The ATi Radeon 9800 XT  256MB
ATi Turns Up The Heat In High End 3D Graphics

By - Dave Altavilla
September 30, 2003

When ATi released the Radeon 9800 Pro earlier this year, the Toronto, Ontario Canada design team, had been working with a strong foundation, that was built on their most successful card ever, the Radeon 9700 Pro.  The base GPU architecture that would drive several iterations of performance enthusiast, mid range and mainstream products, was paying off in spades, versus their fiercest rival, NVIDIA.  At the same time, NVIDIA was failing to execute on any meaningful competitive new design effort.  The combination of NVIDIA's technological stutter-stepping and ATi's seemingly flawless execution, provided a new product springboard unlike any other in the Canadian company's history.  When the Radeon 9800 Pro was launched in March '03, it had literally no competition, with NVIDIA's follow-up to the miserably botched GeForce FX 5800, still months away.  Even then, when NVIDIA was able to finally unleash the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, since it had to compete with ATi's second generation VPU, its impact and market splash was diminished, versus what should have been a block-buster release for the Silicon Valley rocket-ship semiconductor company.

Then of course came the controversy.  This little industry certainly does love controversy now doesn't it?  Accusations of NVIDIA's driver optimizations, targeted at specific benchmarks and the defacement of a perfectly useful benchmarking tool and company, all spun up into a quagmire of trash-talking and mud-slinging, which certainly didn't help NVIDIA win any popularity contests.  At the end of the day, all the chatter and rhetoric didn't amount to much more than surface noise.  Or did it?  ATi was riding out the storm quietly, as industry analysts and editors scrambled to find a level playing field and new methodologies for measuring performance in consumer graphics.  The simple push-button time-demo benchmark, is now beginning to fade into the sunset, as new "customized" benchmark runs are being created and new game engines with DirectX 9 effects enter the scene.  Although benchmark optimizations have been going on in the industry for quite some time, no one really understood the depth of the issues and since many benchmarks are based on actual game engines by in large, those optimizations benefited the end user experience as well.  Regardless, the game has changed forever, in PC Graphics benchmarking and although we'll spend some longer hours in the lab here, it's all for the better.

Meanwhile, this enormous diversion was exactly what ATi needed, to steal the GeForce FX 5900's thunder, and allow them the ability to ready their mid-life kicker product, that we have for your on the test bench today.  The Radeon 9800 XT is based on the "new" R360 VPU, which is basically an R350 with kicked up speeds and feeds, Emeril Lagasee style.  True to its branding, the Radeon 9800 XT doesn't bring any changes in graphics core architecture, but rather delivers just a bit more of a good thing, ever-precious clock speed.

Specifications & Features of the 256MB ATi Radeon 9800 XT
Bigger, Meaner, Faster

RADEON 9800 Visual Processing Unit (VPU)
  • 412MHz Core Clock

MEMORY CONFIGURATION

  • 256MB of DDR  SDRAM - 730MHz DDR

3D GRAPHICS FEATURES

  • Eight parallel rendering pipelines process up to 3.04 billion pixels per second
  • Four parallel geometry engines process up to 380 million transformed and lit polygons per second
  • High precision 10-bit per channel frame buffer support
  • 256-bit DDR memory interface
  • AGP 8X support

SMARTSHADER 2.1

  • Full support for Microsoft DirectX 9.0 programmable pixel and vertex shaders in hardware
  • 2.0 Pixel Shaders support up to 16 textures per rendering pass
  • 2.0 Vertex Shaders support vertex programs with an unlimited number of instructions and flow control
  • 128-bit per pixel floating point color formats
  • Multiple Render Target (MRT) support
  • Shadow volume rendering acceleration
  • Complete feature set also supported in OpenGL via extensions

SMOOTHVISION 2.1

  • State-of-the-art full-scene anti-aliasing
  • New technology processes up to 18.2 billion anti-aliased samples per second for unprecedented performance
  • Supports 2x, 4x, and 6x modes with programmable sample patterns
  • Advanced anisotropic filtering
  • Supports up to 16 bilinear samples (in performance mode) or trilinear samples (in quality mode) per pixel
  • 2x/4x/6x full scene anti-aliasing modes
  • Adaptive algorithm with programmable sample patterns
  • 2x/4x/8x/16x anisotropic filtering modes
  • Adaptive algorithm with bilinear (performance) and trilinear (quality) options
  • Bandwidth-saving algorithm enables this feature with minimal performance cost

HYPER Z III+

  • Hierarchical Z-Buffer and Early Z Test reduce overdraw by detecting and discarding hidden pixels
  • Lossless Z-Buffer Compression and Fast Z-Buffer Clear reduce memory bandwidth consumption by over 50%
  • Fast Z-Buffer Clear
  • 8.8 : 1 Compression Ratio
  • Optimized Z-Cache for enhanced performance of shadow volumes

TRUFORM II

  • 2nd generation N-patch higher order surface support
  • Discrete and continuous tessellation levels per polygon for dynamic LOD
  • DirectX 9.0 displacement mapping
VIDEOSHADER
  • Seamless integration of programmable pixel shaders with video data
  • High quality, hardware accelerated de-blocking of internet streaming video
  • Noise removal filter for captured video
  • Integrated MPEG-2 decode
  • Hardware accelerated iDCT, motion compensation, and color space conversion
  • Top quality DVD and all-format DTV/HDTV decode with low CPU overhead
  • Back-end scaler delivers top quality playback
  • Upscaling and downscaling with 4-tap horizontal and vertical filtering
  • Filtered display of images up to 1920 pixels wide
  • Unique per-pixel adaptive de-interlacing feature combines the best elements of the bob and add-field (weave) techniques

FULLSTREAM video de-blocking technology

  • Noise removal filtering for captured video
  • MPEG-2 decoding with motion compensation, iDCT and color space conversion
  • All-format DTV/HDTV decoding
  • YPrPb component output
  • Adaptive de-interlacing and frame rate conversion
  • Dual integrated display controllers
  • Dual integrated 10-bit per channel 400MHz DACs
  • Integrated 165 MHz TMDS transmitter (DVI and HDCP compliant)
  • Integrated TV Output support up to 1024x768 resolution
  • Optimized for Pentium 4 SSE2 and AMD Athlon 3Dnow!
  • PC 2002 compliant

DISPLAY FEATURES

  • Dual integrated display controllers
  • Drive two displays simultaneously with independent resolutions and refresh rates
  • HYDRAVISION software provides complete control over multi-display configurations with a user-friendly interface
  • Dual integrated 10-bit per channel palette DACs operating at up to 400MHz
  • Integrated 165MHz TMDS transmitter supports resolutions up to QXGA (2048x1536) and complies with DVI and HDCP specifications
  • Integrated TV-Out support up to 1024x768 resolution
  • YPrPb output for direct drive of HDTV monitors

DISPLAY SUPPORT

  • 15-pin VGA connector for analog CRT
  • S-video or composite connector for TV/VCR
  • DVI-I connector for digital CRT or flat panel
  • Independent resolutions and refresh rates for any two connected displays

GENERAL FEATURES

  • Comprehensive 2x, 4x, and 8x AGP support
  • High performance quad-channel DDR or DDR2 memory interface supports 64/128/256MB configurations
  • Fully compliant with PC 2002 requirements
  • Optimized for Pentium 4 SSE2 and AMD Athlon 3Dnow! processor instructions
  • Supports optional THEATER 200 companion chip for NTSC/PAL/SECAM video capture
  • Highly optimized 128-bit 2D engine with support for new Windows XP GDI extensions

         

         
CLICK ANY IMAGE FOR AN ENLARGED VIEW

Alright, we'll admit it too.  We try to keep over-exuberance in check around here, in an effort to remain objective. However, the first thing that came to mind, when we saw the Radeon 9800 XT, was sort of a primal simian grunt, rather than an actual thought.  Arrrgghh, arrgghh... more power!  Now there's a heat-sink and cooling setup that can bring out the monkey man (or woman) in all of us.  Folks, this thing is gorgeous.  With a spiral bladed fan that measures nearly 80mm across and an all copper sink, this card is decked out like our old 72 GTO, chromed and braided with the hood up for show in the parking lot.  Since the Radeon 9800 XT is built on the same VPU core technology, only at a revved up higher clock speed, it's no small wonder that ATi went to great lengths to develop a strong cooling solution.  After all, these new 412MHz core and 730MHz memory clocks have to stand up to rigorous quality assurance test patterns ATi's QA torture chamber, before it can be considered "retail ready"..


BACKSIDE COOLING

FUNKY BRACKET

GPU MOUNT

Back side cooling has also now been added to the design, as we have seen in recent NVIDIA products, like the NV30 and NV35.  The copper plate on this card, also has riveted posts that push up through the PCB and mate with the top side sink, where spring-loaded retention screws crank everything together.  The back side of the card also has a pressure bracket that mounts directly across the GPU.  The bracket locks into place with simple pressure fit mount over the heat sink posts that come through the PCB on either side of the VPU.  However, this clip is a bit too free-floating for our liking and could easily be popped off inadvertently in handling or installation.  We're hopeful that ATi will come up with a better retention clip design for this back side area of the board.  Regardless, the entire assembly does a great job of cooling the card under pressure. The fan is an obvious design enhancement that left us wondering why it hadn't been implemented on other graphics cards previously.  Larger fan blades push larger volumes of air across the heat sink area, without the need to increase the RPM speed. 

In addition, the Radeon 9800 XT does have the ability to throttle the fan speed higher or lower, depending on VPU core temperatures and 3D workload.  However, the noise factor is kept to a minimum and these cards are noticeably quieter than any of the current stock GeForce FX implementations we've had in the lab.

 

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