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The ATI Radeon 9800 Pro Special 256MB Mac Edition versus Other Radeon Graphics Cards

Originally posted June 9th, 2004, by rob-ART morgan, mad scientist
Updated June 12th, 2004, with GeForceFX 5200 results

QUESTION #1: Does the ATI Radeon 9800 Pro Special Edition with 256MB of DDR video memory go faster than the Radeon 9800 Pro OEM with 128MB of VRAM? How about the Radeon 9800 Pro Retail Mac Edition with 128MB of VRAM?

Hypothesis: There will be little or no gain from the extra memory except in extreme circumstances rarely encountered by humans. However, it will offer features lacking in the other two Radeon 9800 Pro graphics cards.

QUESTION #2: How much faster does the ATI Radeon 9800 Pro Special Edition go compared to the "Stock" Radeon 9600 Pro in my current G5?

Hypothesis: There should be significant gain in 3D accelerated games, but gains in 2D performance will be slim or none.

TEST RESULTS
We ran all our tests at the maximum detail and texture quality. We used a "Rev A" G5/2.0GHz MP Power Mac and Apple 23" Cinema display for all test runs. (GeForceFX 5200 results were from the "Rev B" G5/2.0GHz MP.)

As you can see, in the 3D graphics intensive games above, the Special Mac Edition only has a slight edge over the other two 9800 Pro cards. But all three Radeon 9800 Pro cards blow away the Radeon 9600 Pro.

We found two tests, however, that revealed some interesting performance distinctions:

By turning ON Full Scene Anti-Aliasing (FSAA) in Halo and running at max allowed resolution (1600x1200), the Special Edition showed the advantage of the extra video memory. The next update of Halo should let you run at higher or custom resolutions, which will enable the Special Edition to distance itself even further from the cards with less memory.

VertexPerformanceTest is OpenGL sample code provided to Apple developers. I "fed" the four cards 4 textures with maximum detail in color. Then I auto-rotated the fractal figure using vertex array range. This is the first time any test has shown the advantage of the 8X AGP rating (Special Edition, OEM) over the 4X rating (Retail). Even the 9600 Pro beat the 9800 Pro (Retail) in this test. (According to ATI's specs, the 9600 has a faster core clock than the 9800, but it only has 4 pipelines versus 8 in the 9800 series.)

Though none of the real world apps stressed the 4X Retail version of the Radeon 9800 Pro, no self respecting power user wants to install a graphics card in his/her G5 Power Mac that hits the wall in any scenario.

Some 3D Game functions are so CPU bound that the advantage of the faster graphics card isn't as dramatic. For example, check out the Unreal Tournament 2004 Botmatch results below:

As you can see, the 9600 OEM was just as fast as the 9800 Pro boards. That's one of the reasons when readers ask for buying advice, I always say, "Get at least the Radeon 9600. At $50, it's a no-brainer."

CONCLUSIONS

PERFORMANCE
1. If you have the standard Radeon 9600 Pro in your G5 Power Mac, the Special Edition 9800 Pro runs most 3D graphics intensive apps TWICE as fast. If you have the GeForceFX 5200, it's as much as THREE times faster.

We ran typical 2D tests like AppleWorks scroll, Photoshop zoom scroll, Xbench Quartz 2D, Xbench User Interface, and QuartzWindowBench. The Radeon 9800 Pro cards had an average 13% advantage over the Radeon 9600 Pro.

2. If you have a G5 Power Mac with the CTO Radeon 9800 Pro (OEM), the Special Edition will be 6% faster -- unless you run with FSAA enabled -- in which case it is 23% faster.

We ran typical 2D tests like AppleWorks scroll, Photoshop zoom scroll, Xbench Quartz 2D, Xbench User Interface, and QuartzWindowBench. The Radeon 9800 Pro Special Mac Edition had no advantage over the OEM or Retail Editions.

3. If you bought the Radeon 9800 Pro (Retail Edition) for your G5, the Special Edition will be 2% faster -- unless you run with FSAA turned on -- in which case it is 15% faster. If you bought the Retail Edition for a G4 Power Mac, that's as good as it gets. The Special Edition only works in a G5.

4. If you are buying a new G5, I suggest doing a special order from the Apple Online Store or Small Dog Electronics and get at least the 9600 XT. Again, for $50, it's a no-brainer. If you want the ultimate Mac 3D card, the new 9800 XT is it. (Test results coming real soon now.)

FEATURES
There are other reasons to buy one model of Radeon 9800 Pro over the other. I've created a table below to compare features of the four cards featured in the graphs above.

9600 Pro
9800 Retail
9800 OEM
9800 Special
AGP Rating
8X
2X/4X
8X
8X
Memory
64MB
128MB
128MB
256MB
Ports
DVI/ADC
DVI/VGA
DVI/ADC
DVI/ADC
Versavision (screen rotate)
No
Yes
No
Yes
FSAA and Anisotropic override
No
Yes
No
Yes

For G4 Power Mac owners, the Retail 9800 Pro Mac Edition that's compatible with the 2X/4X AGP slot is the only Radeon 9800 Pro you can choose. But for owners of G5 Power Macs with 1.8GHz or faster processor, the Radeon 9800 Pro Special Mac Edition is the only way to fly.

YET ANOTHER Radeon 9800 CHOICE
With the announcement today, June 9th, 2004, of the Radeon 9600 XT and Radeon 9800 XT option for the new G5 Power Mac, things are getting confusing in the graphics card arena. We will be updating both our test results and conclusions, once we have a chance to test the "XT" cards.

The Apple Online Store lets you specify the optional 9800 XT card to any of the three models of G5 -- which implies that all three have an 8X AGP slot. Apple states that the 9800 XT encroaches on one of the PCI-X slots. That seems odd since none of the Windows PC versions have thick heatsinks or fans.

ATI has not confirmed the core clock or memory clock speeds of the latest Radeon 9800 cards for the Mac, but there's a chart on the ATI site comparing different versions of the Windows PC Radeon 9800 cards that might shed some light.

SPECIAL NOTE
Alias|Wavefront Maya 6 now includes optimizations and a Hardware Renderer that utilize the GPU to increase rendering performance up to 50%. We plan to run some tests with Maya 6 to see if any of the cards tested above can actually lower rendering times.

SOURCES FOR TEST HARDWARE
OWC has the Radeon 9800 Pro Special Mac Edition, as does SmallDog and Buy.com -- whose price is $367 after subtracting $10 off coupon (free shipping). CNET Shopper shows it going for as little as $345 from various traditional PC sources.

If you don't have an 8X AGP slot, then the 128MB Retail Radeon 9800 Pro Mac Edition is the card for you. Buy.com has it for $300 after subtracting the $10 off coupon (free shipping).

If you are buying a new G5, be sure to do a "configure to order" or CTO with the Apple Online Store or Small Dog Electronics. Specify the $50 Radeon 9600 XT or $300 9800 XT graphics card. Don't accept the wimpy GeForceFX 5200. If enough of you special order the Radeon cards, maybe Apple will get the hint and make the 9600 XT standard equipment on all three models of G5.

Many thanks to the local Apple Retail Store and Cry Wolf for providing various testing resources.

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2004 Rob Art Morgan
"BARE facts on Macintosh speed FEATS"
Email , the webmaster