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ATI Radeon 9100 IGP - getting acquainted
Yesterday we published a review of 7 of the most powerful desktop VGA cards in the world, today we are writing about an chipset which has integrated graphics. Are we downsizing? No. In fact integrated chipsets with graphics are just as, if not more important than the 300-500 desktop discrete graphics sector. So important that ATI "needed" to go into this sector to ensure "survival of the company", announced Norbert Kuperjans, Director of Technical Marketing.

Norbert, a demigod of PCI Express technology (the man knows more about it than Intel representatives we have spoken to) sees integrated graphics technology moving up from rock bottom value PCs to the extremely lucrative mainstream sector. It's a dream that many have tried to realize and yet, only Intel can boast success (albeit partial and only in the corporate sector). However ATI has earned the right to boast, after a stellar 12 months in which ATI enjoyed successes like the Radeon 9500, 9700, 9800 the Mobility Radeon 9000 and more recently the 9600. Today ATI is hoping to add the Radeon 9100 IGP to that list.

The Radeon 9100 IGP originates from when ATI acquired ArtX. The engineers, who had extensive knowledge of integrated chipsets brought a large amount of "competence" in the field of integrated graphics to ATI. Competence usually arrives in the form of two things. Design and economic efficiency. If we take an example many of you will be familiar with, the NV30 graphics core from NVIDIA, we see that whilst design wise it may have had a number of plus points (smaller fabrication process, DDR II, etc) the cost of manufacturing this chip is what ultimately led to it's death, even if the performance had been up to scratch. After all, no company is in the business of loosing money. ATI are keen to show that they are good at cutting costs, and proudly boast that they have a dedicated team who look at ways in which to save money. ATI were also quick to point out that ArtX worked on the integration of the IGP into the chipset, not the actual development of the IGP itself. That was left to the capable design teams who were already present at ATI.

Saving a few Pence per part may seem insignificant to us, however when you are dealing with integrated chipsets that are intended to be sold in millions, getting the right balance of cost and performance is extremely important. Since this is ATI's first motherboard chipset with integrated graphics, they realize that more they need more than just their three initials on the product to sell it, so there are a few toys in the Radeon 9100 IGP that others don't have.

What ATI are pushing in the 9100 IGP is the hardware support of pixel and vertex shaders. Although this support has been around in discrete graphics solutions for sometime, it's still a distant dream in the integrated world, until now. Make no mistake about performance levels though, this is not intending to compete against their higher priced (and higher performing) discrete desktop products, but allows ATI to fill a niche that is crucial to both revenue and reputation for ATI.

Other ATI technologies such as SMOOTHVISION, HyperZ memory compression and FULLSTREAM are all present. With SMOOTHVISION this will enable you to run games with 4x anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering enabled. It would be slightly nave of us to believe that with all that detail things would run smoothly, but it's an impressive facet to have.

HyperZ, ATI's memory compression technology allows more data to be sent between the IGP and the main system memory (which is partially used for the IGP's memory) through applying a number of lossless compression algorithms.

FULLSTREAM is a video processing technology which filters 'blocky' video. It has already been implemented in RealPlayer.

At the heart of the Radeon 9100 IGP is the RS300 chip, which has 4 pipelines, 1 texture unit per pipeline and uses the system's main memory (RAM) as its memory. Up to 128MB of RAM can be paged by the RS300, although a dual DIMM setup will see better performance due to a 50/50 paging split between the two modules. Users can alter the amount of RAM that the RS300 will use for its graphics handling through an option in the BIOS, and whilst most PCs, even in the value sector can support the full 128MB with consummate ease, the option to allow a change is always good. Also present is a Windows based utility that will allow less confident users to update this setting, however it will still require a restart to apply it's changes.

The unit can be passively cooled, although expect to see different board partners tackle this in a number of ways. The board we were shown, which was an early sample from MSI did not have any active cooling present on the RS300 and it managed to run several 3D benchmarks and still remain only lukewarm to the touch.

Multi-monitor connectivity is present with the RS300 supports TV, analogue CRT and digital DVI outputs and through the use of ATI's Hydravision software one can have a multi-monitor setup relatively easily. In the aim to produce as much integration as possible, ATI have managed to get both the LVDS and TV out encoder within the RS300 processing unit.

DVI connectivity comes in the form of an AGP daughterboard, and whilst this may sound rather novel and in some cases quite tacky, it is the standard way of implementing this. The idea is that since you aren't using the AGP slot in the first place, you can make some use of it through this. When you intend to use the AGP slot for a discrete graphics solution you will purchase a card with a DVI connector anyway, thus not needing to make use of the AGP DVI daughterboard.

So whilst you may be led to believe that because the RS300 is made by a company that designs (and still builds) VGA cards, the crux of the RS300; it's traditional motherboard capabilities may have been looked over. But to ATI's credit they have fitted the RS300 with all the tools you would expect in any chipset, let alone one intended for the value end of the market.