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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  • Rawz - Thursday, May 19, 2005 - link

    One game that could benefit from a 512 MB VRAM board is Everquest II. Currently, it is stated that no system setup avail. today can run the game, playble, with all its settings at maximum.
    I know mine can't(P4 2.8HT, 1GB PC3200 2.5 Corsair, Abit AI7 and MSI Radeon 9800Pro 128 - R360). No OC there.
    Could you set a test with that game? (There is a free trial for it, as it is a MMORPG )
  • melgross - Sunday, May 8, 2005 - link

    Son of a N00b, none of these game cards work well as workstation cards.

    The $500 workstation cards from both ATI and Nvidia are two to three times fast with most operations than the equiv. price game cards.

    But they are much slower playing games.
  • Murst - Sunday, May 8, 2005 - link

    Reading these posts was kinda funny.

    First of all, ATI wouldn't market a card just to test it. If ATI wants to test something, they can either evaluate it on a theoretical basis, or just develop several cards for their own use.

    There is a possibility that longhorn could take advantage of 512 MBs of vram. Especially with dual core processors coming out, multi tasking *may* compeletely change. Get 2 monitors, play two games on the same computer at the same time. Of course, GPUs will still need to advance more before playing 2 graphically intense games is possible on the same computer with a single graphics card (dual gpu maybe? =p ). Well, with that said, although longhorn may need 512 MBs, this card will certainly not be able to handle it.

    However, I bet this card will sell great. When some kid's mom will go to a store to buy the brat a brand new graphics card, she doesn't know what to pick. 9800, 6800, 5900, 6600, X800... that means absolutly nothing to MOST buyers. However, they see on the box that one card has 256MBs and another card has 512MBs. I'm sure most people will assume that more memory is better performance (hell, generally that is the case). So they'll buy this card, because that is the ONLY thing on a graphics card box that the general public can understand. Its a great tactic by ATI, and it will make them money. Its all about the labels on the box. 99.99% of the population has never seen or heard of benchmarks.
  • Son of a N00b - Saturday, May 7, 2005 - link

    which there is, so there will be plenty of ppl that buy this card.
  • xsilver - Friday, May 6, 2005 - link

    if there are people that buy the 9550 256mb and fx5500 256mb over a 9800pro/6600gt 128mb there will be people that buy this card
  • Myrandex - Thursday, May 5, 2005 - link

    This makes sense from a manufacturing and business aspect. X800XLs are cheaper and easier to produce than X850XT's, and of course someone will buy the card. I don't know why y'all don't get on nvidia's case more for the FX5200 having 256MB in some cases (and derivatives of it, like the 5500). That is wayyyy more rediculous than 512MB on an X800XL. Heck about the only thing 3D that the 5200 card is made for running an OpenGL screensaver :P
  • Peanya - Thursday, May 5, 2005 - link

    I do see a reason for this card, although I'd have to test it. I believe it's designed for specific games such as some popular on-line games like SWG and EQ. For the average gamer, this won't benefit at all. Oh well, I'm still happy with my 6800GT and my AMD64. I've never been a fan of ATI's drivers.
  • PrinceXizor - Thursday, May 5, 2005 - link

    Also, oodles of VRAM is useful for multi-monitor use. Some testing scenarios that involve that would be much appreciated too.

    Workstation performance (Alibre Design is a MCAD package that is DirectX based not OpenGL optimized), multi-monitor support, multi-tasking video operations, Longhorn.

    Mostly though, I would like to see some multi-monitor and gaming benchmarks as these are the most likely to see performance gains. Just my $.02

  • Son of a N00b - Thursday, May 5, 2005 - link

    any benchmarks of these cards from a workstation standpoint? If ati was that dull enough to release a 512 X800 why not accidently release a card that can preform okay in workstation progs, without the hefty price of a worksation card? Hmm (especially with the nvidia cards, isnt the 6800ultra 512 the same as a quadro on the hardware end?) a soft mod BIOS flash could prove to be interesting?

    what do you think Anand?
  • civilgeek - Thursday, May 5, 2005 - link

    This review tested games that are explicitly made for this round of 256 meg cards. Try games that our made for future cards... like several of the MMOs. For example EQII would be a prime example as I have not heard of a single machine being able to run the game on extreme settings with reasonable frame rates, even with 2 6800 gt cards in SLI. You need textures that are beyond todays round of games.

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