ATI releases new 128MB graphics card

The company's update to the Radeon 8500 means more memory, new drivers, and a lower-priced performance card to compete with Nvidia's Ti 200.

Spring is often when many hardware companies announce new products for the coming months, and ATI is kicking off this round of graphics announcements with a revision to its high-end card, the Radeon 8500. When updated cards ship in the U.S. next month, the Radeon 8500 will come in two versions, the high-speed 8500 and the less-expensive 8500LE. Both cards will carry 128MB of onboard memory, which is double the standard 64MB.

The Radeon 8500LE is of particular interest. In terms of price, it should match up with Nvidia's popular GeForce3 Ti 200, which was previously the only budget DirectX 8 card with shader features. However, the Radeon 8500LE is clocked much higher than the GeForce3 Ti 200, at 250MHz for both the core and memory, as compared to a 175MHz core speed and a 200MHz memory speed. The Radeon 8500LE isn't completely new; a 250MHz card was available last autumn through some U.S. online vendors, but ATI wasn't selling the cards in retail.

It's not surprising that ATI is moving to 128MB of memory on its performance cards. Some third-party card makers not long ago released 128MB GeForce3 cards, and in part, it's a drop in memory prices that has made this feasible. This is the most concrete change to the updated Radeon 8500 over the cards released last year, but don't expect current games to get much, if any, performance benefit from having more memory. While the previous move from 32MB to 64MB was partly driven by the buffer requirements of high 1600x1200 resolutions and anti-aliasing, the amount of memory on current cards isn't holding back performance even at high resolutions. But in the future, game developers will adapt games to take advantage of the extra local memory.

There isn't an unlimited amount of space on graphics cards, so the new Radeon 8500 design uses a smaller memory format (called BGA) and puts the extra chips on the back of the card.

The rest of ATI's improvements to the Radeon 8500 are to the drivers. Since 3dfx announced its Voodoo5 cards in late 1999, a lot has been said about how anti-aliasing can make games look better by smoothing out the edges of polygons. But ATI would like to focus more attention to improving image quality with sharper textures. The best way to improve texture sharpness in first- and third-person 3D games is with anisotropic filtering, which sharpens textures on surfaces that are angled away from the camera, like walls and floors. Anisotropic filtering isn't new, but the Radeon 8500 has specific hardware support for the technique that lessens the performance hit. ATI suggests there's only a 10 percent decrease in frame rate with the Radeon 8500's 16X anisotropic filtering turned on, but there's a much larger decrease on GeForce3 cards. The Radeon 8500 has previously had anisotropic filtering enabled only in OpenGL, but the new version 7.66 drivers released on Friday add anisotropic filtering for Direct3D as well. The GeForce3 supports up to 8x anisotropic but needs a third-party utility like Nvmax to turn it on and adjust the settings.

Beyond image quality, it's performance concerns that the new drivers are intended to address. The Radeon 8500's initial drivers were generally considered to hold the card's performance back from what its impressive specs should have achieved. With the 7.66 drivers, the Radeon 8500 128MB should see around a 15 percent boost in performance, by ATI's claims. Around 4 percent of this improvement is due to optimizations for the card's dual-bank memory. ATI expects that the Radeon 8500's best performance will come later in the year with upcoming games written with DirectX 8.1 in mind. The Radeon 8500 chip supports 8.1's more modular approach to pixel shader effects. The Radeon 8500 also has two vertex shader pipelines to maintain a high level of performance for those effects as well (the GeForce3 has one vertex pipeline, while Nvidia's Xbox GPU has two).

DirectX 9 may ultimately be what helps ATI dispel concerns about game support for its high-end chips. While Nvidia has long had a close relationship with game developers, as a prominent position in high-end game graphics, this is a newer emphasis for ATI. By ATI's description, DirectX 9 closely follows the new graphics features introduced in 8.1, and Microsoft's DirectX team is widely using Radeon 8500s for development and testing.

ATI says it's made a lot of progress in getting game developers interested in the Radeon 8500's specific features. Games based on Epic's Unreal Warfare engine, id's next Doom game, and Valve's Team Fortress 2 are the biggest examples of what's coming up that should fully support the Radeon 8500's features.

While the new revisions to the Radeon 8500 are relatively small, they do mark ATI's progress over the last few months. A judgment about the products' overall polish and performance can't be made until final boards are received, but it is clear that ATI is still ready to challenge Nvidia with high-end features and mainstream prices.