Summary: While the X800 XL is quickly gaining a loyal following among ATI enthusiasts, the card was initially launched in PCI Express format only, requiring enthusiasts to purchase a new motherboard and graphics card if they wanted to upgrade. However, late last February ATI announced the X800 XL AGP, providing an upgrade path for these consumers. PowerColor is one of ATI's first board partners with a card available and it's up for review today. See how it performs against cards ranging from the RADEON 9800 PRO and X800 PRO/XT, all the way up to the GeForce 6600 GT, 6800, and 6800 GT in this article!
However, lying just between the high-end, flagship cards and the less expensive mainstream cards is the most exciting segment of them all: performance mainstream. Often times, these $250-$400 cards contain most, if not all of the same features found in the high-end $500 cards, only they run at slower clock speeds and/or perhaps with less memory; giving you most of the performance of a flagship card only with a much lower price tag.
ATI’s RADEON X800 XL is a perfect example of this. Its R430 graphics core supports the same 2.0b shaders as ATI’s high-end X850 cards, as well as all sixteen pixel pipelines. ATI even equips the X800 XL with a 256-bit memory interface with 256MB of high-speed GDDR3 memory. Feature-for-feature, the RADEON X800 XL is right up there with the latest $500+ ATI graphics cards, only it sells for hundreds of dollars less (the MSRP on PCI-E boards is $300, while AGP cards retail for $350).
To make the chip cheaper to manufacture, ATI uses a smaller 0.11-micron manufacturing process, which in turn means they have to sacrifice a little clock speed. For instance the X850 XT Platinum Edition’s performance-optimized 0.13-micron process allows it to clock in at 540MHz, while the X800 XL tops out over 100MHz slower, at 400MHz. Our overclocking endeavors with six different X800 XL cards in our X800 XL roundup last month revealed that most cards maxed out around 420-435MHz, with two cards hitting over 440MHz, but none over 450MHz, leaving the X800 XL well short of the X850 XT PE’s stock speed. Without low-k dielectric and the other optimizations found in TSMC’s 0.13-micron process, the X800 XL just can’t scale to higher clock speeds. ATI ran into similar problems with the X700 XT’s simpler 8-pixel pipeline architecture early on (which uses the same 0.11 process), the chip just didn’t yield well at 475MHz. We saw this just recently in our Sapphire TOXIC X700 PRO review (which uses leftover X700 XT cores), as the card just didn’t overclock well past 500MHz.
To cut costs further, ATI uses cheaper, slower memory for the X800 XL; 2.0ns memory modules clocked at 500MHz are used on X800 XL boards, while X850 XT PE boards ship with faster 1.6ns modules operating at 590MHz.
While these changes prevent the X800 XL from besting the X850 XT PE in performance, it still comes quite close to matching the PE board, especially in CPU-bound applications such as flight sims. Even in titles such as Half-Life 2 the X800 XL is able to deliver 90% of the X850 XT PE’s performance in most situations, it isn’t until you hit 1600x1200 that the Platinum Edition board really begins to pull away.
Because of this, the X800 XL is an excellent candidate for enthusiasts looking to upgrade. The only problem is that up until now, the X800 XL has only been available in PCI Express format. While PCI-E delivers twice the theoretical bandwidth of AGP, today’s games just haven’t been designed to take advantage of this, resulting in little or no performance improvement. With millions of AGP systems already out on the market, these consumers may not want to spend the extra money for a PCI-E motherboard to go along with the PCI-E graphics card until the applications are there. These users would rather just upgrade their AGP graphics card and call it a day.
Hence the need for the X800 XL AGP was born.
ATI has experienced multiple delays with Rialto, which was originally expected to debut with the X700 last fall (to the best of our knowledge, X600 and X300 were always intended to be PCI-E parts only), but when the X700’s RV410 graphics core was ready and Rialto wasn’t, ATI was forced to focus exclusively on the mainstream PCI-E market, while NVIDIA enjoyed sales of both PCI-E and AGP GeForce 6600 cards. Fortunately for ATI, Rialto is here now and Rialto-equipped versions of the X700 and X800 XL for AGP are now shipping (it’s important to note that the X850 series of AGP cards is an AGP native solution, Rialto isn’t used).
On the PowerColor X800 XL AGP board, the Rialto chip is located on the underside of the card, to the right of R430 when the card is flipped over. A pink thermal pad protects resistors on Rialto’s packaging from being accidentally knocked off by the end user, while the chip itself requires no cooling. In operation, Rialto does run pretty warm, but not nearly as hot as NVIDIA’s HSI chip, which requires a large aluminum heatsink and still gets pretty toasty, nor does it run as hot as Intel’s ICH6R South Bridge, but we still wouldn’t be surprised if some enthusiasts mount a small heatsink on the chip for better cooling (a RAMsink would be a good candidate). We would definitely recommend it if you plan on overclocking.
Not much is known about Rialto, as ATI has been pretty mum on details. For example early rumors indicated that Rialto could convert PCI-E signals into AGP, but couldn’t work in the other direction. If this report is true it wouldn’t impact ATI significantly in any case, as their recent graphics releases clearly indicate that they’re focused on the PCI Express interface anyway (keep in mind that the three ATI AGP cards that were announced back in February were the first AGP releases from ATI since the X800 family was launched in April of last year).
Finally, clock speeds carry over unchanged to the X800 XL AGP, ATI’s reference specifications call for the same 400MHz core/500MHz memory as PCI-E cards (although most board partners actually clock their boards at 398MHz on the core/492MHz memory, the performance difference is indistinguishable).
As you can see in the pictures, the most striking characteristic of the X800 XL AGP is its size – the board is incredibly long – in fact this is the longest ATI board we’ve seen in recent memory, sizing in approximately 1.6 inches longer than the X800 XL PCI-E and even slightly outflanking NVIDIA’s high-end GeForce 6800 GT/Ultra in length. This is due to two factors: the Rialto bridge chip and the 4-pin Molex power connector. We’ll start with Rialto first.
As we mentioned earlier, Rialto is located on the underside of the graphics card, closer to the DVI/VGA connectors on the end of the board, placing it directly over the AGP interface. R430 then sits just behind Rialto. When measuring the distance between the front of the card (where the VGA and DVI connectors are located) to the location of R430, the VPU on X800 XL AGP is pushed back 1.5” further than on the PCI-E X800 XL card, this accounts for most of the difference in size between the PCI-E board and its AGP derivative.
It’s interesting to note that X700 AGP boards are much closer in design to their PCI-E cousins, with Rialto sitting underneath RV410, thus allowing PCBs of similar size to be used.
The remainder of the difference in size between AGP and PCI-E X800 XL cards can be attributed to the board’s 4-pin Molex power connector, which is located on the right side of the board. Unlike PCI Express, the AGP interface isn’t capable of supplying enough power to the board, in addition, Rialto also adds to the card’s power requirements. If the external power connection isn’t hooked up, you won’t get a video signal when you turn on your PC.
The rest of the X800 XL AGP board design is pretty similar to PCI-E cards. Both share the same large ducted aluminum heatsink/fan unit, which is the same cooler in use on the RADEON X850 PRO. The cooler does a good job of keeping the graphics core cool, with the fan’s RPMs varying based on graphics core temperature. If the core begins to overheat, the RPMs crank up to a pretty high setting that can be a little noisy, but fortunately we’ve never experienced this outside of overclocking (and even with overclocking the fan can typically run at the moderate setting).
For video input functionality, ATI’s Rage Theater chip is used. PowerColor includes a VIVO cable for hooking your card up to an external device such as a camcorder. For the memory subsystem, PowerColor uses 2.0ns memory modules manufactured by Samsung.
Bundle and accessories
Hardware accessories PowerColor bundles with their X800 XL AGP card include a DVI adapter, component video cable (for outputting to an HDTV) and VIVO cable, RCA composite cable, and an S-Video cable. Surprisingly enough, a Molex power adapter wasn’t included in our card’s packaging. On the software side, PowerColor bundles a copy of Hitman: Contracts and copies of PowerDirector SE+, MediaShow SE, PowerDVD, Power2Go, and PowerProducer DVD are included on a DVD.
Pacific Fighters (kamikaze demo)
Pacific Fighters - OpenGL
Far Cry – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
Chronicles of Riddick – OpenGL
DOOM 3 – OpenGL
Half-Life 2 – Direct3D
Size: At 9.5” in length, ATI’s RADEON X800 XL AGP is one massive graphics card, especially by ATI standards! Those of you with small form factor systems may have a hard time squeezing this card into your SFF’s chassis, while those of you with cramped ATX cases may need to make some adjustments to get the card to fit.