S3 Savage IX on trial

While browsing for old cards (as usual), my eyes landed upon something called Savage IX, the first of S3’s attempts to breach into the laptop market. While I had read about the IX in the past, there was little to no info about it, other than some very basic specs, which might or might not be correct. The card itself was cheap enough, so I thought, why not see if I can clear the confusion? So I went and ordered it. As it turns out, things are never so easy.

Here’s the culprit. Notice the lack of heatsink, this was supposed to be a laptop part after all. Memory is integrated into the package itself. The backside looks very simple, presumably because of that.

The card was shipped in its box. As you might expect from an old laptop product, the packaging was the tackiest thing ever, and I especially loved the manual in broken English that contained information about every possible card, except the one you just bought. Of course. I don’t know who the vendor was, but even they didn’t want people to know they had just bought a Savage. Figures.

Trouble started immediately, by the way. Upon installing the drivers and rebooting, Windows 98 would seemingly become unresponsive. After a long time scratching my head and deleting drivers from safe mode, I finally noticed that Windows wasn’t unresponsive, rather it was in extended desktop mode. Yes, for whatever reason my monitor was set as secondary monitor (even though the card has no TV-out…) and even reinstalling the drivers didn’t change it. Laptop heritage? Either way, I was ultimately able to fix it from registry. In case anyone is actually interested in testing this card, I’ll save you the trouble and tell you what you need to change. Go to: “HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Config\0001\Display\Settings”, then to the device subfolder, and set the string AttachToDesktop to 0. And just to be sure, change the string AttachToDesktop in the main folder too.

So let’s finally check the card. One final thing before we start: results have been inconsistent sometimes. At one point, 3DMark 2000 would give me a fillrate of 90MT/s, then the next time it would drop to 62MT/s. I thought maybe the chip was overheating, but it’s not even warm to the touch, despite the lack of heatsink. I can only assume the drivers are terrible like that. Also, vsync can be disabled from S3Tweak, but the framerate still seems capped and the resulting flickering is reminescent of the Savage 3D, albeit not as bad. Just for the sake of testing, I disabled it.

And of course, the specs: Pentium 3 450MHZ, 128MB SDRAM PC100, i440BX-2, Windows 98, 60hz monitor.

Powerstrip first. Well, it kinda bugs out. The core clock is rated at 14Mhz and you can’t even see the memory clock. It also says the data bus is 64-bits wide. That sounds more believable. I read some info on the internet that the data bus could be 128-bits wide, due to having its memory integrated in the package. But based on my results, I don’t believe that. Or perhaps, it’s true but makes no difference. Now, S3Tweak is slightly better, since it correctly recognizes the card and says the memory clock is 100Mhz. Could be, could be not. Unfortunately there’s no indication of the core clock, but we’ll get to that. MeTaL support is apparently present with version, but Adventure Pinball reverts to software rendering when I attempt to enable it. I’m going to assume it’s non-functional, like many other things on this card.

Check out that botched texture filtering. No surprise that it runs horribly in software mode, maybe they should have just kept to point sampling.

Checking out System Info on 3DMark reveals a horrible truth: the card doesn’t supported multitexturing at all, and Z-buffer is only 16-bits. Doesn’t look like a Savage 4 to me, then. What’s worse, it doesn’t even support S3TC. Why they would take out that kind of feature, I don’t know. It doesn’t support edge anti-aliasing either, but that doesn’t surprise me. Still, for a laptop card that was supposedly aimed at gamers, you’d think they would try and attract attention with some of their more popular features.

Some interesting results here. The card seems definitely closer to a Savage 3D than a Savage 4. Fillrate makes me think the SIX is clocked at 100Mhz just like its memory. Nevermind the high texture rendering speed on the S3D, that was probably due to vsync issues that caused heavy flickering. Polygon scores are higher on SIX, maybe some architecture improvement? But trilinear rendering is a lot slower. Now granted, many cards of the time weren’t doing real trilinear. However, the SIX apparently isn’t even attempting that, and doing something else entirely. Luckily that only happens in 3DMark, and the games seem trilinearly filtered.

Mipmapping? Where have you gone? At a glance, this is just bilinear filtering without mipmaps, which explains the sudden lower score.

As you can see, rendering quality is much closer to the Savage 3D than the Savage 4. There are however some issues with textures or maybe lightmaps. Luckily I haven’t noticed them anywhere else.

So much for 3DMark 99. Some quick info about 3DMark 2000: scores are very close to the Savage 3D (again), but actually higher all around. My S3D is probably an old model for OEM sellers, presumably running at 90Mhz. I’m sure it’s nowhere close to those 120Mhz Hercules chips. If the SIX is truly running at 100MHZ, then the higher results check out. Final Reality isn’t really worth checking out either, especially because I lost my detailed S3D scores, but I can say that just like that card, the SIX has some serious issues with the 2D transfer rate.

And did I say that 3DMark 2000 at 1024x768x16 gives out higher scores than the Savage 3D? Well, PC Player D3D Benchmark running at 1024x768x32 gives me 28.3fps, far lower than the S3D at 35.9fps, or the S4 at 41.5fps. That 64-bits data bus is looking right at the moment.

But enough with the syntethic benchmarks, and let’s have ourselves some game tests. The cards I included were as follow: Savage 3D and Savage 4 for obvious reasons. Also the Savage 2000, just for fun. Two more cards are included: the first one is the Rage LT Pro, a common laptop card for the time, albeit obviously older. The other is an Ati Rage 128 Pro Ultra. See, I kinda wanted to try and see how the Savage IX compared to the Mobility 128, another potential laptop card of its year. Unfotunately it’s quite expensive. So I went for the next best thing: looking at the specs, the Rage 128 Pro is too fast thanks to its 128-bits data bus, but the Ultra variant for the OEM market is only 64-bits, which corresponds to the Mobility. Everything else is very close, except for the 16MB of memory, but for my tests that shouldn’t count too much. As a whole, it should be a decent surrogate, I hope.

Sorry about the terrible chart. My OpenOffice skills are showing again.

If nothing else, the SIX supports OpenGL, and it’s even the same driver version as the S3D and S4. So we can try Quake 2 and MDK2. Results don’t look flattering to start with, however. Without multitexturing, there’s only so much the card can do. At 1024×768, it even falls behind the S3D despite its supposedly higher clocks. The Ultra is looking quite fast at this moment, and considering the Mobility 128 came out not much after the Savage IX, that didn’t look like good news for S3. Maybe it was more expensive though. The Savage 2000 is in a league of its own, expectedly.

Exciting times for S3. in MDK2, the SIX manages to actually beat the S3D by a sizeable margin, more than the higher clock would suggest. I’ll chalk that down to architecture improvements. But the drop at high resolutions is steep, which further convinces me that the data bus can’t be 128-bits. At any rate, the Ultra isn’t far ahead here, but the Savage 4 can’t be even approached. Check out the bottom… poor Rage LT Pro.

Things get muddier in Direct3D, because as I said before, disabling vsync can show some strange flickering, plus it doesn’t even seem to work all that well, as framerate in Incoming is still capped at 60fps. However, the average is higher, and it doesn’t appear to be double buffered. I’ve disabled it for the time being, meanwhile let’s cross our fingers.

Nevermind the Turok results, because T-mark was always an incredibly unreliable benchmark in my experience (a Matrox G200 beating the Geforce 2 GTS, really?). Let’s take a look at Incoming instead. The three bottom cards are stuck with vsync, so the results are probably not good for a comparison. Even so, we can take a look at the Ultra and the SIX. At 640×480, there is too much flickering, and I’m afraid it’s actually impacting the results. At 800×600 and 1024×768, things are much more bearable. Still, seeing the Ultra beaten by the SIX despite its dual texturing engine is quite the sight, and a far cry from the OpenGL results. In fact, even the Rage Pro can actually compete with the Ultra at 640×480.

I decided to spare the Rage LT Pro the embarassment here. Or maybe I just forgot. What would you expect anyway?

Let’s switch to 32-bits rendering and things are a bit muddier, especially at higher resolutions where vsync doesn’t factor in as much. The SIX actually falls to the bottom of the pack, while the Rage 128 architecture proves itself more efficient than the competition. Either way, even with vsync disabled, I don’t think the SIX could have beaten the S3D.

Again, the SIX and Rage LT are vsynced. However, as far as I could tell, the 128 Ultra was not. Despite this, you can see that it doesn’t perform very well. Maybe there are some issues with D3D, since in OpenGL the card is comfortably ahead of the old Savage line. Comparisons between the SIX and the Savage cards are impossible due to the refresh rate lock, which is a shame.

Somehow I don’t think vsync is disabled.

Here’s also Shadows of the Empire, just for kicks. None of the cards manage to render the fog properly, which is quite an achievement. Even then, the Ultra is clearly punching under its weight. What’s going on? Some early bottleneck during D3D rendering?

That’s all? No, there’s another small surprise. Let’s move to a DOS enviroment and try a few different resolutions in Quake. Mmh, what’s this? No matter which resolution you use, the monitor will be set to 640x480x60. Even 320×200, which every single other card I own renders as 720×400 and 70hz, as is proper. In fact, setting a resolution higher than 640×480 will cut off part of the image. I have no idea what could be causing this. Maybe it’s yet more laptop heritage? Or maybe it’s somehow decided that my monitor is actually a NTSC TV. This happens even on real DOS, without loading any drivers. Whatever the reason, it means the card is no good for DOS games. When I try to play Doom, it’s not as smooth as with other cards that run it properly at 70hz. It’s more like playing one of those console ports. Maybe it would be good for Normality, which switched between different resolutions between gameplay and inventory. But I can’t think of much else.

Well, there we have it. Conclusions? this looks like a slightly overclocked Savage 3D, yet there are clearly some architectural improvements. It fixes some of the bugs of the Savage 3D, after all. I’m still very hesitant to call it an off-shoot of the Savage 4, as I’ve read around. It lacks too many features, it’s slow, and there was no point for S3 to drop the texture merging feature of their more successful chip. The lack of S3TC is equally disappointing for a card supposedly aimed at the gamers market, even if we were talking about the budget-conscious ones. I also don’t believe the data bus is really 128 bits. On the other hand, even with vsync enabled, the card does look like it would have outperformed the Mobility 128 in D3D, despite its lack of multitexturing. OpenGL shows a different story, however, and the Ati architecture is indeed stronger on paper. It’s still weird that the card manages to be slower than the S3D in Quake 2, and drops further at higher resolutions in MDK2. That’s hard to explain. Maybe data bandwidth is lower. I should mention that Powerstrip set itself to 60Mhz when I tried to check the default clock, but I didn’t want to risk enabling it. Besides, the fillrate score from 3DMark 99 doesn’t seem to support that idea.

I wish I could have disabled vsync properly, since all other Savage cards let me do it. But I suppose things never go as planned. This was still an interesting card to test, with a few surprises along the way (and some swearing too). I don’t think I would have wanted to find one in my laptop though.

2 thoughts on “S3 Savage IX on trial”

  1. 128Bit memory could have been supported with 16MB memory cards. These are mentioned in press release. Since we have only 8MB models, i think that they used only half of available memory channels and thus 64bit memory.


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