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The Sea of Grey

The graphics card market is a volatile place at the best of times, but I can't remember a time where it was quite like it is today. Never before have we had so many great products in the £100 to £150 price bracket, which is both hugely profitable for companies and hugely attractive to consumers. We're practically swimming in good mainstream parts.

If we look at only the baseline products (not the fifteen million variants by partners, some of which are really quite good), there's the Radeon HD 3850—outfitted with either 256MB or 512MB of memory—and the Radeon HD 3870 from AMD. Meanwhile, Nvidia offers the GeForce 8800 GT—in both 256MB and 512MB configurations—along with the 8800 GS 384MB and the just-released 9600 GT 512MB.

You'd think, at first glance, that this is a good thing for the consumer, as there are so many products for an enthusiast to choose from. But I'm going to go against the flow here and say that I believe it's a bad thing for both the consumer and the board partners.

"It's clear that Nvidia had really struggled to compete with the Radeon HD 3850 ever since its launch..."

There are many details that have led me to this conclusion, but it's something that I've been mulling over ever since Nvidia quietly introduced the GeForce 8800 GS 384MB in January (even though we'd latched onto the news a few weeks before). Why so long, you ask? Well, I had already been briefed on the GeForce 9600 GT some time before the 8800 GS launched – I knew roughly where it was going to sit in the market, both in terms of suggested retail price and expected performance.

Before I get onto the underlying point of this editorial, let's go back in time a little...

It's clear that Nvidia had really struggled to compete with the Radeon HD 3850 ever since its launch and, in fact, it was the first time it has struggled to compete with AMD for some time. Nvidia didn't know what to do with the Radeon HD 3850 256MB when it launched, because the GeForce 8800 GT 256MB was taking longer than expected to get to market. I was even offered a BIOS that would disable 256MB of memory on one of our GeForce 8800 GT 512MB reference cards, just so that Nvidia didn't look as bad. This was something I turned down – "Get me a real product," I said.

Nvidia ended up paper launching the GeForce 8800 GT 256MB and it was quite a bit more expensive than the card it was supposed to compete with. It actually ended up sitting right in between the 3850 and the 3870.

With the 8800 GT 256MB suffering from stock shortages and paper launches, it wasn't too long before the GeForce 8800 GS appeared on the market. It was almost a desperate second attempt to squash the Radeon HD 3850, and one that we felt was unsuccessful.

"Suddenly, the 9600 GT was not competing with the 3850; instead, it was competing price-wise with the 3870..."

That's probably a good thing, because now that the GeForce 9600 GT has launched there is no real place for the 8800 GS on the market – even though it only launched a few weeks ago. When I spoke to Nvidia about the issue, the company's representatives said that the 8800 GS was always meant as a "limited launch," but it wouldn't be discontinued until the market decided. Looking at our performance comparison between the 8800 GS and the newly-released 9600 GT, I predict that it will happen pretty quickly.

Finally, Nvidia has a product that outclasses the Radeon HD 3850 – or so you would think. But rather than sit still, AMD decided to significantly reduce the price of its Radeon HD 3850 and HD 3870 graphics cards on the eve of the launch. Suddenly, the 9600 GT was not competing with the 3850; instead, it was competing price-wise with the 3870 – based on the suggested retail price we'd been given, at least.

And then we come to an even bigger problem: many of Nvidia's partners like to differentiate themselves from one another—something that we commend—by offering pre-overclocked cards, or cards with different cooling solutions.

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Tim Smalley

That's all well and good – but the real issue is that the 9600 GT is boxed into a pricing corner on all sides, both by AMD and Nvidia's own products. There just isn't much room to wiggle away from that £120 MSRP. Once you start getting much above £130, it starts clipping the heels of some of the GeForce 8800 GT 512MB cards, which are selling for a well-placed £145.

It takes time and money for partners to qualify higher overclocks, third-party cooling solutions, and to implement new display output options like we've seen on Palit's rather exciting card. That drives the price of these pre-overclocked GeForce 9600 GTs up, with many of them listed at around (and sometimes well above) the £140 mark.

At that price, the 9600 GT is priced similarly to many Radeon HD 3870s, and even gets very close to the considerably stronger GeForce 8800 GT 512MB cards that sit quite happily at just under £150. Indeed, you'd be silly to save a tenner to get a card that—in many scenarios we've tested—is going to be well over 10 percent slower.

"Will the prices drop low enough to make the innovative 9600 GT cards affordable enough to recommend over a faster 8800 GT?"

That gap is only going to increase over time as games become more and more shader intensive, because even a standard GeForce 8800 GT has 50 percent more theoretical shader horsepower than Zotac's quite heavily pre-overclocked 9600 GT card. And when you compare reference clock to reference clock, there is more than a 60 percent higher shader throughput on the 8800 GT.

I've continually asked Nvidia why the 9600 GT is priced so highly, but I've yet to receive a definitive answer. I mean, at under £130, many of the pre-overclocked GeForce 9600 GTs are great value for money, but they're clearly not at anything close to (or higher than) £140 – that's how price sensitive the performance mainstream market is.

What I have been told is that prices will eventually settle down—and I'm sure they will. But it's been a week since the card launched and we're still yet to see an answer to the question: will they drop low enough to make the innovative GeForce 9600 GT cards affordable enough to recommend over a faster GeForce 8800 GT?

I honestly can't say at the moment. And speaking to partners, I don't think they really know either. But for now, what I can say is that partners wanting to innovate in the mainstream are doing so at their own peril, because the price points are too close together. That's a shame because, on many occasions, partner tweaks can be the difference between a good card and a great one.

Those of you who are keenly observant will notice that I haven't even touched on the more expensive overclocked 8800 GTs (which come close to the standard 8800 GTS 512MB cards) – it's more of the same, just to a lesser extent.

With so many mainstream releases from both AMD and Nvidia, it's hard for me to keep up with all the different variants of products—even before I factor in partners' own factory overclocked versions. With that in mind, I can't even imagine how hard it must be for someone that doesn't follow the 3D graphics industry as closely as I do.

Once we include the pre-overclocked cards, we end up with one giant sea of grey – from £100 all the way up to £150. But much like a format war, mainstream people put away their wallets until a clear winner emerges. With so much market confusion and no real standouts, chip makers and board partners alike may find that the consumer is unwilling to dip a toe into this murky water for the time being at least.