Fueled by the large onset of high definition media and increasingly affordable prices, HDTVs have become one of the top most sought after upgrades to any home entertainment system. Among these buyers, there is the growing group of power users who prefer using their computers as media hubs instead of consumer electronics equipment. For these home theater PC (HTPC) owners, one of the most important requirements for a media-centric system is to have a graphics card with hardware acceleration capabilities for H.264, VC-1 and MPEG-2 HD formats as well as being HDCP compliant, allowing content playback from protected HD media such as Blu-ray and HD DVD.
While HDCP enabled graphics cards have steadily become the norm, we're beginning to see a larger influx of graphics cards catered exclusively for media center duties with proper HDMI output connections. The latest such card to hit the market is MSI's mid-range NX7600GS-MTD256E-HD.
HDMI on a (Lower) Budget
The NX7600GS-MTD256E-HD is the smaller brother to MSI's earlier HDMI effort, the excellent GeForce 7600 GT Diamond Plus. Since HTPC users are mostly satisfied with mid-range graphics, MSI now offers those with a lower budget an even more mainstream chipset in the GeForce 7600 GS, with lesser features like no video capturing functionality.
Clocked at 400MHz compared to the 560MHz of the Diamond Plus, the cores on both MSI cards may be similar, but their performance is clearly not on the same level. Memory is another factor that favors the Diamond Plus, as the new NX7600GS-MTD256E-HD only uses DDR2 memory instead of DDR3, and runs at a modest 800MHz. Since NVIDIA's PureVideo HD (H.264 decoding) video processing performance depends heavily on core clock speeds, the NX7600GS-MTD256E-HD is limited in this area as well and will require a much more powerful CPU to make up for the deficit.
As with many HDMI graphics cards, there is an S/PDIF input on board to route audio through. MSI has provided the necessary cables for you to connect your soundcard to the graphics card, along with the usual accessories like DVI-to-VGA adapters, Component and extension cables.
The card's software bundle is a bit under-whelming, though it's not all that surprising considering its budget nature. There are the usual MSI applications and drivers, but that was all. MSI's proprietary Dynamic Overclocking Technology (D.O.T) could be worth toying around to try and boost the HD decoding performance of the card, but the GeForce 7600 GS GPU is not a particularly good overclocker by nature. Perhaps MSI could have bundled Blu-ray or HD DVD playback software to increase its appeal as that would be perfect for its target users.
While we would have preferred passive cooling, the small and quiet cooler on the NX7600GS-MTD256E-HD is a decent choice by MSI. The card is also of the shorter form factor, so it should fit nicely even in a cramped HTPC casing.
While we don't have the exact price quote for this card, it shouldn't be too different from a standard GeForce 7600 GS. Expect to pay a slight premium (probably US$15-US$25 more) for the HDMI connectivity, but with the GS slipping into the lower mid-range territory, that should not be an issue with HTPC enthusiasts. For those who are focused solely on the HD element of the modern HTPC, the MSI NX7600GS-MTD256E-HD should be considered an entry-level alternative, fulfilling your needs while still remaining highly affordable.