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ATI's Radeon X1950 XTX graphics cards

...and family

PC GRAPHICS TECHNOLOGY HAS EARNED itself a reputation as a fast-moving locus of innovation, and that rep is certainly well deserved. Still, the much-ballyhooed talk of six-month product cycles and the breakneck pace of change is a little bit overheated. About 25% of everything that happens in PC graphics involves truly novel innovations, such as new GPU microarchitectures with features never seen before. The rest is mostly just dance remixes.

Today is a day of dance remixes for ATI. You can hear the thump-thump-thump of the drum track throbbing in the background if you listen closely. Fresh off the announcement of its public engagement to AMD, the red team has cued up five new Radeon video cards, from the low end to the very high end, and they are all remakes of already familiar tunes.

Fortunately, in the world of video cards, remixes actually bring improvements most of the time. They tend to offer more graphics horsepower at lower prices, not just a torrid, syncopated rhythm from a drum sequencer. The new flavors of Radeons range from the X1950 XTX at just under five hundred bucks to the X1300 XT at well under a hundred. In the middle of the pack is a potential gem for PC enthusiasts: a new $279 version of the Radeon X1900 XT that looks to redefine the price-performance equation. Keep reading for the info on ATI's revamped lineup, including our tests of the most appealing cards for enthusiasts.

The Radeon X1000 remixes
All told, ATI is unveiling five new video cards today. To cover them, we'll start at the high end and move down.

The Radeon X1950 CrossFire Edition (left) and Radeon X1950 XTX (right)

The two cards you see pictured above are the Radeon X1950 XTX and its CrossFire Edition. The X1950 XTX is based on a chip that ATI has dubbed "R580+" for its status as a tweaked version of the R580 GPU found in all Radeon X1900-series graphics cards. Like its forebear, the R580+ is still manufactured at TSMC on a 90nm fabrication process, and it still tops out at 650MHz on the Radeon X1950 XTX, just as the R580 does on the X1900 XTX. The plus, however, extends ATI's tradition of pioneering new types of graphics RAM by adding support for GDDR4 memory. ATI's PR types claim GDDR4 memory uses less power per clock cycle than the current GDDR3-standard memory chips.

So the big gain with the R580+ is memory clock speeds. They're up from 725MHz on the X1900 XTX to a cool 1GHz on the X1950 XTX—or 2GHz effective, once you take the double data rate memory thing into account. The faster RAM gives the Radeon X1950 XTX a grand total of 64GB/s of peak theoretical memory bandwidth, well above the 49.6GB/s possible on the X1900 XTX.

That, of course, raises an intriguing question: was the Radeon X1900 XTX really so limited by memory bandwidth that the switch to a new RAM type alone can yield real performance benefits? We'll soon find out.

You may also have noticed the X1950's fancy new cooler. ATI says it switched providers in order to get this puppy, which looks to be an improvement on the double-wide cooler used in the X1800 and X1900-series cards. This fansink still exhausts hot air out the back of the PC case, but the blower is located further inside of the case, with the aim of reducing the noise that escapes the enclosure. The new cooler is also endowed with a heatpipe that pulls heat away from the GPU into a battalion of copper fins. You won't doubt that the thing is real copper when you pick it up; it carries more heft than a U.N. resolution.

At the back of the Radeon X1950 XTX is a pair of DVI-out ports and a video-in/video-out connector. The "built by ATI" versions of the X1950 will have support for HDCP via the DVI ports, enabling playback of DRM-encrusted Blu-ray and HD-DVD content. If you're buying a version of the X1950 XTX from an ATI partner, you'll need to check the spec sheet to ensure HDCP support is present, should you want it.

Oh, and of course, this is a PCI Express video card; we have no word on plans for an AGP version.

The Radeon X1950 CrossFire Edition is essentially the same thing as the X1950 XTX, save for the fact that it adds a special compositing engine for use with multi-GPU setups. ATI hasn't yet incorporated this image compositing engine into the GPU, so a CrossFire Edition card is still required. This time around, though, the CrossFire card runs at the same clock speeds as the XTX.

ATI says to expect both the Radeon X1950 XTX and the CrossFire Edition to sell for $449. That puts it directly opposite the current prices of the GeForce 7900 GTX at online vendors.

The Radeon X1900 XT 256MB (left) and Radeon X1950 XTX (right)

On the left above is the next stop in our tour through the new Radeons. This is a 256MB version of the already-familiar Radeon X1900 XT. This card is still based on an R580 GPU clocked at 625MHz and mated with 725MHz memory, so it packs nearly as much graphics processing power as the former top-of-the-line Radeon X1900 XTX. The only change here is half the memory of the original X1900 XT and a much nicer price—$279, to be exact, about the price of a GeForce 7900 GT. The X1900 XT 256MB offers a heckuva lot of graphics processing power for the money.

One of the few potential drawbacks to the X1900 XT 256MB is the lack of a CrossFire Edition card that's well matched to it. The card will operate in CrossFire mode with either the Radeon X1900 CrossFire or the Radeon X1950 CrossFire, but both of those cards are more expensive and will have to disable half of their RAM in order to work with it. ATI claims to be evaluating the possibility of enabling dongle-free CrossFire that operates via PCI Express for the X1900 XT 256MB, but they haven't committed to a timetable for delivering it. That's probably just as well, since this beast is probably too fast to work well in a PCI-E-based scheme.

With the introduction of these new cards, the current Radeon X1900 XT 512MB and X1900 XTX will eventually be phased out. Such things take time, though, so both products will probably linger in the market for some time to come.

We have the new X1900 and X1950 cards in our hot little hands for testing, but we haven't get gotten our mitts on the other two cards ATI is cooking up. The first of those is the Radeon X1650 Pro, which is a dead ringer for the current Radeon X1600 XT. Both are based on the RV530 GPU. While the X1600 XT runs at 590MHz with 690MHz memory, the X1650 Pro runs at 600MHz with a 700MHz RAM frequency. Accompanying this fine-tuning of clock speeds is a price cut to $99 for the X1650 Pro, between 10 and 40 bucks less than current X1600 XT prices. The X1650 Pro is the first installment in the plan for a new Radeon X1650 family to supplant the X1600 line with faster, cheaper parts.

If a 99-dollar video card is beyond your means, there's now an option at $89 in the form of the Radeon X1300 XT. This is the first and only member of the X1300 lineup to be based on the same RV530 chip found in the X1600/X1650 lines. For this application, the RV530 will be clocked at 500MHz and paired with 400MHz memory, so performance should be quite a bit lower than the X1650 Pro. (Think twice about saving that ten bucks, folks.) However, the XT should easily be the fastest Radeon X1300 thanks to its 12 pixel shader processors, five vertex shader processors, and eight Z-compare units, versus the RV515's four of each. The remaining RV515-based members Radeon X1300 family will stick around, but come down in price to slot below the X1300 XT.

The scoop on pricing and availability
All of these new cards are scheduled to become available at online retailers on September 14. We've seen claims about pricing and availability fail to work out as planned in the past, though, so we talked to ATI board partners to see what they had to say. Fortunately, both Diamond Multimedia and Connect3D confirmed that they're on track to hit that date.

Diamond is planning a full lineup of new Radeons from top to bottom, and they were willing to divulge suggested retail pricing for those products. Both their Radeon X1950 XTX and its CrossFire Edition are slated to list at $499, and their X1900 XT 256MB should list at $399. Diamond will also be building both PCI-E and AGP versions of the Radeon X1650 Pro with 512MB of memory onboard, and both will list at $229, while their Radeon X1300 XT with a PCI Express interface and 256MB of RAM will list at $149. That may sound pricey, but those are the price tags you can expect to see at big-box retail stores. Online vendors will discount substantially off of list price, as always seems to be the case. Diamond's Radeon X1900 XT 512MB, for example, is currently selling for under $449 online, well below the $499 suggested retail price.

The folks at Connect3D are even more oriented toward selling through online stores, and they were willing to give us a sense of likely pricing at e-tailers. Their versions of the Radeon X1950 XTX and CrossFire will come in at "under $450" at places like Newegg right out of the gate, and their X1900 XT 256MB should arrive at "well under $300," likely in the neighborhood of $275—all of which is right in line with ATI's projections. They also let slip word of another new card coming a few weeks behind the others: the Radeon X1950 Pro, which won't have all 48 pixel shaders enabled on it. They're expecting 256MB versions of the X1950 Pro to sell for under $199, with the 512MB version arriving at about $240. They were especially excited about the X1950 Pro and X1900 XT 256MB, which they acknowledged will fill some gaps in ATI's enthusiast-class product lineup.

Both Diamond and Connect3D told us they were considering producing liquid-cooled versions of the Radeon X1950 XTX, as well, although those products aren't likely to arrive in the first wave of X1950 cards.