Both ATI's and Nvidia's first round of $125 to $200 DirectX 10-cards delivered underwhelming performance at best. They couldn't handle games from last year, let alone crank through newer titles like Crysis and PC Gears of War. But with Nvidia's GeForce 8800 GT and ATI's new Radeon HD 3850 and 3870 cards (announced today) mainstream gamers can finally get a piece of that modern game action for less than the price of a full-fledged game console.
The new ATI cards are unique in that they offer support for a few new hardware and software features. They're both PCI Express 2.0 compatible, which means a fatter graphics data pipe when they're paired with a motherboard that has a PCI Express 2.0 slot, due from ATI shortly. That kind of throughput isn't quite necessary yet, because no games are really pumping that much data through, but it's nice to have the hardware support in place for when they might. Another benefit of the newer motherboards will be CrossFireX, a new iteration of ATI's multicard technology that lets you match up to four different cards in one system.
Similar to PCI Express 2.0, though perhaps less important, the new Radeons are also DirectX 10.1-compliant. That update to the still-emerging DirectX standard might eventually allow for a few additional graphical bells and whistles. But no developer in his right mind will require you to have DirectX 10.1 hardware, especially when DirectX 10 is still in the early adoption phase. DX10.1 compatibility is more valuable today as a marketing bullet point than an actual feature.
For performance, the $179 256MB Radeon 3850 overtakes against Nvidia's 8600 GT, and the $219 512MB Radeon 3870 effectively replaces ATI's older Radeon HD 2900 XT, which is basically as fast, but it costs $399. According to GameSpot's tests and others from around the Web, neither card is as fast as the newer GeForce 8800 GT from Nvidia, but the lowest price we've seen on that card is $270, making the Radeons into major bang-for-the-buck players. We would still expect all of the sub-$400 or so cards to choke on newer games in DirectX 10-mode and with the details cranked, but the good news is that DirectX 10 hasn't distanced itself enough from DirectX 9 yet to make that much of a difference in image quality. So with these new ATI cards, you can dial down the settings, still have your game look great, and enjoy smooth frame rates on most, if not all current titles and not break the bank to do it. We'll have a full review of the 3850 up shortly, so stay tuned.