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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  • Staples - Wednesday, December 1, 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.
  • ShadowVlican - Wednesday, December 1, 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
  • flexy - Wednesday, December 1, 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....
  • flexy - Wednesday, December 1, 2004 - link

    Maybe they wanted to throw out some product to see how well it sold and in which flavor (AGP or PCI-e)?
    WHAT products ? :)

    * nonexistant cards ?
    * cards for $500 - $800 ?

    ALso..the question AGP/PCI is irrelevant since AGP is dead..sorry to bring the news :)
  • ViRGE - Wednesday, December 1, 2004 - link

    #35, HDTV is MPEG2; both companies have had working MPEG2 decoding abilities for some time. Even the 68xx's broken processor still does MPEG2.
  • skunkbuster - Wednesday, December 1, 2004 - link

    #41 i've read an article not too long ago that ati had not updated their openGL drivers in over a year.
    also, add to the fact that their fireGL video cards, while theoretically ~should~ have had better performance than nvidia's(higher clock speed/emory pipelines), consistantly were OUTPERFORMED(by a good bit too) by nvidia and their older tech.

    i'm specifically talking about the fire gl cards that were based off of the 9700/9800 gpu vs. the workstation cards using geforce4/fx gpus.

    these reasons make me believe that its lack of driver optomization; that is not using the card's capbilities to full potential more than anything.

    this might not conern many people, but it does me, since i work with maya.
  • realist - Wednesday, December 1, 2004 - link

    also ati is coming out with there SLI type ati cards ownage!!
  • carldon - Wednesday, December 1, 2004 - link

    I was looking at the SLI benches and the 6600GT in SLI has almost the same performance as the X800XL, X850Pro and of course the X800. The SLI option is great for people who want to upgrade later and also want the SM3.0 option. But the cost of Nforce4 motherboards, if high, could tip the scales in Ati's favour. This is going to an interesting price war over the next month.
  • Noli - Wednesday, December 1, 2004 - link

    Am I right in thinking that nvidia big lead in doom3 performance is because its latest cards carry out that shadow occlusion thingie whereby a the shadows for a lightsource pointing out of a scene aren't calculated? That's a huge advantage and I never got the feeling that ATI was doing the same. If I'm right and ATI OGL drivers are not that bad but it's just the shadows thing, could ATI not steal and implement this idea too?
  • Pollock - Wednesday, December 1, 2004 - link

    I'd have to agree that the X800 XL is looking quite nice, especially if they overclock well and have good ram on them. Too bad PCIe is taking forever to get here for the Athlon 64...

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