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ATI's Radeon X1950 Pro graphics card

At last, ATI nails a mid-range GPU—and CrossFire goes native

SINCE LATE AUGUST, we've been first-person witnesses to the fall parade of video cards. Personally, I've reviewed so many video cards that I'm having trouble separating a GeForce from a Radeon, let alone a GT from a GS or a Pro from, er, an amateur.

Fortunately, the new product ATI is unveiling today brings with it good news in several forms: the Radeon X1950 Pro is a strong new contender at the value-oriented $199 price point, and it's based on a brand-new mid-range GPU. ATI hasn't had the best of luck with mid-range graphics processors, but it looks like that's about to change. What's more, this new graphics processor at long last incorporates CrossFire capability directly into the GPU. Gone are the external dongles and proprietary CrossFire Edition graphics cards, replaced by simple, SLI-like bridge connectors between the cards.

Sounds nice, doesn't it? But is the Radeon X1950 Pro's formula sufficient to challenge the excellent GeForce 7900 GS at $199? Let's take a look.

ATI's new middle manager: the RV570
I'm going to be a huge geek and start off by talking about the new GPU. I could kick things off with a discussion of the product itself, but that would totally appeal to a broader audience and spoil the challenge for our ad sales guy. Can't have that.

The RV570 GPU

The GPU that powers the Radeon X1950 Pro is code-named RV570. The RV570 is a true mid-range part, with quite a bit more power than the RV530 GPU that drove the ill-fated Radeon X1600 XT. The RV570 shares its technological DNA with the rest of ATI's R500-series GPUs, but it has its own mix of on-chip resources, including eight vertex shader units, 36 pixel shader processors, and 12 texture address units. Given the design of the X1000-series GPUs, that means it also has 12 Z-compare units, 12 render back-ends, and can manage a maximum of 384 concurrent threads. There will be a quiz on these numbers after class.

TSMC manufactures this chip using its 80nm fab process—a "half-node" process that's an incremental improvement over the more common 90nm node. This slight process shrink ought to help the RV570 to run slightly cooler and perhaps hit higher clock speeds than its siblings in the Radeon X1000 family, all of which are 90nm chips.

ATI estimates the RV570's transistor count at 330 million. The chip's dimensions are roughly 16.7 mm by 13.8 mm, for a total die area of about 230 mm2. Compare that to the Nvidia G71 GPU on the GeForce 7900 GS. Although methods of counting transistors vary, Nvidia says the G71 has 278 million transistors, and at 90nm, the G71 is about 196 mm2. Of course, the G71 is Nvidia's high-end GPU, hobbled slightly for use in the 7900 GS, while the RV570 is brand-new silicon aimed at the middle of the market.

In spite of its middle-class pedigree, the RV570 still gets membership in the Radeon X1950 club. That's a departure from the past, when the GPU powering the video card determined its model number. ATI says performance, not silicon, now determines its naming scheme. That means it's possible we might see a future Radeon card in, say, the X1650 series based on this exact same GPU.

The Radeon X1950 Pro
Whatever you call it, the Radeon X1950 looks pretty suave, with the same red transparent cooler motif present on the rest of the X1950 lineup, only this time in a sleek, quiet, single-slot cooler.

A pair of Radeon X1950 Pro cards

Onboard this card you'll find an RV570 GPU clocked at 575MHz and 256MB of GDDR3 memory running at 690MHz (1380MHz effective, thanks to DDR black magic.) Sticking out of the PCI slot cover is a TV-out port and a pair of dual-link DVI ports. Those DVI ports have full support for HDCP in order to protect you from the movie industry.

Err, wait. Other way 'round.

Anyhow, as you'd expect, the X1950 Pro drops into a PCI Express x16 slot and has a six-pin auxiliary power connector to keep the GPU cranking.

ATI says these puppies should be on the virtual shelves at online stores starting today for $199, and unlike with some past mid-range Radeon products, ATI will not be relying solely on its partners to get the boards out there. There will be "built by ATI" versions of the X1950 Pro available, as well.

For those of you tracking GTs versus XTXs versus Pros at home, the Radeon X1950 Pro is indeed a replacement for the Radeon X1900 GT. The X1900 GT is based on an R580 GPU with portions deactivated, but its basic capabilities work out to almost exactly the same as the X1950 Pro: 36 pixel shaders at 575MHz, albeit with slightly slower memory. One of the X1900 GT's weaknesses was the lack of a matching CrossFire Edition card for it. The GT could pass CrossFire data via a PCIe link, but at the risk of reduced performance. The X1950 Pro solves that problem, and the X1900 GT will be phased out as the X1950 Pro takes its place.