Summary: Matrox's Parhelia card isn't the only graphics core that has launched recently, chipset manufacturer SiS has been hard at work on its own GPU -- Xabre. With DirectX 8.1 and AGP 8X support SiS feels Xabre is ready to take the value market by storm, but is Xabre ready for prime time? Find out in our preview!
While we all dream of 300MHz+ GPUs with 128MB (or more) of ultra-fast DDR memory, not everyone has the disposable income to afford this. Graphics processor manufacturers know this as well. These manufacturers break the market up into three segments: value, (graphics cards below $150 – although this number has quickly faded to the $100 mark on the street) mainstream (cards around the $200 price point), and enthusiast ($250 and up).
The enthusiast market is where all the buzz and marketing takes place. Bragging rights are crucial in this segment, if you have the hottest card in this space, not only will you have a product consumer’s lust over, you’ll also have a line of enthusiasts willing to pony up the dough to get it. And while the market itself is composed of a select (read: small) group of consumers, the profit margins for these cards aren’t.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the value segment. Profit margins here are incredibly slimmer, but at the same time the market itself is considerably larger – not only are consumers interested in saving a buck, so are tier one OEMs such as Dell and Compaq. As a result, manufacturers such as ATI and NVIDIA must play a balancing act between all three segments – slip a few too many features in a value card and the mainstream market can dry up, or the price on your enthusiast card could be so high that most consumers pass it up.
Maintaining the proper balance was traditionally obtained by slipping in newer, faster products to replace the older variant. An example of this would be 3dfx’s Voodoo2 replacing the original Voodoo Graphics card in the enthusiast segment as the Voodoo1 shifted to the value market. More recently graphics manufacturers have been releasing cores at different clock speeds – the faster cores simply cost more money. In the case of the value segment, this is also coupled with a less powerful graphics core.
It is partially because of this strategy that smaller players in the graphics field have been able to sneak their way into the value space while the big boys are focused on trumping up their products at the top. Last summer ST Microelectronics and PowerVR teamed up with Hercules (among other manufacturers) to deliver the Kyro 2. While it generated an enormous amount of fanfare when it was launched (and spurred NVIDIA price cuts) Kyro 2 ultimately was forgotten when ATI and NVIDIA refreshed their product lineups in the field.
This summer another player has arrived to duke it out in the value space: SiS’s Xabre line of graphics cores.
SIDEBAR: SiS Xabre Product Webpage
8x8 full-driving power GPU
High performance 2D engine
MotionFixing video processor
MPEG 2/1 video decoder
Unified driver architecture
If you recall our original GeForce4 preview, the biggest complaint we had with the GeForce4 MX was its omission of a dedicated hardware pixel shader – this function was left to the system CPU. With Xabre, all that has changed. Unlike the GeForce4 MX or RADEON 7500, the Xabre graphics processor has a built-in pixel shader making it the first DirectX 8-compliant video card in the value segment.
Three Xabre’s to choose from
Like the GeForce4 MX, three versions of the Xabre are set for production. At the top of the list is the Xabre 400. As we mentioned earlier, Xabre 400’s core clock operates at 250MHz. Likewise, its DDR memory also runs at 250MHz. This puts the Xabre 400 slightly below the GeForce4 MX 460 (300/275) and very close to the GeForce4 MX 440 (270/200MHz) in terms of pure clock speeds, but as we mentioned previously Xabre has the edge in pixel pipelines, resulting in a fill rate edge for SiS’s chip.
Rounding out the rest of the Xabre line are the Xabre 200 and Xabre 80. Xabre 80 differs from Xabre 200 in that it supports both DDR SDRAM (64-bit) and conventional SDRAM (128-bit). The core clock on both chips is the same at 200MHz (as is the memory clock, at 166MHz). The final key difference between Xabre 80 and Xabre 200 is that the latter supports AGP 2X/4X and 8X (just like Xabre 400), while Xabre 80 only supports AGP 2X/4X.
SIDEBAR: SiS stands for Silicon Integrated Systems
First off, we must state that a topic like the visual quality of a particular video card is highly subjective: what might look beautiful to one person’s eyes may be atrocious to another person. Another item to keep in mind is that our Xabre 400 board is a reference card provided by SiS, therefore our results may be different than retail boards from actual card manufacturers.
System comp ability with Xabre also needs a little more work. While Xabre runs fine on Intel and SiS-based platforms, we couldn’t get our Xabre 400 card to run in AGP 4X mode with any of our VIA-based motherboards (performance was still good despite this). Xabre’s predecessor also had problems with VIA-based chipsets, so we weren’t surprised that problems still existed with Xabre. What really surprised us was that stability varied from motherboard to motherboard. Therefore we have a very sneaky suspicion that SiS isn’t the only party to blame.
Intel Pentium 4 2.2GHz
256MB PC2100 CAS2 DDR SDRAM
ATI RADEON 7500
Driver version Catalyst 126.96.36.19994
NVIDIA GeForce4 MX 460
NVIDIA GeForce4 MX 440
NVIDIA GeForce4 MX 420
Driver version Detonator 28.32
SiS Xabre 400
Driver version 3.02a.02
30GB IBM Deskstar DTLA 307030 ATA/100 Hard Drive
AFREEY 12X DVD-ROM
Windows XP Professional
Desktop Resolution: 1024x768x32
3DMark 2001 Second Edition w/ 330 patch - 32-bit color, 32-bit textures
3DMark 2001 - DirectX 8
Xabre 400 holds the performance advantage in 3DMark 2001 SE, at 800x600x32 Xabre outperforms GeForce4 MX 460 by 11% and RADEON 7500 by 15%. As the screen resolution increases and the demand on the graphics subsystem increases, the margins close.
3DMark 2001 - Car Chase
3DMark 2001 - Dragothic
3DMark 2001 - Lobby
3DMark 2001 - Nature
In low detail situations, the Xabre finishes first or second in all 3DMark 2001 tests at 1024x768x32 (although its virtually tied in two of three tests). We feel a large part of this could be due to its superior fill rate. Once the graphics core and its memory are put under greater stress the final results are a bit more mixed, with the Xabre 400 giving an impressive performance for an upstart. And of course, with its hardware pixel shader, Xabre 400 is the only card in this article capable of running 3DMark 2001’s nature demo, giving it longer legs than the other cards in DirectX 8 games.
Serious Sam 2 - OpenGL
As we mentioned earlier, the Xabre 400 has some compatibility issues with Croteam’s Serious Sam 2, and they’re not just related to stability. Performance wasn’t on par with the other GeForce4 MX boards or the RADEON 7500, SiS’s Xabre 400 finishes 19% behind GeForce4 MX 460 and 14% behind RADEON 7500 at 800x600x32. As the screen resolution increases, the gap widens even more.
Quake III - High Quality
In Quake 3 Xabre 400 fares much better, finishing six percentage points behind GeForce4 MX 460 and holds a slim two percent advantage over GeForce4 MX 440. MX 460 is able to obtain a little more breathing room at higher resolutions, while the MX 440 falls behind, and then catches up again at 1600x1200. This is surprising considering the fill rate and bandwidth advantages held by Xabre 400 over GeForce4 MX 440.
Jedi Knight II
We witnessed a really interesting paradox in Jedi Knight II, at the lower resolutions Xabre’s performance remains unchanged for the most part, then really outshines the competition at 1600x1200. To us, this really looks like the Xabre’s drivers need more work in Jedi Knight II.
While Xabre isn’t SiS’s first graphics product, this is the first time in quite awhile that SiS has attempted to launch a new graphics core with so much potential (in comparison to its competition) as well as fan fare. Quite simply, on paper the Xabre delivers. Not only does it boast a more powerful 3D engine, thanks to its integrated pixel shader Xabre also offers more headroom for the future than any other card in its class.
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