ATI shot a blank with its dual-card CrossFire release recently, and while its next-generation Radeon X1800 XT (around £350 online) is a powerful Direct3D gaming tool, it doesn't hold up in design elegance or dual-card flexibility when compared with Nvidia's competing GeForce 7800 GTX cards.
Its saving grace is its Half-Life 2 performance: it dominates Nvidia. If you're more inclined to the Doom 3 or Quake universe, however, this new Radeon's scores are lacking. ATI earned itself victorious upstart status with its last generation of Radeon cards. This time around its performance victory is less decisive, and a number of other issues hurt its profile. Between ATI's new card and Nvidia's GeForce 7800 GTX, Nvidia gets the nod.
Until the announcement of the 512MB ATI Radeon X1800 XT and the rest of the Radeon X1000 series of 3D cards, ATI appeared to be behind the times. It had no dual-graphics-card competitor to Nvidia's SLI technology and no support for emergent 3D features. The Radeon X1800 XT and the rest of the new cards bring a number of advances, but ultimately, they're not enough.
The flagship Radeon X1800 XT, in particular, is not designed as well as its main competitor, the Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX. The Radeon X1800 XT's 3D scores are appropriately speedy, and we appreciate ATI incorporating parts of its new Avivo video technology in all of its Radeon X1000-series parts. In its primary function as a 3D graphics card, however, the Radeon X1800 XT is blazingly fast at Direct3D-based games, but enough usability and design limitations hamper it from earning our outright recommendation. For all-round 3D gaming performance, ATI hasn't done enough to knock Nvidia's GeForce 7800 GTX off its throne.
Two of our biggest gripes have to do with the Radeon X1800 XT's design. The most obvious is its double-wide form factor, ironically the same criticism we made of Nvidia's GeForce 6800 Ultra during the last generation's head-to-head. The Radeon X1800 XT takes up two internal expansion bays -- thanks to its extra-large fan -- and it looks bulky and cumbersome compared to Nvidia's lean, single-slot GeForce 7800 GTX. The more confounding problem, however, has to do with doubling up your cards.
An answer to Nvidia's SLI dual-graphics-card technology, the difference with ATI's CrossFire is that you have to purchase a separate, more expensive CrossFire Edition (CFE) of a card in the same chip family in order to link two cards together (pairing a Radeon X1800 CFE with a Radeon X1800 XT or XL, or a Radeon X1600 CFE with a Radeon X1600 XT or Pro). With Nvidia, all GeForce 6600-, 6800- and 7800-series cards come SLI ready, there is no second, pricier version to worry about.
ATI does let you link two different cards within the same family, however -- the XT and the XL versions, for example -- where the more restrictive SLI mode requires that the two chips be exactly the same (although not from the same vendor). But SLI doesn't require you to pay a premium to simply add another card.
Nvidia has claimed Shader Model 3 (SM 3) support as an advantage over ATI's last generation of Radeon cards that lacked it in both its GeForce 7800-series chips and the entire GeForce 6000 series that preceded it. With the Radeon X1000 series, ATI catches up and gains SM 3's advanced pixel-rendering capability, an important feature for a few current games such as Far Cry and F.E.A.R., as well as a number of titles due out soon, such as this year's Gears of War. With SM 3 and also high dynamic range lighting support, the Radeon X1800 XT is primed to run alongside Nvidia in supporting the latest visual bells and whistles that make 3D games more immersive than ever.
ATI's X1000-series cards do have one advantage over Nvidia's GeForce family. ATI recently announced an initiative called Avivo, which, similar to Microsoft's Viiv, is a combination of products aimed at the home cinema. You can't receive a TV signal with the Radeon X1800 XT or any other Radeon X1000-series cards, but what they can do as part of the Avivo family is decode all kinds of video formats, including the forward-looking H.264 codec that's going to become important for high-definition video and Microsoft's new Windows Vista operating system.