Sapphire Radeon 9800 AIW 3rd November 2003
Today we write about the Sapphire Radeon 9800AIW Pro which is part of their "Beast" range - an apt analogy for what is at first glance a powerful piece of hardware. Consumer interest in home movies and time-shifting from digital satellite and cable sources has grown enormously in the last few years and now technology is in the hands of the home user which would only have been found in a professional editing studio.
Unlike Nvidia's Home Cinema add-ons, the All-In-Wonder (AIW) range of cards has been designed specifically to act as a home entertainment center without sacrificing 3D performance. In this case we have all the power of the Radeon 9800 Pro with advanced video capture and time-shifting facilities.
Sapphire have long been a believer in giving consumers the best of both worlds and are always quick to provide AIW versions of the latest ATI graphics cards soon after launch.
Here are the manufacturer's specifications:
First we need to see what's in the box. A large well-specified remote control with good response (we tested it to 9 meters without having to press a button hard or hold one down) and batteries included. The now famous break-out box for ease of changing video sources. Cables for connecting to outputs (televisions, VCRs etc.) with composite, s-video and component (high definition) connectors. The last one is really only of use for those lucky enough to have a Plasma or HDTV set. Also include is a USB module for receiving the remote control signals which doubles as an FM antenna.
The card itself looks
remarkably uncluttered compare to our GeForce FX5900 Ultra and the cooling
solution is refreshingly small (and most importantly much quieter) than the
Nvidia monster. The standard Phillips tuner is used once again after the attempt
of previous generations at a "tuner-on-a-chip" which didn't quite work
The card itself looks remarkably uncluttered compare to our GeForce FX5900 Ultra and the cooling solution is refreshingly small (and most importantly much quieter) than the Nvidia monster. The standard Phillips tuner is used once again after the attempt of previous generations at a "tuner-on-a-chip" which didn't quite work well.
From the side we can see that the card comfortably fits in a single slot unlike the cumbersome Nvidia rivals. To use the dual-head/dual monitor support the output cable needs to be used.
We used our standard test system based around AMDs Athlon XP3200+ which is the fastest CPU we have. Clicking on the image above will give full details of the system. We'll start by giving the 3D performance a spin and then cover the video capture and editing functions.
bad at all.
Beast is just as fast as its top competitors. We had to return the AMD Athlon64
test system so we could not compare but architecturally the 9800 Pro should get
the same boost in performance as the 5900 Ultra.
A very good
score thanks in part to ATI's latest drivers.
One thing that's obvious is that cards not supporting DirectX 9 are not getting a look-in. This is bad news for owners of older cards when it comes to future games like Doom3 and Half Life 2. Owners of the Beast will have nothing to worry about for some time to come.
We like this benchmark and prefer it over Quake 3 (once you get over 400 FPS in Quake 3 it's difficult to have a meaningful comparison). When Doom 3 and Half Life 2 come out we'll see the cards weep but until then we can only really stress them by using high resolutions and/or 4x full scene anti-aliasing. Here we can see that any of the four cards are quite capable of handling this benchmark.
change when we engage 4x FSAA to improve quality. The Ti4400 takes quite a hit
at the higher resolutions whereas the NV30/35 cards don't suffer as much. The
9800 AIW copes best with the increasing resolutions while under FSAA.
The actual botmatch figures show the game is playable at any resolution with any of the cards.
Again we find that when the eye candy is turned up the ATI card fares best especially at high resolutions.
This test is designed to stress the cards by throwing lots of polygons at them. Standard settings were used but 4x FSAA was selected from the display settings rather than the applications to ensure it was active.
There isn't much between the cards.
Switching to 4x FSAA really stresses the cards and the NV35 pulls ahead. Only Sapphire's Beast could complete the higher resolution tests without the application crashing. This is due to a bug in the benchmark which is getting a little long in the tooth.
The settings used for this test were as follows:
Which yielded the following results:
As expected there is little difference between the cards (still waiting for Doom 3 to sort the wheat from the chaff).
This card has the ability to connect to any sort of source (use s-video for best quality - unless you have a Plasma in which case use the component for output and s-video for input) although we would have liked to have seen a Firewire connector for Digital Video (DV) but many motherboards have them built in these days and are supported my most capture applications.
No problems were encountered and the Media Center performed just as advertised with flawless capture in the background and live pause and time-shifting behaving as expected. We still wouldn't recommend capturing anything important while playing an intensive game or de-fragment your hard drive as you may well get some dropped frames which result in stuttering. This is to be expected as capturing requires a certain level of resources without interruption.
In our experience there are 3 main categories of capture these days - raw avi, DVD quality MPEG-2 and SVCD quality MPEG-2. There is no reason to go for lower quality than SVCD (or you might as well use your VCR). So we captured in raw avi, MPEG-2 at 2000mbps and MPEG-2 at 8000mbps. The same frame in each captured vide segment was used for best comparison of quality. No filters were used in any way and clicking on any of the pictures below will display them at their full capture resolution enabling readers to perform a visual side by side comparison.
Capturing using AVI_IO (the bundled media center is designed to capture in MPEG-2 although you can use other CODECs at your own peril) gave us the above. This method should give the best picture quality at the expense of a huge file size (20GB per hour with huffy compression).
The above picture is from the 2000mbps MPEG-2 capture and is surprisingly good in quality. There are a few tiny artifacts but are only revealed under close scrutiny. Look at the fine detail and you should see some blurring and very small macro blocks. We suspect that this quality will be fine for most people for time-shifting.
At 8000mbps we get a quality that is virtually indistinguishable from the top one. This is a testament to ATI's MPEG-2 compression engine that it can do so well in real-time. Is it worth the 4x higher bit rate than the one just above? Probably not but that depends on the value placed on quality and the available hard drive space. After all, if you're only capturing as a temporary measure before converting to DVD or SVCD (using TMPGEnc or CinemaCraft Encoder for example) then the highest quality possible should be used since the original capture file will be discarded after conversion.
Many reviews you may have read gloss over the video editing side of AIW cards and just provide a picture of the Media Center in action etc. We chose a different path as we suspect readers are more interested in things like picture quality. It's beyond the scope of our review to show readers how video is captured but there are excellent tutorials and guides available at www.doom9.org as well as Forums full of helpful people. You can also download from there all the tools you will need to capture and edit video (the bundled apps are OK for basic editing) - we've yet to find an application to beat VirtualDub (free) for its power and ease of use (there is Adobe Premiere etc. but at a very high price).
On the 3D side the card is just as fast as a normal 9800 Pro and will be state of the art until DirectX -10 comes along. The conclusion is that Sapphire are indeed offering the best of both worlds. The 3D performance is top notch and the video capture is as good as professional cards costing many hundreds of pounds.
This package is very comprehensive and represents excellent value for money. For a small premium over the price of a bog standard Radeon 9800 Pro Sapphire have thrown in ATI's AIW multimedia extras resulting in a true Deluxe Package. Power Gamers and Video Editors alike wont be disappointed.
We would like to thank Sapphire Technologies for the review sample.
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All trademarks are the property of their respective owners.