Summary: Based on the RADEON 9700 PRO core, Gigabyte's GV-R9700 PRO Maya II graphics card is one of the company's first products based on its new partnership with ATI. Exactly how well does this card stack up to the rest of the competition? Find out in our review!
Before the RADEON 9700 was announced, rumors persisted that a graphics card manufacturer would be defecting from NVIDIA’s camp to producing cards powered by ATI. Early reports indicated that company would be ASUS, one of NVIDIA’s most trusted customers. Not only is ASUS one of NVIDIA’s Tier One graphics manufacturers (a pretty select group), they’ve been an NVIDIA launch partner on NVIDIA graphics cores dating all the way back to the RIVA 128, making them one of NVIDIA’s oldest partners.
It turns out, these rumors were wrong, while there was a defector among the NVIDIA faction, it wasn’t ASUS, instead it was motherboard manufacturer Gigabyte Technology. Like ASUS, Gigabyte is one of Taiwan’s largest motherboard manufacturers, shipping millions of motherboards each year. However, Gigabyte hasn’t been in the graphics game as long as ASUS, nor are they one of NVIDIA’s largest patrons. On paper, the loss of Gigabyte isn’t nearly as severe at first glance to NVIDIA, but if you look a little deeper, the long-term ramifications of this move could be pretty significant.
First off, Gigabyte isn’t just another unknown second or third tier video card manufacturer. They have access to considerable manufacturing capabilities and they have the brand name and marketing presence to promote any product they produce. Realizing this, last year ATI presented Gigabyte with an offer they couldn’t refuse: Tier One partner status.
Prior to Gigabyte coming onboard, this positioning had only been granted to one other graphics card manufacturer, Sapphire Technology. Sapphire has been producing ATI cards for years, and has been doing very well in the OEM business. In fact, (with the exception of Gigabyte’s cards), all early RADEON 9700 PRO production was handled by Sapphire, regardless if the board came from ATI, Sapphire, or one of the other RADEON 9700 PRO manufacturers.
In comparison, if you’ve shopped for an NVIDIA-based card lately, you’ve quickly noticed the overwhelming array of products out there. Not only are there dozens of manufacturers to choose from, each manufacturer frequently has multiple products based on the same graphics core. ATI on the other hand has only a handful of graphics partners. So by hooking up with ATI not only has Gigabyte become a close ally (and thus have early access to hardware, something they never received from NVIDIA), they’re also competing with considerably fewer competitors with similar products.
When you factor in NVIDIA’s recent fall from grace in the high end, and more recently in the mainstream segment (from a performance perspective in any case), the case becomes even more compelling.
Quite frankly, when you put all the puzzle pieces together, it isn’t hard to understand why Gigabyte made this move, it makes perfect business sense. ATI has the hot product right now, and Gigabyte was given a front row seat.
But of course, you came to read this review for more than just politics; you want to know more about the Gigabyte Maya GV-R9700, one of Gigabyte’s first products based on this new partnership. So lets proceed on with the review shall we?
SIDEBAR: Gigabyte GV-R9700 PRO Product Webpage
By now you’re probably familiar with the RADEON 9700 PRO and its architecture, so we won’t bore you with the details. If you would like a recap however you should refer back to our preview and review articles from last year. Here’s a quick list of the GV-R9700’s specs:
RADEON™ 9700 PRO Visual Processing Unit (VPU)
In addition to the software bundle, Gigabyte also includes its V-Tuner tweaking utility. V-Tuner is wrapped in a nice-looking graphical user interface and is used to adjust graphics core and memory clock frequencies, just like a utility like Powerstrip. V-Tuner gets the job done well and we’re glad to see Gigabyte including this utility for its users as many of the first generation RADEON 9700 cards shipped without this feature, including ATI’s own RADEON 9700 PRO.
One feature we would like to see however is some form of indication of the severity of the overclock. For instance, Powerstrip has green, yellow, and red regions next to the core and memory sliders, and while they certainly can’t be counted on completely, they do give “green” overclockers a frame of reference to compare too. All to often you see inexperienced users who just don’t know much about overclocking; that includes knowing when to stop. If more overclocking utilities provided some frame of reference for these users it sure would cut down the email load on our inbox, and make overclocking a little easier for these people.
As you can see in the screenshot above, we were able to overclock our GV-R9700 PRO Maya II card to 378MHz core/344MHz memory, making this one of the best overclocking experiences we’ve had to date.
SIDEBAR: Gigabyte also manufactures a RADEON 9700 (non-PRO) model, the GV-R9700. So be careful if you’re ordering online, you may accidentally purchase the wrong card!
The GV-R9700 PRO is what we like to call a “first generation” RADEON 9700 PRO card. The first generation cards follow ATI’s RADEON 9700 PRO reference design very closely, if it isn’t an outright copy of the same design. Crucial and Powercolor are among the other manufacturers sticking with the first generation RADEON 9700 PRO design for even their newest cards.
For cooling the RADEON 9700 PRO core, Gigabyte has stuck with ATI’s reference heatsink/fan unit, which does a fairly decent job at keeping the VPU cool while at the same time keeping noise levels in check. Gigabyte did go with a gold aluminum heatsink rather than the standard black, we guess they wanted the Maya II card to stand out a little bit more.
For cooling the memory, Gigabyte has implemented small aluminum heatsinks. The strange part however, is that Gigabyte only cools the memory on the front of the card; the chips on the underside of the card aren’t donned with these heatsinks.
Of course, we all know by now that the RADEON 9700 PRO runs fine without these cooling units attached to the memory, but if Gigabyte isn’t going to use them on all of the memory chips, it can be really misleading to consumers (who only see the top of the card in promotional materials). It’s pretty apparent that the heatsinks are there for decorative purposes and while they look nice, Gigabyte probably shouldn’t have gone to the extra expense of adding them.
Other than those minor differences, the GV-R9700 PRO Maya II is identical to ATI’s own RADEON 9700 PRO card. If you’re hesitant to purchase a card that doesn’t come from ATI, you really shouldn’t be concerned with the Gigabyte GV-R9700. Gigabyte’s manufacturing capabilities are first rate; they didn’t become one of the world’s largest motherboard manufacturers producing poor products. And with so much integrated on the RADEON 9700 PRO core itself, there aren’t too many ways board manufacturers can really differentiate themselves. 2D display quality of the GV-R9700 was just as good as the other RADEON 9700 PRO cards we’ve tested.
SIDEBAR: Gigabyte’s V-Tuner actually supported hardware monitoring in previous cards; hopefully they can get that implemented on their R350 product.
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RADEON 9700 PRO core: You can’t start the Ballistics Report on the GV-R9700 PRO without discussing the ATI RADEON 9700 PRO core it’s built on first. Running at a 325MHz core/310MHz memory clock speed combination, ATI’s 0.15-micron VPU is still the fastest graphics product out there today, nearly six months after it was initially released. That’s quite an accomplishment in the graphics world, and ATI deserves all the credit in the world for pulling it off.
Compatibility: We’ve discussed the compatibility issues we’ve encountered with ATI RADEON 9700 PRO cards in the past, so we won’t spend too much time rehashing it again here. But needless to say, those of you with motherboards based on the SiS 648 chipset may run into performance and/or stability issues with the RADEON 9700 PRO. We’ve received comments from readers on both sides of the issue so you may or may not run into problems, but we wouldn’t be doing our job properly if we didn’t mention the compatibility problems we’ve run across with our cards. Keep in mind that this is not the fault of Gigabyte or the GV-R9700 card in particular, this can occur with any card based on the RADEON 9700 PRO core.
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