The fastest videocard we’ve ever tested--by a hair
We’re starting to get tired of the old videocard leapfrog game, which goes something like this: The two major videocard manufacturers start with a major refresh of their product lines, releasing new GPU cores that demonstrate incredible performance advancements over the previous generation of chips. Then, for the next 18 months, each manufacturer trickles out minor GPU updates, squeezing just enough power from these updated designs to leapfrog over the competition’s product in benchmarks, but not so much power that users will be able to realize lifestyle-changing improvements in real-world games.
The videocards we reviewed six months ago—powered by the Radeon X800 and GeForce 6800 cores—fell in the “major refresh” category; each board was powered by a brand-new, “we went to town on this mother” GPU.
And then there’s this month’s ATI Radeon X850 XT Platinum Edition, which falls squarely in the minor upgrade category, and, in some respects, is more of a downgrade than an upgrade.
The biggest problem with the new board is its two-slot design. We’ve always held ATI’s svelte single-slot cards in higher regard than nVidia’s bulkier two-slot designs for obvious reasons. That is no more, as the X850 XT Platinum Edition is ATI’s first two-slot videocard. ATI’s approach to two-slot cooling is different from others we’ve tested, in that the ATI cooler takes warm air from inside the case, blows it over the GPU heatsink, and then exhausts the air out the back of the case. Other cards simply recirculate the hot air inside the case. The ATI design should help circulate more air in the dead spot near your expansion cards, but we’d still rather have a single-slot card.
With any two-slot design, our first concern is noise. The X850 is extremely loud—think GeForce 5800 Ultra—when it first spins up. However, unlike the infamous 5800 Ultra board, we couldn’t get the fan to run at high-speed after boot. Even under extended heavy loads, the card’s fan ran at a slow enough speed to be practically inaudible.
ATI needed the beefier cooler in order to keep its GPU and GDDR3 memory chilly while running higher clock speeds than what is set for the X800 XT Platinum boards. The new Radeon’s GPU clocks in at 608MHz (up from 520MHz), and the memory runs at 550MHz, up from—no, wait—down from 560MHz memory.
Down from? Did we say down from? Oh yes, indeedy!
ATI has realized the error it made when it set overly aggressive memory clocks for the X800 XT Platinum Edition boards. The company couldn’t procure enough memory to meet consumer demand on the uber-high-end videocards, and thus left thousands of gamers who wanted to buy a $500 videocard out in the cold. We’ve been assured that the X850 XT Platinum will be available for everyone who wants to buy one. Period.
The X850 XT Platinum Edition is just marginally faster than the currently shipping X800 XT Platinum. We saw only small performance gains in most benchmarks, and none of the frame rate improvements warrant upgrading from the one-slot to the two-slot board. To us, a gain of less than 10 percent just isn’t worth slot sacrifice. The X850 fared similarly when compared with GeForce 6800 Ultra boards. It showed negligible performance gains on all fronts, and we don’t feel that sub-10 percent gains are worthy of your upgrading dollar.
Both the 6800 Ultra and the X800 XT Platinum Edition are in very short supply on retail shelves. Most of the high-end boards from ATI and nVidia go to large system vendors instead of retail outlets. So if you’re still holding on to a NV30- or R300-powered board, you would be well-served by upgrading to this latest, greatest card—but only if you don’t mind the dual-slot configuration. --Will Smith
+ Massive upgrades: It’s faster than anything else out there, if you want to be technical about it.
- Incremental upgrades: Two-slot cooling limits this board to full-size desktops. Forget about having the fastest videocard in your Shuttle.