R300 & The Test

As the patriarch of nearly 3 years worth of technology from ATI, it's by no mistake that we start out with one of the most influential GPUs ever made. The R300 not only was the primary architecture of ATI's entire 9500-9800 line of video cards starting in later 2002, but was also the father of much of the design elements that we saw go in to ATI's R4xx GPUs, and only finally replaced with the R5xx series in the later part of 2005, a testament to the strong design of the R300.

Because of these reasons, not to mention the strong sales of both R3xx and R4xx based video cards, the R300 and its host video card, the Radeon 9700 Pro, are a prime example of what developments in device drivers can mean for a product. ATI has now had over 3 years to make the most of the software that drives the 9700 Pro, allowing us to see just how much more performance ATI could get out of the card with later drivers that was not obvious upon the card's launch.

To identify and analyze these improvements, we have taken a 9700 Pro and run it through a modified version of one of our earlier benchmark suites, testing a slew of games and benchmarks in a regression test against a dozen versions of ATI's drivers, taking a quarterly snapshot of performance and image quality. Unfortunately, in spite of the R300 hardware supporting Shader Model 2.0 from the start, ATI did not offer such support in their official drivers until some months after the card shipped, so for our testing purposes, we had to start with the first drivers that offered such support, Catalyst 3.0, which are a couple of versions newer than the first drivers for the 9700 Pro. Still, we will see even excluding the first few months of the 9700 Pro's life doesn't skip on the performance improvements that ATI's Catalyst team was able to work out.

The specific games/benchmarks tested were:
  • D3DAFTester
  • Unreal Tournament 2004
  • Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy
  • Warcraft 3: The Frozen Throne
  • Halo
  • 3dMark 2003
In order to minimize any potential bottlenecks outside of the video card, we did not equip the 9700 Pro on an equally dated system, and instead, put it on the fastest AGP hardware that we had. As such, the test was done on the following:

AMD Athlon 64 3400+(S754)
Abit KV8-MAX3 motherboard
2GB DDR400 RAM 2:2:2
120GB Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 9 Hard Drive
Antec TruePower 430W Power Supply

All tests were done at 1280x1024 unless otherwise noted. To view larger images, please download them from here.

Index D3DAFTester
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  • ksherman - Friday, December 16, 2005 - link

    Any chance for a nVidia comparison? Ive ehear that some older drivers were better...
  • semiconductorslave - Tuesday, December 13, 2005 - link

    Great, I'll tell the person that bought my videocard three cards ago! Maybe next we could see an article about how adding 3 extra 16k memory cards to the Atari 800 improves games.
  • HWAddict77 - Tuesday, December 13, 2005 - link

    Guess what? There is real value in the fact that the people writing these articles actually interact with us to find out what we think. In publishing, web-based or otherwise, that's rare and valuable, and it puts us in a pretty cool position if you ask me. So I think being a smartass is particularly lame. It's not like there are only 20 people reading the articles. Hell, it's not like there are only 1000 people reading them.

    My .02: I would also like to see a similar article with an Nvidia card.
  • semiconductorslave - Wednesday, December 14, 2005 - link

    So your saying we can't use sarcasim to voice our opinions? I totally appreciate this site and all of the reviews, and hope the editors can handle a little bit of facetiousness every now and then. It is my attempt at humor and way of saying that I think this article, being more of a research piece into the history of driver support on an older card, is more academic and not very pragmatic. I'm not saying the author made the following assumtion, but it would be a logical fallacy for a person to assume the future will happen like the past. ATI could have better driver releases in the future, put more resources into it, hire more talented programers, also the hardware is always changing, like dual core CPUs and ring bus memory architectures on graphics cards. So I personaly don't think how the drivers perform on the old 9700pro make much difference to anyone but a person running the old 9700pro. This in turn will limit what games they can run since the newer games take a bit more power, especially with AA enabled, AS filtering, and HDR, so now--once again in my opinion--the article is most helpful to the person running old games on an old card.
    Still I read it.
  • jeffrey - Monday, December 12, 2005 - link

    Ryan Smith,

    Thank you for publishing this article! The whole idea of the article itself is what makes me so happy. It was not another "product release -> generate review" type article. This article stepped-out of that mold and required thinking of an idea and then testing to find the result. Kudos!

    What made the article an A+ was that the results were not there. To clarify, I should say expected results. ATI has been promising increase after increase, but after several generations, there just was not a whole lot there.

    ATI has impressed with monthly driver releases, but performance gains are limited. I am NOT disapointed with the results. ATI's claims for driver improvements are rarely across the board. More often than not, the claim of a gain is focused on a particular generation, segment, or resolution.

    One important fact that was left out of the review was compatibility. A central focus of each Catalyst release is fixing bugs to make the drivers more stable. The commitment from the Catalyst crew to providing incremental optimizations has mainly been secondary this year to resolving driver issues. The graphs might show an image that looks like not a whole lot has been done. However, if you included a total of bug fixes from Catalyst 3.0 to 5.12 the image of that graph would be impressive indeed.

    ATI's monthly Catalyst updates have been invaluable to their reputation as a provider of graphics solutions. How many companies have checked-in and checked-out within a couple of years due to drivers never "maturing". ATI has a positive image today in regards to drivers and that alone is a barrier to entry for new competition.

    I could go on and on, but if by chance you get down to my post please feel free to pat yourself on the back and share this with Anand.

    Thanks again,
  • timmiser - Tuesday, December 13, 2005 - link

    I agree. This article was definitely outside the mold and nothing like this had been done before. (To see driver improvements over years instead of months.)

  • Nighteye2 - Monday, December 12, 2005 - link

    Nice article. Now I want to see the same test for Nvidia drivers :)
  • MrJim - Monday, December 12, 2005 - link

    Mr Ryan Smith>It would be nice to see a flightsim or a racing sim! Maybe a newer one with impressive graphics like Lock-On/Lo-Mac(Flightsim) for example. Interesting article!
  • ShadowVlican - Monday, December 12, 2005 - link

    now to anyone that still says ATi has bad drivers... i will refer them to this review (6)
  • bldckstark - Monday, December 12, 2005 - link

    I don't see where this proves they have GOOD drivers either. They had on average some minor improvements in FPS and fixed some IQ issues. Yes there were some nuggets of enlightenment, but overall the greatest increase was in eventually eliminating a huge IQ flaw in soft lighting.

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