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ATI X800 XL - Reference Board

Another day, another new graphics card. At least that's what it feels like, with both ATI and nVidia constantly refreshing their line-ups in their bid to outdo each other. Just recently nVidia has brought out the 6600 series, while ATI has countered with the X700. Indeed, just today nVidia has announced its latest offering, the 6200 Turbo Chache. Although the 6200 Turbo Chache is a low-end part aimed at system integrators, the ATI reference board we are looking at today is attacking nVidia’s high-end GeForce 6800 line-up.

The X800 XL, codenamed the R430, is a refresh of the R423, more commonly known as the Radeon X800 XT. The X800 XL features the same 16-pipeline architecture of the XT, and the same 256MB of GDDR3 memory running at 500MHz (1GHz effective). The main difference is that the X800 XL is based on a 0.11 micron manufacturing process. In combination with its low-k dialectric technique, used to improve the insulation between processor circuits, the heat output at a given voltage is reduced. The usual benefit for manufacturers is that they can increase the GPU clocks. The X800 XL VPU however, is actually clocked lower that the X800 XT, at 400MHz versus 520MHz, with the new potantial for increased clocks reserved for the ‘super high-end’ X850 cards.

Aside from increased clock speeds, the maturation of the manufacturing process means that ATI can now produce 16-pipeline cards at a much lower cost as whatever ATI claims, it was caught short by nVidia’s 16-pipeline 6800 Ultra, as the shortage of XT and Platinum Edition X800’s proved.

In a product positioning graph supplied by ATI, the X800 XL plugs a gap between the X800 XT and the new X850 cards. The X800 XL is clearly gunning for the enthusiast gamer who wants the high end performance that a 16-pipeline card offers but has an eye on the budget. In fact, this is exactly the approach that nVidia took with the GeForce 6800 GT, which eased off on the GPU clock speed to deliver most of the performance of the 6800 Ultra without the sky high cost. Users looking to upgrade AGP based rigs though will be disappointed though, as at this stage at least, the X800 XL is a PCI Express only part.

The next advantage of the 0.11 micron process is that not only is the X800 XL a one slot solution, but it also does without an external power connector, with its power needs comfortably handled by the 75 Watts delivered over the PCI Express bus. Yes, this is a graphics card with genuine high-end credentials, which you can fit into any new machine, with no extra power. Hey, isn’t this how graphics cards used to be? It makes me nostalgic thinking about it.

As you can see from the pictures, the X800 XL reference card makes do with just the copper based heatsink and blower first used on the Radeon 9800 XT. The rear of the card sports a DVI and D-Sub connector and an S-Video output.

For testing, we slotted the card into our graphics card test rig, which boasts an Intel Pentium 4 Extreme Edition CPU running at 3.46GHz, an Intel 925XE motherboard running a 1066MHz FSB and 1GB of Crucial Ballistix DDR2 memory. To give it some worthy opposition we also retested a reference nVidia GeForce 6800 GT card. This was useful as Half-Life 2 and Doom 3 were not out when we first looked at the GT.

Getting straight to the heart of the matter we start with the blockbuster Half-Life 2. We tested initially with Catalyst driver 4.11, only for version 4.12 to pop-up, right after we’d completed testing. While driver revisions are of course, a ‘good thing’, it wasn’t the timeliest from our point of view. As ATI claimed that 4.12 contained specific performance improvements for Half-Life 2, we ran our tests for that game, again from scratch, and we've included both in our graphs on the last page.

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