Author: Michael Nguyen, J. Micah Grunert
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Monday, May 14th, 2007
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Hardware/Reviews/ati_2900xt/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.
It has been a long time coming and countless delays since the rumours of ATI's next generation GPU, the R600 were leaked onto the net. Here a brief timeline between the very first rumours and now. Since then ATI has merged with AMD, NVIDIA has released the 8800 GTX, GTS and Ultra, Saddam Hussein has been eliminated, Martin Scorsese has won an Oscar, etc. You get the point. It has been a long and arduous time waiting for some new ATI cards. Expectations are very high for the R600 and kept getting fueled with every specification media leak. But it's here and we've had it in our hands for the past week and it is indeed very exciting. Today we're going to take a hands on look at the R600 and a brief description rest of the "HD 2000" series which is just being announced now.
The new ATI R600 architecture was made in direct contrast to NVIDIA's G80 series, but the two ultimately have a lot in common too. While ATI touts many of their features that differentiate the two different designs, there are many similarities. The HD 2900XT was changed from the previous individual shader implementation to the current unified stream processor build that NVIDIA also uses and introduced to the world with the G80. And while the 2900XT has twice the amount of stream processors as the GeForce 8800 GTX with 320 in total, they operate at a lower frequency. This means the 2900XT has a higher theoretical limit of raw or parallel computation, but there are constraints which game developers can either get around or get stuck in.
Before we get to the high definition content, I'd like to quickly comment on the physical aspects of the card.
The reference design of the ATI Radeon HD 2900XT is both conservative and not. The card has the same overall Radeon red looks going on, in fact the whole design looks to be like a throw back to the X1950 XTX, with some modifications to the fan design. One thing to note about the heatsink is that the fan has changed from the normal windmill style to the spindle or waterwheel style that is akin to the fans on G80 cards. Size wise the card is almost exactly the same length (9inches) as the X1950XT and just a hair longer than the 8800 GTS. On the page after this you can see an array of various cards pictured together to give you an idea of scale.
The 2900XT board also has a dual everything option on it, with dual DVI, PCI-e connector and CrossFire. None of this is new, as we've seen dual 12-bit CrossFire connectors before but these are necessary logistics that should be mentioned.
The bundle that ATI bundles with their card is pretty spectacular. You get two pieces in the packages that are completely new and intriguing. First is a game voucher for the Valve developed games Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Portal and Team Fortress 2, which has been been rumored to be in production as back early as 2004 when Counter Strike: Source was released. This deal between ATI and Valve seems to exclusive for the time being. So for anyone who purchases the 2900XT during its launch will be among the first people to play the new game whne it's released. This is an absolutely terrific addition to the card.
The second new piece of this package is the HDMI dongle. There are other HDMI converters out on the market right now but ATI claims that the specific one included with the 2900XT is capable of carrying video and audio feeds. So while this dongle converts one of the DVI ports on the 2900XT, it acts as a full functional HDMI port. So add that to the fact that the 2900XT also has an audio controller for native support for audio (which is depicted on the preview page), and this card has amazing potential.
The rest of the bundled hardware can be seen below.
The cluster of cards we tested against the 2900XT (running with the ATI beta Catalyst 220.127.116.11 drivers):
The benchmark system used consist of:
The benchmarks used for testing were:
3D Mark 06
3DMark 06 is usually a pretty good judge of graphics performance character. And though it may be a synthetic benchmark, it can help to indicate a card's performance focus. Case in point being that of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. This game is quite dependent upon shader performance above all else.
To get 3dMark06 working with the HD 2900 XT you will have to use the "nosysteminfo" command line argument as shown below:
Now to see how the ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT did:
Vertex performance is good.
I would have expected a better fill rate.
The Radeon HD 2900 XT does pretty well here, but its little cousin, the X1950 XTX doesn't seem to know how to process ShaderModel3.0 particles. Good thing the ATI 2900 is compatible up to ShaderModel4.0.
That pixel shader score hurts.
But perlin noise rocks.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
In Far Cry, the HD 2900 XT takes a pounding with 4xAA and 16xAF enabled. It is a little disappointing but still manages playable framerates at the highest settings (2048x1536 AA/AF on). We think this is definitely a driver related issue that will definitely be fixed, because in all other cases the 2900 XT's raw horsepower would never allow such a poor showing and you can see that the 2900 XT performed just a bit above the 8800GTS in all the upper resolutions when AA/AF were not enabled. In Splinter Cell the 2900XT comes in at an impressive second place - clearly surpassing the 8800 GTS. As mentioned on the previous page, Splinter Cell is a shader based game and it seems that the 2900XT excelled here.
In Doom, the 2900XT was again only behind the 8800 GTX in all settings and is widely outperforming the 8800 GTS at resolutions of 1600x1200 and above. With AA/AF enabled the 2900 XT is significantly faster than the 8800GTS across the board, with the performance gap increasing as the resolution goes up. Actually at the crushing 2048x1536 resolution the HD 2900 XT is 21% faster than the 8800 GTS - clearly a storybook win for ATI here. Quake 4 was another story, as we determined that our benchmarking platform tops out in the mid 80s FPS. While you can ignore the non AA/AF scores, the AA/AF on scores are much more meaningful. Here the 2900XT and 8800 GTS are neck and neck with the lead slightly in the favor of the 8800 GTS. Remember, the 8800 GTS performance is around where ATI wants its card.
In F.E.A.R., the GTX takes the lead while the other third cards straddle each other. The 8800 GTS will take F.E.A.R. over the 2900XT but not by much. Prey has some exciting numbers as well, as the 2900XT somehow matches the GTX with AA/AF off. While it slips back in the more regular slot we have come to be accustomed to with AA/AF on, the 2900XT is impressive again. We also wonder whether the 2900 XT would do even better in the AA/AF tests with newer drivers.
Company of Heroes
With these newer games, the results are more of a mixed bag than the previous benchmarks. ATI have traditionally performed really good with X3 for whatever reason and that trend seems like it's staying. The 2900XT manages to be first with AA/AF off but crashes with AA/AF on. Seeing how the X1950 XTX holds strong in there, I've got to believe there is some driver issue with the 2900XT that is holding it back. This is becoming somewhat of a pattern as the HD 2900 XT performance with AA/AF enabled in some games appears to be disproportionately penalized relative to its performance with AA/AF disabled.
In Company of Heroes, perhaps the most texturally and graphically intensive game in our line-up, the 2900XT performs well beyond what it should and is giving the GTX a very good run for its money. I say I didn't believe what I saw at first but I don't doubt these scores now. The Radeon HD 2900XT showed that it was a proficient card through out all testing and is capable of testing through the roof.
The 2900XT is an absolute beast and draws enough power for us to identify this as typical ATI card. We have been accustomed to seeing ATI's power consumption skyrocket above NVIDIA's in the past but the G80 series had us wondering whether they could knock them off again. In some way I'd like to congratulate ATI on regaining the crown of least power efficient video card available but still hope they can somehow shrink the 2900XT GPU down to 65nm to reduce power draw. The HD 2900 XT is clearly drawing 52W more power than the X1950 XTX under load. Even at idle it is drawing 32W more than its predecessor, though it does actually have slightly (~5%) lower energy consumption at idle than both the 8800 GTX and GTS cards.
While ATI was met with some tough criticism even before the HD 2900XT launch, its newest flagship card for the time being has overcome some of the skepticism and has left us with an overall positive impression. Of course with any ATI product, power consumption is always a focal point and some media outlets had concerns of the 2900XT drawing more power than what typical power supplies are able to output. Well if you look at the top of the pages, the power draw isn't as significant as first rumored although it is still pretty high. However CrossFire is more of a concern to me than single card usage and seeing how there aren't any CrossFire certified 2000 series power supplies yet, I wonder if picking up two 2900XT(s) right away is good idea. Plus CrossFire the previous 2 generations of flagship Radeon products doesn't have an impressive stability track record as far as early adopters go, so its likely prudent to wait for those CrossFire Certified announcements before investing in two of these cards.
One area that is yet to be explored is ATI's 512bit memory bus and superior memory bandwidth, two areas that should theoretically give it a strong competitive edge at higher resolutions and with larger textures. Because of this driver, improvements could give a dramatic performance boost to the card that will just be added gravy considering its already not inconsiderable performance. Also of note is the pattern we see emerging with the HD 2900 XT being penalized disproportinately when AA/AF is enabled in certain games. Considering ATI's traditionally superb AA/AF efficiency we suspect this is a driver issue that when resolved, will reveal an even more positive picture for the R600.
Probably the most important factor going into purchasing a new video card is value and pricing. From our benchmarking results, we can conclude that the 2900XT will outperform the GeForce GTS 640MB in some cases and lose in some others. To say whether one is better than the other right now would be neglecting the fact that none of our games are DX10 compatible, in fact no games are DX10 compatible currently (although the world's first downloadable DX10 playable demo will be available this or next week, which ups the ante quite a bit). So what we can take into account is value. From a bundling standpoint alone, the 2900XT has several package items that will be of value to most if not all people buying the card. The gaming voucher from Valve will allow you to play all three new releases from the giant game developer and apparently a fourth game, Day of Defeat: Source, will also be part of the voucher as well. All of these games are produced off the Source engine and have historic backgrounds (minus portal). Secondly the HDMI converter is a sweet addition which works in tandem with the on-chip audio controller to carry both audio and video feeds. If anything is lacking for the G80 series right now it is HDMI availability.
Pricing of the 2900XT is rather ambiguous at the moment and while the MSRP of the card is $399, availability and vendor stock has skewed the price a little higher than expected. Of course when ATI can produce more of the cards, the pricing will become more stable. Then again NVIDIA hasn't been shy in the past to drop its prices down when another competitor card is released. As it stands now, there is more of price discrepancy than ATI would like. Comparing the lowest costing 2900XT vs. lowest costing 8800 GTS 640MB on several online vendors, there seems to be a $50-100 difference between the two in favor of the 8800 GTS. Just another factor to weight in. However with the 2900XT, just as with all other launch hardware, we must take future considerations into account. With the arrival of Windows Vista and DirectX 10, both ATI and NVIDIA been looking towards the future just as much as they look at today. And with their new architectures, much of the new functionality has to do with theoretical capability than proven quality. Much of what the 2900XT will be tested for can simply not happen now, we just have to wait.
Still the new architecture for the 2000 series has a bit of heightened excitement to it, pricing and bundle items aside. Of course ATI countered NVIDIA's PureVideo HD with their own version of HD decoding using UVD (both of which are present in the midrange products rather than the flagships). New features in image quality which include Custom Filter AA and Edge Detection have sparked interest in developmental patching to enhance texture quality as time goes on. The list goes on with Tesselation geometry implementation, improved ring-bus, expanded 512-bit memory buses, a 2.5x increase in Folding@Home capability, etc. But everything I just mentioned is heavily dependent on something that isn't right with the new 2000 series right now, and that are the drivers. With any launch, products are being rushed out the door and some parts of development don't get the attention they deserve due to time constraints (kind of like this review). However unlike this review which won't be changed every month after its publication, ATI has a chance to improve performance and overcome some of the HD 2900 XT current faults. We had some problems with the card's current Catalyst 18.104.22.168 drivers during benchmarking and while I won't go into specifics, they were cumbersome to the whole testing process. So if ATI's engineering can constantly patch their card up, we'll see some better performance.
The new line-up cards has yet to full reveal itself and with the mid-range 2600 coming out in about a month, we'll see what R600 can really do in the more mainstream market. Right now the HD 2900 XT left us with a positive, and curious impression. As a new flagship it isn't going to displace the much more expensive 8800 GTX but it offers a sweet and appealing alternative to those considering the 8800 GTS 640MB cards. It's also a fair assumption that there will be a new flagship card for ATI some time towards the latter part of this year as they address the hardcore enthusiast gap in their lineup. As it stands right now, the 2900XT is worthy of a purchase and so is the 8800 GTS.
For Canadians who are looking to buy the HD 2900 XT, you might want to check out NCIX's HD 2900 XT page since they are one of the only retailers in Canada to have availability right at launch. US readers can refer to the US lowest price listings and the etailer usual culprits.
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