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ATI Radeon 9600 PRO - getting acquainted

The first thing that pops into your head when 0.13 micron graphical processing unit crops up is the NV30. Today ATI brings forward its first 0.13 micron part but unlike NVIDIA who used this manufacturing process on their high-end part, ATI use it to fill an already congested mid-range product line. Step forward the ATI Radeon 9600 PRO.

Before we delve into the card itself, lets talk a little about the current state of affairs in the graphics card industry. Even though NVIDIA recently signed up IBM to fabricate a portion of their upcoming GPUs, at the time the 9600 PRO or rather the RV350 GPU that sits at the centre of the card was fabricated, both NVIDIA and ATI relied on TSMC for fabrication. These days NVIDIA are open in admitting that they hit production problems with the NV30 which caused it to be delayed. Another knock-on effect was poor yields. Reportedly only 11% of each wafer was usable, and this certainly would explain why there is such a shortage of NV30 products on the market.

ATI displayed with the 9700 PRO and further with the 9800 PRO that the 0.15 micron process wasn't dead. However both NVIDIA and ATI concede that in the future technologies like 0.13 micron and DDR-II will have to be incorporated. The 9600 PRO incorporates the former.

What really surprised us with the NV30 was the cooling that was required to run it at 500 MHz. A shrink in manufacturing process generally means lower heat dissipation and whilst the FX-Flow cooling solution looks cool, from a technology standpoint it doesn't send out the right signals. When we first saw the 9600 PRO over 2 months ago, the interesting thing we were told is that this card can run without a fan. ATI have included a fan in the final product for extra insurance. We'll take a closer look at the cooling solution later on.

There will be two RV350 based products from ATI, the Radeon 9600 PRO and "non PRO". The relevant frequencies are detailed below :-
ATI Radeon 9600 : GPU - 325MHz | Memory - 200MHz (400MHz DDR)
ATI Radeon 9600 PRO : GPU - 400MHz | Memory - 300MHz (600MHz DDR)
ATI's product line-up already consists of several well received boards. The 9000 (soon to the replaced by the 9200), 9500 PRO, 9700 and 9700 PRO. We've already seen the 9700 in two guises, both Sapphire and Hercules' boards overclock like hell and are some of the best value cards on the market. Later this month we will see 9800 PROs on the shelves too.

The question is, is there enough space for another ATI card on the market?

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The card itself doesn't have an external power connector, although the solder pads can clearly be seen. A graphic indication that the frequencies were set on the conservative side and that the GPU itself requires less power.

Layout is pretty standard ATI, with 8 Samsung BGA RAM chips making up the 128MB that is present on this card. There are no plans to provide a 64Mb or 256Mb version at this present time. The rather dull green PCB has replaced the now trademark red we've been seeing in recent times.

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Lining up against an ATI Radeon 9800 PRO we can see that the 9600 PRO is slightly smaller. It's generally accepted that the heatsink on a 9800 PRO is a good blend between size and noise. However the heatsink on the 9600 PRO is one of the smallest we've seen in the last 2 years. It was affixed onto the RV350 core and we didn't dare take it off due other journalists needing to review this card after us.

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Going round the card you see it's a fairly lightweight affair and many solder pads are left bare. In many ways it can be looked as a cut down version of the 9700 PRO board we looked at a month ago. We've even heard such lines as, it's really a "9700 cut in half" from certain ATI staff members.

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On the back it's fairly busy with low profile capacitors and resistors. The Samsung BGA modules are left bare giving a sense of reassurance that the 9600 PRO isn't clocked at the highest possible frequencies and that there is still juice in the tank.

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As you can see, there is no question of a PCI slot being taken up by this heatsink. ATI have left holes in the PCB to allow attachment of larger coolers and water-blocks for those that want to overclock this card. Unofficially we were told that these units can be overclocked well above their stock speeds.

The heatsink is a simple aluminium affair and has no extraordinary design traits.