Nvidia launched the DirectX 10 GeForce 8800 GT and GTX way back in October 2006 so this mid-range chip has been a long time coming. It's given Nvidia time to move from a 90nm fabrication process to 80nm, so the GeForce 8600 uses faster clock speeds on the core, unified shaders and memory than we ever saw on the 8800. This gives us a taste of what we can expect when Nvidia launches the GeForce 8800 Ultra in a few weeks' time to nicely mess up the launch of the ATi Radeon HD 2900.
Getting back to the MSI, the GeForce 8600GTS chip uses 289 million transistors, compared to the GeForce 8800 which has 691 million. The graphics core runs at 700MHz, the 32 unified shaders are clocked at 1.45GHz and the 256MB of memory has a speed of 2.1GHz, yet the power rating is fairly low at 71W so there's a single six-pin PCI Express power connector.
MSI calls this an overclocked card but the increase is fairly small as the reference core speeds for an 8600GTS are 675MHz for the core with 2GHz memory speed.
MSI has clearly given a fair amount of thought to the cooling on this model as the pictures we've seen of competing GeForce 8600GTS cards use a slim-line cooler that looks very similar to a GeForce 7800GTX. MSI has instead opted for a double-slot design that connects the heatsink to a finned radiator. The fan blows cooling air through a duct and across the cooler but there's a sizeable gap between the heat exchanger and the vented bracket.
We suspect this design is intended to quieten the cooler, however it still seemed rather noisy to our ears and made a continuous drone that was rather off-putting.
The graphics card is bulky and noisy and the MSI package is rather basic. There's a PCI-E power adapter, two DVI adapters, a splitter cable with Component and S-Video outputs and an S-Video extension cable. Apart from some MSI utilities there is no software in the games department where you would hope for, say, a voucher for Unreal Tournament 2007.
During our testing we compared the MSI with a GeForce 7950GT, as that is the DirectX 9.0c part that will inevitably be replaced by the GeForce 8600GT, so when we ran 3DMark06 and a few games on both cards in Windows XP and Windows Vista, we were surprised to find that the difference in performance was minimal.
Sure, there were swings and roundabouts, but you couldn't say that either graphics card was better than the other, and for that matter both of the two operating systems delivered the goods. While the MSI is undoubtedly a very competent performer it came as a real surprise that it wasn't markedly better than the card that it is due to replace.
The reason is, of course, DirectX 10.
The GeForce 8000 family all support DirectX 10 and use a new design that replaces dedicated Pixel Shaders, Vertex Shaders and Geometry Shaders with more flexible Unified Shaders. That's a good move which will doubtless reap benefits once DirectX 10 games come to market, but that's still some months in the future.