ATI Video cards solid performers

by Alan Zisman (c) 1998. First published in Computer Player, June 1998

ATI Technologies Inc.,
Thornhill, Ontario

Toronto-based ATI Technologies has long been one of the strongest contenders in the highly-competitive world of graphics adapters. In a market where it often seems like there?s a new model every week, they?ve managed to stay on top for years.

Currently, they?re offering a trio of cards, all built on the same basic design, their proprietary Rage Pro chipset: Xpert@Work, Xpert@Play, and All-in-Wonder Pro.

Each of the three models comes in your choice of two flavours, supporting either the more common PCI slot, or the AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) found on newer Pentium-II computers.  The cards come with 4 megs (upgradeable) or 8 megs of SGRAM.

The All-in-Wonder Pro (about $400) adds video in and out, along with a built-in TV tuner, offering the possibility of playing games on a big TV screen, or of capturing still shots and video clips from a camcorder, VCR, or TV cable. The tuner lets users plug their computer into their TV cable, and watch the tube, full screen or in a window. In fact, this card was used by Microsoft as the basis for Windows 98?s TV capabilities. Prices range from about $375 (4 megs) to $450 (8 megs).

Not all of us need or want to connect our computer to our TV; the two Xpert models offer more basic video cards at more basic prices. (Budget-conscious couch potatoes might want to keep their eyes peeled for ATI?s older All-in-Wonder (non-Pro), still available at some retail outlets at a discounted price. It?s got the TV functions on a card based on an older, somewhat slower ATI chipset).

All three models feature a quick and easy one-click installation, which adds three tabs to the Windows 95 Display dialogue box, letting users easily adjust panning and screen size, and correct on-screen colours.

The @Work model is a bare-bones video card, and comes with Micrografx Simply 3D, PhotoSuite from Toronto?s MGI, Vream?s WIRL 3D browser, and 3D Models. Street price ranges from about $200 (4 megs) to $275 (8 megs).

The @Play, in contrast, ships with a less sober-sided softwarepackage. Along with WIRL, it packages two games, Formula 1 and Terracide, optimized to show off the card?s 3D potential. As well, like the pricier All-in-Wonder series, it includes TV output, with S-Video and composite (RCA) outputs for connection to a TV or VCR. This results in a higher price than the @Work models, ranging from about $250 (4 megs) to $300 (8 megs).

All three models include ATI?s well-designed Video Player software, which allows for playback of AVI and MPEG video. When the software recognizes an All-in-Wonder, it adds TV playback as well, even allowing users to preview thumbnails of 50 or more channels at once. Video quality in all formats is impressive?crisp and flicker free.

The cards? performance is also top-notch, both for 2D speed and 3D. Unfortunately, however, performance is only part of the story. 2D video has long been standardized, at least since the triumph of Windows. Users can pretty much expect any modern software to run on this, or any other modern video card. 3D is, however, another story. While Microsoft is pushing its Direct-3D, it is by no means a universal standard. Many games support only some of the range of 3D hardware available?perhaps the most widely supported are cards based on the 3Dfx chipset. And ATI?s 3D is not compatible with 3Dfx software. As a result, games such as LucasArts? Shadows of the Empire wouldn?t run at all, while other games, such as Electronic Arts? Need for Speed II SE ran, but with less impressive graphics than it would have had on a 3Dfx system.

ATI continually upgrades its drivers; if you buy one of these cards, get right onto their website and download the new Turbo drivers, for a boost to their already impressive performance. (And by the way, ATI, if you?re reading this: Thanks for continuing to support all your older models, right back to the monochrome Graphics Solution cards. Well done).

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan