When a single-chip video card requires its own internal power cable, you get the impression that it's a monster. ATI's Radeon 9700 Pro represents a major architectural evolution, and it packs serious raw power, stellar image quality, DirectX 9 compliance, AGP 8X, and features that games don't even use yet. Of course, as a high-end, $399 card, it's primarily intended for early adopters who can't wait to drop it in an already fast PC.When a single-chip video card requires its own internal power cable, you get the impression that it's a monster. ATI's Radeon 9700 Pro represents a major architectural evolution, and it packs serious raw power, stellar image quality, DirectX 9 compliance, AGP 8X, and features that games don't even use yet. Of course, as a high-end, $399 card, it's primarily intended for early adopters who can't wait to drop it in an already fast PC.
Millions and millions
The graphics processor is made up of a whopping 110 million transistors using a conventional .15-micron manufacturing process. To put that in perspective, a Northwood Pentium 4 is composed of about 55 million transistors using a smaller .13-micron process, while the next-biggest graphics chip, Matrox's Parhelia, has 80 million. The result of having a chip so large and complex is that it needs extra power provided by an internal drive power connector, such as the one that 3dfx's dual-chip Voodoo5 used. The extra power ensures stability since at its peak performance, the Radeon 9700 can exceed the power spec for the AGP slot. ATI does include a splitter, and it's a quite simple step to connect it to the power cables inside a PC's case.
The core clock flies at a frequency of 325MHz. The 256-bit DDR memory runs at an effective speed of 620MHz, and the extrawide data paths provide about double the memory bandwidth of a Radeon 8500 or GeForce4 Ti card. Between the high frequencies and the new architectural features, the Radeon 9700 harnesses a tremendous amount of raw power that's especially noticeable at higher resolutions. While at a low resolution of 800x600, the Radeon 9700 is about even with current cards, which themselves aren't stressed at low resolutions. However, when you move to the lofty resolutions of 1,280x1,024 and 1,600x1,200, it stands above all others. The difference is even greater when antialiasing is turned on.
But raw gaming performance is only a small part of the Radeon 9700's appeal. ATI reworked both its full-scene antialiasing (FSAA) and its anisotropic filtering engines to result in better image quality with less of a performance penalty. Furthermore, the two combined give you the sharpest, crispest visual quality seen to date. Anisotropic filtering makes the textures on slanted surfaces look much sharper than trilinear filtering does, adding quite a bit to the visual quality of items such as long, straight corridors in first-person shooters. FSAA, of course, eliminates the jaggies of curved and diagonal objects, and now it can even smooth chunky graphics within textures that contain a lot of alpha blending (such as the grass textures now in a number of action games' outdoor maps). The card also has a number of advanced DirectX 9 features, but don't expect to see any practical benefit from these for a year or two; they require that developers specifically code them into new games.
The Radeon 9700 can provide extremely good image quality at a solid frame rate because the card has a lot of memory bandwidth and uses it efficiently. The 256-bit memory interface is broken into four 64-bit channels, so smaller chunks of data can be sent simultaneously. ATI's third-generation culling engine removes obscured pixels early in the pipeline, which practically ensures that no work is done on pixels that don't end up on the screen.
Wait, there's more
Its gaming performance is excellent, and its image quality is stellar with high frame rates, but what else does this card have to offer? Outstanding video, for one thing. The new Videoshader feature offers hands-down the best DVD image quality we've seen on a computer. Videoshader uses the card's programmable pixel-shader engine to smooth jaggies and remove any blockiness or other artifacts that might mar DVD playback. Similarly, the Fullstream feature uses the pixel shader to reduce artifacts in streaming video, which is notorious for its poor quality. Only Real supports it at this time, but ATI promises that other streaming technologies will pick it up in the near future. Fullstream does remove some of the blockiness from a low-bandwidth stream, making it more tolerable, but it's not a miracle worker; it doesn't take a blocky stream to the level of a high-quality downloadable video file, let alone a DVD.
The Radeon 9700 has DirectX 9 features that we won't see in action, or be able to test, for months, if not years. For example, it incorporates a floating-point lighting engine for far more precise lighting than has been possible in the past. It supports vertex shader 2.0 and pixel shader 2.0, both of which are part of Microsoft's DirectX 9 and that will be released as a free download later this year. Regardless, this is the most powerful card on the block, able to run games at 1,600x1,200 without breaking a sweat or at 1,024x768 with 16X anisotropic filtering and 4X FSAA at a highly playable frame rate. We even threw some pretty hefty games at it, such as Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, Soldier of Fortune II, and Dungeon Siege.
No other card can match the performance of the Radeon 9700 Pro at maximum image-quality settings. The big question gamers now face is whether they should buy this expensive card now, long before DirectX 9 even becomes a factor. Potential buyers should know that Nvidia is finishing up a card that will directly compete with the Radeon 9700 Pro, but it won't be out until late this year. Also, it's important to remember that the high-end graphics cards need to be matched with a fast PC to reach their full potential. ATI's new card is currently the fastest around, and for some, that will be enough to justify the $400 price. But if anything is certain in the fast-moving graphics market, it's that price drops and even faster cards are coming--it's just a matter of time.
All tests were run on the following system: Pentium 4 2.53GHz CPU, Intel D850EMV2 motherboard, 512MB PC1066, Sound Blaster Audigy, and Windows XP Professional.
3DMark2001 SE was run at default settings. The Unreal performance-test preview build was run at default settings. In Return To Castle Wolfenstein, we ran the Checkpoint demo with high detail textures and trilinear filtering on.