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ATI's Radeon X1950 Pro is supposed to accomplish three things if you're shopping for a graphics card. It's supposed to be a $199 3D card, it's supposed to compare well with Nvidia's recently released GeForce 7900 GS card, and if you're of the mind to add two cards to one PC, you should be impressed by ATI's revamped, no-more-external-dongle CrossFire design, featured here. Will you take two out of three?
The Radeon X1950 Pro is designed to replace ATI's former midrange stalwart, the Radeon X1800 GTO. And as you may recall from our recent review, Nvidia trumped that old card with its new GeForce 7900 GS. The Radeon X1950 Pro represents ATI's latest move in the ongoing price/performance chess match between the two 3D card companies. With a 575MHz core clock speed and 256MB of DDR3 RAM running at 1,380MHz, the Radeon X1950 Pro boasts a faster core clock and memory speeds than either the Radeon X1800 GTO or the GeForce 7900 GS.
Like most current 3D cards, the Radeon X1950 Pro requires a connection to your PC's power supply. Most modern PCs with a 300-to-400-watt power supply should be able to handle a single card, and ATI recommends at least a 550-watt power supply for CrossFire mode (you can find the specific power supplies it recommends on ATI's Web site). The revamped CrossFire design is probably more exciting than the Radeon X1950 Pro itself.
ATI has finally overcome the two major obstacles that kept us from recommending CrossFire over Nvidia's competing SLI setup. With the Radeon X1950 Pro, you need only to purchase two of the same card to double them up; you no longer need a special, more expensive CrossFire Edition to anchor a master/slave arrangement. Also, we're glad to see that ATI has shed the external dongle that linked the two cards together. We need only to think back to past reviews where we had to overcome not one, but two broken dongles to get our testing done. Instead, ATI now bridges the two chips inside your PC with two small ribbon cables that plug into the top of each card (you get one cable with each card you purchase). Because CrossFire's new connection is 24-bit (compared to SLI's 16-bit), ATI actually claims that CrossFire can hit a resolution of 2,560x2,048, higher than SLI's top end of 2,560x1,600. Of course, the only displays that can hit 2,560x2,048 run in the $13,000 range, so ATI's claim isn't relevant to most of us, unless you're involved in medical or military imaging. And unfortunately, we don't have a $13,000 display in the labs, otherwise we would have tested it at this crazy resolution.
As for the cards' promises of price and performance, we're underwhelmed. Pricing is the worst part. ATI told us that its suggested retail price for this card would be $199. We've trolled the various shopping metasearch sites, as well as PC hardware stalwarts NewEgg and ZipZoomFly. Metasearches on Froogle and Pricegrabber showed an average of $280. NewEgg doesn't have it yet, and ZipZoomFly lists the card for $225. The general trend of higher prices could be due to supply problems; ATI claims that it will drop in the coming weeks. If it doesn't, paying $299 for $199 performance is a tough pill.
In our 3DMark 2006 and Oblivion tests, the Radeon X1950 Pro compared well to the GeForce 7900 GS, both in single card and dual card mode. On the high-resolution Oblivion test, especially, a pair of Radeon X1950 Pro's looked really impressive, clocking in nearly 45 frames per second on a notoriously difficult benchmark. Nvidia took the lead on Quake 4, which surprised us, since ATI has done well on that test recently. Due to a test bed flame-out, we're running this review without Half-Life 2: Episode One scores. It's not our preferred way of doing things, but if you read around the other review sites, such as Anandtech and HardOCP, you'll find that the general impression is that the Radeon X1950 Pro is superior to the GeForce 7900 GS in both dual- and single-card mode on that test as well. On balance, the Radeon X1950 Pro edges the GeForce 7900 GS slightly. But with the current average street price hovering around $250, we can't recommend it, because Nvidia's cards are currently less expensive. (Thanks, as always, to the crew over at GameSpot for the testing help. Sarju and James, you rock!)