The ATI lineup of 3D video chips covers a wide spectrum of potential buyers and performance levels. Since the introduction of the Radeon 9700 Pro and the R300 video core, ATI steadily gained market share, especially at the high-end. Holding the high-end of the market is a great position to be in, but the real money is made in the mid-range and entry-level sectors. The mid-range was to be the place ATI launched perhaps their most impressive video card of all time, the Radeon 9500 Pro.
The key to the Radeon 9500 Pro was its price-performance ratio, and the fact that ATI utilized the same R300 core, while toning down the memory interface from 256-bit for the Radeon 9700 Pro, to 128-bit for the Radeon 9500 Pro. Even so, the mid-range price and high-end performance and features of the Radeon 9500 Pro made it an immediate hit, especially since many overclocked their cards to further glory or even made physical alterations to hit near-Radeon 9700 Pro levels. This was both a blessing and a curse for ATI, as the company literally owned the mid-range segment, but at the heavy cost of needing a fully-fledged R300 core in every card.
Recently, ATI has revamped their line to include the Radeon 9800 and 9600 lines, which use the R350 and RV350 cores. The Radeon 9800 and 9800 Pro are evolutionary advances from the R300 technology of the Radeon 9700 Pro, adding a few new features and increasing core speeds slightly. The RV350 featured in the Radeon 9600 line is an AGP 8X / DirectX 9 part, but is still represents a departure from the methodology used in the Radeon 9700/9500 designs.
The RV350 is an entirely new core, and is the first ATI video chip to be built on a 0.13-micron process. This allows ATI to achieve higher yields-per-wafer, and thereby produce a lower-cost chip. Naturally, the RV350 represents a slightly different strategy than previous "one chip fits all" strategies. Adding to the cost savings is the actual design of the RV350, as it includes only 4 pixel pipelines (compared to 8 for the R300), while matching the one TMU (texture mapping unit) per pipeline of the R300. At the end of the day, the RV350 looks to be about half as powerful as the R300, assuming the same clock speed.
Naturally, ATI increased clock speeds on the RV350 core, and coupled with the 0.13-micron process, allows quite a bit of headroom. The retail specification of the Radeon 9600 Pro is 400 MHz for the core, which represents a significant increase over the 275 MHz core speed of the Radeon 9500 Pro. Both cards feature a 128-bit memory interface, but memory speeds are different, hitting 300 MHz (600 MHz DDR) on the Radeon 9600 Pro, compared to only 270 MHz (540 MHz DDR) with the Radeon 9500 Pro. The Radeon 9600 Pro also shares some enhancements of the R350 core, such as improved HyperZ III+ technology, and support for SmoothVision 2.1.
In this review, we will be taking a look at the Sapphire Radeon 9600 Pro Atlantis card, examining its features, software and hardware bundles, overall performance and overclocking, along with deciding exactly where this new product fits into the ATI hierarchy.