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ATI Radeon X1800 XT (512 MB) review: ATI Radeon X1800 XT (512 MB)

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The Good Supports Shader Model 3 and high dynamic range lighting; fast DirectX 9 performance; Avivo video decoding.

The Bad Takes up two expansion slots; lags on OpenGL-based games such as Doom 3; dual graphics card support depends on a special CrossFire Edition card with a murky release date.

The Bottom Line ATI's latest, greatest graphics card brings all of the requisite features to the 3D gaming table, but its clunky design prevents it from besting Nvidia's top dog.

6.6 Overall
  • Design 5
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7

Review Sections

ATI's new Radeon X1800 XT 3D card

ATI shot a blank with its dual-card CrossFire release two weeks ago, and while its next-generation Radeon X1800 XT ($549) is a powerful Direct3D gaming tool, it doesn't hold up in design elegance, dual-card flexibility, or current availability when compared with Nvidia's competing GeForce 7800 GTX cards. The availability issue will likely resolve itself on November 5, which marks the retail debut of this card, the flagship in an entire new generation of graphics cards from ATI unveiled today. The physical problems, though, will be hard to get around. Its saving grace is its Half-Life 2 performance: it dominates Nvidia. If you're more inclined to the Doom 3 or Quake universe, however, this new Radeon's scores are lacking. ATI earned itself victorious upstart status with its last generation of Radeon cards. This time around, its performance victory is less decisive, and a number of other issues hurt its profile. Between ATI's new card and Nvidia's GeForce 7800 GTX, Nvidia gets the nod.

Until today's announcement of the 512MB ATI Radeon X1800 XT ($549) and the rest of the Radeon X1000 series of 3D cards, ATI appeared to be behind the times. It had no dual-graphics-card competitor to Nvidia's SLI technology and no support for emergent 3D features. The Radeon X1800 XT and the rest of the new cards bring a number of advances, but ultimately, they're not enough.

The flagship Radeon X1800 XT, in particular, is not designed as well as its main competitor, the Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX. The Radeon X1800 XT's 3D scores are appropriately speedy, and we appreciate ATI incorporating parts of its new Avivo video technology in all of its Radeon X1000-series parts. In its primary function as a 3D graphics card, however, the Radeon X1800 XT is blazingly fast at Direct3D-based games, but enough usability and design limitations hamper it from earning our outright recommendation. For all-around 3D gaming performance, ATI didn't do enough to knock Nvidia's GeForce 7800 GTX off its throne.

Two of our biggest gripes have to do with the Radeon X1800 XT's design. The most obvious is its double-wide form factor, ironically the same criticism we made of Nvidia's GeForce 6800 Ultra during last generation's head-to-head. The Radeon X1800 XT takes up two internal expansion bays--thanks to its extra large fan--and it looks bulky and cumbersome compared to Nvidia's lean, single-slot GeForce 7800 GTX. The more confounding problem, however, has to do with doubling up your cards.

ATI unveiled its dual-card CrossFire technology last week. An answer to Nvidia's SLI dual-graphics-card technology, the difference with CrossFire is that you have to purchase a separate, more expensive CrossFire Edition (CFE) of a card in the same chip family in order to link two cards together (pairing a Radeon X1800 CFE with a Radeon X1800 XT or XL, or a Radeon X1600 CFE with a Radeon X1600 XT or Pro). With Nvidia, all GeForce 6600-, 6800-, and 7800-series cards come SLI ready; there is no second, pricier version to worry about.

ATI does let you link two different cards within the same family, however--the XT and the XL versions, for example--where the more restrictive SLI mode requires that the two chips be exactly the same (although, with a forthcoming driver update, no longer from the same vendor). But SLI doesn't require you to pay a premium to simply add another card. Currently, ATI has suggested that CrossFire cards will cost $50 more than their regular counterparts. Worse, when we asked about the release date for the matching X1800 CrossFire Edition card, all ATI could tell us was "sometime in Q4."

That frustrating ambiguity has haunted ATI's release dates since the last generation's Radeon X800 XT Platinum Edition, sometimes renamed the "Press Edition," as it was seeded in quantity to journalists for reviews leading up to its announce date, then became scarce to nonexistent at retail. We're not calling the X1000 series a paper launch, as the Radeon X1800 XT's slower cousin, the Radeon X1800 XL, and the low-end Radeon X1300 cards should be available today. It won't reassure anyone, however, to learn that the Radeon X1800 XT isn't set for actual retail release until a month from now: November 5, 2005. Nvidia's last two launches, of its GeForce 7800 GTX and 7800 GT cards, were timed with wide retail availability on the day the products were made public, a preferable approach to ATI's "all promise, eventual delivery" method.

Nvidia has claimed Shader Model 3 (SM 3) support as an advantage over ATI's last generation of Radeon cards that lacked it in both its GeForce 7800-series chips and the entire GeForce 6000 series that preceded it. With the Radeon X1000 series, ATI catches up and gains SM 3's advanced pixel-rendering capability, an important feature for a few current games such as Far Cry and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, as well as a number of titles due out soon, such as F.E.A.R. and next year's Gears of War. With SM 3 and also high dynamic range lighting support, the Radeon X1800 XT is primed to run alongside Nvidia in supporting the latest visual bells and whistles that make 3D games more immersive than ever.

ATI's X1000-series cards do have one advantage over Nvidia's GeForce family. ATI recently announced an initiative called Avivo, which, similar to Microsoft's Viiv, is a combination of products aimed at the home theater. You can't receive a TV signal with the Radeon X1800 XT or any other Radeon X1000-series cards, but what they can do as part of the Avivo family is decode all kinds of video formats, including the forward-looking H.264 codec that's going to become important for HD Video and Microsoft's new Windows Vista operating system. You also get a number of deinterlacing enhancements for improving video image quality. You'll never get as refined an image when you convert an analog video signal through a digital processor as you would with just a straight analog signal (like from your cable box to your television), but more and more people are combining their PCs with their home entertainment systems. Seeing as you likely will be watching at least some video on your PC, any aids to image quality are welcome, and ATI's Radeon and Avivo currently offer the most advanced set of features.

If you have video inclinations, you'll especially appreciate ATI's dual digital-video outputs. You can expect that ATI's various board partners will mix and match outputs like always, so you may find some cards using the same chip with one analog CRT connector and one digital LCD output. But at least the raw capability is there. You'll also find an S-Video jack for outputting to a television.

Although we aren't thrilled with its design and wish that it brought more to the table than simply catching up with Nvidia's feature set, the ATI Radeon X1800 XT's performance is hard to knock, at least for certain types of games. The results remain consistent with last generation's conclusion that ATI fares better at Direct3D-based Half-Life 2 and Nvidia dominates at the OpenGL 3D API and Doom 3. The difference this time around isn't as dramatic as it was with last generation's cards, which makes it hard to declare one the outright performance winner.

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