ATI RADEON X700 XT: Gaming Performance Preview

ATI Technologies’ new mainstream fighter – RADEON X700 XT – is here to conquer NVIDIA’s GeForce 6600 GT product with the help of turbo-charged micro-architecture as well as new CATALYST AI set of performance boosters. Let’s find out ATI’s status in the mainstream with the help of some gaming and synthetic benchmarks.

by Anton Shilov , Alexey Stepin
09/21/2004 | 07:31 AM

Introduction

In our first review of the new family of mainstream graphics processors from ATI Technologies we tried to give you an as detailed as possible report on the architectural specifics and capabilities of the RADEON X700 GPU and also tested it in synthetic benchmarks.

 

The theoretical tests exposed certain weaknesses about the newcomer, related to its texturing units: at multi-texturing, at rendering many complex textures and at processing pixel shaders that extensively use textures, the X700 is considerably slower than its main rival, the GeForce 6600 GT. On the other hand, it excellently handles pixel shaders abounding in complex math1ematical computations and leaves the competitor far behind in vertex shader performance, having six vertex processors against the GeForce 6600 GT’s three. Simply put, the RADEON X700 XT and the GeForce 6600 GT both inherited all the strong and weak sides of their progenitors, the R420 and NV40 architectures, respectively.

Theory is important, but the true potential and usefulness of the product can only be revealed through real-life trials, i.e. gaming applications. So, this second review of the ATI RADEON X700 is all about games!

CATALYST AI: Doping Your RADEON

ATI is releasing its new graphics processor along with an updated Catalyst. The new version of the unified driver is called Catalyst AI and is going to boost the performance of your RADEON in games employing a dynamic optimization of texture filtering and application-specific optimizations.

NVIDIA, the main market rival of ATI, has been most successful recently in the sector of top-end solutions. Today ATI has nothing of that supremacy that its solutions had in modern games, so the Canadians had to do something to raise the performance bar of the Powered by ATI graphics cards. Higher clock rates of new GPUs may help in this, but there’s also another method – a smart driver. Clock rates can only be changed in new products, while the driver can favorably affect the whole spectrum of graphics cards, including relatively old models. Well, and the company just couldn’t leave its users with those low fps rates in Doom 3!

New Optimizations, New Speeds

Catalyst AI is new functionality of the ATI Catalyst driver, which includes the following:

So far, ATI hasn’t yet revealed any details about the optimizations, but it is known that the most aggressive level of optimizations in Catalyst AI uses both application-specific and powerful texture filtering speed boosts. At least, Halo started to run faster after the High level of optimizations had been turned on, although this title is not mentioned in the list of games for which specific optimizations are implemented.

As for the value of the speed boost, we can quote a representative of ATI Technologies who said Doom 3 enjoyed up to 25% fps rate increase due to the use of tri-linear filtering optimizations and the use of a special shader instead of texture lookup tables.

We would like to stress the fact that the company says they are not planning to implement application-specific optimizations for synthetic benchmarks like 3DMark03 or Aquamark 3.

Optimizations: Industry Trends

A year ago NVIDIA implemented a special shader complier, dubbed Instruction Optimizer, in their drivers to improve the execution of shaders by GeForce FX processors. NVIDIA went even further saying they would add optimizations for every released game so that the users of GeForce FXs could enjoy the play no less that the users of ATI’s RADEON 9500 and higher GPUs, which had a certain speed advantage then. We guessed then that ATI Technologies would follow suit, although tweaking for each particular game was rather costly since it required additional workforce, research, development and testing of application-specific optimizations.

So what do we have now, a year since? ATI retains a very fast GPU architecture, while NVIDIA has developed the highly flexible GeForce 6 architecture, which matches the performance of the competitor. The GeForce FX family has withdrawn to the background, but the optimizations in NVIDIA’s driver remained, meaning that ATI has to develop even faster hardware or introduce driver optimizations like the competitor did earlier.

Like everything in this world, application-specific optimizations have their pros and cons. They do require additional expenses to buy the programmers’ time and may potentially give too much freedom to game developers who may not find it necessary to achieve the maximum compatibility of their products with the existing standards. On the other hand, optimizations do increase the performance of the whole installed hardware of a certain class, which is good for all end users. Then, making optimizations is obviously cheaper than inventing new hardware. This doesn’t mean of course that the progress is graphics hardware is going to stop – it’s impossible to optimize for all existing and upcoming games, so the GPU developers can’t help avoiding making new chips with a higher computational capacity.

Anyway, the super-fast graphics processors supported with various software accelerators deliver the highest performance and widen the gap between the market leaders ATI Technologies and NVIDIA Corp. and other players like S3 Graphics and XGI Technologies.

Thus, the release of Catalyst AI goes in the wake of new advances in GPU making and is a powerful method to achieving a higher performance on RADEON graphics cards of the latest series.

Testbed and Methods

We were fortunate to test the RADEON X700 XT across a number of games we usually employ for benchmarking purposes, and can offer you the complete picture of its performance. Alas, we couldn’t do the same with the RADEON X700 PRO and RADEON X700 due to the limited time we got to test the sample. Of course, we are going to fill this blank as soon as we get the graphics cards into our own test labs. Right now, you are invited to view the test results for the RADEON X700 XT graphics card in comparison with the GeForce 6600 GT and RADEON 9800 XT. We measured the speeds of the RADEON X700 XT and the GeForce 6800 GT on the following testbed:

Due to the tight timeframe we decided to cooperate with our friends from ComputerBase.de (thanks to them!), who kindly shared with us some test results they got on a testbed identical to ours, but with a 3.40GHz CPU.

The RADEON X800 PRO and the RADEON 9800 XT were tested on our AGP platform:

To avoid confusing you, the cards tested on the AGP platform are marked with the asterix sign (*) throughout this review. We used the following games and benchmarks:

Yes, the list is rather short as our ordinary test sessions go, but again – we had too little time to test the new graphics card more extensively. Each game was set up for the maximum possible graphics quality so that the settings were the same for ATI and NVIDIA cards. We enabled Trilinear optimization and Anisotropic filtering optimizations for the NVIDIA graphics cards.

We selected the Low optimizations settings in the Catalyst AI driver, which correspond to the typical optimizations of ATI’s Catalyst.

First-Person 3D Shooters

Call of Duty

This game has no complex pixel shaders and is overall simple, so the RADEON X700 XT has nowhere to show its shader-processing skills at and delivers the performance of the RADEON 9800 XT, losing to the GeForce 6600 GT.

It’s different with full-screen antialiasing and anisotropic filtering: the GeForce 6600 GT does the jaggies-smoothing less efficiently than the RADEON X700 XT. Curiously enough, the latter is not at all hindered by its narrow 128-bit memory bus, even in 1600x1200 resolution.

Doom III

As you know, this game rather dislikes graphics cards on ATI’s GPUs, running slow on them, so we decided to make use of the additional optimizations available in the Catalyst AI driver for once.

With all its driver optimizations, the RADEON X700 XT is inferior to the GeForce 6600 GT in this test, as the latter features the UltraShadow technology and more efficient surface removal techniques – both being much needed in this game. Anyway, you can see that the new RADEON surpasses the RADEON 9800 XT, the ex-king of 3D graphics. The AI optimizations bring in the biggest gain in 1024x768 resolution.

The gap between the RADEON X700 XT and the GeForce 6600 GT diminishes in the eye candy mode, but the GeForce still remains the leader. The more advanced architecture and new driver of the RADEON X700 XT compensate for its narrow memory bus and contribute to its supremacy over the RADEON 9800 XT.

Unreal Tournament 2004

The newcomer is a bit faster than the GeForce 6600 GT in the pure speed mode. The load on the Torlan level of UT 2004 mostly consists of big amounts of complex textures, and processing textures is no forte of the RADEON X700 XT’s.

The hero of the review feels more confident with full-screen antialiasing and anisotropic filtering enabled, breaking farther away from the GeForce 6600 GT. The RADEON 9800 XT is out of fight in high resolutions, notwithstanding its 256-bit memory bus.

The Metallurgy level puts a load of mainly geometrical nature on the graphics card, but the RADEON X700 XT is surprisingly slower than the GeForce 6600 GT, despite the difference in the number of their vertex processors (six against three).

The excellent FSAA algorithms allow the RADEON X700 XT to win the eye candy mode, with a considerable advantage over the RADEON 9800 XT.

Halo: Combat Evolved

The engine of this game puts a big load on the graphics memory subsystem, and the mainstream graphics cards of the new generation both feel uncomfortably here, especially the RADEON X700 XT with disabled Catalyst AI optimizations. When turned on, the optimizations give a nice performance boost, but not enough to reach the GeForce 6600 GT which itself is close to the RADEON 9800 XT in speed.

Far Cry

Far Cry abounds in sophisticated pixel shaders, so we had expected the RADEON X700 XT to run this game very quickly. In reality, however, it could only reach the level of the GeForce 6600, and fell behind it in 1600x1200. Some problems with the driver?

The situation improves somewhat for the new RADEON in the eye candy mode, but it still cannot overtake the GeForce 6600 GT.

Alas, we couldn’t get the results in 1600x1200 resolution for this test.

It’s all the same on the Research level.

Although not in all the resolutions, the RADEON X700 XT leaves the GeForce 6600 GT behind on this level in the eye candy mode.

Frankly speaking, the new graphics card failed the Far Cry tests completely, but we think this is most probably due to the new and unperfected drivers. 

Painkiller

The RADEON X700 XT runs this game fast enough, although slower than the GeForce 6600 GT in high resolutions. No results for the eye candy mode of this game, regrettably.

Third-Person 3D Shooters

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time

Somewhat surprisingly, the RADEON X700 XT and the GeForce 6600 GT are equals in the low resolutions of this game, while in the pair of top-end cards (GeForce 6800 Ultra vs. RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition) it was the GeForce who won.

The higher vertex processing capacity of the new GPU from ATI must be the reason for the improved performance.

Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness

The RADEON X700 XT starts this test by losing to the GeForce 6600 GT – another surprise – but gains upon it and overtakes it in 1600x1200. The performance of the RADEON X700 XT has nothing of that brilliance ATI’s GPUs have always shown in this game. There may be two reasons – cut-down texture caches of the X700 core or underdone drivers.

Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow

Unfortunately, we could only test the card in 1024x768 resolution of this game where the RADEON X700 XT matches the speed of the GeForce 6600 GT.

Semi-synthetic Benchmarks

Aquamark 3

Aquamark 3 brings more surprises: you may remember that NVIDIA’s products used to be overall superior to their competitors from ATI Technologies in this test, but this time the six vertex processors of the RADEON X700 XT say their weighty word and allow it to run as fast as the GeForce 6600 GT and sometimes even faster!

After we enable FSAA and anisotropic filtering we see the usual thing – efficient FSAA algorithms help the RADEONs, the X700 XT among them, to gain the upper hand. The RADEON 9800 XT remains behind, notwithstanding its 256-bit memory bus.

Synthetic Benchmarks

3DMark03

The RADEON X700 XT scores over 8000 points in 3DMark03, which was an unattainable peak for the RADEON 9800 XT, That’s the improved new-generation architecture to you! These results, however, only refer to the 1024x768 display mode without FSAA and anisotropic filtering, so let’s examine the data 3DMark03 yielded in more detail.

Game Test 1

The texturing problems and the low T&L emulation speed drag the RADEON X700 XT down in this rather simple test, but it is anyway faster than the RADEON 9800 XT.

With FSAA and AF enabled, the GeForce 6600 GT is losing its ground, until it is overtaken by the RADEON X700 in 1600x1200. Well, the RADEONs are just better suited to those eye candy things.

Game Test 2

The second game test prefers NVIDIA’s graphics cards with their UltraShadow II technology, which greatly improves their work with the Z-buffer.

The advantages of the GeForce 6xxx architecture are so tremendous that the RADEON X700 XT can’t do anything about it even in the eye candy mode.

Game Test 3

The third game test differs from the second one in the plot, not in the rendering algorithms, so all the above-said words apply here, too.

And again the GeForce 6600 GT is better. The RADEON X700 XT is not very far behind, though, while the RADEON 9800 XT with its wide 256-bit bus is very slow.

Game Test 4

The fourth game test of 3DMark03 contains a heap of sophisticated pixel shaders, which are the strongest point of ATI’s architectures. The RADEON X700 XT leaves no chance to the GeForce 6600 GT here, losing only to the top-end RADEON X800 PRO.

The RADEON X700 XT can’t claim unrivalled leadership here, but it never loses to the GeForce 6600 GT, at least.

Overall, 3DMark03’s inspection doesn’t produce an encouraging diagnosis for the RADEON X700 XT – it only wins one test! On the other hand, this is the hardest test and the most representative, too, since new games use complex pixel shaders, and there are more such games to come up.

Conclusion

ATI RADEON X700 GPU: What You Need to Know

So, we’ve got a new mainstream graphics processor from ATI Technologies. Considering its performance in gaming tests, what’s our opinion about it? We don’t think it’s time yet to call triumph or failure of the RADEON X700, since the sample we tested was only a few days old and the new driver certainly required some polishing-off. Off-the-shelf RADEON X700 XT graphics cards are going to be finished products, most probably with a higher performance. The task we set before us when preparing this review was in revealing the architectural features and potential of the new GPU. Hopefully, we succeeded in this.

The RADEON X700 XT displayed an overall strong character in our test session. Despite of having a narrow 128-bit memory bus and some problems with the texturing speed, it can successfully contend with the RADEON 9800 XT, outperforming it in the majority of applications. Well, we saw the same with the GeForce 6600: the new progressive architecture helps both cards to beat the titans of the last generation.

The RADEON X700 XT is good where it is supposed to be – in games with complex pixel shaders and sophisticated geometry – and it feels uncomfortable where there are many pixel shaders that actively use textures or where high texturing speed is a must. The conclusion we arrived at after the theoretical tests can be repeated once again: the new chips have all the pros and cons of their respective top-end mates and behave accordingly. But again, it is rather early to make any final verdicts – we should wait for the release of the new official version of Catalyst with support of the RADEON X700 family.

Summing up, we can say that the RADEON X700 XT:

These good things are somewhat tarnished by the following facts:

As for the market future of the RADEON X700, it may be bright, but only if the manufacturer solves all the driver-related problems and starts shipping new GPUs to its partners in mass quantities (this is questionable so far, as first revisions of ATI’s mainstream chips don’t always go into commercial production). The situation hasn’t become dangerous – NVIDIA’s GeForce 6600 and GeForce 6600 GT haven’t reached shops, either, but NVIDIA has got a big time reserve and its product has no obvious problems of hardware or software nature. If ATI Technologies lingers too long with promoting the RADEON X700 family into the market, NVIDIA may catch at this opportunity to improve its positions in the sector of PCI Express mainstream graphics cards. Of course, even this scenario would not be fatal for ATI, but it’s always harder to be the pursuer. We hope – for the good of all users – that ATI solves all the problems quickly and we’ll see reliable and fast mainstream graphics cards capable of competing with top-end solutions of the previous generation, in shops.

Can we hope to see an AGP version of the RADEON X700? We think it less probable, just like with the GeForce 6600 GT, because 1) ATI doesn’t have the necessary bridge to realize this interface just now and 2) ATI has good mainstream solutions like RADEON 9800 XT and 9800 PRO for the AGP platform.

Note also that the GeForce 6600 GT has one advantage, although ethereal as yet. It can work in the SLI mode, while the RADEON X700 XT cannot. Then, ATI’s new GPU still doesn’t support Shader Model 3.0, although supports the 2.0b superset to Shader Model 2.0. Neither SM 3.0 nor SM 2.0b has yet been demanded much by the gaming industry, though.

ATI RADEON X700 XT vs. NVIDIA GeForce 6600 GT: Real Fight is Still Ahead

So, the RADEON X700 XT delivers a good performance overall. Despite its 128-bit memory bus, it is faster than the RADEON 9800 XT in most of the tests. The texturing problems, most likely caused by the too cruel reduction of the texture caches, hindered the X700 XT in its competition with the GeForce 6600 GT, which won a number of tests.

Take a look at the summarizing diagrams:


The RADEON X700 XT has roughly the same speed as the GeForce 6600 GT, but fails completely in several games like Doom 3, Halo and Far Cry. It is all clear with Doom 3, but the failure in the other two games is strange as they have always been ATI’s territory due to the use of numerous complex pixel shaders. And it is exactly in these two games that the RADEON X700 XT is much slower not only than the GeForce 6600 GT, but also than the RADEON 9800 XT with its older architecture. Clearly we deal with certain defects in the chip and/or the driver.


Thanks to the HyperZ HD technology, the RADEON X700 XT is either faster than the GeForce 6600 GT in the eye candy mode (when full-screen antialiasing and anisotropic filtering are enabled) or equals it.

Thus, the last word is not spoken yet in the battle for the mainstream. NVIDIA takes a pause, threatening to release a GeForce 6600 Ultra with 600/1200MHz frequencies, while ATI Technologies is yet to release the final version of the RADEON X700 XT accompanied with a sturdier driver into the market.