Radeon X800, XL distribution costs revealed

As you know, we have been following the story of pricing and availability of the latest ATI cards for some time now. The story started with the introduction of the Radeon X800 series of graphics cards last spring and the subsequent availability problems with certain models, especially the Radeon X800 XT Platinum Edition. High-end cards from both NVIDIA and ATI were scarce for a good portion of 2004, especially in consumer retail and "e-tail" channels, causing consternation among would-be buyers. "Stunt cards" like the X800 Platinum Edition and GeForce 6800 Ultra "Extreme" caused reviewers and consumers further problems, because they essentially existed only to be benchmarked, not to be sold. In response, we extended a meaty middle digit toward this discouraging trend in our year-end wrap for 2004.

Things took a turn for the bizarre in late '04, when ATI announced its Radeon X700 XT card, which debuted to lukewarm but generally positive reviews as competition for NVIDIA's excellent GeForce 6600 GT at $199. The X700 XT never materialized in any kind of volume, and ATI canceled the product. In its place, the Radeon X700 Pro still sells to this day for about $199. Trouble is, the X700 Pro isn't really performance competitive with the GeForce 6600 GT overall.

ATI sought to replace much of its product lineup this past fall in order to address the availability problems and shore up its competitive position on several fronts. They announced the new lineup, with pricing, when the Radeon X850 XT debuted. Here's how the pricing looked at the time:

  Chip Core clock (MHz) Pixel pipelines Memory clock (MHz) Memory onboard Display outputs MSRP
Radeon X800 R430 400 12 700 128MB VGA+DVI+TVo $249
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
The product positioning, we noted at the time, was clever because it placed the Radeon X800 XL at $50 less than its presumptive competition, the GeForce 6800 GT. Ditto for the Radeon X800 versus the GeForce 6800.

Then a funny thing happened. In mid-December, when the Radeon X800 XL hit the review circuit, ATI announced a price cut on the Radeon X800 and XL. The new pricing picture, they told us, would look like so:

  Chip Core clock (MHz) Pixel pipelines Memory clock (MHz) Memory onboard Display outputs MSRP
Radeon X800 R430 400 12 700 128MB VGA+DVI+TVo $199
Radeon X800 XL R430 400 16 980 256MB VGA+DVI+TVo $299
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

This happy news led to generally positive reviews for the Radeon X800 XL, which was, after all, an excellent performer for a $299 graphics card. And the 12-pipe Radeon X800 loomed on the horizon as impressively formidable competition for the GeForce 6600 GT at $199.

Several things happened after that. First, despite all of its protestations and prognostications to the contrary, ATI's new cards did not arrive for sale in volume on the timetable that the company had proclaimed. We spoke with ATI about this problem at CES in mid-January. Second, the only Radeon X800 cards announced in the initial wave of products came with 256MB of memory and a price tag well above $199, like this Sapphire model we reviewed. They're decent products, but not the 6600 GT competitor we were told to expect. Third, when the cards did begin to arrive at online vendors, the Radeons X800 and X800 XL were priced well above the new, lower MSRP that ATI set at the time of the Radeon X800 XL review. We were unsure whether the high prices were caused by low supply relative to demand or inherently higher pricing from ATI, but we pledged to find out.

This led us to check into the actual prices for Radeon X800 and XL cards. At first, getting pricing info from U.S. sources was difficult. Although the cards have been available at online vendors, they weren't even in the databases of some major distributors and resellers. This past week, however, I was able to obtain pricing from a couple of sources, one a small vendor who looked up card prices through a major U.S. distributor and the other a large U.S. reseller who was willing to share its cost with me.

Through distribution, availability on Radeon X800 XL cards is still iffy, and pricing, even before reseller markup, is well above $299. Some examples:

ASUS Extreme AX800XL/2DTV - 7 Available - $425.07
ATI RADEON X800 XL - Check ETA - $330.49
MSI RX800XL-VT2D256E - Check ETA - $360.11
Gigabyte GV RX80L256V - Check ETA - $357.62
Only the Asus card is available, and it's priced at $425.

The picture is similar for the Radeon X800:

ASUS Extreme AX800/2DTV - Check ETA - $337.88
Gigabyte GV RX80256D RADEON X800 - Check ETA - $264.14
Only two cards are in the system, both with 256MB of memory, both well above $199, and neither in stock.

Our major reseller didn't yet have any Radeon X800 cards in its system, but there was a listing for the ATI-branded Radeon X800 XL. This reseller's cost on the card: $340. Again, that's before any markup and not a consumer price.

The picture is rosier at a few online vendors. There's a Rosewill X800 XL card at NewEgg, currently in stock for $299. CompUSA lists the ATI X800 XL at $299. And there's an ATI X800 XL, OEM version, at NewEgg for $299, as well.

However, as the numbers from distribution and our major reseller attest, the prevailing price for Radeon X800 XL cards is closer to the $349 price point that ATI originally projected, not the revised $299 price. Sapphire's card is selling for $339-380, MSI's for $345 and up, and Asus's for $391-420. At that price, the Radeon X800 XL competes directly with the GeForce 6800 GT, as the $339 price tag on the PNY version demonstrates. There's even a 6800GT card with 128MB selling for $315.

Likewise, the Sapphire Radeon X800 at $289 competes most directly against cards like the BFG Tech GeForce 6800 at $269.

The moral of the story, it seems to me, is clear: ATI's second set of lower pricing numbers for the X800 and X800 XL was essentially incorrect. In reality, in the market, the 16-pipe Radeon X800 XL competes with the 16-pipe GeForce 6800 GT. The 12-pipe Radeon X800 competes with the 12-pipe GeForce 6800, and the Radeon X700 Pro competes with the GeForce 6600 GT. Armed with this knowledge, you can compare performance for yourself.

Of course, none of this says that the ATI cards aren't compelling products. I like the fact that the Radeon X700 Pro comes with 256MB of memory at $199. The Radeon X800 with 256MB of memory is a decent option at $289. And the Radeon X800 XL at $345 is all the video card I'd care to purchase right now. The handful of XLs currently selling at $299 are an outright steal.

Still, the competing NVIDIA cards are also quite good, and they are perhaps stronger competitors thanks to their newer technology and excellent performance. ATI's fake price cuts sought to avoid head-to-head comparisons of cards in the same class, and that is a telling fact.

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