Final Words

To briefly recap our performance tests, we found that the new 8800 GTX provided the highest level of performance out of all of these cards. This was followed by the BFG and EVGA GeForce 7950 GX2s, along with the 8800 GTS and Sapphire's Radeon X1950 XTX. The GX2 cards placed slightly higher in Battlefield 2 while the 8800 GTS and X1950 XTX scored higher in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, with the GTS taking the overall second place crown. The next best performers were the Sparkle Calibre 7950 GT and the rest of the 7950 GTs. The Leadtek WinFast PX7900 GS TDH Extreme led in performance for the 7900 GS cards, then the EVGA 7900 GS KO, and lastly the Albatron 7900 GS. The next best performer was the MSI NX7600 GT which led in performance against the HDMI 7600 GT cards. The Gigabyte 7600 GS was the lowest performing NVIDIA card, and the ATI Powercolor X1600 PRO was the lowest performer of them all.

Looking at CPU utilization during Blu-ray playback, we saw that ATI cards generally did a little better than NVIDIA ones, and the 8800 GTX and GTS did particularly well compared to other NVIDIA cards. It is important to note that the only tests we could run today are with MPEG-2 decode tests. Unfortunately, this says nothing about the relative performance of heavy duty encoding formats like H.264 and even VC-1 (which will be used more frequently for future BD and HD-DVD content). The only thing we can say at this point is that lower CPU utilization is better. Just how much better in the long run won't be clear until we can test higher bitrate content in other formats.

Power consumption may be more of a factor in choosing a graphics card for video and gaming, especially if the main purpose of the card will be in a home theater system. Higher wattage power supplies sometimes require bigger and noisier fans to stay cool, and this means more unwanted system noise. We tested power consumption for both 3D acceleration and BD playback and looking at both of these some cards naturally did better than others. One of the cards that was noteworthy for consuming a lower amount of power is the Albatron 7900 GS. This card got the lowest power draw of the 7900 GS cards during the 3D acceleration tests, and did well in the BD playback power tests as well. The Leadtek WinFast PX7900 GS TDH Extreme was less power-hungry in the BD playback power tests, and drew average power loads in the 3D acceleration tests. A few cards you might want to stay away from if power draw is a concern are the 7950 GX2s and the X1950 XTX (as well as the 8800 GTX and GTS, of course). These cards are the top performers, but their high power draw (and cost) is an unfortunate downside.

GPU heat levels is something we looked at and the only card with any real issues here were the two silent GPUs: the Gigabyte 7600 GT HDMI and the XFX 7950 GT. Both of these cards saw much higher heat levels than the rest. Looking at noise levels though, these two cards happened to win the award for least amount of noise, a no-brainer seeing as how both cards have no moving parts. A few other noteworthy cards were the Leadtek WinFast PX7900 GS TDH Extreme and both of the 7950 GX2s from BFG and EVGA. It's especially nice that a card with the power of the 7950 GX2 runs so quietly. On the noisy side, the EVGA 7950 GT KO and ASUS EN7600 GT HDMI both had pretty noisy fans once they kicked in during stress testing. The Sapphire X1950 XTX was fairly noisy during operation as well.

Because HDCP and accompanying technologies are so new, we encountered problems or quirks with a few of these cards. Some of the cards, like the HDMI Gigabyte 7600 GS and ASUS EN7600 GT, were only able to play our Blu-ray movies over HDMI and not through the DVI port. Conversely, we found that with our MSI NX7600 GT Diamond Plus, the Blu-ray content wouldn't play through the HDMI connection but it would through the DVI port. These issues can generally be solved by converters, but it's still a bit of a nuisance. Unfortunately, an HDCP key ROM is required for each display output in order to allow protected content to play over both. Oversights like this should be remedied in the future (at the expense of either the manufacturer or the end user). For now, consumers should be aware of the situation.

We've looked at our test results and we know who the top performers are, but in order to attribute the overall value of these cards, we have to take a look at their prices. One card we feel stood out from the rest in this roundup was the XFX GeForce 7950 GT. This card offers high performance and completely silent operation, which makes it ideal for those who want an HDCP solution for a home theater system and a powerful card for gaming in the same package. At about $300 however, it's a bit on the pricey side, but it's not much greater than other non-silent versions of the same card, which adds to its value.

We also found the non-HDMI version of the MSI NX7600 GT to be of good value, considering its price and performance. It can currently be found for around $160, but some places are offering a mail-in rebate that would bring the price down to around $141; a great deal for a card like this if it can be found. The card's fairly quiet operation and its factory overclock (and cool operation which might provide good results for user overclocking) make the MSI GeForce NX7600 GT a good deal at this price.

If you absolutely must have the highest in gaming performance while still having HDCP capability, obviously the 8800 GTX is your GPU of choice, followed by the 8800 GTS. Beneath that, we would recommend going with the Radeon X1950 XTX over the GeForce 7950 GX2. The X1950 XTX is somewhat noisy and more power-hungry than the 7950 GX2, but the X1950 XTX is currently $100+ cheaper than the 7950 GX2. Considering the 3D performance difference and other benefits (low noise, etc.), the GX2 may be worth the extra money depending on user preference. For this review, however, the X1950 XTX clearly does more to assist the CPU in decoding current BD content.

For those users looking to spend the least amount of money on an HDCP compatible card, we would point again to the MSI NX7600 GT over the rest. The X1600 Pro from Powercolor might be cheaper and has a little lower CPU overhead, but its 3D performance is so low that we don't recommend this card if you plan to do any gaming at all. Besides, for about $35 or $40 more you can have a 7600 GT with a factory overclock, which will perform fairly well with a lot of games and can hold its own in BD playback as well.

In closing, because these cards are officially HDCP compatible, they are all candidates for the graphics solution in a system with high definition optical drives. The fact that both the graphics card and display device must be HDCP capable, and most displays and graphics cards that people are currently using aren't HDCP compatible is a problem for consumers in general. Most HDTVs produced in the past several years should support HDCP, however, so if you've upgraded recently, this might not be an issue. Unfortunately, almost all LCD and all CRT computer monitors are going to need an upgrade if HDCP content is in your future.

As we said before, these compatibility issues will defintely serve to frustrate and confuse PC users looking to upgrade their system in order to watch high definition movies. We aren't sure how those on the technology side may ultimately help alleviate some of this burden on consumers. The greatest irony is that where legitimate HDCP protected content won't work on some consumer's hardware, pirated videos should work without problems. We can only wonder if the money being poured out in a massive effort to crack down on movie piracy will ultimately be worth the hindrance this has caused the average PC user, or if it will simply drive more users to look for illegal video sources. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you...

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  • rnemeth - Friday, December 1, 2006 - link

    I personally think this article was extremely on point with the direction of media components in general. I think there will be many people out there, like me, who are planning on the convergence of the Media Center PC & Gaming PC. Vista (Ultimate) will bring Media Center to the masses and why shouldn't you be able to play your favorite DX10 "Game for Windows" on your big HDTV as well?

    This article is ahead of its time. HDPC/DRM/HDMI/DVI/BR/HD-DVD/HDTV is all in the early stages. In the future, you will be able to buy or rent your high-def movie by downloading it to your PC with DRM finally figured out. This review shows us that it is not all there yet, but gives us an idea who is doing what, and what we need to look for.

    You mentioned in the beginning of the article that you were looking for feedback to see how interested your audience is on this subject... count me as 1.
  • thejez - Sunday, November 26, 2006 - link

    HDCP is a joke... look at how hard it is to understand and get this stuff running... not to mention you have upgrade all your hardware?? lol and who watches movies on their PC anyway?? do you people really sit huddled over your keyboard watching movies?? Why not invest in some better equipment for the family room and watch movies they way they were intended....

    but the difficulty in setting all this up makes it even more important that hdcp has already been cracked... i wouldnt let the movie industry tell you your hardware isnt good enough to buy their content... just buy what you want and "work" around the issue later... the cracks are only getting better.... we'll see HD-DVD Shrink soon enough...
  • KalTorak - Monday, November 20, 2006 - link

    Careful - it's not safe to assume that higher bitrate content is more computationally difficult to decode than lower bitrate content. [In fact, I suspect they're weakly correlated the other way - lower bitrate is harder.]
  • DerekWilson - Monday, November 20, 2006 - link

    ahh ... very interesting ...

    it would make sense to me to say that both are true.

    In the case where low bitrate means more aggressive high quality encoding, i absolutely see your point. But low bitrate can also mean lower quality (less information) at the same level of encoding -- in these cases lower bitrate will be easier to decode.

    Thanks for pointing this out.
  • Badkarma - Monday, November 20, 2006 - link

    Hi Derek,

    Can you comment on HD audio formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD for the HTPC? I know Bluray has yet to use these formats but how about HD-DVD on the HTPC. From what I understand, you could get these formats outputted via analog output on your soundcard, but I'm interested in HDMI. I know some of the HDMI video cards you reviewed have SPDIF passthrough via HDMI, however SPDIF cannot carry Dolby Digital +, TrueHD, or DTS-HD, it will only output DTS or DD. I'm holding back on a HDCP video card because HD audio is an important part of HD movies.

  • Ajax9000 - Sunday, November 19, 2006 - link

    p.13 "Both the 8800 GTX and GTS are fully HDCP compatible, and HDCP is enabled through both DVI ports" p.22 "Some of the cards, like the HDMI Gigabyte 7600 GS and ASUS EN7600 GT, were only able to play our Blu-ray movies over HDMI and not through the DVI port. Conversely, we found that with our MSI NX7600 GT Diamond Plus, the Blu-ray content wouldn't play through the HDMI connection but it would through the DVI port."

    OK, so which cards (other than the 8800s) could do HDCP over both ports?


    p.19 "The end result is that an NVIDIA card with more pipelines that is better at 3D performance will not necessarily be better at video decoding."

    In other words overclocking (say) a 7600 is likely to give as good or better HD video results than using (say) a 7950GX2?


    p.20 "In the future, we could see power consumption go down with acceleration enabled. As graphics hardware is better suited to processing video than a CPU, efficiency should go up when using hardware acceleration."

    The results for the 9750GTs already seem to show this 147W average non-accelerated >> 142 for EVGA & PNY (although Gigabyte > 148W).

  • chucky2 - Friday, November 17, 2006 - link

    ...can we get it added to these results just for comparison?

    Also, you don't happen to know when that'd be, would you? :)

  • BigLan - Friday, November 17, 2006 - link

    I noticed that in the cpu utilisation tests you said it was around 51% for no acceleration - was this because the player software is single threaded and so only used one core?

    Also, is click encoded in h264, or mpeg2 like the initial bluray discs?
  • DigitalFreak - Friday, November 17, 2006 - link

    Now that the Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive is available and is proven to work with a PC, any chance on doing another round-up "real soon now" using HD-DVD? I'd really love to see the numbers for VC1 and H.264 decoding.

    Still amazed that the lowly X1600 card spanked all Nvidia cards but the G80 boards in CPU utilization.

    Good job guys.
  • DigitalFreak - Friday, November 17, 2006 - link

    BTW, the new releases from Fox on Blu-Ray use the H.264 codec. Behind Enemy Lines, Fantastic 4, etc. I think Behind... is already out.

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