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ATi kept quiet last month after NVIDIA launched its very impressive GeForce 6800 Ultra and the NV40 graphics processor that will become the foundation for NVIDIA product lines in the future. Indeed, information about the Canadian company's latest design was a rare commodity. The inevitable rumors about ATi's design pervaded chat rooms on the Internet, many of which cited "reliable" sources and ended up transforming misinformation into outlandish fairytales.
Today, ATi introduces its new line of high-end graphics cards, called the Radeon X800. This family of cards is based on ATi's youngest graphics processor core, codenamed R420. The "X" in the product name may raise hopes of DirectX 10 support or something of the sort, but this is not the case. Instead, the X stands for the Roman numeral 10. It seems that after the Radeon 9800 line, ATi simply ran out of product numbers within the 9xxx range that would sufficiently differentiate the new card. So, the logical next step was to bump up the product number. Besides, the leading number of the product name has not always been an indicator of a card's features. As you may recall, the Radeon 9000 and 9200 only supported DirectX 8.1 in hardware, for example.
From a technological perspective, the new R420 core seems to bring only moderate improvements. Instead of taking NVIDIA's route and implementing new DirectX features such as the Shader Model 3.0, ATi has instead chosen to further optimize, improve and scale the tried and true R3xx architecture. The recipe is simple - more vertex shaders, more and improved pixel shader units, as well as small tweaks and improvements to the memory controller and the FSAA implementation. R420 offers only one real new feature, which is support for Normal Map compression, called 3Dc.
While the company is not pushing the envelope with respect to features, ATi remains true to its historical course performance-wise. ATi promises that the top model X800 XT Platinum Edition, which is the most powerful model for the time being, offers twice the performance of a Radeon 9800 XT and even beats NVIDIA's GeForce 6800 Ultra. Beyond that, the company is confident that even the smaller model, called the X800 Pro, will be able to cause NVIDIA's flagship major headaches - all the while consuming less power and using a simpler cooling solution.