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ATI's Radeon X800 XL graphics card

GT killer?

WHEN WE REVIEWED ATI's new Radeon X850 series of graphics chips a couple of weeks back, we said that the more exciting development in ATI's re-spin of its high-end products was probably the Radeon X800 XL, a card slated to replace the Radeon X800 Pro. We are, after all, notorious cheapskates, and a sixteen-pipe card for under $400 is the kind of proposition we tend to appreciate. In fact, the GeForce 6800 GT has been one of our favorite high-end cards, often edging out the 12-pipe Radeon X800 Pro at the same basic price.

Little did we know what ATI really had in store for the Radeon X800 XL. We tested this sixteen-pipe card against no less than twelve different competing configs, and it came out looking pretty good. Then ATI lowered the boom, unexpectedly slapping a lower price tag on this puppy right before its launch. Keep reading to find out about the Radeon X800 XL's killer combo of value and performance.

A glitch in the matrix
Those of you who read our Radeon X850 XT review may recall that ATI's original plan for the Radeon X800 XL was to deliver this card for $349, cleverly positioned between NVIDIA's GeForce 6800 and 6800 GT products. Not a bad plan. We're pretty familiar with the Radeon X series and GeForce 6 series products by now, and one could reasonably expect the Radeon X800 XL, with its combination of sixteen pipes and a 400MHz clock speed, to offer performance at least comparable to the GeForce 6800 GT for fifty bucks less.

However, ATI apparently wasn't happy with this formula.

Shortly before we polished off this review, ATI informed us that the Radeon X800 XL and its little brother, the vanilla Radeon X800, will debut at lower prices. Here's the revised Radeon X800 lineup:

 Chip Core clock (MHz) Pixel pipelines Memory clock (MHz)Memory onboardDisplay outputsMSRP
Radeon X800R43040012700128MBVGA+DVI+TVo$199
Radeon X800 XLR43040016980256MBVGA+DVI+TVo$299
Radeon X850 ProR480520121120256MBVGA+DVI+TVo$399
Radeon X850 XTR480520161120256MBDVI+DVI+ViVo$499
Radeon X850 XT Platinum EditionR480540161180256MBDVI+DVI+ViVo$549

Turns out the Radeon X800 XL will debut for $299, or fully $100 less than NVIDIA's competing sixteen-pipe card, the GeForce 6800 GT. And that may not be the biggest news. The Radeon X800 (sans postfix) will now be hitting the market at $199, ready to go head to head with the GeForce 6600 GT. (Apparently, there is some truth in the rumors of the Radeon X700 XT's demise. The X700 XT isn't even available yet, and it's already been edged out at the $199 price point.)

At these prices, the X800 and X800 XL stand to give ATI a boost where the red team needs it most: in the middle of its lineup where the competition has been toughest. NVIDIA's GeForce 6600 GT has been winning awards and accolades around here since its debut, and the 6800 GT has been the clear choice for those who had $400 to spend on a graphics card. These new X800 models could give ATI the price-performance edge once again.

The XL
The Radeon X800 XL has more to recommend it than its price tag. The card itself has a few virtues:

The Radeon X800 XL

This PCI Express x16 graphics card comes with a single-slot cooler attached, and it doesn't require any auxiliary power connections. The 75 watts supplied by the PCI-E x16 slot should suffice. Otherwise, the X800 XL is nearly a dead ringer for a Radeon X850 XT card. Closer inspection reveals some minor differences, but the two PCB designs obviously share a common pedigree.

The XL's real distinction comes in the form of its R430 VPU. The R480 chip that powers the more expensive X850 line is manufactured at TSMC on a 130nm fab process. The R430, by contrast, is fabbed using TSMC's 110nm process. Pull off the Radeon X800 XL's single-slot cooler, and this is what you'll find lurking beneath:

Pro? Doh!

Pardon the hairs and stuff on the chip. What I really want you to see is the silk-screened "Radeon X800 Pro." This suggests a slight change in plans at ATI, don'tcha think?

The R430 measures out to about 15mm by 16mm, or roughly 240mm2. That makes it a little smaller than the R420 chip used in previous X800 cards, which is about 260mm2. The NV40 powering NVIDIA's GeForce 6800 cards is about 288mm2¬ónot counting a bridge chip for PCI Express. The R480 is about 18mm by 16.5mm, or 297mm2. Smaller is better, of course, because smaller chips are cheaper to produce. The R430's more modest die size probably deserves some credit for the X800 XL's friendly price tag.

All told, the Radeon X800 XL looks like it could be a very compelling solution at $299. Let's see how it performs.