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ATI's Radeon 9500 Pro graphics card

DirectX 9 goes mainstream

WE'VE FOLLOWED the story of ATI's slow march to leadership in the graphics hardware world closely. The R300 chip, which powers ATI's high-end Radeon 9700 Pro card, has given ATI an indisputable lead in terms of features and performance over perennial rival NVIDIA. R300 features a rich array of datatypes, including high-precision floating-point color throughout its pipeline. This newfound precision will enable graphics hardware to encroach on the world of cinematic rendering traditionally owned by slow, software-only renderers.

Translation: it's really, really cool.

Now comes the pivotal step in ATI's march. Today the company is shipping its new sub-$200 graphics card based on the R300 chip, just in time for the Christmas shopping season. This card, the Radeon 9500 Pro, directly targets the heart of NVIDIA's lineup: the GeForce4 Ti 4200. The 4200 has dominated the middle of the graphics card market since its introduction this past spring. Can ATI's new card knock the GF4 Ti 4200 off its perch? Keep reading to find out.

Introducing the Radeon 9500 Pro
First things first. In order to understand best what the Radeon 9500 Pro is all about, you'd do well to go read my swanky intro to next-gen graphics chips, which explains exactly how and why these new chips are a step ahead of anything you've seen before. Then you'll want to go read my review of the Radeon 9700 Pro. Since the 9500 Pro is based on the exact same ATI R300 chip, nearly everything I said about the 9700 Pro's capabilities applies here, and I'll refer to that article as needed throughout this review.

Once you have your prerequisite reading finished, allow me to dispel some notions you may have about the Radeon 9500 Pro. A few weeks back, ATI announced the 9500 Pro to the world and gave out test cards to select media outlets (read: not us; we're too geeky-wonky with the in-depth stuff). At that time, you may have seen some benchmark scores for the 9500 Pro. Trouble is, those scores aren't representative of what you'll get with the finished product. Those early sample cards were simply Radeon 9700 cards underclocked with two of their four memory controllers disabled. As a result, those early test cards had only 64MB of memory and a different board design from the final product, which has 128MB of memory. Just keep that in mind, in case you had some preconceived notions about the 9500 Pro's performance.

Speaking of board designs, let's take a look at the production Radeon 9500 Pro card. This puppy is dressed up in ATI red, just like the 9700 Pro, but its memory chips are lined up across the top of the card, and the auxiliary power connector has moved. (Yes, you'll need to plug an additional power lead into the 9500 Pro to give it enough juice to run. ATI includes a power adapter cable in case you need one, just as with the 9700 Pro.)

The Radeon 9500 Pro is a different card than the 9700 Pro

The usual array of VGA, S-Video, and DVI ports

The 9500 Pro's memory chips line up in front of the aux power connector

So that's what she looks like. Here's what you need to know: the 9500 Pro runs at a 275MHz core clock, and it has a 128-bit DDR memory interface with a 540MHz effective clock rate. Hence the cheapness versus the Radeon 9700 Pro, which can run as much as $399. We'll discuss the exact implications of the 9500 Pro's specs in a couple of pages.

Radeon 9500 Pro cards apparently just started rolling off the production line, if our review unit is anything to go by. Have a look at the manufacture date:

Fresh from the oven

Anyhow, let's see how this brand-new specimen performs.