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The Radeon 7500: Pushing Budget Graphics to the Next Level

By Joel Hruska

Date: January 16, 2002

Itís almost funny, how fast time flies in the video card market. A little over a year ago the original Radeon was selling for about $160 for a 32 meg card. Today we have its successoróthe Radeon 7500 selling for about two-thirds the cost, running faster, and with double the memory.

The comparison to the original Radeon is particularly apt because the Radeon 7500 is essentially a super-charged Radeon built on a .15 micron process and sporting faster core/memory speeds. In the next section, weíll be looking at the Radeon cardís specification and abilities.

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Card Specifications

Charisma Engine: This is the Radeonís Hardware T&L Engine and can process up to a theoretical 45 million triangles per second (though real-world fill rates are always much lower).

Pixel Tapestry: This is ATIís rendering engine, capable of rendering three pixels in a single pass (compared to other video cards in its price range which can only render two. The R7500 has a theoretical limit of 1.74 gigatexels per second though again, these fill rates are rarely seen.

Hydravision: This is a feature the original Radeon did not offer (though the Radeon VE did ship in a dual-display version). Hydravision is ATIís dual-display technology that offers different refresh rates and resolutions on two different monitors while maintaining an excellent picture quality on both. The card ships with a DVI-to-VGA adapter to make using any configuration of displays painless.

Video Immersion: This is ATIís digital video display technology and it offers excellent MPEG2-decoding in hardware as well as support for motion compensation and iDCT for minimal CPU usage. Although all video quality tests are subjective, the Radeon 7500 certainly appears to have one of the best-looking DVD-playback modes around.

The Radeon 7500 also supports both 2x and 4x anti-aliasing and EBM (Environmental Bump Mapping) a technique used to give a more realistic Ďdepthí to a 3D image. The cardís dual display function is implemented by placing both a standard VGA output and a DVI-out on the same card. ATI not only ships the R7500 with a DVI-to-VGA converter but also includes a S-Video and a S-Video to RCA adapter cable for gamers looking to play on non-S-video-compatible televisions. Including the additional cables and converters is a very nice touch from ATI and well-appreciated by any buyer.

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Positioning the Card

The R7500ís main competitors in its price range are the GeForce2 MX, the GeForce2 Pro, and the GeForce2 Ti 200. Because the GF2 Ti 200 and the GF2 Pro offer identical performance weíll treat them as one card here. Additionally, in this case, the GF2 MX is not a threat. While its performance for the money was very good when it debuted, the cardís basic design is almost 18 months old, and NVIDIAís MX 400 refresh did little to boost the cardís performance.

This leaves only the GeForce2 Pro as a competitor for the R7500. The GF2 Pro was an excellent video card when it debuted over a year ago, but the R7500 is much more powerful on paper, featuring a 290 MHz core and 460 MHz DDR memory compared to the GF2 Proís 200 MHz core speed and 400 MHz memory. In addition, the R7500 uses the HyperZ memory-bandwidth-saving architecture of the original Radeon, while the GF2 Pro has no such solution. Can the GF2 even compete? Letís have a look.

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Test Configuration

Pentium 4 2 GHz
MSI 850 Pro 5 Motherboard
256 Megabytes RDRAM
7200 RPM Seagate Barracuda ATA/IV Hard Drive
Windows 2000 w/ SP2 Installed
DirectX 8.1
ATI Drivers: 5.13.01.2376
NVIDIA Drivers: 21.83

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3DMark 2000 and 3DMark 2001


3DMark 2000 (1024x768x32) and 3DMark 2001 (1024x768x32)

In 3DMark 2000 we immediately see the R7500 take the lead over the GF2 Pro as its higher core/clock speed make his presence known. Itís a close match though, with the ATI card pulling ahead by only 5%. The age of 3DMark 2K, however, makes it unlikely that it truly stresses the ability of either cardóso letís move on to its updated brother.

In 3DMark 2001 we see the Radeon pull ahead by a much greater margin, as it leaves the GF2 Pro almost 15% behind. The Radeon also offers support for Environmental Bump Mappingóa feature the GF2 line lacks. Still, the 3DMark tests are synthetic, not actual games, so letís move on and see how the two cards compare to each other in an actual game match-up.

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Max Payne and Serious Sam: "Valley of the Kings" Demo


Max Payne (1024x768x32, All Detail Maxed) and Serious Sam: "Valley of the Kings" Demo (1024x768x32)

In Max Payne we begin to see the tables turn. The GF2 Pro manages to squeeze ahead slightly despite its clock speed disadvantages and takes its first lead. Still, the difference is minimaló1 fps isnít much to write home about.

In Serious Sam the results are easily read. The GF2 decisively defeats the Radeon, scoring over 20% higher in the "Valley of the Kings" demo.

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Quake 3: All Resolutions
 


In Quake 3 we see the Radeon outperforming the GF2 Pro slightly at the lower resolution of 640x480x16, All Detail Minimal, All Game Options Off (save simple items), only to slide into second place in both 800x600x32, HQ, Default Game Options On mode and 1024x768x32, Maximum Detail Level, Default Game Options On. Despite its clock speed disadvantage, the GF2 Pro manages to move about 8% faster than the R7500 in Quake 3.

We seem to have something of a puzzle on our hands here. Why would the R7500 be defeated in every real-world game by a card over a year old and running much slower? There are several possible explanations.

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The Driver/OS Factors

The truth is, for reasons never precisely understood, ATI cards have historically suffered from bad drivers or, put more accurately, suffered from drivers that ranged from mediocre to teeth-grindingly bad. Fortunately their driver sets have improved as of late, but it is still likely that a great deal of performance remains untapped in the Radeon 7500 and 8500 cards.

This potential issue of lost performance is compounded by our choice of Windows 2000 as an OS. The original Radeons lost a great deal of performance running under Win2K, and an unscientific examination of other Radeon 7500 reviews seem to bear this outówhile not nearly as drastic as it was originally, the R7500 still appears to lose 5-10% of its performance when running under Win2K.

The decision to test under Win2K, however, was made to examine driver robustness and stability. Iím pleased to announce that the Radeon drivers were, on the whole, stable. None of our benchmarking games listed above encountered any problems, though I did notice some graphical glitches with the game ďNo One Lives ForeverĒ.

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The Other Side of the Coin: Visual Quality

The other possible explanation for decreased game performance, however, lies with the quality of the image itself. While image quality comparisons are highly subjective, this reviewer found the ATI card to have both a better 2D desktop display and a crisper, sharper, 3D display as well. Because displaying a more detailed and sharper texture map puts a heavier drain on the video card, itís possible that the higher quality image from ATIís R7500 is partially to blame for the loss in performance.

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Conclusion: A Feature-Packed Card at the Right Price

The Radeon 7500 is, in many ways, a great buy. Priced at around $100-$120 on Pricewatch, it offers a great multimedia feature set, from fabulous DVD playback to monitor dual-output on a single card. ATI also definitely scores points for including all the necessary cabling with the card itself, and this reviewer at least found the ATIís display ability to be clearer, sharper, and easier on the eyes than the GeForce2ís.

The GF2, however, hardly comes off looking bad. While its image quality may not be quite what the R7500s is, the GF2 nevertheless does offer a good looking picture and possesses a performance lead over the R7500 that ranges from quite slight to very noticeable. NVIDIA also has a reputation for stable, powerful products that operate without a hitch.

If youíre a gamer who emphasizes speed over visual quality the GF2 is likely a better choice at this stageóbut if youíre looking for a card with a greater range of multimedia capability and flexibility that still offers excellent 3D performance but wonít break the bank, the ATI Radeon 7500 is an excellent buy.
 

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