Can you feel it yet? That touch of coldness, the sharp bite of the morning air, anything to make you realise it's now Autumn and Summer is long gone. While, in my part of the world at least, the fall means that the days are getting shorter and what little sun there is is being cancelled out by the chill in the air, it does mean that it's time for the GPU makers of this world to update their wares and give reviewers that don't live in the tropics something new to write about.
Yep folks, it's that time of year again. Fall refresh of all that's good and great in the world of textured and lit pixels, just in time for you to decide what you'd like in your Christmas stocking.
For the majority of people, that means a mid range card, something to replace that flagging GeForce 4 Ti4200 or Radeon 8500, cards that are beginning to show their age, especially with the DX9 game revolution past the embryonic stages. The high end gives more gasping and ooh'ing at big bandwidth numbers and high resolutions, but for me at least, the mid range is the coolest sector in graphics today. It's yesterdays high end with an affordable price tag, and with cards like the 9700 Pro being yesterdays high end, todays mid range will bring a smile to anyones face.
With the RV350 powered Radeon 9600 Pro being such a big hit so far since launch in the early Summer, due to a combination of low price, full DX9 compatibility that hasn't needed a miracle set of driver writers working under duress to extract nice performance, along with a successful process switch to 130nm giving some nice overclocking headroom, todays introduction of the RV360 powered Radeon 9600XT hasn't been a problem for ATI.
Think of 9600XT as a combination of slight hardware improvements and a new driver set with some cool new features, to make it sit just above 9600 Pro in terms of performance and desirability.
With RV350, ATI's 4 pipeline, 130nm core as a base, all they've done is switch to a new 'low K (Black Diamond) insulator' version of the 130mn process at TSMC and removed some of the previous GPU's hotspots, to allow for even greater clock headroom. The basic premise of the GPU is unchanged as far as I can tell. 4 render pipelines, each with a texture and shader unit, a highly optimised 128-bit memory interface (2 64-bit crossbar controllers) and all the benefits of a tweaked Hyper-Z implementation to give maximum performance on todays gaming titles and also good performance on any upcoming DX9 class titles.
On top of RV360 sits ATI's brand new CATALYST 3.8 driver set. Offering features like SmartShader effects and VPU recover, a godsend during overclocking testing, along with factory sanctioned overclocking (for 9800XT at least, more on that later) with Overdrive, RV360 needs the new driver to make the most of things. They come as a pair essentially, and despite CATALYST 3.7 working with RV360, it feels like you need 3.8 to make it complete as an XT.
So there you have it, more clocks, hopefully a little bit cooler, along with a new driver. In isolation, possibly not the most exciting things to talk about, but as a package I think we can find more than a page or two to keep ourselves occupied, and also whet your appetite if you're in the market for something new and wallet friendly.
Before we move on to the card itself, here's a table full of numbers so you know why ATI bothered to refresh at all.
|Radeon 9600 Pro||Radeon 9600XT|
|Manufacturing process||130 nanometre||130 nanometre|
|Pixel shader units||1 per pipe||1 per pipe|
|Memory bus width||128-bit/16-byte||128-bit/16-byte|
|Texturing units||1 per pipe||1 per pipe|
|Memory clock||600MHz DDR||600MHz DDR|
|Pixel fillrate||1600 Mpixels/sec||2000 Mpixels/sec|
|Texture fillrate||1600 Mtexels/sec||2000 Mtexels/sec|
25% more GPU clock giving 25% more shader horsepower and 25% more pixel and texel fillrate, with memory clock remaining unchanged. I can understand that from a manufacturing point of view, keeping the same memory clock means the same memory modules can be used and board makers simply need to switch GPU's to create a new product, but a boost would have been nice all the same. You'll see why later.
I alluded to the fact that todays mid range should be 9700 Pro class due to advances in the graphics world as a whole, and that's kind of the case. While a full 9700 Pro eclipsing product will not truly arrive until next year with a R4xx based part, the 9600XT can out perform 9700 Pro in a few tightly controlled scenarios. A good thing indeed, it means we're getting closer to mid range DX9 nirvana.
Anyway, the card itself.