Driven by the New Catalyst: Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL Review

RADEON X1000 series graphics cards, announced back in early October, have started to emerge in shops. Today we will be reviewing the RADEON X1800 XL as it comes from Sapphire Technologies and will be comparing its performance on the new Catalyst driver to that of NVIDIA’s GeForce 7800 GT and GTX.

by Alexey Stepin
12/15/2005 | 12:25 PM

There are currently two ultra-high-performance graphics cards in the RADEON X1000 family: the mighty RADEON X1800 XT 512MB with its sky-high operating frequencies and the less powerful RADEON X1800 XL. Here’s a short list of the characteristics of the latter card: like the senior model, the RADEON X1800 XL uses the new-generation R520 chip as the graphics processing unit. The micro-architecture of this future-anticipating GPU was specially developed for very fast execution of complex pixel shaders and our theoretical tests showed that the R520 (the world’s first GPU to be manufactured on 0.09-micron tech process, by the way) is really the most efficient at processing complex shaders as well as shaders with dynamic branching (for details see our article called ATI RADEON X1000: Brand-New Graphics Architecture from ATI Explored). ATI’s new chip can also work with FSAA and HDR simultaneously and incorporates an advanced video-processor Avivo which provides hardware acceleration for H.264 video decoding. So this GPU is currently the most advanced from the technological standpoint.

 

The graphics card did well in real-life applications, too. The clock rates of the RADEON X1800 XL are not very high, just 500/500 (1000) MHz for the graphics core and memory, respectively, but the new architecture, particularly the unique ring-bus memory controller, delivered high performance in current games, especially in pixel-shader-heavy ones like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, F.E.A.R., Battlefield 2 and others. However, while the RADEON X1800 XT 512MB was the world’s fastest graphics card on the day of its announcement (the GeForce 7800 GTX 512 has become the new king since, as you know from our review called NVIDIA GeForce 7800 GTX 512: Faster, Higher, Stronger!), the RADEON X1800 XL could not be called the best in its price category (for details see our review called ATI RADEON X1800 XT and XL Performance: Crushing NVIDIA's 7800?). In some cases it was even inferior to the NVIDIA GeForce 7800 GT where ATI’s solution had been traditionally strong, i.e. in FSAA modes, despite the more advanced memory controller with the ring-bus topology. The imperfect Catalyst driver suite was one of the reasons for that discomfiture. Also because of the inefficient and long-criticized OpenGL driver, the new graphics cards from ATI turned to be slow in OpenGL applications like Doom 3, The Chronicles of Riddick, Pacific Fighters, etc.

It is possible that the new version of the driver suite released today (it’s now ATI Catalyst 5.12) will help solve the performance-related problems of the RADEON X1800 XL in some games. We took a Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL as the test sample – this card is going to represent the ATI side today.

Package and Accessories

Small packs are typical of products from Sapphire Technologies and their RADEON X1800 XL is not an exception. The box is really rather small, especially if compared with the huge packages of graphics cards from ASUS or MSI. Its shape is standard, not like the package of some cards from XFX. So what’s so very attractive about the Sapphire product?

Well, the color! The snow-white package of the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL is going to stand out against the gaudily-colored or restrainedly-dark boxes of other graphics cards. This means it does its job well – it attracts the potential customer quite successfully. Rejecting the already hackneyed fantasy or medieval themes, Sapphire goes science fiction, putting the image of an alien that we first saw far back on the Sapphire RADEON 9800 XT Ultimate Edition (for details please see our article called SAPPHIRE RADEON 9800 XT ULTIMATE Edition Extreme Overclocking: Myths and Reality). Some old-generation gamers may be reminded of the turn-based strategy X-Com: UFO Defense that was highly popular in the mid-90s.

The exterior glossy packaging conceals a thick-cardboard box that contains a tray with the graphics card in an antistatic pack. Below the tray you will find the following accessories:

This set of accessories would seem poor if it were not for that special Sapphire Select DVD. It is a dual-layer (8GB) disc with four popular games of different genres: Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, Tony Hawk’s Underground 2, Richard Burns Rally and Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. You are invited to play each game for only one hour and then to choose and register any two of them. The registered games can be then run without any limitations. It would be better, of course, to have four games instead of two, but the cost of the product would be higher then. Sapphire offers you two games and the welcome opportunity to choose which of the four games you like better.

So the Sapphire Select makes us change our opinion about the accessories. They are sufficient and would be even excellent if there were one more DVI-I → D-Sub adapter included (the card is equipped with two DVI connectors). The user manual is blameless, thoroughly describing the installation process in its six languages.

PCB and Cooling System

NVIDIA’s policy regarding its top-end graphics cards is rather strict. The card manufacturers receive all GeForce 7800 GTX ready-made, so the difference between two such cards may only be in their cooling systems or, more often, in the picture on the cap of the reference cooler. The rules are more flexible for products from lower categories: the graphics card manufacturer is permitted to use a PCB design other than the reference one or at least to buy PCBs rather than ready-made products. The examples are the ASUS Extreme N7800GT with a blue-colored PCB and the unique ASUS Extreme N6600GT Silencer that has twice the memory amount of the ordinary GeForce 6600 GT and also features a noiseless cooling solution.

ATI Technologies currently administers the same strict policy of selling to its partners only ready-made top-end solutions, not allowing any experiments with the PCB design. You may recall that non-standard PCBs were permitted earlier – see our review of the masterpiece of a graphics card, the ASUS RADEON 9800 XT/TVD model. So there are no original solutions with ATI’s GPUs on the market, but the end-user at least may rest assured that his/her graphics card is the same quality and as reliable as any other.

Sapphire Technologies is the main partner of ATI in graphics card manufacture and it’s on Sapphire’s facilities that the bulk of ATI’s graphics cards are made, except for engineering samples. It is not a wonder then that the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL is an exact replica of the reference card. It is itself the reference card!

The Sapphire card differs from the engineering sample of the RADEON X1800 XL we described in an earlier review in one point only: the sticker on the cooler’s cap shows you the same alien as is depicted on the card’s package, rather than the red-haired sword-wielding Ruby.

Otherwise, this is the same RADEON X1800 XL with a compact, yet quite efficient cooling system based on two U-shaped heat pipes and a thin-ribbed copper heatsink. This single-slot cooler successfully copes with the cooling of an R520 chip clocked at 500MHz as well as of eight chips of GDDR3 memory clocked at 500 (1000) MHz. These are still Samsung K4J55323QG-BC14 chips in 136-pin packaging, so we can expect some hefty overclocking gain as this memory is rated to work at 700 (1400) MHz. We have little hope for good GPU overclocking as the RADEON X1800 XL uses R520 chips of an early revision that are not capable of working at frequencies above 550MHz. Anyway, we’ll check this out shortly. To end this section of the review we just want to add that the reviewed graphics card is equipped with a Rage Theater chip and, accordingly, can capture and digitize video from analog video sources.

Noise, Power Consumption, Overclocking, 2D Quality

Being a copy of the reference RADEON X1800 XL, the Sapphire card has absolutely the same acoustic characteristics. The cooler’s fan works at a reduced speed most of the time and is rather quiet at that, although audible on our open testbed. If the GPU temperature becomes too high, the intelligent fan-speed control system automatically increases its speed and noise, but this is unlikely to happen if your system case is well ventilated.

The power consumption of the RADEON X1800 XL was measured in our earlier reviews. It is 60W when a hard 3D application is running. We also measured the consumption of the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL in two 2D modes: 1) in office applications and 2) under a very high load created by the 2D Transparent Windows test from PCMark05. The power consumption turned to be 44W in the first test and 49.7W in the second test, which was still below 60W the card consumed in 3D mode. The numbers are normal, considering that the maximum consumption of the GeForce 7800 GT is about 55-56W.

Our apprehensions about low overclockability of the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL came true. We only managed to lift the GPU clock rate up to 560MHz and this seems to be the overclockability limit of all RADEON X1800 XL on the early revision of the R520 chip. The GPU frequency of the RADEON X1800 XT 512MB, 625MHz, is unlikely to be achieved on a RADEON X1800 XL. The memory failed our expectations, too. It was stable at 650 (1300), although is rated for 700 (1400) MHz. We probably could have done better by using a more advanced cooling system, but after all we didn’t want to carry out extreme overclocking tests on the card.

The 2D image quality provided by the Sapphire card was as usual high in all video modes up to the maximum of 1800x1440@75Hz that our Dell P1110 and P1130 monitors support. We noticed no fuzziness or shadowing or any other undesired visual artifacts.

Testbed and Methods

We installed the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL graphics card into our AMD64 testbed:

We set up the ATI and NVIDIA drivers in the following way:

ATI CATALYST 5.12

NVIDIA ForceWare 81.95:

We select the highest graphics quality settings in each game, identical for graphics cards from ATI and NVIDIA. If possible, we use the games’ integrated benchmarking tools (to record and reproduce a demo clip and then measure the reproduction speed in frames per second), and if not, we measure the frame rate with the FRAPS utility. We measure minimal as well as average fps rates to give you a fuller picture whenever possible.

We turn on 4x full-screen antialiasing and 16x anisotropic filtering in the “eye candy” test mode from the game’s own menu if possible. Otherwise we force the necessary mode from the driver. We don’t test the “eye candy” mode if the game engine doesn’t support FSAA.

Besides the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL, the following graphics cards took part in this test session:

These games and applications were used as benchmarks:

First-Person 3D Shooters

Third-Person 3D Shooters

Simulators

Strategies

Semi-synthetic benchmarks

Synthetic benchmarks

Performance in First-Person 3D Shooters

Battlefield 2

The new, 5.12 version of the Catalyst driver doesn’t change anything in the Battlefield 2 standings. The Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL is still much slower than the GeForce 7800 GT in the “pure speed” mode.

The Sapphire looks much better when full-screen antialiasing is on. Its highly efficient ring-bus memory controller helps it get closer to the GeForce 7800 GT in 1280x1024 and leave it behind in the higher resolution. Note also that the Sapphire gives you a comfortable 60fps even in 1600x1200 with enabled FSAA and anisotropic filtering in this game.

Overclocking adds some more speed, but not much enough to reach the level of the higher-category solutions, the GeForce 7800 GTX 512 and RADEON X1800 XT 512MB.

The Chronicles of Riddick

No miracles here even with Catalyst 5.12 – nothing has changed in the performance of the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL in OpenGL applications. The Chronicles of Riddick is such and also uses stencil shadows, so the GeForce 7800 GT allows playing it comfortably in all resolutions of the “pure speed” mode and in up to 1280x1024 at the “eye candy” settings. The Sapphire is limited to 1024x768 in the latter test mode, providing a frame rate of about 60fps.

Doom 3

The Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL gives you enough speed in this game, but the RADEON X1800 XL provided absolutely the same frame rate in our review of the GeForce 7800 GTX 512. The Sapphire card is much worse than the GeForce 7800 GT in the “pure speed” mode but is closer to it at the “eye candy” settings – the gap is no bigger than 10%.

Far Cry

It’s only in 1280x1024 resolution of the “eye candy” mode that we can see some difference between the participating graphics cards. The Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL turns in a brilliant result here, going abreast to the 24-pipelined GeForce 7800 GTX and leaving the immediate rival GeForce 7800 GT far behind.

The Sapphire card finds the Research map with its per-pixel lighting a more difficult trial. According to theoretical tests, the employed shaders are executed much faster on the GeForce 7800 GTX than on the RADEON X1800 XL. Moreover, even though the RADEON X1000 architecture is oriented at efficient execution of version 3.0 shader code, it shows its real best only on the most complex shaders or on shaders that use dynamic branching (such are missing in Far Cry ). These are the reasons for the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL to be slower than the GeForce 7800 GTX here (and even than the GeForce 7800 GT in the “pure speed” mode). But anyway, the Sapphire always ensures a playable frame rate in Far Cry , so you won’t have the excuse of a sudden slowdown for your poor aiming!

F.E.A.R.

Pixel shaders are just everywhere in F.E.A.R. , but they are not so complex as to reveal fully the potential of the RADEON X1000 architecture, at least not unless full-screen antialiasing is turned on. The Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL is slower than the GeForce 7800 GT in the “pure speed” mode, although the gap is actually negligible in 1600x1200. At the “eye candy” settings, however, the Sapphire beats the GeForce 7800 GTX in two out of three resolutions! Well, there is actually only one playable resolution, 1024x768, because the speed of the Sapphire card is below the empirically comfortable frame rate of 50-60fps in higher resolutions of the “eye candy” mode.

Half-Life 2

It’s hard to compare top-end graphics cards in Half-Life 2 as they all have the same “pure speed” of over 100fps. The “eye candy” diagram, however, shows that the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL is slower than the GeForce 7800 GT, even though its speed (86fps) will be sufficient for any gamer.

The Sapphire feels better on the action-heavy d3_c17_02 map. With 4x FSAA and 16x anisotropic filtering enabled, it is not much slower than the GeForce 7800 GT and easily yields 65fps and more for the admirers of Half-Life 2 not to worry about the speed of the game.

Project Snowblind

The Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL is lagging behind the GeForce 7800 GT throughout the test, the difference amounting to about 10%. The two cards are identical from the pragmatic point of view, though, as they both allow comfortable play in 1280x1024 with enabled 4x FSAA and 16x anisotropic filtering.

Quake 4

The GeForce 7800 GT and the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL match one another in the “pure speed” mode, delivering over 80fps even in 1600x1200. The RADEON X1800 XL used to be slower in this resolution before, so the positive effect of the new version of Catalyst is obvious. In the “eye candy” mode the Sapphire card is faster than its rival, making good use of its efficient memory subsystem. Its 74fps is an excellent result, considering that it is only 7fps short of the GeForce 7800 GTX’s.

Serious Sam 2

We can’t see any improvements over the previous Catalyst version. The performance of the RADEON X1000 series is still awfully low in this game, the RADEON X1800 XT 512MB model making an exception due to its high GPU and memory frequencies. Working at lower frequencies, the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL is not fast enough even for 1024x768 resolution and using FSAA is altogether out of the question.

Unreal Tournament 2004

The “pure speed” mode on the Torlan map doesn’t bring any useful info to the tester since all the graphics cards in this review have roughly the same speed here. The Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL lagging behind in the high resolutions of the “eye candy” mode is probably due to some specifics of the UT2004 benchmarking system because the overclocking has absolutely no effect.

More information can be obtained on the Metallurgy map and the cards on NVIDIA’s GPUs look preferable to ATI’s. It’s easy to explain: Unreal Tournament 2004 doesn’t use pixel shaders, but appreciates a high fill rate. Well anyway, those 90-100fps provided by the Sapphire is more than enough for any gamer.

Performance in Third-Person 3D Shooters

Prince of Persia: Warrior Within

There are no improvements over the older Catalyst and the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL is still slower than the GeForce 7800 GT which copes easily with the mass of relatively simple pixel shaders.

Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory

Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory belongs to the narrow category of games that actively employ everything offered by Shader Model 3.0 and the RADEON X1000 architecture can show its best here. Despite the fewer pixel pipelines, the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL isn’t any slower than the GeForce 7800 GT and surpasses it in the “eye candy” mode. The playability bar going lower for third-person shooters than for first-person ones, the Sapphire card allows comfortable play in 1024x768 resolution with FSAA and anisotropic filtering turned on. And we should note once again that the new Catalyst has brought no performance gain, like in most other games.

Performance in Simulators

Colin McRae Rally 2005

This racing simulator used to run faster on graphics cards designed by ATI Technologies, but since the RADEON X8 and GeForce 6 architectures were replaced with the RADEON X1000 and GeForce 7, the game’s favor shifted towards NVIDIA’s solutions because the RADEON X1000 series is oriented at executing very complex pixel shaders – to the detriment of everything else. But such shaders just do not occur here. Well anyway, the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL is a little faster than the GeForce 7800 GT in the “eye candy” mode – thanks to the new memory controller.

Pacific Fighters

Graphics processors from the RADEON X1000 series do not support vertex texturing, but flight sims from Maddox Games do use this feature. That’s why the Shader Model 3.0 rendering mode of Pacific Fighters does not work with RADEON X1000 cards. Yet even working in the game’s Shader Model 2.0 mode, the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL is by far slower than the GeForce 7800 GT. High fps rate is no less important for a flight sim than for a shooter with first-person view. It means that this game won’t be playable on the reviewed graphics card at high resolutions.

Performance in Strategies

Age of Empires 3

Despite its support of Shader Model 3.0 and its 8 vertex processors clocked at 500MHz, the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL is no competitor to the GeForce 7800 GT in this game. The gap is about 30-35% in all the test modes and only the lowest resolutions are playable.

Warhammer 40000: Dawn of War

With its highly detailed units Dawn of War puts a heavy load on the graphics card’s vertex processors. The game also makes use of dynamic stencil shadows which explains the high results of graphics cards with the GeForce 6 and 7 architectures. This time the Sapphire card finds itself on the losing side even where it is usually strong, i.e. when FSAA and anisotropic filtering are turned on. Well, we don’t mean the card doesn’t suit for this game – the speed is high in all the video modes, except for the hardest one.

Performance in Semi-Synthetic Benchmarks

Aquamark 3

A simple test, with just a pinch of version 2.0 pixel shaders, Aquamark 3 has never been a home turf for the RADEON X1000 architecture, yet the ability to effectively remove invisible surfaces and the 8 vertex processors help the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL pass this test with dignity. The GeForce 7800 GT is just a few fps ahead in the “pure speed” mode, and the gap vanishes altogether at the “eye candy” settings.

Final Fantasy XI Official Benchmark 3

The Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL can’t win this test because it is predisposed to graphics cards with the highest fill rate. The test might be also using fixed T&L functions which are not too well emulated by the RADEON X1000 architecture.

Performance in Synthetic Benchmarks

Futuremark 3DMark03

Although three of 3DMark03’s four game tests are favorable to GeForce 6/7 graphics cards, the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL scores only 639 points less than the GeForce 7800 GT. Well, this is probably because the overall scores are by default based on the results in 1026x768 resolution without full-screen antialiasing. By the way, we can note once again that the new version of the Catalyst driver brings no performance improvements. But let’s examine the results of each of the tests.

The first test doesn’t go beyond the fixed T&L functions and lacks pixel as well as vertex shaders. The RADEON X1000 architecture is not optimized to emulate fixed T&L, so it is quite natural that the Sapphire card lost this round. Note that the gap between the Sapphire and the GeForce 7800 GT is only growing up as the resolution becomes higher.

The reviewed card does better in the second test and even outperforms its main rival in the “eye candy” mode despite the scene’s employing stencil shadows. There are still no changes as against the older version of Catalyst.

The third test has a more complex geometry than the second one, yet the Sapphire is beaten by the GeForce 7800 GT in low resolutions. Otherwise, the picture is the same in the second test.

From 1280x1024 resolution onwards, the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL has nearly the same speed as the GeForce 7800 GT. It does have some advantage in 1024x768 and this result contributes to the good overall score of the card.

Futuremark 3DMark05

3DMark05 differs dramatically from the earlier version of Futuremark’s benchmarking suite as it uses sophisticated pixel shaders in each game test, along with some other advanced graphical technologies. The Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL being based on an appropriate architecture, it enjoys a considerably higher overall score than the GeForce 7800 GT has.

The Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL is a little ahead of the GeForce 7800 GT at first, but the gap between these two graphics cards diminishes to zero in higher resolutions. The load in this test scene comes mainly from the models of the soldiers and from the eight light sources. But maybe the Sapphire card can do better in the other tests?

The second test puts a heavy load on the vertex processors when generating the vegetation. The vertex processors count is in favor of the Sapphire card (8 against the GeForce 7800 GT’s 7) and the Sapphire’s are also clocked at a higher frequency (500 against 440MHz), That’s why the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL is confidently ahead of its rival in this test, the gap increasing even more in high resolutions.

In the third test, which stresses mercilessly the pixel processors of the card, the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL shows better results in low resolutions, but the GeForce 7800 GT catches up with it in higher ones.

Thus, the total scores of these two cards are only true for low resolutions. If the scores were based on the results in high resolutions or with enabled full-screen antialiasing, the GeForce 7800 GT wouldn’t be so far behind. And like in 3DMark03, we can’t see any performance growth from our using the new Catalyst.

Conclusion

The Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL is a well-made product overall and the option of choosing two games out of the four gaming hits included makes it the more appealing. The only complaint about the accessories we can think of is that there is no second DVI-I → D-Sub adapter. Otherwise, this is the same RADEON X1800 XL with all its highs and lows: with high performance in games with very complex pixel shaders, with a compact cooler, but with relatively high power consumption and low OpenGL performance. As for the new version of Catalyst, it has regrettably brought no performance boost, except in some rare cases like Quake 4.

The card is still slower than the GeForce 7800 GT in OpenGL games, excepting the same Quake 4, as well as in games where high fill rate or efficient execution of many simple shaders is necessary. In other words, no miracle has happened and the RADEON X1800 XL remains just as it was – representing ATI’s approach to building a new-generation GPU.

And still the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL may have something to show us in the future, mainly because the complexity of pixel shaders is going to increase and shaders with dynamic branching are going to become more widely employed, thus allowing this graphics card to show its best. The hardware decoding of H.264 video may also be an appealing option for some users.

So if you are not interested in flight simulators and in OpenGL-using games, but want a high-performance and future-proof graphics card, the Sapphire RADEON X1800 XL 256MB may be just what you need.

Highs:

Lows: