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*** STATEMENT OF DISCLAIMER *** If you try any of the techniques described in the following article, you do so AT YOUR OWN RISK. I cannot be held responsible for problems, should they occur. Also, be aware that changing the BIOS type on a video card is virtually certain to void the manufacturer's warranty.
ANOTHER "FREE SPEED" OPPORTUNITY!!
If you're a combination 3D video enthusiast & bargain hunter like me, then this is the kind of thing that you LOVE to come across! And, once again, it's the folks at ATI who have created the opportunity to get significantly more 3D performance than you pay for upfront. Though not quite as spectacular as the now legendary 9500-to-9700 modification (read all about that one HERE), it's still a pretty attractive deal. Here's the skinny:
It's generally accepted among video card afficionados these days (Fall 2003) that the hottest mainstream 3D card currently available is the ATI Radeon 9800 Pro. Though Nvidia's GeforceFX 5900 Ultra still has its supporters, the 9800 Pro gets the better of it in virtually all the head-to-head comparisons I've read. And the recent revelations concerning the inferiority of its performance in certain DirectX 9 games, notably the eagerly awaited Half-Life 2, haven't helped. So ATI's reign as the 3D performance leader, begun over a year ago with the 9700 Pro, has been extended for at least one more product cycle.
The problem is, of course, that world-class performance doesn't come cheap. Most of the 128MB 9800 Pro cards run somewhere in the $350 to $400 price range, which is a pretty steep ticket to pay, considering that the status of "fastest card" generally has a duration of 6 months or so! Prices like this are exactly why I tend to concentrate on looking for good performance values in mid-range video cards, like the Radeon 9600 Pro and the GeforceFX 5600 Ultra (see THIS ARTICLE). But stumbling across this latest find tempted me to stray into the lower reaches of a price range I generally avoid. But it's all in the name of SCIENCE! Really, I mean it. Yeah, I know--my wife didn't buy that one either....
The object of this exercise is the next model down the performance curve in the current Radeon product family--the 9800 non-Pro card, hereafter referred to as the "9800NP". This card bears the same relationship to the 9800 Pro that the 9700NP did to the 9700 Pro in ATI's last product generation. It uses the same basic card design and architecture, including the 8 pixel pipelines and 256-bit memory bus. The key difference is in core and memory clockspeeds, where the Pro card uses default speeds of 378MHz for the core and 337.5MHz for the memory (675MHz effective memory speed, doubling the clockspeed due to this being DDR memory). The cheaper 9800NP ships with default speeds of 324/290, and typically sells in the $250 to $300 price range. By the way, there is also an even cheaper variant known as the "9800 SE", but I advise staying away from this card. It runs with only 4 pixel pipelines and just doesn't measure up to the performance levels achieved with the "true" 9800 series cards.
Because the 9800NP doesn't need to meet the same performance specs as the Pro, the requirements for the components used on it are relaxed. For instance, 9800 GPU's that don't quite measure up to the performance specs required by the Pro may be perfectly good for the lower clockspeed employed in the 9800NP. Similarly, the card manufacturer may be able to use slightly slower rated (and cheaper) memory on an NP card and still meet specs. These considerations have some implications that will become obvious shortly.
SO HOW DOES THIS WORK??
So how do we go about getting 9800 Pro performance out of the more reasonably priced NP card? Well, an obvious approach would be to just overclock the core and memory speeds using one of the many readily available video card overclocking utilities. And you could certainly do that, probably with a fair degree of success. The problem is that you'll leave some performance potential untapped with that approach. Apparently, there are differences in the card BIOS between the 9800 Pro and NP that affect how fast the card will run. My understanding is that it involves how the memory timings are managed, though there may be more to it than that. In any case, users have reported that just OC'ing the 9800 NP typically won't allow the card to get up to Pro speed levels without running into problems, generally with memory-related visual artifacts. So, what to do?
Make the card "think" like a Pro!
And it turns out that this is very easily done, since the two cards share the same design. It's a simple matter of flashing the 9800NP with the BIOS of the Pro. To do that requires three things: a copy of the 9800 Pro version 8.004 BIOS, a "flash" utility to imprint that information on the EPROM of the NP card, and a bootable floppy to run all this stuff from. And all three of these things are readily available. I'll leave you on your own with regard to a boot floppy (if you can't handle that one, you shouldn't be doing this anyway!), but you can find links to the Pro 8.004 BIOS and the very useful "FlashROM" flashing utility at THIS THREAD in the forum at SysOpt.com.
So, now that we know WHAT we're going to do and HOW to go about it, we'll need a 9800NP card to do it on....