After failing to deliver on some mighty big promises with its R520 architecture (the X1800 series), a humbled ATI went quietly back to the drawing board. And this time, it came up with a winner: The X1900 XTX—powered by the company’s new R580 GPU—is a beauty and a beast.
In the process, ATI successfully challenged some of our assumptions about what makes a powerful videocard. Based on the spectacular performance of nVidia’s 20-pipe GeForce 7800 GT and 24-pipe 7800 GTX, our eyebrows went up when we heard that the X1900 XTX would have only 16 pipes. But ATI proved us wrong. By pairing those 16 pipes with 48 pixel-shader units, the company managed to build a part that’s slightly faster on most benchmarks than nVidia’s 512MB 7800 GTX.
But we’re less impressed by the X1900 XTX’s speed than we are by its image quality. ATI had boasted that its Avivo technology would improve every aspect of the visual experience, but early drivers failed to expose its best features. We had all but dismissed Avivo as marketing hype, because nothing we saw in ATI’s dog-and-pony shows materialized in the products we reviewed.
Our opinion evolved, however, with the driver release accompanying the All in Wonder X1800 XL (reviewed February 2006), and it morphed further with the X1800 XT CrossFire Edition (reviewed March 2006). The X1900 XTX’s HQV benchmark score hasn’t changed since then—although it still spanks nVidia’s PureVideo decoder scores—but the difference in color saturation (which the HQV benchmark doesn’t measure) is absolutely striking: Avivo is for real. Besides, Avivo improves the quality of all video, while PureVideo works with only MPEG-2 videos.
The X1900 XTX is slightly less exciting when measured in terms of its performance with games. As you can see from the benchmark chart, it squeaks past nVidia’s reference-design 512MB 7800 GTX on some fronts, but trails it on others. And as we’ve seen with other X1000-series cards, a single X1900 XTX paradoxically runs just a little faster in an nForce4-chipset environment than it does with ATI’s own Radeon Xpress 200 chipset (we tested the card with an Asus A8N-SLI Deluxe motherboard and a Sapphire Technology PC-A9RD480Adv, respectively). But if you want to build a CrossFire system, you’ll have to buy an ATI chipset. (We’ve heard reports that some OEMs are building CrossFire systems using nForce4 motherboards, but these drivers aren’t available to individuals.)
It’s important to note, however, that the areas in which the X1900 XTX outperforms the 7800 GTX dovetail with the direction in which game developers are headed: ATI’s highest-end card trails nVidia’s in 3DMark03 performance by nine percent, but it bests nVidia’s 3DMark05 score by nearly 13 percent. We’re still evaluating the recently released 3DMark06 for inclusion in our benchmark suite, but it was enlightening to see that the X1900 XTX outperformed the 7800 GTX on this test almost entirely due to its Shader Model 3.0 and high dynamic-range lighting performance.
When you pit CrossFire against SLI, however, ATI’s 3DMark05 advantage shrinks to less than two percent, and it edges out nVidia’s cards by just three percent at 3DMark06. We’re not big fans of CrossFire’s external connection cables, either.
So, ATI has bested nVidia for the first time in a long time: The X1900 XTX is slightly faster than a 512MB 7800 GTX, and it’s widely available as we go to press. As nVidia bends down to pick up the gauntlet, however, it should be thinking of more than just horsepower: It needs an answer to Avivo, as well.
Month Reviewed: April 2006
+ CINEMASCOPE: Slightly faster than nVidia's best, but Avivo is the real selling point.
- KINESCOPE: CrossFire remains a hoopty dual-card solution that must be disabled for movies.