With all the focus on the latest and greatest video cards from ATI and NVIDIA, namely the GTX and 4800 series, there's been little fanfare surrounding the recent launch of two new entries into the mainstream market from both camps - the 512MB 4670 from ATI and the 384MB 9600GSO from NVIDIA.

Given that the bulk of graphics card manufacturers' revenue comes from this market you'd think they would push these products the hardest, but nevermind - they're here now and readily available, and today we've got two promising contenders who want a new home in your PC, both kindly supplied by PlayTech on Auckland's North Shore.

They're not even asking for $200 of your hard earned pennies, but can they provide enough grunt for today's demanding games? Read on to find out more.

First up we have a NVIDIA 9600GSO from XFX which can be had for a very affordable $145. Almost identical to the older 8800GS, it features 96 stream processors running at 1450MHz with a core speed of 580MHz, and 384MB of GDDR3 RAM clocked at 700MHz connected via a 192-bit bus. As you can see from the picture, it requires a 6pin PCI-E connector for power and is dressed in XFX's signature black and green colouring. The cooler is small and single-slot, but it is actually a reasonably hefty copper cooler designed by EverCool. Running along the top of the card is a sturdy medal ridge baring the XFX logo, which presumably is to add strength to the PCB but also adds a pleasing aesthetic finish to the card as well.

As far as accessories go, it comes boxed with two standard VGA-DVI adaptors, SVHS cord, component video-out dongle, dual molex to 6 pin PCI-E power cable, installation guide and CD, plus a rather cool XFX "I'M GAMING, DO NOT DISTURB" doorknob sign. Those of you wanting to hook up a monitor via an HDMI connection will need to acquire a DVI to HDMI cable or adaptor as this is not supplied with the card.

Now onto the rival contender - the ATI HD 4670 from Sapphire, which currently enters the market at $155. The card comes with 320 shader cores clocked at 750MHz with 512MB of GDDR3 RAM running at 1000MHz connected by a 128-bit bus. The shader cores operate in blocks of five, so 320 of them are roughly equivalent to 64 NVIDIA stream processors, and comparing the two cards we can see that while the 9600GSO packs more processing grunt, the 4670 has not only more onboard memory but also higher memory bandwidth. How this translates into performance will vary by game as some engines are more texture-heavy while others require more shader power to run smoothly.

As far as the card itself goes, there's no external power connector so the card relies on the 75w draw from the PCI-E slot on your motherboard. The unit is also a lot lighter than the NVIDIA card due to the lightweight aluminium cooler they've decided to use. The downside here is that the fan will have to run at higher speeds to keep the temperature down compared to the copper cooler on the XFX card. For accessories, Sapphire have included a component video-out dongle, composite video-out adaptor, installation guide & CD, one DVI-VGA adaptor and one HDMI-VGA adapator. This is good news for those of you with monitors which use HDMI connections (generally only larger LCDs/plasmas).

Right, enough jibber jabber, let's get down to business and see how these guys perform;

Test system

CPU - Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 @ 3.60GHz
RAM - 2x2GB G.Skill PK series @ DDR2-1000 CL5
Mobo - Asus P5Q Pro
PSU - Silverstone OP700
O/S - Windows XP Pro SP2
Drivers - ATI Catalyst 8.9, NVIDIA nForce 178.13

3DMark06

First up, like always, we have 3DMark06 from Futuremark. Slowly becoming less and less relevant to performance levels of today's games, it still provides a good insight into where the cards sit and how they handle higher resolutions and different levels of Anti-Aliasing (AA) and Anisotropic Filtering (AF).

Here we see the 9600GSO give the 4670 a solid pounding at both resolutions - until AA and AF are turned on that is, at which point they're almost neck and neck. It will be interesting to see if this situation plays out across the actual gaming tests as well.

Crysis

For the first gaming test we will put the cards up against that unholy monster known as Crysis. This game is not easy to run at high resolutions or high quality so we'll have to start at medium settings for these "budget" cards.

Not a big difference between the cards at medium quality settings, but the 4670 manages to scrape ahead of the 9600GSO once we crank the quality up - most likely due to the fact that Crysis is a texture-heavy game and the ATI card is better prepared in this area. However, I wouldn't play any game which ran under 20 fps so it's a fairly fruitless victory.

GRID

Now for the sexiest racing game ever - if you've never tried GRID I urge you to obtain a copy ASAP and check it out. Even if you're not a simulation racing-game fan, you'll simply be blown away by the pristine graphics brought to you by the same team that produced the Colin McRae series of racers - if your machine is up the challenge of course.

Again we can see the higher memory bandwidth of the 4670 paying off, beating out the 9600GSO by over 25% at the higher quality settings. 40 fps is somewhat marginally playable though, and the NVIDIA card still holds it own without AA enabled. A recurring theme, perhaps?

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

Now for another popular First Person Shooter - Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is the most recent addition to the ever expanding Quake universe. This game will run on pretty modest hardware so again we can crank the in-game image quality settings up.

Here we have the first all-round victory over its competitor for the 4670. As both the resolution and AA settings go up the ATI card extends its lead. About time methinks.

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