Summary: In our RADEON 9800 PRO preview, the 9800 PRO was the hands-down winner in performance and visual quality. But now NVIDIA's GeForce FX 5900 Ultra is hoping to unseat it from the throne. In today's article, we compare ATI's 128MB and 256MB RADEON 9800 PRO's to GeForce FX 5900 Ultra at stock speeds and with all three cards overclocked to the max! Does the extra memory make a difference with 6xAA and 16x anisotropic? You'll have to read the article to find out!
Designing an entirely new graphics core from the ground up is an expensive, time-consuming process that involves an extensive amount of planning, talented engineering, good timing, and a little bit of luck. Design teams can be established years in advance of shipping the final product and must rely on accurate simulators to accomplish much of their work.
Because of these factors, the introduction of a true next generation graphics core only occurs roughly once every 15 months (although this widely varies for each manufacturer); weíve all witnessed the 24-month delay between GeForce3 and GeForce FX just recently.
To bring new products to market more quickly, interim updates are introduced. NVIDIA in particular is famous for these incremental products: the GeForce3 for example had two refreshes (the GeForce3 Titanium family and later, GeForce4) before an entirely new core was introduced in the form of GeForce FX. These updated products can range from a simple clock speed increase to a product thatís based on an enhanced design and built with a new manufacturing process.
Up until the ArtX acquisition, ATI had pretty limited experience with this business model. ATIís Rage Fury MAXX fused two Rage Fury 128 Pro cores together, but its high price tag and mediocre performance prevented it from gaining widespread acceptance in the market. Under the direction of current President Dave Orton however, things rapidly changed. The RADEON 7500 was introduced as a follow-up to RADEON but since it launched with RADEON 8500, it wasnít a highly visible launch. And while rumors of a RADEON 8500 refresh with higher clock speeds were rampant, RADEON 8500LE was the only product that ultimately surfaced.
Then summer 2002 arrived and ATI launched a slew of new products. On the high-end, ATI had the RADEON 9700 PRO. By now, we all know how this product turned out. ATI was first to market with 2.0 pixel and vertex shaders; RADEON 9700 PRO also boasted support of 128-bit floating-point data formats for increased precision and visual fidelity. ATIís refresh part for the summer was the RADEON 9000 family, essentially a cost-reduced version of the RADEON 8500 that was introduced to bring DirectX 8 to the value segment of the graphics market. From top to bottom, ATI was king.
This brings us to 2003. NVIDIA still hasnít shipped sufficient quantities of its GeForce FX 5800 family, leaving its partners to find new ways to sell what are essentially 12-month old GeForce4 products. GeForce FX 5600 and FX 5200 have just recently hit retail shelves, but until GeForce FX 5900 arrives, NVIDIA still doesnít have a product in the high-end segment to compete with RADEON 9700 PRO. To further strengthen its position, ATI has introduced its product refresh, the RADEON 9800 PRO. The RADEON 9800 PRO boasts higher clock speeds and a few internal improvements to further increase its performance.
SIDEBAR: ATI commenced shipments of the 256MB RADEON 9800 PRO yesterday.
New clock speeds
The most prominent change between the RADEON 9800 PRO and the RADEON 9700 PRO are the clock speed improvements. Core clock frequency jumps from 325MHz in RADEON 9700 PRO, to 380MHz in RADEON 9800 PRO. This enhancement was made possible by optimizations to the coreís internal structure. Timings have been improved while signal integrity has been increased, allowing the core to scale to higher clock speeds without excessive noise and heat.
The key addition to the RADEON 9800 PROís pixel shading prowess is the new F-buffer present in SMARTSHADER 2.1. The F-buffer works like a form of cache memory, storing pixels that require multiple passes rather than writing them out to the frame buffer each time. This feature in particular was meant to address the shortcomings of RADEON 9700ís instruction length. With RADEON 9700 limited to 64 instructions, some complex shader effects required the pixel shading engine to make multiple passes. While this produced lifelike images, performance is crippled in the process. The F-buffer eliminates some of the redundancy from the graphics pipeline, saving time and reducing memory bandwidth requirements.
HYPERZ is the term ATI uses for its occlusion culling technology, meant to prevent the graphics core from rendering objects that are hidden from the end userís view. For example a poster placed on a wall, rather than rendering the entire wall and the poster, with HYPERZ the graphics core only renders the visible area of the wall as well as the poster, the area behind the poster is not rendered, making more efficient use of the graphics core and more importantly, its precious memory bandwidth.
The final piece to the RADEON 9800 puzzle is its enhanced memory controller. If you recall, the RADEON 9700 core utilized four 64-bit memory controllers. Each of the controllers can be simultaneously writing data to memory, or reading data back into the graphics processor. RADEON 9800 PROís controller has been optimized for greater efficiency, resulting in greater performance in 4x and especially 6x AA modes.
9800 PRO vs. 9700 PRO
ATI has made a number of changes to the board design of the RADEON 9800 PRO. The board itself is longer than RADEON 9700 PRO, although it isnít as long as NVIDIAís GeForce4 or GeForce FX 5x00 Ultra cards. While many of the parts are in the same places, we do see that ATI has added additional capacitors and other power circuitry to the RADEON 9800 PRO board design. Some of these parts are located on the right edge of the card, which accounts for its increased length.
As you can also see in the pictures above, ATI has implemented a new cooling design for the RADEON 9800 PRO core. The heatsink is more compact but has more fins, while the fan has a more aggressive profile. Fortunately, noise levels are roughly the same as RADEON 9700 PRO.
128MB vs. 256MB
As we stated previously, the 256MB RADEON 9800 PRO utilizes DDR2 rather than traditional DDR memory. ATI chose to go with DDR2 memory on the 256MB board because of its reduced power consumption, unfortunately one side effect of this is that current DDR2 modules generate a lot of heat.
To counter this, ATI has attached heatsinks to the DDR2 modules, but each module has its own heatsink. A more effective approach would have used a larger heatsink to cool multiple modules, increasing the surface area of the heatsink and thus allowing it to perform more effectively. The implementation ATI has decided to go with results in sixteen hotspots on the 256MB RADEON 9800 PRO card, making this one hot graphics card. Youíll definitely want to ensure that your case is adequately ventilated, especially if you decide to overclock your 256MB RADEON 9800 PRO card.
SIDEBAR: If you want to check out Half-Life 2 at E3 this year, ATIís booth is the place to be
3DMark03 Ė Wings of Fury
3DMark03 Ė Battle of Proxycon
3DMark03 Ė Trollís Lair
3DMark03 Ė Mother Nature
CodeCreatures Benchmark Pro
Serious Sam 2 - OpenGL
Quake III - High Quality
Comanche 4 demo
Unreal Tournament 2003 - flyby
Unreal Tournament 2003 - botmatch
Unreal Tournament 2003
Unreal Tournament 2003 - botmatch
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby
Unreal Tournament 2003 Botmatch
Quake III Ė High Quality
Unreal Tournament 2003
Performance: With RADEON 9800 PROís faster 380MHz core and 256-bit memory interface operating at 340MHz, ATI has tweaked the original 9700 PRO for even greater performance. As you saw in our test results, all of todayís latest games really fly on the 9800 PRO, even under high resolution environments with anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering enabled. Sure, it may not be as fast as NVIDIAís GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, but the 9800 PRO still has plenty of horsepower to put up a really good fight.
256MB Performance: While we just gave you a reason to opt for the 256MB variant of the RADEON 9800 PRO, keep in mind that we didnít see many performance benefits in our overall testing. Sure, there are cases where it does offer a performance improvement (UT 2003 with 6xAA and 16x aniso at high res), but when memory bandwidth or fill-rate is the limiting factor (as is the case in Splinter Cell) the added 128MB of memory on the 256MB RADEON 9800 PRO wonít have a performance impact.
RADEON 9800 PRO 128MB
At $500, the RADEON 9800 PRO 256MB is one very expensive graphics card, itís even more costly than the Athlon XP 3200+ and Pentium 4 3GHz! And as you saw in our performance testing, in most cases the additional memory doesnít bring any performance benefit; all too often the RADEON 9800 PRO 256MB is held up by the 9800 PRO core or its memory bandwidth rather than the size of the graphics cardís frame buffer.
We can definitely see the benefits of the 256MB card in massively multiplayer games, ATI even demonstrated a special very high quality version of Asheronís Call 2 that was intended for use on the RADEON 9800 PRO 256MB. But for everyone else, youíll probably get more bang from your buck by opting for ATIís 128MB RADEON 9800 PRO instead.
In addition, the card can get pretty hot under load, so if you do opt for the 256MB RADEON 9800 PRO board, we highly suggest you house it in a larger case with plenty of cooling.
With renewed competition from NVIDIA, ATI is no longer the undisputed king of the graphics segment, but the RADEON 9800 PRO is still tops in terms of visual quality and DVD playback. And while we still donít know what NVIDIA has in store for the $400 GeForce FX 5900 128MB, the package ATI offers with the 128MB RADEON 9800 PRO should still be more than enough to please any gamer. The RADEON 9800 PRO 256MB has its audience as well, but at $500 it comes at a price that will be too high for many to afford.
SIDEBAR: Are you interested in a 256MB video card, or is $500 just too much to pay? Chat with others about the RADEON 9800 PRO cards, ATI versus NVIDIA and other topics in the news comments!
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