However, not all has been roses. NVIDIA's GeForce 6800 cards have been fierce competition, with the 16-pipe GeForce 6800 GT arguably offering a better value at $399 than the Radeon X800 Pro. Also, ATI's top-end product, the Radeon X800 XT Platinum Edition, has been exceptionally rare. Oh, sure, the streets aren't exactly awash in GeForce 6800 Ultras, but the Platinum Edition has been brutally scarce.
ATI is aiming to correct these availability problems and bring a little more performance to the X800 series with a pair of new graphics chips, code-named R430 and R480. The first products based on these chips will be the Radeon X850 XT and X850 XT Platinum Edition, and we've had our grubby little hands on one of these cards long enough to benchmark it. In fact, we've benchmarked it against nearly every card we could find. Read on for a look at how ATI is remodeling the high end of its product line, and for a performance comparison of all of the latest the graphics cards from $199 and upincluding dual GeForce 6800 Ultras in SLI.
ATI's new arsenal
Both of ATI's new graphics chips, the R430 and R480, are derived from the R420 graphics processor found on prior Radeon X800 cards. The R420, in turn, traces its roots to the R300 design used on the original Radeon 9700. The R430 and R480 aren't revolutionary by any means, but ATI has brought some notable changes to each of them.
The R480 will be aimed at the very top of the performance ranks. Like the R420, the R480 is manufactured by TSMC on its low-k 130nm fab process, but the R480 and its supporting cast have been tweaked and tuned to reach higher clock speeds more easily and reliably. For the R480 chip itself, the big change is in power management. ATI has endowed the R480 with a dynamic clock gating capability, a la the Pentium M, that allows the chip to deactivate parts of itself when they're not being used. ATI says the R480 should use as little as half the power and produce half the heat of the R420 in "2D" desktop use.
The R480's supporting cast gets similar tweaks. ATI has chosen a different chip substrate component in order to ease the quest for higher memory clock speeds. The board design has been changed to improve power delivery to the graphics chip. And, most prominently, cards based on the R480 will have a Dustbuster-esque, dual-slot cooler strapped to the side, much like NVIDIA's top-end cards. Check it out:
Before you snort your coffee through your nose, rest assured that the Radeon X850 XT does not sound like a Dustbusteror a GeForce 5800 Ultra, for that matterin normal use. I have to admit, I was part bemused and part terrified when I first fired up a system with a Radeon X850 XT PE card in it. At boot time, that blower cranked up briefly to full speed, aurally evoking an Oreck XL. Once those few seconds passed, though, the blower never did get back up to that speed again, no matter what I did with the card. In intense 3D gaming and benchmarking sessions, even with relatively warm ambient temperatures, the X850 XT PE was generally quieter than a GeForce 6800 Ultra, which isn't bad company to keep.
Still, the other shoe has dropped. ATI has gone to a dual-slot cooler in order to keep pace with NVIDIA's uber-high-end cards. This change, like all the others to the R480, is intended to bring higher clock speeds with less fuss, so that supply of R480-based cards might actually be able to keep up with demand.
The second prong of ATI's new high-end assault is the R430. Like the R420 and R480, the R430 has 16 pixel pipelines and six vertex shader engines. Instead of dynamic clock gating and a big-ass fan, though, the R430 gets a bit of a die shrink courtesy of TSMC's 110nm fab process. This process, combined with lower clock speeds, should allow R430-based cards to thrive with a relatively minimalist single-slot cooler.
As you might have guessed, the R430's mission in life will be a little more modest, performance-wise, than the R480's. Here's a brief overview of how ATI will be using these new chips in actual products.
|Chip||Core clock (MHz)||Pixel pipelines||Memory clock (MHz)||Memory onboard||Display outputs||MSRP|
|Radeon X800 XL||R430||400||16||1000||256MB||VGA+DVI+TVo||$349|
|Radeon X850 Pro||R480||520||12||1120||256MB||VGA+DVI+TVo||$399|
|Radeon X850 XT||R480||520||16||1120||256MB||DVI+DVI+ViVo||$499|
|Radeon X850 XT Platinum Edition||R480||540||16||1180||256MB||DVI+DVI+ViVo||$549|
Both of the Radeon X800 cards will use a single-slot cooler and require no external power plug (at least on PCI Express versions).
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