Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement
At $150, ATI's new Radeon HD 2600 XT graphics card comes $25 to $50 under Nvidia's competing Nvidia GeForce 8600 GTS cards. But before we give out any good deal awards, we need to note that we find the 3D performance of both new cards disappointing, even considering their mainstream ambitions. The only thing ATI's new card truly excels at is decoding HD video, but then so does Nvidia's card (especially after a recent driver update). We're certainly glad that HD video enthusiasts have a wide variety of options, but midrange gamers can get much more bang for the buck with an older 3D card while they wait for more next-gen games to come out, and more powerful midrange graphics cards to play them on.
Unlike Nvidia, ATI has a very fragmented lineup with its new Radeon HD 2000 series. After the Radeon HD 2600 XT, the next jump from ATI is the $400 "http:="" reviews.cnet.com="" graphics-cards="" ati-radeon-hd-2900="" 4505-8902_7-32445399.html"="">Radeon HD 2900 XT. That leaves GeForce 8800 GTS cards with no true competitor at the $250 to $300 price level. That also means that if you have a particular loyalty, ATI has left you fewer options with this new generation of Radeons. We suspect Nvidia may get a lot of business in that high midrange/low high-end market segment as a result.
For the Radeon HD 2600 XT, its basics compare favorably to Nvidia's GeForce 8600 GT and GTS. Like its Nvidia competitors, most boxed versions of ATI's new card will come with 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM. You may see DDR4, or even DDR2 versions as well as pricier models with 512MB of RAM. In addition to the memory type and amount, the various retail models of the card will vary by core and memory clock speeds as well. Our stock model came with an 800 MHz clock on the core, the memory, and the shader pipeline, so any boxed card with a higher clock speed on any one of those parts should benefit with faster 3D performance.
We'd encourage you to look for any performance boost, too, considering the Radeon HD 2600 XT's stock 3D scores. As usual, GameSpot's Sarju Shah came through for us with the benchmark scores, both for us and for GameSpot's own summer graphics card roundup, which we recommend you check out. For this card in particular, unless you're a dedicated Company of Heroes fan, you can get better overall 3D performance from Nvidia's GeForce 8600 GTS (which still isn't great), or any of a number of cards from the previous generation, if you don't mind losing out on DirectX 10 capability, and if can still find them in stock. And because those next-gen DirectX 10 games aren't really that impressive yet, we don't consider losing out on DirectX 10 a major loss today. And by the time more next-gen PC games come out that really use it well, you'll likely have another generation of 3D cards to choose from.
|1,600x1,200, 2x antialiasing, 8x anisotropic filtering, high quality|
|1,280x1,024, 2x antialiasing, 8x anisotropic filtering, high quality|
|1,280x1,024, 8x anisotropic filtering, medium quality|
|1,280x1,024 2x antialiasing, 8x anisotropic filtering, high quality|
With the ugly 3D performance truth out of the way, we can focus on HD video, where the Radeon HD 2600 XT really shines. For raw image quality, ATI's new chip fares just as well as Nvidia's GeForce 8600 GTS, which is to say, it's excellent. If you're a complete videophile, you'll still find a dedicated player to be your best bet, but for most of us, the video output from these cards is completely acceptable.
ATI also has a leg up as far as convenient installation in that it requires no internal cable connections to the other parts of your PC. Thanks to an onboard audio chip, if you use ATI's included DVI-to-HDMI adapter to connect your PC to your television, you can also send the sound from your PC out through that same connection. Nvidia's card can almost do the same thing, but because it lacks a built-in audio chip, it requires an additional internal connection to route the audio signal over the HDMI cable. The Radeon 2600 XT also doesn't require a direct connection to your PC's power supply. The GeForce 8600 GTS does.
As far as power requirements, the two cards are equal. Both vendors recommend a 400-watt power supply in your PC. That means a lot of off-the-shelf, budget-class desktops won't be able to handle them with their 300-watt stock PSUs. Then again, few of those systems have an HD optical drive, which leaves little justification for picking up one of these cards in the first place.
Finally, we have to acknowledge that while ATI's Vista drivers handle TV connections very well, Nvidia has also gained ground in this area, thanks to a recent driver update. Nvidia's cards used to overscan the Windows Vista desktop when you connected your PC to a wide-screen television. Now that Nvidia has solved that issue, ATI can no longer claim superiority in terms of its overall video compatibility. Still, the Radeon 2600 XT's ease-of-installation superiority will likely win it some fans among home theater PC enthusiasts.
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.