AMD's new series of R600 DX10 graphics cards are finally here and we have had plenty of time to examine them but we are left with a tough decision if we should recommend the HD 2900 XT or not. It impressed us considering the price tag and the extras such as sound output through DVI to HDMI adapters and the Valve software bundle but it leaves us wondering if AMD could have done a little better...
AMD lost its chance to take the GPU performance crown here when the planned R600XTX with 1GB GDDR-4 fell through the cracks and did not see the light of day, at least in the channel. It is quite clear to see that the 512-bit memory interface of the HD 2900 XT was a fantastic idea but it also more than likely attributed to manufacturing difficulties (delays) which let Nvidia get in front with earlier released products. Nevertheless, AMD is able to mount cheaper GDDR-3 memory onto the PCB which does not need to operate as fast as the competitor's products, since it is able to push through more data at slower clock speeds, equaling lower costs. You can only imagine if the R600 XTX saw the light of day operating with higher core clock, 1GB of GDDR-4 memory at higher clocks - it would have probably even come close to giving the new GeForce 8800 Ultra a good run for its money. It still might but only time will tell.
AMD's Radeon HD 2900 XT is going to cost between US$350 - US$399, closer to the latter in most places. That makes it at least US$150 cheaper than most GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB cards. Sure, Nvidia's 8800 GTX green champ won most of our tests in the 1280 x 1024 to 1920 x 1200 range but not by as bigger margins as we expected. What is interesting are our results at the 2560 x 1600 resolution - both products have their share of driver issues (which need to be sorted out quickly!) but from our testing at this point in time, the HD 2900 XT makes a really good showing at the 2560 x 1600 resolution. In games like Prey, Company of Heroes and Far Cry, the more expensive 8800 GTX really only has a small lead over the XT. In real-world terms, both offer basically about the same level of game play experience in terms of smoothness and we put that down to the massive 106GB/s of memory bandwidth from the R600, which is able to be properly utilized at this ultra-high resolution. With some overclocking of the core and memory, the HD 2900 XT could probably match or better the more expensive 8800 GTX and that is with 256MB less memory. This in turn tells us that the engineers of the R600, while slow and indecisive, were smart and produced a GPU which is very efficient - but at the right settings.
We expect factory overclocked HD 2900 XT cards to start selling in less than one month from now. AIB partners currently have the option of ordering 1GB GDDR-4 models with faster clock speeds but it is unsure if this product will be called HD 2900 XT 1GB GDDR-4 or HD 2900 XTX - you may end up seeing these types of cards appear in early June (around Computex Taipei show time). If we saw a product like this with slightly faster core clock and obviously much faster memory clock (2000 - 2100MHz DDR vs. 1656MHz DDR), we think it would compete very nicely against the GeForce 8800 GTX as far as price vs. performance goes. Sadly we did not have a GeForce 8800 GTS 640MB handy for testing but matching up with our previous testing on similar test beds, the HD 2900 XT will beat it quite considerably, by around the 20% mark in 3DMark06, for example. This is rather interesting since the HD 2900 XT is in the same price range as the GeForce 8800 GTS 640MB - we will test against this card shortly!
Summing it up, we are happy to see a new high-end Radeon graphics card from AMD - it literally is the red hot flaming monster but it manages to offer a good amount of performance and impressive feature set with full DX10 and Shader Model 4.0, Crossfire and Windows Vista support and a host of others which we did not even have enough time to cover in full today, such as improved anti-aliasing and UVD. It was a long time coming but it is able to offer very good bang for buck against the equivalent from Nvidia - GeForce 8800 GTS.
It is also something for the green team to think about if AMD comes out with a faster version of R600 XT either with faster operating GDDR-4 memory (and more of it) or faster clock speeds using 65nm processor technology, later in the year. Interesting times ahead in the GPU business but for right now the Radeon HD 2900 XT offers very solid performance for the price but we will be more interested in what is coming in the following weeks as overclocked versions emerge and shake things up even more.