Summary: In addition to the RADEON 9800 XT, ATI has one more product to round out its Fall/Winter lineup: the RADEON 9600 XT. Based on a derivative of the RADEON 9600 PRO core, the RADEON 9600 XT delivers better performance, built-in overclocking with OVERDRIVE, and of course, a free copy of Half-Life 2! See how this card stacks up to its predecessors, as well as DX8 cards like the GeForce3/4 and RADEON 8500 in this article!
Developing a successful GeForce4 Ti 4200 killer has been a tough task for both ATI and NVIDIA. The GeForce4 Ti 4200ís DirectX 8 compliance, 8.2GB/sec memory bandwidth, and 2.0Gigatexels/sec fill rate has made it a worthy performer in the mainstream market, with a feature set that was second to none in its class exactly one year ago. In DX8 titles such as Splinter Cell, it was a good performer with frame rates that were more than adequate for its segment.
Because of this, when ATI launched its RADEON 9500 PRO, many GeForce4 owners were impressed with the 9500 PROís performance, but opted instead to keep their money in their pockets -- even though the RADEON 9500 PRO was capable of dusting NVIDIAís more powerful GeForce4 Ti 4600 in some situations! The upgrade just wasnít enough for a lot of consumers to take the plunge.
ATIís follow-up to the RADEON 9500 PRO, the RADEON 9600 PRO, wasnít really created to address performance, its predecessor certainly wasnít lacking in that area; instead it was concocted to address ATIís production costs. Weighing in with 110 million transistors and a complicated board design, the RADEON 9500 PRO was expensive for ATI to produce for the mainstream segment. Essentially, $300+ graphics products were being sold for $150-$200. The RADEON 9600 PRO was built from the ground up to offer DX9 compliance with good performance, but just as important, to address ATIís need for a mainstream offering that wasnít too costly to manufacture.
In this regard, the RADEON 9600 PRO was a definite success, but enthusiasts were disappointed because it was outperformed by the 9500 PRO in many cases. In order to lower production costs, ATI reduced the number of pixel pipelines in 9600 PRO to four, half the number contained within 9500 PRO. This change had a negative impact on fill rate. ATI attempted to offset this by boosting the core and memory clock frequencies, but it still wasnít enough.
While all this was occuring, NVIDIA was actually in a worse situation than ATI. We all know the delays they suffered throughout 2002, preventing DX9 hardware from shipping to retail until 2003. But their competitor to the RADEON 9500 PRO, GeForce FX 5600 Ultra, suffered through its own share of setbacks. The public response to initial 5600 Ultras samples was poor, requiring a follow-up, the 5600 Ultra flip-chip, which boasted higher clock speeds.
Unfortunately for NVIDIA, retail cards based on the updated 5600 Ultra core didnít arrive in significant quantities until August, leaving the 5600 to service this market, a task for which it was woefully under-prepared. ATI had won the hearts and minds of the mainstream segment, although there was still that nagging problem of convincing gamers to upgrade.
With DirectX 9 games like Tomb Raider and Halo now available, and Half-Life 2 right around the corner, gamers finally have a compelling reason to trade up from their RADEON 8500/8500LEís and GeForce3/4ís to a DX9 graphics card like the RADEON 9600 PRO. But to tempt consumers to upgrade even more, ATI has released another DX9 graphics card onto the market with even more performance than the RADEON 9600 PRO Ė the RADEON 9600 XT!
SIDEBAR: ATI RADEON 9600 XT Product Webpage
Besides reducing the number of pixel pipelines in RADEON 9600/RADEON 9600 PRO, one other cost-saving measure ATI implemented in the design of the RADEON 9600 core was to shrink its manufacturing process from 0.15-micron to 0.13-micron. The smaller process allows ATI to get more chips per silicon wafer (assuming good yields at 0.13-micron), thus increasing production without higher manufacturing costs. When coupled with the RADEON 9600 PROís 60-million transistor die (nearly half that of the 9500 PRO), ATI is able to produce significantly more cores with each production run. The end result is that ATIís manufacturing cost per chip is dramatically reduced, while at the same time more chips can conceivably be produced.
New clock speeds
Other than this addition, the RADEON 9600 XT core is largely the same as the RADEON 9600. Both cores feature four pixel pipelines with one texture unit per pixel pipeline, and dual vertex engines. For added performance, ATI has cranked up the core clock frequency of RADEON 9600 XT to 500MHz, an increase of 100MHz from the RADEON 9600 PRO. This change nets the RADEON 9600 XT an additional 400Mtexels/sec in fill rate, an increase of 20% over its predecessor. Despite this, the RADEON 9500 PRO still boasts the highest fill rate thanks to its eight-pixel pipeline architecture.
As the RADEON 9600 XT is based on a derivative of the RADEON 9600 PRO core, it isnít surprising to see that a lot of the RADEON 9600 PROís board design has been carried over to the RADEON 9600 XT. In fact, lots of the same components are still used, although there are a few subtle changes to the power circuitry.
The most striking change to the laymen is the red printed circuit board, allowing the RADEON 9600 XT to sport ATIís companyís color. RADEON 9600 PRO boards were built on green PCBs, which was surprising because we were under the impression that all of ATIís ďPROĒ boards would utilize red PCBs.
ATI has also replaced the RADEON 9600 PRO cooling unit (which was actually borrowed from the RADEON 8500/8500 LE) with a much more robust unit for the RADEON 9600 XT. Unlike the RADEON 9800 XT, which features a copper heatsink, aluminum is the material of choice for the RADEON 9600 XT heatsink. The heatsink unit itself is much larger than 9600 PROís, with a considerably larger base for effectively grabbing heat off the graphics core. This heat is then spread through dozens of fins, further increasing the surface area of the heatsink.
If all that werenít enough, ATI then mates this beefier heatsink to the cooling fan that was used on the RADEON 9800/RADEON 9800 PRO. Considering that the RADEON 9600 PRO core operates relatively cool in the first place, this enhanced cooling unit will likely be regarded as a welcome bonus among enthusiasts.
Our RADEON 9600 XT sample shipped with 3.3ns memory modules manufactured by Samsung. These chips are rated for operation at 300MHz, matching the specs of the RADEON 9600 XT exactly. This was a bit of a disappointment to us, as we were crossing our fingers that ATI may use 350MHz modules, but with these chips now going into ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 PRO boards, weíre guessing that they want a little more distinction in their 9600 products.
Like the RADEON 9800 XT, the RADEON 9600 XT has a thermal diode onboard. This feature gives ATI the ability to take accurate temperature readings, which can be monitored by the display driver. ATI then uses this information to dynamically adjust the clock frequency of the graphics processor, this feature is known as OVERDRIVE.
NASCAR Racing 2003 Season (Bristol custom demo)
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB
Quake III - OpenGL
Unreal Tournament 2003 Ė Direct3D
Splinter Cell Ė Direct3D
Tomb Raider Ė Direct3D
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB
Unreal Tournament 2003
Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness
Unreal Tournament 2003
Like the RADEON 9800 XT, the RADEON 9600 XT isnít a dramatic departure from its predecessor. ATI has merely refined the formula a bit and cranked up the clocks for higher performance. In DX8 and older titles, performance is enhanced by roughly 6-10%, depending on the application and the screen resolution tested. Of course, flight simmers probably wonít notice much of a difference between the PRO variants of any of the three mainstream DX9 cards ATI offers.
Performance with the RADEON 9600 XT in Tomb Raider was remarkably better than the RADEON 9600 PRO, more closely matching the fill rate difference between the 9600 XT and the 9600 PRO. This supports the assertion that DX9 titles will be more reliant on the VPUís functional units that encompass shading rather than traditional performance metrics like memory bandwidth. The 9600 XT performs well here thanks to its 500MHz core clock, but the 8-pixel pipeline architecture of the 9500 PRO proved superior under maximum visual quality settings.
Because of this, weíd say that those of you with 9500 PRO boards made a good gaming investment. While the 9600 XT does outperform the 9500 PRO in a number of tests, the 9500 PRO is still holding its own in a wide variety of benchmarks. Most would probably agree that the RADEON 9600 XT isnít a 9500 PRO killer in terms of performance. Of course, once supplies of 9600 XT hit retail from a number of board manufacturers, prices will quickly drop; consumers may forget the 9500 PRO ever existed.
ATI plans to begin shipping the RADEON 9600 XT later this month at an MSRP of $199. When this occurs, prices on the other RADEON 9600 cards will fall, although we donít have final pricing data for these cards yet. Already 9600 PRO cards can be found for under $140 online, so it will be interesting to see what immediate effect, if any, the arrival of the 9600 XT will bring.
ATI will ship all 9600 XT cards with a free voucher for Half-Life 2. End users will have the option of downloading the game via Valveís Steam client, or having the CD mailed directly, although a shipping and handling fee will apply in this case. When you factor in the 9600 XTís solid performance, excellent feature set, and attractive pricing, itís a package thatís pretty hard for any gamer to pass up. In fact, with the addition of Half-Life 2, the RADEON 9600 XT becomes one of, if not the best values currently available on the market.
If Valve is able to finish Half-Life 2 in time for the holiday shopping season, this may be just the nudge millions of gamers with older DX8 and especially DX7 hardware need to take the plunge and upgrade. This is the market ATI is going after with the RADEON 9600 XT, and based on what weíve seen today, it looks like theyíve delivered a very compelling product.
SIDEBAR: Are you drooling for a RADEON 9600 XT or is the 9800 XT more your style? Perhaps youíre going to hold out with your GeForce4 or RADEON 8500 a little longer? Chat with others in the news comments!
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