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PowerColor 9800SE

We all want the biggest and fastest video card but rarely can afford it. The solution? Buy a slower version. With the Radeon 9800SE, PowerColor has a card that while crippled (compared to the 9800XT) still offers good performance for a great price.

[review_ad]Introduction


Admit it. You want a Radeon 9800XT. All that pixel pumping power. But it all comes at a price — a price that is too high for most of us.  At the time of this review, the cheapest PowerColor 9800XT costs $412 at PriceGrabber. That is a lot of money. The solution of course is to buy a lesser spec’d card, and PowerColor has a solution for you — the PowerColor 9800SE for a mere $143.  My goal with this review is to examine the performance of this card and see how much less performance you get for almost $270 less.

The Company


Before going into the specifications of the card, let us take a look at the company that produces the PowerColor video cards. I am not sure how well known it is in the US, but here in Sweden the brand PowerColor has been around for quite some time, offering low-cost ATI cards. PowerColor’s parent company is TUL Corporation, which was founded in 1997. The company not only sells video cards under the brand PowerColor but also motherboards, cases, tablets and notebooks.

Features and Specifications 


SE should stand for Special Edition. When it comes to graphics cards however, it usually stands for “watered down version.” This is also true for the PowerColor 9800SE. While it still has the same basic features as the 9800 Pro, there is a big difference — it only has four rendering pipelines compared to the eight that the 9800 Pro / 9800 XT has. This will of course affect the performance, especially with image-quality enhancement features turned on.

PowerColor 9800 SE
378 (Core) / 675 (Memory) MHz
128 MB DDR SDRAM
256-bit DDR memory interface
Four parallel rendering pipelines
Smartshader 2.1, Smoothvision 2.1, Hyper Z III+, Truform 2.0, Fullstream and Videoshader
VGA, TV-OUT and DVI connectors

Overall, the Radeon 9800SE is a crippled Radeon 9800 Pro. Compared to the Radeon 9800XT, it has a bit lower clockspeed (378/675 vs 412/730 MHz).

 
 You get a VGA, a S-video TV-OUT and a DVI connector.

 
 The memory used on the Radeon 9800SE.



The Bundle


The bundle that PowerColor ships with the card is actually pretty good. In addition to the card, you get:

  • Driver CD
  • CD with a bunch of game demos (nothing new though)
  • Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness (full game)
  • Big Mutha Truckers (full game, pretty fun actually)
  • WinDVD
  • Manual
  • Assortment of cables

I like the fact that PowerColor includes two full games. I know many people feel that including games is a waste of money, but I think that the people buying this card will appreciate the fact that they even get some games with it. Since it isn’t an XT card, you do not get a Half Life 2 coupon.

The bundle is pretty good. Two full games, WinDVD and all the cables that you ever will need.

Installation


Installing the Radeon 9800SE is easy. Since the card isn’t especially long, it should fit even the smallest cases. The fan is thin enough to allow a card in the adjacent PCI slot, although I would recommend leaving it empty anyway to promote good airflow around the VPU (video processing unit).

The front of the card. No cooling on the memory chips.

The memory chips are not cooled in any way, neither by the fan nor by heatsinks, something that could affect the overclocking potential.

The back of the card – no cooling here either.

This card needs some extra power in addition to the power from the AGP slot, and this is provided through a small power connector (same as for the floppy).

Yes, we need to power this sucker.



Testing / Benchmarks


All tests were done on the following system:

  • AMD Athlon 64 3000+
  • AOpen AK86-L Via K8T800 chipset
  • 1024 MB TwinMos PC3200 memory
  • 80 GB Matrox IDE HD, 120 GB Matrox SATA HD
  • Audigy Player
  • Sony 19” TFT
  • Radeon 9800XT
  • PowerColor 9800SE
  • Drivers used: Catalyst 4.3
  • Utility – RadLinker used to set Anti Aliasing and Anisotropic filtering.

My main goal with this review is to compare the performance of the $143 PowerColor 9800SE and the $412 Radeon 9800XT. Is the 9800XT really almost three times better (200% better performance) than the 9800SE, and is the 9800SE fast enough for the average gamer?

What can we expect?
Before we start with all the benchmarks, it might be interesting to speculate what we should expect. In all aspects, except the pipelines, the Radeon 9800SE is a Radeon 9800 Pro. It has the same clock rates at 380/680 MHz. If we ignore the pipelines a second, this means that from the clock rate alone, the Radeon 9800SE will be at least 10% slower than the Radeon 9800XT. Then add the quad versus eight pipelines consideration, and we could expect that in the worst-case scenario, the Radeon 9800XT is twice as fast as the Radeon 9800SE. But how often do we run into this worst-case scenario? Let us find out.

Let’s start easy with two synthetic benchmarks.

3DMark2001SE

Without any antialiasing (AA) or anisotropic filtering (AF) turned on, the 9800XT is 18-36% faster than the 9800SE. After turning on 4x AA and 8x AF, the 9800XT is between 36% and 100% faster.

3DMark03 (Build 340)
We usually do not use 3Dmark03 in our reviews, but since this is a review between two ATI cards, I’ll use it to look at the overall performance as well as the Pixelshader 2.0 performance.

Even at 1024×768, the 9800XT is between 66% and 78% faster than the 9800SE. The quad pipeline really is hurting the 9800SE. Let us take a look at the Pixelshader 2.0 part of the benchmark.

The picture is the same here. The 9800XT once again is about 65-80% faster than the 9800SE. Both Futuremark applications do indicate where the Radeon 9800SE is lacking: fillrate. The Radeon 9800XT has 3200 MTexels/s fillrate while the Radeon 9800SE only manages 1500 MTexels/s.

Call of Duty
Instead of using Q3A to test OpenGL performance, we have chosen to use the newer game Call of Duty. We used the utility BenchemAll to run through the included timedemo and used Fraps 2.0 to plot the FPS (frames per second) every second. Since I had to start Fraps manually, you might see a small time difference between the curves, but the general picture should be pretty clear anyway.

At 1024×768 and 1280×1024 without any anisotropic filtering or antialiasing, both cards runs neck-to-neck. It’s clear the game doesn’t really tax these cards. Turn on AA and AF, and the 9800SE immediately drops quite a few FPS. The 9800XT is between 45-100% faster with 4x AA and 8x AF turned on.

If we look at the actual FPS during the benchmark, we see that with AA and AF turned on, the 9800SE almost manages to keep above 30 FPS all the time at 1024×768 but fails miserably at 1280×1024. For each benchmark we run, it looks like if you are going to use AA and AF you will have to stay at 1024×768 with the PowerColor 9800SE.

Battlefield: Vietnam
This new game is of course only an updated version of BattleField:1942. It is a fun game nonetheless, and I decided to see if I can give you an idea of the performance with these cards in the game. The game actually has a bug when you run it with an ATI card. Turn on shadows plus AA and AF, and you will experience a lot of screwed up graphics. Turn off shadows, and most of the issues will go away, but there is something very wrong with the anisotropic filtering that results in some messed up textures.

To “benchmark” the performance I decided to start a single player match with 32 bots on the map “Operation Game Warden.” The screenshots below show the settings that I used.

Click on the images to see the full size image.

I set up Fraps 2.0 to record for 100 seconds from the time I manually started the recording. I then moved the same way every time I did the benchmark and tried to make each run as similar as possible. During these 100 seconds, I ran through grass, crossed a bridge and encountered enemy soldiers. I also watched an enemy helicopter fly by. This if course is not a reproducible way of benchmarking, so please only use it as an indication of how the performance can vary in a normal gaming situation for each card.

Let’s first look at the average FPS.

From these results, it is clear that while the 9800XT provides adequate performance even at 1280×960 with 4x AA and 8x AF, the 9800SE already starts to struggle at 1280×960 with no AA/AF turned on and isn’t really playable online with AA/AF turned on. This is verified when looking at the actual FPS during each benchmark.

Benchmark Summary
It is clear that the 9800SE is crippled compared to the 9800XT. The sweetspot for the card seems to be 1024×768. Depending on the game, you also can turn on some AA and AF at that resolution. All tests with AA and AF have been done at 4x AA and 8x AF, but you can of course try other settings to find a good compromise between speed and image quality.

Overclocking


I think overclocking is especially interesting in mid-range cards since it helps them nudge closer to their high-priced big brothers. While the Radeon 9800SE is crippled due to the missing pipelines, it should be possible to at least gain a few FPS after overclocking.

The highest overclock I could manage was 391 MHz for the core, only 3%, and 729 MHz for the memory, an 8% increase. In the end, the overclock is really small and, in my humble opinion, not worth it.



Website and Support


The PowerColor website (http://www.powercolor.com.tw) contains information for each of their video cards. The information isn’t especially deep and, in some cases, not completely accurate. When I visited the site two weeks ago, they still indicated that the Radeon 9800SE had eight pipelines. This however has been fixed now, so I guess more people than I noticed the error. While there is a link to a FAQ for the Radeon 9800SE, the FAQ actually is empty. Looking at the FAQs for the other Radeon 9800 cards, it is clear that they still haven’t had time to enter much useful information. Unfortunately, PowerColor also does not seem to have invested in hiring someone who can speak English when writing their FAQ:

“why my system could not working stable after the new vga card have install ?”
“why the tv-output could not work ?”
“why the speed so slow when playing DVD title ? my system should fast enough .”

I could go on with more examples. If you have a site in English, I think it is important to also make sure it is written in proper English, especially in a FAQ where you have customers go to find solutions to problems.

PowerColor has a full range of drivers available for their Radeon cards, but for some reason, they stopped updating them after Catalyst 3.10. The fact that ATI has released several new driver revisions since then and are up to Catalyst 4.4 doesn’t seem to matter for PowerColor.

Conclusion


The PowerColor 9800SE is a good mid-range card that offers a good balance between price and performance. I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t turn on antialiasing and anisotropic filtering at higher resolutions, but at this price, you cannot get everything.

Pros:
+ Price
+ Good bundle
+ Good midrange performance
+ Excellent image quality

Cons:
- Cannot turn on image quality enhancing features at higher resolutions without a huge performance hit
- Do not turn to PowerColor’s website for drivers or help.

For its great price / performance ratio, I award the PowerColor 8 of 10 and a Bjorn3D Seal of Approval.


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