ATi MR 9700

That’s the end of the physics, now how about those features?

It’s been claimed, a little unfairly perhaps, that the Mobility Radeon 9700 is little more than a speed bumped Mobility Radeon 9600 which is a bit harsh even if only by virtue of low-k implementation. It does however offer no new features over those that were supported by the M10 other than HYPER-Z III. It’s also been said that the use of the “9600” and “9700” numbering scheme is misleading which is a perfectly valid criticism. Let’s clear it up right from the start, this part is in no way connected to the R300 based Radeon 9700 desktop product.

One thing that mobile chip designers need to think carefully about is how much power they consume. Unlike with a desktop machine, notebooks used on the move have a finite amount of power available to them from the battery before they transform into very expensive paperweights, so any saving on power consumption is a valuable gain.

Using what’s collectively called “POWERPLAY 4.0”, the MR9700 features a collection of power saving functions including activity-controlled frequency and voltage throttling known as Power-on-Demand II, accurate thermal management through an on-core thermal diode, refresh rate reduction to power hungry LCD screens and clock gating which is able to shut down power to individual parts of the chip which may be idle independently of the others which may still be operating. All this, plus low-k of course makes this a very power friendly chip.

POWERPLAY can seamlessly switch from low power to maximum performance settings based on whether you’re running from an AC or DC power source, or in other words whether you’re plugged in to the mains or not. It’s also infinitely configurable based on your particular preferences and needs.

One of the headline features of the MR 9700 is its improved gaming power. This is a true, four pipeline DirectX 9.x VPU offering just about everything that can be found on ATi’s desktop graphics chips.

Its dual shaders offer the full gamut of pixel and vertex shading functions we’ve come to expect from our desktop parts and indeed point to the MR9700 being a close relative of the desktop Radeon 9600 XT. Onboard are up to 6x anti-aliasing and up to 16x anisotropic filtering courtesy of SMOOTHVISION 2.1, fully programmable cinematic visual effects courtesy of SMARTSHADER 2.0 and a new, improved HYPER-Z implementation renamed HYPER-Z III and now offering improved Z-compression ratios up to a claimed 24:1.

2D quality is well catered for by the dual integrated 400MHz RAMDACS while the digital output is via dual LVDS (Low Voltage Differential Signalling) outputs driving your LCD screen to a theoretical QXGA resolution of 2,048 x 1,536. Throw in a 165 MHz integrated TMDS transmitter capable of driving DVI Digital Flat Panels at up 1,600 x 1,200, integrated TV-out encoder, integrated HDTV encoder (YPbPr and D-link) and the usual multi-monitor management options made available by ATi’s HYDRAVISION software and you’re left wanting for little.

Video handling remains as strong as it ever was with hardware accelerated MPEG encoding/decoding and FULLSTREAM technology which sets the pixel shader to work removing the blocky artefacts you usually see when watching low bandwidth video such as content streamed over the Internet.

The last feature I want to talk about is VPU recover. This is a software function incorporated into ATi’s CATALYST driver suite and is designed to increase system stability by resetting the VPU should it hang, thus avoiding a full system crash. The fact that I’ve never seen it in action means it either doesn’t work, it has never been needed or it works so well you don’t even notice.

Advances in the notebook graphics market have to be worked hard at. Constraints on cooling, power and size make it hard to deliver any radical leaps in performance or features using current technology.

The MR9700 is a truly great mobile graphics chip that doesn’t really break any new ground but instead continues the proud heritage of its M10 predecessor. Just how great it is will depend on what speeds it gets implemented, but even running at a full 45MHz off its top core speed it turned in a very respectable set of benchmark results that wouldn’t look out of place in a well specified Radeon 9600XT equipped desktop system.

Performance levels aren’t quite high enough to bring a cheesy grin to the face of a hardened gamer, but blasting the heads off a few gloriously rendered and anti-aliased zombies on that next long train journey is at last a possibility, and there should even be enough life left in the battery to finish that urgent report too.

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