This year's Macworld San Francisco brought about quite a bit of buzz surrounding graphics card maker ATI and their upcoming Radeon 9700 Pro for the Mac. This new card, which is now shipping in an OEM version for those buying new PowerMacs from Apple, again steps up the feature set to lay claim to the top of the Mac video card market.
Featuring 128MB of DDR memory with a 256-bit interface, the OEM 9700 also has a 325/310MHz engine/memory clockspeed. Smartshader 2.0 is ATI's name for their shader engine, which promises to play a much bigger role in upcoming games like Unreal Tournament 2003 and DOOM III. Smoothvision 2.0 is on-board to help smooth out your gaming experience, with impressive Full-Scene Anti Aliasing (FSAA) and Anisotropic Filtering.
Besides spewing numbers, is it worth the extra $300 to get the Radeon 9700 with a new Apple machine? Will it help improve your gaming experience in a dramatic way? A gamut of tests are being done on the card at the moment, but here's a taste of how it's looking so far. Quake 3 is still a good benchmark for reviews on the Mac, simply because so many newer games will "flatline" with such a powerful card, as the CPU is unable to keep up.
One major caveat to mention at this point is that I'm using scores from 10.2.1 for the GeForce4 Ti, as I was unable to secure another test card for review at this time. Testing with the Radeon 9000 between 10.2.1 and 10.2.4 shows about a 2-4% improvement in scores, so keep that in mind when looking at the graph. Even with that said though, the Radeon 9700 is already beginning to stake out its claim as a performance leader.
One of the biggest changes with the Radeon 9700 is the way the team has gone about developing drivers for the card. Instead of porting over every piece of code line-by-line (as was done with previous Mac Radeon cards), the team decided it might prove beneficial to wrap the PC drivers in a sort of Mac abstraction layer. This was necessary simply because of the enormity of the driver set for the new line of Radeons, and the process seems to have greatly helped speed the porting of features, while only incurring a very minimal performance penalty.
To add even more fun to the mix, in-between Macworld and now ATI rolled out yet another revision of Radeon cards for the PC, with the high-end now dubbed the Radeon 9800. This would seem to put the Mac team at odds with earlier statements about releasing a retail version of the Radeon 9700 later in the year, as it would be seen as a generation behind its PC counterpart.
The Radeon 9800 is not a revolutionary upgrade on the PC side of things, but the card does feature faster engine/memory speeds and improved shader support, which again pushes it ahead of the competition.
Nothing distinct about a possible Mac version of the 9800 has been yet announced, but we did recently get a chance to chat with ATI's Chris Bentley and Bruno Fernandes about both the now-shipping 9700 and possibilities for future opportunities.