In 1999 a few manufacturers launched graphics accelerators of a new generation. NVIDIA did it even twice: inspring - Riva TNT2 and in autumn - a totally new GeForce 256. ATI, unfortunately, didn't make anything sensationalor scandalous. The only thing they managed to do was RAGE 128, offered a bit too late actually, and an improvedchipset version RAGE 128 PRO. However, there are a few ways of improving a graphics product without developing anew video chip. Some time ago 3dfx was the first to move in this direction, having made its Voodoo2 capable ofworking in dual graphics card configurations. Here we mean a well-known SLI technology (Scan Line Interleave). Itallows installing two graphics cards on Voodoo2 chipset in parallel (or making two Voodoo2 chipsets on one and thesame PCB). In this case each Voodoo2 based graphics card calculates either even or odd lines of the frame displayedon the monitor. As a result the graphics system performance grows by almost 1.5 times.
ATI decided to resort to a similar idea, since they failed to succeed in competition with NVIDIA. They developeda solution known under the code name Aurora, which was then renamed to MAXX (Multiple ASIC Technology). MAXX Technologyis a purely software solution, which allows making two graphics processors work on the same task. In fact, it embodiesthe idea of parallel data processing. Each of the graphics processors forms one frame from the very beginning to the veryend. And then the ready frames are displayed on the monitor one by one. Actually, MAXX technology can support more thantwo graphics processors working simultaneously, however, we are not sure if these configurations will be highly demandedin practice. It is due to Alternate Frame Rendering (AFR) technology that two graphics chips installed on one card candisplay created frames in turns.
Before we pass over to a more detailed discussion of the way the whole thing works, we would like to introduceATI RAGE FURY MAXX graphics card to you. As you can see on the photo on the right this graphics card has AGP 2x/4xinterface, two ATI RAGE 128 PRO chips on board with 32MB graphics memory each. In other words the card can boast 64MBin eight 7ns 64Mbit modules. The PCB is also equipped with a few microchips with BIOS and a special place for a secondmonitor connector.
So, in fact, ATI RAGE FURY MAXX is a combination of two 32MB graphics cards on one PCB, which means that for applicationsworking with ATI RAGE FURY MAXX the graphics memory size is equal to 32MB. That is why it is quite possible that one day wewill see a version of this graphics card with two VGA outs capable of working in parallel (two chipsets work for one monitor)as well as independently (each chipset is responsible for its own monitor). However, at present ATI can boast only the cardscarrying out the first variation. In this case each chipset is equipped with integrated RAMDAC, but in 2D graphics we haveonly one graphics processor working and hence the situation is absolutely identical to that with one ATI RAGE FURY PRO. Wecan't say that it is a disadvantage, because one ATI RAGE 128 PRO is usually enough to satisfy most users' demands in 2Dgraphics, as we have already mentioned in our ATI RAGE FURY PRO Review.
ATI positions its novelty as a graphics card for hardcore gamers who have large monitors (starting from 17 inches andup). Therefore the performance of ATI RAGE FURY MAXX in 3D graphics appears a very important factor especially for gamerswho can afford to pay quite a lot for a good graphics card. Today ATI RAGE FURY MAXX is available for $220-$265.
Let's look at the way it all works. Each ATI RAGE 128 PRO chip is busy doing its usual work: creating pixels, whichcompose the end image displayed on the monitor. MAXX Technology allows each of the graphics chips working in pairs to forma frame buffer (where rendering takes place) independently from each other and to make full use of triangle setup engine andtexture caches. RAMDAC of both chips displays the done frames on the monitor in turns. The software and namely the operatingdriver define the frame buffer, the done frame would be taken from.
We would like to point out one very important thing. MAXX technology, as it is now, helps to make up for the lack ofbandwidth of the local graphics memory bus and hence to prevent the fillrate from being locked within certain boundaries.Why? It's very simple. As we have already mentioned several times, at higher resolutions in 32-bit color the graphics memorybandwidth appears a bottleneck, because it has to transfer a lot of information. However, each RAGE 128 Pro in ATI RAGE FURYMAXX carries out not the whole work but just a half of it using its local graphics memory and memory bus. So, just theoreticallythe overall system performance should double. We find it useful to point out that this performance gain is possible only athigher resolutions because it is not the graphics card but the CPU that limits the performance of the graphics subsystem. Itmeans that if you work at resolutions equal to 1024x768 and down, MAXX technology may lead to no performance gain evencompared to a single-chip solution.
It is worth saying that the necessity to shift between different frame buffers from time to time causes quite tangibledelays, which may lead to visual artifacts. Below we will try to show if these fears are grounded or not. The thing is thatquite a lot depends on the type of the game and its requirements towards the CPU and graphics card. Let's consider the casewhen the game doesn't utilize the processor that much: the CPU manages to calculate the frames very quickly and transmitsthen to the graphics chipsets for further rendering. In this situation, the first chip fails to finish rendering a framein the buffer while the CPU is ready to submit another frame. This is exactly where the second chip comes to the rescueand starts rendering the second frame, which awaits its turn. However, if the CPU is too fast and gets ahead of both chips,then it will have to wait for them to finish their work first. Now imagine a different situation, when the gaming engineutilizes the system CPU fully. Here the things may appear just the opposite. Namely, both chips can be ready with thedata they received from the processor and with image frames. While the CPU is busy giving task to the first chip, thesecond one has to wait patiently for its turn. Does the second chip waste its time in this case? No, it doesn't. Itrepeats the processing of the previous task. Since the chipset buffers display the ready frames in strictly definedturns, which is controlled by the driver, some unexpected things may turn up, such as sharp change of the momentaryperformance or "hither and thither" image twitching. We noticed this effect during the tests in Unreal and UnrealTournament.
Particularly, sharp changing of fps (sometimes the speed dropped from 45fps down to 10fps) made a very unfavorableimpression. It was especially noticeable at higher resolutions starting from 1280x1024 and up. Although the gamingperformance was quite acceptable in general, it often changed spasmodically on some levels of Quake3 or Unreal Tournament,which was getting on everybody's nerves. As you have probably guessed, this phenomenon doesn't tell on the average fpsrate we mention in our testing results.
Besides shifting between frame buffers and synchronizing RAMDAC, the driver is also responsible for AGP bus control,so that to guarantee that the corresponding ATI RAGE 128 PRO chip would get the needed data from AGP memory. Of course,the shifts require additional time, which again results into delays. Therefore, we will see no performance doublingcompared to the results shown by ATI RAGE FURY PRO. Nevertheless, ATI supposes that the performance of ATI RAGE FURYMAXX will be almost 1.5-1.8 times higher than the performance of an ordinary graphics card on ATI RAGE 128 PRO chip.
ATI RAGE 120 PRO chipsets, our card is based on, work at 137MHz and have 2 rendering pipelines each, which providesus with the theoretical peak fillrate of (137x2)x2=548Mpixels per second or of (137x2)x1.8=493Mpixels per second,according to ATI. This allows us to compare the performance of ATI RAGE FURY MAXX with the newest graphics cardsbased on GPU NVIDIA GeForce 256 (480Mpixels per second) with DDR and SDR memory. For our tests and further comparisonwith RAGE FURY MAXX we took 2 other graphics cards: Leadtek WinFast GeForce 256 DDR (GeForce 256 with DDR SGRAM memory)and ASUS AGP-V6600 (GeForce 256 with SDR SDRAM memory).
Well, now we are just about to start speaking about the achieved results. First comes the test system configuration.Unfortunately, we managed to test only in one system on Intel Pentium III processor, because with the Slot A mainboardswe had at our disposal, namely ASUS K7M and FIC SD11, ATI RAGE FURY MAXX graphics card didn't work at all or workedincorrectly. Our test system was configured as follows:
- ASUS P3B-F (i440BX) mainboard;
- 128MB PC100 system memory;
- 6.4GB Quantum FB CR HDD;
- ViewSonic P810 (21") monitor;
- Windows 98.
The tests were carried out with the driver ver. 6.32 CD37.
The installation ran without any problems. As a result, we got the following properties pages in thedrivers.
Firstly, we can disable Page Flipping. What is this? When Page Flipping is enabled, the whole frame isdisplayed as soon as it is ready, i.e. there is no need in Vsync (monitor refresh rate synchronization withRAMDAC). However, if you disable Page Flipping, the data will be transferred to the monitor in certain portionswhile rendering that is why Vsync is required. Without synchronization the graphics card performance increases atthe expense of good image quality. In this case you will have to put up with such image defects as tearing, forinstance. It is not for nothing that this mode is enabled as default in the last drivers version, and Vsync can beturned off.
Besides, this properties page allows activating 16-bit Z-buffer to speed up the graphics card and 32bit-to-16bittexture conversion.
As we have already mentioned in our ATI RAGE FURY PRO Review, RAGE 128 PRO chip supports DXTC (S3TC) texturecompression technology. That is why the drivers allow enabling it. Besides, we can also enable/disable Vsync anddithering (smoothing visible borders between the color fields in 16-bit color) when working with semitransparentobjects. At the bottom of this page you can see a slider used to change the level of detail.
This page has only 4 settings. The user can disable Vsync, enable anti-aliasing. Moreover, it is also possible touse palette based textures, which may be important for some games. And finally you can also set Z-buffer depths.
The next page allows choosing and regulating colors:
and the next - setting resolution and refresh rate for each particular monitor.
Here you can disable one of the two ATI RAGE 128 PRO chips and turn ATI RAGE FURY MAXX into an ordinaryATI RAGE FURY PRO graphics card:
And at last, some "about" information can be found here:
Now we are passing over to the actual tests and results. As we have already mentioned above, only one ATI RAGE128 PRO chip works in 2D graphics that is why there are absolutely no differences from ATI RAGE FURY PRO here. Theimage quality is very high up to 1600x1200 and even higher. The performance in 2D is also close to that of the lastgeneration graphics cards.
To test the card's performance in 3D we resorted to the following gaming tools:
- id Software Quake3 Arena (internal demo002): a gaming test showing the card's performance in OpenGL;
- Rage Expendable: a gaming test demonstrating the card's performance in Direct3D;
- Accolade/Infogames Test Drive 6: a gaming test showing the performance of the graphics card in Direct3D with thelatest features provided by DirectX 7.0.
As you can see, ATI RAGE FURY MAXX didn't show anything extraordinary in 16bit color and fell behind itscompetitors at all resolutions, though we should admit the results were quite nice.
This test proves the statement we made above: MAXX reduces the graphics memory bus utilization(i.e. evenly distributes the workload), which is especially efficient in 32bit color. We see that ATIRAGE FURY MAXX has surpassed ASUS AGP-V6600 and is now positioned somewhere between the graphics cards onNVIDIA GeForce 256 with DDR and SDR memory.
Despite the fact that here 3D scene is created with less effort than in Normal mode ATI RAGE FURY MAXX is stillfalling behind its competitors.
It is worth noting that at higher resolutions ATI RAGE FURY MAXX manages to catch up with ASUS AGP-V6600.
So, summing up the performance of our hero in OpenGL we can say that ATI RAGE FURY MAXX is evidentlyoptimized for 32bit color and should be better used in this particular mode.
For a better comparison we added some more data on ATI RAGE FURY PRO to this chart so that we could onceagain take a look at the advantages of dual ATI RAGE 128 PRO configuration.
You can notice that ATI RAGE FURY MAXX runs neck and neck with NVIDIA GeForce 256 SDR. At high resolutionsATI RAGE FURY MAXX leaves ATI RAGE FURY PRO far behind, as we have actually expected.
Again ATI RAGE FURY MAXX reminds us of its optimization for 32bit color and manages to take the second positionafter NVIDIA GeForce 256 with DDR memory.
We used this game to illustrate the dependence of ATI RAGE FURY MAXX performance on the performance ofdifferent CPUs:
Both tests show that the support of additional SSE instructions, present by Pentium III but absent by Celeron, provides aconsiderable performance gain. Those of you who are still working with low performance processors (350-366MHz) can once againmake sure that there is no sense in buying such powerful accelerators as ATI RAGE FURY MAXX unless they upgrade theirCPU.
You probably wonder why we chose this particular test? First of all, it is very rich in new technologies. Thisgame supports hardware T&L, which we have already mentioned in our reviews on NVIDIA GeForce 256 based products.Besides, this game also supports SSE and 3DNow!. That is why it seems rather interesting to find out what positiveeffect the engine optimized for CPU SIMD instructions will make.
As the chart shows, SSE allowed ATI RAGE FURY MAXX to prove simply incredible! It managed to surpass even NVIDIA GeForce256 with DDR memory! By the way, some time ago we saw the same thing with 3DMark 2000 when an engine optimized for CPUSIMD instructions performed very well. Now we got another proof of this fact.
We can't utter a word here! An unbelievable victory of ATI RAGE FURY MAXX! Besides everything mentioned above(about SSE support), we should also add optimization for 32bit color and here you are: an indisputable success!
Summing up our investigation of ATI RAGE FURY MAXX performance we can draw the following conclusions:
- This graphics card is very well optimized for 32bit color and it looks as if this mode were its destiny;
- The card performs on the level of NVIDIA GeForce 256 with SDR memory and sometimes even surpasses the latter;
- ATI Company did a great job with its ICD OpenGL, which helped its graphics cards to move from the outsiders tofavorites and in 32bit color to become a leader.
Well, ATI RAGE FURY MAXX deserves our loud applause. However, if ATI doesn't reduce the retail price of thisgraphics card down to the level of the cards on GeForce 256 with SDR (we wish they made it even lower), then wewon't dare make any forecasts about its marketing future.
In order not to seem one-sided, let's discuss the quality of 3D graphics. Unfortunately, ATI has beendispleasing us with the quality of its drivers all last year. To tell the truth, this detail spoils thewhole show. But let's have a look at what we've got this time.
First comes the poor ICD OpenGL, which has been a stumbling stone for ATI for about a year already.Although ATI simply buried us under its driver versions, their quality still leaves much to be desired.In November in our ATI RAGE FURY PRO Review we mentioned a lot of drawbacks of the imageachieved when working via API OpenGL. Our readers know that we are always caviling at the slightest problems with thedrivers as well as at the companies attempting to replace a normal ICD with a thousand mini-drivers. But today we arehappy to announce that most problems have been successfully eliminated and now you can relax and enjoy beautiful 3D qualityin Quake3.
However, there is still one "but". On q3dm9 level in Quake3 (this level uses large textures) we came across a verystrange thing:
ATI RAGE FURY MAXX
This striped effect appears only in room corners for some reason. Besides, this artifact is typical only ofATI cards, those on NVIDIA GeForce 256 don't suffer from it. Having studied all possible modes we found out thatif vertex lighting is enabled, this artifact disappears, which means that it turns up only when lightmaps are used.And hence we can conclude that ATI RAGE FURY MAXX has some problems with lightmaps and larger textures. In fact, wedidn't study all Quake3 levels, but there was nothing like that on q3dm1-q3dm8. We can just hope that this drawbackwill be eliminated in the next driver versions.
As for Direct3D, we also have a few comments here. First, these are some image defects in Unreal Tournament:
Besides, we would also like to mention the demo program called Dagoth Moor Zoological Gardens. When we ran it onATI RAGE FURY MAXX almost all textures weren't displayed properly (we didn't dare post any screenshots even, somiserable and wretched they were). We do understand that this program is optimized for NVIDIA GeForce 256, howevereven Matrox Millennium G400 proved just beautiful there.
A few words about texture compression. Unfortunately, only two games of the most popular ones "know"this technology: Expendable and Quake3. We failed to see DXTC at work in Expendable, because it looked as if DXTCsupport was disabled in Direct3D. And in OpenGL S3TC technology can be used, can't it?
You can easily notice the chequered effect. Besides, the colors look a bit strange: almost all the objects have some bluishspots. We would like to point out that texture compression option (OpenGL page) was available only in the drivers, whichaccompanied the graphics card. A newer driver version 6.32 used for testing didn't have this option any more. In fact, itlooked as if ATI specialists were so terrified with what they had done to S3TC support that they preferred to disable thisfeature.
Besides, we should also mention tri-linear filtering support of ATI RAGE FURY MAXX. Although it takes about 6-7% of theperformance, it is very well made. We don't think we should post a screenshot here, because ATI RAGE FURY MAXX simply doesn'thave any artifacts at all.
The last thing we would like to discuss is MPEG2 video decoding. Those of you who have ever dealt with ATI products willprobably say that there shouldn't be any problems here. ATI chipsets are famous for high-quality support of the mainMPEG2-decoding functions, which use considerable CPU resources during software DVD-video playback. ATI RAGE FURY MAXXgoes together with ATI DVD Player 3.2, which is just perfect for DVD-video playback. When we played a short video movie,the CPU utilization was about 38-40%, which is not high at all. And the image quality was very nice indeed.
It's high time to draw the final conclusions:
- If ATI RAGE FURY MAXX costs not more than the cards on NVIDIA GeForce 256 with SDR memory, then this graphics card willbecome very popular.
- As usual, we hope that software developers, namely driver developers, will be more careful and won't ruin the effort oftheir colleagues who managed to design a successful product.
- ATI RAGE FURY MAXX card is very well optimized for 32bit color and again, if its price were less than that of NVIDIAGeForce 256 based graphics cards with DDR memory, then from now on the happy owners of fast CPUs would be able to give up16bit color completely. However, you should always bear in mind such an unpleasant thing as sharp performance upsurges anddrops at higher resolutions, which actually spoils the overall impression. Let's hope that the next driver versions will nolonger suffer from this drawback.
- This card is an especially interesting product because it opens a new family of graphics accelerators, which performancewill depend strictly on the amount of chipsets installed. Besides, 3dfx company is also going to introduce its own vision ofthe matter pretty soon.
- Theoretically, this graphics card with two fully fledged chipsets will probably turn out an excellent solution fordual-monitor systems (the graphics card we had at our disposal could even boast a special place for a corresponding connector).
Our general verdict will sound as follows. ATI RAGE FURY MAXX is an excellent and technologically attractive product,which performs quite nicely but is slightly spoilt by unskilled ATI driver developers. We only hope ATI will choose theright marketing strategy so that not to ruin the promising future of this graphics card.