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ATI Radeon 8500 Chipset

ATI Radeon 8500 Chipset - PCSTATS
Abstract: The 8500 chipset is the first chipset to be fully compatible with Microsoft's DirectX 8.1 API, and is armed with at least one unique feature which modern games should be able to actually use.
Filed under: Video Cards Published:  Author: 
External Mfg. Website: ATI Sep 19 2001   Mike Dowler  
Home > Reviews > Video Cards > ATI Radeon 8500

New features in the R8500

The 8500 chip introduces three new features to the Radeon line of cards. As well as enhanced versions of ATI's HyperZ, Charisma Engine and Pixel Tapestry (more on these later), we now have Smartshader, Truform and Smoothvision. Hmmm... nice names. What do they do?

Smartshader is ATI's Programmable vertex and pixel shader. Remember the fuss about the Geforce 3's programmable nfiniteFX engine? This is essentially the same thing. Graphics shaders are programmable operations that can be performed internally by the GPU upon graphical data. A vertex shader enables programmable transform and lighting effects to be carried out on vertex data as it passes through the geometry processing stage, taking the burden of calculating complicated geometrical data off the CPU, at least to some extent.

This enables developers to program their own geometrical transformation and lighting effects, which should lead (in the next generation of games) to much more detailed and interactive landscapes, characters and particle effects, based more on physics than necessity. Pixel shaders perform their operations on individual pixels as they are drawn during the rendering stage, in the case of the 8500's pixel shader allowing up to 6 texture operations (containing colour and lighting information, or instructions to reference values from previously rendered pixels) to be performed in one rendering 'pass.' This allows previously time consuming rendering operations such as tracking multiple light sources to be rendered much more quickly, thus gifting developers with a much wider range of pixel-level colour and lighting operations that can be performed without overly compromising frame rates.

As with the vertex shader, the pixel shader is programmable, allowing customizable lighting and texture effects. ATI is focusing on the 8500's full support of the soon to be released DirectX 8.1 API, the major new feature of which is version 1.4 of the pixel shader instructions that are used to program the shaders in both the Nvidia and ATI GPUs. Version 1.4 enables 6 texture operations on a single pixel per pass, as opposed to 4 for version 1.3 (which the GF3 currently supports) and previous versions.

In theory, this will allow the 8500 to render more complex texture affects within a single rendering pass than the GF3 is capable of. I say "in theory" because first of all, nothing besides ATI tech demos currently uses the 1.4 instruction set. Secondly, Nvidia has disputed ATI's claim to superiority, noting that the Geforce 3's nfiniteFX engine is capable of the same amount of detail. Nvidia also suggest that the two extra texture operations per pass supported by the Smartshader will not add up to any real world speed increase. Finally, in order for the 8500's 1.4 compatibility to be used, developers will have to code for it. This means extra work and you can be sure that they will program for the 1.3 pixel shader spec which the GF3 supports.

If Nvidia decides to integrate full DirectX 8.1 support into its chips at a later date, things will become more clear, but at the moment it looks as though software developers will be looking at two standards, and my bet is that they will write for the most popular, which would be the 1.3 version.

Truform is, to me, the most interesting of the new 'features,' and it's also the one which is likely to have the biggest impact on the way today's games look. The basic idea behind Truform is to exploit the capabilities of the GPU to draw large numbers of triangles very quickly (more triangles equaling more on screen detail) without the correspondent loss of performance that transferring a mass of extra vertex data used to generate these triangles over the AGP bus would incur.

Iin simple terms, because I don't have the math skills to explain it fully, this is the way it's achieved: The CPU passes data for a set of three vertices forming a simple triangle, plus the value of the normal of each vertex, to the GPU. The Truform process then generates 10 control points from this data, one for each vertex, two evenly spaced along each edge of the triangle and projected onto the plane defined by the normal of the nearest vertex, and one in the center of the triangle. This gives the GPU a set of points which it can use to describe a 3 dimensional curved surface over the original flat triangle. This surface is then tessellated, or broken up into many small triangles, at which point it is passed on to transform and lighting and the Smartshader.

The effect of this is that for each set of three vertices passed over the AGP bus to the card, the 8500 chip will draw not one large triangle, but many, many smaller ones. This should have several advantages. The additional triangles will effectively 'round out' 3D models, the added detail translating to less blockiness, gun barrels that actually look curved close up, etc.

More triangles making up a model also means more realistic geometrical lighting will be possible, getting a little closer to per-pixel lighting realism without the performance penalty. Due to the fact that the Truform operation is done internally, it should incur much less of a performance hit than trying to pass all the necessary vertex information over the AGP bus would.

According to the ATI Truform white paper., the surfaces generated by the vertex data will always have the same curve relative to the shape of the triangle, but the amount of new triangles generated by tessellation will be variable. The biggest plus to this technology, as far as I'm concerned, is that support for it can be patched into current 3D games. Apparently counterstrike will get Truform support sometime soon, and if this is true, and it does add to the visual quality of the game as ATI is claiming, then this should mean good things for the 8500 card when it comes out.

If you want a more mathematically based explanation of how Truform works, go here.

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Contents of Article: ATI Radeon 8500
 Pg 1.  ATI Radeon 8500 Chipset
 Pg 2.  — New features in the R8500
 Pg 3.  Enhanced Effects

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