Summary: ATI's got a new card for the $200 crowd, and it's cooler, quieter, and faster than the Radeon X1900 GT it replaces. See how the Radeon X1950 Pro performs in comparison to cards ranging from the Radeon X1600 XT and GeForce 6800 GT all the way up to the Radeon X1900 XT and GeForce 7900 GTO in today's article!
The Radeon X1600 XT had pretty good specs on paper: ATI outfitted its RV530 GPU with 12 pixel shaders and it was clocked at 590MHz core. Running alongside the GPU was a speedy memory subsystem clocked at a blazing 690MHz, and the board was available in a wide variety of configurations (including AGP), but in performance tests it just couldn’t keep up with its initial competitor, the GeForce 6800 GS from NVIDIA.
It also didn’t help that the ATI cards the X1600 XT was supposed to replace, ATI’s X800 GT/GTO, were also faster than the X1600 XT in most benchmarks.
Because of the Radeon X1600 XT’s lackluster performance, ATI was basically forced to reduce its price down to around $150, that’s about $100 less than what ATI had anticipated before launch. Even with the reduced price, ATI still had a tough time competing with NVIDIA, particularly once the GeForce 7600 family was launched in March 2006.
With the launch of the GeForce 7600 GT, ATI rushed the Radeon X1800 GTO into service to do battle with the new NVIDIA card. The GTO had a wider 256-bit memory interface, making it a more capable challenger to the 7600 GT, but early benchmarks with the 7600 GT showed it more than held its own against the GTO.
In more recent weeks, the Radeon X1900 GT has trickled down to the $200 price point. With its 36 pixel shaders, 8 vertex shaders, and 256-bit memory interface, the X1900 GT has more than enough horsepower to compete against NVIDIA’s latest $200 offering, the 20-pixel shader GeForce 7900 GS. In our tests we found each won their fair share of benchmarks, without an outright winner.
But the Radeon X1900 GT is far from being a cost effective solution for ATI at the $200 price point, its R580 GPU is the same chip found in more expensive Radeon X1900 XT/XTX cards, and keep in mind that the Radeon X1900 GT is a card that initially debuted at $300. As you can imagine, selling the X1900 GT for $200 isn’t going to keep the bean counters in ATI’s accounting department happy for long.
In order to really compete with NVIDIA at the mainstream price point of $200, ATI needed a more economical solution, and they needed one in a hurry. This is where the Radeon X1950 Pro comes in…
Rather than procuring the services of R580 once again to service the mainstream segment, ATI’s come up with a brand new GPU to power the Radeon X1950 Pro: RV570.
In order to make their newest mainstream GPU more cost effective to produce, ATI’s enlisted the help of their manufacturing partner TSMC. To cut production costs, ATI’s decided to go with a smaller manufacturing process, 80-nm for RV570 versus the 90-nm process that was used previously in R580.
On paper the R580 GPU used previously in the Radeon X1900 GT also had 36 pixel shaders, but its GPU actually physically contained 48 pixel shading units. ATI merely disabled 12 of the shaders for X1900 GT. This means at the chip level, the X1900 GT costs just as much for ATI to produce as the X1900 XTX/X1950 XTX. With 36 shaders from the start, RV570 contains fewer transistors than R580: approximately 330 million in RV570 versus the 384 million found in R580.
With fewer pixel shaders, and its new 80-nm manufacturing process, RV570 is a smaller chip than R580. RV570 boasts a die size of approximately 230.5 square mm, in comparison R580 is 315 square mm. Thanks to its smaller die size, RV570 is much cheaper for ATI to produce than R580, as they yield more RV570 chips per silicon wafer.
RV570 has one other key addition over previous ATI GPUs: integrated CrossFire built-in.
Previously ATI had relied on a small array of external chips to power their CrossFire technology used on CrossFire master cards like the Radeon X1900 XT CrossFire. A Xilinx Spartan XC3S400 FPGA chip was used to handle the compositing duties for CrossFire, while TMDS receivers from Silicon Image were used to receive data from the slave Radeon graphics card. Now all of these duties have been integrated into RV570 itself, so a custom CrossFire card isn’t necessary: all Radeon X1950 Pro cards already have the technology built into the GPU.
Sitting at the top left corner of every Radeon X1950 Pro card are two 12-bit CrossFire connectors. When two Radeon X1950 Pro cards are connected together for CrossFire, software automatically assigns one board as the master board, and the second card as slave. According to ATI, the two 12-bit connectors deliver 24-bit performance at screen resolutions as high as 2560x2048 at 60Hz, making it ready for 30” displays like the Dell 3007 WFP.
We’ll be discussing ATI’s X1950 CrossFire solution in much more depth in tomorrow’s X1950 Pro CrossFire Performance article.
ATI clocks the RV570 chip found in the Radeon X1950 Pro at the same speed as the Radeon X1900 GT: 575MHz. The memory subsystem does see a slight boost however, as the X1950 Pro’s memory runs at 690MHz (1.38GHz effective), that’s 90MHz higher than the X1900 GT’s 600MHz memory. The X1950 Pro sports the same 256-bit memory interface first introduced with the R520 last year. If you recall, ATI uses 8 32-bit memory controllers on R520/R580, and now RV570, that’s twice the number of memory controllers as competing GPUs from NVIDIA. With more controllers onboard, ATI’s GPUs can serve more read/write requests simultaneously and thus operate more efficiently. ATI’s 512-bit ring bus memory architecture also carries over intact on RV570.
The first thing that really stands out when you first look at the Radeon X1950 Pro reference board is its size – its PCB is considerably longer than NVIDIA’s GeForce 7900 GT or 7900 GS. Measuring in at 9.5” in length, it’s about 2.5” longer than the X1600 XT and 1.5” longer than the aforementioned GeForce 7900 cards, but roughly similar in length to the Radeon X1900 GT board it replaces.
At first glance the Radeon X1950 Pro’s new cooler may remind you of the cooling unit used on the Radeon X1950 XTX, but it’s actually a completely different design.
The Radeon X1950 XTX is also a dual-slot cooler that exhausts hot air from the GPU outside your system case, in contrast the cooler used on the Radeon X1950 Pro is a single-slot cooler, and it doesn’t exhaust hot air outside the case. Instead hot air exits out the top of the cooler, just between the CrossFire connector and the cooler’s fan.
The fan itself is located offset of the graphics core. This serves two purposes. By pushing the fan further away from the front of the graphics card, the card’s fan is less audible to your ears as the fan is located deeper inside the system case. Previous ducted cooling designs from ATI located the fan on the opposite end of the cooling unit, closer to the back plate of the graphics card and thus closer to the end of the case where fan noise can ultimately escape the enclosure.
The other benefit to this design is that the fan’s duct is longer, increasing the effectiveness of the cooling system.
Sitting directly atop the RV570 GPU is a very long copper plate. The copper plate runs the entire length of the duct and is approximately 7.5” long. This plate is responsible for drawing heat off the GPU; this heat is then dispersed across the plate’s long surface area. From here ATI has attached copper fins to the base plate, further increasing the surface area of the cooler. Fresh air from the card’s fan helps to keep everything cool, and as we mentioned previously the air is then exhausted out the top of the ducted cooling unit.
In operation it’s a system that works quite well, the Radeon X1950 Pro operates much cooler than previous mainstream offerings such as the X1900 GT (our reference X1950 Pro card ran 12 degrees cooler than the X1900 GT at idle!), and the card’s fan is much quieter as well: ATI’s Radeon X1950 Pro is quieter than the GeForce 7600 GT/7900 GS from NVIDIA. In fact it runs nearly as silent as the cooler on the GeForce 7900 GTX we’ve grown to love so much.
Connectivity options on ATI’s Radeon X1950 Pro are quite robust, particularly for a mainstream card at the $200 price point. Not only do you get two dual-link DVI connectors, ATI’s X1950 Pro also includes VIVO (video-in/video-out) support. Even NVIDIA’s $400 GeForce 7900 GTX doesn’t support VIVO. ATI’s retail Radeon X1950 Pro cards will also ship with HDCP support, but HDCP isn’t a requirement for ATI’s board partners. Speaking of which, both Connect3D and Gigabyte were able to discuss their plans for their upcoming Radeon X1950 Pro cards with us.
Connect3D Radeon X1950 Pro
Connect3D plans to produce two Radeon X1950 Pro variants, a card with 256MB of memory, the C3D3062, and an X1950 Pro with 512MB of memory, the C3D3063. We weren’t able to get any photos of the 512MB card, but Connect3D passed along the following images of their 256MB card:
As you can see, it looks like Connect3D is sticking pretty close to ATI’s reference board design for their Radeon X1950 Pro card. Connect3D is using the same single-slot heatsink as ATI, and the board in the above photo looks like pretty similar to the ATI reference card we’re testing today. Connect3D will be incorporating HDCP support into all of their X1950 Pro cards.
Gigabyte has come up with quite a few changes with their Radeon X1950 Pro card:
As you can see, Gigabyte has implemented their own custom board design for their Radeon X1950 Pro card, including the usage of all-solid capacitors on the entire board. They’ve also placed the PCI Express power connector slightly higher on the PCB of the board itself, and of course you can’t miss the Zalman cooling.
Rather than rely on ATI’s stock cooler, Gigabyte uses a Zalman VF700-AlCu heatsink/fan unit to cool the RV570 GPU. Zalman’s VF700-AlCu has proven pretty popular with enthusiasts thanks to its solid performance and quiet operation, so we’ll be eager to see how it compares to the cooler used on stock Radeon X1950 Pro cards.
Gigabyte is sticking with the stock Radeon X1950 Pro speeds for their GV-RX195P256D-RH card, and while it will support two dual-link DVI connectors, the board won’t ship with the EEPROM chip that stores the HDCP key, so the card won’t support HDCP. In addition to the card and hardware accessories, Gigabyte is including a copy of the game Call of Juarez with their board.
Half-Life 2 Lost Coast
Again keep in mind that we’re testing the NVIDIA cards with the image quality setting at “High Quality” mode rather than the driver default setting of “Quality”. We’ve noted that the HQ setting significantly reduces the amount of texture shimmering in games such as Battlefield 2. This change does negatively impact NVIDIA’s performance, but it’s a tweak many NVIDIA users seem to be doing with their own cards so we’re doing it too. We’re also including XFX’s factory overclocked GeForce 7900 GS card, to represent the factory OC’ed 7900 GS cards. It’s not necessarily the highest OC’ed 7900 GS, but it provides a nice reference point to compare against.
3DMark 06 – Direct3D
Half-Life 2: Lost Coast – Direct3D
Battlefield 2 – Direct3D
Quake 4 – OpenGL
Lock On: Modern Air Combat – Direct3D
F.E.A.R. – Direct3D
Oblivion – Direct3D
Oblivion – Direct3D
Call of Duty 2 – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
Fortunately over the course of the summer board prices came down, and at the $200 price point the Radeon X1900 GT carries today, it’s quite competitive with competing offerings in its price range, namely NVIDIA’s GeForce 7900 GS. In fact it outperforms the 7900 GS in many of our benchmarks.
As a result of all this, our bearish initial outlook on the Radeon X1900 GT has become quite bullish in recent months. It’s a more than worthy competitor to anything else out there in its class.
With the Radeon X1950 Pro, ATI has essentially taken the basic ingredients found in the base Radeon X1900 GT, namely its 36 pixel shader/8 vertex shader architecture and spiced the package up a little further with faster memory speeds, a better cooler that runs very quiet, and for dual-GPU enthusiasts, integrated CrossFire support.
All these tweaks add up to a very nice package in our opinion.
Performance-wise, the Radeon X1950 Pro ran up to 4% faster than the Radeon X1900 GT in Quake 4 and Far Cry, although there were some titles such as F.E.A.R. and Call of Duty 2 where the margin was much closer. This wasn’t enough to outperform the GeForce 7900 GS in benchmarks NVIDIA’s GeForce architecture has traditionally done well in such as Quake 4, but it did close the gap somewhat for ATI. At 1600x1200 for instance the X1950 Pro only trails the 7900 GS by 8%. And of course, the GeForce 7900 GS was no match for the Radeon X1950 Pro in games that ATI has done well in like Oblivion.
Basically the winner of the ATI X1950 Pro versus NVIDIA 7900 GS battle is going to come down to which games you play. If you find yourself playing lots of Quake 4 and Prey, the 7900 GS currently delivers better performance, while the X1950 Pro performs well in Oblivion, Call of Duty 2, and F.E.A.R.
With the debut of the Radeon X1950 Pro, the X1900 GT will slowly fade away. ATI has lowered the MSRP of the X1900 GT to $195, pegging it $4 cheaper than the X1950 Pro’s $199 MSRP. Based on the improvements ATI has integrated into the X1950 Pro, we think you’d be better off spending the extra four dollars on the Radeon X1950 Pro if you plan on going with ATI. It’s a quieter card that runs cooler and a little faster, with the added bonus of built-in CrossFire support.
For those of you with AGP systems, we’ve heard that Sapphire is prepping an AGP X1950 Pro card as we speak. We weren’t able to get independent confirmation on this from Sapphire, but if true this card could become the AGP upgrade of choice for a lot of users if the price and performance pan out.
In any case, it looks like ATI’s finally got the affordable mainstream card that they’ve always wanted with the Radeon X1950 Pro. It’s cheaper for them to manufacture than the X1900 GT, and has just enough goodies and performance to make ATI enthusiasts on a budget happy as well. We hear ATI’s got one more launch planned for this month in the works as well…
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