ATi Radeon 9800Pro Full Release Review

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The ATi Radeon 9800 Pro Full Release Review
ATi Technologies Distances Itself From NVIDIA Once Again

By, Dave Altavilla
March 5, 2003

This article and review showcase should come as no surprise to those of you that have been following the never ending saga of World Domination in the 3D Graphics Card arena.  Just a few short weeks after NVIDIA officially allowed the GeForce FX 5800 Ultra to peek its head out from the test lab and on to the pages of no more than a couple select on-line and print media publications, the Engineering and Marketing teams at ATi are launching another volley right back at their competitor, once formerly known as the "Chipzilla" of 3D Graphics.  The tables certainly have turned in ATi's favor, as the best laid plans from NVIDIA's camp, seem to be foiled again for yet another product cycle.  The early move to a .13 micron process, still hinders NVIDIA to this very day, with extremely poor yields on the NV30 keeping incarnations of card level products from hitting any sort of reasonable volume in the retail or OEM channels. 

Meanwhile, with the product we'll showcase for you today, ATi has taken an already hugely successful .15 micron core, beefed it up a bit and turn the clock speeds up another notch, just for good measure.  No one in their right mind would have taken a bet on NVIDIA losing their edge in this game of "counter-assault engineering", that brought us new technology nearly every 6 months.  However, these are amazing and challenging times we are living in today, with the Tech Sector going through a proverbial face lift.  New leaders are emerging and incumbents falling every day.  This is not to say that NVIDIA is going anywhere any time soon but the Silicon Valley giant has definitely taken a knee and ATi is capitalizing on the situation from all angles. 

It was with relative ease that ATi has brought forth their "mid-life kicker" product follow-up to the R300 VPU.  With seemingly perfect timing, almost coincidental with NVIDIA's NV30 launch, ATi sends up a Patriot Missle targeted at intercepting NVIDIA's new generation product.  Built on a workhorse .15 micron process, the R350 VPU that powers the Radeon 9800 Pro, looks to be more than enough, at least on paper, to keep the Canadians out in front. 

Let's have a look at the specifics.

Features of the Radeon 9800 Pro and R350 VPU
Taking the R300 up a notch or two

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GRAPHICS TECHNOLOGY

RADEON? 9800 Visual Processing Unit (VPU)
380MHz Core Clock

MEMORY CONFIGURATION

  • 128MB of Double Data rate SDRAM - 340MHz DDR (680MHz)

  • Or 256MB of DDR2 SDRAM

3D GRAPHICS FEATURES

  • Eight parallel rendering pipelines process up to 3.04 billion pixels per second

  • Four parallel geometry engines process up to 380 million transformed and lit polygons per second

  • High precision 10-bit per channel frame buffer support

  • 256-bit DDR memory interface

  • AGP 8X support

-SMARTSHADER? 2.1

  • Full support for Microsoft® DirectX® 9.0 programmable pixel and vertex shaders in hardware

  • 2.0 Pixel Shaders support up to 16 textures per rendering pass

  • 2.0 Vertex Shaders support vertex programs with an unlimited number of instructions and flow control

  • 128-bit per pixel floating point color formats

  • Multiple Render Target (MRT) support

  • Shadow volume rendering acceleration

  • Complete feature set also supported in OpenGL via extensions

-SMOOTHVISION? 2.1

  • State-of-the-art full-scene anti-aliasing

  • New technology processes up to 18.2 billion anti-aliased samples per second for unprecedented performance

  • Supports 2x, 4x, and 6x modes with programmable sample patterns

  • Advanced anisotropic filtering

  • Supports up to 16 bilinear samples (in performance mode) or trilinear samples (in quality mode) per pixel

  • 2x/4x/6x full scene anti-aliasing modes

  • Adaptive algorithm with programmable sample patterns

  • 2x/4x/8x/16x anisotropic filtering modes

  • Adaptive algorithm with bilinear (performance) and trilinear (quality) options

  • Bandwidth-saving algorithm enables this feature with minimal performance cost

-HYPER Z? III+

  • Hierarchical Z-Buffer and Early Z Test reduce overdraw by detecting and discarding hidden pixels

  • Lossless Z-Buffer Compression and Fast Z-Buffer Clear reduce memory bandwidth consumption by over 50%

  • Fast Z-Buffer Clear

  • 8.8 : 1 Compression Ratio

  • Optimized Z-Cache for enhanced performance of shadow volumes

-TRUFORM? II

  • 2nd generation N-patch higher order surface support

  • Discrete and continuous tessellation levels per polygon for dynamic LOD

  • DirectX 9.0 displacement mapping

VIDEO/DISPLAY FEATURES

-VIDEOSHADER?

  • Seamless integration of programmable pixel shaders with video data

  • High quality, hardware accelerated de-blocking of internet streaming video

  • Noise removal filter for captured video

  • Integrated MPEG-2 decode

  • Hardware accelerated iDCT, motion compensation, and color space conversion

  • Top quality DVD and all-format DTV/HDTV decode with low CPU overhead

  • Back-end scaler delivers top quality playback

  • Upscaling and downscaling with 4-tap horizontal and vertical filtering

  • Filtered display of images up to 1920 pixels wide

  • Unique per-pixel adaptive de-interlacing feature combines the best elements of the ?bob? and ?add-field? (weave) techniques

FULLSTREAM? video de-blocking technology

  • Noise removal filtering for captured video

  • MPEG-2 decoding with motion compensation, iDCT and color space conversion

  • All-format DTV/HDTV decoding

  • YPrPb component output

  • Adaptive de-interlacing and frame rate conversion

  • Dual integrated display controllers

  • Dual integrated 10-bit per channel 400MHz DACs

  • Integrated 165 MHz TMDS transmitter (DVI and HDCP compliant)

  • Integrated TV Output support up to 1024x768 resolution

  • Optimized for Pentium® 4 SSE2 and AMD Athlon? 3Dnow!

  • PC 2002 compliant

DISPLAY FEATURES

  • Dual integrated display controllers

  • Drive two displays simultaneously with independent resolutions and refresh rates

  • HYDRAVISION? software provides complete control over multi-display configurations with a user-friendly interface

  • Dual integrated 10-bit per channel palette DACs operating at up to 400MHz

  • Integrated 165MHz TMDS transmitter supports resolutions up to QXGA (2048x1536) and complies with DVI and HDCP specifications

  • Integrated TV-Out support up to 1024x768 resolution

  • YPrPb output for direct drive of HDTV monitors

DISPLAY SUPPORT

  • 15-pin VGA connector for analog CRT

  • S-video or composite connector for TV/VCR

  • DVI-I connector for digital CRT or flat panel

  • Independent resolutions and refresh rates for any two connected displays

GENERAL FEATURES

  • Comprehensive 2x, 4x, and 8x AGP support

  • High performance quad-channel DDR or DDR2 memory interface supports 64/128/256MB configurations

  • Fully compliant with PC 2002 requirements

  • Optimized for Pentium® 4 SSE2 and AMD Athlon? 3Dnow! processor instructions

  • Supports optional THEATER? 200 companion chip for NTSC/PAL/SECAM video capture

  • Highly optimized 128-bit 2D engine with support for new Windows® XP GDI extensions


If you are familiar with specifications of the Radeon 9700 Pro, this rap sheet above should be somewhat repetitive for you.  However, there are a few major differences you should note, that will power this VPU well beyond its older sibling.  First and foremost, the Core Engine speed has been bumped up to 380MHz.  However, as you see later in this article, there is much more headroom for this graphics processor, beyond its stock speed.  Additionally, the DDR Memory clock has been goosed up to 680MHz, offering theoretically 21.8GB/sec of wide and fast 256 bit memory bandwidth, with the help of ATi's "Hyper Z III+" compression technology.

The other changes perhaps have a little bit more Marketing spin on them but there is also a fair amount of technical merit to back them up.  Namely, "SmoothVision 2.1" Anti-Aliasing and Anisotropic Filtering technology and SmartShader 2.1 Pixel and Vertex Shaders, have all been optimized yet again to support and exploit the hardware architectural enhancements that were made.  We'll cover these in more detail shortly.

The Card:

The Radeon 9800 Pro we received, unbeknownst to us at the time of testing, is actually a product built on the manufacturing lines as the folks at Visiontek.  Thusly, we expect Visiontek to be one of the first to have these cards in volume in the retail channel.  The card itself most certainly is a lesson in design elegance.  The board is only slightly longer than a Radeon 9700 Pro and with a layout and bill of materials, that is sure to offer good profit margins for ATi and their OEMs board partners, that will build products based off the reference design.

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ATi's cooling system is svelte, when compared to the behemoth cooler that is attached to a GeForce FX 5800 Ultra.  The cooling fan is quiet and the card takes only one slot location in your chassis.  It's the way a graphics card should be designed and the way OEMs want to build them, neat, clean and easy.  The heatsink ATi went with this time around, is actually slightly less bulky than even a retail Radeon 9700 Pro board but it does a nice job of keeping the chip cool under full load.

The memory used on this board, is Samsung's 350MHz (700MHz DDR) DDR DRAM.  This memory is the fastest speed bin available right now, before making the jump to DDR2 technology.  These chips actually run pretty hot under gaming conditions.  We're sure there will be more than one board OEM that will get creative with cooling solutions for these BGA Memory chips, boosting "overclockability" and stability.  Regardless, they are fast and rock solid stable up to even 350MHz DDR and higher, as you'll see in the following pages.  Although, ATi opted to clock their board at 20MHz less than the ceiling for this type of memory, at 340MHz DDR or 680MHz.

Finally, the 4 pin Molex power connector on the 9800 Pro is the significantly easier to work with (and more abundant in your system) than the Floppy Drive power connector used on the Radeon 9700 Pro.  Also, those of you that are astute, may have noticed the tiny 2 position Dip Switch on the board, right next to the fan power connector.  We were told this is for switching to NTSC or PAL format on the TV output of the card.

So, there you have it, the hardware side of the Radeon 9800 Pro board is covered.  Let's look a little closer at the architecture of the R350.

Architecture and New Features

 


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