ATI launches x1000 family of graphics cards, sort of

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ATI launches x1000 family of graphics cards, sort of


Markham (ON) – ATI today announces its next-generation graphic chip technology, previously referred to as “R520”. There is good news and bad news for people who have been waiting for the new cards: ATI has a technology and strategy that will challenge Nvidia. But, unfortunately only few of the X1000 models are available today. Some versions of the lineup will follow with at least one month delay.

Today is the day ATI and many graphics enthusiasts have been waiting for about four months. R520, which in fact is just the code-name for the high-end version of the new graphics chip series, finally has made it out the door and, according to ATI, will bring next-generation graphics capabilities to any user who is willing to spend between $80 and $550 for a new graphics card.

The expectation in the new product family are high; not just because the card is late, but mainly because Nvidia has raised the stakes terms of performance and features as well as how it is marketing its products. One of the most powerful weapons of Nvidia is its strategy to make new graphic cards available at launch date – and avoid the paper launches we were used to in the past.

ATI’s new X1000 series graphic cards

ATI was trying to follow, but as it appears now, only three out of seven announced cards will make it into stores on or around launch day. According to the company, lower end R5xx chips have been in production for several months, but a bug in the circuit design prevented engineers to bring clock speeds of R520 chips up into their target range. In the end, an apparently smallish bug was found a few weeks ago. Since then, ATI has been scrambling to push R520 chips into production at TSMC: “We have a lot of wafers in the line right now,” said Rich Heye, ATI’s vice president and general manager for the desktop products division in a conversation with TG Daily. A conservative estimate at this time is that the higher end chips X1600 XT, X1600 Pro and X1800 XT will be available by the end of November.

The chips that have been in production for months are likely to be available in volume in retail and etail within these days. The lineup includes the entry level models X1300 Pro, X1300 as well as X1800 XL, which will be the flagship for the time being.

All chips will be based on the same architecture that features a transistor count of 330 million, but seven different integrations will offer different core and memory clock speeds and different frame buffer sizes. To make the lineup even more confusing, there will be different models that are offered at the same price point.

For now, the entry-level model will be the Radeon X1300, which offers a core clock of 540 MHz and a memory clock of 500 MHz. Cards with 128 MByte memory will sell for $100, 256 MByte versions will change hands for $130. The family also includes a shared memory model (32 MByte/128 MByte “HyperMemory”) for $80. The higher-end option at this time is the $450 X1800XL, which is a 2-slot card that runs on a 500 MHz core and 256 MByte 1 GHz memory.

Once complete, the X1000 family will also include the X1800 XT (625 MHz core/1.5 GHz memory) in 256 MByte and 512 MByte versions ($500 and $550, respectively), as well as the X1600 XT (590 MHz / 1.38 GHz) in 128 MByte and 256 MByte versions ($200 and $250, respectively). X1600 Pro cards (500 MHz/780 MHz) will have a stronger target at the mainstream with a $150 (128 MByte) and a $200 (256 MByte version). And this won’t be the last word – as ATI reportedly already preps more models for early 2006.

While it is certainly true that – if available – ATI offers a top-to-bottom product line with its new graphics chip, one or the other customer interested in buying an x1000 card may scratch his head which x1000 may be the best deal of the bunch – especially, if several cards are offered at the same suggested retail prices. ATI spokespeople told us that the strategy to offer different cards at the same price was simply a reaction to customer demand. Typically, buyers go for cards with more memory, despite the fact more clock speed promises more performance. “I’d always buy the card with more clock speed,” Heye told us. ATI officials told us that they consider the X1600 XT with 128 MByte frame buffer size to provide the most bang for the buck.

Beyond speed: Opening up the architecture for third party developers

New graphics chips always tend to be faster, prettier and better than the previous generation. At this point in time, consumers ask for more than just more speed, but for innovation that increases the user experience and quality level of gaming and other graphics applications. And ATI brings a couple interesting ideas to the table with its new graphics chip generation.

First, ATI said it integrated Shader Model 3.0 in a more complete way than Nvidia did. The company claims the real estate gained on the silicon through a 90 nm production process enabled the firm to extend the feature set previously offered. Presentations shown by the company in fact showed an amazing level of realism and let us look forward to the next generation of games. Other new features include “Avivo,” ATI’s video display platform, which promises to increase the quality of video playback. For a detailed look under the hood of the new X1000 family as well as its performance capabilities, you will soon find an in-depth review over at Tom’s Hardware Guide.

The real innovation however is just an idea at this time, but promises to have a major impact on the industry, if brought to reality. Heye mentioned that ATI plans to open the hardware architecture of the X1000 to allow third party developers to write non-graphics-related applications to run on the graphics processor. The company calls this feature “dynamic load balancing.”

Compared to a Pentium 4 CPU, which delivers a floating point performance of 12 GFLOPs and a bandwidth of just under 6 GByte per second, a graphics processor is a calculation monster: According to ATI, an X1800 XT chip reaches 83 GFlops and 42 GByte per second. The full performance of a graphics may not always be needed – especially in dual-graphics environments – and users will be able to relocate processing power to other applications. According to ATI, these applications could include scientific applications such as fluid dynamics, but also entertainment-related functions such as physics or 3D audio processing. Similar features have been demonstrated by academic projects in the past on ATI and Nvidia platforms, but dynamic load balancing as described by ATI officials promises a whole new use of graphics processors.

The company expects GPU specific third-party API’s to become common within a few years – with one of the most promising being physics processing: ATI believes that graphics chips provide enough power to cover the features that are currently promoted by Ageia. If ATI’s vision comes true, Ageia’s business model of a physics board for every gaming PC may become unnecessary before the startup’s technology has reached a critical market penetration.

However, all of ATI’s new features and great ideas are somewhat overshadowed by the X1000’s late appearance and the somewhat blurry outlook of availability. We will have to wait to see, if ATI will be able to deliver what the market is asking for – at least as far as the retail channels are concerned. Users who are interested in buying a complete computer system before Christmas should not count on finding too many systems that actually carry X1300, X1600 or X1800 cards. The late launch and an expected October 10 availability of the X1800 XL cards for system integrators caused ATI to completely miss the boat for the holiday business, as computer makers already placed their orders for different products.

While the release of the X1000 certainly is not a paper launch in its entirety, the delay of the most attractive versions of the product family may leave not the best impression with end users and OEMs alike. Nvidia, in contrast, has proven with the 7800 family that it is capable of bringing products to market at launch day. There is no question that this fact boosted the industry’s and user’s perception of Nvidia’s credibility and time will tell, if ATI can afford to announce products that are not available at launch day.