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So what of performance? We recently put together a new test platform based on an Athlon FX-55, two 512MB modules of Ballistix RAM running in an Abit SLI motherboard, with a 400GB Seagate hard disk. Now this card costs over £309 so we though we’d put it up against the results we got from the 256MB and 512MB X800XL cards we recently tested. As ATI’s near flagship GPU we thought we’d also pitch it against nVidia’s current best – a GeForce 6800 Ultra, courtesy of Leadtek, to get a fuller picture of where it stands. Unfortunately, teething troubles with our test rig prevented us from getting a full set of fresh results from the 6800 Ultra card but we managed to obtain scores for Doom 3 and Half-Life 2, which is essentially the core of our tests and enough to make a decent comparison.
Starting with 3DMark03 and ‘05 the GeCube pulled nicely away from both XL cards at all resolutions. However, our seriously hardcore Far Cry tests showed that the 512MB XL card can reap major benefits over the higher clock speeds on the X850XT. This pattern didn’t continue with Half-Life 2 however, with the X850XT taking the lead from the XL cards. However, the 6800 Ultra added to the mix in this test takes over, outperforming the 512XL, until we reach 1,600 x 1,200 with both FSAA and AF enabled, where it turns into a draw. The X850XT however, outperforms all of them. In the nVidia friendly Doom 3 things are very much linear – the GeForce 6800 Ultra takes a convincing lead at all resolutions, with the X850XT coming next, and the 256MB and 512MB XL cards following behind neck and neck the whole time.
Finally, I took the card for a subjective evaluation spin by playing Half-Life 2 – in real-time. I really went for it, hiking up the settings to 1,600 x 1,200 with 6x FSAA and 16x AF. On the Athlon FX-55 it was essentially as smooth as a baby’s bottom, with the occasional hiccup as textures loaded. Certainly, the card provides enough horsepower to enjoy any current single player game at very high settings, though you'd probably want to turn them down to something more reasonable for online gaming.
What can we learn from this? We can see that the X850XT does a very good job at keeping up with the more expensive 6800 Ultra for a start. But compared to the humungous Leadtek, it’s a much more elegant solution. Killer gaming in a SFF PC - no problem! Ability to hear oneself think, while doing so? Check that box too.
The real problem though is that while the X850XT beats the XL cards in all tests, (bar Far Cry) it doesn’t do so by a large enough margin to justify the extra outlay. This really hits the value score as it means that you can get nearly the same performance for almost £100 less.
Of course, for the well-heeled looking for no compromise, it’s a really attractive card, especially with the superb connectivity options. What’s more, the emergence of ATI’s CrossFire twin card rendering solution really boosts the appeal of laying down this much cash for a high-end ATI card. Up to now nVidia has had this market sown up but if CrossFire fulfils its promise, nVidia won’t be having everything it’s own way for much longer.
GeCube’s single slot cooling solution for the X850XT is very impressive from an engineering perspective. Performance is great too and if you fancy becoming a CrossFire early adopter, this could be a great first step. The lack of Shader Model 3 support is a shame but the superb physical connectivity makes up for it. However, if the sensible gene kicks in when the credit card comes out, you’ll find that an X800XL or 6800GT card will give you almost as much performance and leave you with enough change to pick up a few decent games.