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We know that AMD's next-gen ATI Radeon graphics cards are on the way this year, but until they make their debut, Nvidia's GeForce 8000-series cards continue to offer far-and-away the best 3D graphics performance. XFX's new 320MB GeForce 8800 GTS card is no exception, and its $300 price tag means you'll have to suffer less of a financial blow to get ready for the dawn of next-gen PC graphics. Nvidia is still plagued by the absence of a full Windows Vista driver, but even if the software was ready today, with no true next-gen games to play with, we can't say much about these cards' next-gen performance. What is clear is that for current 3D games, if the 320MB GeForce 8800 GTS isn't quite as fast as its higher-end GeForce counterparts, it's still miles beyond anything currently available in its price range. It's also a better deal than anything from ATI--at least, for now.
The XFX GeForce 8800 GTS is actually one of three new 3D graphics cards unleashed today by Nvidia. In addition to that model, you'll also find the $350 GeForce 8800 GTS XXX and the $330 GeForce 8800 GTS Extreme on the market from Nvidia's various board partners. Nvidia also offers three flavors of its 640MB GeForce 8800 GTS, which debuted back in November 2006. The 640MB models start at roughly $400 and scale up similarly to the 320MB cards.
The difference between the 320MB cards, though, lies mostly in clock speeds. The default 8800 GTS has a 500MHz core clock and a 1.6GHz memory clock. The XXX goes up to a 580MHz core and 1.8GHz on the memory, and the middle Extreme model goes down to a 560MHz core and 1.7GHz on the RAM. The 640MB cards have similar clock speeds, but the high-end and middle models have slightly slower cores. Our colleague Sarju Shah over at GameSpot put a wide selection of the cards through a battery of 3D benchmarks, and he found that the GeForce 8000-series continues to dominate the older Radeon X1900's, if not on raw performance, then in value.
If you find all of the different flavors of the 8800 GTS confusing, we don't blame you. The easy way to think about this is if your monitor can't display higher than 1,920x1,280, you should be fine with the 320MB cards. If you want to go higher than that, you'll need a 640MB or larger model, especially if you want to turn on antialiasing and other image-quality tweaks. Of course, that's with current titles. It remains to be seen how that performance will scale when true next-gen games, such as Crysis come out. As for ATI cards, the 512MB Radeon X1950 XTX outperforms the XFX GeForce 8800 GTS at the higher-resolution settings, as expected and also by a few frames here and there on the lower-resolution tests. It also costs about $100 more than the GeForce card, and unlike the GeForce 8000's, all current Radeon cards lack support for DirectX 10, the Windows Vista-only special sauce that will bring 3D graphics to the next level.
For its part, we think AMD can't afford to take too much longer in bringing its own DirectX 10 cards to market. We know that its next cards are code-named R600, and we've heard multiple release-date rumors. It's hard to advocate waiting for these cards when we can't say when they'll come out and when we don't know anything about them. Still, if you're not concerned about making the leap to a new 3D card right now, especially with no next-gen games on the immediate horizon, it might not be a bad idea to be patient. CNET chooses not to dabble in the accuracy-challenged pursuit of 3D graphics chip rumors, but you can find plenty of Web sites out there that do. If you'd like to stay on top of what may (or may not) be down the road in 3D hardware, we'd suggest checking in on a site such as the Inquirer for whatever's currently churning in the rumor mill.
If you're wondering what makes the GeForce 8800 GTS so fast in general, we'll refer you to our review of the GeForce 8800 GTX for the full breakdown of Nvidia's new architecture, which applies to all of its 8000-series cards. We'll point out here, though, some recent developments in video we've discovered. The GeForce 8000-series cards all come with built-in support for HDCP decoding. This means if your PC has an HD optical drive with built-in copy protection, your graphics card will qualify as a certified component, and you won't risk a downgrade of your movie content if the industry ever decides to put that capability to work. The back plane of the card has two DVI outputs, as well as a proprietary out for a component video adapter. We found in testing a home theater PC from Velocity Micro that pumping a Blu-ray movie through a GeForce 8800 GTS over HDMI works perfectly, but component video doesn't work in Windows Vista. Nvidia is aware of the problem, and is working on a driver update to solve this and to bring the GeForce 8800 cards their first fully certified Windows Vista driver in general. To its credit, Nvidia has also set up a public bug reporting site for help with its Vista software development. For the video issue, though, as long as you use a DVI-to-HDMI adapter to connect the card to your television, you shouldn't have any trouble.
Finally, we can't help but point out that the XFX GeForce 8800 GTS is one of, if not the first double-width card to drop below the $300 mark. We have a feeling the price tag on this model will entice many of you who aren't interested in crossing over into the $400 or $500 range. Be prepared, then, to make way for this space-hungry piece of hardware. Even midrange 3D cards have long required a direct connection to your PC's power supply unit, so we don't expect you'll be surprised by that requirement (Nvidia recommends a 400-watt PSU for this card). Also, be sure to check out the inside of your case to see what kind of room you have next to your PCI Express graphics slot before you buy this card; you might find that you need to rearrange an expansion card or two to make the space.