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Date: Feb 20, 2006
Author: Marco Chiappetta
Introduction, Specs. & Bundle

Over the past few months, we've posted a multitude of graphics related articles here at HotHardware.com. Since September, we've covered no less than seven product launches from ATI, five from rival NVIDIA, and even S3 chimed in with one of their own. Some of these products were mid-range or entry-level offerings, but a couple of them redefined the high-end of each company's respective line-ups.

A great side effect of every new product launch at the high-end, is that the previous flagship products tend to get much less expensive. Take the Radeon X1800 XT, for example. A few short months ago, the Radeon X1800 XT represented the pinnacle of ATI's desktop graphics technology. But today, proceeding the Radeon X1900 launch, the X1800 XT is no longer ATI's flagship GPU and as a result prices have dropped considerably.

The MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E we'll be showcasing here seems to be blazing the trail of lower-priced Radeon X1800XT cards. As of this writing, prices on this card have dropped to below $400. Competing products in the same family have yet to have their prices fall this low, but you can bet those days are coming, as long as supplies last. For now though, lets dive right in and see what MSI is offering with the lowest priced Radeon X1800 XT on the market today.


Features & Specifications
Features - ATI Radeon X1800
• 321 million transistors on a 90nm fabrication process
• Ultra-threaded architecture with fast dynamic branching
• Sixteen pixel shader processors
• Eight vertex shader processors
• 256-bit 8-channel GDDR3/GDDR4 memory interface
• Native PCI Express x16 bus interface
• Dynamic Voltage Control

Ring Bus Memory Controller
• 512-bit internal ring bus for memory reads
• Programmable intelligent arbitration logic
• Fully associative texture, color, and Z/stencil cache designs
• Hierarchical Z-buffer with Early Z test
• Lossless Z Compression (up to 48:1)
• Fast Z-Buffer Clear
• Z/stencil cache optimized for real-time shadow rendering
• Optimized for performance at high display resolutions, including widescreen HDTV resolutions

Ultra-Threaded Shader Engine
• Support for Microsoft DirectX 9.0 Shader Model 3.0 programmable vertex and pixel shaders in hardware
• Full speed 128-bit floating point processing for all shader operations
• Up to 512 simultaneous pixel threads
• Dedicated branch execution units for high performance dynamic branching and flow control
• Dedicated texture address units for improved efficiency
• 3Dc+ texture compression
_o High quality 4:1 compression for normal maps and two-channel data formats
_o High quality 2:1 compression for luminance maps and single-channel data formats
• Multiple Render Target (MRT) support
• Render to vertex buffer support
• Complete feature set also supported in OpenGL 2.0

Advanced Image Quality Features
• 64-bit floating point HDR rendering supported throughout the pipeline
_o Includes support for blending and multi-sample anti-aliasing
• 32-bit integer HDR (10:10:10:2) format supported throughout the pipeline
_o Includes support for blending and multi-sample anti-aliasing
• 2x/4x/6x Anti-Aliasing modes
_o Multi-sample algorithm with gamma correction, programmable sparse sample patterns, and centroid sampling
_o New Adaptive Anti-Aliasing feature with Performance and Quality modes
_o Temporal Anti-Aliasing mode
_o Lossless Color Compression (up to 6:1) at all resolutions, including widescreen HDTV resolutions
• 2x/4x/8x/16x Anisotropic Filtering modes
_o Up to 128-tap texture filtering
_o Adaptive algorithm with Performance and Quality options
• High resolution texture support (up to 4k x 4k)
• Multi-GPU technology
• Four modes of operation:
_o Alternate Frame Rendering (maximum performance)
_o Supertiling (optimal load-balancing)
_o Scissor (compatibility)
_o Super AA 8x/10x/12x/14x (maximum image quality)
_o Program compliant

Avivo Video and Display Engine
• High performance programmable video processor
_o Accelerated MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX, WMV9, VC-1, and H.264 decoding (including DVD/HD-DVD/Blu-ray playback), encoding & transcoding
_o DXVA support
_o De-blocking and noise reduction filtering
_o Motion compensation, IDCT, DCT and color space conversion
_o Vector adaptive per-pixel de-interlacing
_o 3:2 pulldown (frame rate conversion)
• Seamless integration of pixel shaders with video in real time
• HDR tone mapping acceleration
_o Maps any input format to 10 bit per channel output
• Flexible display support
_o Dual integrated dual-link DVI transmitters
_o DVI 1.0 / HDMI compliant and HDCP ready
_o Dual integrated 10 bit per channel 400 MHz DACs
_o 16 bit per channel floating point HDR and 10 bit per channel DVI output
_o Programmable piecewise linear gamma correction, color correction, and color space conversion (10 bits per color)
_o Complete, independent color controls and video overlays for each display
_o High quality pre- and post-scaling engines, with underscan support for all outputs
_o Content-adaptive de-flicker filtering for interlaced displays
_o Xilleon™ TV encoder for high quality analog output
_o YPrPb component output for direct drive of HDTV displays
_o Spatial/temporal dithering enables 10-bit color quality on 8-bit and 6-bit displays
_o Fast, glitch-free mode switching
_o VGA mode support on all outputs
• Compatible with ATI TV/Video encoder products, including Theater 550


MSI's RX1800XT-VT2D512E Accessory Bundle

MSI includes a decent accessory bundle with their RX1800XT-VT2D512E. Along with the card itself, we found a User's Guide, a Quick Installation Guide, a driver CD, DVD playback software, and one full-version game, namely Colin McRae Rally 2005. Decent game, but not quite the boutique title to show of this card's power and capabilities. On the hardware front MSI throws in an S-Video Cable, a standard composite cable, a VIVO adapter cable, an HD component output adapter, a Molex-to-6-pin PCI Express 12V power cable, and two DVI to analog output converters. Overall, MSI's bundle is relatively complete, but not quite on the level of what Sapphire or Asus have been offering as of late.

A Look at MSI's RX1800XT-VT2D512E

The MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E strictly adheres to ATI's reference design, so MSI's and ATI's cards look virtually identical. Other than a few cosmetic touches, when laid side-by-side it'd be nearly impossible to tell the MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E apart from a 'Built-by-ATI' Radeon X1800 XT card. The decals affixed to the shroud on the card's heatsink are the only indicators that differentiate the two products.

Inspecting MSI's RX1800XT-VT2D512E
Look's Familiar, Don't It?


As we've just mentioned, the card pictured here is based on ATI's 512MB Radeon X1800 XT reference design. At its heart is a GPU comprised of approximately 321 million transistors that is built using TSMC's .09 micron manufacturing process. The Radeon X1800 XT is equipped with 16-pixel shader processors, 8-vertex shader processors, and a 256-bit 8-channel GDDR3/GDDR4 memory interface. It has a pair of dual-link DVI outputs that can power two independent displays simultaneously, with VIVO connector in between. The card's core is clocked at 625MHz and its 512MB of GDDR3 memory is running at 1.5GHz. To sustain these high clock speeds, the card sports a dual-slot cooler that is very similar to the one found on the older Radeon X850 XT.


The cooler on the MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E is designed to draw air in, over the copper-finned heatsink that's mounted atop the GPU and memory, and expel it from the case. We should note that the fan used in the cooler is throttled according to the GPU's temperature and can get somewhat loud. When it's initially powered up, the card's fan spins at its maximum speed, at which point it is quite noisy. It was easily the loudest part in our test system by far when the fan was spinning at its maximum speed. However, after a few seconds the fan spins down and is barely audible. With our test system at idle, we could barely hear the fan on the MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E. We'd also like to note that through hours of gaming and benchmarking, and through an extended overclocking session, the fan never had to spin up to its maximum speed again, and it remained relatively silent. The potential is there for some noise if GPU and system temperatures get too high, but in a well-ventilated case, we doubt the fan on the MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E will need to spin up considerably. The advantage of a design such as this is that much of the heat generated by the GPU is expelled from the system, which should help to keep case temperatures in check. However, the main disadvantage is that a dual-slot cooling solution blocks the use of a slot, and it may not fit in most small form factor systems.


For the most part, the MSI card's PCB is identical to ATI's, except for an additional component in the VRM. If you take a look at this picture of an ATI built Radeon X1800XT, you'll see there are five Pulse branded inductors in the VRM. On the MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E, though, there are six. This means that there is a smaller load placed on each of these inductors during normal operation, which in turn results in less heat output, and potentially a longer life. This change to the X1800XT's VRM seems to have taken place sometime between the initial X1K family launch and the introduction of the X1900, as ATI's X1800 CrossFire Master Card and newer X1800s also have six inductors.

Our Test System & 3DMark06

HOW WE CONFIGURED THE TEST SYSTEMS: We tested our NVIDIA cards on an Asus A8N32-SLI nForce 4 SLIX16 chipset based motherboard. However, the ATI cards were tested on an ECS KA1 MVP Extreme motherboard based on the Radeon Xpress 200 chipset. Both systems used the same AMD Athlon 64 FX-55 processor and 1GB of low-latency Corsair XMS RAM, though. The first thing we did when configuring these test systems was enter each BIOS and loaded the "High Performance Defaults."  The hard drive was then formatted, and Windows XP Professional with SP2 was installed. When the installation was complete, we installed the latest chipset drivers available, installed all of the other necessary drivers for the rest of our components, and removed Windows Messenger from the system. Auto-Updating and System Restore were also disabled, the hard drive was defragmented, and a 768MB permanent page file was created on the same partition as the Windows installation. Lastly, we set Windows XP's Visual Effects to "best performance," installed all of the benchmarking software, and ran the tests.

The HotHardware Test Systems
AMD Athlon 64 FX Powered

Processor -

Motherboard -

Video Cards -

Memory -

Audio -

Hard Driv
e -


Hardware Used:
AMD Athlon 64 FX-55 (2.6GHz)

Asus A8N32-SLI
nForce4 SLIX16 chipset

ATI Radeon Xpress 200 CF Edition


Radeon X1900 XTX
Radeon X1800 XT
GeForce 7800 GTX
512MB GeForce 7800 GTX

1024MB Corsair XMS PC3200 RAM

Integrated on board

Western Digital "Raptor"

36GB - 10,000RPM - SATA

Operating System -
Chipset Drivers -
DirectX -

Video Drivers

Synthetic (DX) -
DirectX -

DirectX -
DirectX -
OpenGL -
Relevant Software:
Windows XP Professional SP2
nForce Drivers v6.82
DirectX 9.0c

NVIDIA Forceware v81.98

ATI Catalyst v6.1

Benchmarks Used:
3DMark06 v1.0.2
FarCry v1.33*
Half Life 2*
Quake 4*

* - Custom Test (HH Exclusive demo)

Performance Comparisons with 3DMark06 v1.0.2
Details: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark06/

Futuremark recently launched a brand-new version of their popular benchmark, 3DMark06. The new version of the benchmark is updated in a number of ways, and now includes not only Shader Model 2.0 tests, but Shader Model 3.0 and HDR tests as well. Some of the assets from 3DMark05 have been re-used, but the scenes are now rendered with much more geometric detail and the shader complexity is vastly increased as well. Max shader length in 3DMark05 was 96 instructions, while 3DMark06 ups the number of instructions to 512. 3DMark06 also employs much more lighting, and there is extensive use of soft shadows. With 3DMark06, Futuremark has also updated how the final score is tabulated. In this latest version of the benchmark, SM 2.0 and HDR / SM3.0 tests are weighted and the CPU score is factored into the final tally as well.

MSI's RX1800XT-VT2D512E performed much like a 'Built-by-ATI' Radeon X1800XT in 3DMark06's default tests. Its overall score fell in just behind the 256MB GeForce 7800 GTX because of the GeForce card's strong performance in the Shader Model 2.0 tests, but in the more taxing Shader Model 3.0 / HDR tests, the MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E was much faster than a 256MB GTX. The 512MB GTX and X1900, though, were clearly superior.

FarCry v1.33

Performance Comparisons with FarCry v1.33
Details: http://www.farcry.ubi.com/

If you've been on top of the gaming scene for some time, you probably know that FarCry was one of the most visually impressive games to be released on the PC last year. Courtesy of its proprietary engine, dubbed "CryEngine" by its developers, FarCry's game-play is enhanced by Polybump mapping, advanced environment physics, destructible terrain, dynamic lighting, motion-captured animation, and surround sound. Before titles such as Half-Life 2 and Doom 3 hit the scene, FarCry gave us a taste of what was to come in next-generation 3D gaming on the PC. We benchmarked the graphics cards in this article with a custom-recorded demo run taken in the "Catacombs" area checkpoint, at various resolutions without anti-aliasing or anisotropic filtering enabled, and then again with 4X AA and 16X aniso enabled concurrently.

The RX1800XT-VT2D512E's performance in our custom FarCry benchmark was very good. The card was slightly faster than an ATI-built Radeon X1800 XT, and it clearly outpaced the 256MB GeForce 7800 GTX. The 512MB GeForce 7800 GTX was faster at the lower resolution, but once anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering were enabled at 1600x1200, the RX1800XT-VT2D512E pulled right up alongside it. The Radeon X1900 XTX led throughout.

Half Life 2

Performance Comparisons with Half-Life 2
Details: http://www.half-life2.com/

Half Life 2
Thanks to the dedication of hardcore PC gamers and a huge mod-community, the original Half-Life became one of the most successful first person shooters of all time.  So, when Valve announced Half-Life 2 was close to completion in mid-2003, gamers the world over sat in eager anticipation. Unfortunately, thanks to a compromised internal network, the theft of a portion of the game's source code, and a tumultuous relationship with the game's distributor, Vivendi Universal, we all had to wait until November '04 to get our hands on this classic. We benchmarked Half-Life 2 with a long, custom-recorded timedemo in the "Canals" map, that takes us through both outdoor and indoor environments. These tests were run at resolutions of 1,280 x 1,024 and 1,600 x 1,200 without any anti-aliasing or anisotropic filtering and with 4X anti-aliasing and 16X anisotropic filtering enabled concurrently.

There is not too much to say here. All of the cards we tested here performed very well at roughly 120 frames per second, regardless of the test parameters. Even though it was powered by the second fastest single-core CPU available, our test system was CPU bound when running Half Life 2 with all but the 256MB GeForce 7800 GTX, which fell just behind all of the other cards. Any mid to high-end graphics card available today is able to run this game at high resolutions with all of the eye candy turned up, so lets just call this one a virtual tie and move on.

F.E.A.R. v1.02

Performance Comparisons with F.E.A.R
More Info: http://www.whatisfear.com/us/

One of the most highly anticipated titles of 2005 was Monolith's paranormal thriller F.E.A.R. Taking a look at the minimum system requirements, we see that you will need at least a 1.7GHz Pentium 4 with 512MB of system memory and a 64MB graphics card, that is a Radeon 9000 or GeForce4 Ti-class or better, to adequately run the game. Using the full retail release of the game patched to v1.02, we put the graphics cards in this review through their paces to see how they fared with a popular title. Here, all graphics settings within the game were set to the maximum values, but with soft shadows disabled (Soft shadows and anti-aliasing do not work together currently). Benchmark runs were then completed at resolutions of 1280x960 and 1600x1200, with and without anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering enabled.

The MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E's performance in F.E.A.R. is all over the map. It basically matched an ATI built Radeon X1800 XT frame for frame, and lost out to the 256MB GeForce 7800 GTX in all but one test configuration. As expected the Radeon X1900 XTX was faster all-around, but the 512MB GeForce 7800 GTX could only fend off the RX1800XT-VT2D512 when no additional pixel processing was used. With AA and Ansio enabled, the RX1800XT-VT2D512 was able to nudge past NVIDIA's best.

Quake 4 v1.0.5.2

Performance Comparisons with Quake 4
Details: http://www.quake4game.com/

Quake 4
id Software, in conjunction with developer Raven, recently released the latest addition to the wildly popular Quake franchise, Quake 4. Quake 4 is based upon an updated and slightly modified version of the Doom 3 engine, and as such performance characteristics between the two titles are very similar.  Like Doom 3, Quake 4 is also an OpenGL game that uses extremely high-detailed textures and a ton of dynamic lighting and shadows, but unlike Doom3, Quake 4 features some outdoor environments as well. We ran this these Quake 4 benchmarks using a custom demo with the game set to its "High-Quality" mode, at resolutions of 1,280 x 1,024 and 1,600 x 1,200 without anti-aliasing enabled and then again with 4X AA and 8X aniso enabled simultaneously.

NVIDIA's 512MB GeForce 7800 GTX was the top dog in our custom Quake 4 benchmark, but the competition is much closer now than it has traditionally been in the past. The Radeon X1900 XTX is the fastest of the ATI powered cards, with the MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E and ATI built Radeon X1800 XT finishing just behind it. The RX1800XT-VT2D512E is able to squeeze past the 256MB GeForce 7800 GTX though, when anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering are used.

Overclocking MSI's X1800XT

Overclocking MSI's Radeon X1800XT
(Fast 3D Video Card) + Overclocking = Even Faster Card

For our next set of performance metrics, we spent a little time overclocking the MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E to see what kind of clock speed headroom it had left in the tank. Prior to the conclusion of our benchmarking, we overclocked the MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E using the clock frequency slider available within ATI's Catalyst drivers, on the "Overdrive" tab. We've seen some Radeon X1800 XT cards clocked much higher than ATI's reference specifications, and because the MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E has the updated VRM, we were expecting some good results.

MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E "Stock" = 625MHz Core / 750MHz Memory
"Overclocked" = 696MHz Core / 794MHz Memory


MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E "Stock" = 625MHz Core / 750MHz Memory
"Overclocked" = 696MHz Core / 794MHz Memory

When all was said and done, we were able to take our MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E up from its default clock speeds of 625MHz (core) and 1.5GHz (memory) to 696MHz / 1.588GHz, increases of 71MHz and 44MHz (88MHz DDR), respectively. Not too bad.

While we had the card overclocked, we re-ran the default 3DMark06 and hi-res F.E.A.R. benchmarks to see what kind performance we gained by jacking up the card's clock speeds. Performance in 3DMark06 jumped by a couple of hundred points, and the card's framerate in the F.E.A.R. benchmark went from 39 FPS to 42 FPS, an increase of 3 frames per second, or 7.7%.

Our Summary & Conclusion

Performance Summary: The MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E was a relatively strong performer. Due to the fact that its stock clock speeds are identical to ATI's reference cards, the MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E performed exactly like an ATI built Radeon X1800 XT. Generally speaking, the RX1800XT-VT2D512E was faster than a 256MB GeForce 7800 GTX, especially when anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering were used, but the Radeon X1900 XTX and 512MB GeForce 7800 GTX were faster overall. The X1900 XTX outpaced the MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E across the board, as did the 512MB GeForce 7800 GTX in all but a handful of tests.

There is a lot to like about the MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E. For all intents and purposes, this card is identical to an ATI built Radeon X1800 XT. They share the same PCB, specifications, features, and cooler. If we strictly focus on the hardware, the only thing that differentiates the MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E from an ATI built card are the decals on the fan shroud. But MSI's offering is somewhat "different" than ATI's in a couple of other key areas. For one, MSI ships their card with a more gamer friendly bundle that includes a complete game and DVD playback software, although the game isn't exactly a marquis title. And, perhaps most importantly, MSI's RX1800XT-VT2D512E is currently selling for far less than an ATI Radeon X1800 XT, or any other X1800 XT for that matter. As of today, you can purchase the MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E for $399 at a couple of our preferred on-line retailers (ZipZoomFly, NewEgg). That makes the MSI RX1800XT-VT2D512E about $50 to $100 less expensive than most 256MB GeForce 7800 GTXs and Radeon X1800 XTs, and approximately $200 to $350 less expensive than most Radeon X1900 XTXs and 512MB GeForce 7800 GTXs. Considering the very complete feature set offered by the Radeon X1800 XT GPU, the card's strong performance, and its very competitive price point, we've got to give MSI some praise here. We're giving the RX1800XT-VT2D512E a strong 8.5 on the Heat Meter, and hope MSI starts a trend with this card's aggressive price point.

_Great Price (Relatively Speaking)
_OK Bundle
_Decent Overclocker
_In Stock at Multiple Resellers
_OpenGL Performance Should be better
_Two-Slot Cooler

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