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ATI's Radeon 9700 Pro graphics card

Render farm on a stick

THOSE OF YOU who have read my preview of next-gen graphics chips will know that I'm optimistic about the prospects for DirectX 9-class graphics hardware. The Radeon 9700 Pro graphics card we're reviewing today is the first DX9-class product to hit the market, so we're naturally excited about it.

However, I was surprised to see that the Radeon 9700 didn't ship with a single piece of code capable of taking advantage of its most important new features, including its new floating-point datatypes that allow for very high color precision. Not only that, but I searched around online, and I couldn't find anything there, either. Microsoft's DirectX 9 isn't available yet, and all those fancy demos ATI showed off at the Radeon 9700 launch were apparently written in Direct3D. ATI has a set of OpenGL extensions in the works, but those aren't ready for prime time yet.

I asked ATI about the possibility we'd see any driver features from them like Matrox provides with Parhelia. The Parhelia drivers will force games and the Windows desktop into a 10-bit-per-color mode. It's a hack, but it works. Unfortunately, ATI doesn't have any plans to provide such a thing, nor are they aware of any plans at Microsoft to make use of 10-bits-per-channel color modes on the Windows desktop anytime soon.

The Radeon 9700 Pro card

So we'll have to review the Radeon 9700 for what it is, effectively, for today's buyers: an especially nice DirectX 8-class graphics card with some intriguing future potential. ATI has made some compromises in the Radeon 9700's design in order to gear it toward the DX9 future. For instance, the chip can lay down only one texture per pixel pipeline in a clock cycle. The Radeon 9700 has eight pixel pipelines, so it's still very fast, but current cards like the GeForce4 Ti (four pipes with two texture units each) and Matrox's Parhelia (four pipes with four texture units each) have comparable pixel-pushing power. The number of texture units per pipe may seem important now, but in the future, when pixel shader programs generate textures procedurally—just run a "wood" shader or a "marble" shader—traditional texture units will probably matter less.

Nevertheless, the Radeon 9700 should be the ultimate DX8 card in many ways. The extra precision present throughout the chip's pixel pipeline should help image quality in a few places, and its memory bandwidth is second to none. The R9700 can run most current games fluidly at high resolutions with edge and texture antialiasing features cranked up.

Before we go on, I'm going to have to stop and admonish you to go read my article on next-gen graphics chips so you can see how innovative the Radeon 9700 really is. It's a quick read, and it probably won't make your head hurt too much. I covered a lot of ground in that article, and I won't drag you back over the same territory here. Suffice to say that the Radeon 9700 should change the graphics landscape dramatically.

Also, you'll want to go read this page to get an exposition of the Radeon 9700's most important new features. This chip is loaded with all of the latest goodies, including AGP 8X, eight pixel pipes, four vertex shaders, a 256-bit crossbar memory interface, and killer occlusion detection. It also has all of the non-3D bits that one would expect on a modern graphics card integrated onto a single chip: dual RAMDACs for analog monitors, a TMDS transmitter for digital flat panels, and a TV decoder/encoder unit for video output and capture. We will discuss many of the card's new features in more detail as we frame our test results below.

All the standard output ports, plus a DVI-to-VGA adapter is included

Of course, all these fancy features come at a price. This wonder of Moore's Law weighs in at roughly 110 million transistors. Manufactured on a 0.15-micron fab process, the Radeon 9700 chip has a land mass roughly equal to that of France, provided France hasn't surrendered any land lately. To give you some perspective, have a look at the picture below, which shows a Radeon 9700 chip next to an Athlon XP processor. The Athlon XP is made up of about 37 million transistors, and it's manufactured on a 0.13-micron process.

The Athlon XP (Thoroughbred) is dwarfed by the R300

In order to provide this massive chip with the needed juice, ATI put an auxiliary power connector on the card. The AGP slot alone just isn't up to snuff, so—a la 3dfx's Voodoo 5—you'll have to plug the card into your computer's power supply unit. That's really no big deal, and ATI provides a pass-through cable to make it as easy as possible.