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Preview: ATI's Radeon 9000 and 9700 GPUs

Revolution all over again

I'M WRITING THIS ON an airplane, flying back from ATI's press event introducing its new graphics chips to the world, so please bear with me if I seem a bit distracted. I'm trying to get a look into First Class whenever the little curtain gets moved. I've always wondered what goes on up there.

With that out of the way, let me tell you about the Radeon 9000 and 9700 chips. These two chips are ATI's next-generation products, and if ATI delivers them intact and on schedule, we'll have a new undisputed champion in the graphics chip business. And it's cliché to say it by now, but I have to, because it's so true: ATI's new chip, code-named R300, brings revolutionary change to real-time graphics.

Really. I mean it this time, dag nabbit.

Actually, I meant it last time, too, when the GeForce3 was released. The GeForce3 brought us vertex and pixel shaders, and in so doing, it changed the way we think about graphics. Thing is, ATI is releasing its second all-new graphics architecture since the GeForce3 bowed, and NVIDIA hasn't released anything but rehashed GeForce3 chips since then.

Hard to believe, innit? And we're still waiting on software to take full advantage of vertex and pixel shaders.

But it's time for revolution once and again, and this time out, ATI is leading the charge. I'll try to explain why I think the Radeon 9700 is revolutionary, but first, let's take a look at the basic specs of the two chips ATI just announced.

The Radeon 9000 and 9000 PRO
Code-named RV250, the Radeon 9000 chip is ATI's new value processor. It will supplant the Radeon 8500, but it will occupy a lower rung in the overall market, because graphics cards based on it will be dirt freakin' cheap.

Here's the story on this chip: It's a slightly reworked Radeon 8500 intended to be cheaper to produce. Unlike most "value" chips, the RV250 has four pixel pipelines, and like the 8500, it has both vertex and pixel shaders in hardware. To keep costs down, ATI replaced the 8500's dual vertex shaders with a single, optimized vertex shader unit. Also, the chip has one fewer texture unit per pixel pipeline; to compensate, it can "loop back" pixels to apply additional textures a full six times per rendering pass. The 8500 has dual texture units per pipe and can loop back up to three times to apply additional textures. So the Radeon 9000 delivers just as many textures per rendering pass, but only half the textures per clock cycle.

In addition to these changes, the Radeon 9000 gets an updated motion video processing unit. This update is important because the chip can apply pixel shaders effects to real-time video.

ATI is aiming for squarely for the "mainstream" market with the RV250. The Radeon 9000's core and memory clocks will be 250MHz and 400MHz, while the Radeon 9000 PRO will run at 275MHz with 550MHz memory. So these cards should be slightly slower than the Radeon 8500 and 8500LE. Here's the kicker: the Radeon 9000's list price is one hundred and nine dollars, and the Radeon 9000 PRO will cost only $129.

That, my friends, is dirt freakin' cheap. If I may say so, this is the chip that the GeForce4 MX should have been. It will bring DirectX 8-class graphics hardware into the mass market, which will give developers a much better hardware target for future games and 3D apps.

I'd like to show you exactly how the Radeon 9000 PRO performs. I have one in my bag in the overhead bin, but my laptop here doesn't have an AGP slot. I bet they have PCs with AGP slots up there in First Class. I could swear I saw a mini-tower case through that curtain.

Anyhow, we'll test this thing soon and make up some graphs. Mmmmm, graphs.

ATI says Radeon 9000 cards are shipping now, and I'd expect to see them on store shelves next month.