Summary: If you're tired of Radeon X1800 XT cards that follow ATI's reference design, you'll definitely want to check out today's review of the ASUS Extreme X1800 XT TOP. Not only does the board feature a nearly silent dual-slot cooler, it also runs at the blazing clock speeds of 700MHz on the graphics core, and 800MHz memory! The board even ships with its own separate power supply and gamepad. But is this enough to overtake the mighty GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB? Find out in today's review!
Ironically enough, the tale of the R520 GPU used in ATIís Radeon X1800 shares many similarities with NVIDIAís ill-fated NV30 GPU, which was found in their GeForce FX 5800 line.
When ATI was developing R520, they envisioned a core clock speed of 700MHz or more, this figure is considerably faster than any high-end graphics product produced to date, while the chip was based on a 16-pixel pipeline architecture. Like NVIDIA, ATI sacrificed shaders in order to hit blazing clock speeds.
To pull all this off, both GPUs relied on brand new, untested manufacturing processes, both manufactured by TSMC. NVIDIA took the plunge with TSMCís 130-nm process, while ATI went with TSMCís 90-nm process.
By now we all know how the story played out for NV30. NVIDIA never could get good yields on NV30 at 500MHz, and the boardís FX Flow cooling ran so loud it was the butt of constant jokes. In addition, the performance of ATIís Radeon 9700 Pro was superior to GeForce FX 5800 Ultra.
In the end NVIDIA had a part they couldnít produce in significant quantities that not only ran loud, it also generated an excessive amount of heat and wasnít faster than the competition. NVIDIA quickly scrapped the GeForce FX 5800 and moved to the more robust NV35 GPU found in the GeForce FX 5900, which solved many of the 5800ís flaws but the damage had already been done and NVIDIA didnít truly recover until the launch of the GeForce 6800 Ultra many months later.
This is where the comparisons between NV30 and R520 differ a little. Whereas NV30 suffered from poor performance, noise, and supply issues, the only real setback thatís been nagging R520 is supply -- the chip performs well. While ATI was never able to hit the 700MHz clock speed they were shooting for (opting for 625MHz instead), itís still a very capable performer, delivering performance superior to the GeForce 7800 GTX256MB in many cases. Only NVIDIAís flagship GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB runs faster, and this board currently sells for significantly more than the 7800 GTX 256MB or the Radeon X1800 XT.
But what if someone were to produce a R520 card capable of hitting 700MHz? Thatís exactly what ASUS has done with their Extreme X1800 XT TOP/2DHTV card. Letís see how it compares to other X1800 XT cardsÖ
At first glance, ASUSí Extreme X1800 XT TOP looks like no other Radeon X1800 XT card on the market. Sitting next to ATIís own Radeon X1800 XT reference board, the ASUS Extreme X1800 XT TOP looks massive. It even looks large sitting next to a GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB. But actually, the board is based entirely on ATIís reference board design for the Radeon X1800 XT. ASUS makes no changes to the boardís PCB Ė the dimensions of the PCB are the same and the cardís core components are indistinguishable. The sole difference lies in the Extreme X1800 XT TOPís unique cooling.
The boardís most notable feature is without a doubt its dual-slot cooling. Like their Extreme N7800 GTX TOP we reviewed earlier this year, ASUS uses a cooling solution from Arctic Cooling on their Extreme X1800 XT TOP. In this case though, the cooler is unique to ASUS, according to Arctic Cooling, they have no plans at this time to release the cooler to the public.
This cycle generates a lot of heat. As anyone whoís owned a Zalman VGA heat pipe can tell you. Therefore, to help keep the graphics core and heat pipes cool, Arctic Cooling uses a large copper base, which rests just above the R520 GPU, enveloping the heat pipes.
Finally, cooling all of this is a large aluminum heatsink with thin, long fins. This is where the bulk of the coolingís size comes from, as the fins are just shy of 1.5Ē long. By integrating lots of thin, long fins, the heatsinkís surface area is increased, thus improving its effectiveness as heat is drawn up the fins. The downside is that as a result, the card will eat up the slot directly adjacent to your graphics slot.
Like the VGA Silencer line, the fan Arctic Cooling uses is large in diameter, allowing them to spin the fan at lower RPMs while still generating a considerable amount of airflow. Since it spins at lower RPMs, the fan generates less noise: although we wouldnít say it runs silent, but itís definitely an improvement over the stock cooler ATI and their board partners use on their Radeon X1800 XT cards.
ASUS also places a large black aluminum heatsink on the Extreme X1800 XT TOPís power circuitry located just behind the cardís cooler. On stock X1800 XT cards, a thin red aluminum heatsink is used. With the Extreme X1800 XT TOP running at higher clocks (and thus requiring more power) ASUS must have felt that the stock cooling wasnít sufficient, replacing it with a larger, more robust heatsink.
Running the graphics card at a clock speed higher than ATIís reference clock speeds was a strict no-no. ATI was very adamant about this, as they wanted to ensure a consistent performance level across the board, particularly in the wake of criticism received over the wild variations in speeds board partners chose for their Radeon 8500LE cards.
In more recent months however, as ATI and their board partners have seen increasing competition from NVIDIA-based cards such as the GeForce 7800 GTX and 7800 GT (both of which have been fashionably overclocked by a wide range of NVIDIAís board partners) ATI has relented on this, allowing their board partners a considerable amount of wiggle room on their X800 GT and X800 GTO cards. Clock speeds of retail cards based on both of these GPUs are all over map at the moment.
ATI is now providing the same degree of freedom on the Radeon X1800 XT, and ASUS is the first board partner to cash in on this as their robust Arctic Cooling cooler does an excellent job of keeping the R520 graphics core cool.
ASUS clocks the R520 graphics core on their Extreme X1800 XT TOP card at 700MHz Ė 75MHz higher than ATIís stock clock speed of 625MHz. This is an improvement of just over 10%, boosting fill rate from 10 Gigatexels/sec on the stock X1800 XT to 11.2 Gigatexels/sec on the Extreme X1800 XT TOP.
But ASUS doesnít stop there, as the ASUS overclocks the memory on the Extreme X1800 XT TOP as well, running it at 800MHz (1.6GHz effective), an improvement of 50MHz over the stock Radeon X1800 XT.
Itís important to note that while the boardís memory runs at 800MHz, ASUS uses the same Samsung K4J52324QC memory modules that are used on regular Radeon X1800 XT cards. These modules are rated at 1.2ns so technically ASUS isnít overclocking the memory, as the modules are good for speeds of up to 800MHz according to Samsung. NVIDIA uses faster 1.1ns memory modules on their GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB cards but these modules are currently in very short supply.
To power all this, ASUS includes an 80-watt external power supply kit, which must be used with the Extreme X1800 XT TOP. ASUS runs a rounded power cable from the boardís external power connection on the back of the board across the top of the card where it rests inside a metal housing. This metal housing also acts as an additional heatsink for the boardís PCB, drawing heat off the card.
From there the power cable runs across the cardís fan, and finally out to the boardís backplate. Here youíll hook up the external power supply unit, which is fairly small and fortunately doesnít generate much heat.
While it sounds complicated, the whole solution is actually fairly elegant, some may even feel itís easier than reaching inside your case to connect the X1800 card to your systemís power supply unit. After all, with ASUSí external solution you donít lose a power connection from your PSU.
This way ASUS can also ensure a consistent level of additional power is going to the card in addition to the power the board receives via the PCI-E graphics slot.
The rest of the card
Four of the controllerís buttons can be programmed to perform macro functions, while the controller itself feels pretty solid when resting in your hands. The layout of the controller is similar to Logitechís Action controller for the PS2, and overall is pretty good. The downside to the XitePad though is its size. While itís not as uncomfortable as the original Xbox controller was, itís considerably bulkier than a PS2 or Xbox Controller S, and feels bloated after playing with an Xbox 360 controller.
Fortunately though, the thumbpad on the ASUS XitePad as just as responsive as the Xbox 360ís thumbpad, and it is after all free.
ASUS also includes their latest suite of software utilities with the Extreme X1800 XT TOP. For starters, thereís GameFace Messenger. GameFace Messenger is ASUSí instant messaging client for gamers. GFM allows up to 8 gamers to talk and even see each other while gaming, making it useful for those of you who are in a clan or guild, meanwhile, with GameReplay, you can record your favorite gaming moments into MPEG4 video files for playback (and bragging rights) later. ASUS also includes a copy of their GameLiveShow software, which allows you to stream your gaming experiences live over the Internet.
Other new software programs bundled with the card include ASUSí Splendid video enhancement technology (you will need to install the ASUS driver to use Splendid) as well as OnScreenDisplay, which can be used to toggle display settings such as brightness, contrast, and gamma without having to leave the game Ė in fact you can toggle it via hotkeys with one keystroke.
Also bundled with the card include a leather bound CD carrier, two DVI adapters, a VIVO cable, component cable for hooking the card up to an HDTV, S-Video and composite cables, and an additional power cable. ASUS also includes copies of ASUS DVD XP, Power Director 3, Media Show, Virtual Drive 9, a CD with demos of a few games, and full copies of Project: Snowblind and Xpand Rally.
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Radeon X1800 XT GPU: After building largely on the R300 graphics core first launched with the Radeon 9700 Pro over two years ago for their X800 line, ATI starts with a clean piece of paper for the Radeon X1800 XT Ė this is a totally redesigned graphics processor. The Radeon X1800 XTís R520 graphics core was built specifically to address the increased use of branching in shader model 3.0 games. The chip has a new ultra-threading dispatch processor that tracks and distributes up to 512 threads across the RADEON X1800ís shader processors, while R520 also has a redesigned programmable memory controller sporting eight 32-bit memory controllers (previous ATI architectures had just four controllers). With more controllers onboard, the X1800 can serve more read/write requests simultaneously and thus increasing efficiency.
Price: While we donít have an official pricetag from ASUS for the Extreme X1800 XT TOP (with the holidays we were unable to get our question answered), weíre pretty sure it will sell for a nice premium over ASUSí standard X1800 XT card.
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