One of the unique selling points of ATI's new Radeon HD series is the inclusion of a HD audio controller. Just with a DVI-to-HDMI converter (included with a number of Radeon HD cards), consumers can connect their PCs directly to any device with HDMI, like HDTVs. It also means that these cards truly deserve their HD moniker, as they are really HDCP compliant. The same could not be said for NVIDIA's competing DirectX 10 solution, the GeForce 8 series. While the higher end cards have native HDCP support, among the mid-range segment only the GeForce 8600 GTS can claim that. Even then, these cards usually do not have HDMI outputs. Instead, it's left to individual vendors to offer this 'feature' and MSI's Diamond Plus edition of the GeForce 8600 GTS does just that.
This is not the first Diamond Plus edition from MSI. The company has launched quite a few graphics cards branded with this label in the past, including a GeForce 6600 GT and GeForce 7600 GT. While these cards differ from each edition, one can usually expect overclocking, custom coolers and other non-standard features on the Diamond Plus. The MSI NX8600GTS Diamond Plus based on the GeForce 8600 GTS GPU is no exception. However, the core and memory clocks remain identical to the reference card. There is no overclocking out of the box though users may choose to use MSI's Dynamic Overclocking Technology (D.O.T) software to adjust the clock speeds easily. It's not as good as actually having it done in the factory but it's useful nevertheless.
Unlike the Radeon HD graphics cards and their onboard HD audio controller, the GeForce 8600 GTS does not have such hardware integrated. To achieve a similar HDMI output, there is an audio connector on the MSI card that takes in the audio channel from an audio source.
This workaround is implemented in a rather awkward manner, with a cable originating from the external audio output of the sound card or motherboard, re-entering the PC through a small opening at the rear I/O panel of the MSI Diamond Plus and then linked to the audio connector onboard the graphics card. We have seen such similar arrangements from other vendors before and while there is no doubt it works as advertised, it makes the Radeon HD seem so much more elegant.
Besides the HDMI feature, this Diamond Plus comes with a two-slot heat pipe based custom cooler, presumably to handle the extra cooling load from users trying out the D.O.T software. It is unfortunately rather audible and seems to be louder than the default cooler on the GeForce 8600 GTS. There is a silver lining however, as the temperature readings we found were generally a few degrees lower than the standard card. Not all users will appreciate the trade-off here though and we aren't too enthusiastic about this ourselves.
What we did like is the decision to use only solid capacitors, following a recent trend started by some hardware manufacturers. The package is also quite fulfilling, with the acclaimed Company of Heroes PC game included and there's even a HDMI cable to link your HDTV to the Diamond Plus.
With a recommended retail price of US$229, this Diamond Plus is certainly more expensive than competing GeForce 8600 GTS cards. No doubt it has some unique features that sets it apart from the usual crowd but these extras may pale when compared to the price. With Radeon HD cards providing a similar HDMI functionality, it's difficult to justify this premium product to consumers looking for the best deal.