What is it:
GeForce 8800 GTS, GeForce 8800 GTS graphics processors
Why we chose it:
Graphics cards roll outs are a seasonal thing and can be kinda boring. It's the same cycle every year. Nvidia and ATI launch new generations of their graphics chip year after year and it's a safe bet that every new GPU will beat its competitor.
Whenever we talk about graphics processors, we always have to look at it through two mirrors, with regard to both Nvidia and the new merged ATI/AMD (now known as just AMD). The latter's big entry this year was the X1950, but for several reasons we found that the 8800 much more compelling: It was a marvelous piece of hardware, which offers new opportunities in so many dimensions that we could not have justified leaving the product out of this ranking.
You can read a full review and get the lowdown on the card's details and capabilities over in Tom's Hardware's review. In general, we have to recognize that the 8800 cards are the first DirectX 10 parts available, which is remarkable in itself as Windows Vista (which will be the first major application to make extensive use of this feature) has not been launched yet. You can always argue - why buy DirectX 10, if there's no software available for it? But then, we all know that DirectX10 is coming. From that point of view, there isn't really a reason anymore to buy a DirectX 9 part anymore, if you are dumping $400 or more into your graphics engine.
The performance capability of the 8800 is downright scary: In simple numbers, one 8800 card is about as fast as two 7900 cards combined - which means that Nvidia pretty much doubled the performance in this GPU generation. In a real-world example, we found that these cards can do amazing things with DirectX 10 games, for example in the upcoming first person shooter Crysis. For the first time, we are seeing graphics that are so realistic that you can truly call it cinema-quality.
From the gamers' perspective, we have seen two interesting high-level developments in the graphics space this year. In many demanding games, Intel's Core 2 Duo removed a bottleneck that has been blamed on the CPU - and shifted it towards the GPU. The 8800 turned this scenario around again and made the CPU bottleneck once again. The same does not apply to the Radeon X1950.
What it means to you:
The GeForce 8800, no matter how you see it, is expensive and appeals to a very limited target group. That is the main reason why we listed it on #6 and not higher. For the enthusiast with some money to spend, it is a very enticing product that puts more graphics horsepower in your PC than many of us not too long ago thought was possible in this decade. There is even a stream processing element that allows developers to balance CPU and GPU load in their applications and, if desired, can enable physics capability that way. It typically takes two years until such monster machines trickle down into the mainstream below $200. Amazing times are ahead of us, it's your call when to make them a reality on your PC.
Predictions for 2007:
Three things: One, AMD will roll out its next-generation (DirectX 10) GPU, code-named R600 in early 2007; however, we do not expect this processor to exceed the performance of the GeForce 8800, at least not by a margin that will allow AMD to claim the performance crown from Nvidia. But we hear there will be a chip closely following the R600 that looks much more promising. Second, DirectX 10 is the big trend for 2007: There will be plenty of games taking advantage of these new cards. Three, probably most significantly, graphics quality will begin running into a wall as the realism of graphics cannot be increased anymore. Expect characters in games (that are running on graphics cards such as the 8800 as well as multi-core microprocessors) to start behaving just as realistically as they look.