Speed a Little, Gain a Lot: ATI Mobility RADEON X1600 Preview

ATI has been commanding the market of discrete mobile graphics processors with more than 70% market share for more than ten consecutive quarters now. Yesterday the company unveiled yet another mobile offering designed to solidify its market positions. But is it truly capable of that? Check out our preview for details!

by Anton Shilov , Anna Filatova
12/06/2005 | 03:51 PM

The market of desktop graphics processors these days resembles the market of luxurious cars, the main difference is obviously the number of designers: there are tens of car makers offering expensive and luxurious vehicles and there are two developers of graphics chips capable of creating truly high-end products.

 

In all other ways everything looks the same: a developer creates a flagship high-end offering that should attract attention to the whole lineup (just like BMW, whose bulk of revenue comes from the 3-series, but whose flagship 7- and 5-series get the most attention). Then the developer creates a breed of chips using the same micro-architecture (in case of cars they tend to share technologies and design innovations across the family) and about a year later they do slight redesign, add minor features and so on (in our example they do restyling every couple years or so) in order to sell people a product, perceived as new. People tend to look at the high-end when choosing a brand and this is why both ATI Technologies and NVIDIA Corp. fight fiercely to offer absolutely the fastest desktop graphics accelerators to maintain the image of the leader.

Mobile computer graphics doesn’t fall under this cliche: power consumption is among the main features that computer makers pay attention to when choosing graphics chips for their laptops. Hence, performance can be compromised in favor of longer battery life, lower price and some other things. At the end of the day, not that many consumers actually play resource-demanding 3D games on notebooks, therefore, they hardly need the truly ultimate performance.

But since there is demand for high-end graphics even in notebooks, both leading graphics chips designers have a tendency to offer mobile flavors for laptops of their top-of-the-range products. When it comes to high-end, no one cares about power consumption, heat dissipation and other disadvantages of high-end graphics processing units (GPUs), the only intention is to make sure it actually works and does not overheat.

However, there are some exceptions in this case: design wins by the GeForce Go 7800 GTX, proximity of the code-named R580 GPU launch and excessive power consumption of the RADEON X1800 XT made ATI to decide that the mobile flavour of the R520 is not needed now, even though it is listed in some of the company’s roadmaps. Instead, right now ATI wants to attack on the mainstream market by introducing the Mobility RADEON X1600, the product that brings ATI’s latest feature-set to mobile computers.

Save the Power: TSMC’s 90nm Here

ATI’s Mobility RADEON X1600 is produced using 90nm process technology at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. and does not have many features that distinguish it from the typical ATI RADEON X1600-series chips. However, those capabilities are designed mainly to reduce power leakage and hence to reduce the power consumption. This is exactly what is necessary to decrease power consumption significantly enough to make the RADEON X1600 viable for mobile computers.

According to ATI, the mobile flavour of the model X1600 features the following technologies:

It is obvious that the Mobility RADEON X1600 fully supports previously introduced “PowerPlay” technologies by ATI aimed to reduce power usage by mobile GPUs, including such as Dynamic Lane Count Switching (DLCS, a technology that can dynamically disable unused PCI Express lanes) and others.

While ATI does not claim it directly, we anticipate that 20% power reduction refers to desktop X1600 model running in similar environment, but at unknown clock-speed. That said, we would not directly compare Mobility RADEON X1600 against any of its desktop counterparts.

Mobility Inherits Pros and Cons: Specifications Disclosed

There is hardly any need to talk about the Mobility RADEON X1600 XT micro-architecture in great detail, as it is principally the same compared to the desktop RADEON X1600 XT, so, we only briefly touch upon it, so that you could refresh your memory a little bit and recall what we are actually dealing with.

The RADEON X1600-series came to replace the RADEON X700 family of graphics chips in both desktop and mobile markets. The obvious advantage that the RADEON X1600 has over the predecessor is the Avivo technology support. Its main advantage in the notebook segment is hardware decoding of H.264 video. This feature may eventually allow users to watch one or two HD DVD or BD movies without the need to recharge their notebook battery. This might be a great thing for those who travel a lot and watch moving on the plane. Some other essential features of the Mobility RADEON X1600 are such 3D technologies as Shader Model 3.0, HDR and some others.

The RADEON X1600 sports 12 pixel shader processors, 5 vertex shader processors and only 4 texture mapping units (TMUs). While high clock-speeds and generally efficient architecture allow the part to show impressive results in applications loaded with shader operations, 4 TMUs greatly diminish the potential advantages of the solution over its rivals in many current games.

Another peculiarity of the ATI Mobility RADEON X1600 is Ultra-Threading Dispatch Processor that distributes pixel shader workload among the pixel processors and makes efficient use of pixel processors’ arithmetic logic units (ALUs). ATI says that this architecture helps to make the pixel processors achieve their 90% efficiency on any shader. The RADEON X1600 fully utilizes Ring Bus memory architecture that is 256-bit wide.

The 128-bit wide memory bus of the RADEON X1600 has been considered a bottleneck for the desktop solutions. However in the mobile segment it has turned into an evident benefit: with 128-bit memory bus the chip can be placed not only onto a special AXIOM module, but can be mounted directly onto the mainboard. Thanks to ATI’s CSP (chip scale packaging) technology that allows mounting memory directly onto the substrate with the graphics processor, the manufacturers can now save some space on the mainboard PCB. Such packaging also allows retaining pin-to-pin compatibility with previous generation designs, such as Mobility RADEON X700, which significantly improves market opportunities for the newcomer since it can be adapted for already shipping notebooks without much hassle.

Mobility RADEON X1600 with 128MB GDDR3 memory operates at 209MHz/270MHz (core/memory) clock-speeds in 2D mode and at 473/936MHz (core/memory) in 3D mode.

Based on our experience with the RADEON X1600 XT, we know that the card allows playing the latest games and its performance should be enough for a casual gamer. For those gamers who are familiar with the high framerate in the latest games, this accelerator will hardly be a good choice. The Mobility RADEON X1600 is slower than the desktop solution, that is why this product will not become a good desktop replacement (DTR) choice for gaming. But if you are an occasional gamer, can carry a relatively large laptop and are looking for the broadest feature-set, then a portable PC with Mobility RADEON X1600 has every chance to win your heart.

Testbed: Meet ASUS A7G

ASUS A7G: What It Is Made Of

The very first notebook to adopt the Mobility RADEON X1600 is ASUS A7G, which is yet another portable multimedia center from ASUSTeK Computer. And this company is basically the only manufacturer to make this kind of devices.

The laptop featurs 17.1”wide screen with 1440x900 resolution as well as 4.0Kg weight. Besides, the laptop sports built-in TV tuner and high-definition audio with four onboard speakers, webcam, microphone and other devices.

The configuration we tested was built-upon Intel Centrino platform that includes Intel Pentium M processor 760 (2.00GHz with 2MB cache and 533MHz processor system bus), Intel 915PM Express core-logic, 1GB of PC2-4300 memory, 100GB hard disk drive and so on. According to ATI, the Mobility RADEON X1600 supports requirements of Microsoft Windows Vista due to be released in 2006.

The ASUS A7G is equipped with 4800mAh 8-cell battery that can power the notebook for up to about three or more hours and allow about one DVD movie to be played, according to our measurements. The Battery Eater benchmark could work on the battery for two hours.

ASUS A7G: Overal Impression

We did not have much time to play with the laptop, even though overal impressions were just like those about desktop replacement portable computer: huge, fast, heavy, yet a bit more comfortable to work on because of large screen. High-definition audio system is definitely somethig cool for a notebook, just like a screen with special coating which is supposed to impove brigtness and contrast.

There are some drawbacks too. The panel, where you place your hands when typing, is made of pretty soft plastic, which is uncomfortable as it fluctates and makes additional creaky sounds. Another drawback is that spacebar is not as wide as touchpad, which makes it pretty uncomfortable to use in some cases (another way to say that is that the touchpad is too large). ASUS also provides a power supply adapter which should be plugged to the connector located on the side of the laptop. As a result, the cable will be bent in some cases, and it will evidently shorten its lifetime, especially given the fact that the cable is pretty thin.

There are also special multimedia keys located right under the touchpad, which should be functional even when the notebook is closed. While ASUS did its best to place those buttons so that they would not be pressed during ordinary working (typing) process, there is a chance to press them when using a touchpad.

On the other hand, those buttons help greatly to control multimedia content and probably they add more comfort than harm, so, overall, those are necessary.

ASUS A7G: a Look Inside

We decided to open the laptop and take a look how is it is cooled down as well as explore possibilities for its upgrade.

Both microprocessor and memory are pretty easy to access, and users should not have any hassles with the upgrade. We would, however, advice ASUS to install a cooling system that features a heat-sink instead of putting just a heat-pipe onto the central processing unit, as this would make sure there is no overheating even in case a higher-speed processor is installed. The A7G, by the way, does not officially support Intel Pentium M chips clocked higher than 2.13GHz, which means that such cooling system may be quite enough.

The Mobility RADEON X1600 does not seem to be a really hot product when it comes to temperatures: it can be easily cooled down with a passive heat-sink and without any fans or heat-pipes.

While the CPU cooling system might be better, we did not experience any overheating issues with the laptop and even the case and the keyboard of the notebook were just slightly warm and it was pretty comfortable to work. We, however, have reasons to believe that after hours of gaming the temperature of the graphics chip will rise and the upper side of the laptop closer to the right will get much warmer.

Competition Not Found: Performance Unveiled

Given that we have had only a very short time to test the ASUS A7G notebook and ATI Mobility RADEON X1600, there are only a few gaming tests just to give you an understanding of the part’s capabilities. We did not test at the monitor’s native resolution as just a few games support it actually.

Half-Life 2

Far Cry

Futuremark 3DMark03

Futuremark 3DMark05

While it is clear that the Mobility RADEON X1600 is not the fastest graphics for laptops out there, it is definitely faster than the GeForce Go 6600 and may even offer performance similar to the GeForce Go 6800 equipped with low-speed memory.

To cut the long story short, the Mobility RADEON X1600 has no competition on the market right now, thus, it should be pretty interesting solution for notebooks that require relatively rapid graphics.

A slight disadvantage for the Mobility RADEON X1600 is that current drivers do not support hardware H.264 decoding. But at the end of the day, the H.264 content is going to be available starting from February 2006, at the earliest, however, ASUS A7G does not have a HD DVD or BD reader. Nevertheless, the Mobility RADEN X1600 has similar great capabilities in hardware video decoding as provided by the rest of the RADEON X1000 family thanks to Avivo engine (see our analysis of the performance during video playback in the article called ATI RADEON X1000: Brand-New Graphics Architecture from ATI Explored ).

Conclusion

We have just taken a look at ATI’s latest graphics processor for notebooks, the Mobility RADEON X1600 which is fast enough to occasionally play games. Besides, it consumes not too much power and offers pretty decent battery life. We have generally positive feelings about the new mobile graphics solution from ATI, but pretty mixed impressions regarding the ASUS A7G laptop.

The RADEON X1600 XT and PRO on the desktop front do not look to be competitive offering at their price-points (the XT model should cost $249) and ATI is currently looking forward to sell the RADEON X1600 XT 256MB for $179 - $199 to improve their value for end-users. On the contrary, the mobile flavor – the Mobility RADEON X1600 – seems to be a very competitive offering in the mobile market: it can decode H.264 video in hardware, it can run the mainstream games and it does not consume a lot of power.

The most obvious highs of the Mobility RADEON X1600 are:

When acquiring a notebook with the Mobility RADEON X1600, you should keep in mind that:

The launch of Mobility RADEON X1600 is a very important milestone for ATI: they have just launched a unique product that may not be the fastest and most efficient from the power consumption point of view in the today’s market, but which is still unique. It is a unique combination of features for a thin performance solutions segment, and it will certainly find its users there. Besides, the Mobility RADEON X1600 has no direct rivals as of today.

Given that it is unique, has no rivals and is compatible with the Mobility RADEON X700, we should see quite a lot of 14” and 15” laptops featuring ATI’s Mobility RADEON X1600 within a few months from such companies as Acer, Alienware, Arima, Asus, ECS, Evesham, FIC, Gericom, HP, LG, Medion, MiTAC, MSI, Packard Bell, Rockdirect, Samsung, Targa, and Uniwill. Additionally, given that the Mobility RADEON X1600 does not require high-performance cooling system, we may eventually see it in 13” or similar size laptops.