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For 500 years, demons tyrannized the world of human vision with omnipresent control. The demons competed among themselves, and the winner set the rules for domineering the world of human vision while human beings paid a high price for their enjoyment.

In the midst of all the chaos, the people began to pray for the arrival of the mysterious knight, whom legend had it would end the strife and rejuvenate the visual world.

And so it happened that a mysterious knight - Xabre - did appear at this time. He understood the people's suffering under the demons' tyranny. He knew what the people needed and secretly began breeding a magical steed that could race across the sky. During his quest, he also found three lost sacred stones - Pixelizer Engine, Software Shader and Frictionless Memory Control, each with wondrous powers.

With these treasures, Xabre entered the forest of visual fantasy bordering the land of the demons, where he discovered the 8X8 twin sword. The one-and-only twin sword in the world was stuck in a cold and hard rock so big that no ordinary human being could pull it out. Xabre knew that without this magical weapon he would not be able to defeat the demons. And so he gathered all the wisdom and power of the people and withdrew the sword from the rock.

Then, without hesitation, he went into the demons' land and defeated them one by one to create a new visual paradise for the people.

Introduction

This romantic story available on the official Xabre web-site as well as the site itself prove that SiS Company approached the promotion of its new graphics core very seriously. This site offers you a detailed description of the Xabre family, all the official announcements and press-releases, drivers, demo-versions of many games, 3D glossary, FAQ and many other info.

The fact that they tackled this problem so seriously is slightly shocking and makes a really pleasing impression that Silicon Integrated Systems has finally decided to settle in the graphics chips market, and its Xabre chip is the first herald of the coming changes.

You probably wonder what changes we are talking about? Well, I believe we shouldn't remind you of the reputation the previous generation SiS graphics chips have acquired by now. In many respects it is well-deserved, in some respects - not really (for instance, SiS315 is a pretty nice chip with acceptable drivers, see our SiS315 Graphics Chip Review). However, with the launching of Xabre the company seems to be about to change everything completely.

Well, let's see what weapons has Xabre The Brave brought with him to the land of demons :)

Closer Look: Xabre GPU from SiS

Key specifications of the new Xabre GPU:

  • 0.15micron manufacturing technology;
  • Up to 300MHz working frequency;
  • 4 pixel pipelines with 2 TMUs on each;
  • Lays up to 4 textures per pass, up to 2 textures per clock;
  • Supports Emboss, EMBM, Dot3 mapping techniques;
  • Supports cubic maps and volumetric textures;
  • S3TC/DXTC texture compression;
  • Full-Scene Anti-Aliasing via supersampling for 2 and 4 subpixels (2x and 4x);
  • Supports Pixel Shaders ver. 1.3 (DirectX 8.1);
  • Third generation T&L VLIW unit;
  • Supports up to 128MB of SDRAM/DDR SDRAM graphics memory with 64bit or 128bit bus width;
  • AGP 1x, 2x, 4x and 8x (AGP 3.0);
  • AGP type auto-detect (AGP 1.0, 2.0 or 3.0).

2D part:

  • Hardware DirectDraw and GDI 2000;
  • Overlays, scaling and gamma correction;
  • Motion Compensation and de-interlacing support;
  • 375MHz built-in RAMDAC;
  • Supports resolutions up to 2048x1536 pixels;
  • Supports SiS301 companion-chip implementing the following functions:
    • Implements TV-Out in PAL, NTSC and HDTV formats;
    • Supports digital monitors;
    • Allows multi-monitor configurations: LCD+CRT, CRT+CRT, CRT+TV;
    • Supports red-blue stereoscopic glasses and regular stereoscopic glasses.

Some features implemented in Xabre chip acquired new unique names:

  • 8X8 - AGP 8x and DirectX 8 support. Of course, 8x mode will start working on AGP only when the new mainboards supporting AGP 3.0 standard appear.
  • Pixelizer Engine - Pixel Shader unit complying with DirectX 8.1 specification. The specs claim that its functionality is not in the least worse than that of the NVIDIA GeForce4 Pixel Shader.
  • Frictionless Memory Control (FMC) - this architecture is intended to help the graphics core use the available graphics memory bandwidth more efficiently. It includes caches for textures, vertexes, pixels, Z-buffer. It optimizes Z-Buffer operation (quick clear, pixel visibility test before texturing).
  • Jitter-Free Anti-Aliasing - supports anti-aliasing via 2x and 4x supersampling, simple image "blurring" and the combination of these methods.
  • Coloredeemer Technology - Colours adjustment for the desktop and overlay.
  • MotionFixing Video processor - pixel de-interlacing and motion compensation during video playback.
  • 3rd Generation T&L Engine - non-programmable polygon transformation and lighting unit, which supports up to 16 vertex cache.
  • Double Scene Technology - supports multi-monitor configurations LCD+CRT, CRT+CRT, CRT+TV. Allows displaying the copy on the second monitor and expanding the desktop. Supports free shifting between the primary and secondary displays.

So, if we do not consider the performance of some particular functions, Xabre doesn't seem to yield a lot to NVIDIA GeForce3 Ti/GeForce4 Ti and ATI RADEON 8500. Its only weaknesses against the background of stronger competitors are: no support of Vertex Shader, anisotropic filtering and such specific features as multisampling by NVIDIA's solution or TruForm and Pixel Shaders ver. 1.4 by ATI's chips.

This "semi-functionality" of the new Xabre chip is an excellent move on SiS' part. If the newcomer is simply unable to support multisampling or TruForm, then the vertex Shaders can be performed by the system CPU. As a result, all DirectX 8 games should ideally be able to run on Xabre without any problems (we will see later in this review how the things actually stand in reality). And SiS could save time and money implementing the Vertex Shader and this way reduce the chip production cost.

Among low-cost chips Xabre stands out due to its fully-fledged support of Pixel Shader ver. 1.3, which allows us to call it DirectX 8 compatible accelerator (remember about the possible emulation of the vertex shader). It appears to be the only accelerator of the kind among the low-cost solutions from ATI and NVIDIA today.

The interesting thing about it is that SiS, which has taken over the current leaders' habit of introducing chip families and not single chips, positions Xabre for three market segments at a time: high-performance gaming market, mainstream market and value market:

This is a very beautiful picture, however, there is a slight shift in the reference frame. The "performance" sector for SiS seems to be more like a "Mainstream" sector for ATI and NVIDIA. And SiS' "Mainstream" sector corresponds mostly to the Value solutions from ATI and NVIDIA. "Value" from SiS is analogous to "Low-End" from the today's graphics industry leaders.

Xabre family currently includes 3 chips (but later one more Xabre 600 working at 275MHz chip and 600MHz (300MHz DDR) memory frequencies will join them):

  • Xabre 400: 250MHz chip and 500MHz (250MHz DDR) memory frequencies, 128bit DDR SDRAM.
  • Xabre 200: 200MHz chip and 333MHz (166MHz DDR) memory frequencies, 128bit DDR SDRAM.
  • Xabre 80: 200MHz chip and 166MHz memory frequencies, 128bit SDRAM.

Today we are going to talk about the fastest model in the family - Xabre 400.

Closer Look: Elitegroup AG400 Graphics Card on SiS Xabre 400

We were very lucky to get our hands on the first pre-production retail sample from Elitegroup based on the new SiS Xabre 400 chip: ECS AG400. It became another guinea pig in our lab this time together with the reference graphics card from SiS.

AG400 graphics cards from ECS will be shipped in a nicely designed colorful retail box:

The card itself is designed on a medium size yellow PCB and doesn't boast any outstanding shapes or components onboard:

   

The design of the retail AG400 differs noticeably from the SiS's own reference design. Although the reference card doesn't boast an RCA connector for the TV-Out and a port for stereoscopic glasses, it has a luxurious heatsink of unusual shape and unique purple colour :)

   

Both graphics cards are built on SiS Xabre 400 chip, which looks a bit bigger than NVIDIA GeForce3/GeForce4 or ATI RADEON 8500 and like the latter, features a heat-conducting metal cover:

Both graphics cards are equipped with 64MB DDR SDRAM from EtronTech with 3.3ns access time:

The graphics core and the memory of the solutions considered work at 250MHz and 500MHz (250MHz DDR) respectively.

The cards are also equipped with a special SiS301 companion-chip responsible for the output to secondary display devices, namely for the implementation of TV-Out, DVI and VGA outs as well as for the stereo glasses support:

Testbed and Methods

For our experiments we assembled the following testbed:

  • AMD Athlon XP 2000+ CPU;
  • MSI K7T266 Pro2 v2.0 (VIA KT266A) mainboard;
  • 2x256MB PC2700 CL2.5 DDR SDRAM by Crucial;
  • Fujitsu MPF3153AH HDD.

Software:

  • Detonator 29.42 driver for Windows XP for NVIDIA GeForce3 Ti200 and GeForce4 MX440 based graphics cards;
  • Driver version 6071 for ATI RADEON 8500LE based graphics card;
  • Driver version 3.02a.02 for ECS AG400 graphics card on SiS Xabre 400;
  • Windows XP;
  • 3DMark 2001 SE build 330;
  • Dungeon Siege benchmark;
  • Quake3 Arena v.1.30;
  • Serious Sam: The Second Encounter.

We ran these applications in the following modes:

3DMark 2001 SE

32bit frame buffer, 32bit textures and 32 (24) bit Z-buffer, D3D Hardware T&L/Pure Hardware T&L.

Dungeon Siege

32bit colour depth, maximum image quality settings.

Quake3 Arena

32bit colour and textures. Maximum quality settings. Tri-linear filtering and texture compression enabled.

Serious Sam: The Second Encounter

Speed Mode: 32bit colour depth. "Speed" image quality settings.

Quality mode: 32bit colour depth. "Quality" image quality settings.

Drivers and Utilities

After installing the Windows XP driver, we saw an additional page in the Display Properties - SiS Utility Manager:

From the SiS Utility Manager you can access the control window for setting the display modes in multi-monitor configurations:

Also you can access the desktop gamma correction settings:

…overlay colours settings:

… and the information page:

Besides the additional page in the Display Properties, there appears a special Utility Tray icon in the system tray, which allows accessing all these functions much faster by simply clocking on it:

SiS drivers also include a special 3D Wizard utility, which seems the most interesting to us.

3D Wizard allows controlling the image display in stereo mode (!):

…allows enabling "transparency" (!!!) and wireframe modes in games:

… allows enabling full-scene anti-aliasing (yes! It finally happened: SiS allows the users to adjust the cards accordingly):

… and they even allow the users to overclock their graphics cards easily (no comments here, only exclamation marks !!! :)

Well, frankly speaking, I did hope that SiS would finally introduce something to allow changing the settings for their Xabre cards, but I couldn't even imagine that there would be so many cool things implemented at a time! And the most important thing is that everything does work: anti-aliasing, stereo modes, "transparent walls". The latter works only in Direct3D, though, but I think SiS will quickly improve the drivers, after this really great start.

And in the meanwhile enjoy a pleasing sight from Dragothic test with "transparent walls":

… or a shot from Nature in wireframe mode:

The last utility in the list is AGP Information, which only task is to show the AGP mode the card is currently working in:


 
 
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