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ATI Radeon 9800 PRO 128MB - getting acquainted

2002 marked a watershed for the graphics industry. After a number of years in the wilderness ATI came out with the Radeon 9700 PRO, which not only took the fight to NVIDIA but overtook anything NVIDIA could offer at that time by large margin. NVIDIA's Ti4600, based on the NV25 GPU was found to be almost 3 times slower than the new ATI part in some tests and when ATI delivered similar results with the retail boards attention quickly turned to NVIDIA's NV30.

The NV30 was supposed to be a radically new chip featuring 0.13 micron manufacturing process and a host of new features. At the time no one knew about these features and it was expected the NV30 would be launched late Summer or in Autumn. Summer came and went, and on 19 November, the start of Comdex we were invited along to the Geforce FX launch. The event didn't match the hype that was surrounding it. This wasn't really a launch, more a burst of information that was strategically timed to convince Christmas buyers to think again before purchasing a Radeon 9700 PRO. Almost 4 months have passed since that "launch" and we have yet to see any Geforce FX cards on the shelves.

ATI took good advantage of the apparent flat-footed NVIDIA and launched the Radeon 9500, along with the 9000, 9000 PRO, 9700 and 9700 PRO that was already available on the market. They also continued building on the initial success of their then new unified driver set, Catalyst. Many people have commented that drivers were the bane of ATI and ATI themselves admitted to us in September last year that some of these criticisms were deserved, but they were working hard to overcome them. When we reviewed the 9700 PRO later that month we found absolutely no problems and the only issue was caused by a motherboard driver with AGP 8x. Tomorrow we'll be publishing an interview with ATI's software guru, Ben Bar Haim which will shed more light on the work ATI does with drivers.


Today ATI releases their latest desktop product, the Radeon 9800 PRO. Dubbed the Geforce FX beater (even though the Geforce FX isn't available on mass), the Radeon 9800 PRO is an important product for ATI. Last year they cemented their position at the top of the performance tree, but the real test is staying there. Make no mistake about it (and ATI certainly doesn't), NVIDIA will try their utmost to take the performance crown away from their bitter rivals. And for ATI, it's important to show they aren't a one trick pony.

The 9800 PRO is based on ATI's R350 GPU. When we first saw this unit almost three weeks ago at a press briefing ATI were keen not to put us under false pretences (thanks for not treating us like morons ATI) and told us that this wasn't a radically new GPU. In fact this is a heavily optimized R300 unit with a few modifications. It is still based on the 0.15 micron manufacturing process and like many, we were happy to hear, doesn't need a copper dust collector fitted on top of it to function. If anything (as you will see) the heatsink on the 9800 PRO is smaller than the one present on a Radeon 9700 PRO.

  

If you are wondering whether we just stuck a bog standard 9700 PRO under the lens, trying to pass it off as a Radeon 9800 PRO we can forgive you. The cards look very similar, although there are differences. Cosmetically the Radeon 9700 PRO is slightly shorter and features a smaller 4 pin connector (the type used for floppy drives). The 9800 PRO has a standard 4 pin connector (the type you use for hard/CDROM drives). We were told that this was done simply to comply with feedback they had gotten from users. It wasn't due to the Radeon 9800 requiring more power than it's predecessor.

        

On the front there isn't a great deal of change - the Radeon 9800 PRO is slightly longer, however this can be attributed to the larger power connector and the additional smoothing capacitors that are present. It is still a great deal smaller than the Geforce 4 Titanium and Geforce FX cards. The aluminium heatsink on the Radeon 9800 PRO is smaller and features a silver colour as opposed to the jet black fashioned on the 9700 PRO.

The R350's design is optimized for high clock speeds and therefore at factory settings ATI were obviously able to get away with only having a small-ish heatsink on the processor. This really begs the question of whether NVIDIA's move to 0.13 micron technology was premature. On the back the aluminium cover-plate has disappeared but everything else seems, for the most part to be similar if not exactly the same.

As you can see from the side on view, the height of the heatsink that is present on the Radeon 9800 PRO is almost identical to that which is present on the 9700 PRO. So for those of you worried that the future of graphics cards lay with two-slot solutions, you can almost certainly able to rest in peace (at least for the time being). And as we'll find out later, there is some untapped juice left in this card. We'll take a closer look at the heatsink a little later.

        

There you have close-ups of the card itself from four different angles. You are able to see the little heatsinks that cover the voltage controllers. These get hot due to passing a (relatively) large amount of current. In the fourth picture you get a close up of the power connector. Thankfully the socket doesn't form too tight a fit with the connector so inserting and removing the connector is easy.

     

Taking a closer look at the heatsink (after all, it might have black magic attached to it, if it is able to cool a GPU that is supposed to be faster than a Geforce FX, yet is less than a quarter of it's size), we see the simple aluminium construction with a large number of small, long fins surrounding the centre. Larger fins are used to carve out the slanted rectangular shape of the heatsink.

The fan is a small black plastic affair. During testing it was neither loud nor silent - as one should expect with any active cooling solution. Underneath we see the rough finishing on the base of the heatsink, which is bevelled up where it meets with the R350 graphical processing unit. This is where it has some form of silver thermal compound - probably Arctic Silver is used to produce a good contact between the top of the GPU core and the base of the heatsink. The elliptical holes that are present allow air from the fan to reach the green ceramic that surrounds the R350 core. We wait to see what stylish board partners like Hercules decide to use as their cooling solution of choice on this board.

So that's what it looks from the outside. It's time to look the Radeon 9800 PRO from a closer angle.
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