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  Crucial Radeon 9700 Pro & Sapphire Atlantis 9500 Pro review

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Without a doubt, ATI has been dominating the enthusiast graphics market ever since they unveiled the Radeon 9000 family. While NVIDIA, its only main competitor, kept trying to resuscitate aging old GeForce 4 boards until a successor arrived, ATI found themselves with enough time in their hands to steal some of the competition’s market share and appear as the most appealing solution all along different price ranges from $100 boards up to the higher-end, performance crown holder, Radeon 9700 Pro.

So, at this point you are clear about something, Radeon boards are your best bet considering soon-to-be-released GeForce FX boards won’t add much to the table (feature/performance wise), however, depending on your budget you might be debating whether to get a Radeon 9500 or a Pro, or even put down the cash and invest in a more expensive 9700 Pro.

Today we are taking a close look to two very popular boards: ATI’s flagship Radeon 9700 Pro board manufactured by Crucial Technology and a mid-priced offering, the Atlantis Radeon 9500 Pro sold by Sapphire Technologies. Additionally, a GeForce 4 has been tossed in for fun, either you are upgrading from one of these cards or want to know how much faster the newer Radeons are, you will have a clear comparison among these boards.

In the case of Crucial’s board, they’ve managed to set the clock speed of the 9700 up to an impressive 310 MHz for the memory (DDR) thus effectively 620 MHz, this has been made possible through the use of (very expensive) Samsung 2.86ns memory modules. That is indeed the main difference between these two boards, where the more affordable Atlantis 9500 Pro comes equipped with 3.6ns Hynix memory modules, clocked at 270MHz (x2), furthermore the 9500 uses a 128bit memory bus, half of what the 9700 has under the hood.


Crucial's 2.8ns rated, Radeon 9700 memory

The graphics core (or GPU as some like to call it) operates at 325 MHz on the 9700, versus 275MHz on the 9500.


Sapphire's 3.6ns rated memory modules

Just so you can have an idea on how complex graphics processors are getting nowadays, when the 9700 Pro was launched about 6 months ago, few people thought ATI would be able to keep up and have enough boards running at high frequencies because the core consists of nearly 110 million transistors, that is, more than twice as much as in an Athlon XP. Not to mention, the XP CPU gets most of its transistors out of pure cache size, a graphics card has almost none.

According to ATI, the reason they managed to reach such a high clock-speed while Matrox and 3Dlabs were unable to get past the 200’s was because they did much of the chip design by hand, a very “Intel like” approach. Both of these cards are touted as full DirectX 9 compliant products, and that is what accounts for many of its transistors; in order to get DX9 compliance you need to have fully operational floating point pipeline from beginning to end.

One last thing we will detail on the Radeon 9x00 core (in case you haven’t been impressed yet), the chip has over 1000pins (compared to the Athlon XP’s 462), not even AMD’s upcoming server processor will have this many pins. Among the main reasons for such requirement is the 256-bit memory-bus – in the 9700 Pro - but also quite of those extra pins are there just for powering the beast.
ATI chose a Flip-Chip Ball Grid Array (FCBGA) packaging for the R300, which brings us to another point, cooling used in these boards:

    
Crucial and Sapphire boards head to head.

With all the <cough> recent buzz on how loud a videocard cooler can get, you will be glad to hear this is not the case of Crucial or Sapphire boards, and actually none of other Radeon boards as long as we’ve heard. During the operation of an average PC with its CPU being actively cooled, you won’t really notice the noise output generated by neither of these… All in all, I’m very satisfied with this especially considering twice as many transistors as in my CPU need to be cooled.

Having that said, and with a clearer picture that the real differences between these boards are not those of a complete generation, it’s easy to understand why Radeon 9500 Pro boards are extremely popular among enthusiasts.

In fact, the only reason 9500 Pro’s ever existed are those of ATI trying to attract as many end-users as possible, past NVIDIA users that switched over to ATI and are now happy Radeon owners. Radeon 9500s are not cheap to manufacture and for that same reason ATI intends to discontinue them very soon in favour of new 9600 boards (which are not guaranteed to be any faster than the current 9500s), by the time we were writing this article, Crucial was selling their 9700 Pro board for $340 while Sapphire boards were available for about $170.

I won’t anticipate to our conclusions, better have a look to the full benchmarks in the next few pages and see what comes up from this 9700 Pro vs. 9500 Pro race.

 



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