ATI Radeon 9800 Pro: a first look

Capitalising on its market lead, ATI is hoping that this new high-power graphics card will solidify its gains over Nvidia. Prospects look good.
Written by John Morris, Contributor and  Daniel A Begun, Contributor
Last year, Nvidia squandered its formidable lead in the 3D graphics market when manufacturing miscues delayed the company's follow-up to the popular GeForce4 series. And when the elusive GeForce FX 5800 Ultra finally debuted about a month ago, it was greeted with mixed reviews. Now arch rival ATI, seeking to capitalise on the momentum it gained with last year's Radeon 9700 Pro, has announced its eagerly anticipated successor, the Radeon 9800 series.

Let the battle begin
In a battle royal worthy of pay-per-view, the Radeon 9800 Pro and GeForce FX are set to compete head-to-head for the hearts and wallets of hard-core gamers at the Game Developers Conference in San Jose, California, this week. Just in time, we have the complete scorecard on some of the first production models. The results? The early rounds were a split decision, but later in the fight, advanced effects that make games more realistic-looking really turned up the heat. In these rounds, the Radeon 9800 Pro stepped up as the unanimous winner.


Unfortunately, neither of these $400 (~£250), high-end graphics cards is readily available yet. The Radeon 9800 Pro won't be in stores until the end of this month, while the GeForce FX 5800 seems to have slipped from the radar altogether. Instead, Nvidia, having ceded the high ground to ATI for now, seems to be focused on bringing the FX technology down-market to reach a bigger audience; the company recently announced GeForce FX 5600 and 5200 versions, priced at $200 (~£125) and $100 (~£62.50), respectively. ATI has similar plans for the Radeon 9800 series, with more mainstream cards arriving in April. Such increased competition is good for the masses since consumers typically have had to wait six months or more for the latest 3D graphics technology to trickle down to these more affordable (and less profitable) products.

ATI Radeon 9800: a first look
ATI is out to defend its title as current 3D-graphics performance champ. On the heels of last year's successful Radeon 9700 Pro, ATI today announced the Radeon 9800 series. The first product in this series, the $400 (~£250) Radeon 9800 Pro with 128MB of DDR memory is designed for hard-core gamers and competes head to head with the recently released Nvidia GeForce FX 5800 Ultra. Does the Radeon 9800 pull ahead? To find out, we have tested final versions of both cards using the most up-to-date beta drivers (the performance of both should improve as the companies finalise their drivers). Overall, our tests declare the Radeon 9800 the clear winner. Our exact results varied, however, depending on which gaming benchmarks we used and whether we tested with advanced features turned on -- specifically, anti-aliasing (AA) and anisotropic filtering (AF). AA makes the jagged edges on diagonal lines appear smoother by blending the colours into the background; AF makes the textures on slanted 3D surfaces look much sharper, enhancing the visual quality of items such as long, straight corridors in first-person shooters. Overall, these effects greatly enhance the visual quality of games -- but in the process, they also put heavy stress on graphics cards, which is why they make a significant impact in performance testing.

With AA and AF enabled at the same high resolution, the Radeon 9800 significantly outperformed the GeForce FX. For instance, with AA and AF the Radeon 9800 performed 22 percent faster on 3DMark03 (above) and 45 percent faster on Unreal Tournament tests (below). At lower resolutions (1,024 by 768), the performance difference wasn't as great -- we even saw a few instances where the 5800 performed slightly better. But it's clear that the Radeon 9800 is much better equipped to handle tougher tasks. For instance, when we enabled 4X AA and 4X AF at 1,600 by 1,200 on Unreal Tournament, the Radeon 9800's performance decreased by 42 percent, while the GeForce FX sustained a 63 percent performance hit. In other words, the Radeon 9800 really proved its mettle at high resolutions with advanced feature sets enabled.

Without these advanced features, the Radeon 9800 Pro and the GeForce FX ran pretty much neck and neck. The Radeon 9800 came in a hair faster on Futuremark's 3DMark03 (1,600 by 1,200), while the GeForce FX had the upper hand on the Flyby-Antalus scene in Unreal Tournament 2003 (also at 1,600 by 1,200). The Radeon 9800 Pro we tested runs at 380MHz and has 128MB of DDR (340MHz) memory. On paper, those specifications pale in comparison to those of the GeForce FX, which has both an engine clock speed and a memory speed of 500MHz. But these numbers don't tell the whole story, since the Radeon 9800 is designed to take everything the CPU and the memory can throw at it. Specifically, it has a 256-bit memory interface, whereas the GeForce FX has only a 128-bit memory interface. Like the GeForce FX, the Radeon 9800 has all the standard connectors, including VGA, DVI output for digital flat panels and S-Video out. Later this year, ATI plans to introduce a 256MB version of the Radeon 9800. In April, the company also plans to release Radeon 9600- and 9200-series products. The Radeon 9600 Pro will actually have a slightly faster engine clock speed than the 9800--400MHz vs. 380MHz -- but it halves the number of rendering pipes and the width of the memory interface, so its performance will take a hit.

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