The need to upgrade is a powerful force in the graphics card industry from the point of view of both consumers and vendors. Faster, bigger and better are the catch-phrases we see most often, with video cards running at higher clock speeds, incorporating more features, and increasing their base hardware specifications. This has been great for gamers, as the race has paid incredible dividends of late, with both ATI and NVIDIA upping the ante at an unprecedented rate.
The ATI Radeon 9X00 line of video cards has been an unqualified success, with the Radeon 9800 and 9700 products occupying the top-end, the 9600 and 9500 boards hitting the mid-range, and the 9200 and lower cards at the entry-level. This has covered all the basic points on the 3D map, and ATI is especially strong from the mid-range on up. The only question seems to be where to go from here, and although ATI has stuck to the basics with their newest high-end card, there are still a few interesting upgrades for the performance crowd.
The ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 256-MB doesn't stray too far from the previous Radeon 9800 Pro (128-MB) design, and uses the same R350 core (0.15-micron) as the standard Radeon 9800 Pro, and even ships at the same 380 MHz core speed. The main differences reside in the card memory, which has been upgraded to 256-MB of DDR-II running at 700 MHz. This clock speed is slightly faster than the 680 MHz of the 128-MB Radeon 9800 Pro, and allows for a slight increase in overall bandwidth.
The addition of DDR-II does allow theoretically higher performance, but there is a latency penalty that is incurred, and at least part of the higher clock speeds is in response to this. In terms of effective performance, the two Radeon 9800 Pro versions would be close to equal in terms of peak performance. The upgraded 256-MB of onboard memory is the main advantage of the ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 256-MB, and gives the card a more future-proof appeal and a potentially longer gaming lifespan.
The ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 256-MB is very similar to the 128-MB card in terms of overall design, though the board itself is a tad longer. The backplate is also pure Radeon 9800 Pro, and includes the basic VGA, DVI and TV-out connectors. The heat-sink fan is exactly the same, and the card also features a standard 4-pin Molex power connector. As with the GeForce FX 5800 Ultra, the DDR-II modules run hotter than standard DDR, and ATI has added heatsinks to each of the memory modules (16 in total). In our testing, the heatsinks did get hot, but there were no stability problem whatsoever, and this is really just a function of the DDR-II technology.