ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB Video Card

Reviewed by: Jack Reikel, January 2005, updated Dec 2006
Manufactured by: ATI Technologies Inc.
Requires: Windows 98 through Vista, 2x or faster AGP slot
MSRP: US$249.00

PCI Express? PCI? AGP 4X? AGP 8X? Lots of acronyms. Lots of benchmark tests out there too. Dell, Gateway, HP, IBM, Alienware and quite a few other huge system builders are all touting the new PCI Express standard as part of the motherboards they're all using to build high-end systems. PCI Express is the new standard, which means that AGP is just about history. But if you're still running a decent AGP motherboard (there are tens of millions of them working perfectly) and you're thinking of upgrading your cranky old video card, do yourself a favor by having a long look at the ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB AGP graphics card.

Between 2003 and 2005 the ATI Radeon 9800 Pro scooped almost every major kudo available: best 3D performance, best frame rates in complex games, best text and graphics rendering, and so on. For the technically inclined, the card is based on ATI's R350 chip set, fully supports DirectX 9 and the latest OpenGL, is ranked as Cinematic quality hardware (for all you DVD lovers), offers DVI, CRT & TV-Out connections, DDR RAM, a core clock speed of 380MHz, theoretical pixel-fill rate of 3G pixels/sec, memory speed of 340MHz (which pushes about 22GB/sec of bandwidth), and enhanced Full Screen Anti-Aliasing (FSAA) to name just a few of the highlights. FSAA is a technique by which each pixel is oversampled to achieve a more realistic image.


I tested the 9800 Pro in a 2.4GHz Pentium 4 with 1GB of RAM. The card was installed in an 8X AGP slot in an ASUS P4P800 Deluxe motherboard. It's a great gaming and productivity setup which also happens to be my current all-time favorite. Although I'm sure this machine will be superceded by something even more powerful at some point during 2005, it sure is nice for now. As a productivity machine which regularly runs Photoshop CS, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, a variety of video editors, and news and information feeds (TV as well as audio-only webcasts) it performs admirably and did so (without any complaints from me) with its original ATI Radeon 9000 All-In-Wonder (which has a built-in TV tuner).

The addition of the 9800 Pro for this review forced me to pick up a separate Hauppauge WinTV tuner card. One of the benefits conferred by the 9800 Pro is dual monitor support. For that I acquired another 19" LCD monitor (an NEC Accusync LCD92V—thanks to my wife; happy holidays!) to go with my main Samsung SyncMaster 191T. I used ATI's HydraVision utility to set up specific desktops for each monitor. The secondary monitor is used for Palm Desktop, Konfabulator Widgets (clock, Wired News, BBC radio, CBC radio, National Public Radio, local weather and a stock ticker), TV, DVD player, Windows Media Player and so on. The primary monitor is used for all productivity applications including Microsoft Word, Excel & Outlook, X1, Adobe Photoshop and Premier, TextPad, Macromedia Dreamweaver, and of course Doom 3 and HalfLife 2. The 9800 Pro handles the dual load without so much as a hiccup. Both monitors are running at 1280x1024 in 32-bit color.

There's nothing much to say about the 9800 Pro's performance when running utility, entertainment, information and productivity software. In a word, performance is completely transparent, with the video card handling everything on both monitors cleanly and swiftly. Simultaneously running Palm Desktop, WinTV, Konfabulator, Word, TextPad, Outlook, Maxthon or Firefox and Dreamweaver is routine. The contents of every program window is beautifully rendered. In other words, there is no conventional computer activity that will strain or stress the 9800 Pro. So I personally gave up on using multitasking to push the card and decided instead to do what everybody else does to push these cards—enter Doom 3.

As a game, Doom 3 is the culmination of a heckuva lot of programming and game engine genius. Like the game or not, there's no doubt that at least for now Doom 3 is the most advanced real-time graphical renderer you can find. Push the individual game graphics settings all the way up to challenge any card on the market right now (well maybe not the fully loaded ATI X850XT). You'll be able to put the brakes on the 9800 Pro in 1600x1200 with everything turned up, but it's of no importance because the Doom 3 experience, fully tweaked at 1024x768 is still quite marvelous. id Software has done a spectacular job on the game and the Radeon 9800 Pro will let you see and play the game in all its glory. Ditto for HalfLife 2. Performance in 1280x1024 is also totally playable.

We had a brief look at the 9800 Pro with 256MB of DDR II RAM on board and we really weren't impressed. While all of those large vertex buffers demanded by Doom 3 and HalfLife 2 benefited a bit from the additional RAM, the difference wasn't enough to justify the difference in price or the overall marginal improvement in playability. If you're going to take a step up from the 9800 Pro, you've got to go all the way up to the absurdly pricey ATI X850 XT or nVIDIA GeForce 6800 Ultra boards in order to see a really obvious improvement. The only time the 256MB board came into its own was when we ran Doom 3 and HalfLife 2 in 1280x1024 and higher, providing noticeably better performance overall.

The Radeon 9000 and 9100 cards are largely gone. You'll find some 9200 cards around and quite a few 9600 and 9700 cards still available and cheap too. But the performance master in the affordable range of high-end cards is definitely the 9800 Pro. The newer X series of cards for AGP and PCI Express are terrific, but more expensive when comparing cards with comparable or better performance than the 9800 Pro. To my way of thinking, the choice is obvious.

Cons: We experienced problems with HydraVision, specifically incompatibilities with Konfabulator (the free Widget utility for displaying all sorts of cool information on your desktop), Firefox (the browser) and Maxthon (another browser), among other programs. We filled out a detailed technical problem report to ATI's technical support people online and in return received a nonsensical response which had absolutely nothing to do with the problem report. We solved the problem simply by turning off HydraVision.

Pros: The latest Catalyst drivers from ATI are rock solid. Running two 19" LCD monitors is an absolute joy. Turn one monitor off then enjoy game performance that truly lets you get deeply into game play in the resolution of your choice. Doom 3, HalfLife 2 and Prince of Persia: Warrior Within are gorgeous and as quick as you want them to be. The card has enough horsepower to give you real control over performance rather than feeling as though you are running maxed out all the time, and the experience lets you concentrate on game play without hardware distractions. FSAA performance at 4X running Doom 3 was very good. Officially, you can now get faster video cards, but why spend $550 on an ATI Radeon X850 XT or nVIDIA GeForce 6800 Ultra when you can get darn near as good for $249? For now, the ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB video card is a great best buy. Any software written to take full advantage of DirectX 9 will fly with this card. Desktop publishers, graphic artists, CAD designers, spreadsheet loons and writers (or anybody else who spends a lot of time in front of their word processor) will enjoy the 9800's clean text and graphics rendering. Doing a lot of photo editing? No problem. Images hit the screen faster, rotation redraws, effects and other needs are met with ease and the card performs beautifully at any resolution your 15", 17", 19", 20", 21", or 23" monitor (or even larger) demands. Highly recommended.





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