Summary: ATI plans to change all the rules once again with its RADEON 9800 XT. Sporting an updated R360 graphics core and 256MB memory, the RADEON 9800 XT is built for maximum performance. ATI also has some very interesting plans in store for overclockers with its OVERDRIVE feature, while those of you who are concerned about cooling will want to read up on the 9800 XT's new copper ducting system and how it was developed. And of course, don't forget overclocking numbers! All that and more right here folks, check it out!
ATI has been on quite a roll the past twelve months. First, the Canadian firm released the RADEON 9700 PRO, the world’s first DirectX 9 graphics accelerator. The RADEON 9700 PRO was a significant leap forward from previous graphics architectures, not only did it support the 2.0 pixel and vertex shaders that are critical for DirectX 9 compliance, it also boasted a fully floating point pipeline that supports 128-bit floating point data formats. This feature gives the RADEON 9700 PRO the ability to perform all kinds of complicated math. As a result, images look incredibly lifelike; colors are more vibrant with a wide degree of ranges.
Of course, all this means nothing if the hardware can’t perform. To address this, ATI integrated eight pixel pipelines along with four vertex engines for pumping pixels and polygons, as well as a 256-bit memory interface for better performance with eye candy features such as anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering turned on. The end result was a product that was markedly better than anything else on the market. It’s a true testament to the design of the RADEON 9700 that it still holds up so well a year after it was initially released.
ATI built a worthy successor in the form of the RADEON 9800 PRO. The 9800 PRO addressed some of the shortcomings of the original RADEON 9700 architecture, its F-buffer allows it to support fragment shader programs of unlimited length. In addition, ATI reworked the 9800’s memory controller for better efficiency in bandwidth-intensive situations as well as enhancing its Z-cache to perform better with stencil buffers. ATI also made some board level changes to the RADEON 9800 to help combat heat.
When combined with the higher clock speeds the RADEON 9800 PRO shipped with, ATI had another winner on its hands.
We’re now a year removed from the original RADEON 9700 launch, and six months out from the RADEON 9800’s public unveiling. Following traditional graphics releases, it’s now time for a next generation product right?
The answer is not quite. While ATI is now following a strict 6-month product cycle, the graphics industry is still not quite ready to move to 3.0 pixel and vertex shaders, much less DirectX 10 (which is even further out from release). Instead, ATI has updated its graphics line with a pair of new products: the RADEON 9800 XT (formerly codenamed R360) on the high end and the RADEON 9600 XT for the mainstream market (formerly codenamed RV360). As their name suggests, neither product is a dramatic departure from previous offerings, rather ATI has updated both products for more performance.
Basically ATI has taken a good thing and made it even better. That’s always good right?
SIDEBAR: You can see the difference 2.0 pixel and vertex shaders as well as 128-bit floating point make in the images from our RADEON 9700 PRO preview.
New clock speeds
As we just mentioned, the RADEON 9800 XT is based on the same basic core as the RADEON 9800; only it operates faster. This means that it’s built off the same basic 110 million transistor 0.15-micron core as the RADEON 9700 PRO. The changes introduced with the 9800 architecture bump transistor count up by 5 million transistors for a grand total of 115 million.
The design of the RADEON 9800 XT board is an extreme departure from the RADEON 9800 PRO, as you no doubt can see in our pictures. A considerable amount of the board’s circuitry has been replaced with higher quality components -- the most notable example being the voltage regulator modules. ATI has redesigned the board for operation at higher clock speeds; we’ve been told that the parts have been qualified for higher power and consequently to take more heat.
SIDEBAR: Design on the RADEON 9800 XT cooler began right after the 9800 was completed, several concepts were considered before ATI finally settled on the copper cooler you see today.
New fan design
The fan itself is massive in comparison to ATI’s previous offerings, but fortunately it’s still quiet. The fan operates dynamically, meaning it cranks up the RPMs as temperatures increase. Two settings are available, a low-RPM setting that runs if the core remains cool; and a higher setting is used once temperatures begin to really build up. While we were running 2D tasks the fan never left its lower setting, and even held there for some game benchmarks, but after extended 3D use the fan would run faster.
ATI considered a more variable speed fan, but they found that the constant throttling back and forth was very noticeable to end users. Instead the fan operates at a constant speed depending on the mode it’s in, so the “2D” mode the RPMs don’t vary drastically, the same applies for the faster “3D” mode. Keep in mind that while we call one mode 2D and one 3D; the speed of the fan doesn’t depend on the application: it’s technically conceivable that the fan may crank up to the higher setting in 2D mode. We never saw this occur during our testing, and ATI tells us they’ve tested the fan in a number of applications, including small form-factor boxes like Shuttle’s XPC line.
As you can see in the pictures we’ve posted, the fan is located off-center of the graphics core – it isn’t located directly above the VPU like previous ATI reference designs. This modification has two benefits. First, the R360 core that the RADEON 9800 XT is based on gets pretty toasty. This heat in turn goes straight up to the card’s fan. Heat can shorten the life of components, especially over excessive periods of time. ATI felt it would be better for the longevity of the fan’s ball-bearings if the fan was located offset of the graphics core. This is also an important concern for OEMs.
The second reason for the change is related to the new cooling duct. By shifting the cooling fan, air can be spread across the board more effectively.
So what's the end result of this new cooling system? ATI claims the revamped cooler bought them an additional 15-20MHz in core clock speed. That's not to say that they couldn't crank the core higher, but they wanted to maintain a specific thermal threshold for RADEON 9800 XT. Most likely the pressing factor was OEMs.
OVERDRIVE: Higher factory clocks
If you feel a little letdown by the RADEON 9800 XT’s standard core clock frequency, OVERDRIVE is one feature you’ll probably be interested in. When enabled, OVERDRIVE will boost the clock frequency of the R360 core depending on temperature:
NASCAR Racing 2003 Season (Bristol custom demo)
As you can see, we’ve just added Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness to our suite of benchmarks for this review. This is one of the first DX9 titles to hit the market, so we definitely wanted to get it included. We still haven’t decided if this game will be a long term addition or just a temporary solution, as we also plan on including upcoming titles like Halo (which just shipped today) and Lock On: Modern Air Combat, not to mention Half-Life 2.
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB
Quake III - OpenGL
Unreal Tournament 2003 – Direct3D
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
Tomb Raider – Direct3D
Unreal Tournament 2003
Unreal Tournament 2003
If you were hoping for another revolution from ATI this fall, don’t be. Next-generation parts won’t make their debut until sometime next year. Considering that the first crop of DX9 titles are just now hitting store shelves, this isn’t a major setback. Of course, you may also be disappointed that the RADEON 9800 XT adds no new technology over the RADEON 9800. To us, this is a definite sign that ATI is confident in their architecture, and based on what we’ve seen today, we have no reason to dispute this.
In terms of performance, the RADEON 9800 XT yields a nice boost over the RADEON 9800 PRO, although it isn’t quite as dramatic as the increases we’re sure many of you were hoping for. Personally, we’re still amazed that ATI has been able to squeeze so much out of its 0.15-micron process! Also keep in mind that ATI has its OVERDRIVE feature just waiting in the wings.
Once ATI is able to implement clock speed and memory adjustments, this could be one handy feature for those of you who are reluctant to overclock your graphics card. Just keep in mind that your results will always be limited by ATI’s specifications as well as your card’s ability to remain cool. For this reason, we intend to test OVERDRIVE out in a variety of case configurations for the final RADEON 9800 XT product review. Due to the conservative clock frequencies ATI has currently specified, it isn’t a “killer” feature, diehards will always prefer manual overclocking, but it’s looking like it will be a good step in the right direction.
So when will RADEON 9800 XT boards ship and how much will they cost? ATI plans to ship boards in October, with an MSRP of $499. Based on the fact that we’ve already received a retail ASUS RADEON 9800 XT card (preview coming shortly) we have a feeling they should be able to hit those targets fairly easily. Unfortunately ATI hasn’t determined its latest pricing for the RADEON 9800, RADEON 9800 PRO, and RADEON 9800 PRO 256MB, but with a new king of the hill right on the horizon, prices on these cards will quickly fall. ATI has told us that they don’t plan on phasing out the elder 9800 cards, the RADEON 9800 XT is merely a complement, so supply of these cards won’t dry up like the RADEON 9700 and RADEON 9500 families.
The real kicker is that ATI will be bundling Valve’s Half-Life 2 with its XT boards. This feature alone is a $50 value. End users will have the option of downloading the game (presumably via Steam), or sending in a coupon and paying for shipping and handling fees. We have a feeling that ATI will be selling a lot of 9800 XT and 9600 XT cards based on this feature alone!
So far we like what we’ve seen from the RADEON 9800 XT. It isn’t the groundbreaking product that the RADEON 9700 PRO was, but from what we can tell, ATI has thrown in just enough new features and performance to make it a temping upgrade for any hardcore gamer who craves the very best. As always we’ll reserve final judgment for the official review, but right now the RADEON 9800 XT looks like another Editor’s Choice contender!
SIDEBAR: Are you excited about the RADEON 9800 XT or are you disappointed with the clock speeds? What about the Half-Life 2 deal? Share your thoughts with others on this card and how it stacks up in the news comments!
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