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

    Anyone notice that the GeForce5600 Ultra beats out the 9600 Pro, and even the 9600 ProXT, in games that dont use DX (namely they use Open GL)? Like in Wolfenstein, Jedi Academy. I also seem to remeber it winning in Quake 3, in some other reviews I read. It also won in Never Winter Nights; is that an Open GL game too?

    Just seems to me that if Nvidia can fix whatever probelms the Geforce line of cards have with DX, they may prove to be very good cards, as open gl seems to suggest. Just a thought.
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    Dear Anand Lal Shimpi & Derek Wilson,

    As I can't see the benchmark graphs I can't extract any useful information from this review. Please don't ever use Flash in your reviews again.

    Thank you.
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    Oh, yeah, thanks for including the Ti4200. Lessthanthree.
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    It was the Radeon 9500 plain that could be modded, not the 9500 Pro, you NITRATE-OXIDIZING FIEND

    The 9500 Pro was quite a buy, though, never mind modding.
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    I've seen 9700 non-pro's going for around $200... Considering the performance hike from overclocking and the ability to just overclock/flash the NP to a Pro, I'd say the 9700 is a better deal than the 9600XT. :)

    Anonymous Posting: As I've said before, I'm unable to procure an email address that isn't blocked under AT's anti-freemail signup requirement, so I'm out of luck in replying to these entries if they lock it to unsubscribed users. :/

    Lastly, I use a Ti4200 and I'm satisfied to see my Ti4200 putting out 28fps in Halo... On the other hand, I'd like to hear from the AT folks after they've played Halo for about an hour or so using 45.23 Dets with a 4200 clock of 265/545, because I've experienced game-ruining artifacting that V-sync can't correct... And no other game has the same error, so it's not the Dets or the clock speeds that's causing it (to my knowledge).
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    i think you can find the 9700pro at a few places for around $220
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    Have I missed something in the pricing of these cards? "Given the very low price of the Radeon 9700 Pro we'd strongly suggest buying a 9700 Pro over a Radeon 9600 XT". A quick check on pricewatch indicates that very low price to be $249.00. Has the accepted price of a midrange card gone that high?
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    Agreed to 22, this Anonymous posting system does nothing but feed the trolls
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    Yawn.. the article responses have certainly gone to shit ever since this new reply and comment system was added.
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - link

    #20-sorry that you're an idiot

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