Powercolor ATi Radeon 9800 XT Video Card Review

Admin - 2007-01-25 17:21:24 in Video Cards
Category: Video Cards
Reviewed by: Admin   
Reviewed on: October 31, 2003
Price: $499


The competition in the graphics industry today is very competitive and fierce. NVidia was on top of the competition a couple of years ago, while ATi was right on their heels. Over the past year and a half the tides have turned, and now ATi has the most sought after video cards for gamers. Nvidia tried unsucessfully to get back on top and they even went far as to cheat on benchmarking programs like 3DMark03 by lowering the image quality to improve performance. ATi has also done some "cheating" (or some may call it "optimizing") to boost scores in 3Dmark03 as we reported in May of this year. They did however admit to this and said they never would do it again. The competitors are in an all out battle to get on top or to stay on top in the graphics industry. When it gets down to it, it's hard to believe either one of the company's since they have both been shady in the past. The only accurate way of knowing who has the better card is to run extensive testing of real world games and comparing the image quality to the competitor's card.

Today, we're looking at the Radeon 9800 XT video card from Powercolor. The 9800 XT has a core clock speed of 412 MHz, a mere 32 MHz increase from the 9800Pro. The memory clock on the 9800 XT is at 730 MHz, a 50 MHz increase from the 9800Pro and both have a memory bandwidth of 23.3GB/Sec. The small increase in clock speeds is a sure sign that ATi is reaching the limits of the 0.15-micron process.

What's Included

The software bundled came with one CD choc full of games, but they were all demos. The demo's include: Splinter Cell, Warcraft II, Will Rock, Breed, Corlin McRae Ralley 3, and ROCA Race Driver. The only full version games included were; Big Mutha Truckers and Tomb Raider: The Angle of Darkness, and it was the only one worth keeping. There was also InterVideo WinDVD 4 that was included, which is great software but I already have about 10 of these :) However, let's not forget about the full version Half-Life 2 game you get! I think it should make up for the other crummy games that are included (besides Tomb Raider). Once you have bought your Powercolor Radeon 9800 XT, you can then fill out a form on the Powercolor website and they'll send you a coupon to redeem a Half-Life 2 for free!

In-depth Look

The first thing you may notice differently about the Radeon 9800XT is the new heatsink design. This new heatsink design is very massive, but unlike one of ATi's competitors, this heatsink doesn't take up a PCI slot. The heatsink is made of copper and it provides better overall cooling versus the old aluminum heatsinks we've seen in the past. You may also notice that the ram is covered by this massive heatsink along with the core of the 9800 XT.

This is to insure that the ram remains cool during intensive gaming and during the dynamic overclocking that is built in to this card and the Catalyst drivers. We'll talk more about that later :) For those of you that are wondering if this fan is loud or not don't worry, it's actually very quiet. I could detect a slight sound difference between the 9800 XT and the fan on my Radeon 9700 AIW.

On the back of the 9800 XT, you'll find a thin copper heat plate that helps to support the large copper heatsink and also to increase the surface area. This support is necessary since the heatsink weighs so much.

This is a close-up picture of the heatsink. You can see the heatsink is made up of several hollow air channels. I expect these channels help to dissipate the heat better.

With the 9800 XT and the 9700 AIW side-by-side you can see that the 9800 XT is slightly larger in width and also in height. This picture also shows how much larger the heatsink is on the 9800 XT than on the 9700 AIW.

Catalyst 3.8 Drivers

One of the most requested features in Catalyst drivers is for a way to uninstall the drivers. ATI has finally listened and has made the Catalyst 3.8 release uninstall able! All you have to do is run the Catalyst executable and it will be removed from your system, it's that easy. There are many other great features in the Catalyst 3.8 release such as; Overdrive, VPU Recovery, easier to navigate tabs, and cool shader effects.


One of the most innovative features on the 9800 XT with the Catalyst 3.8 drivers is the Overdrive feature. The 9800 XT has a thermal diode mounted on it that interfaces with the Catalyst drivers and dynamically overclocks the card based on the thermal conditions. Basically if the card is being cooled well, it will be clocked at a higher speed. The best part about this type of overclocking, is that it won't void your warranty! This new feature sort of takes the fun out of it for us overclockers. However, if it still isn't fast enough for us, we'll turn off Overdrive and clock it our self :) I still think this feature is an excellent idea and I welcome it to the industry with open arms.

It would of been great if ATI would have output the core and memory clock rates the card is currently running at, within the Overdrive tab. Also, it would of be nice if it also showed the temperature reading. These are two easy to implement features, I hope to see in the next Catalyst driver release.

Below is a table that shows what temperature the video card must be at, to achieve the corresponding clock rate. The normal (stock) clock rate is 412 MHz and Overdrive will never go below that clock speed.

Clock Speed Temperature
432 MHz 0°C - 51°C
419 MHz 48°C - 59°C
412 MHz 56°C - 127°C

Note: Only the XT model of Radeon's will support the Overdrive feature.

VPU Recover

VPU Recover is a feature that will automatically recover in the event of a system crash, relating to video, without having to reboot your computer. If your video card freezes up while in a game, VPU Recover will detect this and reset the VPU automatically without you having to reboot. There is a chance that VPU Recover will be unable to recover from a lock-up or crash, in this type of situation your system will switch to software rendering mode. You will then be able to save any open work, before rebooting.

Microsoft is now requiring this new feature for the next-generation Windows OS, Longhorn. Good call Microsoft! ATi is ahead of the competition by having this new feature out before anyone else. Thumbs up to them too!

Catalyst 3.8 Drivers (Continued)

New 3D tab

If you're currently an ATI video card owner and you're running Catalyst 3.7 or older then you will notice this new re-design in Catalyst 3.8. In previous Catalyst driver releases, there was an OpenGL tab and a Direct 3D tab under Advance display properties. In the Catalyst 3.8 driver release ATi has moved both of the settings under one tab called, 3D. I suppose they thought it would be less cluttered and easier for new people to find the settings.

You will also notice ATI has implemented some predefined settings for both Direct3D and OpenGL. The predefined settings can be adjusted based on Performance or Quality. This is useful for people who have no idea how to setup each individual setting. There is also the option to setup different profiles for Direct3D and also for OpenGL. This might come in handy if you wanted to customize the graphic settings in each game that you play.

For the more advance users you can click on custom settings and setup all of the configurations manually. Under the custom settings area you can adjust: Anti-Aliasing (up to 6x), Anisotropic Filtering (up to 16x), Texture Quality, Mipmap Detail, Vsync, & Truform.

A new setting in Catalyst 3.8 is the Smartshader effects tab. Under this tab you can apply pixel shader effects to both OpenGL and Direct3D games. The different effects are: Normal (Off), Black & White, Inverse, Classic, Porthole, RGB Cycle, and Stylize. The effects really serve no purpose from what I can see, and I don't know why anyone would run them. Although, I guess it would be cool to play Battlefield 1942 in Black & White.

Test Suite & Setup

All of our tests were ran at the highest possibly game settings unless otherwise noted. The real world gaming tests are ran in 1024x768x32 and also in 1600x1200x32 resolutions. We run two tests on each resolution setting, one with Anti-Aliasing & Anisotropic Filtering on and another test with Anti-Aliasing & Anisotropic Filtering off. The table below describes the testing methods we use.

Resolution Settings
1024x768x32 No AA/AF
1600x1200x32 No AA/AF
1024x768x32 6x AA/8x AF
1600x1200x32 6x AA/8x AF

Below are the benchmarks that we are currently using:

  • Gun Metal
  • X2
  • Halo
  • Unreal Tournament 2003
  • AquaMark 3
  • Shadermark 2.0
  • Code Creatures
  • 3DMark03

    We have added a couple of new titles to our test suite and we have since retired some of the older benchmarks like Quake 3. If you would like to see a new title added to our benchmarking suite please contact Matt Cameron.

    Test Rig
    -Abit AT7-MAX2
    -Athlon XP 2100+
    -Samsung 512MB PC-2100
     -Radeon 9800 XT
     -Radeon 9700 All-in-Wonder
  • Benchmark: X2

    X2 is a first person space simulation designed for today’s game players and has out of this world graphics. The benchmark can really put a big load on just about any graphics card and that's why we have chosen to use this benchmark in our benchmark suite. If you're interesting in X2 the game, it will not be available until early next year. We ran X2 in 1024x768 and 1600x1200 resolutions while having Anti-Aliasing & Anisotropic filtering both on & off.

    We achieved acceptable frame rates from both of the cards in 1024x768 with no AA/AF. We also achieved acceptable frame rates from 9800 XT when running at 1600x1200 with no AA/AF. The 9700 achieved semi-acceptable frame rates at 1600x1200 but you probably wouldn't want to play a tournament match with such frame rates.

    There wasn't as much frame rate difference between the two cards when we turned on Anti-Aliasing and Anisotropic Filtering. The 1600x1200 test was so slow it was unbearable to watch.

    Benchmark: UT2K3

    Unreal Tournament 2003 is one of the most used benchmarks in the gaming industry. While both Nvidia and ATi have optimized their drivers to work exceptionally well with it, it still provides us a good comparison with video cards. Our test was ran in 1024x768, 1280x1024, and 1600x1200 resolutions with Direct3D. We used the [H]ardOCP benchmark tool of Unreal Tournament 2003 to get our results. This benchmark runs the three resolutions stated above, in seven different maps. We calculated the overall average FPS by adding up the average FPS of each map and dividing by seven.
    The 1024x768 test was very close as you see, but in the 1600x1200 test the 9800 XT pulls ahead by about 15 FPS.
    The 9800 XT really struts it's stuff when Anti-Aliasing and Anisotropic Filtering is turned on. The 9800 XT pulls ahead by 26 FPS in the 1024x768 test and 23 FPS in the 1600x1200 test.

    Benchmark: Halo

    Our Halo benchmark consists of many cut scenes that are somewhat graphics intensive. Neither Anti-Aliasing nor Anisotropic Filtering will have any affect on the way Halo looks because many of the effects in Halo rely on using render targets and post processing. The scenes in Halo are rendered to an intermediate buffer instead of the video card's back buffer, and then the filter effect is applied before the final frame is copied to the video card's back buffer and projected on your monitor. Therefore, we did not run any tests in Halo with Anti-Aliasing or Anisotropic filtering on. All it would do is lower our frame rates dramatically and without having any better image quality.
    There's really only a marginal 5-7 FPS difference between the two cards in the Halo benchmark, clearly nothing to jump up and down about.

    Benchmark: Gun Metal

    Gun Metal a new gaming title that is currently only available in Europe and is a new benchmark in our testing suite. The Benchmark incorporates functions like 2.0 Vertex Shaders and 1.1 Pixel Shaders and demands a high-end card for acceptable frame-rates with Anti-Aliasing & Anisotropic Filtering turned on. We ran Gun Metal in 1024x768 and 1600x1200 resolutions with the highest possible graphic settings within the game. One test was ran with Anti-Aliasing & Anisotropic Filtering on, and another test was ran with Anti-Aliasing & Anisotropic Filtering off.
    There was a 9 FPS difference in the 1024x768 benchmark, which is to be expected. However, in the 1600x1200 benchmark there was only 1 FPS difference between the two cards. I re-ran the test several times and it was always about 1 FPS difference.
    This is where the 9800 XT always leaves the 9700 in the dust and this benchmark is no different. Also, when running Gun Metal with AA and AF on, I noticed some large black shadows casting over the ground in the distance. I'm still not exactly sure what they are, and if anyone could shed some light on this please let me know. The problem appears on both of the cards, using any resolution.

    Benchmark: 3DMark03

    For those of you that have no interest in seeing the 3DMark03 scores, then skip on over to the next benchmark. 3DMark03 does not have any affect on the outcome of this review. I've only decided to include this benchmark in the review because so many people request of it.
    3DMark03 clearly draws a line and shows the difference between the two cards. I really don't see this big of a difference between the two cards in the tests that have been conducted thus far. 1,513 points is clearly a big gap between the two.

    Benchmark: Aquamark 3

    Aquamark 3 is an great tool for comparisons since it uses a real game engine and utilizes DirectX 9, and has many advance techniques that can really take a toll on your video card. We only ran Aquamark3 in 1024x768 with 4x AF and no AA because it is the only available test you can run without purchasing Aquamark 3. We also think this makes the test that we conducted more useful for comparisons in the community.
    Unlike 3DMark03 that clearly showed the difference between the two cards, Aquamark 3 only shows a fractional amount of difference between the two.

    Benchmark: Shadermark 2.0

    ShaderMark 2.0 is a DirectX 9.0 pixel shader benchmark. All pixel and vertex shader code is written in Microsoft’s High Level Shading Language. ShaderMark provides the possibility to use different compiler targets + advanced options. Currently there is no DirectX 9.0 HLSL pixel shader benchmark on the market. Futuremark's 3DMark03 and Massive's AquaMark 3.0 are both bases on hand written assembler shaders or partly HLSL shaders. The HLSL shader compiler and its different profiles have to be tested and this gap fills ShaderMark v2.0. Shadermark was ran in 1024x768 and 1600x1200 resolutions.
    The 9800 XT did an excellent job at both 1024x768 and 1600x1200 but the 9700 AIW was choppy in a few test while running at 1600x1200.

    Benchmark: Code Creatures

    The Codecreatures benchmark is written with Microsoft's DirectX 8.1 API and incorporates the use of Vertex and Pixel Shaders popular on next generation 3D accelerators. The benchmark plays a photo-realistic nature scene and calculates the performance of the graphics adapter by measuring the fps that it can display at 1024x768, 1280x1024 and 1600x1200 resolutions. The score is a geometric mean of those three resolutions called the Codecreatures number or score. We ran Code Creatures in 1024x768 and 1600x1200 resolutions with no AA/AF.



    Like 3DMark03, we see a very noticeable difference between the two video cards in our Code Creatures test. The Powercolor Radeon 9800 XT has a 1,138 point lead, over the Radeon 9700 AIW.


    I was able to achieve a 460 MHz core clock and a 400 MHz memory clock, and it was stable. However, I did notice artifacts in games and in benchmarks. I dropped the core down to 455 MHz and the memory down to 395 MHz to see if the artifacts would disappear, and they did. However, when I turned Anti-Aliasing and Ansotropic Filtering on, some of the artifacts appeared again. I finally set the core at 450 MHz and the memory at 390 MHz, and all artifacts disappeared. That was the highest possible overclock we got out of the card that was stable and had zero artifacts. This means we are overclocking 18 MHz more on the core than what Overdrive could ever overclock on it's own, provided that you have enough cooling. This is a 38 MHz overclock, which isn't very good but I really didn't have my hopes up on it being able to overclock well since they're already pushing it.


    I wish I had recieved a Nvidia FX5900 or a FX5920 to put the Radeon 9800 XT performance in to perspective. When I get my hands on one of the two cards, I'll post and update and revise the benchmarks with the results.

    The Powercolor Radeon 9800 XT provided a good performance improvement over the Radeon 9700 All-in-wonder, and it's enough to justify an upgrade provided that you have the money to do so. I wouldn't recommend anyone with a 9800 Pro to upgrade because I really don't believe it would be as beneficial to you. If you've got a 9700 or slower card, looking to upgrade, and have the money to burn then by all means I highly recommend the Powercolor Radeon 9800 XT card to you. The card retails for $500 bucks but can be found cheaper if you shop Pricewatch or Dealtime.

    The retail copy of Half-Life 2 that is included is a huge incentive to upgrade to this card, at least for me anyway. It's an excellent marketing strategy by ATI to provide the most anticipating game of the year with their video cards. If you had already planned on purchasing Half-Life 2, and you buy a Powercolor 9800 XT then you've already saved $50 bucks (or however much HL2 will cost you). The Powercolor 9800 XT is already on store shelves, and as I said above you can probably find it on Pricewatch or Dealtime under $499.

    Below is a picture of the Half-Life 2 coupon you get with your retail box of the Powercolor Radeon 9800 XT.