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ATI Radeon X800 XL 512MB Preview

Back in February, ATI demonstrated the first 512MB consumer video card at the Texas Gaming Festival, held in Dallas on February 25th to 27th. At the time, ATI did not make it clear whether they planned to release the 512MB Radeon X850 XT video card to the public. It is still unclear whether they are planning to release that video card for the public to buy, or whether it was merely a technology demonstration.

Today, ATI have proved that they are not only making steps to introduce 512MB video cards that are readily available for game developers to make use of, but they are to be readily available to the general public too. There are several board partners backing the move to 512MB frame buffers, including ABIT, Gigabyte, HighTech, MSI, Sapphire and Powercolor. These board partners should all be releasing 512MB X800 XL's that should be available at the end of May.

We're going to have a full review of the 512MB Radeon X800 XL online for your viewing pleasure very soon, but we've brought you our initial thoughts in the mean time.

The Card

The cooler is the same design as the cooler that can be found on the Radeon X800 XL AGP. It is a single slot design that pulls air across the GPU and out over the power components at the front end of the video card. The cooler is quiet at its default speed, and is not too highly pitched when running at 100%.

There are sixteen BGA memory modules - eight on each side of the video card. They are Samsung GC20's, rated at 500MHz (1000MHz effective) and are running at 490MHz (980MHz effective). The core is the same R430 core that can be found on all other Radeon X800 XL's, and it is clocked at the same 400MHz that the 256MB versions are clocked at.

The back plate has dual DVI connectors to please the dual TFT users out there, and there's also a VIVO port, coupled with the ATI Rage Theater chip located on the back of the PCB. We understand that the back plate output connections are a board partner option, so we may see different iterations on retail products in comparison to the reference board layout.

Why 512MB?

512MB of frame buffer is a hell of a lot of memory, but it is required in order to make use of the many special effects that are turning up in today's top titles, and future titles that are on their way very soon. While techniques such as bump mapping and normal map based lighting are very common in today's titles, there are still more advanced techniques that require even more video memory. Effects like Motion Blur, High Dynamic Range Rendering, Soft Shadows and Subsurface Scattering require even more video memory, and high performance cannot necessarily be achieved with only 256MB of video memory.

Many of the world's top game developers have been asking for a 512MB platform from both ATI and NVIDIA for a while now, in order for us to take that next step towards realism in graphics complexity and imagery. Both ATI and NVIDIA have delivered to that - we are expecting to have both a 512MB Radeon X800 XL, and a 512MB GeForce 6800 Ultra in our hands very soon.

One problem that has stuck in our minds for a while now is the fact that no new texture compression techniques have emerged since S3TC compression. There has been the introduction of ATI's 3Dc texture compression, but that is merely a twist of the S3TC theme. Why haven't ATI and NVIDIA, coupled with Microsoft, not invested more time and money in to texture compression techniques that could surely offset some of these ever increasing video memory requirements, and also improve performance at the same time?

These cards are not cheap, and with a decent compression technique, we could remove the need to use 512MB of frame buffer right now. Maybe these avenues have already been investigated by Microsoft, ATI and NVIDIA, but the increase in video memory isn't going to stop unless someone comes up with a new compression technique.

Performance

Right now, we cannot comment on whether the price of that extra 256MB of memory is worth the outlay for you in real games, but it does show up in the benchmarks that ATI sent to us.

Without seeing the minimum frame rates, we cannot comment on whether these settings are smooth and playable at the detail settings listed, and thus, they are fairly useless to you at the moment, as you should be more interested in what happens in real-world gaming scenarios. We all know that Doom 3 and FarCry are not playable at 30 frames per second, so we will have to wait and see a little further down the line when we have the chance to produce some real numbers.

First Thoughts...

We've briefly mentioned that these cards are not cheap, they are set to retail at around £285 including VAT, which is around £60 more expensive than the 256MB version of this video card. We will have to play a game of wait and see before we can go ahead and recommend that you go out and spend close to £300 on another new video card. However, looking at things from an outside perspective, the price does seem to be pretty good, it is just how much of a difference that extra memory will make in today's titles at realistic settings that you can play the games at without hitching or choppiness.

Related Reading

MSI Radeon X800 SE
Radeon X800 XL Roundup
ABIT RX600 Pro-Guru 256MB
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