Even if you're a casual computer user, you've undoubtably heard of . They've been around forever, and chances are, at some time in your computer history, you've probably had ATi silicon powering your graphics. Despite nVidia dominating the headlines ever since the TNT2 Ultra, and garnering a lot of press due to their popularity in the consumer market, ATi managed to do quite well thanks to its OEM market penetration. They have lost some ground to nVidia, but still hold a substantial part of the business market.
ATi has always made decent performance hardware, but they always seemed a step behind nVidia. The Radeon 8500 was supposed to compete directly against the GeForce 3, but lost that edge when their rivals released a new Detonator driver set. This seemed to be ATi's weakness, as their driver development wasn't nearly as timely as nVidia's. The Radeon 8500 lost some more luster as the GeForce 4 was released shortly after it. Although the R200 was an excellent piece of hardware, enthusiasts still chose GeForce technology to drive their framerate crunching machines.
Enter the no-excuses, no-holds-barred Radeon 9x00 series. The Radeon 9000 takes aim at nVidia's budget line, and the top-of-the-line goes toe-to-toe with the GeForce 4 Ti4600. Announced last week, the Radeon 9500 Pro (and non-Pro) target the lower end Titaniums themselves. For most of our readers it seems, framerates do matter, even at the expense of image quality. ATi promises the patented ATi image quality (excellent), with the framerates to back it up. Is this a bluff, or are they spot on with those bold claims? We'll see...
Fastest* 3D gaming performance with next-generation VPU architecture
Complete DirectX® 9.0 support for unprecedented realism and sophisticated visual effects
SMOOTHVISION" 2.0 technology provides new levels of image quality with advanced full-scene anti-aliasing (FSAA) and anisotropic filtering
Revolutionary new video features including VIDEOSHADER" and FULLSTREAM" technologies
Featuring CATALYST" - ATI's industry-leading software suite with frequently scheduled free updates providing additional features and performance over the product's lifetime
Fastest* 3D Gaming Performance
128MB DDR memory accelerates the latest 3D games
256-bit memory interface removes hardware performance bottleneck and provides end users with faster 3D graphics
Industry's first 8-pixel pipeline architecture, providing twice the rendering power of any currently competing product.
Supports the new AGP 8X standard, providing a high-speed link between the graphics board and the rest of the PC (2.0 GB/sec)
Highest Level of Realism
First to fully support DirectX® 9.0 and the latest OpenGL® functionality
New SMARTSHADER" 2.0 technology allows users to experience complex, movie-quality effects in next-generation 3D games and applications
SMOOTHVISION" 2.0 technology enhances image quality by removing jagged edges and bringing out fine texture detail, without compromising performance
128-bit floating-point color precision allows for a greater range of colors and brightness
Revolutionary New Video Features
Unique VIDEOSHADER" engine uses programmable pixel shaders to accelerate video processing and provide better-looking visuals
ATI's new FULLSTREAM" technology removes blocky artifacts from Streaming and Internet video and provides sharper image quality
Impressive specs indeed, but a lot of hardware looks good on paper. There is an 8 pixel and 4 vertex pipeline, effectively double what the Ti4600 has, though ATi is limited to one texture, whereas the Ti4600 can do 2 per pipeline. The 9700 has two 10-bit, 400MHz RAMDACs, which should allow for some impressive image quality on a dual monitor setup.
Let's take a closer look at the R300 chip itself from which the Radeon 9700 is based...
There was a lot of hype about the R300 GPU. Now that it's here, you've no doubt heard about how fast it is. Honestly though, speed is a given, but with most videocards post-GeForce 3 having more than enough power, we look for other things to make the purchase worthwhile. Make no mistake though, any post-GF3 video card better be faster also.
Two big headliners are the DirectX 9.0 support and AGP 8x. These are very forward looking features, and you can bet that any cards released in the next 6 months will tout these features as well. Granted, the SiS Xabre was probably the first AGP 8x part on the market, but it's lack of raw horsepower won't make it in the enthusiast market. Returning is Smartshader 2.0, ATi's 2nd generation T&L engine, which includes programmable vertex and pixel shader technologies.
Smoothvision gets an upgrade with Smoothvison 2.0. As the name implies, you get advanced full-scene anti-aliasing (FSAA) and anisotropic filtering. Both these features have been here before, but now everything is done both better and faster.
Anisotropic filtering sharpens textures by removing the blur we're accustomed to seeing in 3D games. With the R300, up to 16 texture samples per pixel can be taken now, though you will suffer a performance hit.
For FSAA, there are two methods. The first is super sampling where as the name implies, the image is rendered at a higher resolution, then filtered down to the display resolution. Jittering, a technique used earlier where multiple offset samples are taken of an image to create a more natural AA, returns again, but at a less performance cost. This is achieved by a lossless compression technique that can be as much as 6 times faster than before.
Truform makes a comeback, and is a technique used to smooth curved surfaces of an object. Using tessellation, a method of increasing polygon count, it is no longer bound by pre-programmed tessellation levels, but rather, it is more flexible and supports continuous tessellation. Depending on the distance from the object, adaptive tessellation comes into play which will adjust the level depending how close you are.
Truform also supports displacement mapping, which provides more control over a 3D object than bump mapping. By adjusting values in the vertices, objects will appear more realistic.
HyperZ III is ATi's method for saving on memory bandwidth. One reason why there is so much fast memory on videocards is because textures, and colour depth eats up a lot of bandwidth. Now on its 3rd generation, HyperZ improves with three different components.
The first is Hierarchical Z, which hides pixels that won't be displayed in a 3D image. The second is Z Compression, which can compress data going to the Z buffer by a 2:1 ratio, and under ideal circumstances 4:1. What is interesting is that with anti-aliasing, it can be as high as 24:1, which should provide a substantial speed benefit for AA performance. Finally, Fast Z Clear clears the Z buffer between rendered frames. At high resolutions, waiting for the Z buffer to clear can take a long time since it requires a large amount of data (7.7MB at 1600x1200) must be written to every frame to clear it. Hyper Z needs just a fraction of the same data, making it much faster.
To show that the Radeon is more than games, ATi has introduced the Videoshader. To me, this is more beneficial for those without good broadband connections. What this technology is supposed to do is help smoothout streaming video, which tends to be blocky. The result are clearer and smoother video. For those with captured video, the Videoshader can also clean up the noise that may be present.
It's really a do everything technology, as we can see above. It will be interesting to see how this innovation all plays out as the applications get released that can actually take advantage of it. Let's take a closer look at the card itself...
The Radeon 9700
People with "normal" sized cases will be happy to know that their shouldn't be any capacitor crunching. The Radeon 9700 is quite a bit smaller than the Ti4600, and should fit most motherboards and cases without any problems. It should be fair to note that nVidia did follow the AGP specifications in their design, but your motherboard may not have.
Thunbnails can be clicked to enlarge
You'll also notice the heat plate on the back of the PCB. This is to help dissapate the additional heat from the capacitors located directly opposite on the front. Speaking of the PCB, case window fans rejoice, as the Radeon 9700 ships with a nice red one.
The heatsink/fan combination is quite a bit larger than what shipped with the 8500. The 9700 is reported to run very warm, and a larger cooling solution was required. The core is clocked at 325MHz for our model, but you can likely expect non-Pro (or OEM) cards to be clocked a little slower. Although our sample ran stable, I was a little troubled by the heat eminating from the back of the PCB (directly behind the core). It was hot, and the good ole finger test* lasted about 5 seconds. (* Placing the finger on the PCB behind the core. The hotter the PCB, the less time the finger stays on it).
ATi supplies a power extension cable to split power from your power supply to your video card. Yes folks, you read it right. The Radeon 9700 needs extra juice. This shouldn't be an issue for most of you, but ATi suggests a beefy PSU 300W and up.
What is becoming common place now, the Radeon 9700 ships with the BGA ram. Like the GeForce 4 Ti4600s we've tested, the ram is manufactured by Samsung. Our card was clocked at 310MHz (620MHz DDR), and the ram uses 2.8ns BGA chips.
Theoretically, this should allow the ram to run at 357MHz, so the 310MHz is pretty conservative. I did find the capacitors a little close to the ram, which might be an issue if you planned to epoxy some large ram coolers to it. The 9700 Pro comes equipped with 128MB of 256-bit DDR providing 19 840MB/second of graphics memory bandwidth. If you're keeping track, that's effectively double nVidia's top part.
Like the Radeon 8500 before it, you are able to hook up two monitors to the Radeon 9700. We have a basic CRT connection, a S-Video Out, as well as a DVI connection.
ATi includes a DVI-to-CRT connection, so if you do not own a flat panel, you can still hook up a CRT. A composite-out connection, S-Video and composite cable round out the package. What is commendable are the fact that the cables are so long. It's always annoyed me when a company included a 2 inch adaper, rather than a full blown cable.
In the past, ATi didn't exactly have the best driver support. Either the drivers were buggy, or they were missing features altogether (SMOOTHVISION). I had a lot of buddies turned off by ATi because they couldn't get the original Radeon to work in Windows 2000.
ATi has come a long way since then, and their drivers have improved a lot. There are still a couple of bugs with D3D games, but at least they know about it, and are working on it. What has brought good press though, are their new Catalyst drivers. No longer do you need to download huge driver packages, getting lost what drivers go with what card. You can download individual packages, be it drivers, control panel software, ATi's Multimedia Center, etc... ATi also promises to be more timely with updates, though they're still not at the nearly daily leaked Detonator rate. Still, it's always better to get official drivers when they're ready, rather than hosing your system with betas.
Something we didn't mention earlier, but is driver related, is DirectX. The Radeon 9700 is supposed to be compatible with DirectX 9, meaning that DX 9's features are to be supported in hardware. Well, considering that DX 9 isn't out yet, it's pretty much out of the question in terms of testing. Considering that the majority of games don't even tap into DX 8.1's featureset, and the Radeon being a full DX 8.1 part, this shouldn't be much of a concern for now.
Other than that, the Catalyst drivers allows for all the tweaking you may want, such as AA levels, and anisotropic levels. Missing are overclocking options, but that's what Powerstrip is for.
I wanted to talk a bit about this topic, because it's been heavily discussed in various forums, particularly at . I may as well get it off my back, but I tested the card on a friend's Asus P4S8X, and it plain wouldn't work. It happened that his BIOS was older, and flashing it to the latest version seemed to have solved his problems. I should note that I was fully aware this was a problematic board, and wanted to see the problem myself. The problem we encountered was a blank screen, and no picture until Windows loaded up. If you're wondering why this would be a problem, have you ever tried tweaking the BIOS with no picture?
Back on our workbench, I tested the card on our MSI KT3 Ultra2, MSI 845E Max2, and our Shuttle XPC SS51. The card worked perfectly on all three platforms. I was pleasently surprised it worked on the SS51, given it's 200W PSU, but as I'm writing the review, no problems to report. As for the AMD and Pentium 4 motherboards, both were running off an Enermax 550W PSU. I slapped in an Antec 300W (not a Truepower PSU), and didn't encounter any instability issues.
The above readings were taken from the Shuttle XPC, using Motherboard Monitor. As you can see, we're a little short on the 12V, and 3.3V rails, but nothing terribly alarming. Most power supplies are about 5% off the tolerances, and we're closer to 1%. Morale of the story? Quality plays a big role, and don't be fooled by a generic 400W PSU. Go for a quality company.
Physical compatibility was a non-issue. It's smaller than the nVidia Ti4600, and is more "standard" sized. Unless for some bizarre reason, your hard drives are installed in such a way that it gets in the way of AGP cards, I don't expect any problems.
Before investing in the Radeon 9700, I do suggest browsing the forums at Rage3D, as it provides an invaluable wealth of information. They also have a compiled at the site, so you can take a quick peak at some motherboards submitted by their readers that worked with the 9700.
Overclocking an already fast, and hot running videocard isn't for the feint of heart. Still, a lot of people do it, so we decided to give it a shot. The only couple of problems I can see holding us back are the .15u GPU, and the lack of memory cooling. A move to 13u would allow for higher frequencies, but I don't think ATi is going to make a move to this manufacturing process until their next generation product.
We downloaded Powerstrip, and began tweaking. I dropped a HighSpeed PC AGP Airlift to help cool down the back of the PCB. We worked in small increments, and acheived a stable overclock of 358 Core, which is approxiamately a 10% increase. At 360 Core, we experienced lockups immediately in 3D Mark Game 2, although Quake 3 ran fine for about 15 minutes before hardlocking. 359 Core didn't alieviate the problems any, but ran solid at 358.
As we mentioned earlier, the 2.8ns ram should hit 357MHz, so we immediately went for that. Oddly, we had some issues with image corruption at those speeds. We continued benchmarking anyways, but the card locked up after one round of 3D Mark. We continued to have problems at lower speeds, which led me to believe we fried the card. Fortunently at 340, things seemed to be fine again. We've been running at 358/680 (340x2) core/memory for well over a week, and the card has been rock solid under our testing. We'll look at our overclocking results later on in the review.
Given the lack of AGP8x boards at my disposal, all our tests will be done with 4x boards. Although we'll be missing out on the potential 8x bandwidth, I don't feel that will make much of a difference with the software we'll be using.
The focus of this review will of course be the review subject, the Radeon 9700, which will be evident in the latter stages of benchmarking. The comparison card will be the Visiontek Ti4600, which is the only competition right now even close to the 9700. I considered borrowing David's Matrox Parhelia in order to add another recent piece of hardware to the mix, but considering its troubles beating his Kyro II, I felt it would be a waste of time. Granted, we could have tested Matrox's vaunted image quality, but you can just flip back to his Parhelia review for that.
The test systems will be as follows...
AMD Athlon XP 2000+
MSI KT3 Ultra-ARU
2 x 256MB Crucial PC2700
Western Digital SE 120GB 8MB Cache
Visiontek Xtasy Ti4600
ATi Radeon 9700 Pro
The Athlon system above, generously loaned to us by one of our forum members, Quasar, will be used for comparison benchmarks. The latest VIA drivers were installed, with a fresh format of the operating system, and yes, the KT3 Ultra handles the Radeon 9700 just fine. The second test system is as follows...
Intel Pentium 4 "B" 2.4GHz @ 2.538 (18x141)
Shuttle XPC SS51G
2 x 256MB Crucial PC2700
Western Digital SE 120GB 8MB Cache
This system will be used exclusively for the Radeon 9700 Pro AA (with some Ti4600 AA thrown in) and overclocking tests.
Standard for both platforms are...
Windows XP SP1
Via 4-in-1 v4.43 (KT3)
SiS AGP Driver 1.10A (Shuttle)
nVidia Detonators 40.72 (Beta)
3D Mark 2001 SE
Unreal Tournament 2003
Quake 3 Arena
Jedi Knight 2
Return to Castle Wolfenstein
Given the power of the modern video card, we're dropping all tests of below 1024x768. I figure, if you paid 400$ for a video card, you better already have at least a 17" monitor and play at high resolutions. With the faster processors available, high resolution will shift the onus of the work on the video.
We will be going through all of the benchmarks first with anti-aliasing off. We're just going to be comparing the raw power of both the Ti4600 and the 9700 Pro. We chose to use the nVidia Detonators 40.72 because they are supposed to be the best performing (rumored to give an extra 1000 3D Marks, or so I was told), and are nVidia's latest. They are beta, but we haven't had any trouble with them yet.
3D Mark 2001 SE
Madonion's 3D Mark doesn't need any introduction. It's arguably the most popular Direct 3D benchmarking tool out there. It doesn't really stress a lot of todays video cards, but it's freely available, and people still use it&
Based on our past test results, the Ti4600 does much better with the latest drivers. Knowing that, it is still easily outpaced by the Radeon 9700 Pro at all resolutions. At the lower resolutions, the gap is noticeable, but nothing that made my jaw drop. The reason for this is some tweaking by the user, and perhaps a newer driver may add 300-500 3D Marks to narrow this gap.
At the maximum resolution of 1600x1200 however, we're talking nearly 2000 3D Marks. What this means to the end user is high resolution gaming is the 9700 Pro's bread and butter, which is obvious from the graph. We can also speculate that the Radeon also has more headroom for AA and maximum settings than the Ti4600 would. Until the NV30, I can't imagine any tweaking (outside of overclocking) or newer drivers is going to close that much of a gap between the two cards.
Unreal Tournament 2003
I've been playing around with the retail version of UT2K3 for quite sometime now, and have been pretty impressed with the graphics. It's a real system killer, and can bring many pre-2002 killer rigs to its knees. We used the scripts written by , which are excellent tools in testing various resolutions and detail levels&
In the Antelus benchmark, the 9700 beats the Ti4600 by an almost 50% at the maximum resolution. I had to look twice as I didn't expect such a huge margin. Things get a little tighter in the Asbestos benchmark, but the 9700 isn't sweating much to stay ahead.
As with 3D Mark, the Radeon scores a pretty decisive victory across all resolutions. The Ti4600 holds up quite well at the lower settings, but once we started cranking up the resolution, the Radeon leaves the Ti4600 behind.
I've never used this benchmark before, but it was something demo'd a lot with the GeForce 3. It's actually a "pretty" benchmark, but it's more useful to me than 3D Mark since it's a little more geared towards next-gen cards due to it's DX8 capable engine...
Given that most of us are used to seeing 300FPS in Quake 3, it was a bit of a humbling experience to see FPS in the mid 20s to 30s. From what I hear, framerates of 30+ are difficult to attain, and the Radeon 9700 nearly does that at 1280x1024. No doubt, a faster PC or some overclocking will fix that. I probably wouldn't bother with AA though, as that will surely kill the framerates to unplayable levels.
Don't let these number scare you off though, as it will still be some time before we see a game that will be this taxing.
Quake 3 Arena
Honestly, I feel that this game has pretty much run its course as a good benchmark for the high-end gamer market. Still, it's a popular game, and I guess it's important to see if we can crack the 400FPS ceiling...
Well, as expect, we have ridiculously high framerates. Anyhow, more is always better I guess, and at almost 200FPS at 1600x1200, it should make for a pretty game.
Jedi Knight 2
Also based on the Quake 3 Engine, it offers a little more in the way of stress, but again, not too rough on todays videocards.
Scores were pretty close at the higher resolutions for the Radeon 9700. I'm not too sure why, though it appears to be CPU bound. Either way, the Ti4600 is left at the starting line again.
Return To Castle Wolfenstein
Another Q3 game, and can be quite a system hog when you're playing on a large multiplayer map.
Again, no problems for the 9700 to win out again. Up until this point, we've only been running things with AA and AF off. Truth is, a GeForce 3 will score excellent numbers as well. So why bother with a 9700? Well, you'll want to play at higher resolutions, but more importantly, you'll want to play with image quality settings set to maximum levels. This also includes Anti-Aliasing (AA) and Anisotropic Filtering (AF). In that case, how does the Radeon do?
Quake 3 Arena
Despite being able to play at high resolutions, I still normally play at 10x8 or 12x10. As I've said in past reviews, benchmarks takes high and lows, and averages them out. A dip in framerates can be deadly in online gaming. As many "pro" Quakers will tell you, 125FPS is the magic number for all the fancy trick jumps, and at 4xAA and 16xAF, this is no problem for the Radeon 9700. 1600x1200 is still pretty darn good, nearing 100FPS at maximum quality. The Ti4600 is obviously outclassed at this level of quality.
3D Mark 2001SE
Anisotropic filtering hits the performance pretty hard, though not nearly as much as 4xAA. However, the performance hit isn't terrible, and scoring 10 000+ 3D Marks ar 12x10 with 16xAF is pretty darn impressive. The Ti4600 doesn't fare so well, and it's amazing to see the Radeon, with 4xAA and 16xAF still crush the Ti4600 with only 4xAA.
Overclocking 3D Mark
I was a little dissapointed that we couldn't get to the magical 15 000 3D Mark plateau. Either way, this is the fastest 3D Mark results to come out of our labs, and overall, we were quite pleased with the performance.
I would have liked the opportunity to go over a few other Ti4600 and Radeon 9700 cards to see if differences in yields would have made a difference. I mention this because I've seen other Radeon vs Ti4600 reviews where scores have been a little closer. Both cards ran on "clean" systems, and simply put, the Ti4600 never had a chance. Is it slow? Hardly, but those Radeon benchmarks had me shaking my head. Be it stock speeds, overclocked, Anti-Aliasing and Anisotropic Filtering on or off, the Radeon 9700 was simply amazing. Heh, at 330$ - 400$ a pop, it better be.
Obviously, speed matters, but image quality is just as important, if not more so given that almost any of todays games already run fast enough.
All the Anti-Aliasing shots were done without anisotropic filtering, which we will get into later on.
Anti-Aliasing image quality is comparible at 2x, though at 4x, ATi's AA is a little smoother, though nothing you'd probably notice while ducking rockets.
ATi one ups nVidia by offering 6xAA, which quite simply looks incredible. An older game engine, such as Quake 3, is fully playable with 6xAA up to 10x8. 12x10 gaming was also playable, though more in the case of single player than multiplayer.
Although it's tough to see in these screenshots, Anisotropic filtering is relatively equal for both cards. The difference, other than ATi offering 16xAF, is the speed. Both cards take a performance hit, though the Radeon suffered less of a hit percentage-wise, than the Ti4600.
nVidia used to be knocked for their image quality, but it has improved a lot over the past few years. ATi, thankfully, didn't sacrifice their image quality, and the big draw, other than raw speed, is their speed with things such as AA and AF turned up. Playing UT2003 at 1280x1024 with 4xAA and 16xAF is quite remarkable.
The Radeon 9700 Pro made a mockery out of the benchmarks we've thrown at it today. Whether or not you need it will depend on a lot of things. I've made it very clear in our bottlenecking article that with great video card power, you'd better have the CPU to back it up. I'm going to flat out say that unless you have an Athlon XP, or Intel Northwood at the minimum, you're not going to get your moneys worth. The Radeon 9700 is extremely scalable, and even with our overclocked P4, I doubt we'd even got close to maxing it out.
As with every new technology, there are going to be some growing pains. There have been reported issues with AGP8x motherboards, and I've witnessed this first hand with an Asus board. A BIOS update resolved the issue, but in rare cases, it may not. Power supplies are making its way back into the press, as the Radeon does have certain power requirements. That being said, don't think that a big 400W PSU is going to immediately solve your problems. Quality is the story of the day, and make sure you stick to a name brand that enthusiasts trust. Antec, PC Power and Cooling, and Enermax are a few that come to mind.
Driver issues seem to be a problem of the past. During testing, both benchmarking and gameplay, we did not encounter any problems with crashes or dropped textures. Outside of the games we used for our real world tests, Battlefield 1942, Warcraft 3, and Hitman 2 all worked fine without any problems. If you are having issues, ATi has been much more responsive with driver updates and patches than they have been in the past, and I suggest checking out their support pages.
As for hardware features, the dual outputs will appeal to desktop publishers. It's not a triple output like the Parhelia, but 2D image quality at 1600x1200 was excellent nevertheless. I'd be hard pressed to tell you if it is a lot better than the nVidia cards, but I certainly don't have any complaints. As for 3D gaming, default driver settings made for a slightly darker picture than the Ti4600, though the images seemed richer and less washed out.
Starting at around 300$ for 3rd party Radeon 9700s, that is going to be a lot of coin to drop on a video card. If you already have a Ti4600 based card, I don't really think an upgrade to the 9700 is going to be that important for you unless you're hurting for Anti-Aliasing. Anyone else with something slower should consider this card. Heck, if money is no object, and framerates are, the 9700 will definitely make you one happy camper.
Just a few months ago, the nVidia Ti4600 was untouchable. How things have changed with the Radeon 9700. Will the speed crown pass back to nVidia in the future? Already, the rumored specs of the NV30 look pretty darn good, and it may well be the case that nVidia will be back on top, but I wouldn't count on this card to come out for quite some time. Then again, ATi has already demonstrated the R300 with DDR-II, and perhaps we'll see something updated in the 9700 in the near future. This is all just speculation, but let's look at the facts. The Radeon 9700 Pro is no doubt, the fastest video card on the market that you can buy... today. JC was showing off Doom 3 with a Radeon 9700, which if anything, shows the power of the Radeon 9700 for the games of the future. There will always be something faster in the future, but if you think and shop that way, you'll be missing out on a lot of stuff. No doubt, this is the most interesting piece of technology we've looked at in some time. You may have "buyer-regret" (the feeling you get when wondering if you should be spending this much money) when you give the cashier the credit card, but as soon as you install the Radeon 9700, you'll forget all that.
Pros: Fastest gaming card, period. Superb image quality, dual monitor ready.
Cons: Expensive, but you get what you pay for.
Bottom Line: Fact is, image quality being equal, the 9700 is the fastest card you can buy. Knowing that, the 9700 can run at higher IQ (AA and AF) settings than the competition, and still have plenty of speed to burn. If you got any comments, be sure to hit us up in our forums.