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Sapphire Radeon X1950 Pro Dual
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Date: Apr 20, 2007
Section:Graphics/Sound
Author: Alex Evans
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Introduction

Graphics processors are, and have always been, extremely parallel in nature. This sentiment has been expressed time and time again by various GPU architects from all of the major graphics chip designers. If you want additional performance, in the vast majority of cases, you can gain it by adding on more rendering pipelines or a second (identical) graphics processing unit. Graphics applications and games scale very well with additional rendering power under the hood, as shown by both Nvidia's SLI and ATI's Crossfire technologies, which can be traced all the way back to the 3DFX Voodoo2, which was utilized the same core concepts.

With the already parallel nature of graphics processors and new multi-GPU technologies like Crossfire and SLI making it easy to link up multiple processors together, the option of producing graphics boards with multiple graphics chips on a single PCB becomes an enticing option for board-level manufacturers. Instead of using a high-end single processor, a manufacturer in theory could fuse together two mid-range processors on a single board and deliver (in many cases) the same amount of raw rendering power. While great in theory, multi-GPU enabled boards throughout the years have struggled to find their market. The most recent case we can link back to is the GeForce 7950 GX2 card, which put together two GeForce 7900-series processors together for SLI graphics power through a single PCI Express x16 slot. While the card did work very well for its intended market and gave Nvidia the flexibility to tout Quad GPU configurations, Nvidia had encountered a number of driver issues with this card, and it became quickly out-dated once the GeForce 8-series shipped.

Today we're looking at a similar situation, albeit on the other side of the fence. ATI/AMD are scheduled to deliver their new generation of graphics processors in the coming weeks / months, which will range from the low-end to the high-end, likely putting today's solutions out to pasture (or at least, knock their prices down a notch). However, Sapphire has engineered a unique solution to get more mileage out of this generation's graphics processors, allowing them to put up a fight against Nvidia's popular GeForce 8-series.

This new solution is the Sapphire Radeon X1950 Pro Dual. As you might imagine from the name, this product merges together two Radeon X1950 Pro graphics processors onto a single (large - very, very large) PCB. Each graphics processor has its own 512 MB of memory to address for a total of 1 GB of onboard memory. The two graphics processors are linked together via an internal Crossfire connection, meaning only one PCI Express x16 slot is needed on the motherboard. It's a beast of a card and is definitely a brute force method of getting more rendering power from ATI's current processor designs, but it's certainly an intriguing product. Let's take a closer look.

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Retail Shipping Box - Front

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Retail Shipping Box - Back

Sapphire X1950 Pro Dual
Features and Specifications

 

"The Sapphire X1950 Pro Dual brings stunningly fast gaming performance, comparable with ATI CrossFire dual GPU systems, together with industry-leading image quality and crystal clear high definition digital video at a breakthrough price point. The same thickness as a standard two slot graphics card, the Sapphire X1950 Pro Dual connects via a single PCI-Express x16 slot, bringing dual GPU performance to mainboards with only one PCI-Express connector, and opening up the future possibility of the world's first Quad AMD GPU operation in an ATI CrossFire mainboard."

  • 2 x ATI Radeon X1950 Pro Graphics Processors

  • 580 MHz GPU Clock Speeds

  • 36 Shader Units Per Processor

  • 12 Pixel Pipelines Per Processor

  • 1 GB Onboard GDDR3 Memory (512 MB Per GPU)

  • 256-bit Memory Architecture

  • 1400 MHz GDDR3 Clock Speed

  • Bandwidth Per GPU x8, Bandwidth For Both x16 
  • Connected Through Single PCI Express x16 Slot

  • Actively Cooled Dual Slot Cooling System

  • 2 x Dual-Link DVI-I Output Ports (2560 x 1600 Max)

  • 1 x S-Video/HDTV Output Port (1024 x 768 Max)

  • HDCP-Enabled DVI Output Port (Blu-Ray/HD-DVD Ready)

  • Supports DirectX 9.0 / Shader Model 3.0

  • ATI AVIVO Hardware Accelerated Video

The specifications of this new board are right in line with what one would expect from a multi-GPU version of the X1950 Pro. All of the clock speeds and memory sizes are the same in comparison to the single-GPU variant of the X1950 Pro, and it shares the same benefits and drawbacks. The X1950 Pro GPU (the ATI RV570) is manufactured on an 80nm process, which means it runs fairly cool and doesn't consume a ton of power, allowing for this dual-GPU variant to come into existence. Simply put, due to the heat and power requirements of ATI's high-end X1950 XT lineup, putting two of these processors onto a single PCB is not feasable at this time. The RV570 is a much safer bet.

ATI's RV570 GPU is still firmly implanted in the DirectX 9 generation, supporting Shader Model 3.0, whereas Nvidia's latest cards (and ATI/AMD's upcoming cards) are DirectX 10 / Shader Model 4.0 based. As there are no DirectX 10 titles on the market, this is not a major feature to be worried about, but most buyers want their cards to be somewhat future-proof, so DirectX 10 support is a selling point to be sure. On the plus side, the X1950 Pro supports HDCP and dual-link DVI outputs, along with hardware accelerated video, which means the card should work well for both gaming and multimedia environments.

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Design and Features

Design and Features

Despite it's relatively moderate performance, the original (single-GPU) Radeon X1950 Pro was a fairly large card in comparison to other mid-range cards. Thus, when two of them are essentially fused together, the end result is a massive product, both in terms of width and height. At first glance, the card doesn't look that large in these photos, but only when you compare the size of the card to its fixed-dimension components, like the PCI Express slot and DVI ports, can you really gauge how large it really is. It's easily the tallest and longest card we've ever had the chance of using.

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X1950 Pro Dual - Top

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X1950 Pro Dual - Bottom

Another great way to show off the size is to compare it to a "standard" sized graphics card, like the GeForce 7900 card seen below. The Radeon X1950 Pro Dual simply dwarfs this other card. The Radeon X1950 Pro Dual is, in comparison, also quite a larger than GeForce 8800 and GeForce 7950 GX2 graphics cards.

 

GeForce 7900 on top with Sapphire's Radeon X1950 Pro Dual below.

The size is certainly a major factor in this card's acceptance into the market. The dimensions mean that it will not fit in a majority of standard ATX sized cases on the market. In order to run this graphics card, the use of an Extended ATX class chassis is almost a requirement. The Antec Titan 550 EATX case which was used for testing just barely worked, and even through there was enough room, it made routing cabling around the hard disks a painful process.

In addition, this card suffers from minor weight related issues due to a majority of the cooling system's weight focused on the center of the board, whereas the board is only screwed into place by a single screw on the left side. The unbalanced weight could be an issue if the card was to travel long distances when installed in a system - say to a large LAN Party. However, due to its size, we don't see OEM adoption being a huge factor with this particular product - it's targeted directly at enthusiasts who will install the card themselves.

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Sitting on top of the two Radeon X1950 Pro graphics processors (along with a PCI Express bridge chip) is a massive aluminum alloy heatpipe based cooling system. The cooling system covers both GPU cores, both sets of memory chips, and the PCIe bridge chip. Each GPU interacts with its own heat plate which moves heat to the heatpipes and a series of aluminum alloy fins. All of these components are cooled by a single 80mm fan which sits in the center of the board. The fan is thermally controlled and will spin up and down depending on the load of the graphics card. During testing, we were able to monitor GPU temperatures, which showed the graphics processors running at 42-44°C while idling, while testing showed temperatures hitting levels between 59-64°C under load.

The cooling system is certainly quieter than what we would hear from two independent Radeon X1950 Pro cards, but is not whisper silent. It's not loud, and certainly very tolerable, but there are quieter solutions out there. The fan will spin up fairly fast when the card is under heavy load. It takes about one minute of heavy graphics action to force the fan to get knocked up into a higher zone, which makes fan speeds quite audible. Certainly not annoyingly loud, but noticeable nonetheless.

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Outputs and Overclocking

Outputs and Overclocking

When it was announced, the Radeon X1950 Pro Dual was originally supposed to support quad-monitor output, for those who wanted to use this card for its multi-monitor abilities rather than linking both processors together for additional performance. It appears that Sapphire put the axe to this idea though, as the final, shipping Radeon X1950 Pro Dual card only has two dual-link DVI output ports. If you look closely on the PCB near the DVI ports, you can see cutouts and silk-screens for the additional HD-15 ports, which were simply left off the final board. If the ports were placed in this position, they wouldn't have worked in any modern chassis, mind you, although early samples had an adapter which could move these ports to another case slot. This feature can still be seen in Windows, as the X1950 Pro Dual automatically detects the ability to run up to four screens when not in Crossfire mode. Sadly, two of the monitors cannot be enabled since there are no connectors for them. When Crossfire is enabled, linking the two onboard GPUs together, the board only ouputs from a single port.

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Crossfire Disabled

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Crossfire Enabled

In-between the DVI ports is an S-Video/HDTV output port. Sapphire bundles Component, S-Video, and Composite cables with the box, giving potential buyers a lot of flexibility. As you can see near the S-Video port, Sapphire is using the ATI Rage Theater processor onboard as well, allowing for hardware based audio/video encoding and decoding.

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Dual DVI-I, Crossfire, and PCIe Connectors

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Dual 6-pin PCIe Power Connectors

Despite the fact that this card links together both GPUs via an internal Crossfire connection using a PCI Express bridge chip, there is still a second generation Crossfire connector at the top of the card's PCB. In the original press release, Sapphire claimed that through the use of this connector, users would be able to link up multiple dual-GPU cards together for a quad-GPU based Crossfire system. Well, that didn't necessarily pan out. While the hardware may still function in this regard, neither ATI nor Sapphire have drivers which support quad-GPU configurations, rendering this once interesting feature moot. But hey, if you want to write a driver for this function, the connector is still there.

The X1950 Pro Dual requires the use of two 6-pin PCI Express power connectors, one for each graphics processor. Even though dual 6-pin connectors would make it seem like this card consumes a lot of power, our actual consumption numbers were quite manageable, as we'll show later in the article.

One (very) important point to note about this card is motherboard-level compatibility. With the use of a single PCI Express x16 slot and a board-level Crossfire connection, for all intents and purposes, this card should be compatible with every PCI Express x16 motherboard on the market. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In order to get use of both onboard graphics processors, this card still must be run in a Crossfire-compatible platform. If you run this card on and Nvidia based platform, ATI's drivers will not allow you to enable Crossfire, and thus, limit you to a single GPU only. Basically, if you purchase this card, you'll want to ensure that you have an Intel 975/965 series or ATI based motherboard.

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X1950 Dual on Nvidia 680i - No Crossfire

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X1950 Dual on Intel 965 - Crossfire Ready

The single-GPU based Radeon X1950 Pro card was a mild overclocker, typically being able to hit clock speeds of a bit over 600 MHz GPU and 1.5 GHz DDR (stock clock speeds are 580 MHz GPU / 1.4 GHz DDR). The Radeon X1950 Pro Dual can be overclocked as well, through ATI's Catalyst Control Center or through a third party cool like ATITool. We were able to overclock our card's dual GPU's up to 650 MHz, however, we were not able to overclock the board's memory at all. The overclocks provided minimal performance gains throughout our application tests, sadly.

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Testbed and Synthetics

Test Systems
Specifications and Revisions

  • Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 (2.4 GHz) Processor
  • 2 x Kingston XMS DDR2-800 Memory (2 x 1 GB, CAS 4-4-4-12)
  • 1 x MSI P965 Neo Motherboard (Intel P965 Chipset)
  • 1 x Maxtor DiamondMax 10 Serial ATA Hard Disk
  • 1 x Plextor PX-755SA DVD+/-RW Drive
  • 1 x Corsair HX620W 620W Power Supply
  • Microsoft Windows XP Professional (32-bit)

  • Sapphire Radeon X1950 Pro Dual 1 GB (Catalyst 7.3 Driver)
  • Sapphire Radeon X1950 GT 256 MB (Catalyst 7.3 Driver)
  • Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTS 320 MB (Nvidia 97.94 Driver)
  • Nvidia GeForce 7900 GT 256 MB (Nvidia 93.71 Driver)

Synthetic Gaming Benchmarks
Futuremark 3DMark05 and 3DMark06

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Our synthetic tests show that the Sapphire Radeon X1950 Pro is quite powerful, being able to overtake a GeForce 8800 GTS card, which is one of the fastest on the market.  You can also see that the addition of the second GPU and an extra 512 MB of memory help performance anywhere from 40-75%.  
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Stalker : Shadow of Chernobyl

Stalker : Shadow of Chernobyl
Maximum Quality Settings, No FSAA/Anisotropic Filtering

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ATI’s latest Catalyst 7.3 drivers have some issues with Crossfire configurations like the Radeon X1950 Pro Dual and Stalker.  In order to see full Crossfire performance, you have to download the 7.3 hotfix on ATI’s website.  With the hot-fix applied, the Radeon X1950 Pro puts up some great numbers in Stalker, outpacing the 8800 GTS by a solid margin.
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The Elder Scrolls IV : Oblivion

The Elder Scrolls IV : Oblivion
Maximum Quality Settings, No FSAA/Anisotropic Filtering

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The X1950 Pro Dual struggles in Oblivion, failing to keep pace with the 8800 GTS card. While the internal Crossfire connection does help scale performance, the overall effect is not enough to overtake the 8800 GTS in this particular game.
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Half Life 2 : Episode One

Half Life 2 : Episode One
Maximum Quality Settings, No FSAA/Anisotropic Filtering

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Episode One makes great use of this card, but even at high resolutions, performance is only on par with the 8800 GTS 320 MB card.  The game is very playable at 1920 x 1200 resolution with this card, whereas it struggles with single X1950 Pro GPU based cards.

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Power Consumption Levels

Power Consumption Levels
Idle at Windows Desktop, Maximum Load During 3DMark06

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At idle, the dual-GPU based X1950 Pro Dual does not consume more power in comparison to other mid-to-high end based cards, which is impressive considering its size.  However, under full load we can see that the X1950 Pro Dual can consume a bit more power.  The extra X1950 Pro GPU and memory seem to consume about an extra 30 watts of power under load.
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Our Conclusion

We doubt that anyone will argue, even Sapphire, that the Radeon X1950 Pro Dual is an odd product. At this time, even Sapphire themselves do not list it on their website as a full product, and there is no mention of the card's existence beyond the original press release. This probably means Sapphire won't be producing these cards in any substantial quanitity. However, we will give credit to Sapphire for having the courage to produce such a card. Many thought it would only be a "tech-demo" card and would never make it to this level. Even Asus had a similar product (dual X1950 Pro GPUs), although their card never made it to market.

Considering the mid-range graphics processors under the hood of this card, overall gaming performance is actually quite good. A pair of Radeon X1950 Pro GPUs in this configuration can deliver performance similar to Nvidia's GeForce 8800 series cards, while at the same time having similar power requirements. At this time, the X1950 Pro Dual is likely the fastest single-slot ATI solution on the market, although with ATI's R600 chips right around the corner, any market impact this card could possibly make will be minimal.

Sapphire certainly has a tough sell on their hands with this product. GeForce 8800 cards are down to price points of $250-$300 (for the GTS 320 MB), which can deliver similar performance levels and lower noise levels, and won't require any special chassis or Crossfire compatible motherboard. In addition, GeForce 8800 cards have DirectX 10 support, whereas the X1950 Pro Dual is still part of the DirectX 9 generation. If Sapphire had the chance to get these cards on the market 4-5 months ago, it could likely have put up a fight against (higher priced, at the time) GeForce 8 series cards. However, at this point in time, this card's chance to shine has likely passed. Most of the truly unique features which this board was originally touted with (Quad-GPU Crossfire, quad-monitor outputs) were eliminated in order to get the product out the door.

The Sapphire Radeon X1950 Pro Dual will likely live on as more of a technology demonstration rather than a mass market product. Hopefully Sapphire can chalk this one up to research and development, possibly allowing for future multi-GPU cards to be produced and sold faster. It's a great product to wow your friends with (check out the size of this card - it's huge!), but unless Sapphire can push these things at around $250, it will be tough to convince potential buyers. Sapphire hasn't mentioned an official MSRP, although original estimates pegged a price tag of around $350-$400.

  • High-End Performance with Mid-Range GPUs
  • Dual-GPU Cooling System Quieter Than Single GPU X1950 Pro Cards
  • Internal Crossfire Connectivity
  • HDCP Support
  • Huge PCB Wont Fit In Most Cases
  • Wont Work Correctly on Nvidia Motherboards
  • No DirectX 10 Support

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