ATI revs Radeon graphics chips

ATI Technologies Inc. has unveiled the Radeon 9700 graphics board, a US$399 gaming monster scheduled to ship in the US in August, sporting 100 million transistors and full support for DirectX 9.

Also new are a pair of toned-down boards with DirectX 8.1 support, which will be released upon announcement Thursday. The Radeon 9000 Pro has a 275-MHz core clock speed and 550-MHz of DDR memory, while the Radeon 9000 has a 250-MHz core clock speed and of 400-MHz DDR memory. Both boards incorporate a new technology called Fullstream, which uses the pixel-shader engine to enhance streaming video and smooth graphics' sometimes rough edges.

The Radeon 9000 Pro with 64MB RAM costs $149; a version with 128MB of RAM will also be available. The Radeon 9000 will be marketed by ATI partners.

The announcements stoke the fires of competition with NVidia Corp. ATI's 9000 series chips will compete against NVidia's new GeForce4 MX 440 chips. Besides being the first to fully support the DirectX 9 multimedia specification, ATI says NVidia has no mainstream cards that support DirectX 8.

The high-end Radeon 9700 will beat NVidia's still-unannounced next-generation graphics board out the door by at least a month. That gives ATI an edge with eager gamers, says Peter Glaskowsky, senior analyst for 3D graphics and multimedia at MicroDesign Resources.

"The chip will be perceived as technically equal to the next-generation NVidia product. There will be a lot of people who feel that they can't wait. They'll be doing their back-to-school or early Christmas shopping and won't have access to the NVidia product and won't want to wait," he says.

Divining Details

The Radeon 9700 is intended for high-end gaming, with its 325-MHz core clock speed, 128MB of graphics memory, support for 8X AGP, and a 256-bit memory interface. The 9700's clock speed and memory pipeline will likely make it the fastest available consumer graphics card. Still, the core speed and memory bandwidth aren't the most important features of a graphics board anymore, analyst Glaskowsky notes.

"It used to always be about resolution and frame rates," Glaskowsky says. "There were always people talking about extra 'features,' but they very rarely made the difference. You needed a new graphics card because it would be faster."

Full appreciation of the newest games, especially their art and graphics, requires the most technologically advanced cards, Glaskowsky says. That's because the special effects are enhanced with graphic design at the level of pixels, the miniscule dots that combine to create images. The more pixel-level instructions, such as shading, texturing, or lighting, the more realistic the overall effects.

By way of comparison, the DirectX 8.1 specification is capable of 24 instructions for each pixel, while DirectX 9 can handle 160. The Radeon 9700 will be the first to be fully compliant with that multimedia spec, according to ATI.

"It leads to the level of realism and level of precision that exists in pre-rendered graphics such as Toy Story or Monsters, Inc.," says Eric Lundgren, product manager for the Radeon 9700, of ATI's support for the multimedia standard. "Now you can have that level of realism in real time. We're giving developers the tools they need to create these effects."

Games Ready

In turn, gamers are getting more sophisticated boards that will let them see all the fine effects of pixel-level precision. "As usual, when you buy a new market-leading graphics product, you don't have to worry that it won't run any new games. You're guaranteed that any new games for the next year or so will have every one of its features available on your graphics board," Glaskowsky says.

Some impressive games that will take advantage of DirectX 9 are due for release soon, including the new Sierra Half-Life and John Carmack's much-anticipated Doom III. At E3, the gaming convention last May, the line to view that cutting-edge gore-fest twisted its way through most of the hall. The Doom III demo ran on a Radeon 9700. "That was the best demo we could have given," Lundgren says.

Even with ATI's head start, Glaskowsky predicts NVidia will have a slightly stronger position when its board reaches the market, because its new architecture supports a variety of price points. Overall, both gaming graphics and board technology continue to make significant strides, he notes.

"The fact that there are new games coming out with significant feature requirements for graphics chips is something that we don't see every year," he says.

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