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Gamers frustrated with the expense of the relentless 3D card upgrade cycle can rejoice. Until recently, you had to spend more than $300 to get all the bells and whistles and good frame rates at high resolutions. Enter the Nvidia GeForce 7600 GT, a card that delivers top-notch gaming performance and all the visual glitz for less than $200. While it's nowhere near as fast as the top-of-the-line GeForce 7900 GTX card, the 7600 GT offers strong performance for the casual gamer. In other words, unless you absolutely must run the hottest, newest games at high resolution, Nvidia's latest budget 3D card more than suffices. And if you do hit a performance bottleneck, you can always drop a second 7600 GT into an SLI-compatible motherboard.
Unlike higher-end 3D cards, the GeForce 7600 GT doesn't require a separate connector from your power supply; it draws power directly from the PCI Express slot. This means that you should be able to run two 7600 GTs in SLI mode without upgrading your power supply, provided it's in the 450-watt range. Be sure to consult your motherboard manual before adding a second card; some motherboards, such as the Asus A8N32-SLI Deluxe we tested on, require that you plug an additional 5-volt power connector into the motherboard from your power supply when you run SLI cards that don't have a direct connection to the power supply.
The fan and heat sink assembly on the 7600 GT is smaller than that found on earlier 7000-series cards. The heat sink covers only the GPU, not the memory chips, which, due to heat concerns, may hurt your ability to overclock the card. The card's small fan is capable of generating a fair amount of noise when the GPU is hard at work rendering 3D images, but the fan spins more slowly--and quietly--when the GPU is idle. This quiet operation also makes the 7600 GT a decent choice for use in a Media Center PC, since by the time the fan kicks in, you're likely playing music, movies, or games that will drown out the noise anyway.
On the technical front, the 7600 GT uses the same chip architecture as the GeForce 7800 series, but scaled down to a smaller 90-nanometer manufacturing process, which reduces costs, power demands, and heat generation. Besides differences in clock speeds, the primary distinction between the 7600 GT and its more expensive siblings is its use of 5 vertex shading units and 12 pixel shader pipelines, compared with 8 vertex shaders and 24 pipelines for the 7900 GT and 7900 GTX. Also, the 7600 GT has a 128-bit memory interface, compared to a 256-bit memory interface on the more expensive cards.
It all adds up to solid mainstream performance, especially for a sub-$200 3D card. The GeForce 7600 GT bested ATI's pricier competition, the Radeon X1800 GTO, on every Half-Life 2: Lost Coast and Doom 3 test resolution. That's impressive considering that ATI's card costs $50 more. On F.E.A.R., the most demanding game in our benchmark suite, the Radeon X1800 GTO came out ahead, at least in single-card mode. When you drop in a second GeForce 7600 GT, though, Nvidia's cards shine. They outpace ATI's Radeon X1800 GTO in CrossFire mode at every resolution on nearly every game test (the two lower-resolution Half-Life 2: Lost Coast tests excepted). That makes two GeForce 7600 GTs a formidable pairing for sheer frame rates, and at less than $400 for two of them, it's also very cost effective.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)