ATI's Radeon X700 XT isn't the first new midrange graphics card from ATI this year, but it's the first to use new technology from the chip on up. The Radeon X600, released this past July, used the same core chip as the old Radeon 9600--only ported over to the new PCI Express (PCIe) interface so that ATI could be first to market a 3D card that used the latest standard. The Radeon X700 XT also uses PCIe, but it features an entirely new processing chip that provides twice as much pixel-processing bandwidth as the X600. The X700 also supports a new type of video memory, and because it sells for roughly the same price as the X600, it represents a much more compelling option for a midrange 3D card. It also stacks up very favorably against Nvidia's new midrange card, the GeForce 6600 GT. Which card you should buy depends on what games you want to play. If you have your eye on some of today's newer titles, the Radeon X700 XT may disappoint.
The X700 XT is essentially a paired-down version of ATI's high-end Radeon X800 XT Platinum Edition card. Instead of the X800 XT's 16 pixel-processing pipes, the X700 XT provides 8, but ATI generously gives the X700 XT all of the X800 XT's six vertex-processing pipelines. In addition, the X700 XT uses new GDDR3 memory, which runs at 520MHz--up from the 370MHz DDR1 memory of the previous-generation X600 XT.
The hardware is not the only new component of the X700 XT. It also comes with ATI's new Catalyst Control Center driver software. Instead of taking the usual approach of integrating the driver control screens into Windows' display settings, Catalyst Control Center provides a standalone miniapp that makes tweaking your 3D settings as easy or as in-depth as you feel comfortable with. The most noticeable change in the new software is a 3D preview window that displays your settings changes in real time using a small scene of a 3D race car. When you change the level of antialiasing or toggle some other setting, the change appears in the scene. The visual difference between 2X and 4X antialiasing might be hard to differentiate, but for those who can tell, this feature is quite useful. You also get different options for adjusting your settings. You can make it as simple as adjusting a slider bar between the Performance and Quality settings, or you can get more granular and dig down to mip-map detail levels and the like.
While the new driver software is welcome, with graphics cards the proof is in the benchmarks, and while the ATI Radeon X700 XT and the nearly identical Nvidia GeForce 6600 GT card fared well on some tests, the Doom 3 performance for both was disappointing. As with its high-end counterpart, the the Radeon X800 XT, the X700 XT comes in slower than its Nvidia competitor on every Doom 3 test. The X700 XT scored only 35.5 frames per second (fps) on the Doom 3 test at 1,024x768 resolution, compared to the GeForce 6600 GT's 41.8fps--a difference of about 18 percent. It's also interesting to note that at this resolution, Doom 3 taxes both cards, producing frame rates that are lower than the industry-accepted ideal of 60fps, though still playable. True, Doom 3 is a great-looking game, and the graphics are still amazing if you drop the resolution to 640x480. But $200 is a significant amount of money. Considering that the Doom 3 engine may very well be the basis for other games down the road, we feel that a midrange card should be able to play it at a frame rate that meets the 60fps industry standard.
The results on our Far Cry tests show more promise, but the game still gives the Radeon X700 XT some difficulty. Far Cry works well as a modern game test because it is one of the first built using the DirectX 9.0 version of Microsoft's Direct3D specification. We expect to see many high profile games use this same framework. And if the Radeon X700 XT's Far Cry performance is any indication, this card does not look promising for the future. With a score of 43.7fps on the relatively forgiving 1,024x768-resolution test, the Radeon X700 XT still falls short of the 60fps sweet spot. And while the GeForce 6600 GT card technically beats the ATI card, the former's 46.3fps score isn't that much better.
We won't call the ATI Radeon X700 XT a bad graphics card--all of the games we tested were playable. But because our tests represent the future of 3D gaming, we feel that for your $200 investment, you should get a product you know will deliver down the road. The long-held sweet spot for frame rates is 60fps at a resolution of 1,024x768. We could forgive a $100 budget card for falling short, but both ATI's and Nvidia's midrange cards should do more.