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Finally, a midrange graphics card worth its silicon. ATI's new 256MB Radeon HD 3850 graphics card is the best-performing 3D card in its price class. For $179, it will let you play most current 3D games at reasonable resolutions and detail settings, bowling over Nvidia's GeForce 8600 GTS cards on every game. You should keep your expectations in check; you won't be playing in DirectX 10-mode with ATI's new card. Also keep in mind that Nvidia claims a 256MB version of its speedy GeForce 8800 GT will hit the market before the holiday season is up. You can also pay $75 for the 512MB GeForce 8800 GT and receive a marked performance boost. But if you or someone you're shopping for is a PC gamer in need of a graphics upgrade, and you need to stay within a budget, right now the Radeon HD 3850 offers a truly viable midrange gaming experience.
If you find the name "3850" confusing since ATI's highest-end card is currently the $400 Radeon HD 2900 XT, you're not alone. Be assured, though, that the Radeon HD 3850 is indeed supposed to be slower and less expensive than the older, higher-end model. The reason for the change to "3000" indicates a new generation of GPU that uses a new, more efficient chip design, going to 55 nanometers from 65 nanometers. You know it's not as fast as the older 2900, because it's a 3800 model. And ATI also says it has eliminated suffixes like "XT" and "Pro," in favor of using the numbers to tell you that the 3850 is slower than the $219 Radeon HD 3870 that came out at the same time.
But in addition to tweaking the naming scheme, ATI has also added a few new features to both the 3850 and the 3870. Unfortunately, neither amounts to more than a marketing bullet point, at least in practical terms.
In addition to supporting all current games, the Radeon 3850 now includes hardware support for DirectX 10.1. This means that these cards will be able to play any games that take advantage of the next iteration of Microsoft's DirectX programming interface. If you're groaning at yet another Windows graphics update, don't worry. We wouldn't expect any game to require even DirectX 10.0 hardware for at least three or four years. Further, DirectX 10 has yet to convince anyone that its few added bells and whistles are worth the massive performance drop you take to even high-end cards. That tells you first that the midrange Radeon 3850 likely wouldn't be able to give you a very smooth frame rate in DirectX 10 or 10.1, and second that you're not missing out on much visually by sticking with DirectX 9 settings.
The Radeon HD 3850's other new feature is its support for PCI Express 2.0. You can still use the card on current PCI Express motherboards, but when the PCI-E 2.0 motherboards hit, you'd gain added graphics data bandwidth. Of course, no game can currently flood the first generation PCI-E pipeline, and if it did, we wouldn't expect a $179 card to be able to keep up with all that data. For a single Radeon HD 3850, then, PCI Express 2.0 support probably doesn't make a difference. But with AMD's new 700-series motherboards, you'll be able to use up to four of these cards in one PC, a new multi-GPU technology dubbed CrossFireX. With that much processing power, you might be able to handle a larger flood of graphical data, thereby justifying the next-gen interface support in a midrange 3D card. Of course, you'd still need the game to provide that much data at once, and we don't know of any right now that will.
Along with those new features, the Radeon HD 3850 also retains all of the highlights of the Radeon 2900's core technology, which makes sense, as the core design of the 3850 is a derivation of that of the higher-end chips'. Mostly that refers to its suitability as a home-theater card. Like the Radeon 2000 cards, the Radeon 3850 is HDCP compliant, which means it can display protected HD DVD and Blu-ray content at resolutions up to 2,560x1,600 from your PC, if you have such an optical drive and a supporting monitor or TV. It also comes with an integrated audio chip, which means via ATI's specialized DVI-to-HDMI adapter, you can pump both video and audio over an HDMI cable to an HDTV. That greatly simplifies home theater PC installations, and is a real boon to all of the newer Radeons with that feature.
We suspect that if you're interested in this card, though, it's primarily for the purposes of PC gaming. We'll give our usual thanks to Sarju Shah at GameSpot for the benchmarks, which put the Radeon HD 3850 in a fairly competitive light.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)