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Radeon 8500LE 128mb 3D Card
Manufacturer: ATI 
Purchasing: www.ati.com
Reviewed: 30th May 2002

Introduction

You would have to be completely blind (or hiding under a very large rock) to have missed the rapid increase in specification and performance of the 3D graphics cards on the commercial market in the last few years. Graphics cards today are capable of rendering graphics in real-time that would have taken hours to render as a movie only 5 years ago.

Being part of the graphics/multimedia community, we programmers are pretty much solely responsible for continuing to push the envelope to see what these stunning piece of hardware can do. Likewise, the engineers behind these graphics cards are continually raising the possibilities. People weren't joking when they said that graphics cards advance at moore's law cubed!

If you are serious about games development then you're going to need a fairly fat wallet to stay on the cutting edge of development, which, lets face it - not many people can fork out $350 every 6 months for a new 'toy'. So, when it comes to choosing a new graphics card for your system, you really do want to think seriously about it - is this card going to be useful in 6 months time? is this card going to revolutionize the way I write my programs? how much is it going to benefit my current programs? 

Because us programmers are so reliant on our hardware when it comes to creating eye-popping visual candy, you really need a review that goes one-step beyond a long list of games statistics and benchmark values. This is why I wrote this review, to answer the questions (from developers) that aren't usually answered by standard run-of-the-mill reviews.

The Current State Of Play

As I already mentioned, the consumer graphics card market moves at a pace that makes the rest of the computer industry look slow. Therefore, if you're reading this more than 2 or 3 months after I wrote this (May 2002) then it is quite possible that there will be a whole new breed of graphics cards available that will make the Radeon reviewed here look pathetic.

For the last year or so, the consumer market has been dominated by 2 main companies - ATI and NVidia, both of which have been constantly battling both on the price front as well as who's got the latest-and-greatest technology. The constant price-war all across the spectrum is only a good thing for us consumers - cheaper, more powerful cards. However, the constantly improving technology means that even if we only paid bargain-prices for our hardware, it'll be far from the best within a matter of months.

At the time of writing it looks like the graphics card market is starting to heat up again - with Matrox recently revealing the 'Parhelia-512' and Creative announcing it's bringing 3DLabs technology down to the consumer level. Details of both these cards are currently a little unclear, but if you search around you can probably find any details you might want.

The Three Phases of 3D

In previous years you could refer to different cards by 'generation' - each of the major players would usually release it's top-line card in response to one of the other companies, thus often all appearing quite close together, and because they were all fairly similar you could batch them together as 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th etc.. generation cards.

This doesn't work very well anymore - mostly due to the regular releases of major new chipsets, and the relentless tweaks and slightly improved minor versions. I've found one way of dividing all the cards from the last 5 years into three categories:

1. Basic 3D cards
These were the very first generations - nothing more than triangle-drawing monsters. Examples range from the ancient 3DFX Voodoo 1's and 2's, the TNT series from NVidia and the Rage series from ATI.

2. The GPU, stage 1
This is probably where things really started rocketing skywards. With the release of the NVidia GeForce 256 a considerable amount of the rendering pipeline was offloaded onto the graphics card in the form of hardware transform and lighting ("T&L"). ATI and NVidia were the only main players left at this point - 3DFX did release the Voodoo 4's and 5's, but they disappeared quietly and then so did the whole company! These graphics cards were mainly Direct3D7 parts.

3. The GPU, Stage 2
This is the stage where we currently are, fully DirectX 8.0 or 8.1 compatible graphics cards. These cards tend to be defined by their ability to use hardware shader's (more on these later). At the time of writing, it's still pretty much a battle between ATI and NVidia - with the Radeon 8500 series cards being ATI's flagship and the GeForce 3 and 4's being NVidia's.

Chipset Overview

So, for this review we have one of the (currently) most powerful pieces of graphics hardware to ever grace the personal computer. What exactly are its specifications then?

The Radeon 8500 chip
 - 250mhz core speed for the 'LE' models and 275mhz core speed for normal models
 - A fully compatible D3D8.1 component
 - 128mb or 64mb of video memory running at 250mhz (500mhz DDR) on the 'LE' chips, and 275mhz (550mhz DDR) on normal models.
 - TruFormtm, ATI's high-order surface / on-chip tessellation engine.
 - SmartShadertm technology - high-performance pixel shaders with a large feature set
 - HyperZ IItm - the 2nd version of their memory bandwidth optimizer / Z-Buffer optimization
 - SmoothVisiontm, ATI's implementation of Full Screen Anti-Aliasing

I'm sure they could fit a few more trademarked (tm) features in there somewhere, but I suppose 4 will have to do for now!

All in all, it's a pretty loaded chipset, the generally faster chip and the inclusion of 128mb of video memory on board is frightening on its own. Just think, only 2 years ago 128mb was a fairly average amount of memory for an ENTIRE computer, let alone just the video sub-system.

I shall cover each of the major areas above in more detail later in the review.

Available Variations

As with all major releases of 3D cards, there are always several versions available - going from the stupidly expensive down to the relatively cheap. ATI's Radeon 8500 series is no different. Up until fairly recently ATI has been the sole manufacturer and distributor of cards based on it's chipsets, but they've recently started supplying chips to other 3rd party manufacturers. The following list is a basic run-down of the main available variations - bare in mind that different companies may offer different additional items (software bundles etc...), I'm focusing on the actual video cards for now:

ALL IN WONDER RADEON 8500DV

RADEON 8500 128MB

RADEON 8500 64MB

RADEON 8500LE

I've not listed prices for each version simply because they will change very rapidly - but at time of writing you'll be looking at paying $150 and above depending.

The two plain 8500 models (listed 2nd and 3rd above) are the faster variants, the 8500LE (reviewed here) is the first to have the full 128mb of memory, and the 8500DV is the version with all the input and output connectors.


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Introduction
Installation, Benchmarks and Programming
ATI's Developer Resources, Conclusion

 

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