First, let’s consider the GeForce 9600 GT cards: Gigabyte’s GV-N96TSL-1GI, the silent, passively-cooled card, and its GV-N96TZL-1GI, the overclocked card with the Zalman cooler and fan.
On Newegg, the silent GV-N96TSL-1GI goes for $105, compared to the overclocked GV-N96TZL-1GI, which is priced at $120
If you have an HTPC case with decent airflow to accommodate the passive card, we think this decision is a no-brainer since the GV-N96TSL-1GI makes no noise whatsoever, and compared to its its actively-cooled sibling, actually kept its GPU cooler, overclocked almost as much, and can be purchased at a lower price. This looks like an ideal choice for a home-theater PC that doubles as a gaming machine. Off the top of our heads, we can’t think of a faster passively-cooled gaming card with a better price/performance ratio. We’ll note that the GV-N96TZL-1GI currently has a $20 mail-in rebate offer, which would make it $5 less than its silent brother and a little more attractive for frugal buyers or those with less-than-ideal case airflow.
This brings us to the Asus ENGTS250 DK ($160 on Newegg) and the Zotac GTS 250 AMP! edition (not yet available on Newegg). Assuming these will be available at similar prices, the buyer has a bit of a choice to make. Zotac offers no-frills, out-of-the-box raw performance, while the Asus model supplies sophisticated cooling and 2D power efficiency, but requires some overclocking to get the most out of it. Also notable is that the $160 price range puts these cards within spitting distance of the reference model Radeon HD 4870s and GeForce GTX 260s, so they are a little harder to recommend. When the prices work themselves out to market levels, these GeForce GTS 250 cards should drop to the $145 range. At that price, they'll be a good buy between the cheaper GeForce GTS 250 models and the higher-priced Radeon HD 4870 and GeForce GTX 260 cards.
Finally, we’re left to consider MSI’s new N260GTX Lightning and Asus’ ENGTX260 Matrix cards. Both of these cards offer extremely powerful and appealing features. MSI’s Black Edition offering sports twice the amount of memory of any GeForce GTX 260 we’ve ever seen, a sublime 10-phase power system, and an appealing AirForce panel with which voltages and clock speeds can be manipulated. Asus’ Matrix, on the other hand, has much tighter control over the card’s low-level functions for the serious overclocker and a passive silent cooling mode.
Which card is better? That depends on what you’re looking for. The MSI N260GTX BE offers a ton of memory, and the AirForce panel allows the novice overclocker to push the card to run as fast as it can go without needing to know the nuances of the art of overclocking. It can turn the everyman into an overclocking champion, and let's face it, the AirForce panel offers a bit of "bling-bling" as well to impress your friends.
On the other hand, the Asus ENGTX260 Matrix appeals to more serious overclockers with tight, powerful controls via the iTracker utility, as well as complete silence when in Windows. This Asus card offers more power and control for those who are interested in learning how to use it.
What’s the bottom line? Well, without e-tail pricing, it's difficult to gauge where these cards will fall in relation to reference boards or pricier GeForce GTX 275 cards. But I am fairly confident that, given a choice between one of these non-reference GTX 260s and a reference GTX 275, I'd likely pick one of these intricately-engineered cards. They have the potential to reach or maybe even surpass the GeForce GTX 275's performance, and they're coupled with impressive features that any enthusiasts will find appealing.