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HIS Radeon X1950 Pro IceQ3 Turbo
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Date: Dec 21, 2006
Section:Graphics/Sound
Author: Robert Maloney
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Introduction

 

ATI made quite a splash a few weeks ago, with the introduction of the Radeon X1950 Pro. The RV570 GPU at the heart of the X1950 card is manufactured on TSMC's 80nm node. It's equipped with 36 pixel shader processors, 8 vertex shader units and 12 texture units. ATI's reference design calls for a 575MHz GPU clock and with 1.38GHz memory, but the card we'll be featuring here today is clocked quite a bit higher than this. The most interesting feature of the Radeon X1950 Pro, however, is Native CrossFire support. ATI has done away with the "Master" and "Slave" cards, and has incorporated the discreet compositing engine previously found on their CrossFire Master cards right into the GPU die. The result is that the clunky, external dongle is a thing of the past.

Today, we will be looking at HIS' take on ATI's mid-range beast, the Radeon X1950 Pro IceQ3 Turbo.  This card comes with higher core and memory speeds than the original specs call for, and sports a large heatsink/fan designed by Arctic Cooling.  With their version of the X1950 Pro, HIS is hoping to make some noise in the $200-$300 video market.  Let's see if they succeeded.

      

HIS Radeon X1950 Pro
Features & Specifications
Features
- 80nm fabrication process
- 36 pixel shader processors
- 8 vertex shader processors
- Up to 256-bit 8-channel memory interface
- Native PCI Express x16 bus interface

Ring Bus Memory Controller
- Internal ring bus for memory reads
- 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
- 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
- High quality 2:1 compression for luminance maps and single-channel data formats
- 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)
Avivo Video and Display Platform
- High performance programmable video processor
o Accelerated MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX, WMV9, VC-1, and H.264 decoding and
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 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
o Drive two displays simultaneously with independent resolutions and refresh rates
- Compatible with ATI TV/Video encoder products, including Theater 550

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)
 

 

 


     

Atypical of most of the packaging we've seen lately, the HIS X1950 Pro IceQ3 Turbo ships in a relatively smaller sized box, black, and adorned with not much more than a large IceQ3 logo. A secondary sticker was applied in the upper right denoting this model is the Turbo Edition of the X1950 Pro, which comes pre-overclocked, rather than using a software-based utility.

Inside the box, HIS has included a mix of media and cables to cover most of the user's needs. To properly utilize some of the HD capabilities of the X1950 Pro, we found an S-video cable, an HDTV-out cable, a VIVO cable, and two VGA-to-DVI adapters. Additionally, what appears to be an SLI connector actually is an internal ribbon connector, used for CrossFire, but more on that later. In addition to these cables, HIS has packaged a user manual with driver CD, a HIS "goodies" disc with wallpaper and assorted other information, a copy of CyberLink's PowerDVD 7 along with PowerDirector 5 SE Plus and Medi@Show 3, and finally complete copies of a racing game called FlatOut as well as an RPG; the original Dungeon Siege.

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The HIS Radeon X1950 Pro IceQ3 Turbo

 

HIS Radeon X1950 Pro IceQ3 Turbo
Long on name and on style

   

The HIS X1950 Pro IceQ3 Turbo's name has a lot of meaning, so we will need to break it down piece by piece. First, the obvious: the card utilizes the X1950 Pro for its GPU, which is based on the RV570 chipset. The RV570, in turn, is derived from a modified version of the R580 used in other X19x0 cards, including the X1900 GT. This new chip is based on an 80mm process, but has 12 fewer pixel shader units than its predecessor, dropping them from 48 to 36. Vertex Shaders thankfully are not touched, and the clock speeds are typically equivalent between the two. HIS has further pushed the envelope with the Turbo Edition of the X1950 Pro, which increases the core frequency from 575MHz to 635MHz (the sticker on the box actually says 620MHz), and also raises the memory from 1380MHz to 1480MHz (effective).

      

To support these higher speeds, the X1950 Pro IceQ3 Turbo comes with an oversized heatsink/fan requiring the use of two slots, replacing the slim look of the reference design from ATI. The innovative design of the IceQ3 cooling system draws in air from the inside of the chassis and then exhausts it outside, cooling not only the GPU and RAM, but lowering internal temperatures within the case as well. The fan itself actually resides slightly off the edge of the card, pulling in air from both sides. This should help some when using the cards in a Crossfire setup, where two of the cards would be placed in close proximity to each other.

      

Heatsinks are isolated from each other, meaning there is no crossover heat transfer from one component to another. Heatpipes rapidly wick heat away from the GPU and memory towards the fan, which then gets dissipated by the airflow through the channels. It's difficult at this point to say whether or not such measures are really needed with the X1950 Pro. While the clock speeds on this card are relatively high, the smaller die fabrication process should result in lower temperatures overall. We also would like to point out that the 7900 GS we will be using for comparison is also running at some high speeds, yet uses a much smaller heatsink and fan combination which doesn't even make contact with the memory.

   

Also included on the HIS X1950 Pro is a Rage Theater chip which gives it VIVO capabilities that do not come standard with the Radeon X1950 Pro. Combined with HDCP, AVIVO, and dual-link DVI support, the card seems to be a perfect fit for both mid-range gaming and HD video playback. Another key point is the new way CrossFire is being handled. Starting with the X1950 Pro and going forward, CrossFire connections will be made internally, much the same as the way GeForce cards are currently connected in SLI. Gone are "Master" cards - all CrossFire cards will have the compositing functionality built into the GPU. The cards themselves even have two connectors, which may allow for future uses. By daisy chaining them, it might be possible to connect three cards for graphics processing, or possibly even physics processing, but for now two cards and two connectors are required.

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Testing System & 3DMark06

   

HOW WE CONFIGURED THE TEST SYSTEM: We tested the HIS Radeon X1950 Pro IceQ3 Turbo on the Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI - an nForce 4 Intel Edition SLI X16 chipset-based motherboard - powered by an Intel Pentium 4 550 processor and 1GB of 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)

Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI Quad Royal
nForce4 SLI X16 chipset

Asus EN7950GT
Asus EN7900GS TOP
Asus EN7900GT TOP
HIS Radeon X1950 Pro
Sapphire X1900 GT


1GB Corsair XMS2 DDR2

Integrated

2x Western Digital SE16 (RAID 0)

7,200RPM - SATA II - 250GB

OS -
Chipset Drivers -
DirectX -

Video Drivers
-




Synthetic (DX) -

DirectX -
DirectX -

DirectX -
DirectX -
OpenGL -
OpenGL -
Relevant Software:
Windows XP Professional SP2
nForce Drivers v6.86
DirectX 9.0c

NVIDIA Forceware v93.71

ATI Catalyst 6.11


Benchmarks Used:
3DMark06 v1.0.2
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory v1.05
F.E.A.R. v1.0.7
Half Life 2 - Lost Coast
Need for Speed:Carbon
Quake4 v1.2
Prey

Performance Comparisons with 3DMark06 v1.1.0
Details: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark06/

3DMark06
Futuremark recently updated their suite of benchmarks, including 3DMark06. The latest version of the benchmark was updated in a number of ways and now includes not only Shader Model 2.0 tests, but also 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.

  

Although there is marked improvement from the X1900 GT to the HIS X1950 Pro - typically in the range of 3-5% - the end result is that the X1950 Pro remains behind a triple helping of GeForce cards, although to be fair, the 7900 GT and GS cards that were used also came with some higher speeds than the standard variety.  The HIS card did stand out in the HDR/Shader Model 3.0 testing, however, where it placed a close second to the lead card, the GeForce 7950 GT.

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Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory

 

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 new 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 1280x1024 and 1600x1200, both with and without anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering.

 

 

Once again, we can report that there were some impressive gains in most tests when upgrading from the X1900 GT to the X1950 Pro.  Even more important in the grand scheme of things is the X1950 Pro's performance with AA and Anisotropic Filtering enabled.  Whereas the three GeForce cards took the top three spots at both resolutions in the standard testing runs, the HIS card leapfrogged over all three to take the lead, with a half frame lead at 1280x1024 which widened to three and a half frames at 1600x1200.

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Prey

 

Performance Comparisons with Prey
Details: http://www.prey.com/

Prey
After many years of development, Take-Two Interactive recently released the highly anticipated game, Prey. Prey is based upon an updated and modified version of the Doom 3 engine, and as such performance characteristics between the two titles are very similar.  Like Doom 3, Prey is also an OpenGL game that uses extremely high-detailed textures and a plethora of dynamic lighting and shadows.  But unlike Doom3, Prey features a fare share of outdoor environments as well.  We ran these Prey benchmarks using a custom recorded timedemo with the game set to its "High-Quality" graphics mode, at resolutions of 1280 x 1024 and 1600 x 1200 with and without 4X AA and 8X anisotropic filtering enabled simultaneously.

The Prey results have the X1950 Pro performing on much more competitive levels with the 7900 cards, losing a frame here, a couple of frames there.  The 7950 GT kept its full head of steam in this challenge, leading all four benchmarking runs, but the performance deltas between this higher priced card and the collection of 7900s and X1950 Pro might be hardly worth the gap in price.

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F.E.A.R.

 

Performance Comparisons with F.E.A.R.
Details: 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. Using the full retail release of the game patched to v1.0.8, 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 completed at supported resolutions of 1280x960 and 1600x1200, with and without anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering enabled.

 

 

F.E.A.R. frame rates were pretty good across the board.  All of the cards in the testing pool were completely capable of running at 1280x960, with or without AA or aniso enabled.  The X1950 Pro found itself much more in line with the GeForce 7 series than it did with the card it replaces, the X1900 GT. Frame rates amongst the top four cards, which includes the X1950 Pro, were separated by as low as 3 and as high as 6 frames per second.

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Half Life 2: Lost Coast

   

Performance Comparisons with Half Life 2: Lost Coast
Details: http://www.half-life2.com/
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. A new addition to the HL family, we benchmarked the add-on 'Lost Coast' at 1280x1024 and 1600x1200 using the built-in video stress test.

 

While the testing has mostly favored NVIDIA thus far, Half Life 2: Lost Coast results paint a rosier picture for not only the X1950 Pro, but the X1900 GT as well.  The X1950 Pro claimed the top four frame rates in our benchmarking of this title, bettering the 7950 GT by 3-4 frames at the lower resolution, although this tightened some at 1600x1200, where the margins were closer to 1-2 fps in favor of the X1950 Pro. 

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Quake 4

 

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

Quake 4
id Software, in conjunction with developer Raven, 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 these Quake 4 benchmarks using a custom demo with the game set to its "High-Quality" mode, at resolutions of 1280x1024 and 1600x1200 without anti-aliasing enabled and then again with 4X AA and 8X aniso enabled simultaneously.

 

 

Our Quake 4 results have much more in common with the earlier benchmarks, dropping the X1950 Pro squarely behind the GeForce 7 triumvirate, in all but the low-res testing with anti-aliasing and aniso enabled. The drop-off of both Radeon cards is quite evident at the higher resolution, where the X1950 Pro performed 17-20% slower than any of the GeForce cards.

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Need for Speed: Carbon

 

Performance Comparisons with Need For Speed: Carbon
Details: http://nfs.ea.com/

Need For Speed:
Carbon
Dating back to the days of floppy disks, EGA, and the Lamborghini Countach, the Need For Speed franchise is undoubtedly one of the most popular in gaming history.  The most recent addition to the franchise is Need For Speed: Carbon, a racing-sim loaded with muscle cars and exotics in addition to a number of lighting and special graphics effects. We ran these NFS: Carbon benchmarks by utilizing FRAPS and tracking framerates on the same track, using the same car with every card. The game was configured with all of its graphics-related options set to their maximum values, with motion blur enabled.  We tested the game at resolutions of 1280 x 1024 and 1600 x 1200 with 4X AA and 16X anisotropic filtering enabled simultaneously.

 

The HIS X1950 Pro ruled the streets in Need for Speed: Carbon, speeding its way to a healthy 20-25% lead over the GeForce cards in the standard tests.  Secondary runs with AA and Aniso enabled were a bit closer between the top two cards, but overall the performance of the X1950 Pro with additional pixel processing enabled were actually on par with the 7900 GT and GS without any AA or aniso at all.

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Overclocked Results

 

The default core and memory clock speeds for the Radeon X1950 Pro are 575MHz and 690MHz (1.38GHz effective), respectively.  As the HIS card is considered a "turbo" model, that meant speeds came factory overclocked to 635MHz (core) and 1.48GHz (memory).   At this point, HIS has altered the settings in such a manner than the OverDrive capability of the Catalyst drivers was not available.  As such, we had to rely on third party tools to increase the speeds even further.   The results, as you will see, were well worth it, as we reached 695MHz on the core and 839MHz for the memory.

Overclocking Results
Time for Some Turbo Charge Action

 

 

Although the HIS X1950 Pro IceQ3 Turbo was a strong competitor for the GeForce 7 cards we used for comparison, for the most part it placed second to the overall leader, the GeForce 7950 GT.  The overclocked speeds we were able to reach allowed us to slip by the 7950 GT in both synthetic tests such as 3DMark06 as well as straight-out frame rates in games such as F.E.A.R.  With all of that extra cooling gear on the X1950 Pro IceQ3 Turbo, we might as well put it to good use.

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Performance Summary & Conclusion

 

Performance Summary: The HIS X1950 Pro Ice3 Turbo performed well against a combination of three GeForce cards powered by GeForce 7 class GPUs, winning a few battles here and there, but ultimately it was a shade slower than the 7950 GT overall.  The HIS X950 Pro Ice3 Turbo, however, was a much better performer overall than the previous mid-range X1900 GT. 

Priced at nearly $269, the HIS Radeon X1950 Pro Ice3 Turbo is one of the more expensive X1950 Pro cards on the market. The card performed well in DX9 based games, but not better than the slightly cheaper Asus EN7900GS TOP nor the similarly priced EN7950 GT.  Also, it's getting increasingly more difficult to recommend shelling out almost $300 on a video card that is not DX10 compliant at this point in time, with Windows Vista looming on the horizon.  However, if gaming is not your only bag, the card's AVIVO and HDCP support might make it worthwhile.  And it's not like DX10-only games are going to arrive the minute Vista ships.

The X1950 Pro (not just HIS' model) also offers a cleaner way to enable CrossFire without external dongles and the like.  Thus, if you're looking forward to maximizing your performance on, let's say, a 975X Express based motherboard, without breaking the bank, then two X1950 Pro cards might be right up your alley.  HIS has supplied the potential buyer with a faster and more flamboyant model that those that strictly adhere to ATI's reference design, stocked with cables and two full games. That's more than we can say for many other manufacturers these days. 

  • Good performance/price ratio
  • Better implementation of CrossFire
  • Quiet Cooler
  • Huge dual-slot cooler
  • Outgunned by similarly priced GeForce 7 cards
  • DX9 only

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