ATI Radeon 9800
Review part 2
The market is led, and fed, by the 'bleeding edge', the pinnacle of 3D gaming performance, and a slot which was until recently occupied by ATI's 9700 Pro. In response to the GeForce FX, which retrieved the position of technology leader for Nvidia, it's not only news but also review samples of the Radeon 9800 Pro [Click for Pic] that have trickled out at the time of announcement.
Designed around an optimised Radeon 9700 die [Click for Pic], ATI has improved on its previous 256-bit flagship in a number of ways. In come features such as true 128-bit floating point accuracy and OpenGL 2.0 support (care of the F-buffer) as well as making the necessary alterations to get the 0.15 micron chip operating at even higher frequencies (up to 380MHz core and 340MHz on the memory of the standard 128MB Pro board).
Bearing in mind the early arrival of the 9700 Pro, it's no surprise that boards are already adopting OpenGL 2. But it's questionable as to what value this will add to the effective life of the part - there is uncertainty as to how the 2.0 specification will even firm up for the consumer space, and there has been very little noise on the matter over the last few months (checking opengl.org, the current public specification still sits comfortably at 1.4).
Visually the card is very similar to the last generation, with an AGP 8x connector, power point at rear (molex this time, like the FX [Click for Pic]) and is only marginally larger than the 9700 Pro PCB. One tiny addition is a DIP switch, added to allow users and SIs to select PAL or NTSC for the TV-out socket.
The three key features of the previous chip have all seen an overhaul, now dubbed Smartshader 2.1, SmoothVision 2.1 and Hyper Z-III+. The changes come both in terms of speed, flexibility of the shaders, as well as efficiency and as a result are now labelled by ATI as being DX9++ compliant. Of course, with so many different facets already appearing in the latest of Microsoft's gaming interfaces, it's certainly going to be interesting to see how developers react to yet another bespoke iteration.
One of the main areas for criticism on the Radeon 9700 Pro was the limited length and method to which it handled fragment shader programs, only meeting the base requirements of 'full' DX9. As if in direct response, the 9800 features an F-Buffer in its pixel shaders which allows programs of a near unlimited length to be executed multi-pass, without having to be written in and out of the frame buffer.
The chip will initially be available in a single 128MB Pro flavour, priced similarly to that of the current top-end FX card from Nvidia, and ATI claims its partners should have cards for sale in Europe by mid-April. A little later, hopefully by late May, two further boards will appear, one standard model, also 128MB but running at slightly reduced frequencies, and a second Pro card, this time with a 256MB frame buffer of DDR 2.
ATI at present has only claimed DDR 2 memories, rather than actual DDR 2 support on its GPU, so it's unclear if the chip will benefit from the additional benefits of the new memory technology, or if instead the move is merely to get the modules onto the card (albeit running in DDR-I mode).
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