||Hercules 3D Prophet 9800 PRO Performance Preview
May 09, 2003 Chris Angelini
Summary: Hercules plans to make a grand entrance to the RADEON 9800 PRO market with its 3D Prophet 9800 PRO card. Sporting a blue PCB, copper heatsinks, and a unique VPU cooler with integrated blue LED, the 3D Prophet 9800 PRO certainly looks attractive, but how does it stack up against other cards? Find out in this article!
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 15 )|
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there were graphics card manufacturers that would go to lengths in order to sell the best cards. Canopus was one of them. Hercules was one as well, selling cards clocked beyond NVIDIA’s recommended specification to establish rapport with the upper echelon of hardware enthusiasts.
Times change, though, and manufacturers formerly devoted exclusively to the hardcore gaming market have had to reevaluate their niche positions or risk succumbing to the high-volume players. Hercules even transitioned away from NVIDIA and is selling cards based on ATI’s products. Nowadays, we see a lot of graphics cards with unique cooling solutions, extensive gaming bundles and attractive prices, but manufacturers are still reluctant to tweak performance settings. Perhaps Bruce Hornsby was right; that’s just the way it is.
R350 Takes Center Stage
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Most of the R300 and R350 cards we’ve seen have been standard fare with a few notable exceptions. Sapphire certainly made a splash with its Atlantis 9700 Pro Ultimate Edition that ran silently, and Tyan has implemented some interesting hardware monitoring features; but now its Hercules’ turn to make an impression. As much as we’d love to see enhanced clock frequencies, there can’t be too much headroom left in that 380MHz R350 core etched on a .15-micron process. Instead, Hercules has endowed a standard reference card with some catchy eye-candy sure to entice case modders. And in the process, the card has picked up some fairly fantastic overclocking potential.
SIDEBAR: Hercules’ 3D Prophet 9800 Pro (there is still no product page on Hercules’ site).
| The 3D Prophet 9800 Pro||Page:: ( 2 / 15 )|
Judging from the 3D Prophet’s board layout, Hercules has decided to base its card on ATI’s capable reference design. There are a few deviations, though, pertaining primarily to the cooling solution. ATI uses a large, aluminum cooler to keep the R350 core stable at 380MHz. Hercules, on the other hand, has included a smaller, copper, orb-style cooler to ensure stability at the same speed. The fan covering the heatsink is translucent and highlighted with a bright blue LED. Operating at 340MHz, ATI doesn’t need to cool the memory chips on the 9800 Pro, yet Hercules has also attached copper ‘sinks on the front and back of the card as well. As with Hercules’ other graphics boards, the 3D Prophet 9800 Pro is laid out on a blue circuit board.
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The rest of the 3D Prophet 9800 Pro mirrors the hardware that we looked at in our RADEON 9800 Pro Preview. It uses the same R350 VPU, manufactured on a .15-micron process. The 256-bit memory architecture is able to provide up to 21.7GB per second of memory bandwidth. Another feature of the R350 processor is its dual, integrated, 10-bit 400MHz DACs, giving the card support for dual displays. Further, it also includes an integrated 165MHz TMDS transmitter. The result is a single DVI output and a 15-pin VGA output. Using an adapter, the DVI port can be used as a second VGA output.
Among the products in ATI’s DirectX 9-compliant lineup, it almost seems that every card can be overclocked to attain the performance of the model ahead of it. For instance, RADEON 9500 Pro cards are notorious for hitting clock speeds equal to or even greater than those of the RADEON 9700. Same goes for the 9700 overclocked to 9700 Pro levels. But all of those cards require BIOS modifications to even enable overclocking, a measure ATI likely put in place to discourage “performance for free.” With the high-end cards, RADEON 9700 Pro and RADEON 9800 Pro, there are no locked clock speeds.
So the 3D Prophet 9800 Pro, with its unlocked clock speeds and copper cooling solution, would seem to be an ideal candidate for overclocking. Hercules’ own tweak utility is included with the card, and can increment both the core and memory frequencies 1MHz at a time. Imagine our surprise when it was determined that the fastest stable core frequency was 446MHz (a 15 percent increase) and the most aggressive memory speed was 371MHz (a nine percent increase). You’ll see in the benchmarks that these overclocking results have a profound effect on performance, especially at high resolutions, where we saw increases of up to 13 percent in Unreal Tournament 2003.
For now, Hercules is anticipating that the 3D Prophet 9800 Pro will sell for roughly $449, however, the next couple of weeks will likely dictate that 128MB 9800 Pro cards will have to sell for less than that. With that aside, Hercules’ 3D Prophet package includes the card with all of its enhancements, a power cable, a DVI adapter, two video output cables (S-Video and composite), and a few CDs. The software includes a full copy of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield, a two-channel version of PowerDVD, and a driver disk.
SIDEBAR: Hercules also sells a RADEON 9700 Pro card, but it is virtually impossible to get in the United States.
| System Setup||Page:: ( 3 / 15 )|
Athlon XP 3000+ (2.17GHz)
ASUS A7N8X Deluxe nForce2 Motherboard
1GB Corsair PC3200 DDR Memory
Hercules 3D Prophet 9800 Pro 128MB (Catalyst 3.2)
ATI RADEON 9800 Pro 128MB Reference (Catalyst 3.2)
ATI RADEON 9700 Pro 128MB Reference (Catalyst 3.2)
NVIDIA GeForce4 Ti 4600 Reference 128MB (Detonator 41.09)
120GB Seagate Serial ATA 7200RPM HDD
Silicon Image Reference Serial ATA Controller Card
Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1
Desktop resolution 1024x768, 32-bit color, 75Hz refresh
All power saving options were turned off, as were the Automatic Update and System Restore services. Graphics options under the ‘Performance’ tab were all disabled for maximum performance.
Unreal Tournament 2003 Demo
3D Mark 2001 Second Edition Build 330 – 32-bit color
3D Mark 2003
Quake III: Arena version 1.17 ‘Demo001’ demo
Serious Sam: The Second Encounter – 32-bit color, Elephant Atrium demo
SIDEBAR: There is a Semtech SC1175 two-phase DC/DC voltage controller on the back of the RADEON 9800 Pro card. Aren’t you glad you know that?
| 3D Mark 2001 SE||Page:: ( 4 / 15 )|
3D Mark 2001 SE v.330 – DirectX 8
The RADEON 9800 Pro, with its faster core and memory frequencies, takes an easy first place finish in this, the first of our synthetic tests. The ATI and Hercules cards perform similarly, giving us our first confirmation that Hercules has utilized a reference design. And considering a stock 9800 Pro runs at 380/340MHz, the Hercules card is overclocking incredibly well and delivering a comparable increase in performance. As we’d expect from an older generation card, the GeForce4 Ti 4600 doesn’t offer much of a challenge to the newer cards. Unfortunately, until NVIDIA is able to realize widespread availability on its NV30, or eventually NV35 cards, we aren’t left with much else.
SIDEBAR: There is also an IDT QS3257 high-speed CMOS QuickSwitch, just like we found on the RADEON 9500 Pro cards reviewed months ago. Looks like those CMOS QuickSwitches don’t evolve nearly as fast as GPUs.
| 3D Mark 2003||Page:: ( 5 / 15 )|
3D Mark 2003 – DirectX 9
Again, the two 9800 Pro cards perfrom nearly the same, as the overclocked 3D Prophet takes a commanding victory. The 9700 is bested by about 30 percent at 1280x1024, while the GeForce4 Ti 4600 loses to the Hercules card by 230% of its own score. The poor GeForce4 score is attributable to the card’s lack of DirectX 9 functionality.
SIDEBAR: There are a total of three Intersil ISL6522 Buck and Synchronous Rectifier Pulse-Width Modulator Controllers. It sounds like something you may use to kill aliens in Half Life 2, doesn’t it? Guess we’ll have to wait and see!
| 3D Mark 2003 Frame Rates||Page:: ( 6 / 15 )|
3DMark03 – Wings of Fury
3DMark03 – Battle of Proxycon
3DMark03 – Troll’s Lair
3DMark03 – Mother Nature
SIDEBAR: The Semtech SC1175CSW chip on the back of the RADEON 9500 Pro is a dual-phase DC/DC controller.
| Serious Sam SE||Page:: ( 7 / 15 )|
Serious Sam SE (Elephant Atrium) – OpenGL
Remarkably, the Ti 4600 takes a lead at 800x600, possibly indicated the level of optimization that NVIDIA has invested. It simply isn’t enough to overpower the RADEON 9700 Pro and 9800 Pro cards, though, both of which dominate every other resolution. By the time we hit 1600x1200, the 3D Prophet is able to outperform the reference 9700 Pro card by eight percent and the Ti 4600 by 36 percent. Overclocking buys an extra five percent over the stock configuration.
SIDEBAR: A DIP switch on the surface of the 9800 Pro allows you to select between NTSC and PAL output.
| Quake III: Arena||Page:: ( 8 / 15 )|
Quake III v.1.17 Demo001 – OpenGL
The Ti 4600 again rides high on well-written drivers at 800x600, but every resolution after is ruled by the RADEON 9800 Pro. I think we’ve seen enough to know that the Hercules card, for all intents and purposes, is nearly identical to the reference board, at least in terms of performance. At 1600x1200, where we’d anticipate you’ll be playing most games, both 9800 Pro cards are running 20 percent faster than the 9700 Pro and 32 percent faster than the Ti 4600.
SIDEBAR: The copper heat sink covering the R350 GPU gets hot enough to burn your finger at 446MHz.
| Comanche 4||Page:: ( 9 / 15 )|
Comanche 4 – DirectX 8
Comanche 4 demonstrates its prowess as a processor benchmark by turning out similar scores for all of the competing cards right up to 1280x1024. Finally, at 1600x1200, the 3D Prophet 9800 Pro takes a two percent lead over the 9700 Pro and a 15 percent lead over the Ti 4600.
SIDEBAR: The 9800 Pro is king, for the moment. We’re expecting something new in the next few days to dethrone ATI’s champion. Whether or not the new contender arrives in a timely manner is another matter altogether.
| Unreal Tournament 2003 Demo||Page:: ( 10 / 15 )|
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby – DirectX 8
Unreal Tournament 2003 Botmatch – DirectX 8
Unreal Tournament 2003 is about as modern as game benchmarks come nowadays. The flyby demo is a good measure of graphics performance, while the botmatch demo gives a better indication of platform ability. Even at 1600x1200, all of the competing cards turn in playable frame rates. The 3D Prophet manages to outscore the 9700 Pro by 20 percent and the Ti 4600 by 37 percent. In the flyby, overclocking yields an extra 13 percent!
SIDEBAR: Worried that a 256MB RADEON 9800 Pro will outclass your 128MB card? You shouldn’t – the extra memory will primarily be used to anti-alias at extremely high resolutions.
| 4x Anti-Aliasing||Page:: ( 11 / 15 )|
Quake III – High Quality
SIDEBAR: Is $400 too much for a video card? How about $500? The upcoming generation of high-performance graphics products is going to be expensive, to be sure.
| 8x Anisotropic Filtering||Page:: ( 12 / 15 )|
Quake III – High Quality
SIDEBAR: Last month, ASUS sold more than 2 million motherboards. That’s a lot of motherboards.
| 4x Anti-Aliasing and 8x Anisotropic Filtering||Page:: ( 13 / 15 )|
Quake III – High Quality
SIDEBAR: ATI is rumored to be working on an integrated graphics chipset with DirectX 9 support. If this is a Pentium 4-supporting product, it will certainly be a welcome change after tolerating Intel’s poor graphics performance.
| Unreal Tournament 4x Anti-Aliasing, 8x Anisotropic Filtering||Page:: ( 14 / 15 )|
Unreal Tournament 2003 Demo Flyby
Unreal Tournament 2003 Demo Botmatch
SIDEBAR: If you already have an R300 or R350-based card, check out the DX9 demos ATI has posted here.
| Conclusion||Page:: ( 15 / 15 )|
If Hercules was looking to make a splash with its reentry to the North American market, the 3D Prophet 9800 Pro is certainly a great way to go about it. The card boasts all of the same performance characteristics of ATI’s reference 9800 Pro, in addition to the flashy features hardcore gaming enthusiasts are known to favor. Blue LEDs and copper heat sinks are certainly not necessary in order to enjoy gaming. But at the same time, if you enjoy hardware enough to want to show it off with Plexiglas windows, then you’re probably the type that appreciates hardware with some panache.
While the effect of copper cooling on the overclocking experience is always questionable (there are simply too many variables to consider, beginning with the quality of the review sample), it seems clear that the orb-style heatsink Hercules has employed is more efficient than ATI’s reference design. Hercules’ heatsink is smaller, yet doesn’t seem to get significantly hotter running at default speeds. Plus, it still manages to dissipate plenty of heat when the core and memory frequencies are cranked up.
What, then, is there not to like about Hercules’ 3D Prophet 9800 Pro? The only two things we could think of are price and availability – both admittedly important attributes. With a souped up card design and Tom Clancy’s Raven Shield game bundled in the retail package, the Hercules 3D Prophet costs at least $50 more than ATI’s reference board – no small discrepancy when you’re talk about a video card that costs $450 online.
The other problem Hercules is running into involves getting the product out to North American distributors. According to a representative from the company, we should start seeing the 3D Prophet 9800 Pro by the end of the month, though. Even still, we’re hesitant to give the card a rating at this point. A lot can (and will) happen in the next couple of weeks that will affect how much Hercules is able to charge for the 3D Prophet, which in turn will determine the card’s popularity. Nevertheless, the 3D Prophet 9800 Pro is truly a unique product and we applaud bold attempts to appeal to gaming enthusiasts. Hercules has a gem on its hands. Should it be able to fill in the missing puzzle pieces (price and availability), we will likely see a lot of gamers revisiting the edgier Hercules we’ve all missed.
SIDEBAR: The RADEON 9700 is good, the 9800 Pro is better, and the Hercules 3D Prophet 9800 Pro represents what we love about high-end gaming cards. Are you going to wait for NVIDIA’s answer, though? Let us know!