ATI unveils next-generation Radeons

After teasing with technology announcements, ATI Technologies Inc. is finally unveiling the line of graphics boards that implement its advances, notably the Radeon 8500 gaming board that features twice as many transistors as its predecessor.

The US$399 Radeon 8500, scheduled to be available in mid-September, features 64MB of 275-MHz DDR memory and 60 million transistors on its graphics chip. It just beats rival NVidia Corp.; its GeForce3 has 57 million transistors.

"It's a very exciting chip," says Jewelle Schiedel-Webb, ATI's director of desktop marketing. "It represents a new level of performance and visual reality that it brings to the market for game play."

A mainstream offering, the Radeon 7500 is priced at $179 and ships with 64MB of 230-MHz DDR memory. Pricing will be announced upon release for a third product, the Radeon Fire GL 8800, a high-end workstation board for CAD and other OpenGL users. Both are also scheduled to ship in mid-September.

"The 7500 delivers an unprecedented level of performance to the mainstream market," Schiedel-Webb adds. "It is faster than anything that shipped even six months ago."

In some ways, it's even faster than the Radeon 8500. The 7500's core clock speed is 270MHz, compared to the 250MHz of the 8500. Schiedel-Webb attributes the difference to the maturity and complexity of the architecture. The 7500's chip is less complex than the 8500's chip and has been around longer, leading to a higher core speed through fine tuning, she says.

Texture tiff

The Radeon 8500 and Radeon Fire GL 8800 offer an option for Hydravision, ATI's dual display technology, as well as other previously announced technologies. They can support Truform, a rendering technology that smooths out 3D images, and SmartShader, a technology that takes advantage of Microsoft's DirectX 8.1 and their latest Pixel Shader version 1.4.

The Radeon 7500, however, is a value card that doesn't support Truform or SmartShader. It's designed to compete against NVidia's GeForce2 MX.

ATI's SmartShader announcement declared support for the six texture shades in a single pass with Pixel Shader 1.4. Earlier versions of Pixel Shader allowed only up to four texture shades in one pass. ATI's declaration ruffled the graphics feathers of ATI's main competitor, NVidia. The maker of the GeForce cards countered that its technology provides the same degree of rendering, although by different means.

With the availability of both boards, a true head-to-head comparison of NVidia's GeForce3 and ATI's newest Radeon technology may settle the score. ATI claims that the Radeon 8500 performs 33 percent faster than the GeForce3 in its own benchmarking tests.

"I don't pay too close attention to those kinds of claims," says Jon Peddie, president of Jon Peddie Associates, a market research firm specializing in graphics and consumer media technology. "As soon as [ATI] achieves that level of performance, then NVidia or Matrox will crank up their clock and catch up or pass them. But it makes their [vendors] happy and makes them feel good to say it."

Graphics leapfrog

This type of back and forth between the two leading companies is an ongoing characteristic of the graphics industry, observers say.

"NVidia and ATI will just keep trading first place," Peddie says. "It's a good thing for the industry and for both companies. It keeps them honest and keeps them trying harder. And it means that consumers are the winners."

The industry has advanced rapidly because of the commitment of both companies to not just performance but outstanding graphics, Peddie adds.

"The thing that thrills me about NVidia is that it has invested so much in graphics quality," he says. "I'm pleasantly surprised that ATI is doing the same thing."

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