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Between midrange and high-end graphics cards lies a barren wasteland where products known as “tweeners” go to die. Historically, there have been two main price-points for 3D cards: $200 and whatever else the market would bear for the top-end, bragging-rights-be-mine “glory SKU.”

Squeezed from both sides, products in the $250–400 price-range rarely, if ever, have fared well in the market. This time around, with top-end cards approaching $650, these relatively lower price points start to look attractive for those initially seeking bragging-rights until sticker-shock sets in. This trend is part of what nVidia CEO Jen Hsun Huang calls “using the whole cow.” This means creating more “yield buckets” on the fab lines to ship more GPUs at their highest possible performance settings. Previously, if a GPU could stably clock up to 390MHz with a high-end part spec’ed to be 400MHz, and the next part down was 370MHz, there was 20MHz worth of engine clock that went unused. To the guy who does the bean counting, that’s money left on the table.

Another side-effect of the very high prices of current generation high-end 3D cards is that GPUs like nVidia’s GeForce 6800 GT have garnered considerable interest, and today, ATI brings its competitive answer, the Radeon X800 XL. We put the X800 XL up against its big brothers to see how it would fare, and we came away pretty impressed. How impressed? Click next to find out.

Here are the vital statistics for ATI’s X800 lineup of GPUs:

X850 XT PE X800 XT PE X850 XT X800 XT X800 XL X800 Pro (12p) X800 (12p)
Price: $549 $549 $499 $499 $299 $399 $199
Engine Clock: 540 520 520 500 400 475 392
Memory Clock: 590 580 540 500 490 450 350
Baseline Baseline
Price Scaling: 1.84 1.84 1.67 1.67 1.00 2.01 1.00
Engine Scaling: 1.35 1.30 1.30 1.25 1.00 1.21 1.00
Memory Scaling: 1.20 1.18 1.10 1.02 1.00 1.29 1.00
Dollars/Engine MHz: $1.02 $1.06 $0.96 $1.00 $0.75 $0.84 $0.51
Dollars/Memory MHz: $0.93 $0.95 $0.92 $1.00 $0.61 $0.89 $0.57
AGP Version? No Yes No Yes No Yes No

It’s pretty astounding (and confusing) that ATI now has seven different X800 models on—or nearly on—the market. Granted, the X850 XT and X850 XT PE will be replacing their respective X800 counterparts, and not all these GPUs are going to be sitting next to one another on store shelves, but there are still a lot of choices to sift through. The Platinum Edition X800 cards were initially very scarce, though several online retailers now have them in stock, with prices running as high as $700.

As you scan “up the food-chain,” it’s pretty clear that clock rates (memory in particular) don’t scale especially well versus price. On the memory clock side of things, ATI is already approaching the current clock ceiling on graphics memory with the X800 XL, which explains the minimal scaling as we move up the price curve. Looking at the dollars spent per MHz, the X800 XL clearly delivers the most for the least among ATI’s 16-pipe GPU offerings.

One unfortunate aspect of this array of GPUs is that only three of them have an AGP version available, and the X800 XL currently isn’t one of them. ATI wouldn’t state when an AGP version would be forthcoming, but given the large installed base of AGP systems in the market, we believe that the AGP-based X800 XL will follow its PCIe sibling by a month or two, meaning we may not see it on retail shelves until March of next year. Fortunately, the X800 XL does not require an additional power connector in its current PCIe form, though we suspect one might be required on an AGP version. AGP slots don’t provide as much power to the video card.

The main purpose of this article was to verify that the performance of the Radeon 800 XL matches expectations, so we ran a subset of our 3D GameGauge test suite, focusing on the four most demanding games: Doom 3, Half-Life 2, Far Cry, and Unreal Tournament 2004 (UT2004).

We also tested with Futuremark’s 3DMark05 and Massive’s AquaMark3 as additional data points.

For this round, we tested only at a resolution of 1280×1024 with no AA and no AF. Then we tested at that same resolution with both 2X AA and 4X AF enabled. Finally, we tested at our “can o’ whup’ass” resolution of 1600×1200 with 4X AA and 8X AF.

Our test system was as follows:

CPU: 3.4GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition
Motherboard: Intel 925CXV
Memory: 2GB 533MHz DDR2 RAM
Audio: Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS
Hard drive: Maxtor 1250GB S-ATA hard drive
Optical drive: Plextor PX-504UF
Operating system: Windows XP Pro w/SP2 (DirectX9.0c)

We used the latest drivers for all cards. For ATI, this meant a beta of Catalyst 4.12, the final version of which has just been released, but was not quite available when we began testing. For nVidia, we used the 67.02 ForceWare drivers. We always used the in-game settings for anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering, where available.


We kick things off with 3DMark05, where we see scaling along clock lines that you’d normally expect. Interestingly, the performance difference between the X800 XL and the top-end X850 XT remains exactly the same across the three test resolutions, with the X850 XT coming in 27% faster.

AquaMark 3 Frame Rate

No real surprises here either, and the performance gap between the X800 XL and the top-dog widens as we dial up the resolution and AA/AF settings, which we would expect given the clock deltas. ATI’s current-generation GPUs generally fare better on this test, particularly at higher resolutions. The X800 XL is even giving the GeForce 6800 Ultra a good run for its money. nVidia is ahead at the first two resolutions, but by the time we reach the top resolution, the X800 XL has actually taken a decent-sized lead.

AquaMark 3 Triangle Rate

As with the previous test, we see the X800 XL hounding the GeForce 6800 Ultra, and actually overtaking it at the highest test resolution.

Doom 3 Performance

We expected nVidia to win this leg of the race, and the GeForce 6800 Ultra does. But the X800 XL does maintain playable frame rates at two of the three test resolutions, which for a $300 card is a pretty impressive feat. And, the X800 XL is just a step or two behind its next biggest sibling, the X800 XT.

Half-Life 2 Performance

Here we encountered performance that, if true, would be awesome, but we suspect that there’s some odd app/driver interaction that’s inflating the X800 XL’s scores on Half-Life 2. We don’t really suspect foul-play of any kind, and this is the only test where we saw this behavior.

We would expect scores to be at least 5 to 10fps slower than what we’re seeing here, and at posting time, we were still looking into potential root causes. Still, what we see here is encouraging, since even if we subtract 10fps from all of the X800 XL’s scores, this GPU is still faring pretty well here.

Far Cry Performance

Here we see similarly shaped relative performance scaling across all four GPUs tested. What’s impressive is that all four maintain at least respectable frame rates, even when running with our ‘world o’ hurt’ render state settings. Both ATI and nVidia have made considerable progress optimizing performance on this game.

Unreal Tournament 2004 Performance

Unreal Tournament 2004 is CPU-bound at all but the highest test settings, and even there, the frame rates are kind of academic. All four cards tested are still running at nearly 60fps, even at the highest test setting, so if UT2004 is your game of choice, you’ll be in very good shape with any of these.

For many folks, $500 to $600 is just too steep an investment for today’s top-end 3D cards. $300 may not be chump-change either, but it will certainly be less painful on the wallet.

With an MSRP of $299, the X800 XL fits very nicely into ATI’s lineup of X800 GPUs, and delivers solid performance for its target price point. Availability is another matter, and we’ll have to wait and see how readily purchasable these are in the coming weeks. According to ATI, cards will be available in early January, so this one won’t make it under the tree this year. It’s unfortunate that ATI isn’t announcing an AGP-based version of this card now to address the huge installed base of AGP systems, but given the size of that market, we imagine ATI will have an AGP version that follows a month or two after the PCIe card.

Product: ATI Radeon X800 XL
Company: ATI (
Price: $299
Pros: Terrific performance at the $300 price-point; doesn’t need a Molex power connector.
Cons: No AGP version available yet.
Summary: A very solid $300 3D card that will deliver a good chunk of the performance you’d see from an X850 XT for about half the money.