The performance increase between the Radeon 9600 XT and its predecessor, the 9600 Pro, is very small. The most tangible improvements can be seen in games that use pixel and vertex shaders. Starting with Catalyst 3.9, ATi is planning to implement overdrive support for the 9600 XT. Yet even then, there will only be clear performance increase in only a few rare scenarios.
On a positive note, the new card may prompt ATi to cut its 9600 Pro model prices.
Compared to NVIDIA's FX 5600 Ultra, however, the 9600 XT is the undisputed winner. NVIDIA's "flagship" mainstream part had only very few opportunities in this review to prove it even plays in the same league as the 9600 cards. Then again, it doesn't have to hold down the fort much longer: NVIDIA is planning to introduce the NV 36 alias FX 5700 sometime this month as a replacement for the FX 5600 series. This model is finally supposed to be the worthy successor to the GF 4 Ti 4200, a card that renowned for its high performance and low price.
Although the FX 5600 Ultra can regain some lost ground in shader-intensive applications with the new Detonator 52.16, it showed a slight slow-down in others. It stands to reason that NVIDIA has eased up on the aggressive optimizations for anisotropic filtering to achieve better image quality. This is a question we will try to answer in an upcoming article dedicated to analyzing image quality of the new drivers.
So what do we learn from all this? If you're in the market for a new mainstream card right now, we'd recommend the Radeon 9600 - and there's no pressing need to get the XT version, as the Pro does just as well. If you can sit out your upgrade fever for a few more weeks, you're patience might likely be rewarded. After all, NVIDIA is set to release its new mainstream card soon, and XGI (of Xabre fame) and S3 have also announced new products of their own.