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ATI's Radeon 9600 XT graphics card

Practicing Black Magic on the mainstream

ModelRadeon 9600 XT

ATI AND NVIDIA are locked in an epic battle for the graphics performance crown, but as sexy and exciting as technology leadership can be, sometimes it's hard to get really excited about high-end graphics cards. ATI and NVIDIA's latest flagships, the Radeon 9800 XT and GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, are both capable of rendering stunning environments with fluid frame rates, but $500 price tags keep the cards out of the hands of those of us who don't have spare organs to hawk on eBay.

Fortunately, the fancy technology found in most high-end graphics cards eventually trickles down to more affordable mid-range products. Mid-range cards might not have enough horsepower to run the latest games at the highest resolutions with antialiasing and anisotropic filtering cranked all the way up, but they're generally fast enough for all but the most demanding gamers.

Last year, NVIDIA's GeForce4 Ti 4200 owned the mid-range graphics market, but this year has been dominated by ATI. ATI took over the mid-range graphics performance crown with the Radeon 9500 Pro, which was succeeded by the Radeon 9600 Pro. NVIDIA's GeForce FX 5600s haven't been able to keep up. Not content to sit idle, today ATI is beefing up its mid-range graphics line with the Radeon 9600 XT. The 9600 XT promises to set a new standard in affordable graphics performance, but it is really that much faster than the competition? Read on to find out.

The RV360 GPU
The Radeon 9600 XT is based on ATI's new RV360 GPU, which is quite similar to the RV350 chip found in the Radeon 9600 Pro. The RV360 shares the RV350's 4x1-pipe architecture and a host of other features that you can read about in my Radeon 9600 Pro review. Rather than rehash all the technology found in the RV360, I'd rather focus on what's new in the chip. ATI snuck a few surprises into the RV360 that are worth exploring.

Like the recently announced R360 GPU, which powers the Radeon 9800 XT, the RV360 supports GPU core temperature monitoring. Temperature monitoring is necessary for ATI's new OVERDRIVE automatic overclocking software, which will come to the Radeon 9600 XT in the Catalyst 3.9 driver release, slated for November. (The RV360 has all the necessary hardware support for OVERDRIVE to work, but the Cat 3.9s aren't ready yet.) Since OVERDRIVE will initially only offer the 9600 XT overclocked speeds of 513 and 527MHz, old fashioned overclocking may be a route for experienced enthusiasts.

To help give OVERDRIVE plenty of clock speed headroom, RV360 GPUs are being fabbed on a 0.13-micron manufacturing process using a special "Black Diamond" insulator that has less capacitance than the Fluorine-doped silicate glass insulator found in the RV350. Low capacitance (low-k) insulators can help chips reach higher clock speeds, which explains why ATI is able to clock the RV360 GPU at an even 500MHz on the Radeon 9600 XT—100MHz higher than the Radeon 9600 Pro. The fact ATI is rolling out OVERDRIVE support for the 9600 XT suggests the chip can handle clock speeds north of 500MHz, too.

If you look really close, you can almost see the low-k insulator

The specs
I know you can't wait to see benchmarks, but first, let's have a quick peek at the Radeon 9600 XT's specs.

Core clock500MHz*
Pixel pipelines4
Peak pixel fill rate2000 Mpixels/s
Texture units/pixel pipeline1
Textures per clock4
Peak texel fill rate2000 Mtexels/s
Memory clock600MHz
Memory typeBGA DDR SDRAM
Memory bus width128-bit
Peak memory bandwidth9.6GB/s
PortsVGA, DVI, composite and S-Video outputs
Composite, S-Video inputs
Auxiliary power connectorNone

If you ignore low-k insulators and core tweaks, the Radeon 9600 XT is basically a faster version of the Radeon 9600 Pro. We'll see just how much faster in a moment. However, before we get into testing, let's take in the beauty that is the Radeon 9600 XT:

Ooohhhh. Aaaahhhh.

The Radeon 9600 XT's heat sink is similar to what you might find on a Radeon 9700 Pro

The card's BGA memory chips are rated for operation at 300MHz

And no, ATI still isn't offering dual DVI on its consumer graphics cards