Some people didn't expect it to happen this season, and it is a little late in the year. But it is still fall, and, still on schedule, ATI's fall refresh part is here. Maintaining the 6 month product cycle has been quite struggle over the past few years, and seems to have stretched into something more like 7 or 8 months. We'll have to wait and see what happens this spring before we can really see if the industry is going to start relaxing the product cycle a little, or if this last round was just a little more intense for both ATI and NVIDIA. Today sees the introduction of a new PCI Express only line up from ATI. Rumor has it that ATI will be finishing up their PCI Express to AGP bridge chip sometime in January, so we may see these and other products make their way across platforms sometime next quarter.

The two new chips that ATI is putting on cards today are the R480 and R430. The R480 is the higher end part in this case. There is absolutely no architectural difference between these new chips and the original R423 on which they are based. That being said, they are both, in fact, different chips than their predecessor. This magical fact is made possible through the wonders of process enhancements.

As a fabrication process matures, it is often possible to find ways to do things better, more efficiently, and with fewer defects in the final silicon. These are the types of process enhancements that go on most of the time at any given fab. Generally, as the process gets better, yield improves, costs go down, and profits go up. In the case of the current generation of graphics cards, it took quite a while to go from launch to high availability. Occasionally, it's also possible to find ways of doing things that enhance the performance of the final product as well. At this point, TSMC has been using their 130nm low-k process to fab ATI's R420 and R423 chips for quite some time now.

Having gotten quite comfortable with the 130nm low-k fab technology, as well as the R423, TSMC and ATI have been able to refine the process for the R480 by enhancing the silicon substrate through component selection and placement to further improve signal integrity leading to higher core clock frequencies. They were also able to shorten trace lengths from the core to memory. Unfortunately, we couldn't get ATI to go into any more detail on exactly what "substrate enhancements" were made, but shorter trace lengths translates to the possibility of higher stable memory clock speeds for ATI cards using the enhanced R480 chip.

The differences between the R423 and the R430 are clearer cut. The R430 is fabbed on the 110nm process rather than the 130nm low-k process. ATI isn't able to push the R430 chips at clock speeds that rival the R480, but this matches well with cooler running, lower clocked 16 and 12 pixel pipe solutions (which is exactly what ATI is offering with R430 based cards).

In addition to the fact that the R480 will be a high performance part, it will also be packed on two slot cards. The stock thermal solution ATI provides is quite different from what we've seen in the past, and quite resembles the leaf-blower type systems we've seen attached to older GeForce FX based products. Aside from the hi-revving but throaty turbo charged 4-cylinder-like whine at boot time, the card calms down and runs quite quietly even under the highest gaming stress. To be completely fair, we haven't tested it in oven-like weather or at a constant high overclock. If the fan has to spin all the way up, you may get the feeling you've got a Civic with an aftermarket exhaust racing around in your box.

Just so you get an idea of what it sounds like, we've provided an mp3 of our X850 XT PE testbed starting up. The sound level of the fan at the end of the MP3 is the loudest it ever got for us during our testing, but once again we were testing in an open air environment and not in a closed (potentially quite warm) case. For a comparison point, here is an mp3 of the same testbed with an X800 XT starting up.


Dual DVI and Dual Slots are the markings of ATI's X850 line

If owning a single slot solution is a deciding factor, the R430 will fulfill that niche. The lower clocked, 110nm solution won't be fitted with the leaf-blower, but a much smaller hsf. ATI has said that it will be possible to passively cool one of these in a BTX system as well. Getting very quiet, very solid performance out of these chips will be a simple matter.


A single slot and no power connector are the telling characteristics of ATI's 0.11-micron X800 line

Product will likely begin shipping early next week, as this is when it will be available for order online. It won't show up on brick and mortar shelves for a few more weeks. Getting product out the door has been a tough thing for ATI and NVIDIA in the past, especially for their highest end parts. As all parties involved have had some practice with this part for a while, we would have been happier if ATI had gotten on the ball and had product on shelves today, if they do ship next week, they won't be in bad shape. We can't say enough about how important it is to make product available as close to a launch as possible. It doesn't matter how well we compare products if it's impossible to get a hold of them. Unfortunately, unless product is available at launch, it makes it very hard for us to guess when we will see anything come along. Our case and point is the X700 XT. It wasn't available at launch, and we may never see it if the cards we look at today make it out the door.

But that's enough about the chips; let's take a look at what we can expect to see in the way of actual products equipped with these new improved GPUs.

The New ATI Lineup
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  • Momental - Thursday, December 02, 2004 - link

    #50 I can understand what #47 was saying about being "brainwashed". It wasn't too long ago when $350 really woulda gotten you the SuperDuper Ultra MackDog 730Xi 120G viddy card. It's like the price of gas: I can remember when I thought $1.83 per gallon was highway robbery and now, when I see $2.09, I practically run over joggers as I cross the sidewalk to be next in line at the pump. Knowhuddamean? ;)

    We're all so used to thinking that $350 is a "great" price whereas 3 years ago, we woulda been hard-pressed to spend that much. But, who am I kiddin'? I'd gladly fork over #349.95 plus shipping for a card that allowed me to fly with my hair on fire down some zombie-infested corridor with hellspawns in tow if I knew it'd get me an excellent frame rate! :D
    Reply
  • xsilver - Thursday, December 02, 2004 - link

    also forgot to add -- I just think that its ATI giving more info on their processess while nvidia just say its a kickass card and keep the manufactuiring secrets to themselves Reply
  • xsilver - Thursday, December 02, 2004 - link

    I would like to ask why ATI has all this hoopla about using TMSC "low k" process or some other crap -- doesn't Nvidia also use TMSC -- therefore they would both have the same processes availble to them? or is TMSC favouring ATI? If I was nvidia and that was the case -- id be pissed and take my buisness elsewhere Reply
  • AtaStrumf - Thursday, December 02, 2004 - link

    The whole point of today's launch is the X800 XL. It's a good enough competitor to 6800 GT and that I think is what ATi needed the most. Let's just hope the price is really $350 or less and that we can acctually buy these things soon.

    And AGP in NOT DEAD! WTF are you talking about man?!? At present ALL AMD market is still 100% pure AGP and not too many people will be switching over to nForce 4 anytime soon, because without SLI there is little point and with SLI it's just too prohibitive due to price (for now) and PSU requirements (forever). 5 molexs just too run a card that's at lest worth running in SLI - not the 6600GT? Mind you I have a VERY good PSU and I don't have 5 spare molexs. Do you?

    PCIe won't take off until untill we get a good reason. They wanted to force us by only offering new cards as PCIe, but nVidia screwed them with the bridge chip (6600 GT AGP - ATi only has an old R9800Pro to compete with here) so now they're playing catch up. Looks like they still have some way to go -- january 05. And then before availability picks up, .... man we're looking at spring 05 before ATI gets at lest close to nVidia and then we get R520 with SLI, and a new nVidia lineup ... blah too much of everything. Let's just wait and see. I'm preety happy right now (NF3 250GB,A643200@3400+(220FSB)/R9800Pro), I can wait.
    Reply
  • KoolMonkey - Thursday, December 02, 2004 - link

    ATI it seems wants to bury AGP but will be forced to release new cards in the spec as the market is still hugley AGP at present and won't change in drastic numbers for quite awhile. I have an ATI X800XT PE AGP card and would have liked to have seen Anandtech include this in their comparisons. Why didn't you include ATI's best AGP card vs ATI's best PCI-E card? Reply
  • Avalon - Thursday, December 02, 2004 - link

    Also, forgot to note the X850XL is a PCI-e only part, so that will also be a determining factor in which card you'll buy. Regardless, if it can overclock like I have a good feeling it can, it will be arguably the best bang for the buck card in ATI's arsenal. Reply
  • Avalon - Thursday, December 02, 2004 - link

    Brainwashed? What are you talking about? You just admitted the card was the best price/performance ratio of all the current ATI cards, and then go on to say it's not a great card? I guess that means the 6800GT is not a great card either. I'm tired of people complaining about the ATI cards being "old tech". It's a video card. It performs. What else do you want? It's not a great card because it doesn't support SM3.0? Give me a break. A lot of people could care less about that feature. It's certainly not widespread enough for the average gamer to care. If you want SM3.0, get an Nvidia card. Otherwise, the X800XL is very close to the 6800GT in most benchmarks, and is $50 less, PLUS it's a 110nm chip. Slap a good HSF on the thing and you should have some GREAT headroom, assuming the 110nm process isn't a disaster for ATI, which I doubt it'd be, since they've toyed with it before. Reply
  • Staples - Wednesday, December 01, 2004 - link

    Yay for another dumb naming convention. ATi did this intentionally and I hope it turns people off to the brand. They did this with the R300 too but it is even worse this time, they all have 850xx in the name. As for me, I will be sticking with my 6800GT, these new cards are not much faster and the cost for the small performance gain is ridiculous. Reply
  • ShadowVlican - Wednesday, December 01, 2004 - link

    thanks for the great review Anand!

    i particularly liked the way you compared X800XL, X800, and X850Pro... that was very well done and to the point... i've yet to see another review site do that...

    however i do wish to see the X700 and 6800 in there
    Reply
  • flexy - Wednesday, December 01, 2004 - link

    >>>
    Keep an eye on the x800 XL. That's the interesting card of the bunch. At a $349 suggested MSRP (you know we'll shortly see deals for $300 for the card), this is a great card.
    >>>

    its not a GREAT card, it merely has the best price/perf ratio of ALL these current cards.

    Two/Three years $350 got you the cream of the high-end top-of-the line cards....and TODAY $350 dont even give you a new GPU, just a a refresh of what is BASICALLY the 9700, 9800, X800 etc...all the same old **** with the same shaders and the same tech (basically).

    Ironically, i caught myself TOO thinking that $349 is a good price - well just as proof how brainwashed "we" already are....
    Reply

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