I don't think there's ever been a time where gamers had so much choice when it comes to performance graphics cards for their PC.

The nVidia 8800GTX, released 18 months or so ago now, has held the performance crown for so long now (ignoring the glamourised 'Ultra' version, which is basically just an overclocked GTX) that many people felt that the market had become stagnant in this area.

Enter the 9th series of nVidia GPUs. No major architecture changes, not even a die shrink, so what do these new cards offer that the 8th series didn't?

Well, PlayTech has kindly lent us a few of these new toys from XFX to play with, and today we're going to make them fight for our love and money.

So allow me to briefly introduce the contenders, then we'll move right on to some performance results.

XFX GeForce 9800GX2
First up, nVidia’s new flagship brutus, the dual-GPU 9800GX2. Both chips are built into the one card, and an SLI compatible motherboard is not necessary to run it.

One thing to note about this card is that you do need a power supply with both a 6-pin PCI-E connector and an 8-pin PCI-E connector (not to be confused with an 8-pin ATX12V motherboard connector, although the two look almost identical). XFX do not provide a 6-pin to 8-pin adaptor so it will pay to check this out beforehand.

XFX GeForce 9800GTX
Next up is the replacement for the ultra-successful 8800GTX, the 9800GTX. Compared to the 8800GTX, this new card has higher clock speeds all round and improved architecture on a smaller die, but both the memory amount and bandwidth have been reduced.

We’ll see whether this trade off has paid off performance-wise, or if it has crippled the GTX bloodline.

XFX GeForce 9600GT
Our last addition to the 9-series is the midrange workhorse known as the 9600GT. After nVidia’s last somewhat mediocre line-up of midrange cards, i.e. the 8600GT and the 8600GTS, it would be nice to see a product in this price range that can actually pack a punch.

It’s got some fierce competition here today, so to give it a fighting chance I’ve managed to get two of them for some SLI lovin’. It will be interesting to see how they stack up against a single 9800GTX, considering both solutions are roughly the same price.

8800GT, 8800GTX, plus ATI RADEON 3870 and 3870X2
I’ve also rounded up the usual suspects for today’s carnage, namely the 8800GT (single and SLI) and 8800GTX from nVidia, plus the 3870 and 3870X2 from ATI.

The only other card I would have liked to add, but couldn’t get hold of, would be the 512MB 8800GTS. Its performance is so close to the significantly cheaper 8800GT so it’s not a huge problem in my mind, but if we can get our hands on one anytime soon we’ll chuck an update up in the forums.

Here is a full list of specs for each card:

Test setup and techniques
If you're interested in learning more about the different types of benchmarks used here, visit this thread in our forums.

The test system:

CPU: Core 2 Duo E4300 @ 3400MHz, 2MB L2 Cache
RAM: 2x1GB G.skill PK series RAM @ DDR2-1000 5-5-5-15-2T
Motherboard: XFX 680i LT SLI motherboard
O/S: Windows XP (SP2)
Monitor: Samsung 206BW, 20” 16:10 widescreen @ 1680x1050

From my involvement in NZ's gaming and hardware enthusiast community, I think it's fair to say that most people are running gaming systems with similar specs to this. I could have gone and used the latest quad-core processor and clocked it up to 4.0GHz, with 4GB of uber-speed DDR3 RAM, and run everything in Super-Mega-Ultra DX10 mode @ 2560x1600 (hmm, Quad-SLI vs CrossfireX next time?), but if the results in no way mirror what you guys can expect to get if you were to use these graphics cards at home, then that kind of defeats the whole purpose.

Also, it does pose one very poignant question - at what point are graphics cards likely to be bottlenecked by a machine with specs like this? Well, read on, as I think some of you may be very surprised by the answer...

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