by Alexey Stepin
05/23/2007 | 12:10 PM
It is next to impossible to create an ideal product when it comes to such a sophisticated device as a modern graphics card. The developer has to work his way within a variety of limitations. As games give us ever more realism, the level of detail is constantly growing up and the requirements to the gaming computer’s graphics subsystem rise as a consequence. The GPU developers meet those requirements, creating faster GPUs. Faster GPUs have to incorporate more transistors and to work at higher clock rates – the latest GPU from Nvidia has a shader domain frequency of over 1GHz and consists of a total of 681 million transistors.
As a result, the increase in the GPU’s computing power is accompanied with an increase in its power consumption, which in its turn makes it necessary to use more complex power circuits to satisfy the demands of new GPUs. Such power circuits inevitably make the PCB larger. Just take a look at the GeForce 8800 GTX and some solutions from ATI/AMD that are obviously not to be installed into a compact system case.
Power consumption is linked to heat dissipation, which means that ever more sophisticated cooling solutions, capable of dissipating some 100-130W of heat, have to be used. As opposed to CPU coolers, graphics card coolers have to comply with harder dimensional requirements and their developers often have to resort to high-speed fans, worsening the cooler’s noise characteristics. It is a kind of dilemma: the graphics card has to use either a massive dual-slot cooler with acceptable noise characteristics or a compact but noisy cooler. Few people would stand their graphics card to sound like a vacuum-cleaner. Making coolers larger is the lesser of the two evils.
So, can a graphics card be created that would combine high performance in modern games, moderate power consumption and heat dissipation, and quiet operation all together? The answer can hardly be positive for top-end products, but it is quite plausible with mainstream graphics cards as we’ll show you by the example of the new model from PowerColor.
Working on a silent, but sufficiently fast, graphics card, the company based it on the Radeon X1950 Pro, one of the best solutions in the $199 price category. The new card is called PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3.
The product comes in PowerColor’s standard, rather small, box:
It is designed somewhat differently to the package we described in our PowerColor X1950 Pro Extreme review. Some captions have vanished at the bottom of the box, the ATI logo and the Windows Vista Ready certificate are now painted in a different way, and the PCI Express emblem has moved from the top right corner and is now right above the letter X in the product model name. The bottom right corner is occupied by two stickers one of which tells you that the card is equipped with a silent cooler Arctic Cooling SCS3 while the other one reports some important info about the card’s dimensions and warns you that you can have problems installing it into certain system cases due to the non-standard cooler. The amount of memory and the configuration of connectors are also indicated on the box.
Inside the glossy wrapping there is a white cardboard box divided into compartments. The graphics card is wrapped in an antistatic bag and is accompanied with the following accessories:
This is PowerColor’s typical set of accessories. The only surprising thing is the lack of a flexible connector for uniting two X1950 Pro cards into a CrossFire subsystem. The X1950 Pro SCS3 section of the company’s website does not mention that connector, but says it is included with the other X1950 Pro models. This may be explained by the product’s targeting at silent computer systems, for users who need silent rather than top-performing components. Considering the dimensions of the card’s cooler, this is logical, although arguable, solution.
The brief user manual is designed in a new format. It used to be a voluminous brochure describing in detail every aspect of the graphics card installation and usage. Now it is a multilingual poster that gives the user just some basic information about installing the card into the system. This is actually all the documentation you get with your PowerColor X1950 Pro – the full electronic user manual is missing on the driver CD.
The CyberLink DVD Solution disc enclosed with the card is a collection of software for processing audio and video content. It includes the following programs:
All the programs are licensed versions except for PowerBackup and PowerDVD which are trials. The PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 being a multimedia more than games-oriented product, this disc is a very appropriate bonus. So, we don’t have any gripes about the packaging and accessories of the described PowerColor card, except for the rather too simplified user manual.
As opposed to the PowerColor X1950 Pro Extreme, the X1950 Pro SCS3 uses a different PCB design that was developed by ATI/AMD’s main production partner Sapphire Technology:
The new and presumably less expensive PCB resembles the original reference Radeon X1950 Pro design with its unique high-frequency power circuit with few electrolytic capacitors and a peculiar position of the power connector. There are considerable differences, however, concerning the power circuit mostly.
The new power circuit has a more conventional design with traditional capacitors and power MOS transistors. The GPU power regulator is based on a two-phase PWM controller Nexsem NX2415. A chip marked as “P2322WF A1” seems to be responsible for controlling memory power supply. Among six transistors on the face side of the PCB in the power circuit area, four are cooled with small aluminum heatsinks fastened with thermal glue. The PCB design didn’t originally intend any special cooling for the power elements, but it is needed here due to the use of a fully passive cooling system and thus the lack of any airflow. The power connector has returned to its customary place in the top right corner of the PCB.
The modular approach applied in the design of ATI/AMD’s PCBs has helped avoid spending much effort to develop the new PCB. Apart from the new power circuit, the PCB is identical to the one we described in our review of the Radeon X1950 Pro called ATI Radeon X1950 Pro against Nvidia GeForce 7900 GS, except for the slightly different configuration of the screen. The Rage Theater chip, endowing the card with VIVO functionality, is in its place, too. There’s little use from it in the year 2007, but some people may find it helpful, especially if the PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 is going to be utilized in a home multimedia center.
The two connectors in the top left corner of the PCB are needed for building a CrossFire subsystem in which two PowerColor X1950 Pro are connected to each other with special flexible cables.
The card carries eight GDDR3 chips (256Mb, 8Mx32) providing a total of 256 megabytes of graphics memory with a 256-bit bus. Small heatsinks are glued to the chips. The glue proved to be very strong and we couldn’t remove a heatsink for fear of damaging the card. We suppose the chips are Samsung K4J55323QG-BC14. The memory frequency is 690 (1380) MHz which exactly complies with AMD's official specification.
We know that the Radeon X1650 XT and Radeon X1950 Pro GPUs are in fact one and the same die that is installed, depending on the version of the GPU, into a package with a 128-bit or 256-bit memory bus. This is probably why they are not marked as RV560 and RV570, respectively. The version with a wider bus is always marked as “215PADAKA12FG”. Our sample was manufactured the third week of the current year, i.e. in late January. It is clocked at 575MHz, just as described in the official Radeon X1950 Pro specification. The GPU package is equipped with a metallic frame to prevent the cooler from misaligning and damaging the die. This frame is virtually useless here, however, as we’ll explain shortly.
It is the cooling system that makes the PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 a unique product. SCS stands for Silent Cooling System. It is not an original invention of PowerColor, but is an Arctic Cooling Accelero S1 cooler.
This cooler design is simple, somewhat primitive even. Four heat pipes, bent at an angle of 180 degrees, are soldered with their short ends into the copper sole that has contact with the GPU die. The long ends of the pipes carry aluminum ribs limited by two decorative plastic caps. The whole arrangement is secured on the PCB by means of four screws with plastic spacers. So, there is nothing particularly sophisticated and extraordinary here.
This system boasts impressive characteristics, however. The heatsink consists of a total of 32 ribs placed 4 millimeters apart from each other. Each rib is 215mm long and 18-19mm tall. Easy to calculate, the dissipation area of one rib is about 80 sq. cm while the whole heatsink is over 2500 sq. cm large. This is much larger than the total dissipation area of the popular Zalman ZM80D-HP cooler (1350 sq. cm) and holds a promise of successful passive cooling of a Radeon X1950 Pro. The RV570 is known to generate within 65W of heat and the Accelero S1 heatsink is quite capable to cope with that load.
Moreover, this cooler is positioned by Artic Cooling as suitable for the entire AMD Radeon X1950 series as well as for Nvidia’s 6800/7800/7900/7950, except for the GeForce 7950 GX2. Perhaps you need the so-called Turbo Module, an additional fan supplied with the original Accelero S1, to cool such cards as GeForce 7900 GTX or Radeon X1950 XTX, but our card comes without that module and is going to be cooled fully passively. The success will ultimately depend on how well the heatsink plates are crimped on the heat pipes.
The cooler is rather large at 140x215x32 millimeters (LxWxH) but weighs a mere 290g thanks to the aluminum ribs. Still, we should caution you to handle the PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 very gently since the cooler’s base reaches to the protective frame around the GPU die on one side only. Dark-gray thick thermal grease is used a thermal interface between the GPU die and the cooler base.
An additional mounting bracket with holes is used to exhaust some of the hot air out of the system and the PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 is thus two slots high. You should install this bracket even without the Turbo Module if you’ve organized airflows inside your system case properly. The only drawback of the described cooler is its length. Counting the plastic cap in, it goes 4cm beyond the graphics card’s dimensions, which may provoke problems with narrow system cases (or low system cases, if it is a desktop rather than tower version). The card is about 150mm tall with the cooler installed.
The quality of assembly is high when it comes to the contact of the heat pipes and ribs. The heatsink grew hot very quickly during our tests on an open testbed, yet its temperature remained not very high. According to RivaTuner’s monitoring module, the graphics core was 56.7°C hot after running 3DMark06 for a few times. The temperature may be higher or lower in a closed system case depending on how well it is ventilated.
The Arctic Cooling Accelero S1 seems a very good solution to us, with only one drawback. The PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 with this cooler won’t fit into small multimedia system cases. If you want to use this card in your home entertainment center, make sure you’ve got a “horizontal” system case with a height of no less than 170 millimeters.
During our comparative testing of the PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS2 graphics card we used the standard hardware test platforms:
Since we believe that the use of tri-linear and anisotropic filtering optimizations is notjustified, the graphics card drivers were set up in standard way to provide the highest possible quality of texture filtering.
We selected the highest possible graphics quality level in each game, without modifying the games configuration files. Performance was measured with the games’ own tools or, if not available, manually with Fraps utility. We also measured the minimum speed of the cards where possible. We performed tests in 1280x1024/960, 1600x1200 and 1920x1200/1440 resolutions.
Since PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 belongs to pretty high-performance graphics solutions, we tested in “eye candy” mode everywhere where it was possible without disabling HDR or Shader Model 3.0 improving the image quality. We enabled FSAA and anisotropic filtering from the game’s menu. If this was not possible, we forced them using the appropriate driver settings of ATI Catalyst and Nvidia ForceWare. Since our today’s hero is equipped with a passive cooling system, we didn’t test its overclocking potential, and all the data below were obtained at nominal GPU and memory frequencies.
Besides the PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 we have also included the following graphics cards into our test session:
For our tests we used the following games and benchmarks:
First-Person 3D Shooters
Third-Person 3D Shooters
The PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 is far ahead of the GeForce 8600 GTS in any resolution and is capable of rivaling the GeForce 7950 GT. Its quality of anisotropic filtering is but slightly worse than that of Nvidia’s new GPU and much better than that of Nvidia’s older solution.
When it comes to practical play, the described card allows using full-screen antialiasing at a resolution of 1280x1024 pixels. Although the average frame rate is lower than 60fps, the minimum of speed is higher than 45fps. It means you can play the game with comfort, without slowdowns and a loss of control accuracy.
The PowerColor is somewhat weaker than the GeForce 8600 GTS in high resolutions, but this doesn’t mean much considering their average performance of less than 20fps even at 1280x1024. You have to lower the level of detail even on your GeForce 7950 GT or Radeon X1900 XT whose performance is higher in that resolution. Perhaps you’ll even have to switch to a lower resolution to have just a minimum of comfort playing Call of Juarez.
The PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 is somewhat slower than the GeForce 7950 GT in low resolutions but overtakes it in higher ones due to its more advanced memory controller. Performance is everywhere high enough for as comfortable game experience as you may wish.
On the Research level the gap is smaller even at 1280x1024 because the 24 TMUs of the GeForce 7950 GT aren’t used to the full then whereas the 36 pixel shader processors of the PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 come in handy for calculating per-pixel lighting.
The 3-year-old Far Cry is still quite a demanding application in HDR mode, at least it feels such for today’s $199 and cheaper graphics cards. The PowerColor X1950 Pro delivers high performance in 1280x1024 resolution, but you’d better avoid higher display resolutions on graphics cards of this class, including the GeForce 8600 GTS. The Radeon X1900 XT is an exception, ensuring a frame rate of 55-60fps in 1600x1200.
Having only 12 TMUs and 12 ROPs clocked at 575MHz, the PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 cannot compete with the Radeon X1900 XT or GeForce 7950 GT, yet it is about 10% ahead of the GeForce 7900 GS and easily beats the new-generation GeForce 8600 GTS.
Creating its new mainstream graphics card Nvidia wanted to make it simple and cheap, so it came out with only 32 shader processors, 16 TMUs, 8 ROPs, and a 128-bit memory bus. As a result, it is inferior to the 0.08-micron ATI/AMD RV570 chip in every parameter save for the clock rate. No wonder then that the GeForce 8600 GTS is beaten by the Radeon X1950 Pro in most gaming tests.
Using the deferred rendering technique, this game is incompatible with full-screen antialiasing. There are only anisotropic filtering results here.
The PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 is not particularly fast, but it never drops its speed below 25fps as the GeForce 8600 GTS does. So, you can play the game on the PowerColor, but not with the highest comfort possible. But at least you won’t have slowdowns that occur when the game speed bottoms out to below 25fps.
As opposed to F.E.A.R., the PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 doesn’t have a great advantage over the GeForce 8600 GTS, yet there is no lag, either. Both cards are fast enough for you to play in 1600x1200 with enabled 4x FSAA whereas the GeForce 7950 GT and Radeon X1900 XT with powerful texture-mapping resources can deliver 55-60fps at a resolution of 1920x1200 pixels.
Nvidia’s solutions don’t seem to have an advantage in OpenGL-based games as they used to. The PowerColor is considerably faster than the GeForce 8600 GTS in Prey and the Radeon X1900 XT is ahead of the GeForce 7950 GT. On the other hand, the PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 delivers an average 40fps at best even in the lowest of the display resolutions we use.
Theoretically, you can play at that speed, but practice suggests that you want to have an average frame rate of 60fps and higher to play a first-person shooter with full comfort. Thus, owners of the card models included into this review, except for the Radeon X1900 XT, may want to disable FSAA or switch to lower resolutions or reduce the level of detail.
The game doesn’t support FSAA when you enable the dynamic lighting model, but loses much of its visual appeal with the static model. So, we benchmarked the cards in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. using anisotropic filtering only.
The results suggest that you can’t indulge yourself with the dynamic lighting model at maximum graphics quality settings if you’ve got a Radeon X1950 Pro or GeForce 8600 GTS. The Radeon X1900 XT in the only card to ensure a more or less normal gameplay without critical slowdowns.
This is one of the few cases when the PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 is inferior to the GeForce 8600 GTS in terms of minimum, if not average, speed. The PowerColor has the lowest minimum of speed among the tested cards and thus doesn’t suit well for playing Hitman: Blood Money. Its average speed is higher than that of the GeForce 8600 GTS in high resolutions, yet this has no practical worth considering their low performance level like 20-25fps.
Regrettably, the PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 can’t boast a high minimum of speed in Tomb Raider: Legend, either. Well, the GeForce 8600 GTS, the best card in this parameter, slows down as much as 14fps in complex scenes. Thus, none of the mainstream graphics cards, including the not-so-weak Radeon X1900 XT, suits for playing this game in the Next Generation Content mode at resolutions from 1280x1024 and higher if you enable highest graphics quality settings.
We try to get the best quality of graphics from each game, so we chose HDR in favor of FSAA and benchmarked the cards with anisotropic filtering only.
None of the tested cards, except for the Radeon X1900 XT, can yield a comfortable frame rate even in 1280x1024. The GeForce 7950 GT has a modest speed of 25fps with slowdowns to 17fps. Disabling HDR may improve this situation, but the game is going to lose much of its visual appeal. You may choose to switch to 1024x768 instead.
The current version of Gothic 3 does not support FSAA, so we benchmarked the cards using anisotropic filtering only.
Just like in the previous case, the Radeon X1900 XT is the only card to allow playing the game at highest graphics quality settings. The average speed of the other cards, including the PowerColor, is less than 25fps with a minimum of lower than 15fps.
Starting with version 1.04, the game allows using FSAA, but its support for HDR is still deficient. Therefore we tested the cards at the eye candy settings.
Alas, the PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 performs poorly here, too. Its average speed of less 15fps is below the limit when the game stops to react to the player’s commands correctly. The PowerColor overtakes the GeForce 8600 GTS in 1920x1200 thanks to its higher-performing memory subsystem, but it doesn’t matter anything when the average speed is as low as 8-9fps.
The game looks much worse without HDR (although this is an arguable point), so we test it with enabled FP HDR.
The PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 does well here: it is quite possible to play TES IV at 47fps with slowdowns to 25fps, although some reserve of speed would be welcome. This reserve is provided by the Radeon X1900 XT with its 48 pixel processors, each of which consists of 4 ALUs, and by the GeForce 7950 GT with its 24 TMUs.
The PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 loses its ground suddenly in the open game scenes, losing to the GeForce 8600 GTS. The latter even outperforms the Radeon X1900 XT in low resolutions. The unified architecture that can flexibly distribute the GPU’s computing resources between pixel and vertex shaders seems to work well here. Besides, the number of TMUs and ROPs is not important for 1280x1024 resolution, which contributes to the good performance of the new mainstream card from Nvidia.
Unfortunately, owners of graphics cards with the previous-generation architectures in which shader processors are divided into pixel and vertex ones cannot avoid having slowdowns in this game. This concerns even gaming platforms with an AMD Radeon X1900 XT.
The PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 wins back its advantage in this beautiful space sim. It is only slower than its elder brother Radeon X1900 XT. In 1600x1200 the min and average speeds of the PowerColor card are enough for comfortable play. The speed does not drop below a critical point even at 1920x1200, although there’s no reserve of it, either.
The game having a frame rate limiter, you should consider the min speeds of the cards in the first place. This parameter determines your playing comfort in Command & Conquer 3.
The GeForce 7950 GT with 24 TMUs clocked at 550MHz is in the lead in terms of minimum speed, but the PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 is sufficiently fast, too, in 1280x1024. The Radeon X1900 XT performs oddly: having a rather low minimum speed, it hits against the frame limiter even in 1920x1200, outperforming the GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB along the way.
We tested the game in the pure speed mode with enabled anisotropic filtering only, because it has problems when you turn on FSAA.
The PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 is somewhat faster than the GeForce 8600 GTS, but that’s in fact all the good news. The speed of 38fps with terrible slowdowns to 9fps is not comfortable at all. As we already know from our article called Fast and Faster: MSI GeForce 8800 GTS 640MB vs. GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB, the game is very fastidious about the amount of graphics memory. This must be the reason why the PowerColor is lagging so far behind the Radeon X1900 XT 512MB.
The PowerColor delivers good performance (for its class) in Supreme Commander. In 1280x1024 – the most popular resolution for owners of such graphics cards – the X1950 Pro SCS3 is only slower than the Radeon X1900 XT. In 1600x1200 and 1920x1200 it is 12-14% behind the GeForce 7950 GT, but this is hardly important because their frame rates are too low.
The PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 stops a little short of 10.000 points and enjoys a certain advantage over the GeForce 7950 GT despite being handicapped in terms of the number of TMUs and ROPs. Let’s see how it performs in the particular game tests with enabled 4x antialiasing.
The PowerColor X1950 Pro is roughly similar to the GeForce 8600 GTS in all the three tests, except for the resolution of 1280x1024 in the second test where the Nvidia card can allot more shader processors to calculate the scene geometry. Considering the use of full-screen antialiasing, the results are rather indicative of the drawbacks of the GeForce 8600 GTS such as its 128-bit memory bus and a small number of TMUs and ROPs than of a weak potential of the Radeon X1950 Pro because it is the Nvidia solution that slows down much on transitioning to display resolutions above 1024x768 and enabling 4x FSAA.
The GeForce 8600 GTS is not much better than the PowerColor card in 3DMark06, yet the overall scores aren’t enough for making any conclusions. Let’s see the detailed picture.
In the SM2.0 tests the GeForce 8600 GTS has the biggest advantage over the PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3. Nvidia’s declared 16 TMUs seem to work correctly in 3DMark06 as opposed to certain games. In the SM3.0/HDR tests the gap shrinks to a negligible value because the impressive computing capacity of the RV570-based cards with their 36 pixel processors is called for by the test conditions.
The first SM2.0 test confirms the GeForce 8600 GTS’ superiority, but the second favors the PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3. Compared with the related test from 3DMark05, the second SM2.0 test renders a more complex scene with a sophisticated shadowing and lighting model, and the GeForce 8600 GTS seems to suffer from a lack of resources whereas the Radeon X1950 Pro has a good reserve of computing power.
The fact that the GeForce 8600 GTS does not have enough computing resources for complex conditions is confirmed by the results of individual SM3.0/HDR tests in which the conditions are even more difficult due to the use of full-screen antialiasing. In both tests the PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 is far ahead of Nvidia’s new solution, which is hamstringed by its low memory bandwidth. It is, however, possible that the GeForce 8600 GTS will be doing better on a new driver, for example after improvements in the shader processor allocation algorithm.
Well, did PowerColor manage to achieve an optimal combination of noiseless operation and high gaming performance? Now that we have discussed in detail the results of our PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 solution we can conclude: yes, they did. Thanks to the powerful passive cooling solution developed by one of the leaders in this field, Arctic Cooling Company, the card is completely noiseless and has no cooling issues whatsoever. And thanks to the great technical specs of the RV570 GPU it performs pretty well in today’s 3D games.
At the same time the power consumption of PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 is within acceptable range and doesn’t exceed 66W. This is higher than the power consumption of GeForce 8600 GTS, but as we have seen today, Nvidia’s solution yields to Radeon X1950 Pro in many cases. The only exceptions are such popular RPG as Neverwinter Nights 2 and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. So, from the performance and economical prospective this solution (like any other Radeon X1950 Pro) is hardly less attractive than GeForce 8600 GTS.
Although PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 represents a very good combination of all the above mentioned features, it still has one drawback that we can’t help mentioning: large size, namely graphics card height. Of course, a cooling system features over 2500sq.cm of heat dissipating area cannot be small especially if we are talking about a fanless solution. In this case, engineers had to sacrifice the graphics card height, which makes this card absolutely unsuitable for compact system cases that are often used for home multimedia centers. If you really like this graphics solution, make sure that your case has enough room for it, before you buy it. It would be very good if your case were at least 170mm wide (tall in case of a desktop version), otherwise the graphics card cooler will get beyond the case side and will not let you close the panel.
As for the accessories bundle, the only thing we would like to see improved is the user guide, which we believe should be a little bit more detailed. Or maybe there could be at least a full user’s manual included on a CD disk with the drivers for instance, just like by products from Asustek Computer. All in all, PowerColor X1950 Pro SCS3 may be a very valuable purchase for those who value silence and at the same time shoot for high 3D gaming performance. And thanks to VIVO feature, this solution will also be a great choice for a home multimedia center. Just make sure that it fits into your case!