At the end of last year, ATI announced 5 new GPUs, three of which were supposed to be available within a week of the announcement, none of which actually were.  One of those GPUs, the X800 XL, was of particular interest as it was ATI's first real answer to NVIDIA's GeForce 6800GT and ATI said that it would be priced a full $100 less than NVIDIA's offering.  Of course, that GPU didn't arrive on time either.  And when it did, you had to pay a lot more than $299 to get it.

Fast forward to the present day and pretty much everything is fine. You can buy any of the GPUs that ATI announced at the end of last year at or below their suggested retail prices.  But, we have another GPU release on our hands, and given ATI's recent track record, we have no idea if we're talking about a GPU that will be out later this month as promised or one that won't see the light of day for much longer. 

Today, ATI is announcing their first 512MB graphics card - the Radeon X800 XL 512MB.  Priced at $449, ATI's Radeon X800 XL 512MB is identical in every aspect to the X800 XL, with the obvious exception of its on-board memory size.  The X800 XL 512MB is outfitted with twice as many memory devices as the 256MB version, but ATI is indicating that there's no drop in performance despite the increase in memory devices.  The clock speeds of the X800 XL 512MB remain identical to the 256MB version, at 400MHz core and 980MHz memory.  The 512MB version is also built on the same 0.11-micron R430 GPU as the 256MB version; in other words, the GPUs are identical - one is just connected to twice as much memory.  Right now, the X800 XL 512MB is PCI Express only.

The board layout and design hasn't changed with the move to 512MB.  The power delivery circuitry is all the same. The difference is that now there are twice as many memory devices on the PCB. 

The two X800 XLs: 512MB (lower), 256MB (upper).

The X800 XL 512MB also now requires the 6-pin PCI Express power connector, something that the original 256MB board didn't need. 

The other major change to the board itself is the new heatsink/fan.  The unit is just as quiet as the original, but the heatsink takes up much more space as it covers all 16 memory devices whereas the original heatsink didn't touch any of the memory devices.  Our only complaint about the new cooler is that its larger size makes removing it from PCI Express slots with a retention lock much more difficult as you can't easily access the lock release lever. 

The X800 XL 512MB achieves its memory capacity by using twice the number of chips as the 256MB version.

The increased memory adds a significant premium to the price of the X800 XL. While the 256MB carries an ATI suggested retail price of $299, the 512MB version is expected to cost $449 - a full $150 more.  At $449, the X800 XL 512MB is now in GeForce 6800 Ultra and Radeon X850 XT territory; but with no increase in GPU power or memory bandwidth, you'll be hard pressed to find any advantages worthy of the added cost. 

This is where ATI's strategy doesn't seem to make much sense. They are taking a mid-range performance part, the X800 XL, and giving it more memory than any of their GPUs, thus pricing it on par with their highest end X850 XT.  More than anything, ATI is confusing their own users with this product. Those who are uninformed and have a nice stack of cash to blow on a new GPU are now faced with a dilemma: $449 for a 512MB X800 XL or $499 for a 256MB X850 XT?  That is, if this part does actually ship to market in time and if it is actually priced at $449 - both assumptions that we honestly can't make anymore given what we've seen with the past several ATI releases. 

What's also particularly interesting about today's 512MB launch is that ATI won't be producing any 512MB X800 XL cards under the "built by ATI" name. You will only be able to get these cards through ATI's partners.  According to ATI, the following manufacturers will bring the X800 XL 512MB to market sometime this month:
- Gigabyte
- Sapphire
And as confirmation, here's a slide from ATI's presentation saying the exact same thing:

Although we'd like to believe ATI here, given their recent track record, we can't really take their word for it.  By asking their partners to commit to delivering product, ATI is essentially shifting the blame a bit should their May 2005 target slip. But with regards to the X800 XL 512MB, as you're about to see, it doesn't really matter.

It is worth noting that NVIDIA has been shipping a 512MB card, the 512MB GeForce 6800 Ultra, for quite some time now.  However, the card itself only seems to be available to system builders such as Alienware and Falcon Northwest.  The 512MB 6800 Ultra is extremely expensive and appears to add around $800 to the cost of any system built by those who carry it; obviously, not in the same price range as ATI's X800 XL 512MB.  Despite our curiosities, we could not get a card from NVIDIA in time for this review, although we'd be willing to bet that our findings here with the X800 XL 512MB would apply equally to NVIDIA's 512MB GeForce 6800 Ultra as well.

256MB vs. 512MB - The Real World Performance Difference


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  • Cuser - Wednesday, May 4, 2005 - link

    Oh, and I enjoyed the Mildred story:) Reply
  • Cuser - Wednesday, May 4, 2005 - link

    fishbits: First of all, I am not saying that gamers should go out and buy this card. I am just giving a possible reason to why these high memory cards are even being produced today. With all of the readers asking how 'stupid can ATI be...', I am pretty sure a company that large does not produce hardware haphazardly. There has to be a good reason, and as we can see, it is neither because it offers better game performance (as it purports to), or because gamers are begging for it.

    Secondly, the bells and whistles interface (aero glass) is a new 3D interface OPTION. Which means it is not necessary to use while running the OS. There is an option to use the classic XP style interface (which will soon become obsolete). And, if history is any indication, everyone will downplay the need for the pretty interface because of how much resources it uses. Then, as the hardware supporting it becomes more standard, everyone will eventually fall into line (remember when there was such a large opposition to XP's MAC'esqe look...where is that opposition now?).

    Last, if ATI has such a terrible time with hardware delivery, these cards should be available in large quantities when the Longhorn Beta (available with all the bells and whistles) becomes available.

    Plus, if reports are correct about the Aero Glass needing alot of video memory, how whould MS be able to show off preview copies without available hardware?
  • fishbits - Wednesday, May 4, 2005 - link

    overclockingoodness: Working on the new "Top Insider Story?" Reply
  • OrSin - Wednesday, May 4, 2005 - link

    Cuser even if MS new OS needs greated memory it will not more Video memory. Its new interface is 3d in barest since of the word. Any decent even 64 MB card will run it fine. Even if MS OS did need more video memory the OS is 1 year or more away. This card will be so old news no one will care.

    if any one buys 450 video to future proof thier OS, then I anti-gravity unit to sell them for thier car, so when roads are gone and we fly through the sky.
  • overclockingoodness - Wednesday, May 4, 2005 - link

    Why do I get the feeling that Anand has fired half of his staff? Now it seems like majority of the major reviews are handled by Anand. It's not necessairly a bad thing, but it just makes me wonder that AnandTech started churning 7 reviews a week when he was in college or getting married, but now we see far less reviews and majority of them are from either Anand, Wesley or Kristopher. Where has the rest of the staff disappeared? ;) Reply
  • fishbits - Wednesday, May 4, 2005 - link

    Cuser: I doubt that MS is going to release an OS in a year or so that requires a 512MB vid card to decently enjoy its UI. "Yes Mildred, the new Windows is great! You just need to open up your Dell, buy a new PCIe motherboard and swap that out, and a $400+ video card and install that too. Let's see, if you do all this yourself with the OS upgrade, we're looking at $600+ for you to still be able to get the e-mails from the kids that you always did."

    Many gamers even don't have the tip-top of the line to enjoy the many games they love (and will love in the future). We'd love to, but the cost is hard to justify. How then to convince folks to hand out this kind of money just for the new OS's UI? Ain't gonna happen. Few would do it, and MS surely isn't dumb enough to miss out on that many sales. We can chastise them about bloat and hardware reqs vs performance, but they're not THAT bad.
  • KristopherKubicki - Wednesday, May 4, 2005 - link

    You can actually buy the NVIDIA 512MB cards *right now*. I guess we now know why they didn't make a big deal of their launch :)

  • deathwalker - Wednesday, May 4, 2005 - link

    What a complete and utter waste of time this card is. Another effort (usless) by ATI to climb back to the top after letting Nvidia take over with there 6800 line of graphics cards...oh how I long for the days when my 9700 pro was a thing of envy. But, alas ATI shot themselves in the foot and lost customers (me included) back to nvidia when they could not answer the bell for the 10th round. Reply
  • Cuser - Wednesday, May 4, 2005 - link

    I just re-read my article and I might have seemed like I was 'blaiming' microsoft for this.
    On the contrary, I just wanted to bring to light what a large influence microsoft is on the new standards of graphics hardware. DirectX, no matter how much it was chastised before, has become the foundation to the design of video harware. Video card makers today make cards to take advantage of the directX api...nothing more, nothing less. OpenGL seems to be fading quickly in consumer games (not as much in the professional market, however).
    To this end, with the new design of the WGF, windows and application's video RAM usage may begin to rival the video games we play.
  • Cuser - Wednesday, May 4, 2005 - link

    I think everyone is overlooking the real reason why this much memory will soon be necessary: microsoft.

    From the articles I have been reading about longhorn and it's new graphics API, I think the desire for card companies to push towards higher video memory is not because of any games now or in the near future, but to prepare for Longhorn's need for video RAM.
    With OS managed video RAM and allotted GPU time, videocards with less than 512mb of RAM will not be able to give you all your OS interface has to offer.

    P.S.- This is my first post, be gentle...

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