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Sapphire Radeon X1900 GT
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Date: Jul 27, 2006
Section:Graphics/Sound
Author: Robert Maloney
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Introduction

 

It can be tough for a company to decide how and where to market a video card in today's demanding retail environment. Price something too high and only a brave few might purchase the card; price it too low and it could be dismissed as a low-end or budget card by some consumers, regardless of its value proposition. These issues can typically determine where said card can be purchased. It's no coincidence that large resellers like Best Buy or Circuit City typically only carry merchandise under a certain price point, as this is where the bulk of sales are generated.

The flip side to this situation is maintaining the leadership in a two-way contest at the high-end. Every couple of months NVIDIA and ATI typically duke it out to create the fastest card possible. This results in the highest-end cards coming out first, which are then followed by the more mainstream variants. This is where we find the Sapphire Radeon X1900 GT, a card based on the powerful R580 core, but clocked down to bring the price to a more acceptable level. The X1900 GT also has 12 shader units and 4 ROPs disabled for a total of 36 and 12, respectively. And as we've just mentioned, its GPU core and memory frequencies are reduced to 575/600MHz (an XTX is rated at 650/775MHz and an XT at 625/725MHz).

    
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Sapphire Radeon X1900 GT
Features & Specifications
Features - ATI Radeon X1900
. 380+ million transistors on a 90nm fabrication process
. Ultra-threaded architecture with fast dynamic branching
. Forty-Eight 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


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 XilleonTM 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
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)


CrossFire
. 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




                       Sapphire Radeon X1900 GT:

                         ATi Radeon X1900 GT
                               Core Speed: 575MHz
                           Memory Speed: 600MHz
                                   256MB GDDR3   

Although the X1900 GT may be targeted at the mid-range market segment, the accompanying bundle was anything but average.  Whereas other manufacturers tend to shy away from adding a complete assortment of goodies as a cost-saving measure, Sapphire hasn't skimped on anything here, whether it's the included software, bundled games, or cables and other attachments.

    

Starting with the media, two titles come by the way of Cyberlink, PowerDVD 6 whichi is one of the better decoding software packages out there, and PowerDirector 4. The next CD provides buyers with a choice: pick any two of four available games from a list including: Tony Hawk's Underground 2, Richard Burns Rally, Prince of Persia - Warrior Within, or Brothers In Arms (Road to Hill 30).  This assortment covers just about all of the major genres, so there should be something for everyone.

There was also a collection of cables and adapters included with the Sapphire Radeon X1900 GT, exactly matching what we've seen included with the upscale XTX. This included a standard 6-ft S-Video cable, a composite video cable, and two DVI-to-VGA adapters along with a splitter for connecting the card to an HD-TV's components inputs, and another adapter equipped with S-Video and composite video inputs and outputs. Lastly, there was a molex-to-6-pin PCI Express power cable adapter thrown in as well, useful for older power supply units lacking such a connection.

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A closer look at Sapphire's X1900 GT

 

Sapphire's take on the Radeon X1900 GT should look somewhat familiar, as it is based on ATI's reference design.  Built on the ubiquitous red PCB that most ATi vendors are fond of using, the card is long and hefty, although not much more than expected.  This weight comes from the copper and aluminum heatsink installed on the card.  Although a tad heavy, the heatsink is otherwise slim and should not create and clearance problems when installing other cards, or if used in a Crossfire setup.

  

One of the most telling observations that prove there is little if any difference from the reference ATi model requires one only to look around the edges of the Sapphire decal affixed to the heatsink.  It might be a bit hard to tell in the close up shots below, but directly behind the metallic robot from Sapphire's artistic group is none other than Ruby herself.  To brand the card as their own, Sapphire simply installed a custom decal and bundled it with their own software.  There's hardly anything wrong with this approach, and should the X1900 GT prove to be a winner, we wouldn't be surprised to see a more customized version hit the market somewhere down the road. 

      

Situated within the heatsink assembly is a relatively small fan that we wouldn't consider loud by any means.  Even when overclocked or otherwise tasked, the fan never seemed to ramp up and whine loudly as we were expecting it to do.  Small fans by there very nature typically spin quickly and can give users an earful when rotating at higher RPM.  Thankfully, the one installed on the X1900 GT was never even noticeable over the typical noise generated by an air-cooled PC.

  

Along with the quiet operation of the fan, there also was a single strip of aluminum towards the back end used to help cool down some components in the VRM.  At either end of the card are the connections that have become the norm for today's graphic cards.  At one end we've got a 6-pin power connector necessary to give enough juice to keep the frames rolling by, and at the other end are two dual-link DVI ports as well as an video in/video out connector.

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Test System and 3DMark05 Scores

 

HOW WE CONFIGURED THE TEST SYSTEM: We tested the Sapphire Radeon X1900 GT on a MSI P4N Diamond motherboard, powered by an Intel Pentium 4 550 processor and 1GB of low-latency Corsair XMS2 DDR2 memory. The first thing we did when configuring this test system was enter the 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 nForce 4 chipset drivers, 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 then disabled, the hard drive was defragmented, and a 1536 MB permanent page file was created on the same partition as the Windows installation. Lastly, we set Windows' Visual Effects to "best performance," installed all of the benchmarking software, and ran the tests.

The HotHardware Test System
The Everyday man's system

Processor -

Motherboard -


Video Cards -




Memory -

Audio -

Hard Driv
e -

 

Hardware Used:
Intel Pentium 4 550 (3.4GHz)

MSI P4N Diamond
nForce4 SLI chipset

Sapphire Radeon X1900 GT
NVIDIA GeForce 7900GT
NVIDIA GeForce 7800GT
ATI Radeon X1800 XL

1024MB Corsair XMS2 DDR2

Integrated

Seagate Barracuda V

7,200RPM - SATA

Operating System -
Chipset Drivers -
DirectX -

Video Drivers
-




Synthetic (DX) -
Synthetic (DX) -

DirectX -
DirectX -

DirectX -
OpenGL -
Relevant Software:
Windows XP Professional SP2
nForce Drivers v7.13
DirectX 9.0c

NVIDIA Forceware v84.21

ATI Catalyst v6.6


Benchmarks Used:
3DMark05 v1.2.0
3DMark06 v1.0.2
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory v1.05
X3: Reunion DEMO
F.E.A.R. v1.0.5
Quake4 v1.2*

* - Custom Test (HH Exclusive demo)

Performance Comparisons with 3DMark05 v1.2.0
Details: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark05/

3DMark05
3DMark05 is the latest installment in a line of synthetic 3D graphics benchmarks from Futuremark Corp that date back to late 1998.  The benchmark itself isn't based on a playable game engine, but it does boast fairly impressive DX9-driven visuals and lighting effects.  It's also a versatile DirectX 9 benchmarking tool that we feel is relative in terms of presenting our readers a full performance profile for 3D graphics and host processors. It's not a metric that you can exclusively gauge real-world performance on but rather a complement to our entire suite of application-based testing.  We ran 3DMark05's default test (1,024 x 768) on all of the cards and configurations we tested.

Sapphire's X1900 GT scores an early impressive win in 3DMark05, besting the 7900 GT by a decent amount. The approximate 300 point difference between the two cards amounts to a 4% boost in performance for the X1900 GT. We noted, however, that the difference in core clock speed between the two cards (575MHz vs. 520MHz) is more on the lines of 10%, something to consider when we move on to the other benchmarks.

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3DMark06 Scores

 

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

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.

 

The tabled turned in favor of the 7900 GT using 3DMark06.  Here, the X1900 GT actually trails the 7900 GT by 399 points.

 

 

The Shader Model 2.0 and 3.0 scores, show a clear advantage for NVIDIA's camp, and the differences here account for the entire point spread in the overall score. The 7900GT easily handles the X1900 GT in these tests.

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Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory v1.05

   

Performance Comparisons with Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory v1.05
Details: http://www.splintercell3.com/us/

SC: Chaos Theory
Based on a heavily modified version of the Unreal Engine, enhanced with a slew of DX9 shaders, lighting and mapping effects, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is gorgeous with its very immersive, albeit dark, environment. The game engine has a shader model 3.0 code path that allows the GeForce 6 & 7 Series of cards and the X1000 family of cards to really shine, and a recent patch has implemented a shader model 2.0 path for ATI's X8x0 generation of graphics hardware. For these tests we enabled the SM 3.0 path on all of the cards we tested. However, High Dynamic Range rendering was disabled so that we could test the game with anti-aliasing enabled (a future patch should enable AA with HDR on the X1K family). We benchmarked the game at resolutions of 1280 x 1024 and 1600 x 1200, both with and without anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering.

   

 

Splinter Cell : Chaos Theory makes great use of Shader Model 3.0 based graphics, and out of all four cards only the GeForce 7900 GT comes out unscathed.  While the 7900 GT was getting as high as 95 frames per second in the default 1280x1024 test, the other three were all hovering in the 70's, with the X1900 GT at least making some progress over the X1800 XL.  Matters were made worse for the X1900 GT at the higher resolution, where Sapphire's card slipped not only behind the 7800 GT, but the older X1800 XL as well.

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X3 Rolling Demo

Performance Comparisons with X3: Reunion
Details:http://www.egosoft.com/games/x3/info_en.php

X3: Reunion
Many of today's popular benchmarks are based on First Person Shooters (FPS), so in an effort to mix things up a bit, we have some performance data recorded using Egosoft's X3: Reunion demo. The X3 game engine makes use of DirectX 9.0 class pixel shader and lighting effecting to produce the images in the game world. Egosoft recommends a 1.7GHz or higher speed CPU be used with the game, in conjunction with at least 512MB of RAM and a video card with at least a 128MB frame buffer. Gameplay is somewhat reminiscent of Origin's Privateer series, which is a welcome break from the myriad shooters on the market today.

   

In the X3: Reunion Demo, we again see that high clock speeds do not necessarily overcome architectural deficiencies: in this case, fewer of pixel pipelines. As such, the Sapphire Radeon X1900 GT fails to overtake any of the cards other than the 7800 GT, which is not only the slowest card in terms of core and memory speeds here, but is also handicapped by missing a vertex pipeline. Still, the variances in this benchmark are rarely more than a couple of frames per second.

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F.E.A.R. v1.0.5

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

F.E.A.R
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 v1.0.5, 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.

 

 

We've pointed out how well the GeForce cards do in F.E.A.R. in past reviews, and the news remains the same (or worse) for the mid-range Radeons here as well. While initial testing at 1280x960 and 1600x1200 showed a little promise for Sapphire as its card bested the X1800 XL and the 7800 GT at the higher resolution, its frame rates completely dropped off the map when AA and Aniso were enabled.

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Quake 4 v1.2

 

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 1280 x 1024 and 1600 x 1200 without anti-aliasing enabled and then again with 4X AA and 8X aniso enabled simultaneously.

 

 

Quake 4 results were similarly one-sided in NVIDIA's favor, closely mirroring what we have seen in many of the other games used for benchmarking.  The 7900 GT remains the mid-range card to beat as it posted the best frame rate in all four tests.  Sapphire's X1900 GT came in as a distant third, nearly 25% off of the pace at lower resolution testing, but then really gets hammered at 1600x1200, where it can't even keep up with the previous generation Radeon.

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Half Life 2: Lost Coast

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: Lost Coast using the built-in video card testing routine at 1280x1024 and 1600x1200, with and without 4xAA and 8X Aniso enabled. 

Half Life breathes a little wind into Sapphire's sails, as their card easily dominated the lower-res benchmarks regardless of whether or not we had anti-aliasing or anisotropic filtering enabled.  In both cases, the X1900 GT bested the 7900 GT by 6 frames per second, and the 7800 GT anywhere from 8-10 frames.  However, the X1900 GT faltered somewhat during the higher resolution testing.  There, the 7900 GT asserted its leadership of the mid-range cards, with the X1900 GT and 7800 GT running nearly neck-and-neck.

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Overclocking the Sapphire X1900GT

Since the X1900 GT is based on the same core as the XT and XTX models, we knew there would be plenty of headroom for overclocking, and we weren't overly disappointed. Our final overclocking results came out to be 635MHz for the core, and 665MHz for the memory. These increases were 60MHz and 70MHz, respectively, over their default speeds. For the GPU, at least, we're now placed firmly between the X1900 XT and XTX speeds, which is a welcome bonus.

Overclocking the Sapphire Radeon X1900 GT
(Fast 3D Video Card) + Overclocking = Even Faster Card

 

 

While the overclocked speeds sounded pretty decent, the returns were only modest.  The overall 3DMark06 score jumped up 178 points, about a 4 percent increase.  We also managed to gain an extra two frames per second while benchmarking F.E.A.R. at the most demanding settings - 1600x1200 with 4xAA and 8xAniso.  Both tests fell well shy of the greater than 10% overclock on the core that we had achieved, however.

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Benchmark Analysis & Conclusion

 

Performance Summary: Forgoing its early victory in 3DMark05 and relatively strong showing in HL2: Lost Coast, the Sapphire X1900 GT didn't fare too well in the rest of the benchmarks.  In fact, in some of our higher resolution tests the X1900 GT barely beat out the older X1800 XL and GeForce 7800 GT. With their price points being nearly equal as of today, we have to give the edge to NVIDIA's GeForce 7900 GT as our current mid-range graphics card of choice.

Upon first inspection, the Sapphire Radeon X1900 GT is intriguing considering it is based upon the excellent R580 core, albeit with lower clock speeds and fewer pixel shader processors and ROPs.  Then we opened the box and found what was a nice assortment of games, multimedia software, and cables that seemed to signify that this was more of a high-end product.

However, once we got down and dirty with the benchmarks, we weren't terribly impressed with the numbers, especially when compared to the competition.  In all but a handful of tests, the 7900 GT not only beat the X1900 GT, but beat it handily. The numbers were much more favorable when compared to the older 7800 GT, or the X1800 XL, but those aren't the cards the Sapphire Radeon X1900 GT will do battle with over the long run.  When evaluating a relatively new product like this, we want to see how it fares against the competition's latest as well, and the Radeon X1900 GT just doesn't compare favorably to the GeForce 7900 GT at their current price points. Of course, this situation is likely to change over time, but for now the 7900 GT is the better value.  With an average retail price of $289, the Sapphire Radeon X1900 GT is a bit overpriced and underpowered in comparison to the GeForce 7900 GT, even though Sapphire's offering is one of the least expensive X1900 GTs around. This is good video card that just happens to be a bit overpriced at this time.  We're giving the Sapphire Radeon X1900 GT a 7.5 on the Heat Meter.

  • Quiet Operation
  • Superb Bundle; let's you choose 2 full games
  • Good Overclocker
  • Takes a hit in next-gen games
  • Priced higher than the faster 7900 GT

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