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ATi Hits Back (Again) with Mid-Range X700 line, Driver Tweak
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How good is the Radeon X700 XT? This is a question that doesn't have a straightforward answer. In some games, the card offers very impressive performance, either remaining on par with NVIDIA's GeForce 6600 GT or even outpacing it. In other games, such as FarCry v1.1 and Doom 3, it loses by a considerable margin despite the A.I. optimizations with shader replacement. When these optimizations are turned off, the performance gap becomes even more pronounced. Yet even this observation is not a universal truth. In some games, deactivating A.I. either has no measurable effect or even results in improved performance. NVIDIA's GeForce 6600 GT, on the other hand, seems to have some performance problems of its own in some games. On the whole, the new mid-range cards from ATi and NVIDIA offer an excellent price to performance ratio and are sure to tempt or even convince many users to upgrade, once the AGP versions become available. In the OEM market, in which relies on higher version numbers more heavily than on real-world performance results, NVIDIA's outlook is quite good, thanks to their support of Shader Model 3.0. This could only be hampered by too high production costs.

As far as the new Catalyst A.I. performance optimizations are concerned, we are left with a bad aftertaste. Due to their adaptive nature, it is next to impossible to judge what is being optimized when and where in what manner. The only control ATi allows the user to have over these optimizations is whether they are turned on or off. Yet even when A.I. is switched off, other optimizations are still present and active. We much prefer NVIDIA's approach, which allows selective deactivation of specifically defined optimizations. Then again, even NVIDIA's driver surely hides some optimization or other that has yet to come to light. NVIDIA began using shader replacement optimizations on a large scale with the GeForce FX line of cards, so it seems only fair that ATi claim the right to do the same.

The party that really loses out in all this is the end user. In the short (and hectic) time leading up to this review, even ATi employees were unable to tell us which optimizations were active when a certain setting was selected. So how is the average user supposed to know what is going on keep an overview?

Regardless, what we can say is that ATi has closed the performance gap to the GeForce 6600 GT with its new X700 XT - and done so at a slightly lower introductory price. The previous model, the X600, is now nothing more than yesterday's news. In the end, the success of the cards of either manufacturer will depend on who will be the first to ship large quantities of their cards, and at what price.

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