ATI offers best Radeons on a budget

ATI Technologies Inc. is pushing its lead in the graphics chip market, unveiling a line of mainstream boards that feature the same technology found in higher-end chips but sell for half the price.

ATI will assemble and sell the Radeon 9500 Pro, retailing for US$219 with a $20 rebate; it has a mid-November ship date. The $179 Radeon 9500 will be sold by third-party manufacturers such as Hercules Technologies and Gigabyte Technology Co. Ltd. and should be on store shelves by the end of October.

Both boards use the technology found in the $399 Radeon 9700 Pro, whose chip is also available through third-party manufacturers as the Radeon 9700.

"We're taking the technology we announced three months ago, and we're bringing it into the mainstream," says David Nalasco, technical marketing manager with ATI. "You have to get under that $200 limit--the mainstream market's eight times the size of the Radeon 9700 Pro's market."

Geared-Down Graphics

Nalasco says that the flexibility of the R300 architecture--the technology inside the new Radeon line--enables the company to configure it for a variety of products. "There are three features we can adjust: the memory interface, the number of rendering pipelines, and the amount of memory," he says.

The Radeon 9700--essentially a lower-cost ($299) version of the 9700 Pro--has a 275MHz core clock speed and 540MHz memory clock speed, versus the 9700 Pro's 325MHz core and 620MHz memory clock speed.

The Radeon 9500 on the other hand, has four rendering pipelines and 64MB of DDR memory, compared to eight pipes and 128MB of DDR memory for the Radeon 9500 Pro. "Reducing the memory pipelines allows us to get a lower cost, but it's also a lower performance," he says. "But it will make minimal difference in the majority of games."

All of the boards will feature DirectX 9 support at speeds considerably faster than an NVidia GeForce4-based graphics card can attain, Nalasco says.

"You don't have to spend a lot for a card that will run all the games for the next couple of years," he says. "You can't expect people in this price category to be upgrading as often as the hardcore gamers."

NVidia's Coming

Later this fall, NVidia is expected to announce its NV30 technology--next-generation chips that will support features even beyond DirectX 9.

"Nvidia is pretty confident that its next product will outperform the 9700 and have a larger feature set," says Peter Glaskowsky, senior analyst for 3D graphics and multimedia at MicroDesign Resources.

"But they're taking a risk going beyond any Microsoft standard," he adds. "They'll be all by themselves, trying to convince software developers to code for their product."

ATI is taking risks of its own by competing with itself through its own cards and third-party versions. "It's a very narrow line to walk, to manufacture cards with its own chips and also sell the other chips to third-party companies," says Glaskowsky. "It's a difficult thing to do. They have to carefully distinguish the market."

Right now, ATI is enjoying a rare lead over its rival. "We wanted to deliver a new level of performance and features in a mainstream product. We wanted to have a dominant product in every category," Nalasco says.

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Joel Strauch

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