Holiday Buyer's Guide 2005

ATI's Hottest New Graphics Card

If you can't afford the Liquid XS but still want to get into gaming in a big way, take a look at two of the latest and greatest video cards. First up is the ATI R520 / X1800 Radeon Series.

For the past while, it seems that ATI has been firmly wedged between a rock and a hard place, while nVidia has surpassed its chief competitor's graphics cards in many ways. However, the X1800 series of high-end graphics cards that target the gaming market may grant ATI an opportunity to regain a competitive edge. In these latest offerings, ATI produces a new product family with features that are too numerous to document completely here.

The X1800 architecture is available in four versions: the XT, XL, Pro and LE lines. By way of competitive match-ups, the X1800 XT targets the nVidia 7800 GTX, while the XL line targets the 7800 GT. Clearly, the Pro and LE editions are lighter in features, so they specifically cater to price-conscious gamers.

Extreme gaming enthusiasts with lots of disposable income might opt for the XT series, with its 625 MHz core clock speed, 700 MHz memory clock, 16 pixel pipelines, 10.0 gigapixel per second (gps) fill rate, and the 256 bit interface to its 512 MB of GDDR3 memory. It is designed with a dual-slot cooling mechanism, and provides two dual-link DVI output connectors. Of course, you should expect to pay $550 or more for these top-of-the-line products.

For those of you willing to settle for second best, the X1800 XL imposes only a marginal reduction in features. Specifically, the XL has a 550 MHz core clock speed, 50 MHz less than the flagship XT, and a 625 MHz memory speed rating. The price tag decreases accordingly from $599 to around $499 MSRP.

Those operating on tighter budgets might do better to look at the X1800 Pro, with a slower core running at 500 MHz and matching memory clock speed. Likewise, the XL model offers an 8.0 gps fill rate and retains the 256 bit memory interface and 16 pixel pipelines, but memory capacity is capped at 256 MB. This version also offers only a single-slot cooling solution. However, you will pay less for such products - probably around $450 or so.

Lastly, the Radeon X1800 LE is for gaming enthusiasts working with only the strictest of budgets. Pixel pipelines decrease from 16 to 12, core clock speed is limited to 450 MHz, matching the memory speed, and it has only 256 MB of GDDR3. As a result, the X1800 LE retails for an MSRP of about $359.

ATI has turned its focus to making a more efficient core design for the X1800 series, and memory controller design is also completely revamped. Faster branch execution results when a greater number of threads are executed in parallel, thanks to a newly added branch prediction unit. It handles any addition or multiplication in a single clock cycle, thanks to dual scalar and dual ALU vector units. Shaders with flow control complete in fewer clock cycles, and calculations are locked in at 128 bit precision full-speed - no more scaling down precision to speed execution time! ATI wisely chose to widen its GPU's general-purpose registers to boost precision to this level.

Primarily, the advantage that the ATI X1800 series enjoys over nVidia's 7800 line is the addition of high dynamic range (HDR) with anti-aliasing capabilites. HDR aims to improve image quality when rendering highly detailed backgrounds or environment elements. X1800s can also handle adaptive anti-aliasing and offer improved texture filtering.

Furthermore, the X1800 series includes ATI's own trademarked ATI Video-In/Video-Out (AVIVO), enabling superior quality and high-definition imagery and video output to enhance visual experiences on the computer. AVIVO delivers personal video recording (PVR) capability and high-definition television, with brilliant color depth and smooth video playback. This leads to greater image fidelity with a variety of display types, including CRT, LCD, rear projection and plasma televisions.

Given those expensive price tags, these items are most likely be Christmas gifts purchased for oneself. But for those well-heeled buyers who have avid ATI aficionados on their buying lists, the gift of any of the X1800 series cards should be grounds for serious thanks and appreciation.

Ed Tittel

Ed Tittel is a long-time IT writer, researcher and consultant, and occasional contributor to Tom’s Hardware. A Windows Insider MVP since 2018, he likes to cover OS-related driver, troubleshooting, and security topics.