Summary: Earlier this week we took a look at the performance of ATI's new flagship Radeon X1900 XTX and X1900 XT graphics cards, today we're here to evaluate the performance of the third piece of the puzzle, ATI's Radeon X1900 CrossFire solution. With 96 pixel shaders and 1GB of combined RAM in an X1900 CrossFire system, you can imagine that it's quite a performer. But how does it compare to the X1800 CrossFire, as well as NVIDIA's mighty GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB SLI? What about 8x and 14xAA performance? Find out in this article!
Only in more recent months have the merits of the Radeon X1800 XT been noticed by the high-end crowd. Thanks to rapidly improving availability, street prices on cards are falling quickly. In addition, NVIDIA’s latest stab at the Radeon X1800 XT actually backfired, as the GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB debuted at a launch price of $700+ on launch day (over $50 over MSRP), then steadily rose to $750 or more. And that’s if you could find someone carrying a card for sale, as cards have been incredibly scarce, with e-tailers such as Newegg still showing the card on backorder to this day.
Now ATI’s debuting a slew of new GPUs that ATI hopes will make the days even longer for NVIDIA’s engineers. Chief among these new cards is the Radeon X1900 CrossFire. You see, up to this point, NVIDIA’s SLI platform has been the unquestioned solution of choice for the high-end gamer looking for the most performance money can buy. With SLI, NVIDIA wins three times over, as an SLI system consists of the motherboard and two graphics cards. As NVIDIA’s bean counters have learned, this is an awfully effective way to increase your revenues. ATI’s been wanting to get in on this action for about a year now, but due to delays with their first CrossFire part, the Radeon X850 CrossFire, they got off to a terrible start, with the final product shipping months behind schedule and with some pretty glaring limitations, such as a max screen resolution of 1600x1200 at a headache-inducing 60Hz for CRT users.
ATI’s second CrossFire offering, the Radeon X1800 CrossFire, solves this oversight and thanks to an improved compositing engine, delivers pretty impressive performance at AA levels of 8x and up, but it has barely been on the market for 30 days. NVIDIA’s had their 7800 GTX SLI solution out on the market since June.
With this in mind, the significance of ATI providing Radeon X1900 CrossFire can’t go unnoticed. That’s why we’ve decided to devote a second article entirely to the performance of ATI’s Radeon X1900 CrossFire solution. We felt it was more appropriate to test the new ATI cards out on an nForce4 motherboard in single-card configurations, as many of our readers with Radeon X800 XLs and X850s are probably running their cards right now on nForce4 hardware. Besides, by putting all the cards on the same platform, it eliminates one more variable that could get in the way of showing us the performance potential of the various cards.
We’re not going to go over the basics of CrossFire, such as the rendering modes and ATI’s new Super AA feature. If you want to know more about how CrossFire works, you should check out our first article on the Radeon X1800 XT CrossFire card. With the exception of the GPU, ATI hasn’t changed a thing with the Radeon X1900 CrossFire. You’ve got the exact same compositing engine and dongle that was first introduced on the Radeon X1800 CrossFire, as well as the same Super AA modes. We also just took a look at AA quality last week. So what we’re here to do in this article is sum up the performance of ATI’s latest CrossFire solution. How does it measure up to the competition? Let’s see…
IL-2 Sturmovik: Forgotten Battles
Battlefield 2 – Direct3D
Call of Duty 2 – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
IL-2 Sturmovik: Forgotten Battles – OpenGL
Half-Life 2: Lost Coast – Direct3D
Half-Life 2: Lost Coast – Direct3D
Quake 4 – OpenGL
Serious Sam 2 – Direct3D
Quake 4 – OpenGL
Half-Life 2: Lost Coast – Direct3D
ATI’s new Radeon X1900 CrossFire solution is the most exciting CrossFire platform we’ve seen yet. Performance scaled particularly well in Call of Duty 2 at 1600x1200, as well as Half-Life 2 Lost Coast with HDR at 2048x1535, where performance was up by a factor of 1.5. We have a strong feeling that the numbers will only go up with a faster CPU, as a card as powerful as the Radeon X1900 XTX finds itself CPU-bound in a lot of cases all by itself, let alone once you combine two cards together to run in CrossFire mode.
But this is where ATI’s Super AA mode kicks in. In cases where you’re being held back by the speed of your processor, simply turn on Super AA to experience nearly jaggie-free visuals. As you saw in the benchmarks, ATI’s 8x Super AA mode comes with a very minimal performance hit at lower resolutions, and even delivers playable performance at resolutions as high as 1600x1200 in Half-Life 2 Lost Coast. Even ATI’s 14x AA mode performs well. NVIDIA’s GeForce 7800 graphics cards don’t scale nearly as well at the higher AA modes. NVIDIA’s 8xAA mode delivers very fluid performance at lower resolutions, but by 1600x1200 the SLI cards are tapped out. Even the mighty GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB, with its super high-end 850MHz GDDR3 memory doesn’t have the bandwidth to game adequately at these resolutions with 8xAA, while the 16x mode runs like a slideshow at hi-res.
In our opinion, this is CrossFire’s biggest selling point over the NVIDIA SLI platform.
With all that being said, the CrossFire platform has still got a few obstacles it must overcome before it can become a viable alternative to NVIDIA SLI.
For starters, ATI and their board partners have got to get more CrossFire motherboards out on the market. ASUS and DFI were first to market by a landslide, since then other Tier One motherboard manufacturers such as Gigabyte and MSI have announced CrossFire boards, but none have hit the retail market in force. As a result consumers don’t have a whole lot of choice when it comes to CrossFire motherboards, and those boards that are on the market are either light on features, or tend to sell for higher prices than the equivalent nForce4 SLI motherboard.
Fortunately for ATI, this problem is slowly fixing itself, Newegg for instance has dropped the price on their CrossFire boards substantially over the course of the past month. Whereas ASUS’ A8R-MVP sold for around $140 a month ago, it can now be found online for just over $100 on Newegg today. ECS has a CrossFire motherboard on Newegg selling for about $115, while the DFI LANPARTY board has dropped from over $200 at launch to now at $170. We have a feeling though that this problem probably won’t go away until ATI launches their upcoming RD580 chipset, which will provide 16 lanes to both PCI-E slots when running in CrossFire mode as well as launch with a new ATI South Bridge.
The other negative to CrossFire is something that ATI won’t be able to overcome anytime soon, and that is ATI’s reliance on the CrossFire master card itself. For starters, there’s the price premium you have to pay. Right now CrossFire cards sell for $50 more than the standard Radeon X1900 XT. While we understand that CrossFire boards cost a little bit more for ATI to produce, we still feel that this $50 premium is bad for the CrossFire platform. As it is now, NVIDIA can argue that their SLI solution is not only more flexible, with the ability to combine any two GPUs together to deliver SLI capability, but also more cost efficient, as you don’t have to pay $50 extra for that second card to get SLI. It’s almost as if ATI is charging a luxury tax on CrossFire users. Again, we use the word “almost” because we do realize that CrossFire boards are more expensive for ATI to manufacture, but are they $50 more expensive to produce? We tend to doubt that.
The other downside to relying on a CrossFire master card system is supply. Right now ATI’s selling most of the CrossFire master boards themselves, with their board partners focusing on producing X1900 XT and X1900 XTX slave cards instead (there are a couple of exceptions of this, such as Sapphire and ASUS, who are producing all three X1900 variants). But what if something were to happen to ATI’s ability to supply CrossFire master boards, say for instance, demand outstrips supply? Just as street prices on the GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB shot up once demand exceeded supply, the same could potentially happen to the Radeon X1900 CrossFire card.
Fortunately for ATI enthusiasts, this hasn’t happened yet. But illustrating this point is the launch of ATI’s Radeon X1800 CrossFire just last month. The official release was held up for approximately two weeks while ATI tracked down more dongles so they could ship out X1800 CrossFire cards to retailers. The bottom line is that when you’ve only got one supplier doling out cards, if that supplier runs into snags it affects the whole platform. Since GeForce cards can be mixed and matched between manufacturers, NVIDIA doesn’t have to worry about this problem for SLI.
In the end though, the success of ATI’s Radeon X1900 CrossFire is ultimately going to depend on price, performance, and compatibility. With NVIDIA’s GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB inflated pricing and MIA status right now, ATI’s clearly got NVIDIA beat in price and performance. ATI’s struck at just the right moment with the Radeon X1900 family. Now if they can just keep up with demand, ATI should be able to regain a lot of the trust that was lost among ATI enthusiasts last year. ATI’s certainly doing well in this regard so far. The compatibility question is stil up in the air. You saw how Radeon X1900 CrossFire performed with IL-2. Considering how new the platform is, we wouldn't be surprised if this were the case for a lot of obscure titles. The problem is that ATI's only had enough time to build in CrossFire support for a limited number of games, the rest haven't been optimized yet. NVIDIA provides built-in tools in their driver that allows SLI card owners to add SLI support to games that haven't been optimized by NVIDIA directly for SLI. Unfortunately at this time, ATI doesn't provide this for CrossFire owners -- either it works or it doesn't. This is a limitation of CrossFire that ATI needs to address quickly, as many gamers will not want to wait for a driver that may or may not come to add CrossFire to their favorite games. As one of the readers in our comments put it "With crossfire all you can do is turn it on or off, nothing more. You can sit and pray that the game runs faster, and if it doesn´t, live with it and wait for the next driver..."
|© Copyright 2003 FS Media, Inc.|