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
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)
memory modules.That is indeed the
main difference between these two boards, where the more
affordable Atlantis 9500 Pro comes equipped with
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
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
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
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.