Well it seems once again the graphics industry is becoming a torrid affair and the major axes could be realigning themselves, once again. ATI released the Radeon 9700 Pro last fall and took the performance crown from the reigning champion – Nvidia. At the time, Nvidia was experiencing delays with their next gem – the GeForce FX. The GeForce FX finally debuted a few months ago, and even Nvidia employees were not satisfied with card and its performance. The original GeForce FX was plagued with delays and sub-par performance, as well as noise problems from the extensive cooling system. New drivers have increased performance slightly and OEM manufacturers have modified the cooling to make it quieter and more efficient; however, the GeForce FX still didn’t climb to the top. On the contrary, today we have a review of the new ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB from Power Color. ATI hopes to keep the performance lead with this new video card. But, on the prowl, Nvidia is in contention with the new GeForce FX Ultra 5900, featuring a new core, the NV35, 256MB of DDR-II memory, faster clock speeds, and finally a 256-bit memory interface. We’ll have to wait for another rainy day for these benchmarks, because we have yet to receive our sample unit....
On a final note, ATI has just released their new Radeon 9800 Pro featuring 256MB of memory. Look for a review of this card in the near future. Let’s get going with the specifications and features of ATI’s new gem...
* Windows® 2000 drivers for the 256MB version should be available on ati.com in May 2003
Image Quality - AA & AF Mode Comparison
As we will mention in a later portion of the article, the Radeon 9800 and its new cinematic rendering features allow for great Anti-Aliasing filtering and Anisotropic Filtering performance and quality. We used the ToMMTi-Systems FSAA testing program to show the effects of AA by their level of variance. Below are images of 0X, 2X, 4X, and 6X Anti-Aliasing.
[Note that the jagged edges of the lines are vastly reduced as the amount of passes increases with AA]
To show the effects of Anisotropic filtering with the Radeon 9800 we took several in-game images from Quake III: Arena to show how Anisotropic filtering works to improve blurry images.
[Note: Pay close attention to the floor quality in the center portion of the image.]
Technology - Part 1
As we mentioned earlier, the Radeon 9700 Pro came on the scene six months ago and completely turned ATI’s reputation around with this single product release. ATI executed a near perfect launch with better than expected driver performance, which wasn’t always the case in the past with ATI. The Radeon 9700 Pro quickly climbed the top of the performance hierarchy and has stayed atop for quite some time. Today, we are reviewing ATI’s new card – the Radeon 9800 Pro, which builds upon the existing Radeon legend.
The Radeon 9800 does not simply employ higher clock speeds and more memory to continue its reign, even though these features are key features in the Radeon 9800, it uses other cinematic rendering techniques to achieve these goals. The first features improved upon, of course, are the increase memory capacity from 128MB to 256MB and increase an of memory clock speeds. For our test purposes; however, our card was only equipped with 128MB of DDR Ram. The Radeon 9800 Pro with 128MB features DDR-I type memory clocked at 680MHz (340MHz DDR) and 21.8GB/sec of memory bandwidth. While the new Radeon 9800 with 256MB features DDR-II memory clocked at 700Mhz (350Mhz DDR), with a total memory bandwidth of 22.4GB/sec.
The Radeon 9800’s new core incorporates the latest versions of ATI’s texture shading and rendering technology. ATI has updated their SMARTSHADER, SMOOTHVISION, and Hyper-Z technology for the Radeon 9800. These features help performance and overall image quality. Below is a brief outline of the updated cinematic features:
The first of the three major updates is SMARTSHADER 2.1, which is improved since SMARTSHADER 2.0 in the Radeon 9700 core. SMARTSHADER is the second generation of the cinematic shader technology from ATI and it allows for complex, movie-quality effects in games and applications. SMARTSHADER 2.1 is similar to 2.0, but several key features have been vastly improved upon. SMARTSHADER 2.1 now offers full DirectX 9.0 support. More importantly, version 2.1 offers support for 64 times the amount of vertex shader instructions and a new F-buffer technology, which supports fragment shader programs of unlimited length. These new features allow for larger, more complex scenes to be rendered much quicker and more efficiently. Below is a side-by-side comparison of the two feature sets for SMARTSHADER 2.0 and 2.1, respectively:
- Programmable pixel and vertex shaders
- 16 textures per pass
- Pixel shaders up to 160 instructions with 128-bit floating point precision
- Realistic lighting of any kind of surface
- Varying properties of a material across a surface
- Accurate modelling of objects with microstructure
- Horizon mapping
- Vertex shaders up to 1024 instructions with flow control
- Procedural deformation
- Fur rendering
- Advanced keyframe interpolation
- Shadow volume extrusion
- Particle systems
- Many light sources
- Lens effects
- Advanced matrix palette skinning
- Multiple render target support
- Shadow volume rendering acceleration
- High precision 10-bit per channel frame buffer support
- Supports DirectX® 9.0 and the latest version of OpenGL giving developers the freedom to create more complicated effects than ever before
- Full support for Microsoft® DirectX® 9.0 programmable vertex and pixel shaders in hardware
- 2.0 Vertex Shaders support vertex programs up to 65,280 instructions with flow control (loops, branches & subroutines)
- 2.0 Pixel Shaders support up to 16 textures per rendering pass with gamma correction
- New F-buffer technology supports fragment shader programs of unlimited length
- High dimension floating point textures
- 128-bit, 64-bit & 32-bit per pixel floating point color formats
- Multiple render targets
- Shadow volume rendering acceleration
- Complete feature set also supported in OpenGL ® via extensions
Technology - Part 2
SMOOTHVISION is ATI’s technology that provides better image quality using Anti-Aliasing (AA) and Anisotropic Filtering (AF) techniques.
Anti-aliasing enhances image quality by smoothing jagged edges on object outlines. SMOOTHVISION 2.1 takes up to 6 samples per pass to improve image quality with Anti-Aliasing.
Anisotropic filtering improves image quality by sharpening blurry textures to bring out finer detail. SMOOTHVISION 2.1 employs an adaptive algorithm that takes from 1 to 16 filtered samples per pixel as required to achieve ideal quality, without wasting effort on parts of the image that would not benefit. Two modes allow this feature to be optimized for performance or image quality, as desired.
The two aforementioned key features are unchanged from the Radeon 9700 Pro, but the memory controller has been altered and improved to allow for better performance when using AA & AF, hence SMOOTHVISION 2.1.
Hyper-Z III+ Technology
Hyper-Z Technology is in its third generation with the Radeon 9700 series, and has been improved upon with the release of Hyper-Z III+ for the Radeon 9800. Here’s a brief overview of Hyper-Z technology from the horse’s mouth, ATI:
ATI's HYPER-Z technology decreases the amount of information sent to the frame buffer, easing memory bandwidth limitations and allowing for ultra-high resolutions, full screen 3D acceleration in true color.
The latest generation of ATI's innovative HYPER Z™ bandwidth saving technology, HYPER Z III+ plays a pivotal role in allowing RADEON 9800 series and RADEON 9600 series products to reach unprecedented levels of rendering performance. It builds on earlier versions of the technology by adding a more flexible Z-buffer cache that is optimized for the rendering of dynamic real-time shadows. Shadows play a key role in achieving realistic and immersive virtual environments, and will be used extensively in upcoming 3D game titles.
Test Setup & Quake III: Arena Benchmarks
- Intel Pentium 4 3Ghz "Canterwood" w/ HT (3000/800)
- Intel D875BZ Desktop Board
- Memory Module:
- Hard Drives:
- 2 x 120GB Seagate Barracuda V SATA
- Video Cards:
- Powercolor Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB
- Powercolor Radeon 9700 Pro 128MB
- Gigabyte Radeon 9500 64MB
- Albatron GeForce 4 4200 8X AGP
- Albatron GeForce FX 5200 128MB
- Sound Card:
- Sound Blaster Live! Value
- Built-in Intel Pro/1000 LAN
- Operating System:
- Windows XP Professional SP1
- Graphics Driver(s):
- ATI Catalyst 3.2
- NVidia 44.03 Detonator FX
Looking at the benchmarks for 1024 x 768, nothing has changed much, except that the Radeon series continues to expand its lead.
On the lower resolution benchmarks, we have an interesting situation. These numbers are not a misprint and were tested several times for validity. The Radeon 9800 and 9700 perform almost identically because of a bottleneck in the system.
Taking a look at the AA/AF benchmarks we can see that the Radeon 9800 takes a resonable performance hit when these settings are cranked up, but in reality these numbers are still very solid and well above accepable performance levels. Because of time restrictions we didn't have to compare the Radeon 9800 to othe comparable cards, including the Radeon 9700.
The above Unreal Tournament 2003 benchmarks are very similiar to the Quake III: Arena Benchmarks on the previous page, except that we are seeing the same bottleneck problem on the higher resolutions in Unreal Tournament.
On the AA/AF benchmarks we see another performance hit similiar to Quake III: Arena, but once again, these numbers are very acceptable for performance.
The Aqumark benchmarks speak for themselves, as you can see from the graphs performance steadily continues to increase with the new Radeon 9800 Pro.
As far as AA/AF benchmark performance is concerned, Aquamark took a near 50% performance hit with 4X AA and 8X AF enabled. Aquamark performed nearly last in our AA/AF test. Unlike the other benchmarks previously, Aquamark walks a fine line at 54 frames per second performance with these image quality features enabled. Running on a less efficient system, such as 2Ghz, performance would not be acceptable for gameplay as this benchmark is very CPU bound.
Comanche 4 Benchmark Performance
Taking a look at the Comanche 4 benchmarks you will notice a strange pattern. 1024 x 768 outperforms 640 x 480, but only by a slight margain. This is mainly attributed to the benchmark being very CPU intensive and less video bound.
On the other side of things, AA and AF performance is outstanding in the Comanche 4 benchmark; only recording a 15% performance degradation.
3DMark 2001SE Performance
As you can see from the graphs, 3DMark performance was excellent. The graphs speak for themselves.
For AA and AF performance, 3DMark 2001SE performed very well for a well-rounded benchmark.
3DMark 2003 Performance
3DMark 2003 suffered the worst hit of any of our benchmarks when we cranked up the image quality settings.
Performance Degradation Vs. Control
As you can see from our graph above, which shows the % of performance degradation versus our control (1 = No AA or AF settings ON), the Radeon 9800 performed farely well, with only two marginal performance hits. 3DMark2003 took a great performance hit, but Aquamark took a greater hit because its performance level is nearly unacceptable for solid game play.
Let’s take a minute to step aside from the current graphics arena and see what the future holds. Both Nvidia and ATI have just released their latest gems – NV35 (GeForce FX 5900 Ultra & Radeon 9800 Pro, respectively). They have essentially whipped each other’s slate clean with near equal performance, which is arguable by some. This summer should prove to be very interesting. Neither parties have officially announced their next project, but I have a feeling both companies will be looking to release some major. ATI has all the momentum they need right now. With both of their last products being launched with new flawless execution and driver support they are well on their way to something great.
As far as the Radeon 9800 Pro is concerned, its performance is top-of-the-line and offers the best features possible. This card is powered by the latest core and GPU from ATI and we have mentioned numerous times during this review it offers the best of the best. If you’re looking for a great card a more affordable price than Nvidia’s $499 GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, look no further than this card from Power Color – the Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB. While the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra offers twice as much RAM, this has proven to not benefit greatly and you would be much better off pocketing the $100 and going with a Radeon 9800 Pro. Both cards are great, but the Radeon 9800 Pro is our pick because of the better price...