The Radeon 9800 Pro is a nice-sized tweak over the Radeon 9700 Pro. Figure a 15-20% improvement over the old card. Overclocked, the gap is probably somewhat less since it looks like you can’t overclock the 9800 Pro quite as much.
But this is like talking about the latest Mercedes SLK model in the Home Depot parking lot. The vast majority of you won’t lay out that kind of money.
The Crippled Middle
No, what you’re more interested in are the cards with prices a bit north or south of $150, and the view is hardly encouraging.
It’s not just a matter of the cards being a bit slower-clocked than its big brothers; they’ve been crippled in one form or another.
For instance, two big advantages of the Radeon 9700 series is its 256-bit width memory bus and eight rendering pipelines. That was imperfectly crippled in some Radeon 9500 cards. This problem that has been corrected in the upcoming 9600 Pro card; the broken leg has been removed. 🙂
Even given that, the Radeon 9600 Pro (which will have much better memory than the non-Pro) is likely to become the conventional medium-range video card by default simply because the NV31 will do even worse. Per Tom’s Hardware, nVidia doesn’t want any benchmarks of the product at introduction!
Boy, those numbers must really be fecal for nVidia to do that.
You get the feeling nVidia hasn’t written any real drivers for these FX or descendants of FX cards yet? The performance of these cards is so lop-sided; they beat the ATI cards at one test, but can’t even do half as well in the next test.
In any case, the advanced FX cards will be too expensive to fit the medium-budget for quite a while, and the NV31s are very unlikely to overtake the Radeon 9700 no matter who writes the drivers.
The 9700 As Bellwether
Unless your video ambitions are fairly modest (i.e. low resolutions, not too much AA/alias), provided you’re in no terrible rush (as most of you aren’t) I would make the Radeon 9700 (non-pro) the minimum I would accept, and wait for the price to come to me. That is and looks to be for some time to come the cheapest card that offers high memory bandwidth and an advanced, uncrippled video card infrastructure.
Prices will probably drop a bit with all these new cards flying around from its current levels, perhaps below the $200 point. Then it’s a matter of waiting until the price is right for you.
If somebody can do better for the same price, great, but until they do, use that as the standard.
You may end up waiting a while, especially if you have a low price target. If nVidia pulls off a driver miracle, all well and good and you can take advantage of that, too.
But I think the 9700 will remain the video card to buy if you just can’t bear to pay more than $200 for one.