NVIDIA GeForce 9600 GT Launch and 3-Way Shootout

The Architecture

The GeForce 9600 GT is not based on an entire new architecture from the ground up, as its name implies. Rather, the architecture of the GeForce 9600 graphics processor heavily calls upon the latest generation GeForce 8800 series architecture, which of course isn’t too shabby of an architecture to pull from. NVIDIA’s latest round of GeForce 8800 releases have been hugely successful and have delivered some of the best price to performance ratios in recent history. Borrowing from this lineup seems like a reasonable thing to do – although after reading through the specification sheets, we can’t help be slightly underwhelmed that we’re not seeing something radically new or different from NVIDIA. 

The GeForce 9600 GT is based on the NVIDIA G94 graphics processing unit. This GPU is manufactured on a 65nm process and is built upon a 64 stream processor architecture. To put that in perspective, NVIDIA’s previous generation mid-range component (the 8600 GT) had half that at 32 stream processors, whereas their recently launched 8800 GTS 512 has a total of 128 stream processors. With such a small amount of stream processors and a 65nm design, the 9600 GPU is quite small and won’t cost as much to produce in volume.  Judging by the fact that we’ve received three of these cards for the launch itself, we are pretty certain that consumers will be able to get their hands on one of these cards quite easily.  Regardless, this new GPU still features a unified shader design and support for Shader Model 4.0, meaning that it's fully DirectX 10 compliant.  No mention has been made regarding DirectX 10.1 support on this product or future products from NVIDIA just yet.  

NVIDIA's G94 graphics processor, the heart of the GeForce 9600 GT at 650MHz

As for NVIDIA's reference design, their recommended clock speed for the GeForce 9600 GT GPU is 650 MHz with its shader clock at 1.625 GHz. If those numbers seem strangely familiar, you may be on to something – as they are the identical clock speeds of the (recently launched) GeForce 8800 GTS 512 graphics card – which runs at the same clock speeds but has twice the rendering power with double the amount of stream processors. The similarities don’t end there, as you’ll see in a bit. However, in terms of architecture, the GeForce 9600 can be considered roughly a halved version of the GeForce 8800 GTS 512. NVIDIA has made some improvements along the way, but in terms of pure GPU power, this is roughly what we have to work with.

The NVIDIA G94 graphics processor supports either 256MB or 512MB memory configurations, and actually should perform reasonably well even with 256MB, thanks to a new texture compression technology that is a new addition to the GeForce9 lineup. However, we don’t currently have a 256MB available to us, as the 512MB version is going to be the most common option of these cards available. NVIDIA’s reference memory clock rate for the 9600 GT is 1.8 GHz, and the board uses GDDR-3 memory. The memory is connected via a 256-bit memory interface to the GPU, that allows for 57.6 GB/s of memory bandwidth. This amount of memory bandwidth is identical to the 8800 GT, but slightly lower than the 8800 GTS lineup.

  GeForce 9600 GT GeForce 8800 GT GeForce 8800 GTS 512 GeForce 8800 GTX
GPU Clock Speed 650 MHz 600 MHz 650 MHz 575 MHz
Shader Clock Speed 1625 MHz 1500 MHz 1625 MHz 1350 MHz
Stream Processors 64 112 128 128
Manufacturing Process 65nm 65nm 65nm 90nm
Memory Clock Speed 1800 MHz 1800 MHz 1940 MHz 1800 MHz
Memory Interface 256-bit 256-bit 256-bit 384-bit
Memory Bandwidth 57.6 GB/s 57.6 GB/s 62.1 GB/s 86.4 GB/s

Also keep in mind that these are the NVIDIA recommended clock speeds, and just as with prior generations of GeForce products, NVIDIA’s partners are launching overclocked, superclocked, and hyperclocked variants of the base card, depending on their cooling systems and outright bravado. Right out of the gate, we already have cards running at well over 700 MHz GPU clock speed with memory clock speeds at 2GHz, depending on manufacturer. We're also seeing board manufacturers take much more liberty in terms of output ports and cooling systems than we've seen with prior first round launches.

NVIDIA's GeForce 9600 GT reference design, sans cooler.

However, many board manufacturers will simply follow the NVIDIA reference design, and this is likely what will end up in the majority of OEM system builds as well. NVIDIA’s reference board design is virtually identical to that of the GeForce 8800 GT, which really isn’t that surprising considering the similarities between these two products. Both the 8800 GT and 9600 GT share the same single slot cooling system and basic PCB design.

All GeForce 9600 GT cards have a single set of “golden fingers” as a card-edge connector at the top of the boards, allowing for SLI connectivity. Unfortunately, NVIDIA has decided to leave out 3-way SLI support for this new series of cards, although 2-way SLI remains alive and well. In fact, NVIDIA is hyping these cards to be a “sweet spot” for gamers looking to pick up a pair in an SLI configuration. And of course, we’ve got a pair of these new cards, and we’ve got 9600 GT SLI numbers in the following pages. In terms of performance, NVIDIA is positioning the GeForce 9600 between the prior generation GeForce 8600 and the GeForce 8800 GT. It’s definitely interesting to see a GeForce 9 stuck in the middle of the performance charts, while GeForce 8800 GTX/Ultra cards are still NVIDIA’s high-end product of choice.

As far as we can tell, the only architectural-level improvement is a new texture compression technology which NVIDIA is touting. They claim that this new algorithm can improve performance by 15% in newer titles like Crysis compared to prior generation G80 processors (note – this is against G80, not their recently launched G92, that the G94 is very similar to). However, since we don’t have any in-depth knowledge of this compression schema, all we can say it that any improvements in this regard are appreciated (assuming they don’t hurt image quality), and that will just be that. Feature wise, there’s nothing else truly new here you can’t already find on a GeForce 8800 GT/GTS product.

The most interesting element of this card is its intended price point. NVIDIA is claiming that GeForce 9600 GT cards will hit shelves at $169 - $189, and that cards will be available on the day of launch. At this price point, NVIDIA is targeting ATI’s Radeon HD3850 and HD3870 products, which can be had for between $175 and $210 in 512 MB variants. We’re betting that reference design GeForce 9600 GT cards will be available at the price point of a nice HD3850 card, whereas custom, overclocked 9600 GT products will likely hit HD3870 price points.

However, keep in mind that prices of NVIDIA’s “one-step-up” GeForce 8800 GT have been dropping steadily since their release, and now you can grab one of these cards with 512 MB of memory for as low as $229. We’ve got a whole mess of high-performance cards in the mid-range market place now (a good problem to have), and we’ll let our benchmarks sort out which is the best for your hard earned paper. Next, let’s take a look at the variety of GeForce 9600 GT cards which have made it to our testbeds in time for the launch.

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