Summary: Wondering which Radeon X1900 XTX card is right for you? In today's article, we've rounded up five of the hottest X1900 XTX graphics cards on the market. See what features separate the boards from each other, as well as check out our X1900 XTX overclocking results. How does 700MHz+ on the graphics core sound to you?
While the first wave of shader model 3.0 hardware hit shelves some time ago, for many of these games shader model 3.0 was an afterthought. 3.0 shaders were only used for a handful of effects, generally the shaders were used solely to improve performance; image complexity was untouched. That’s finally going to change thanks to several prominent titles that are set to ship this year.
Most notable of them is Unreal Tournament 2007. Utilizing Epic’s next-gen Unreal Engine 3 technology, UT 2007 is slated to ship this Fall. Epic has numerous licensees for Unreal Engine 3, including America’s Army, BioWare, Vivendi Universal Games, and Atari. Epic’s UE3 engine isn’t restricted to just the PC either, as games for Sony’s upcoming PS3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console have been announced.
In fact, while die-hard PC gamers may not like to hear this, it’s in large part because of the next-gen consoles that games with more advanced shaders are making their way to the PC in greater volume. Game developers often target the lowest common denominator in order to appeal to the widest audience possible. Now that consoles are beginning to catch up to the PC, the bar has been raised higher for developers: the RSX GPU powering the graphics inside the PS3 is largely based on NVIDIA’s G70 GPU so in effect, shader model 3.0 is now the minimum.
Another graphics trend that games will increasingly begin to take advantage of is high dynamic range lighting (HDR). HDR was first introduced via patch in CryTek’s Far Cry nearly two years ago, but last year we saw the first titles that took advantage of HDR out-of-the-box such as Age of Empires 3, Serious Sam 2, and Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow. In 2006 we’ll see dozens of titles ship built with HDR in mind.
Finally, more extensive shadowing will be used to produce a gloomier atmosphere. Games will turn to different dynamic shadow techniques to create effects such as self-shadowing and soft shadows, while environmental effects like volumetric fog will be used to make outdoor environments look more lifelike.
Up to now, games such as Far Cry have shipped with a few of these features, but no one game has combined them all into one package. In Far Cry’s case, Crytek used a limited number of 3.0 shaders to improve performance, while HDR was integrated to produce jaw-dropping lighting effects, but Far Cry’s shadowing system wasn’t as advanced as say Doom 3 or F.E.A.R.
F.E.A.R. on the other hand features a per-pixel lighting model and uses shaders extensively, but its many levels lack HDR lighting.
If Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 tech demo is any indication, this year we should see all these eye candy features combined into games such as Unreal Tournament 2007 and Gears of War.
With this in mind, ATI has prepped the Radeon X1900 family. ATI’s X1900 boasts a very forward-looking GPU, R580, which sports 48 pixel shader processors. With 48 pixel shaders onboard, ATI envisions a future where shader-heavy titles are the norm, rather than the exception: many of the latest games on the market today are more dependant on more traditional performance metrics such as texturing and raw fill-rate. ATI argues that thanks to the popularity of Xbox 360 (and its 48-shader Xenos GPU), this “future” may become a reality sooner than you think.
In order to size up the Radeon X1900 XTX market, we’ve rounded up five of the hottest Radeon X1900 XTX boards on the market. Each of these manufacturers enjoys Tier One board partner status with ATI, and can be found online or at the retail level for sale.
SIDEBAR: ATI’s R580 GPU contains 384 million transistors
The board design of ATI’s own Radeon X1900 XTX card is the basis for all of the Radeon X1900 XTX cards we’re reviewing today, so we’ll start with ATI’s Radeon X1900 XTX card first, before moving on to the other manufacturers.
Why does everyone follow the ATI reference board design?
The ATI Radeon X1900 XTX
ATI’s Radeon X1900 XTX board design is actually largely based on its predecessor, the Radeon X1800 XT. ATI’s Radeon X1900 XTX board uses the exact same PCB and cooling as the X1800 XT, although ATI and all of the other board manufacturers in this review use faster 1.1ns memory modules on their X1900 XTX cards instead of the 1.2ns modules that were used on X1800 XTs. Samsung’s 1.1ns memory modules are officially rated for speeds up to 900MHz, while 1.2ns modules are rated up to 800MHz; considering that the memory on the Radeon X1900 XTX runs at 775MHz, on paper this leaves lots of headroom for overclocking. In practice though we’ve found that X1900 XTX boards don’t come anywhere close to hitting 900MHz when overclocking.
In terms of cooling, ATI outfits the X1900 XTX with a dual-slot cooler. The centerpiece of ATI’s cooling solution is arguably the rather large copper heatsink used to draw heat off the graphics core and memory modules. Heat is drawn off these chips and then exhausted outside your system’s case thanks to ATI’s blower-style fan. The fan has drawn some criticism from enthusiasts as it runs louder than previous cooling solutions from ATI, but it actually runs at different speeds depending on temperature.
At its lowest setting, the fan actually runs very quietly, it’s actually nearly silent. At this setting, the fan spins at about 1700RPMs. This is the setting used for 2D desktop work. Once you load up a 3D app, the fan kicks up to its intermediate setting. Here the board generates more noise, although we wouldn’t describe it as unbearable. It is however louder than NVIDIA’s GeForce 7900 GTX.
It’s when the board is running at full tilt that it generates a considerable amount of noise. This occurs when the GPU is running at temperatures over 80 degrees Celsius. Fortunately we can report that the X1900 XTX rarely requires this level of cooling during use in single-card configurations; if your case is adequately cooled with good ventilation you should be okay, even when overclocking. We’ve hit the 80 degree threshold a few times when running two cards for CrossFire though.
In terms of connectivity, ATI’s Radeon X1900 XTX (and all X1900 XTX cards for that matter, regardless of manufacturer) excels. ATI and their board partners provide two dual-link DVI connectors on the X1900 XTX, allowing the card to support resolutions as high as 2560x1600. Unlike retail GeForce 7900 GTX cards, the X1900 XTX also provides VIVO (video-in/video-out) functionality: all the Radeon X1900 XTX cards in this roundup are outfitted with ATI’s Rage Theater chip to provide this functionality.
Software and accessories
Included inside the packaging of ATI’s Radeon X1900 XTX are two DVI adapters, an S-Video cable, composite video cable, VIVO cable, and a component video cable. ATI doesn’t include a game bundle with their cards, but you will get the driver CD and instruction manual with their X1900 XTX board.
Take for instance their first ATI-based graphics card, the Radeon 9800 XT-based ASUS A9800 XT/TVD. The A9800 XT/TVD was the first non-ALL-IN-WONDER ATI-based card to provide VIVO functionality. Today it’s unheard of for a high-end ATI card to ship without VIVO. In addition, ASUS’ Smart Doctor software offered overclocking capabilities that completely outclassed ATI’s own Overdrive utility, including dynamic and manual clock speed adjustment, and tons of hardware monitoring options. ATI didn’t offer many of those features in their own Overdrive software until their Overdrive 3 release (12+ months after ASUS), which was included with CATALYST 4.12 for Radeon X850 XT/X850 XT PE users.
But it didn’t stop there, in addition to implementing a more powerful cooling unit, ASUS also ran their Extreme X1800 XT TOP/2DHTV board at considerably higher clock speeds than ATI’s reference speeds for the X1800 XT called for. In fact, ASUS’ Extreme X1800 XT TOP/2DHTV ran at speeds higher than today’s latest X1900 XTX cards. ASUS clocked the board out-of-the-box at speeds of 700MHz on the graphics core, and 800MHz on the memory. These speeds were 75MHz higher than the stock X1800 XT on the GPU, and 50MHz on the memory. The only real downside to the Extreme X1800 XT TOP/2DHTV was that the card required an external power supply unit (PSU) to receive adequate power, but this wasn’t a big deal because the PSU was integrated seamlessly into the card: instead of plugging in the 6-pin PCI Express power adapter like you do with most high-end cards, you simply had to plug ASUS’s external PSU into the Extreme X1800 XT TOP/2DHTV’s backplate. In the end we awarded ASUS’s Extreme X1800 XT TOP/2DHTV with our Editor’s Choice Award, with a 93% rating as the Extreme X1800 XT TOP/2DHTV was clearly the most innovative board of its generation.
ASUS plays it more conservatively with their Radeon X1900 XTX card, sticking entirely with ATI’s reference board design. All ASUS does is slap their sticker over the board’s fan, as well as a second sticker on the right edge of the board, just below the power connector. Everywhere else the card is the same as ATI’s own board.
Software and accessories
Where ASUS does go beyond the ATI X1900 XTX card is in their software bundle. Whereas the ATI board ships with just the driver CD, ASUS also throws in a copy of King Kong on DVD-ROM, as well as the game Project Snowblind, and a demo CD with various games on it. Productivity software shipping with the card includes a copy of CyberLink PowerDirector 3DE, and CyberLink Medi@Show SE 2.0.
MSI’s T.O.P. Tech technology really became useful though during the GeForce FX generation. As you no doubt know by now, with the GeForce FX generation, NVIDIA integrated dual-slot cooler for the first time on their reference boards. The GeForce FX 5800 Ultra in particular was known for being notoriously loud. MSI’s T.O.P. Tech-based GeForce FX boards however were some of the quietest cards on the market. MSI continued to tinker with the formula, even providing fan speed adjustment on some of their high-end GeForce 6 boards, while their Radeon X800 XL board was one of our favorites in our Radeon X800 XL roundup one year ago.
MSI’s Radeon X1900 XTX board, the RX1900XTX-VT2D512E is physically indistinguishable from the other X1900 XTX cards in this roundup. MSI’s using the same board-level components as the other ATI board partners, right down to the Samsung 1.1ns memory modules. VIVO support and two dual-link DVI connectors are also standard features on the MSI card. Other than the sticker on the card’s fan, the RX1900XTX-VT2D512E is identical to the other card manufacturers.
One area where MSI traditionally likes to differentiate themselves from other board manufacturers is with their game bundle. MSI’s NBOX in particular really upped the ante when it comes to game bundles, shipping with three brand new game titles (including Battlefield 1942, one of the most popular games online at the time) and an 800dpi optical USB mouse.
MSI’s NBOX really shook up the industry; up to that point many board manufacturers shipped their latest high-end cards with outdated games that really couldn’t take advantage of the hardware they came with. Later that year NVIDIA began pushing their board partners to bundle their GeForce FX 5900 XT cards with a copy of Call of Duty and the rest as they say is history: since then more card manufacturers have followed MSI’s lead, refreshing their software bundle with newer, better, games. MSI’s RX1900XTX-VT2D512E is a perfect example of this, as MSI ships their board with a copy of King Kong on DVD, just like ASUS. Technically MSI started shipping their boards with King Kong first, starting with their GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB card.
Software and accessories
Besides providing King Kong on DVD, MSI also bundles their RX1900XTX-VT2D512E board with software from CyberLink, including a copy of PowerCinema, Power2Go, and PowerProducer. Hardware accessories bundled with the card include a component video cable, S-Video cable, composite video cable, VIVO cable, 6-pin PCI-E power adapter, and two DVI adapters.
PowerColor is one of ATI’s oldest board partners, with products dating all the way back to the Rage128 chip. PowerColor is also one of the world’s 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. In 2004, PowerColor’s parent company, CP Technology changed their name from CP to Technology Unlimited.
To coincide with the name change, TUL completely overhauled its look and decided to place greater emphasis on the retail space, particularly among the enthusiast market. PowerColor completely revised their product packaging and began to really seek out input on what kind of features enthusiasts wanted in a high-end graphics card. The result is that PowerColor revamped their cards game bundles and began to produce high-end cards that were targeted towards enthusiasts under the “Bravo Edition” label. The first of these cards was PowerColor’s 9600 XT Bravo Edition. This board shipped with faster memory modules than other 9600 XT cards and was overclocked from the factory.
In January 2006 PowerColor went one step further to appeal to the enthusiast/high-end segment, offering a lifetime warranty on all of their retail graphics cards. Any PowerColor graphics card purchased on or after January, 24, 2006 in the US or Canada is covered by PowerColor’s lifetime warranty. The warranty is provided to the original purchaser of the card, as long as the card isn’t physically damaged you’re covered for as long as you own your PowerColor graphics card. All you have to do is register your card with PowerColor and keep the retail packaging it shipped with.
PowerColor is the only ATI board manufacturer to provide a lifetime warranty on their cards, so if this feature is important to you, you’ll definitely want to keep PowerColor in mind when shopping for your next ATI-based graphics card.
In terms of the hardware itself, PowerColor’s Radeon X1900 XTX board looks identical to ATI’s reference X1900 XTX board. PowerColor doesn’t even bother to place a sticker with their company logo on the card’s fan!
Software and accessories
PowerColor doesn’t include a game bundle with their Radeon X1900 XTX card. Instead you get a driver CD and a DVD with several Cyberlink programs including:
In addition to the driver CD and Cyberlink suite DVD, PowerColor also includes two DVI adapters, a 6-pin PCI-E power adapter, S-Video and composite video cables, a component video cable, and VIVO cable.
SIDEBAR: PowerColor X1900 XTX 512MB Product Webpage
Sapphire Technology is probably a name that most of our readers are familiar with. Sapphire’s popularity is fueled in large part due to their widespread availability; with the exception of Antarctica, Sapphire’s graphics cards can be found relatively easily regardless of what continent you live on. In addition to widespread availability, Sapphire is also consistently able to bring their products to market quicker than most other manufacturers. This is due in large part because Sapphire frequently handles the bulk of ATI’s card production for a given GPU. When the RADEON 9700 PRO first launched in 2002, all early board production was handled by Sapphire.
Besides availability, another major selling point for Sapphire cards is price: Sapphire’s cards are often priced below other manufacturers at retail.
Sapphire’s X700 Pro Toxic for instance shipped with a dual-slot VGA cooler from Arctic Cooling for enhanced cooling, and was outfitted with ATI’s faster X700 XT graphics core rather than X700 Pro for better overclocking potential. Sapphire then finished the package off with their automated performance enhancement utility, providing factory-approved overclocking of the graphics core and memory out-of-the-box. Meanwhile, on their Ultimate Edition boards, Sapphire uses heat pipes to actively cool the GPU (the one exception to this rule is Sapphire’s X800 XL Ultimate, which used a heatsink/fan unit from Arctic Cooling to cool the GPU). The Ultimate Edition cards are designed to appeal to users looking for a card that runs as quietly as possible.
More recently, Sapphire announced their Blizzard lineup of high-end cards. Their first Blizzard board, the Sapphire Radeon X850 XT Blizzard, was ultimately never released to market, as the company who provided the liquid metal cooling that the card was based on went under. Just a few weeks ago Sapphire announced another Blizzard board, the Radeon X1900 XTX-based Sapphire Blizzard X1900 XTX. The Blizzard Radeon X1900 XTX uses liquid cooling to cool the GPU, and is equipped with a separate enclosure which houses a 12V mini-pump and fan to help keep everything cool. We’ve got one of these boards in-house now and have begun testing it, we’ll reserve our final judgment on this board though until our full-fledged review coming in a few weeks.
Sapphire’s Radeon X1900 XTX board shares all the common components found on the other X1900 XTX cards we’ve gathered for this roundup. You can literally peel the Sapphire sticker off the card’s heatsink/fan unit to see the same image of Ruby wielding a sword with a menacing look on her face.
Software and accessories
One area where Sapphire definitely has differentiated themselves from other manufacturers is with their game bundle. Rather than bundling their latest graphics cards with an assortment of games, Sapphire instead ships their boards with their Sapphire Select DVD. On the Sapphire Select DVD you’ll find four games: Tony Hawk’s Undergound 2, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, and Richard Burns Rally. You can try all four games for up to one hour, at that point you’ll then pick two games to be unlocked for the full version. The other two games can then be purchased at a discount if you’d like.
Pacific Fighters 4.04 (with Perfect landscape setting for ATI and NVIDIA)
Half-Life 2: Lost Coast – Direct3D
Battlefield 2 – Direct3D
Quake 4 – OpenGL
LOMAC – Direct D
Pacific Fighters – OpenGL
F.E.A.R. – Direct3D
Call of Duty 2 – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
To overclock the various X1900 XTX boards, we’re using the R5xx overclocking tool provided at driverheaven.net’s forums. It seems like there’s no perfect tool out there for overclocking the X1900 XT family, each software program has their fair share of compromises, but it seems to be the best tool out there for overclocking the X1900 XTX at the moment, providing manual clock speed adjustment as well as settings to adjust voltages as well as fan speeds. We followed the same procedure to overclock for all the cards in this roundup, manually cranking the fan’s RPMs to 3900 RPMs, while the graphics core voltage was adjusted to 1.225V, with memory voltage of 2.2V and I/O voltage set at 2.2V. From there we set out to hit the highest speeds possible:
Half-Life 2: Lost Coast – Direct3D
We actually got the Sapphire board to run some applications at even higher speeds than 702/837 without any artifacts, but the card wasn’t able stable enough to endure our looped 3DMark 06 runs without eventually crashing. Perhaps with a little more voltage and higher fan speeds we could have gotten the board to run with complete stability at these speeds, but we didn’t want to bend the rules to see if it were possible. Of course, we’re also running with one board from each manufacturer, that’s nowhere near a large enough representative sample to come to any conclusions on which manufacturers boards overclock the best (remember that they’re all basically the same board anyway), we’re just providing these results so you can see how well the X1900 XTX scales at higher clock speeds.
With this in mind, other factors, such as price, software bundle, and warranty, will become increasingly important. Armed with this critical piece of information, let’s take a look at the five cards represented here today.
The ASUS and MSI boards ship with the newest game bundle. Ubi’s King Kong was released at the end of last year, so it’s just a few months old. In addition, it also happens to be a pretty good game. Alan raved about the gameplay in his Kong Kong Xbox 360 review back in December, while King Kong currently carries an average of 80% on GameRankings.com. The only real downside of the game is its length: most critics have noted that the game is too short. In addition to King Kong, ASUS also includes a copy of Project Snowblind, as well as a CD with various game demos on it but these are all obscure titles, King Kong is the main attraction as far as the software bundle is concerned.
Sapphire’s game bundle program, Sapphire Select, is technically more versatile than ASUS or MSI’s, allowing you to pick which games you want from their bundle, but Sapphire’s selection of games are older titles, most were released in late 2004. Brothers In Arms: Road to Hill 30 is the most noteworthy title (and also the newest), but it’s over a year old now. On the other hand, Sapphire’s Radeon X1900 XTX is the least expensive X1900 XTX board on Pricegrabber right now, selling for about $490 for the OEM card, that’s about $10 less than the next closest offering, the OEM version of PowerColor’s X1900 XTX board. Sapphire’s Radeon X1900 XTX cards are the cheapest boards for sale at Newegg right now too.
The greatest strength for the PowerColor Radeon X1900 XTX is without a doubt its lifetime warranty. We have a feeling that this feature alone will sell a lot of video cards for PowerColor, just as it has done for NVIDIA’s board partners, such as BFG, EVGA, and XFX. PowerColor doesn’t include a game bundle with their card, but it is priced competitively with the other boards in this roundup, coming in just behind the Sapphire board in price, but ahead of the cards from ATI, ASUS, and MSI. Based on all this, it can definitely be argued that the PowerColor X1900 XTX board is the best value among all the Radeon X1900 XTX boards on the market right now, especially if you tend to hold onto your graphics card for years instead of months: PowerColor’s lifetime warranty may come in handy some time down the road.
While it’s no doubt reassuring to many consumers to purchase cards Built By ATI, purchasing ATI’s own Radeon X1900 XTX card is probably the hardest card purchase to justify. ATI’s card tends to sell for more than competing X1900 XTX cards from Sapphire, MSI, and PowerColor (only the ASUS card is more expensive), and is only backed by a 1-year warranty. On top of all this, you don’t get any games or even video editing software with the Built By ATI Radeon X1900 XTX card. These are all features that the other manufacturers in this roundup provide. If you can find a good deal on a Built By ATI Radeon X1900 XTX card, by all means pick it up, but otherwise you’d be better served by a card from one of the other manufacturers.
So there you have it, our take on some of the hottest Radeon X1900 XTX cards on the market right now. Hopefully this article has helped you find the XTX card that best suits your needs, but if you’re looking to spend a little less, the X1900 XT is an excellent alternative, and a lot of our comments on the various manufacturers Radeon X1900 XTX boards also apply to their respective X1900 XT cards as well. The best part about the Radeon X1900 XT cards is that they tend to sell for about $50 less than the XTX and deliver roughly 95% of the XTX’s performance. This makes them a pretty good value if you’re on a budget, but want all the features found in ATI’s latest high-end GPU, particularly R580’s 48 pixel shaders.
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