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Since ATi stole the limelight from nVidia last year with its Radeon 9700, it’s nVidia that has been playing the under dog in the 3D race, a role that ATi was quite happy to relinquish. With the Radeon 9800Pro keeping ATi at the cutting edge this year, nVidia has recently attempted to regain the lead with its GeForce FX5950. But ATi is keeping up the pressure with the release of the Radeon 9800XT. The fact that this retail card is from Asus is a clear indicator of the shift of power in the industry. Asus was formerly an nVidia-only house but the Radeon’s success means that ignoring ATi is no longer an option, even for the big manufacturers. Although this doesn’t mean that Asus won’t be producing cards based on nVidia chipsets as well.
As its name suggests, the 9800XT is a revision of the Radeon 9800Pro rather than a fresh design. The essential differences are an increase in VPU clock speed, up from 380MHz to 412MHz. Memory speeds have been bumped up to 730MHz from the 680MHz sported by the 128MB 9800Pro. All 9800XT cards however, feature a hefty 256MB slice of memory, though it’s DDR1 rather than the hotter running 700Mhz DDR2 used by the 256MB 9800Pros.
The Asus isn’t just a standard 9800XT card though. First, rather than stick with the reference design Asus has opted for a custom heatsink and dual-fan arrangement, which serves to make the card the heaviest I’ve ever held. It makes quite an impression and you’ll at least feel that you’re getting your money’s worth.
Its primary function of the big heatsink is to help overclocking. Although there was no sign of the promised OverDrive facility in the 3.9 Catalyst drivers, Asus supplies its own SmartDoctor utility. Using this, I took the core VPU speed up to 440MHz and the memory up to 770MHz and played Halo extensively without lockups. It’s worth noting that this was done on a system that was itself overclocked, with a 333MHz FSB Athlon XP 2500+ running at 3000+ speeds. This contrasts with the Asus 9600XT, which caused lockups when run in the overclocked system. It seems that the extra power connector that the 9800 series card requires gives it a stability edge when pushing systems to the max.
The SmartDoctor application also enables you to dynamically control the speed of the fans depending on the heat of the GPU detected by a thermal sensor. That said I found the fan noise to be no louder than average.
The second special Asus feature is the inclusion of an integrated Rage Theatre Video chip as used in ATi’s All-inWonder line. A break-out box is supplied with composite and S-Video inputs and outputs for easy hook up. This gives the card VIVO (Video In/Video Out) abilities so you output to a TV or projector or capture video from any source. Asus includes its own Digital VCR software, which though not a patch on ATi’s own Multimedia Centre software, does enable you to capture direct to MPEG2.