With Nvidia firmly on top in the high-end battle towards the end of 2007, ATi focused its efforts on the larger, mass-market segment of the graphics card market: the mid-range.
The Radeon HD 3800 series was launched, and – with the mid-range failing to offer any real gaming power in previous generations from both sides – it surprised everyone by putting in a pretty good performance.
Its main strength is that it offers considerable frame rates for a very affordable price, something made all the more possible by the move to the 55nm fabrication process.
This allows it to cram 666 million transistors onto its medium-sized board – almost as many as an 8800 Ultra. Its stream processor count of 320 is more than double most of Nvidia’s top offerings, too, and it’s right up to date with support for DirectX 10.1 and Shader Model 4.1, as well as the PCI Express 2.0 interface.
The HD 3850 is clocked at 670MHz as standard, and comes in both 256MB and 512MB GDDR3 flavours. It makes sense to spend an extra $20 on the version with more memory, which managed a healthy 47fps in Crysis at 1280 x 1024 and Medium settings – a perfectly enjoyable level. Our High Call of Duty 4 test was playable at 34fps, too, and it’s a lot faster than Nvidia’s admittedly cheaper 8600 cards.
The move to 1600 x 1200 and High settings in Crysis, where it dropped to 19fps, shows that even the larger capacity 512MB version isn’t quite enough. At those levels, only cards with 768MB can reach playable frame rates.
The HD 3850’s price is both a strength and a weakness. At $175 for the 256MB version or $195 for the 512MB, it can be considered a mid-range card, but its performance belongs in a higher category.
However, at $195 it runs straight into the 9600 GT which pulls the rug from under it by beating the HD 3850 in every test. The only reason to to buy one now is if you demand CrossFire support over SLI.