Sapphire Radeon 9700 Pro Review
By: Dmitry Zinovyev
I remember when in 1997 at ComTech we were anxiously watching Quake with its fantastic graphics played at Diamond Multimedia's expo stand. There was the flaunting caption 'DiamondMonster3D' proudly waving above the three or four monitors. The sight was so enchanting and touching that I decided I would definitely buy a 3D accelerator as the manager advised me in order to get such a beauty. No sooner had a week passed than I was walking around the radio market in Moscow hunting out for the long-awaited rig... But that time I was unable to get it because it hadn't been released by then. Anyway the vendors were unanimously claiming the future was already there and it was no use buying some monsters while IT was already in.
The 'it' was indeed impressive that time. The card was then called ATI Rage Pro, had 8 MB onboard and along with that supported 3D graphics acceleration. The price was equally as impressive, around $300. That time I was so obsessed with it that easily forked out for it without compunction. In about one and a half hour my joy turned into disappointment, because that time was enough to get home and try the game on my computer. ATI Rage Pro wouldn't run with Quake that time! It would run with almost no rigs except for a small DOS utility bearing the dear caption 'Test3D'. That's how my acquaintance with 3D gaming graphics and ATI started.
Years passed. It's sad to see the prices for top-end 3D accelerators almost haven't changed for the past five years, and if you want to get a best model you'll anyway fork out $300-$400. For these years, ATI has released chips and video cards of numerous makes, which helped ATi produce hold second to fourth positions. The cause of that was poor marketing, worthless programming team and the vicious practice of delaying chips shipments after the announce. The release of Rage 128 with the awful drivers seriously undermined the reputation of that fairly good chip and created a biased opinion of the company's products. The hasty release of first Radeon-based cards with raw drivers repeated the old bad mistake. The times were hard, and every month the lab was facing a market failure.
In no earlier than a year did ATI succeed in fixing the driver flaws, but the winning time for Radeon elapsed. And when the competition was shaping up to look more like NVidia's victory over the other contenders, ATi made a 'move of the knight' and released the new R200 chip. In fact, that was the last straw for ATI to take its niche and it did make use of it to her own advantage. Although released six months later than NV20(GeForce3), the R200-based cards (Radeon 8500) had several novelties appealing to potential buyers and looked like a breakthrough as compared with NVidia products. The N-patch technology dubbed by ATI with the nice term "TrueForm" and the adaptive antialiasing have not yet found adequate response from nVidia to date, and support for these functions is expected only in the new NV30 chip.
To visualize the current situation on the graphics chips market, I am bringing in a comparative table for the GeForce4 Ti4600 chips versus the recent ATI's developments:
||NVIDIA GeForce4 Ti4600
||ATI Radeon 8500
||ATI Radeon 9000 PRO
||ATI Radeon 9700 PRO|
|Q-ty of transistors
||128 bit DDR
||128 bit DDR
||128 bit DDR
||256 bit DDR|
||325 MHz (650 DDR)
||275 MHz (550 DDR)
||275 MHz (550 DDR)
||325 MHz (650 DDR)|
||BGA 2.8 ns
||SD/BGA 3.3 ns
||BGA 2,x ns|
|Vertex shader blocks
|Texture blocks per pipeline
|Textures per texture block
|Vertex shader version
|Pixel shader version
||Hyper Z II
||Hyper Z II
||Hyper Z III|
|Q-ty of display outputs
||2 x 400 MHz
||2 x 400 MHz
||2 x 400 MHz
||2 x 400 MHz|
|Bits per color channel
||TV codec on the chip; FullStream
||TV codec on the chip; FullStream|
After the release of NV25 (GeForce 4), R200-based video cards grew less impressive and gave in the crown to NVidia who had been alert all that time and through masterful pricing strategies for the GeForce line succeeded in taking hold of all the market niches. Traditionally, ATi responded belatedly and released the R300 chip which we are looking into. It is being positioned as a high-powered solution, that is why cards based on the chip cost around $300-$400. Recently, it finally came to ATI that one is as good as none, so the company has given up the idea of exclusive production and started delegating the manufacture of graphics accelerators to third-party manufacturers.
That decision is absolutely right since the competition of manufacturers will give greater dispersion of prices for cards based on the same chip as well as add more flexibility in choice for the end users. In fact, ATI switched to a distribution scheme similar to NVidia's. Of course, there is some specifics, but ... let's talk about it next time...
In the previous review, we described the theoretical part of the R300 chip. In this review, we'll try to explain how the new ATI's product behaves in practice. For that, we took the Sapphire card for testing, which can be viewed as the closest to ATI's reference boards since the line is produced at the same factories. On the whole, the current situation with ATI's R300-based cards is quite amusing. ATI ships to its manufacturing partners ready-made cards, and the partners merely fit coolers of their own designs on top of the chip and pack the finished product into their package bundled with software kits and cables. So it's almost impossible to come across a card made in a way other than the reference design, although as ATI assures things with it are going to change in the nearest time. But.. let's come back to Sapphire 9700 Pro.
Sapphire 9700 Pro
||Sapphire 9700 Pro - 128 MB|
||ATI RADEON 9700 PRO|
||128 MB - DDR SDRAM|
|Memory/processor clock speed
||OpenGL, DirectX, Direct3D|
|Support for two monitors
||2048 x 1536 / 60 Hz - 24-bit (16.7M colours)|
|Ports and connector type
||1 x DVI-Analogue Digital - 29 pin DVI|
1 x VGA - 15 pin HD D-Sub (HD-15)
1 x S-video output
||2048x1536 / 60 Hz|
The card is made on a red PCB so appealing lately to all the manufacturers of Hi-End accelerators. The color doesn't play the leading part - what matters is that the PCB is six-layered and thus costly to manufacture. Another distinction of Radeon 9700 cards is the external power socket.
The socket is identical to that used for applying power to the FDD, but anyway every card comes bundled with a separate power cables to give enough flexibility in plugging the card to the PC's power supply unit. On the reverse side of the PCB, an additional radiator is installed for cooling the elements near the monitor output.
The number of intensely heating component parts in modern cards is increasingly going up. The Samsung (BGA) memory is installed on both sides of the PCB and marked as K4D26323RA-GC2A. Totally, there are eight memory chips on the card. This quantity is determined by the specific ways the 256-bit bus is arranged.
As per the manufacturer's online documentation on the website, the maximum speed of the memory is 350 MHz (700 MHz DDR), with the fetch time being 2.86 ns. The chip has stepping A13 and was produced on the 30th week of the year 2000.
The Sapphire 9700 uses a standard cooling system and is of pretty small bulk. This must have bewildered you slightly since the lead for additional power implies it greater consumption and thus more heat dissipated. The cooler is fastened with standard plastic pins but at the same time is fitted to the chip tightly enough. As for the layer between the chip and the cooler, it merits a special mention. Its touch resembles double-sided sticker, so the best thing to do with it is scratch off completely and replace with high-quality thermopaste. Otherwise, the quality of cooling may prove ineffective. By the way, - the memory. No cooling is provided for it, the way it was not in the reference design. What is good, the cooling of the graphics core won't hinder installation of a third-party memory cooling kit. If we carry through all the above actions, the operational stability of the card will be much better, and the overclocking potentials enhanced essentially, provided suitable utilities are used.
As per unconfirmed evidence, some cards feature an amusing bug in the way the cooling of chips is arranged. As a matter of fact, the side frame is by a third of millimeter higher above the core and prevents the cooler from fitting tightly to the chip. On the cooler there is a heat-conductive plate lubricate with thermopaste on both sides, so the efficiency of the system is out of the question - it is definitely ugly since the plate doesn't do the right heat-conductive job. You've got to make use of all your imagination to invent a new system for cooling the card after removal of the thermopaste. But don't be hasty at scratching it off - the simplest trick of adding five grammes of thermopaste into there won't work. With the gap as wide as that it will dry up in a couple of weeks, and the chip will have no cooling at all. So you won't do without a copper plate or a correctly milled cooler. Luckily, our card came without this exotics, and no problems arose; nevertheless, take care ... warned means guarded :).
As with all ATI produce, the 2D quality has nothing to complain about. There are some fine points deserving a special mention in here. Firstly, our evaluation specimen displayed an annoying artifact in the form of horizontal lines on the dark background (I presume they are also there on the lighter background, although invisible). Those stripes appeared and vanished in a random manner, anyway were clearly seen. The artifact didn't depend on either the PC where we installed the card or the monitor. BUT, let me stress this out - I regard this artifact as a flaw detected in a specific specimen which can't be there in a whole line. We'll find that out in the nearest future. Another problem came up. After installing fresh beta drivers for DirectX9 it became no more possible to use a monitor plugged in to the DVI-out. The card simply wouldn't detect it; on the other hand, no problems with the TV-Out were found.
D-Sub DVI & TV-Out
When I connected all the three devices and powered on the PC, the monitor connected to the D-Sub as well as the NTSC-operated TV-set got activated. However, the monitor connected to the DVI wouldn't switched on earlier than Windows finished loading with the monitor enabled in the Control Panel. The TV-Out supports all the TV standards and allows displaying all the lower resolutions up to 1024x768 on the TV-set. The display quality can be regarded satisfactory since horizontal stripes (seemed to be of different nature, they were static) were again seen on the dark background. Another thing to note - since the card has only one DVI-connector, you can't plug in two DVI panels simultaneously.
||CPU & Memory: