- Review Price: £310.00
When ATI first unveiled the X850 GPU it was in some respects, quite amusing. The reason was that after all its finger pointing and bluster about nVidia’s top-of-the-line card being a two-slot solution, along comes ATI and does exactly the same thing. Oh the things that a company will do to gain that performance crown.
Now aside from our recent look at an X600 All-in-Wonder Pro, we haven’t seen a regular retail PCI Express card since the end of March, so it was about time. This is also the first board we’ve seen from Taiwainese vendor GeCube. And as first impressions go, this is all-in-all a very good one and I’m sure we’ll be examining more of its cards in the near future.
The GeCube tackles the two slot X850 conundrum with aplomb and essentially produces the cooling solution that should have been there from the start. The chip is an X850 XT – a small step down from the Platinum Edition we first saw here with default clocks of 520MHz for the core and 540MHz for the GDDR3 memory chips. The benefit is that the card becomes that bit more affordable, and even better, a quick spin with ATI Tool saw the core reach 590MHz and 580MHz for the memory. Even dropping that considerably to ensure long-term stability, there was definitely plenty of headroom in our sample. It was from a retail box so it bodes well for the overclocking minded consumer. One things that puzzled me however was the feature list on the box that boasted of DirectX 9.0c support. This is misleading as while it will work in a system with DirectX 9.0c installed it doesn’t offer the single feature that differentiates DirectX 9.0c from 9.0b, namely Shader Model 3 support. Games that use this are still thin on the ground but it might be an issue in a year’s time or so. Either way, it shouldn’t be on the box.
As well as being ATI’s near flagship GPU, the card boasts plenty of connectivity. There are two DVI slots – perfect for dual-monitor goodness and a TV Out that supports no less than component, S-Video and composite. The former should give a great picture on large screen TVs and the GPU is capable of outputting HDTV resolutions – which is nice. There’s also video-in compatibility thanks to the presence of a Rage Theater chip on the card so you can use the card for capture. Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 5 for DVD watching is included but only the 2-channel version, so you’ll have to cough up more cash for the full surround monty.
The big selling point of this card though is its single slot cooling solution. On the card itself is a sticker that says, ‘Heat-Pipe Inside’, which makes a pleasant change from Intel Inside. What GeCube has done is to attached a large copper heatsink with good thermal contact to the GPU with a Heat-Pipe and a line of radial fins to effectively draw away heat from the GPU. A standard large diameter fan blows cool air across the heatsink and out towards the back of the card. It’s not the quietest card we’ve come across but neither is it the noisiest and you can use something like PowerStrip to control the fan speed. The fan gets faster when the card gets under load but thanks to the performance of the card you should be too drawn into the game by then to notice.
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.
Score in detail