The definitive Fall Refresh

After NVIDIA released the TNT2 Ultra, we saw the first incarnation of the now common “6-month product cycle.” The strategy was the exact one used to dethrone 3dfx, and is based on a very simple principle of using parallel design teams. If you have three design teams, one working on the current generation product, one working on the 6-month follow-up and one working on the next-generation solution, assuming all teams work efficiently, you should be able to maintain a stream of GPU releases in 6 month intervals.

To make the job a bit easier, you only work on inventing new architectures every 12 months, giving you a little break in between the hectic lifestyle of a GPU design engineer. But in order to maintain competitiveness you have to have a product every 6 months, so in the time between architectures you simply “refresh” your current generation architecture. A refresh is generally a higher clocked GPU, potentially with some faster memory, made possible due to more experience with manufacturing that particular GPU (yields improve over time) and the availability of faster memory. Sometimes we get advancements in process technology that allows for a boost in clock speed as well.

When NVIDIA introduced the 6-month product cycle the idea was that new architectures would debut in the Fall, and refresh products would hit in the Spring. The delay of NV20 (GeForce3) changed things around a bit and the GeForce2 Ultra became the first “Fall refresh” product. Since then, little attention has been paid to when various GPUs hit, as long as we get something new every 6 months we’re happy. Earlier this year we heard that both ATI and NVIDIA would be releasing their true next-generation hardware next Spring, leaving this Fall as the refresh cycle.

ATI’s high-end refresh was the Radeon 9800 XT, and as you can guess their midrange refresh is the new Radeon 9600 XT. Much like the Radeon 9800 XT, the 9600 XT only adds two features: a higher clock speed and support for OverDrive.

The Radeon 9600 XT GPU now runs at 500MHz, a 25% increase in clock speed over the 9600 Pro’s 400MHz clock. The memory speed of the Radeon 9600 XT remains at 300MHz DDR (effectively 600MHz), so there is no increase in memory bandwidth over its predecessor.

The hefty increase in clock speed is due to improvements in process technology as well as the introduction of a low-k dielectric. As we briefly explained in our 9800 XT review, the benefits of a low-k dielectric are mainly related to shielding from crosstalk in high transistor density chips, which gives us the clock speed boost we see with the 9600 XT. Because we’re just talking about an increase in core clock speed, the games to receive the biggest performance boost from the XT would be those that are GPU-limited, which unfortunately are few and far in between these days. Games that are largely shader bound such as Half Life 2 will definitely enjoy the 9600 XT’s increase in clock speed, but for now we’ll see most of the performance benefits go to waste.

We explained OverDrive technology in our Radeon 9800 XT review and tested it in our Catalyst 3.8 driver update. The Radeon 9600 XT includes an on-die thermal diode that measures the temperature of the core; when the temperature is cool enough the driver will instruct the core to overclock itself by a set margin. The Radeon 9600 XT will run at one of three speeds depending on its temperature: 500MHz, 513MHz or 527MHz. The combination of this driver and hardware support makes up ATI’s OverDrive feature.

OverDrive is currently not enabled for the Radeon 9600 XT in the Catalyst 3.8 drivers, we will have to wait for the Catalyst 3.9s before we can test the 9600 XT with OverDrive. If you’re curious about the performance implications of enabling OverDrive, have a look at our Catalyst 3.8 review – it’s nothing to get too excited about.

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  • PrinceGaz - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    You can infer how a 9500pro would do by considering it a bit like a slightly faster 9600xt in core speed, but with slower memory. That isn't as daft as it sounds.

    The 9600xt is a 4-pipeline 500mhz core while the 9500pro was an 8-pipeline 275mhz core, so the older 9500pro at default core-speed could be thought of as being a 550mhz 9600xt, before the improvements in the RV350 core over the R300 are considered. I doubt a 9600xt is gonna reach 550mhz easily so the 9500pro should have a slight edge in core-horsepower.

    Memory-wise, the 9600xt should be in front both in memory-speed and efficiency which would suggest, so at least in theory the 9600xt should be somewhat faster than the 9500pro in DX8 titles but not so far ahead when DX9 shaders are used intensively.

    I still think including the 9800se in the benchmarks is essential thanks to its high memory-bandwidth, especially when its over $50 cheaper than a 9700non-pro, let alone the even more expensive 9700pro.
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link why wasnt the 9500pro used in the review?
    was there any reason that was given ?
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    good review, good conclusion...i totally agree in almost everything. only overclocking performance wouldve been an interesting addition
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    On a side track, can anyone tell me a decent cooler for the ATi brand of cards? Seems like there is a serious lack of good heatsinks and fan combos for these parts. All I have seen are two different heatpipe applications that seem like a step in the wrong direction. Why can't someone produce a good chunk of copper with a good fan for my 9600 Pro???

  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    damm i though that 9600 XT would be great. but all i can see is another product from ati that steals your money. i prefer to buy a 9500 pro
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    Beyond3D benchmarked the 9600XT against the 9500 Pro as well as the 9600 Pro
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    #25: $216 at GameVE. Considering the 9600 XT is $199 though, i think Anand has a point.

  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    It would have been great if Anand and Derek had put a 9500 Pro to the review. I'm curious how it stacks up against 9600 Pro/XT and 5600 Ultra in all these benchmarks. Does anybody know?
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    I was really hoping to see the 9600XT do better, but the scores are still great for the price range. It's amazing that my 9700-pro, which I bought almost a year ago for $300, still keeps up so well.

    I agree with #26 in regards to anonymous posting. I like it, but if it bothers everybody else, please lift the 'no free e-mail address' requirement, or I, the single greatest poster ever, would no longer be able to post, and Anandtech would lose at least 50% of it's reader base. :) Besides, I really don't mind trolls. It shakes things up.
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    #29, you and me both wish =(

    But remember, why use logic when you can use Flash?

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