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Hercules Prophet 9700 - getting acquainted
Hercules was one of the first big names to move from producing NVIDIA based graphics boards to ATI ones a couple of years ago. Their reputation here in the UK and throughout Europe really precede themselves and Guillemot, the owners of Hercules, use this to good effect, especially in the retail sector. Their cards aren't the cheapest on the market, and they aren't always the first to market with them either, but they have flair, performance and a good warranty to boot.

This review will concentrate on one part of this video card, because this is what we feel makes it such a good product. If you want to know the core technologies present in the R300 GPU then we recommend our review of the ATI Radeon 9700 PRO, however it is the overclocking that makes this product so special.

Last week ATI launched the R350 GPU, which will (at first) power the Radeon 9800 PRO. Being their latest product it will command the highest price tags along with the highest levels of performance, but not all of us can afford to spend 300+ on a graphics board. The R300 based solutions still provide top-notch performance and with hardware DirectX 9 support, will also support the latest crop of games that come out this year. Make no mistake though, the RV350 or Radeon 9800 PRO will be the faster card but it might not be the best bang for your buck, as we will find out.

The Prophet 9700 is essentially a lower clocked version of it's bigger "PRO" brother. They feature the same GPU (the R300) and the same amount of memory (128MB). We were initially told that the 9700 was intended for OEMs and system builders who prefer having the security of lower clock speeds. This could be the reason why we see relatively few 9700s on the market in comparison to their "PRO" counterparts. Of course, this does tend to get your thought process bubbling with ideas as to whether it would be possible to purchase a 9700 (which, in theory should be cheaper than a 9700 PRO) and overclock it to the same speeds as a 9700 PRO unit.

   

The card comes in a nicely decorated box, with a great deal of information regarding the product on the rear side. Inside the contents are neatly packaged and in particular the card itself is extremely well packed.

   

You get all the usual bits 'n pieces and the extra packaging around the card is certainly welcomed. So many manufacturers just rely on the anti-static bag to shield against EMP and/or static, along with bumps or jerks.

   

The card itself is an interesting beast, with it's copper heatsinks designed to ensure good heat dissipation and turn heads. The blue PCB is somewhat of a trademark with Hercules boards and they don't fail to disappoint here either. Against an ATI Radeon 9700 PRO, there is very little physical difference between the two cards, if any.

   

The major difference in the two cards (after PCB colouring) is the heatsinks that are present. Hercules have decided to stick with their round ORB design however felt it was time to use copper rather than aluminium. Of course this means that there is greater cooling performance along with increased cost. Take a closer look at the heatsink, and you can clearly see that some thought has been put into the design and manufacture of this unit.

   

The fan blades aren't made out of copper, they are still plastic but the effect is so good we had to touch the fins ourselves in order to believe it was made out of plastic. The heatsink features an all copper base, which as you can see from the second picture has a smooth base which put many CPU heatsinks to shame. Hercules use some form of Arctic Silver thermal compound to complete the whole heatsink/thermal package.

We've taken a few more close ups of the heatsink when it is on the board to show you how completely cool and l33t this unit looks against the blue PCB.

   

The rear also has memory heatsinks along with a fan shaped copper unit on the reverse of the GPU. We've seen this with various NV28 boards we reviewed in the past, and it makes sense to cool your back which obviously generates heat along with the front of the unit. The small copper heatsinks on the memory also help in establishing this card as one that overclockers should like.

So we've talked about the board itself, now it's down to the nitty gritty. Powerstrip was loaded up and we got to work on the default clock speed of 275MHz core / 270MHz memory. Hercules also supply their own utility for overclocking. Our first aim was to get this board running at 9700 PRO speeds. That would mean running it at 325MHz core / 310MHz memory. Our usual procedure for overclocking is to increment the core 2MHz steps and run a 20 minute loop of 3DMark. Once we hit the limit of the core, we do the same with the memory. So we started off on that and around 3 hours down the line we were pretty damn bored out of our heads. This card was simply going higher and higher. We then thought we'd push the boat out and do a 10MHz increment to 327MHz and once again that was fine. We continued this trend and to our amazement we were able to hit 380MHz.

Sadly at 380MHz we started seeing image degradation and decided to pull the card back at 370MHz, at which everything ran fine. Initial 3DMark scores showed us some gains, but with the memory still at 270MHz, it was obvious that memory bandwidth was causing a bottleneck. So again we hit Powerstrip and started to work on the memory. By now this card had been running for over 7 hours doing various benchmarks. Memory overclocking was a little less fruitful, however a 35MHz gain (or rather 70MHz DDR) was achieved.

Just to put this overclock into perspective, we saw a 95MHz gain which represents a 34.5% increase over the factory speeds. The 35MHz gain we got in memory frequency represents a 13% increase. So our 9700 was running at 370/305, compared to a 325/310 of a 9700 PRO. What's more surprising is that the new 9800 PRO runs at 380/340, so it really just underlines how good this unit overclocked. We ran our tests on the Prophet 9700 for a few more hours and we had absolutely no problems at all.

Should you wish to put some form of exotic water cooling on the unit, there is a good chance you might be able to run it at 9800 PRO speeds after all. However we stuck to what was provided with the card.

The surprises aren't over yet either, as we look at some benchmarks.
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