Summary: Looking for an X800 XT PCI-E graphics card to go along with that new PCI Express motherboard you were planning on buying for the holidays? If so, today's article may be just right for you! Inside we take a look at four X800 XT cards from ASUS, ATI, MSI, and PowerColor. Each card offers something a little different, including dual DVIs and heat pipe cooling on one card! See who comes out on top inside!
While the RADEON X850 XT and X850 XT Platinum Edition may be ATIís fastest cards on paper, in reality the RADEON X800 XT is still carrying the PCI Express load for the company.
Both ATI and NVIDIA have announced PCI Express products at the $500 price point, but up to this point we still havenít received a single PCI-E GeForce 6800 Ultra or RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition from either graphics manufacturer or any of their board partners. Who wouldíve known both companies would have done such a poor job executing earlier this summer?
Fortunately, both companies have a backup plan. In the case of ATI, that product is the X800 XT for now, with the X850 XT eventually filling that role. As you probably know by now, NVIDIAís equivalent is the GeForce 6800 GT. Weíve highlighted the pros and cons of each chip in previous articles, so we wonít rehash that debate today, instead weíll focus on covering a quartet of X800 XT PCI Express cards weíve received up to this point, as some of you are likely planning on overhauling your current system over the holidays. While youíre at it, you might as well jump on the PCI Express boat too donít you think?
X800 XT origins
ATIís X800 XT was initially conceived to service the OEM segment of the graphics market. As PCI Express was ramping up for launch last spring, Dell, one of ATIís largest partners, didnít like the thermals on ATIís X800 XT Platinum Edition. Dell knew of Intelís thermal problems with ďPrescottĒ LGA-775 Pentium 4 processors, and werenít too excited at the thought of pairing another hot component within their LGA-775 systems. After all, Intelís processors would only be getting hotter as clock speed increased (at the time, Intel still planned to hit 4GHz by the end of the year). ATI, determined to land the sale, complied with Dellís wishes and came up with a solution: the RADEON X800 XT.
By reducing the clock speeds from 520MHz core/560MHz memory in the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition to 500MHz core/500MHz memory in the RADEON X800 XT, ATI got their heat output down to acceptable levels. At the same time however, the X800 XT retained the X800 XT Platinum Editionís 16-pixel pipeline architecture, allowing it to remain a top performer.
The RADEON X800 XT was initially intended to be a PCI Express part only, but the lack of AGP X800 XT Platinum Edition cards forced ATI to also release an AGP variant of the X800 XT three months ago. The specs on both cards are identical, with the only difference being the interface used.
Thereís nothing particularly noteworthy about ATIís X800 XT board design, as ATI obviously made no changes from their reference design. When the X800 XT first launched back in June, rumors were swirling that ATI would be adding dual DVI connections to their retail boards to make them more competitive with PCI Express GeForce 6800 GT and GeForce 6800 Ultra, both of which feature dual DVI connectors (on the AGP side, only the GeForce 6800 Ultra ships with dual DVI). More than one ATI board partner suggested to us that ATI was leaning in that direction back at the Computex trade show in June.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the line ATI must have changed their mind, as final boards never got dual DVI connections. Instead this feature was left for the RADEON X850 XT series.
One feature enthusiasts interested in overclocked always pay attention to are the memory modules manufacturers use on their boards. In the past ATI has relied on three different manufacturers Ė Micron, Infineon, and Samsung. For GDDR3 however ATI has relied solely on Samsung, the worldís largest memory manufacturer.
2.0ns memory modules were used on the X800 XT board we received from ATI, good for speeds up to 500MHz (in comparison, ATI uses 1.6ns modules on the X800 XT Platinum Edition, which are rated for speeds up to 600MHz). This leaves little room for overclocking, but officially keeps the ATI card in line with Samsungís specs.
Home video buffs will like the X800 XTís video encoding capability, provided by the venerable Rage Theater chip. While NVIDIA took video encoding off their high-end GeForce 6800 cards, starting with the X800 series ATI decided to add video input to their RADEON family. This feature was previously only found in ATIís ALL-IN-WONDER line.
To be honest, we were a bit surprised to see ATI keep Rage Theater on their PCI Express boards, as most PCI Express motherboards are shipping with at least rudimentary FireWire support nowadays. But at the same time, by providing VIVO (video-in/video-out) capability via the Rage Theater chip, end users can make vid caps of their PS2/Xbox games, as well as transfer old videos from VHS to their computer.
Hardware and software accessories
Besides the graphics card, driver CD and manual, ATI also includes a VIVO cable and component video cable (YPrPb) for hooking up your X800 XT card to an HDTV, as well as a DVI adapter and a copy of PowerDVD 5. With the exception of RADEON 9800 XT (which included a copy of Half-Life 2), ATI has never been big on game bundles, so itís no surprise to see the RADEON X800 XT come with so little software.
For RADEON X800 XT, ASUS once again set out to do something unique. Rather than rely on ATIís reference design, ASUS had to make a few slight changes. The most notable is the boardís unique cooling. ASUS has replaced the stock copper heatsink/fan unit ATI and most of its board partners use, with a custom copper-based cooling unit that is composed of a copper heat pipe and accompanying heatsink.
Besides that change, ASUSí cooler is also larger than ATIís. By utilizing a heatsink with greater surface area, the ASUS cooler does a more effective job of transferring heat off the graphics core Ė board temperatures on the ASUS board were 10% lower than that of the reference ATI card. Of course, we should note that the ATI reference card uses its onboard thermal diode, whereas the ASUS card has to rely on an external sensor, so the temperature comparisons arenít 100% comparable, but at the same time we could literally feel the difference in temperatures on the PCB of the two cards. The final addition ASUS adds to their EAX800XT/2TD/256 card is a blue LED underneath the cardís fan, and four blue LEDs on each corner of the cardís plastic duct.
The second aspect youíll notice is the second DVI connector. Thatís right, the ASUS EAX800XT/2TD/256 is the first RADEON X800 XT card to feature dual DVI connections! This is the only X800 XT PCI-E card weíre aware of to boast this feature. Powering the second DVI connector is an Sil 1162 DVI transmitter from Silicon Image. The chip sits behind the first DVI transmitter, residing just below the cardís fan. Because of these changes, ASUS has made a few slight changes to the reference board design, but there are no major changes (a few components are merely shifted around to make room for the larger cooler).
If the hardware improvements ASUS has implemented arenít enough to impress you, ASUS continues to provide their Smart Doctor software with the EAX800XT/2TD/256. Smart Doctor provides active hardware monitoring of the cardís temperature (both graphics core and memory) and voltages. If Smart Doctor senses trouble (excess heat or a fan failure), it can alert the user, preventing damage to the graphics card.
For overclocking, Smart Doctor can be used to manually adjust clock speeds, or it can dynamically adjust clocks itself automatically, with the final clock speed depending on the application currently loaded or temperature.
All this does come at a cost however. ASUS has elected to skip the Rage Theater chip, so the Extreme AX800XT/2TD/256 doesnít offer the VIVO capabilities supported by other cards in this comparison. ASUS also uses 2.0ns Samsung GDDR3 memory modules on their card, just like ATI.
ASUS includes plenty of extras with the EAX800XT/2TD/256. Also included in the cardís packaging is a 300K USB webcam, a component video cable, two DVI adapters, a copy of Deus Ex: Invisible War, PowerDirector 3, Media Show, Cool3D, Photo Express, and ASUS DVD XP.
Apparently the pot wasnít sweet enough however; as MSI now has a complete lineup of RADEON graphics cards, and weíve also heard that theyíve sold quite a few RADEON XPRESS 200 motherboards to OEMs looking for an inexpensive Athlon 64 offering with integrated graphics.
At the top of MSIís PCI Express-based ATI lineup is the RX800XT-VTD256E, MSI doesnít offer PCI Express compliant X800 PRO or X800 XT Platinum Edition cards for the North American market, but in other parts of the world you can get your MSI X800 XT card with or without video input, or upgrade to one of their X800 XT PE SKUs. The ďVĒ in VTD256E indicates that our card comes with video input support, which is provided by ATIís Rage Theater chip (the ďEĒ denotes the cardís PCI Express interface).
MSI followed ATIís reference design for their RX800XT-VTD256E card to the letter. Our card shipped with the exact same copper cooler as the ATI board, and features the identical power circuitry. The sole addition we see on the RX800XT-VTD256E is the yellow video connector, which is used for analog video capture, but weíve been told that newer ATI X800 XT PCI-E boards also ship with this feature included.
Based on all this, we wouldnít be surprised if the MSI card came off the same line as ATIís own X800 XT card, as ATI has been known to sell complete cards to its board partners (just as NVIDIA does with its board partners). MSI would then slap their sticker on the card, box it all up, and send it on its way. This helps MSI get their cards to market a little quicker, although itís a bit disappointing as we donít get a chance to see their T.O.P. Tech cooling in action on an ATI-based card. In the past weíve found MSIís T.O.P. Tech cards to be among the quietest cards in the world.
Like the other manufacturers, MSI uses 2.0ns GDDR3 memory modules from Samsung on their X800 XT card.
Software and accessories
MSI includes a very impressive bundle of software titles with the RX800XT-VTD256E. Included in the cardís massive box are a total of 14 discs, making it easily the most well equipped ATI-based card weíve seen in recent memory. MSI provides full copies of shooters XIII, and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and finally, Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. These are all fairly recent titles -- even Uru and XIII were released late last year -- and have all received generally positive reviews.
PowerColor is one of ATIís oldest board partners, with products dating all the way back to the Rage128 chip. PowerColor is also one of the worldís largest graphics providers, with extensive distribution channels, allowing them to get their cards to market quickly and with pricing that is very competitive. You may also find some people refer to PowerColor as TUL, which stands for Technology Unlimited. TUL is the parent company of PowerColor and manufactures motherboards, barebones systems, and other PC components; the PowerColor brand refers to TULís graphics business.
Like MSI, PowerColor relies on ATIís reference design for their X800 XT card. As we mentioned earlier, ATI has been known for their stringent control of high-end board production, often selling complete cards to their board partners, who then turn around and sell the final product to consumers. This ensures a consistent level of quality among all cards. Whether youíre getting a card directly from ATI or one of their board partners, you know that youíre getting a dependable card. Board partners like PowerColor will then add additional perks, such as a more extensive software bundle.
PowerColorís X800 XT card shares the same fundamental feature set as the ATI and MSI cards, with the card sporting the same traditional DVI/VGA configuration as the other manufacturers. Finally, PowerColor also tacks on VIVO capabilities (provided by Rage Theater) as well. PowerColor uses the same 2.0ns Samsung modules as the other manufacturers also.
Because the PowerColor, MSI, and ATI cards are so similar, the ATI reference driver actually recognizes them as the same card. Swap one card for another and the driver loads up the exact same settings as the previous card. This also happens to include ATIís OVERDRIVE feature, first launched last year. OVERDRIVE provides dynamic overclocking and active hardware monitoring. This means that PowerColor users get the exact same capabilities as those who purchase their card direct from ATI.
Keep in mind that the PowerColor card ships with more than just the graphics card. Youíll also get a copy of Hitman: Contracts and Counter-Strike: Condition Zero. CS: CZ never really took off with Counter-Strike fans but Hitman: Contracts was a very worthy sequel, earning more favorable reviews than the original it was based on. Also included are a suite of Cyberlink products including PowerDVD, PowerDirector SE+, MediaShow SE, Power2Go, and PowerProducer DVD.
Lock On: Modern Air Combat (Mig-29 custom demo)
Tomb Raider Ė Direct3D
Lock On: Modern Air Combat Ė Direct3D
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB - OpenGL
Far Cry Ė Direct3D
Far Cry Ė Direct3D
Half-Life 2 Ė Direct3D
DOOM 3 Ė OpenGL
Far Cry Ė Direct3D
Far Cry Ė Direct3D
With that being said, the ASUS Extreme AX800 XT/2DT/256 is the clear winner of our X800 XT card roundup, and easily an Editorís Choice card. ASUS is the only manufacturer to provide dual DVI capability, allowing end userís with flat panel displays the option of connecting both of their LCDs without compromising on image quality. At the same time, ASUS also includes two DVI adapters, so those of you with VGA monitors wonít have any problems hooking the graphics card up to your current monitor. ASUS also provides an elegant, heat pipe-based copper cooler with blue LEDs. This didnít help us overclock the card any higher, but it definitely ran cooler than the other cards we tested. All this does come at one tradeoff however, the ASUS EAX800 XT/2DT/256 is the only card in this comparison that doesnít provide VIVO capability. This may, or may not be a big issue to most of you.
If the ASUS hardware werenít enough to convince you, perhaps Smart Doctor will. Smart Doctor not only provides manual overclocking via slider, it can also automatically adjust the clock speed of the graphics core and memory once you load up a game, or once the board hits certain predefined temperatures you can determine. Smart Doctor also features built-in hardware monitoring functionality, and can alert you (or underclock the card) if the video card begins to overheat. ASUS also backs the card up with a ton of goodies, a copy of Deus Ex: Invisible War and a webcam. All this adds up to a package that should clearly appeal to enthusiasts and gamers.
ASUS may be the winner, but the other cards have their fair share of positives also. For one thing, they all feature video input support, a feature ASUS leaves to their Platinum Edition card only. MSIís RX800XT-VTD256E really stands out due to its extensive game bundle. MSI ships their card with three recent games: Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, Price of Persia: The Sands of Time, and XIII. This is a lot more than you get with your typical graphics card. Ever since they launched their NBOX gaming bundle last year, MSI has really gone out of their way to provide the best game bundle out there and it shows. PowerColor is no slouch in that department either though, bundling a copy of Hitman: Contracts with their RADEON X800 XT card. Hitman was released in April of this year, so itís a fairly recent title.
Looking back over the cards, itís actually a bit ironic to see how little ATI provides with their cards in comparison to the others. If the ATI brand name werenít so popular, we have a feeling ATI would have a much harder time selling their card at retail. Guess it pays to have your name on the graphics chips and the cards huh?
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