ATI Launches Fast Radeon Graphics Cards

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ATI is announcing two new video cards this week, the Radeon 9800 XT and Radeon 9600 XT. In addition to improved graphics speed and performance, the cards will offer two big extras: easy overclocking and a free copy of Valve's upcoming Half Life 2 game.

The 9800 XT will sell for $499, and the 9600 XT will cost $199; company executives say they expect to start shipping both cards before the end of October.

Inside each box, buyers will find a coupon for a free version of Half Life 2, a much anticipated--but recently delayed--first-person shooting game. While game vendor Valve hasn't announced an official launch date, ATI executives say they anticipate release by the end of November.

The combo deal will let ATI show off its cards' ability to run DirectX 9, Microsoft's application programming interface for rendering 2D and 3D graphics. Half Life 2 uses the technology extensively, says Vijay Sharma, manager of product marketing at ATI. It also gives the game maker a great platform to show off its masterpiece, he adds.

"Half Life really shines when run on a 9800 XT," Sharma says.

Chip Tweaks

ATI's 9800 XT card is based on the same graphics processor the company uses on its current 9800 Pro card, which the XT replaces. The company improved the speed of that chip, added some driver-based capabilities, and then attached an improved cooling system, Sharma says.

The original 9800 Pro ran at 380 MHz with 128MB or 256MB of memory running at 700 MHz. The 9800 XT runs at 412 MHz with 256MB of memory running at 730 MHz. Both use a 256-bit memory interface.

In addition to higher speeds out of the box, the 9800 XT (and the 9600 XT) will offer a new technology ATI calls Dynamic Overclocking. Through a check box in the card's driver, users can essentially tell the chip to run as fast as possible without overheating. Just how much faster the chip goes will depend in part on the temperature inside the computer where it runs. In its own tests, ATI has seen jumps of as much as 40 MHz on 9800 XT cards.

Dynamic Overclocking is a safe way to squeeze even more power from the graphics card, says Kalpesh Rathod, another product manager at ATI. Traditionally, only hard-core performance nuts would void their warranty and risk their graphics card to overclock the graphics processing unit, but this technology lets everybody give it a try, he says.

Another key to the 9800 XT's faster speeds and overclocking capability is a brand-new cooling system.

The cooling system includes an elaborate copper heat sink built around a variable-speed fan. When the card is running in 2D mode, the fan runs more slowly (and quietly). When the card takes on 3D chores, the fan speeds up to keep things cool. "This is not just a bigger fan," Sharma says.

The fan/heat sink combination vents the air out through more sides of the card, but does not direct it out of the PC's case. As a result, the fan doesn't "sound like a vacuum cleaner" when it's running, he says.

Power for Less

For gamers on a tighter budget, ATI offers the $199 9600 XT, which will replace the 9600 Pro. The graphics processor on the new card will run at 500 MHz with 128MB of DDR memory running at 600 MHz. The 9600 Pro runs at 400 MHz with a memory clock of 600 MHz. Both use a 128-bit memory interface.

"This will be the highest-performance graphics card there is for under $200," Rathod says. Plus, like the 9800 XT, the 9600 XT will offer users the capability to overclock it out of the box.

While the 9800 XT is positioned as the card for serious gamers, ATI's Sharma says 9600 XT owners won't be the least bit disappointed when they fire up the latest DirectX 9 games.

It has taken some time for those games to arrive, but they'll prove worth the wait, says Daniel Tarnovsky, product marketing engineer at ATI. "DirectX 9 has opened a new world of real-time rendering," he says.

DirectX 9-based games should offer more realistic-looking action, better lighting, and dramatically improved graphics when it comes to outdoor environments, Tarnovsky says.

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