How Much Will It Cost Me?Ah yes, the critical question. While the Radeon 8500 is indeed an impressive answer to NVIDIA’s Geforce 3 chipset on paper, it will also have an equal impact on your wallet. This card will carry an estimated retail price of $399, which will most likely translate to $350 on the street. The card will be AGP only, of course, and you will need the fastest machine you can possibly afford to even start to make this card sweat with today’s games. As NVIDIA will most likely launch a revamped and overclocked version of the GeForce 3 this Winter to up the ante once again, we expect market pressure will move the cost of this card rapidly downward in the Holiday season.
Other Products in the PipeThe 8500 isn’t the full extent of ATI’s new line of products. In the coming months they will also introduce the Radeon 7500 and the FireGL. As the 7500 isn’t coming for some time and in fact is not guaranteed to have a Mac version at this point, we will cover this card in a future article. For now all you need to know is that it is based on existing Radeon technology, rather than the R200 chip in the 8500, and is essentially an overclocked Radeon AGP with dual-monitor support and 64 MB of DDR RAM. The purpose of this card is to serve the midrange market, with a price tag of $199 ($150 street).
ATI is also introducing the FireGL, a card aimed at graphics workstations for the CAD/CAM and 3d modeling crowd. Comprising much of the 8500’s feature set, the card is focused on high-end graphics workstations and industrial-strength design tools. No Mac OS version is anticipated.
It is important to note that ATI expects the Radeon Mac Edition (both AGP and PCI) to remain available, most likely at lower price points. While a PCI version of both the 8500 and 7500 are theoretically possible, we feel it is unlikely given the current market focus on AGP. Frankly anyone with a PCI-only Mac should have seen the writing on the wall when the AGP-only Geforce 3 and GeForce 2 MX cards showed up at the Apple Store -- PCI is a thing of the past.
Driver SupportAlways a touchy issue, we were reassured that this card will ship with both Mac OS 8.6/9 and OS X support out of the box, and ATI will continue to support and enhance the drivers for both operating systems. They even plan to include RAVE support, and of course OpenGL support will be the core of the 8500’s performance on our platform. ATI has well over five years of experience developing and testing Mac OS drivers, and we don’t expect that to be discarded when the 8500 arrives.
AvailabilityAs of our conference call last Thursday, ATI expected to ship these cards within four to six weeks of this announcement – for PC. No firm Mac ship date was given, but the team clearly expected the release to be very soon after the PC card hits the market. While it wasn’t discussed in specific terms, it was hinted clearly that the release schedule for the Mac version of the card did depend on Apple, probably in the area of driver support.
As to when you might see this card actually ship in a Mac or appear as a BTO option, ATI was also unwilling to go on the record. However we would advise anyone interested in this issue to keep a close eye on the Apple Expo Paris, in early September.
Is It Better Than a GeForce 3?At this point, it is too early to answer such a question. ATI’s own benchmarks show the Radeon 8500 outperforming the NVIDIA GeForce 3 by as much as 20% in certain tests; for example the card can achieve 170 fps at 1024x768 in 32-bit color on a PC, vs 163 fps for the GeForce 3 in the same machine. However no parameters or testing methods were given, so real-world benchmarks are still not available.
In terms of raw numbers, the Radeon 8500 does hold an advantage: the GPU is clocked at 250 MHz (vs 200 MHz for the GeForce 3) and it has a 400 MHz RAMDAC (vs 350 MHz for the GF3). Both the claimed fill rate and claimed gigatexels-per-second are higher, but only real-world benchmarks in a Mac will determine which is the raw frame rate winner – an ephemeral goal at best.
ATI did have the advantage of hindsight in their development, launching many months after NVIDIA announced their feature set for the GF3; thus they were able to build upon that core feature set and also include exclusive technologies such as Hydravision, Smoothvision and Truform. No doubt the incredible pace of NVIDIA’s development will allow them to respond with a competing product in 3-6 months, but since most users don’t buy a new 3D card twice a year the catch-up game doesn’t mean much in the long run.
The final deciding factor between these two high-end (and high-cost) cards for Mac gamers will most likely come down to one thing: driver support. The card that ships with drivers that offer the most complete feature set at the greatest speed and stability will be the one to get. Because the feature set of the Radeon 8500 matches (and eclipses in some instances) the features of the GeForce 3, games that are “Geforce 3 Enhanced” will run as enhanced games under the Radeon 8500 transparently. It will come down to ATI’s years of Mac driver experience vs NVIDIA’s own skilled driver team which seems to be quickly picking up slack.
Later this week we will bring you an analysis of the card’s specialized features and what they might mean for future games; in the coming weeks before the card’s debut we hope to bring you interviews and hands-on previews of the actual hardware itself, as well as actual Mac benchmarks. Stay tuned – the already heated competition for the Mac graphics card market is going to reach critical mass this fall.