if the card stayed with the 64 stream processors of the 9600 GT, because then it could be marketed as a $119 card (or even less) and become an ultimate budget product, but instead, NVIDIA bumped up the processors to 96.

Whew, let’s attempt to wrap our heads around this. With a lower memory bus and less available memory, the bandwidth is going to be lower, which means games should almost always perform better at higher resolution (really high) with the 9600 GT. But on the other hand, because the GSO has more processors, it can compute more calculations per second than the 9600 GT, even with the slower shader clock.

From a reference standpoint, the 9600 GT will still perform better overall than the GSO, despite the higher amount of stream processors. To help make things a little more interesting, Palit’s Sonic edition comes pre-overclocked and also has more memory on board, 768MB, just like the 8800 GTX. Because of these improvements, their GSO is designed to perform better than a reference 9600 GT. We’ll see in our tests if that’s the case.

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
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
9600 GSO
550
1375
800
384MB
192-bit
96
9600 GT
650
1625
900
512MB
256-bit
64
9800 GTX
675
1688
1100
512MB
256-bit
128

But even from a reference standpoint, the GSO seems like an odd model to launch. It’s supposed to retail for $139, while the 9600 GT’s original retail price was $159. So at the end of the day, it will all come down to pricing, and if the GSO ends up hovering around the $120 mark, then it will be a great bargain. It might very well have to, since many 9600 GTs can be had for around $140 – $150 as it stands today.

The GSO Sonic includes the box-like cover that’s seen on a few other recent Palit cards. I personally don’t find this attractive, but it sure helps portray the the image that the card is well-built. Underneath is a copper-based heatsink with numerous fins, along with two heatpipes protruding out of the top.

On the back are dual DVI-D ports and a TV-Out. For those planning to use HDMI, an adapter has been included. Since the 9-series all support HDCP, viewing high-def content won’t prove an issue. For those still stuck with VGA connections, Palit also included an adapter for you.

The lone power connector plugs into the end of the card, and once again I cannot help but realize how sturdy this shroud makes the card seem. Peering into the holes, we can see that Palit is using a 3-phase power solution for this card.

Here you can see the dual heatpipes, along with the SLI bridge and audio connector for HDMI users.

Below is what I assume Palit meant when I was told their cards can stand on their own!

Overall, not the best-looking card on the planet, in my opinion, but as I mentioned, it is well-designed and well-built. Palit utilizes a 3-phase power solution, so the cards efficiency should be top of its class, and could also result in improved overclocking.

On the next page, we’ll tackle our testing methodology. If you haven’t read one of our GPU reviews before, we highly recommend you read through as we conduct testing differently than most other sites.


Testing Methodology and Test System

Regardless of the operating system or product being reviewed, there are a few conditions that are met prior to testing to assure we receive 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 its 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

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 screenshots show the exact settings used.

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. Please also note that our HD 3870X2 results are outdated, as they have not changed since our original review. Newer drivers will improve the scores, and we are in the process of re-benchmarking that card through all the tests.

Surprisingly, even with slower clocks than the 9600 GT, the GSO outperformed both of our stock-clocked GTs here. Though 17FPS is not that desirable at 2560×1600, it’s hard to complain given the price-point that the cards set at. At 1920×1200, the game ran fantastic, with close to 30FPS on average.


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 screenshots show the exact settings used.

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.

We can begin to see the GTs and GSO flip-flop here, with their respective strengths. Our 1680 and 1920 tests put the GTs with their faster frequencies ahead, while the 2560 test put the GSO ahead, thanks to its abundance of available memory.


Half-Life 2: Episode Two

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 screenshots show the exact settings used.

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.

Half-Life doesn’t show any favoritism, and our results prove that higher frequencies is what the game is after. The higher amount of stream processors and extra memory didn’t help the GSO take the lead anywhere here.


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 screenshots show the exact settings used.

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.

In order for CoJ to be enjoyable in DX10 mode, an 8800 GT or higher is heavily recommended. It may be hard to tell just by looking, but this game is one heck of a strenuous test for a GPU. The GSO consistently kept ahead of the HD 3850 card, but that’s not too much of a surprise. For CoJ, DX9 mode should be used for this card, without question.


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

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 screenshots show the exact settings used.

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.

Like CoJ, Stalker is hard on GPUs at higher resolutions, and because of that, I couldn’t run the game at 2560×1600, as it was a true slideshow. The 1920×1200 results weren’t ideal either, but it was playable. Turning down the detail settings would help performance, if that’s the desired resolution.


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 screenshots show the exact settings used.

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.

Surprisingly, UTIII was not kind to the GSO at all. While 2560×1600 didn’t offer desirable gameplay, 1920×1200 was superb.


Need for Speed: Pro Street

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 screenshots show the exact settings used.

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.

The GSO card tried hard here, but like the 9600 GTs we’ve tested before it, 1920×1200 ran, but was choppy in certain areas. Only 8800 GTs and above have been able to run those specific settings without issue. 1680×1050 ran incredibly well though, besting both of our reference-clocked 9600 GTs.


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 screenshots show the exact settings used.

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 its 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.

Similar to our UTIII results, ET: QW wasn’t fond of the slower clocks of the GSO, and again, 2560×1600 performance was not ideal, but the lower resolutions were fine. That’s not much of a valid argument, though, as I’m sure those who own 30-inch monitors are looking for higher-end cards, not a lowly GSO.


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 its 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.

Up next, overclocking!


Overclocking the ASUS EN9600GT Silent

Defining a “Stable Overclock”

If you’ve read any of my processor reviews, you are probably aware that I don’t much care for an unstable overclock. As far as I am concerned, a high overclock is only good if it’s stable, because realistically, no one purchases a new GPU for the sake of only finding the maximum overclock. That is why I focus on finding the max stable overclock, rather than an overclock that can barely pass a benchmark run.

To find a max stable overclock, I first find an overclock that I believe could be stable. Once I do that, I’ll run a single loop of 3DMark 2006 to test for stability and to look for artifacts. If that run passes successfully, I’ll jump into a game quickly to see if the same results are exhibited in real-world gameplay. If that proves successful, I then run a loop of 3DMark 2006 for 4 – 8 hours at 2560×1600 2xAA to stress the card to its limit.

If after that point, the card is deemed stable (as in, no crashes occurred and there are still no artifacts), then I will proceed with benchmarking four select titles again: Call of Duty 4, Crysis, Half-Life 2: Episode Two and also Unreal Tournament III.

All overclocked testing occurs at 2560×1600 for the simple fact that it’s such a strenuous resolution. For comparisons sake, I also include results from a card that’s a step up from our overclocked model.

Palit 9600GSO Sonic 768MB

Reference clocks for the 9600 GSO are 550MHz on the Core, 1375MHz Shader and 800MHz memory. Palit pre-overclocks their card to 600MHz, 1500MHz and 900MHz, respectively. Our max stable overclock made Palit’s attempt look weak, as we could push 740MHz on the Core, 1850MHz on the Shader and then 950MHz on the memory. I had wanted to see 1000MHz memory, but it just wasn’t possible.

If all GSOs overclock like this, then the decision on what card to buy might be made easier. Adding 190MHz to the core and having the card remain stable is quite a feat, and as we can see in the chart below, we managed to out-perform a stock 9600 GT in CoD4 and Crysis, but fell a bit short in HL2 and UTIII. Great results overall though.

Bear in mind that one of the reasons for increase might be due to the onboard 768MB of memory, but even with the stock 384MB paired with a nice overclock, the results should not be far different.

Overclocking Note: The world of overclocking is an unfair one, in that one persons max overclock might be much lower than another. Chances are good that you could reach the same overclock we did here, but of course, different computers can, and will, deliver differing results. Lots of factors can come into play, so please don’t be upset if you are unable to attain the same overclock we did.


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 boots 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 reports the majority of the time. Sometimes the wattage might go higher, but scale right back down, and vice versa.

Palit’s GSO card consumed a little more power than any of the 9600 GTs we’ve used, which does seem a little odd given the lower specs. However, since Palit’s card utilizes 3-phase power, it’s bound to consume a little more. Having the additional stream processors may make a difference as well.

Final Thoughts

Although the 9600 GSO was released a few weeks ago, it’s taking a while to see the cards hit e-tailers, and at the time of writing, not a single e-tailer I checked had one in stock. According to Palit, their cards should be appearing in the days to come, and we can assume others will follow suit as well.

Before testing, I was a little confused as to the purpose of the GSO, and really, that confusion hasn’t faded. The GSO just didn’t need to be released, as all it does is saturate the market more than what is necessary. NVIDIA no doubt has chips to push before the next-gen cards arrive, but it would have been nice to see a huge push for the 9600 GT, instead of releasing an entirely new model. Especially from a company who’s trying to improve the confusion between current models.

But that said, the GSO is not a bad card by any metric, and it does indeed have certain benefits over the GT. In the end, a reference GSO is going to be slower in almost all tests compared to the GT, except maybe those that utilize very high resolutions. Palit’s card comes pre-overclocked, to it actually pushes ahead in a few tests, most notably with higher resolutions.

As seems to be the norm, the success of the GSO will be dependant on its pricing. When the 9600 GT first launched, it carried a $159 SRP, while the GSOs are being released at $20 cheaper. Card vs. card, the pricing differences seem valid, since although the GSO is a little slower than the GT, it’s not by much, and where it should be much slower, it’s not, thanks to the increased stream processors.

Right now, there are countless 9600 GT cards available for around $150 on average, and many are available for even less than that with the help of mail-in rebates. So for the GSO to succeed, it will need to be priced at $130, or even less. We won’t likely see it much cheaper than that, since in the end, it’s not that that slower than a 9600 GT.

If money is no real issue and you happen to have $150 to spend, the GSO can still be considered, and that’s why things are confusing. If you happen to play games that thrive on more stream processors (Crysis, STALKER), then it might be a good buy, but you have to choose carefully. Overall, the GT will perform better in the majority of games, while the GSO will excel in very few. So when in doubt, the GT will be a better deal.

If you are on a tight budget and happen to need a new card, then the GSO would make a good choice… as long as it’s priced right at launch. This particular Palit card should only carry a $10 premium, I’ve been told, so it looks to be the best GSO offering out there at launch, making it even more worthwhile. Throw in some overclocking, and it’s just as impressive as a 9600 GT, and more so in some cases.

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