Back in the early days of 3D video cards, one of the most popular methods of product differentiation was to offer a higher-clocked, ultra high-end product for the rabid gaming public. Canopus made a real name with the high-end buyer with their Pure 3D Voodoo lineup, while other card companies like Guillemot also did the same with higher speed versions of the TNT2. And think back to the interest generated by those Falcon Northwest Special Edition TNT2 Ultra and Voodoo3 cards, which offered pretty well the highest level of performance for the day.
Unfortunately, this deep end of the 3D pool was drained about the time NVIDIA released its GeForce 256 line of cards. Manufacturers were expected to follow the manufacturer's recommended speeds, and while many offered higher-end components quite conducive to overclocking, each and every NVIDIA board shipped at the same stock speeds. This remains the status quo even today, and while effective at keeping manufacturers from going too far over the limit (and maintaining the GeForce 3 and 4 performance brackets) it has taken some of the excitement out of the 3D performance market, and made individual performance testing a bit of a letdown for many.
Thankfully, ATI seems to be doing something about it. It hasn't been long since the company started to allow 3rd-party manufacturers to produce cards based on ATI technology, but a select few have been given the green light to offer higher-end products at greater clock and memory speeds. The strategy is a bit different than offering "highly overclockable components" as many NVIDIA suppliers do, as the product is shipped at the higher clock/memory rate and therefore guaranteed to run at that speed. It also takes the hassle out of overclocking and eliminates the need for any specialized software or applications to hit the high end speeds. This is really taking a page from the NVIDIA handbook, and hearkening back to a period where the current graphics leader was fighting vigorously for market share. One of the companies ATI has loosened the leash on is Unitech, a new entrant with a few very interesting products.
The product we will be looking at today is the Unitech Optimus 8500 eXP, a 128-MB Radeon 8500 card clocked at 300 MHz core and 275 MHz memory. The higher core speed is only the beginning, as the Optimus 8500 eXP card also features customs cooling, VIVO functionality and an impressive game/application bundle. Everything looks great on the surface, and our job is to delve a little deeper and see if the extra core speed actually translates into enhanced performance, and whether the board itself is up to the high-end market it looks to capture. No matter which side the actual Optimus 8500 eXP card falls, this "back to the future" ATI strategy is great news for gamers, as not only the option of a higher clocked Radeon 8500 card a reality, it also opens up some very interesting possibilities for the next-gen ATI cards as well.