The mainstream and high-end areas of the graphics card market tend to get the most attention, and for obvious reasons, as these are the products that can either pump out the framerates or offer killer price performance ratios. But that doesn't mean entry-level buyers are any less important, as sub-$100 video cards represent a very lucrative market.
It all comes down to numbers, and there are far more buyer walking around with a C-note in their pockets, than there are with a budget of several hundred dollars, so companies like ATI and NVIDIA can definitely make it up in volume. We're covering a very interesting entry-level video card today, as the Gigabyte GeForce 8500 GT 256MB is not only priced right, but offers higher performance than a conventional GeForce 8500 GT card.
The GeForce 8500 GT graphics processor features an 80nm G86 core, and is positioned right between the GeForce 8400 and 8600 models. This is different from the G84 found in the GeForce 8600 GT and GTS cards, and features 16 Stream processors, as opposed to the 32 found in the GeForce 8600. Default clock speeds on the Stream processors are also a bit lower, with the GeForce 8500GT being set at 900 MHz. The core and memory clock speeds follow suit, and check in at 450 MHz and 800 MHz, respectively. Like all of the GeForce 8 series, the GeForce 8500 GT offers a unified shader architecture and supports the DirectX 10/SM4.0 feature set.
The core architecture of the GeForce 8500 GT includes 8 texture address units, 8 texture filtering units, and 4 ROPs, making it similar to the GeForce 7600 GS/GT design, though closer to the 7600 GS in terms of clock speeds. NVIDIA has gone with a 128-bit memory interface, which does limit bandwidth, but unlike the GeForce 8600 GTS, this is entirely suitable for an entry-level card. With the default memory clock is set at 800 MHz, and utilizing 256MB of DDR2, this results in a memory bandwidth of 12.8 GB/s. The GeForce 8500 GT supports features such as NVIDIA Lumenex, Pure Video 2/HD, nView, SLI technologies, as well as being HDCP compliant.
Gigabyte offers two different versions of the GeForce 8500 GT, one in a base design at (mostly) default clock speeds, and a special TurboForce edition with enhanced cooling and significantly higher clock speeds. We're looking at the latter card, and it runs at higher 600 MHz core, 1200 MHz shader clock, and 1.4 GHz memory speeds. These are significant overclocks, as the core has jumped 33% and the memory by an amazing 75%. Onboard memory has also been upgraded to GDDR3 to support the higher clock, and this particular revision looks more like a GeForce 8600 than an 8500.
The overall design of the Gigabyte GeForce 8500 GT 256MB is similar to other models, and it is a single-slot design that supports the PCI Express interface. The physical card includes a large gold heatsink with an active fan. The card's backplate features two dual-link DVI ports, which support resolutions of up to 2560x1600, along with a single HDTV/S-video out. The reference GeForce 8500 GT does not require external power, and the Gigabyte version does not have any external power connectors.
This cooling fan is an interesting piece of machinery, as it features 3D-Active technology, and allows for three operating modes. Power Saving is the default mode and turns off the fan entirely, relying on the heatsink for all cooling. When running 3D games or applications the fan will turn on and go into Performance Upgrade mode. Protection mode is simply a safety feature that enables the fan for 5 seconds after the 3D operations end. This is an important feature to understand, as many users have started up the card, then see the fan not moving, and mistakenly believe the card is faulty. It is actually a very good design, and not only lowers power requirements and ambient noise, but also can extend fan longevity.
Gigabyte always seems to deliver on the retail bundles, and their GeForce 8500 GT 256MB is certainly no exception. Gigabyte supplies all the standard hardware and software needed to get up and running, including a pair of DVI-to-VGA dongles, an HDTV break-out box, and a detailed Installation Guide. There is also a Driver and Application CD, but the best part was finding a Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War Dark Crusade DVD inside. This is actually a very good game, and is a great match for the entry-level GeForce 8500 GT. Gigabyte also stands behind their products and offers a 3-year warranty on VGA cards.
As the DirectX 10 cards offer a new type of architecture, it's very difficult to compare the GeForce 8 Series in terms of "pipelines" and other common terms of the previous GPU generations. Instead, we have assembled a set of specifications and performance metrics that should illustrate exactly where the Gigabyte GeForce 8500 GT 256MB fits in:
GeForce 8500 GT
GeForce 8500 GT
GeForce 7600 GS
GeForce 7600 GT
Radeon X1650 XT
GeForce 7900 GS
Of course, the best performance metric is real-world testing, and to that end, we've assembled a wide range of game benchmarks in the next section.