ATI Radeon 9600 Pro
(Reference board tested with Catalyst 3.7 Drivers, 24-25 Frames per second is film/video speed)
For the past two generations of Radeon card ATi has kicked Nvidia back into the underdog position, thanks to new technology which makes the best of DirectX 9's new features and dedicating greater time to more efficient drivers than in the past few years when ATi earned itself a negative reputation for reliability.
Happily this is now in the past, and the driver has been consolidated into a single file just like Nvidia's Detonators- if your Radeon isn't part of the All-In-Wonder series, the capture driver won't be installed. Core clock settings stay at 400MHz, with 128MB of 300MHz of DDR memory (2 instructions per clock making an effective 600MHz speed). To make it cheaper than a 9600 Pro, it only has half the pixel pipelines (4 not 8) and half the vertex shader units as well (2 not 4). In spite of the memory at the same speed, half the backup electronics cuts the price and performance.
We tested the technology alone. For the record I haven't played the games supplied for free with my last graphics card purchase, so although some bundles include games, unless they're less than six months old they should be disregarded for value terms. However DVD playback software is a good inclusion if you're missing a set, if you use your computer for watching movies. Lesser-known OEM distributors such as Connect 3D follow a similar line of thinking and sell the card alone.
We started the benchmarking on this card with a legacy system, a PIII/933 with 384MB RAM and a defragged 30GB 5400RPM Hard Disk with Windows XP installed. This was to test whether this new lower-midrange card, a step up from the 9200, would be worth using to prop up an old machine. We kept the resolution at 1024 x 768 to stress out this system. The other machine also mid-range but still powerful enough not to hold back the card: An AMD Athlon 1800+, 512MB PC2100 RAM, defragged 80GB 7200RPM Hard disk and Windows XP again.
3Dmark is to be taken with a pinch of salt, but the frame counters are where you get a better idea of projected performance - Wings of Fury reached 38.7fps (Frames Per Second) on average but could drop to 16 when busy, but the AMD unit pumped out an average of 55, with the trough remaining playable at 33. Doom III wannabe Battle of Procyon gave a promising (and theoretically playable) start at 26 but dropped the minute the action got heavy to 10, and in spite of 128MB extra faster memory at midrange, little changed on the Athlon.
On both systems Troll's Lair crawled along at 7-10 when the action got heavy and the glowing swordplay and close-up facial rendering began- so they jerked like the still-framing of a VCR's pause control. Similarly Mother Nature brought both systems to their knees again with 7-10fps throughout, except for the less watery scenes where the system recovered to 25fps on the Intel and 36 on the Athlon. The latter could handle water alone but not combinations of landscape and creature movement. Even arguing that 3Dmark is a synthetic benchmark doesn't disprove Direct3D performance on tomorrow's games isn't going to set the world on fire- if you had the most powerful systems on sale today, you'd pick a card much higher up the range to showcase a 3.06GHz or Athlon 3200+ setup.
However OpenGL performance was much better by comparison and slightly more scalable as the specs increased. Serious Sam: The Second Encounter (SS2) was our game of choice as the engine had been refined for the sequel for better midrange performance. (We chose Quality settings, no sound and 32-bit colour). Average performance on standard settings was just 37fps, with the only trough being 23fps when the Valley Of The Jaguar demo played its busiest moments. For an old machine this is a good shot in the arm, and of course we were deliberately stressing the P933 with a 1024x768 setting; sticking to three figure resolutions the speed would be more than satisfactory.
The Athlon raised the game to 55 fps with the same settings. It only fell to 44 when adding 4 x AntiAliasing and 6 x Anisotropic Filtering to 1024 x 768 or raising the resolution to 1280 x 1024. At the raised OpenGL menu settings and the higher resolution the Athlon soldiered on at 33fps.
We weren't satisfied with how easily SS2 was handling the increase in demand so we pushed it to full maximum- 6x Antialiasing, 16x Anisotropic filtering, and made sure that every option in texture rendering options was large, 32-Bit, high quality and/or using the High Enhanced rendering option. It was still playable at 27fps. We finally brought the card down with the same maximised settings in the driver tab and the game- and a 1600 x 1200 resolution. It could only manage 16fps, visibly struggling (although with a crisper image) and this is where a 9600 XT or higher would be a better choice.
VerdictMore RAM is as equal a short-term proposition for an older PC as a video upgrade. There's also continuing competition from Nvidia's GeForce4 Ti4200, which will make up with raw speed what it lacks in DX9 capability.
For midrange systems, the 9600 is better with OpenGL games but for a little extra life into 2004, a 9600 XT (before the slower “special editions” arrive) will be a better proposition- after all the ordinary cards are the first to go and the Pros remain in any given generation. Looking at Ebuyer.com, the higher chipset is already only £20 more at the time of writing; (http://www.ebuyer.com) and under those circumstances, grab the Pro while you can, or save for an XT or of the 9800 series instead. If Direct X9's new effects and better looks mean nothing compared to speed, then Nvidia are still worth a look - and still with a memory upgrade to go with it depending on the machine's age. Whatever we test, Id Software are hell bent on making you upgrade anything but the top of the range cards when Doom III arrives. If it were my own money I'd spend the extra for the XT, but if you're reading this in a few months time and the 9600 is £75 instead of £100, then 1999 PCs (of 1-1.4GHz) would still benefit from the 9600, especially as UT 2003 can switch between Direct 3D and OpenGL. As usual, it would depend on the price gap between it and the higher cards.