Issues and Conclusions

New Architecture

Looking at it from a purely technical and theoretical stand point, the new R520 architecture is innovative and at least interesting to discuss.  The most controversial portion of the notes we have talked about is the use of very small threads and high amount of granularity when working on pixels.  By using only 16 pixels at a time ATI is able to keep redundant shader code to a minimum but introduce potential slow downs with having to maintain thread states and logic smart enough to dispatch the threads efficiently.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or does it?) to realize that there are pros and cons here, and ATI is hoping the pros win in the long run.

In ATI defense, not many current SM3.0 applications are really using dynamic branching all that much yet; we just haven’t gotten that far into SM3.0 development yet from a programming perspective so that speed increases that ATI implemented for branching in SM3.0 are still relatively untested.  Once we see heavy SM3.0 games being released then we’ll have the chance to really see if ATI’s threading decision makes a good case for itself.

The new memory controller is also interesting, though even ATI told us to really see a benefit we need to be testing at ultra high resolutions.  I have a monitor suited for just that purpose on its way to me here and will be doing testing along those lines very soon with ATI’s and NVIDIA’s cards. 

And while the new architecture scales well to different SKUs, I can’t help but wonder if ATI didn’t go one level too far down on their X1600 and X1300 models.

New Features

While the Adaptive AA and High Quality AA features are really just playing catch up to NVIDIA, it’s great to see ATI introducing AA with HDR into the mix.  This is something that was always a bit perplexing to me; having NVIDIA talk up the HDR quality of their cards, and then talking about Interior AA, but not mentioning how or why they were incompatible with each other.  Using HDR with antialiasing makes a lot of sense of course, and gamers that appreciate HDR will also appreciate AA so they should really appreciate the mix of the two.  I’ll be doing some more in-depth testing of HDR with both ATI and NVIDIA cards once the Far Cry bug is worked out and more HDR titles hit the digital shelves (like Lost Coast).

Of course, let’s not forget SM3.0 — another catch up to NVIDIA in all reality, though they did aim to improve their implementation of it with dedicated branch logic. 

Performance

Let’s look at the performance of each of the four cards being reviewed here separately.  First, the X1800 XT, the king of ATI’s hill turns out to be faster than the 7800 GTX overall, but not by as much as ATI would have liked us to believe at first.  My guess is that while ATI was comparing their XT to the stock 7800 GTX cards, we used the retail boards that are almost all overclocked for our testing.  The performance gaps between the GTX and X1800 XT were never enough to warrant a resolution shift, except for maybe in FEAR, but those numbers are going into questioning as we already discussed.

The X1800 XL is a good performer, but can’t quite keep up with the 7800 GTX and GT competition.  In only a few cases can the X1800 XL actually best the GT and in even fewer does it play faster than the GTX.  Being as the XL is going to the highest end card with immediate availability, getting these performance levels is a bit of a let down for ATI who needed more to convince gamers to move away from the GeForce 7-series.

The X1600 XT and the X1300 Pro were definitely let downs, falling behind NVIDIA’s previous generation of parts routinely.  The X1600 XT had some shining points but rarely the ability to beat the 6800 GT and 6800 standard cards we tested against it.  Being the ‘best bang for buck’ card is a hard sell when you can get the 6800 256 MB cards for cheaper, with higher performance.  And the X1300 Pro is an even sadder story, never coming out ahead against the 6600 GT card that is selling for just under $150.

For what it’s worth, the X1800 XT’s performance lead may be diminished when NVIDIA releases their upcoming 512 MB version of the 7800 GTX scheduled to be by the first of November.  If the added memory size of the XT was its saving grace in our performance tests, then ATI could be in more trouble if NVIDIA matches it. 

CrossFire

It has to be mentioned, but CrossFire Edition cards for the X1000 series of cards are going to be MIA until at least December; I said at least.  Straight from the horses mouth.  With the recent debacle that has come with the first ATI CrossFire release, I can see both positives and negatives for ATI to wait on this.  The pro: ATI has time to properly fix all the bugs and issues that X850 XT CrossFire saw.  The con: ATI has to deal with loads of bad press and confused buyers that will wonder why ATI’s technology the company is so proud of is not available on their flagship cards. 

Availability and Pricing

Availability has definitely been the sore spot for ATI recently, no getting around that.  After promising X850 CrossFire products on the day of launch, and not seeing 7 days later, we raised a red flag.  Will we have to do that here as well?  We’ll see as the days progress.

ATI R520: Radeon X1800, X1600 and X1300 Review - Graphics Cards 197

To be fair, only the X1800 XL, X1300 Pro and X1300 have been ‘promised’ to us for today’s release.  The X1800 XT is not scheduled to show up at stores until the first of November and the X1600 series is delayed until the end of November. 

The fact that the XT model of the X1800 isn’t here today is really going to hurt ATI as the XL doesn’t have the gusto to keep the 7800 GT and GTX from keeping the performance crown.  Buyers that were waiting for ATI’s R520 launch to see which card to buy are now going to be stuck waiting again; or just buying the competition’s card.  If the XT model were out today, and prices were down just a little, I’d say we would of had a GPU war on our hands again.  That is not the case.

As for pricing, we can’t say for sure until later in the day (pending if we see cards at all) but I hope we don’t see price gouging or low inventory driving the prices of these X1000 series cards up at all as that is something that ATI’s new product line just couldn’t handle.  They are already struggling to keep up performance wise at their estimated prices and raising them at all would surely put a certain nail in a certain pine box. 

Final Thoughts

The ATI R520 architecture is finally here and we have run it through the paces as we always do at PC Perspective.  The architecture is interesting and adds enough features that NVIDIA will be the one playing catch up in that arena next time around.  The performance of the cards is a mixed bag, with the unavailable X1800 XT having the lead over the 7800 GTX by a small margin, but the XL having trouble keeping up with the 7800 GT.  The other two models, the X1600 XT and the X1300 Pro don’t stand up to the test against even the 6-series cards from NVIDIA that are currently in their price range. 

ATI needs to deliver quantity on this release, and it needs to do it soon.  ATI has created a quality enthusiast product with the X1800; now they just need to price it and position it right.  If they can, the X1800 XT and X1800 XL might have a chance.  Otherwise, we’re going to have a hard time recommending anything but the GeForce 7800 GTX or GT to a serious gamer.

Come on ATI, let’s make it interesting.

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