Summary: While the GeForce 6800 GT scored numerous sales in the high-end segment for most of 2004, the card everyone was talking about at the end of the year was the RADEON X800 XL. With competitive pricing, 16 pipes and high clocks, the X800 XL is poised for success. But PowerColor wasn't content with ATI's reference X800 XL design, and decided to include additional features such as VIVO, dual DVI, and larger cooling. Read all about this promising new card in today's review!
In 2004 both ATI and NVIDIA doubled the number of pixel pipelines in their high-end offerings from eight pixel pipelines (in the case of ATI) to sixteen. As you can imagine, this change, along with other innovations such as newer shader types and high-speed GDDR3 memory, had a profound impact on performance. High-end offerings from both companies delivered nearly 2.5 times the performance of their predecessors in some cases. The timing of these cards arrival couldn’t have been any better either, as next-generation titles such as Half-Life 2 and id’s scary shooter DOOM 3, needed all the horsepower they could get for optimal performance at high resolutions.
These high-end cards came with one caveat however: price. ATI’s 16-pipeline RADEON X800 XT AGP was late to arrive in AGP form, and often sold for over $500 at retail outlets, while the least expensive 16-pipeline NVIDIA offering was the GeForce 6800 GT. The GeForce 6800 GT was, and still is an excellent card, but with a retail price tag of $400, hardly a “value” solution.
Despite this, the GeForce 6800 GT and its little brother, the 12-pipeline GeForce 6800 were able to capture a significant portion of the high-end graphics card segment. Both cards offered best-in-class price/performance ratios and were readily available on the retail market, which is always important for racking up sales. With the exception of the RADEON X800 PRO, ATI’s equivalent offerings were nowhere to be found at retail for the most part, with supply of most cards going to OEMs such as Dell.
Complicating matters was the massive hole ATI left in their product lineup. For most of 2004 ATI had no equivalent to the GeForce 6800 at the $300 price point. The RADEON X800 SE stealthily arrived late to market, and never hit retail in significant quantities, while the 12-pipeline RADEON X800 PRO had a tough time holding the line against GeForce 6800 GT, which was priced similarly but featured a 16-pipeline architecture. Making matters worse, NVIDIA introduced additional GeForce 6800 SKUs over the summer for the OEM market: the GeForce 6800 GTO and GeForce 6800 LE, while enterprising NVIDIA board partner ASUS offered lower priced GeForce 6800 GT offerings with only 128MB of memory.
The bottom line is that ATI needed an answer, and they needed one quickly.
Their answer? The RADEON X800 XL. The RADEON X800 XL takes advantage of TSMC’s smaller 0.11-micron manufacturing process, allowing ATI to cram all the features present in high-end RADEON X800 XT/X800 XT Platinum Edition into a smaller core, including their 16 pixel pipes. The real kicker though is X800 XL’s MSRP: $300. This is $100 less than GeForce 6800 GT!
Up for review today is the first retail RADEON X800 XL card we’ve received, PowerColor’s RADEON X800 XL. PowerColor has incorporated their own unique cooling solution for their RADEON X800 XL card, as well as VIVO. Let’s see what other tricks PowerColor has up their sleeve for this card.
The X800 XL’s graphics core runs at 400MHz, adding up to a peak texel fill rate of 6,400 Megatexels/second (16 pixel pipelines x 400MHz graphics core equals 6,400). This figure is 12% higher than NVIDIA’s GeForce 6800 GT, whose peak fill rate is 5,600 Megatexels/sec on paper. ATI pairs the R430 core up with 256MB of GDDR3 memory operating at 500MHz, which is the same clock speed NVIDIA clocks their GeForce 6800 GT’s memory at.
This effectively gives ATI the edge over NVIDIA on paper in more traditional theoretical performance metrics. When you couple this with the card’s $299 price tag, you’ve got a card with a pretty remarkable price/performance ratio. In our RADEON X800 XL Performance Preview article we found the X800 XL competed very closely with the GeForce 6800 GT, with each card winning their fair share of benchmarks.
When ATI decided to open up board production to third-party companies, PowerColor was one of their first board partners to sign on. PowerColor is also one of the world’s largest graphics card manufacturers, with extensive worldwide distribution channels. This has granted them Tier One board partner status with ATI, allowing them to get the first supplies of chips, which in turn helps them get their cards to market quickly: PowerColor is typically one of the first manufacturers with cards available at retail based on a given chip.
More recently PowerColor has tailored some of their high-end cards specifically for enthusiasts, adding extra accessories with some of their cards, and incorporating a modern game bundle. Their X850 cards for example ship with Maddox Games latest flight sim: Pacific Fighters, which was just released at the end of 2004.
Dual DVI and VIVO
The one aspect we were a little disappointed with was the lack of a second DVI adapter. PowerColor only includes one adapter in the card’s packaging. So if you’d like to use your PowerColor X800 XL card with two VGA-based monitors, you’ll have to pick up a second DVI-to-VGA adapter.
The second aspect that sets the PowerColor RADEON X800 XL apart from other manufacturer’s cards is its video input capability. PowerColor uses ATI’s Rage Theater chip for VIVO (video-in/video-out) support. PowerColor includes one other hardware goodie with their X800 XL card: a component video cable for outputting directly to your HDTV (an S-Video cable is also provided). The HDTV cable is a feature that we only expected to find in X850 cards.
Besides those changes, the other feature you’ll notice on PowerColor’s RADEON X800 XL card is its cooler: rather than sticking with ATI’s reference cooler design, which is borrowed from the X800 PRO/XT and is copper-based, PowerColor decided to go with a larger aluminum cooler of their own design.
As you can see, the aluminum heatsink PowerColor uses is massive, nearly encompassing the entire board. The heatsink is then encapsulated in a thin metal shroud. A large fan is responsible for feeding the card with fresh air, which passes within the duct, over the R430 core and memory, and finally, out the sides of the X800 XL card. PowerColor places the fan offset of the graphics core to increase the effectiveness of the ducting system.
We assumed that the fan on the PowerColor board was designed to operate dynamically based on temperature, as most RADEON cards have been designed to do, however the fan ran at top speed at all times. Normally the fan on previous RADEON cards we’ve tested runs at full speed when you first turn on your computer, then slows down to more moderate levels – the fan only cranks up to full speed again when the board begins to overheat. Since the PowerColor fan never cranks down, the increased noise levels can get a little annoying, especially when the system is running conventional 2D applications on the Windows desktop such as Word or when browsing the internet.
One interesting board design change we noticed on the PowerColor RADEON X800 XL board was the presence of an external power connection on the upper right edge of the board. If you look at our RADEON X800 XL reference card provided by ATI last year, you’ll notice that it doesn’t require an external power connection. We were curious to see if the power connector was necessary. Therefore, we decided to try and run the PowerColor board without using the power connector. Needless to say, our experiment didn’t work – the PowerColor board required the external power connector. Without it, the board merely booted up to a warning message telling us to turn off the system and connect the external power connection.
Besides the DVI adapter, HDTV and S-Video cables, PowerColor also includes one composite cable, a 6-pin PCI Express power adapter, and VIVO cable. Software bundled with the card includes the driver CD, a copy of Hitman: Contracts, PowerDVD 5.0, PowerProducer 2.0 Gold DVD, PowerDirector 3.0 SE, Power2Go 3.0, and Media Show 2.0 SE.
Lock On: Modern Air Combat (Mig-29 custom demo)
Tomb Raider – Direct3D
Lock On: Modern Air Combat – Direct3D
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB - OpenGL
Halo – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
DOOM 3 – OpenGL
DOOM 3 – OpenGL
Half-Life 2 – Direct3D
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
DOOM 3 – OpenGL
Performance: With its 16 pixel pipelines and 400MHz clock speed, ATI’s RADEON X800 XL graphics core has more than enough pixel-pushing horsepower for all of today’s latest games. Its R430 core is accompanied by 256MB of GDDR3 memory, running at 490MHz. This is technically 10MHz lower than the spec we were given by ATI last month, but we’ve noticed that other board partners are clocking their memory at 490MHz also, so the spec was likely modified slightly just recently.
Noise: As we stated earlier, the fan on our RADEON X800 XL card from PowerColor never spins down to the lower settings we’ve seen on other cards: regardless of what you’re doing or the board temperature, the fan is always running at full speed. This can get a little annoying if all you want to do is quietly browse the internet, as the fan is very audible. It isn’t GeForce FX 5800 Ultra loud, we wouldn’t even rate it as “loud” tiresome is the word that comes to mind. Hopefully PowerColor will correct this.
PowerColor takes this to another level with their RADEON X800 XL card. PowerColor has truly gone out of their way to build a better X800 XL board than ATI, or any of the other third-party board partners.
You’ve got dual DVI for starters. With prices on 16ms response time LCDs dropping continually, an increasing number of gamers are ditching their bulky CRT monitors for smaller LCDs. These enthusiasts want the sharpest image quality possible; pairing their brand new graphics card and LCD monitor together with a VGA cable isn’t an option. By providing dual DVI connections, PowerColor’s X800 XL card is ideally equipped for these consumers, while those of you with older CRT monitors can use the DVI adapter to drive your display. This provides more flexibility than the more conventional DVI/VGA configuration most video cards ship with.
The second feature that sets the PowerColor board apart from others is VIVO. While the proliferation of FireWire in most newer motherboards has made this less of an important feature, VIVO can still come in handy for transferring old videotapes to your PC, or for your Xbox/Playstion vid caps.
By combining both of these features into their RADEON X800 XL board, PowerColor provides more features than any other manufacturer to date.
It’s because of this that the PowerColor RADEON X800 XL earns our Bull’s Eye award. PowerColor provides all this, as well as a copy of Hitman: Contracts and the component video cable for the same $300 MSRP as the other X800 XL board manufacturers. As of right now, this card offers more features than any other RADEON X800 XL card that has been announced to date. And while we would like to see PowerColor address the noise issues with the fan, their RADEON X800 XL card delivers impeccably.
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