Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2004/09/27/review_ati_x700/
ATI Radeon X700 XT
Mainstream price, maximum performance?
Review There's a definite 'halo effect' when it comes to graphics cards, just like with cars. Take Subaru, for example. It leverages off the back of its WRC pedigree by producing the Impreza WRX STi - a very fast road-going version its rally car. Subaru knows that only a small number of its customers will be able to justify the cost of an STi, but thanks to the halo effect, people will still buy into the Impreza range because of its motor sport roots. In the world of graphics cards, both ATI and Nvidia launched their high-end, next generation parts first in order to grab the performance headlines. Yet they always knew that these cards would represent a small percentage of the overall volume. As with Subaru, both companies are hoping that the high-end cards will produce a halo effect that tempts mainstream buyers with the more affordable mid-range products writes Riyad Emeran.
Nvidia's new mid-range offering, the GeForce 6600 GT, has proved to be a pretty capable solution at a reasonable price. So, unsurprisingly, ATI has just launched a new mid-range card as well - the Radeon X700. Like the GeForce 6600, the Radeon X700 will come in multiple flavours offering differing levels or performance, and consequently different levels of pricing. Top of the range will be the X700 XT, which is set to go head to head with the GeForce 6600 GT.
Architecturally, the X700 is very similar to its big brother, the X800. The number of pixel pipelines has been reduced to eight, from 16 on the X800 XT and 12 on the X800 Pro. However, there are still six vertex pipelines.
As with the X800, ATI has employed GDDR 3 memory for the X700 XT and Pro; in differing quantities and speeds. The type of memory used for the standard X700 hasn't been decided yet, but considering the clock speeds employed, it's likely to be standard DDR memory. The X700 XT will sport 128MB of memory running at 525MHz (1.05GHz effective), while the X700 Pro will employ 256MB of memory clocked at 432MHz (864MHz effective). Finally, the vanilla X700 will have 128MB of memory running at 350MHz (700MHz effective). To bring high-end features to the mainstream, certain compromises have to be made, and just like Nvidia with the GeForce 6600, ATI has had to limit the memory interface to 128-bit, instead of the 256-bit interface seen on the X800 chipset.
Other than the memory speeds, the different X700 variants are also separated by the core clock speeds. The X700 XT has a core speed of 475MHz, the X700 Pro ticks over at 420MHz and the vanilla X700 burbles along at a steady 400MHz.
The X700 continues ATI's recent tradition of low power consumption, so it's no surprise to see that the X700 XT doesn't need an external power connector. But, to be fair, the GeForce 6600 also needs no external power. The X700 also shares some of its bigger brother's features - such as 3Dc Normal Map compression, a new compression standard that allows a 4:1 compression ratio of normal maps - producing potentially far more detailed 3D models. Of course, for 3Dc to make a real impact it needs mass adoption, and it's still a long way from that goal. It is, however, an open standard, so any hardware or software manufacturer could adopt it if they wished.
Looking at ATI's projected pricing structure shows a strange line-up. Bizarrely, the X700 XT and the X700 Pro are both pitched at the same price. However, although the XT is clocked faster, it only sports 128MB of memory, while the Pro has 256MB of RAM. That said, I recently received an email from Abit, stating that it will be offering an X700 XT card with 256MB of RAM on-board, so I guess any combination is possible.
Performance proved to be a bit of a mixed bag, with some definite driver issues in evidence. Far Cry showed some anomalies, where anti-aliasing refused to work at 1600 x 1200 but anisotropic filtering worked fine. Conversely, at 1280 x 1024 FSAA worked fine, but turning on AF had no effect whatsoever. Likewise, running both Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness and Unreal Tournament 2004, turning on AF had no effect to the frame rate. I have, however, been assured by ATI that these driver issues have already been addressed, so retail boards should not see any problems.
Comparing the X700 XT results directly to the GeForce 6600 GT showed that things are pretty much 50:50 right now, although the newer games with the more demanding engines seem to favour the GeForce 6600. Under Doom 3 the 6600 GT raced ahead of the X700 XT, but this is to be expected as Nvidia has always been ahead when it comes to OpenGL. However, Far Cry also proved to be much faster on the 6600 GT, with a score of 58.6fps compared with 43.5fps on the X700 XT at 1024 x 768 with no FSAA or AF. Pushing things up to 1600 x 1200 still saw the 6600 GT ten frames ahead of the X700 XT with scores of 37.5fps and 27fps respectively.
The X700 XT levelled the playing field in Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness, but it didn't really pull ahead. But running Unreal Tournament 2004, showed a definite advantage using the X700 XT over the 6600 GT, and with a game that's as fast and frenetic as UT, every bit of performance counts.
Both 3DMark 2001 SE and 3DMark03 proved faster on the X700 XT than the 6600 GT. But with 3DMark 2005 just around the corner (hopefully), it will be interesting to see which chipset comes out on top running the new benchmark.
The last two tests - Halo and AquaMark 3 - again split things straight down the middle, with the 6600 GT coming out ahead in Halo, and the X700 XT edging ahead in AquaMark 3.
Estimated pricing for the X700 XT is $199, which, unsurprisingly, is exactly the same estimated US price that Nvidia announced for the GeForce 6600 GT. So, it looks like the mid-range is going to be a hard-fought market, with the consumer set to be the real winner. Of course the GeForce 6600 GT does have the advantage of supporting SLi, which could prove to be a major boon for anyone looking for high-performance on a tight budget.
The other major factor will be the, eventual, release of Half-Life 2. Depending on how Half-Life 2 performs on both Nvidia and ATI hardware could prove to be a major influence for consumer buying decisions in the mid-range.
Ultimately though, the mid-range graphics market is looking pretty good for the consumer, with both ATI and Nvidia offering very impressive products. Which one is better could well come down to what games you play, and whether games developers choose to take advantage of 3Dc or Shader Model 3.0 in the near future.
Like the GeForce 6600 GT, the X700 XT sets out to prove that you don't need to take out a second mortgage to get decent graphics on your PC. For now at least, it seems like the GeForce 6600 GT has the edge, with faster Doom 3 performance and the prospect of SLi, but things may well change when Half-Life 2 arrives. All that said, the X700 XT provides solid 3D performance at an affordable price point. ®
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