Summary: ASUS has made a name for itself building products that go beyond the average reference specifications. This heritage was first established in the motherboard market, but soon found its way into ASUS' line of NVIDIA-based video cards. Now ASUS is poised to bring new levels of innovation and performance to its ATI line of VPUs. The RADEON 9800 XT/TVD and RADEON 9600 XT/TVD are among their first offerings and offer features present nowhere else. See what ASUS does to separate themselves from the rest of the pack, and, for you flight sim fans, you won't want to miss our brand new benchmarks with Lock On: Modern Air Combat!
In the realm of motherboards, ASUS has established itself as the clear market leader, shipping more motherboards worldwide than any other manufacturer for a number of years. ASUS has built this base of support thanks to the unique combination of performance, features, reliability and price that their products offer. ASUS may not be the first motherboard manufacturer to implement a new feature (jumperless design for instance), but when a hot new technology comes out, theyíve always been quick to adopt it on their entire range of products.
ASUSí innovation on the graphics side has been equally impressive. They were one of the first manufacturers to hop onboard NVIDIAís RIVA 128, and were the first to offer a 64MB GeForce 256 DDR board. ASUS also rang in the second generation of AGP 8X-capable GeForce4 cards by producing the V9280S Ti 4200.
This card was essentially a GeForce 4 Ti 4200-8X that was grafted onto a GeForce4 Ti 4600 circuit board. ASUS then outfitted the board with BGA memory modules operating at 300MHz (600MHz effective), 25MHz faster than the more expensive GeForce4 Ti 4400, and clocked its NV28 graphics processor at 275MHz Ė the same clock speed as the GeForce4 Ti 4400! As a result of these changes, the V9280S was one of the fastest GeForce4 Ti 4200 cards on the market, including ABITís OTES design, plus it offered video input capability. It goes without saying that this card was an unqualified hit earning our Editorís Choice award and one of the highest scores weíve ever given a graphics card (second only to ATIís ALL-IN-WONDER 9700 PRO in fact).
In more recent months, ASUS has released GeForce FX 5900 Ultra and 5950 Ultra graphics cards that only require a single slot, the V9950 Ultra and the V9980 Ultra. Both of these cards defy the assumption that graphics cards based on these GPUs require two slots.
Now ASUS is applying its engineering expertise to the ATI market. Once again, theyíre looking to stir things up by designing cards that go beyond reference specifications.
If youíve been shopping around for ATI-based cards lately, you probably know by now how prevalent it is among manufacturers to simply stick with ATIís reference design. Some board manufacturers do little more than slap their sticker on the ATI reference board, box it all up, and call it a day. Even Sapphireís ultra high-end ULTIMATE Edition board is technically nothing more than a reference design with a really exotic cooling solution on it. Tyan was the only manufacturer that was trying to go beyond the conventional, but theyíve had a hard time with their Tachyon line due to limited support from ATI, delays, limited distribution channels, and pricing.
For their ATI-based cards, ASUS is using their extensive experience and R&D prowess to take the RADEON to all new levels. Unlike ATI, they arenít bound by OEM restrictions, so they can build boards that go beyond reference specifications, and thatís exactly what theyíve done with their RADEON 9800 XT and 9600 XT boards.
SIDEBAR: ASUS RADEON 9800 XT/TV Product Webpage
As their name implies, the ASUS RADEON 9800 XT/TVD and RADEON 9600 XT/TVD are based on ATIís two newest graphics cores, the RADEON 9800 XT and RADEON 9600 XT VPUs. The XT chips are basically higher clocked versions of their predecessors; ATI hasnít introduced any new technology in either chip at the hardware level.
In the case of the RADEON 9800 XT, this graphics core sports eight pixel pipelines (twice the number found in NVIDIAís 5950 Ultra) with one texture unit per pixel pipeline, as well as ATIís SMARTSHADER 2.1 and SMOOTHVISION 2.1 technologies for pixel/vertex shading and anisotropic filtering and anti-aliasing respectively. The graphics core operates at 412MHz and is equipped with 256MB of DDR memory running at 365MHz (730MHz effective).
To help reduce costs, the RADEON 9600 XT sports half the number of pixel pipelines as RADEON 9800 XT at four, also with one texture unit per pixel pipe. The memory interface is also reduced to 128-bits, versus the 256-bit memory interface the 9800 XT boasts. From a technology perspective, the 9600 XT supports the same 2.0 pixel and vertex shaders as the 9800 XT and retains floating point data format support. This means that the 9600 XT is capable of pushing out the same visuals as the RADEON 9800 XT, only at a reduced frame rate. The graphics core operates at 500MHz while the memory clocks in at 300MHz (600MHz effective).
Unlike the Ti 4200-based V9280S, ASUS sticks with the reference clock speeds for their RADEON 9800 XT and RADEON 9600 XT cards, so performance should be comparable to ATIís latest offerings, but ASUS does usurp ATI on the hardware and software front. Lets start with the software side first.
ASUSí Smart Doctor software brings full hardware monitoring functionality to the RADEON 9800 XT/TVD and RADEON 9600 XT/TVD. If youíre familiar with ATIís OVERDRIVE feature, which brings built-in overclocking support to the XT line, youíve got the basis for what Smart Doctor does, but ASUSí Smart Doctor goes several steps beyond that.
For instance, Smart Doctor constantly monitors critical functions such as voltages and temperatures of the graphics core and its memory, a feature OVERDRIVE doesnít offer. Smart Doctor also monitors the status of the graphics cardís fan(s). If any one of these devices falls out of spec (say for instance, a fan fails or the graphics core begins to overheat), an alarm can be triggered, alerting the end user to the problem immediately. ASUS Overheat protection can then kick in, automatically lowering the speed of the graphics core to prevent the temperature from increasing further. These steps can protect your graphics card from being permanently damaged.
SIDEBAR: You can even adjust the hardware monitoring polling time interval. It can be adjusted from 5 seconds to 1 minute in 5 second intervals.
One other really cool feature Smart Doctor offers that no other ATI card can boast (with the exception of Tyan, who also offers hardware monitoring with their cards) is the ability to manually adjust the speed of the graphics cards fan(s). This makes the ASUS RADEON cards perfect for small form factor or near silent PCs, as you can manually lower the RPMs of the fan.
If youíd like, Smart Doctor can dynamically adjust the speed of the fan depending on the temperature of the graphics core, using presets that you determine. Once the graphics chip hits that temperature threshold youíve set, Smart Doctor will automatically kick up the fanís RPMs in an attempt to keep the temperature in balance. This feature is known as ASUS SmartCooling. As a result of this feature, your graphics card isnít outputting more noise than it has to. ATI offers dynamic fan speeds on its RADEON 9800 XT card, but itís completely invisible to the end user and is not controllable.
For those of you who would like to overclock your graphics card, ASUS gives you some pretty powerful options with Smart Doctor. For traditionalists, or those who like to control everything by hand, ASUS provides manual overclocking control. This comes in the form of a handy graphics slider for both the graphics core and memory.
While most of ATIís board partners stick with the conventional red PCB, ASUS defies convention by building both of their XT boards with orange PCBs. This gives the ASUS boards a look that is definitely unique, although we still prefer the aqua blue PCB/gold back plate combination ASUS uses on its GeForce FX boards or even the black PCB ASUS used on its V9280S to the orange on the RADEON 9800 XT and RADEON 9600 XT. This is of course a subjective call though.
Looking at the board design itself, youíll see that it comes straight from ATIís playbook. ATI makes no changes to the boardís components or their placement on the PCB. While some may find this disappointing, as we said at the outset, this is very common nowadays as the cutthroat nature of the graphics market prevents graphics card manufacturers from taking the time come up with their own board design Ė by the time your board design is complete and has been qualified, ATIís next graphics product is right around the corner. This is a problem that has really hurt Tyan in particular.
ASUS does integrate one key addition that ATIís reference 9800 XT specification doesnít offer: a built-in Rage Theater chip. This little gem brings video input functionality to the ASUS RADEON 9800 XT/TVD and RADEON 9600 XT/TVD, which is where they get the ďTVDĒ designation from. Rage Theater is the same chip ATI uses on its ALL-IN-WONDER 8500/7500 line of graphics cards (although you donít get TV functionality on the ASUS card as it lacks a TV tuner).
Integrating Rage Theater was actually an ingenious move on ASUSí part, as ATIís reference driver offers built-in support for it. Therefore, you can get the full functionality of your ASUS card even if you rely on ATIís reference driver. This is important, if ASUS had chosen another solution for video encoding they wouldíve had to provide continuous support with each driver release or the card would lose that functionality when you upgraded to a newer driver. This was a problem that plagued some of ASUSí earlier NVIDIA-based ďDeluxeĒ cards. For connecting both cards to video devices, external VIVO (video-in/video-out) modules are included in both cardís packaging.
ASUSí cooling solution for the RADEON 9800 XT/TVD differs wildly from ATIís reference board. A copper plate is placed directly over the graphics core on both cards, although in the case of the ASUS card, a more traditional heatsink is then mated on top of the copper plate.
A much more noticeable difference on the ASUS card is the dual fan cooling design. ATI relies on one large fan to keep its RADEON 9800 XT graphics core cool. Fortunately even at top speed the fans arenít loud, and as we mentioned earlier their RPMs can be adjusted to any level you like. ASUSí dual fan design is also used on their entire line of GeForce FX cards and has been proven to be reliable and effective (although keep in mind that this isnít the exact same cooler used on ASUSí V9980 Ultra and V9950 Ultra).
SIDEBAR: When the ASUS cardís fan is running at 100%, it is a little louder than the ATI 9800 XT card at full speed.
Like their RADEON 9800 XT board, the biggest addition ASUS brings to the RADEON 9600 XT platform is video input support, which is provided by the external Rage Theater chip on the underside of the card. Rage Theater is a proven chip that was only recently replaced by THEATER 200 on ALL-IN-WONDER 9700 PRO (and newer) cards a little over a year ago.
This feature gives both ASUS cards a unique advantage that no other ATI card can match short of the more expensive ALL-IN-WONDER line. Not even ATI themselves offer video input on their RADEON line of graphics cards, so kudos to ASUS for bucking the system and offering a feature no one else has taken the effort to implement.
One other unique aspect of the RADEON 9600 XT/TVD that really stands out is the heatsink. Itís a conventional aluminum heatsink, just like ATIís RADEON 9600 XT card, but as you can see in the pictures, ASUSí corporate logo is plainly visible, in bold text to boot. ASUS must be particularly proud of this card, itís certainly a first.
The heatsink itself has tall, long fins and covers enough surface area to also cool the DDR memory modules on the top of the board. The fan itself isnít as large as ATIís, but itís effective at keeping the graphics core cool. You should also note that both ASUS boards have their fan connectors in locations that differ slightly from ATIís reference design as well as a third lead thatís responsible for monitoring the rotation speed of the cardís fan.
The final area we were curious to inspect on the RADEON 9600 XT/TVD was the memory modules ASUS implemented on their board. As you probably know, a lot of enthusiasts were disappointed by ATIís decision to stick with 600MHz DDR memory for the RADEON 9600 XT, the same clock speed theyíd relied on for the RADEON 9600 PRO. This means that the faster 9600 XT graphics core is going to be starving for more memory bandwidth at higher resolutions and/or with eye candy features such as anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering turned on.
ASUS gives overclockers are reason to breathe a sigh of relief by incorporating 350MHz DDR memory modules from Samsung on their RADEON 9600 XT/TVD. This means that the memory modules on this card are good for 700MHz, 100MHz higher than default. For some of you, this feature alone could make the RADEON 9600 XT/TVD worth buying! Just like the Rage Theater chip, this is a very nice touch from ASUS.
In addition to a voucher to receive a free copy of Half-Life 2, both ASUS cards ship with ASUS DVD XP, Cyberlink PowerDirector Pro 2.55 and Media Show SE 2.0, as well as copies of Cool 3D SE 3.0, and Photo Express SE 4.0 both from Ulead. Game titles include Gun Metal, Battle Engine Aquila, and a 6-in-1 CD of game demos (Splinter Cell, Warcraft III, Big Mutha Truckas, BREED, Colin McRae 3, TOCA Race Driver). ASUS then rounds the software packaging out with their own software, ASUS GameFace, ASUS Digital VCR II, and ASUS VideoSecurity II.
NASCAR Racing 2003 Season (Bristol custom demo)
Nascar 2003: OpenGL
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB: OpenGL
Quake III - OpenGL
Unreal Tournament 2003 Ė Direct3D
Splinter Cell Ė Direct3D
Tomb Raider Ė Direct3D
Lock On: Modern Air Combat Ė OpenGL
Unreal Tournament 2003
For our overclocking tests, we decided to crank Smart Doctor up to its maximums (the settings for 3D game mode) and enable ATIís OVERDRIVE to see how both utilities stacked up to one another. Purists will probably continue to overclock both cards with 3rd-party utilities such as Rage3D Tweak.
Performance: At the heard of the ASUS RADEON 9800 XT/TVD is ATIís RADEON 9800 XT VPU. This card boasts a 412MHz core, 8 pixel pipes, and a whopping 256-bit memory interface. Basically, it does without saying that this card is built for maximum performance. The RADEON 9600 XT is equally impressive in its own cost-reduced way.
Sure, it may not have the blazing DDR memory of its nearest competitor, but it has demonstrated good balanced performance in both DX8 and DX9 applications, something which is still somewhat up in the air for NVIDIA. It doesnít quite have enough horsepower for high resolution gaming with all the eye candy turned on, but it can still deliver good performance with excellent visuals at moderate screen resolutions.
Video input support: ASUS one-ups the competition by integrating ATIís Rage Theater chip for video input support. This brings the world of video editing to the RADEON 9800 XT and 9600 XT platforms, features that could only be found previously in ATIís ALL-IN-WONDER 9800 PRO and ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 PRO. It goes without saying that this aspect of the ASUS cards in particular turned a lot of heads.
If youíre a home video buff, the ASUS cards are the only game in town unless youíre willing to pay a premium for ALL-IN-WONDER.
Smart Doctor: ASUSí Smart Doctor utility goes so far beyond OVERDRIVE itís not even close. For starters youíve got active hardware monitoring of temperatures and voltages. If Smart Doctor detects trouble it can alert you with an alarm (which can be toggled to wait until youíre finished gaming if you wish) or take action on its own by dynamically underclocking the card to prevent it from being damaged. And donít forget the fan control, which can be adjusted manually or automatically. This ensures that your cardís noise output is always at an optimal level.
Finally, Smart Doctor can be used to overclock your graphics card. You can do things the old fashioned way and manually handle overclocking, or you can have Smart Doctor dynamically adjust the speed of the graphics core and memory depending on temperature level or CPU utilization. If you just want to go all-out, enable the HyperDrive feature in 3D game mode, which will return your cardís clocks to normal levels once youíre finished gaming.
9600 XT memory: ASUS equips the RADEON 9600 XT/TVD with Samsung memory modules that are rated for 700MHz! This is definitely going above and beyond the call of duty. Itís a shame ASUS didnít clock the memory on their 9600 XT/TVD board at 700MHz by default, as they would have had the fastest 9600 XT card on the market, but with these memory modules onboard, the ASUS RADEON 9600 XT/TVD has some serious overclocking potential.
Half-Life 2: Like all XT boards, the ASUS RADEON 9800 XT/TVD and 9600 XT/TVD ship with redeemable vouchers to obtain a free copy of Valveís upcoming shooter Half-Life 2. This is one of the most anticipated games of 2004. In fact, it has even got the Playstation 2 gamers looking forward to its debut on the PC. If those guys have a RADEON XT-based board in their rig, theyíll be ready to go as soon as the game goes live.
ASUS RADEON 9800 XT/TVD
The RADEON 9800 XT/TVD definitely takes the RADEON 9800 XT to new heights in functionality and, thanks to Smart Doctor, performance levels ATI just canít hit with OVERDRIVE. Just take a look at the performance results on the overclocking page for proof.
ATIís Rage Theater chip brings with it video encoding support, making it perfect for your vid caps or editing home movies, and the capture driver is built-in to ATIís CATALYST driver suite so installation is seamless.
Not only does Smart Doctor offer overclocking functionality (of both the graphics core and memory, something OVERDRIVE doesnít support yet), itís also a smart hardware monitor. It can be configured to take action without the end userís input.
Say for example a fan dies. With many other competing solutions, nothing happens. Smart Doctor however can automatically reduce the clock frequency of the graphics core and alert the user to the problem. If the card begins to overheat or just hits a temperature level thatís been predefined as too hot, Smart Doctor can crank up the fanís RPMs involuntarily. These are all features that have been present on motherboards for awhile now, so itís fitting that ASUS, the worldís largest motherboard manufacturer, brings these features to the RADEON 9800 XT market.
Prices on the ASUS board start at just under $480 online, so itís roughly $40-$50 dollars more than the lowest RADEON 9800 XT offerings, but when you consider the added extras youíre getting it isnít a heavy premium to pay, at least if you want maximum control of the high-end hardware you just purchased.
ASUS RADEON 9600 XT/TVD
Everything that makes the RADEON 9800 XT/TVD such a good card also applies to the RADEON 9600 XT/TVD, with the added bonus that ASUS also outfits the card with high quality memory (although we do know that Sapphire and Powercolor also use very good memory on their 9600 XT boards). Samsungís 700MHz memory modules were used on our board.
This gives you more headroom when overclocking, which, quite honestly is more important on the 9600 XT, as ATI played it a little too conservative with the RADEON 9600 XTís memory subsystem. Fortunately ASUS recognized this and took a step to resolve it.
Like the RADEON 9800 XT/TVD, prices on ASUSí 9600 XT card are a little higher than the competition, which is a bit tougher for the ASUS 9600 XT/TVD as itís priced pretty closely with graphics cards based on NVIDIAís GeForce FX 5900 XT graphics core.
Both of ASUSí RADEON XT cards offer features from both a hardware and software perspective that are unmatched in their respective segments, making them solid Editorís Choice products. Itís this type of innovation that has been lacking in the ATI market for so long. Hopefully ASUSí entry in the ATI market will raise the level of features and performance from all board manufacturers, including ATI. One thingís for certain, ASUS has definitely made a splash in the market, the level of competition has never been greater. And the ultimate winner is the consumer, as increased competition means more companies are competing harder to earn your business. The ASUS 9800 XT/TVD and ASUS 9600 XT/TVD are perfect examples of this, and they deliver in spades.
In the market for a new graphics card but donít know which card is best for you? Head on over to the FS forums for advice!
SIDEBAR: Is ASUS really the king-of-the-hill in 9800 XT/9600 XT cards or would you give the nod to ATI/Sapphire? Is there anything about the TVD cards you were disappointed with? Speak up in the news comments!
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