Though its ATI Radeon 9800 XT graphics processing unit (GPU) is an exceedingly powerful 3D graphics cruncher, the price/performance ratio of the $500 Hercules 3D Prophet 9800 XT Classic is less than stellar. Like the Nvidia-built GPU in its closest competitor, the XFX GeForce FX 5950 Ultra, the 3D Prophet's chip is the fastest available from its respective supplier and delivers only a minimal performance increase over cards with GPUs from the previous generation. Core specs of the 3D Prophet include 256MB of DDR memory, along with fast core and memory clock speeds of 412MHz and 365MHz, respectively. The fact remains that it is one of the fastest cards available, which for some gamers is all that matters.
As with the XFX GeForce FX 5950 Ultra, the 3D Prophet offers digital video interface (DVI) and S-Video ports in addition to the standard VGA output. Like the XFX card, the 3D Prophet includes a DVI-to-VGA adapter for dual-monitor setups, but the 3D Prophet bundles an S-Video-to-RCA adapter, a less versatile inclusion compared to the XFX card's S-Video input cable. More useful than XFX's large game bundle, however, is a host of utilities to help with tasks such as calibrating your display colors, managing multiple monitors, and restoring miscalculated display settings without a reboot.
Another key addition to the Hercules bundle helps with installation. Like the XFX card, the 3D Prophet requires ample wattage, which means that it must be connected directly to your PC's internal power supply. But thanks to Hercules's included power-connector splitter, if you already have multiple internal components such as dual hard drives or an extra optical drive using all of your power connectors, you will be able to connect your new card right out of the box (provided your power supply is in the 450-to-500-watt range for more fully loaded systems). The 3D Prophet is also less greedy physically, as it takes up only one expansion card slot compared to the XFX's two.
In addition to the aforementioned card utilities, Hercules includes several ATI-commissioned tech demos and some screensavers that show off the card's advanced 3D capabilities. A full version of CyberLink's PowerDVD 5.0 is also bundled, and though there are no games to play out of the box, a rebate coupon for a free copy of the forthcoming Half-Life 2 is included, so at least you'll have something to look forward to.
For raw 3D graphics performance, it's tough to beat the Hercules 3D Prophet 9800 XT. This should come as no surprise, as the card is powered by the fastest ATI-based consumer GPU available: the Radeon 9800 XT, which is a souped-up Radeon 9800 Pro with a speedier graphics engine and support for slightly faster memory. The 9800 XT's primary competition is comprised of cards based on Nvidia's 5950 Ultra GPU, such as the XFX GeForce FX 5950. It is also interesting to note that the two older cards are only minimally slower than the two newer ones and can be found for more than $100 less.
Our tests resulted in a very close race when we pitted the 9800 XT against the FX 5950. On our Unreal Tournament 2003 and Splinter Cell tests, the performance difference between the two cards was so minor that it fell within our 3 percent margin of error, creating a statistical dead heat. It was only on our Flight Simulator 2004 test that the 9800 XT lost some ground to the FX 5950, with the 9800 XT performing approximately 8 percent slower than the FX 5950 at a resolution of 1,600x1,200 with antialiasing at 4X and anisotropic filtering at 8X.
These are the only titles we currently use for testing, but it is entirely possible that other game titles might give a slight edge back to the 9800 XT. And with performance-enhancing driver revisions coming out on a regular basis from both ATI and Nvidia, today's winner could become tomorrow's loser. From what we've seen, performance between these two top-of-the-line cards is just too close to call.
| Unreal Tournament 2003 test: Flyby-Antalus (in fps) (Longer bars indicate better performance)
| Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell test (in fps) (Longer bars indicate better performance)
| Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004 (in fps) (Longer bars indicate better performance)
Performance analysis written by CNET Labs manager Daniel A. Begun.
Find out more about how we test graphics cards.
The Hercules 3D Prophet 9800 XT Classic's printed manual illustrates how to physically install the card and how to load drivers for several operating systems. It also gives a summary of the S-Video and DVI ports, as well as how to use the RCA adapter. No space is given to the tweaking tools included with the drivers.
A three-year, limited parts-and-labor warranty is included, which requires you to pay for shipping if you need to send your card in for repair. There is no telephone technical support available in North America, though the Hercules Web site offers assistance if you register, which requires that you fill out a complex form detailing your system configuration.