Summary: We've got a sneak peak at the latest AMD mid-range card and all its various variants (GDDR2, GDDR3, and GDDR4!) Check out some fascinating benchmarks.
High-end cards like the Radeon HD 2900 XT and its nearest competitor, the GeForce 8800 GTS from NVIDIA, draw all the buzz and headlines from press and end user’s alike, but it’s actually the cards that sit just below the high-end that do all the volume. After all, forking over $400 or more for a graphics card isn’t something that a lot of people actually do -- it’s a lot like reading about the high-end sports car or convertible, but actually buying the more practical, less expensive sports coupe or sedan that it shares some traits with. A quick glance at the latest hardware survey from Valve reinforces this. The top GPUs among Steam users are mainstream parts like the GeForce 6600/7600, and Radeon 9600 from ATI.
Because of this, it’s important that AMD and NVIDIA have competitive products in this segment. This is where market share gains can be won and lost.
After announcing the Radeon HD 2000 series a little over a month ago, today AMD-ATI and their board partners are pulling the wraps off their mainstream and value desktop GPU lineup, namely the Radeon HD 2600 XT and 2600 Pro, and the Radeon HD 2400 XT and 2400 Pro. Due to time constraints, today we’re going to focus on the former cards in ATI’s mainstream lineup, the Radeon HD 2600s. Let’s take a look at the specs:
The Radeon HD 2600 Series
At the top of AMD’s Radeon HD 2600 lineup is the Radeon HD 2600 XT. This card is intended to take on NVIDIA’s GeForce 8600 GT. We included an asterisk in the memory size field because honestly, both AMD and NVIDIA leave this spec up to their board partners. One cool feature that isn’t listed in the specs above though is the Radeon HD’s support for HDMI audio output; a separate pass-through cable for carrying audio isn’t necessary as it is with HDMI-equipped GeForce 8600 cards. AMD and their board partners will be bundling HDMI adapters with their cards which are capable of delivering full audio and video via the standard DVI output on the back of the Radeon card.
In addition, the Radeon HD 2600 series supports AMD’s Avivo HD technology. In a nutshell, Avivo HD provides dedicated hardware decode acceleration for playing back high definition Blu-ray and HD-DVD movies. AMD is quick to point out that their Radeon HD cards support both VC-1 and H.264 Codecs, whereas NVIDIA is limited to just H.264.
Another interesting, yet untapped feature present inside the Radeon HD 2600 series is AMD’s tessellation unit. This is the same unit found in the Radeon HD 2900 XT and Xbox 360. The idea here is that game developers can use the tessellation unit to create highly detailed scenes/game characters with much fewer triangles than would otherwise be necessary. This in turn frees up memory bandwidth, resulting in improved performance.
Looking over the specs, you can see that the key design principles found in the Radeon HD 2900 XT carry over into the 2600 line. In other words, the GPU is a very forward-looking design that’s heavy on stream processors (120 in the case of the Radeon cards, versus just 32 in the GeForce 8600s), but light on more traditional aspects of the rendering pipeline like texturing and ROPs. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in our benchmarks…
Thanks to their use of TSMC’s 65-nm manufacturing process, the Radeon HD 2600 cards require very little power to operate. According to AMD, the thermal design power for the Radeon HD 2600’s RV630 GPU is just 45 watts. As a result, neither Radeon HD 2600 card needs an external power connector in order to operate. The cards get all their juice from the PCIe interface.
The Radeon HD 2600 XT
The reference board design for AMD’s Radeon HD 2600 XT reminds us of the Radeon X1950 Pro in many ways. At right around 9”, the Radeon HD 2600 XT card is just as long as the Radeon X1950 Pro, and it relies on a ducted cooling design that’s similar to the X1950 Pro. ATI uses a similar fan for the card too.
Surrounding the GPU is a large aluminum plate which also cools the board’s VRM circuitry. Then resting atop the GPU itself is a copper heatsink. Measuring in at just 3” long, this copper heatsink does a very good job of keeping the GPU cool, even under load we noted temps in the mid-60 degree Celsius range and the card’s fan generates very little noise in use.
In terms of connectivity, AMD outfits the Radeon HD 2600 XT with two dual-link DVI ports, and of course, the aforementioned HDMI adapter cable. AMD’s 2600 XT card also supports HDCP, and the final output on the card is an HDTV output.
The GDDR3 board ships with the exact same configuration/cooling, with the obvious difference being the memory type supported.
Radeon HD 2600 Pro
The board design for the Radeon HD 2600 Pro is very different from the XT. Gone is the large ducted cooler, in its place you’ll see a much smaller aluminum heatsink/fan unit. Also gone are the two 12-bit CrossFire connectors on the top of the card. At this time the Radeon HD 2600 Pro lacks support for connectorless, software-based CrossFire.
Thankfully the noise generated by the card’s fan isn’t caused by the fan’s motor. Instead it’s the amount of air that the card pushes. AMD cranks the fan up to very high levels, this in turn pushes a lot of air through the card’s ducted cooling. This air passing through the card’s duct is the bulk of the noise that you hear, resulting in a somewhat deep whooshing noise.
On the multimedia front, the Radeon HD 2600 Pro supports all the features found in the more expensive Radeon HD 2600 XT.
AGP users will be glad to hear that AGP variants of the Radeon HD 2600 are in the works from AMD’s board partners. During Computex Sapphire demo’ed their AGP cards, and we wouldn’t be surprised if more partners also offered AGP variants in the near future.
Company of Heroes 1.3
Due to time constraints, we don’t have DX10 benchmarks for you today, but we’re already working on benchmarking these cards under Vista with DX10. We also ran into a strange error with CrossFire that precluded us from running those tests. We hope to have an updated article online shortly.
3DMark 06 – Direct3D
Battlefield 2 – Direct3D
F.E.A.R. – Direct3D
Oblivion – Direct3D
Oblivion – Direct3D
Call of Duty 2 – Direct3D
Half-Life 2 Lost Coast – Direct3D
Company of Heroes – Direct3D9
Quake 4 – OpenGL
STALKER – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
Lost Planet – DX9
Like the Radeon HD 2900 XT, the design of the Radeon HD 2600 XT and Pro are focused on future upcoming games which are more shader-heavy than today’s latest titles. In benchmarks which are based on older game engines like Quake 4 and Battlefield, the Radeon HD 2600 cards bring up the rear of the pack – even the Radeon X1650 XT is faster! Surprisingly enough, we also saw this in FEAR, which is a more modern game. Considering that ATI’s own benchmarks show their 2600 line taking a backseat in performance to the GeForce 8600 GT in this game we’re confident in our performance results – perhaps ATI’s driver is holding them back in this game?
In more modern games like Lost Planet and Company of Heroes, the Radeon HD 2600 XT holds a decisive lead over the GeForce 8600 GT. In fact, it even outperforms the GeForce 8600 GTS in these titles. We know that NVIDIA is hard at work on a driver that’s supposed to bring performance improvements in Lost Planet, but by how much, we just don’t know yet. Meanwhile, our testing with another newer game, Oblivion, indicates that both the GeForce 8600 GT and Radeon HD 2600 XT are evenly matched. Both cards compete very closely with one another in both outdoors and foliage testing. The Radeon HD 2600 XT enjoys a performance advantage in Far Cry HDR as well.
Based on all this, what’s our recommendation? Clearly at the high-end of the mainstream segment NVIDIA’s GeForce 8600 GTS delivers the best all-round performance, but at the $150 price point where the Radeon HD 2600 XT competes in it’s really going to come down to what games you play, and just what kinds of performance optimizations both AMD and NVIDIA have under their sleeve. The Radeon HD 2600 XT doesn’t quite deliver a knockout blow to the GeForce 8600 GT due to its lack of performance in older games and in FEAR. STALKER is another new title that seems to favor the GeForce 8600 GT at the moment.
We haven’t tested DX10 games just yet, but in all honesty we’re not convinced that any of these mainstream cards have the horsepower to play any of the current DX10 titles on the market with adequate performance. We will certainly be looking at the DX10 aspect next though, and will report back our findings shortly.
If you were expecting a GeForce 8600 GTS killer, you’re likely quite disappointed right now – AMD’s not even competing with the GTS at this point. But it looks like they’ve put together a competent competitor to the GeForce 8600 GT and perhaps the 8500 GT and 8400 GS (more on those later). We still need to examine DX10 and Vista performance in general though before we can come to any definite conclusions, and we wouldn’t be surprised if upcoming drivers from both AMD and NVIDIA could swing a few battles in the direction of either camp.
From a business perspective, the problem though is that AMD’s got an awful lot of holes to fill between the $151-$399 price points. These are segments that AMD has nothing to offer. Meanwhile, NVIDIA’s got a top-to-bottom lineup of GeForce 8 cards. That’s a big deal to a lot of OEMs, while enthusiasts on a budget are probably going to pluck up GeForce 8600 GTS and GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB cards.
Another thorn in the side of both AMD and NVIDIA in the mainstream segment is the strength of their previous generation mainstream offerings. Quite frankly, the Radeon X1950 Pro and GeForce 7900 GS/7950 GT are the faster cards overall. It may not be a bad idea to sit out the first generation of mainstream DX10 cards and simply pick up one of these cards until more DX10 content is released…
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