Friday, May 24, 2013

PowerColor X800 GT Xtreme 256MB and X800 GT EVO Tide Water 256MB

Before ATI launches more new SKUs than you can shake a stick at, its partners are still pretty eager to promote present products.


Take ATI's X800 GT/GTO range, for example. Priced at between £90-£125, they offer decent performance at a crucial price-point. That's precisely why board partners are keen to offload as many as they can in the run-up to R500-series hitting the retail shelves.  We took a look at PowerColor's R480-based ATI Radeon X800 GT card a couple of months ago and found it to be a compelling option for those looking to upgrade to a decent, midrange video card for around £120. Since then, though, ATI's partners have slipped in the faster X800 GTO SKU, making the original 'GT less desirable. PowerColor, however, has kept faith in the X800 GT and has recently launched a couple of new models in its range. Dubbed Xtreme and EVO Tide Water, there's more to them than meets the eye. Read on to see what we thought.

PowerColor has taken the basic template established with its own regular Radeon X800 GT 256MB card but has changed the cooler in the transition to Xtreme status. On first glance, the cooler looks less powerful than the one specified on the regular X800 GT and, as you can no doubt see, it leaves the RAM chips without passive cooling. The cooler's fan, we're glad to report, is quiet when in use, as it should be on a midrange card. What's not immediately obvious, though, is that this Xtreme version pushes up the regular X800 GT's core speed from 475MHz to 500MHz. A touch extra performance, then. It's worth pointing out that PowerColor continues to use R480-based cores on its X800 GT cards, so bumping up the core speed to 500MHz should have been a non-issue.

A closer look at the front shows the cutaway nature of the cooler. Those with good eyesight will be able to discern that PowerColor, on this occasion, uses faster GDDR3 memory than on the regular version. A total of 8 1.6ns-rated Samsung chips provide the card's 256MB framebuffer. 1.6ns RAM usually equates to a basic RAM speed of 1200MHz, although manufacturers have been known to tighten timings a little, providing that little extra bump in performance, and dropping memory speed down from the nominal rating. That's the case here; the PowerColor X800 GT Xtreme 256MB card is factory-clocked at 1050MHz RAM, which is 70MHz faster than the non-Xtreme version.

Carrying on over from the basic version is the use of dual DVI connections. The second is run off Silicon Image's Sil 1162 DVI transmitter. Both DVI connections are single-link, meaning that you'll only be able to run displays with resolutions of up to 1920x1200 pixels on each one. That shouldn't be a problem for the kind of midrange systems the card is intended to be installed within.

The Xtreme version uses a slightly different cooler-holding mechanism than the no-frills edition. However, users looking for any kind of temperature-monitoring ASIC, as seen on SAPPHIRE's range of X800-based SKUs, will be left wanting here. Sure, the PowerColor X800 GT Xtreme 256MB features faster core and memory clocks than the regular model, but the asking price of £125.99, about £20 greater than most basic X800 GT 256MB cards, probably deserves a little greater innovation, we feel.

The PowerColor X800 GT Xtreme 256MB box packaging only differs from the regular version by having an Xtreme sticker. As you would expect, it highlights the fact that this card uses faster GDDR3 memory.

The box art at the back, however, is identical to the X800 GT's.

The accompanying bundle usually reflects just how big a certain company is. The larger volume sellers derive economies of scale from their size, thus allowing for deluxe multi-CD bundles with even low-end cards. ASUS and MSI spring to mind. PowerColor has its bundle agreements with CyberLink and Ubisoft, who bundle in Pacific Fighters. It's a genuinely decent flight-sim title and not a mere afterthought. Hardware-wise, it's all very predictable, with 6-foot-long RCA and S-Video cables, as well as a converter between the two. An HDTV connections box would have been nice, though. The installation CD contained only a set of ATI's CATALYST 5.7 drivers and DirectX 9.0c. No overclocking tool was present.

Speaking of CyberLink, PowerColor adds in a multi-utility suite, comprising of PowerDVD 5.0, Power2Go 3, a media-burning program, PowerProducer Gold 2, useful for home-video users who need an easy-to-use program to convert/burn video and photos on to CD/DVD. PowerDirector 3, the common video-editing software, is kind of wasted here as the card doesn't not feature ATI's Rage Theater ASIC. You can see it's a generic bundle that PowerColor includes with all its latest video cards.  It's of little surprise that the bundle on the Xtreme version is virtually identical to the basic card's. All that's changed, then, is the use of a factory BIOS that raises the core speed to 500MHz from the default 475MHz, and, hardware-wise, the use of faster Samsung RAM.

What's all this about? A midrange graphics card with a pre-attached waterblock! That's exactly what the first part of PowerColor's X800 GT EVO 256MB (Tide Water) card bundle is all about. A closer look at the PCB and component mountings shows it to be the identical to the Xtreme's, save for the hard-to-miss block.

The block's attached to the core via the simplest method possible; two long screws that are bolted to the rear side. The pressure provided by this method is more than ample, and there was absolutely no give in the fitting whatsoever, thereby providing excellent contact with the R480 core, running at an Xtreme-rated 500MHz, underneath.

A look at the other side shows exactly where the liquid enters and leaves the copper block that's effective for GPUs which kick out up to 150W. The basic premise of liquid-based cooling relies on the efficient ability of moving liquid to carry away the heat transferred from the core to the block. The exiting liquid, warmed by having to run through warm channels inside the block, is then cooled on its way around a closed system, usually comprising of a pump, radiator and fan assembly. We'll get to that in just a moment.

A look at the very front shows, obviously, that only the core is being cooled. PowerColor has foregone the opportunity of constructing an all-in-one block, replete with memory cooling on both sides. It's no surprise that the X800 GT EVO also carries the same 256MB Samsung memory found on the Xtreme model.

A look at the back shows an identical set of connections to the PowerColor X800 GT 256MB family of cards. That means no video-in functionality. That's offset by PowerColor providing dual DVI outputs.

Only the two hoses, just about viewable at the very top, tell you that it's the X800 GT EVO edition.  Leading on from the card and block and connected via the two hoses on the previous page, is a self-contained pump, radiator and fan assembly.

What you're looking at is the upper side of the self-contained unit that fits into regular cases. The two hoses which are used to push the liquid around the system are situated on the right-hand side, so let's take a look.

Designed by Thermaltake, dubbed Tide Water, it's the first liquid-cooling system we've seen thus far that's architected solely for graphics card cooling. What's more, there's no reason why the Tide Water system cannot be used for other graphics cards, assuming a decent-fitting block. A fill port and level indicator, ensuring that the right amount of liquid is in the system, are both necessary. Thermaltake reckons that the liquid is good for up to 10,000 hours of maintenance-free use, too. The blue cable connects the Tide Water system to a spare 12v molex connector.

Turning it over shows exactly how the Tide Water system works. A tiny pump, on the upper right-hand side, pushes the green cooling liquid to the block. The block then picks up the GPU's heat, transfers it to the liquid, which is then pumped back to the self-contained unit and through the copper radiator on the left-hand side. By dint of the fact that the Tide Water is located inside a case, the large fan, right in the middle, is required to further cool the liquid as it passes through the radiator and eventually ends up at the reservoir at the bottom and back out via the pump again. The whole process then begins again; classic watercooling.

A gratuitous shot of the copper radiator. The fan pushes air across the numerous fins and out through the back. The double-height nature of the PCI plate means that the Tide Water system takes up two PCI slots, so make sure you have enough room, as the GPU PCB will inevitably take up a PCI-Express slot.

A handy switch allows you to toggle the fan-speed from low (1,700RPM, barely audible) to high (3,000RPM, very noticeable). The faster the fan speed, the better the radiator cooling and, ergo, the better the overall Tide Water performance.

There you have it. The Tide Water unit actually plugs into 2 PCI slots and is secured around the back. Users with PCI/PCI-Express (x1) cards may find that the Tide Water system takes up a little too much space, however. There's no doubting that the collaboration between PowerColor/TUL and Thermaltake has produced a one-of-a-kind graphics card package, but we reckon that the basic design could be improved upon further, especially with respect to PowerColor. With liquid-based cooling it would have been nice to have temperature measurements for both card core and memory. Further, considering that the GT EVO edition features 1.6ns memory, an all-in-one core/memory block would have made decent sense. Thermaltake does offer the user a choice between two fan speeds, sure, but the aural difference between 1,700RPM and 3,000RPM is significant. Something like a rheobus would have been ideal, allowing you to choose the fan-speed between the two limits.

The Tide Water package is expected to retail at around £199.99. That's almost double the asking price of a regular X800 GT 256MB package.

We appreciate the fact that the Tide Water X800 GT 256MB has overclocked core and memory speeds of 500MHz/1050MHz, respectively, but we wonder whether the addition of a discrete liquid-cooling unit has priced it above the sweetspot for X800 GT cards? Whatever the case, it's refreshing to see something new. 

It's no surprise that the PowerColor X800 GT EVO Tide Water package is a larger-than-normal affair. After all, the box needs to house the card, block, self-contained liquid-cooling unit and associated software.

The bundle generally comprises of what we've seen from PowerColor before. Pacific Fighters is a reasonable game that's included in all current PowerColor packages, as, it seems, is CyberLink's PowerDVD 6 (2-channel) and a set of ATI drivers. A couple of DVI dongles and both S-Video and RCA extension cables were included, as well as a converter between the two. There's also cables for HDTV-output, connected via the S-Video socket.  PowerColor also includes a basic, foldout manual that provides decent enough reference material for both the card and Tide Water unit. It delineates installation in a step-by-step manner, helped by a number of colour photographs.  The packaging is more basic than deluxe, although, as usual, everything you need is supplied in the oversized box.

Test Platforms

Systems Athlon 64 S939 PCI-Express System
Processor AMD Athlon 64 4000+
Mainboard ABIT AX8 K8T890
Memory 1GByte (2x512MB) Corsair XMS3200 XL
Memory timings 2-2-2-5 1T @ DDR400
Graphics Card #1 PowerColor X800 GT Extreme 256MB PCIe (500/1050)
Graphics Card #2 PowerColor X800 GT EVO Tide Water 256MB PCIe (500/1050)
Graphics Card #3 PowerColor X800 GT 256MB PCIe (475/980)
Graphics Card #4 Connect3D Radeon X800 GTO 256MB PCIe (400/980)
Graphics Card #5 Galaxy GeForce 6600 GT 128MB PCIe (525/1050)
Graphics Card #6 NVIDIA reference GeForce 6800 GT 256MB PCIe (350/1000)
Disk Drive 160GB Western Digtal 160JB IDE
BIOS Version BIOS 13
Operating System Windows XP Professional SP2
Mainboard Software VIA Hyperion Pro v4.55

Software

ATI CATALYST 5.7 for ATI-based cards
NVIDIA ForceWare 77.72 for NVIDIA-based cards

Futuremark 3DMark05 Build 1.2.0 - AA and AF set via application
DOOM 3 v1.1 (1282) Timedemo 1 - AA and AF set via application
Far Cry v1.3 - custom HEXUS benchmark - AA and AF set via application
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory - custom HEXUS benchmark
Both the PowerColor's X800 GT Xtreme and EVO cards run at identical base frequencies of 500MHz core and 1050MHz memory. We've decided to bunch the cards together in the following benchmarks. As the list above shows, we'll be looking at comparative performance against a number of midrange cards, including a default-clocked Radeon X800 GT 256MB, an X800 GTO, and SAPPHIRE's moddable X800 GTO 256MB.  No problems to report during installation and testing.

The graph line to keep in mind is the lower red one. Performance, as you would expect, is higher than a default-clocked X800 GT's, although it's some way behind an X800 GTO's.

A look at DOOM 3 performance confirms the findings on the previous page. Remember, that both PowerColor X800 GTs here run with 8 pixel pipelines. That's why performance, when compared to a 12-pipe GTO, looks a touch shabby. What's troubling in this context is the fact that an Radeon X800 GTO 256MB retails at around £120, which is below the price of both the Xtreme and, obviously, Tide Water X800 GTs from PowerColor.  However, performance at 1280x1024 (with no AA and 8x AF) is reasonable enough.

Far Cry framerates at 1600x1200 are perfectly acceptable for a couple of midrange cards. 1280x1024 4x AA 8x AF tends to be a little sticky in some places. It does look fantastic, though.

The Radeon X800 GTO 256MB provides a better price-to-performance ratio in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, as well.

So just how far above the already-increased X800 GT 256MB frequencies were both samples able to go? Running overclocking tests by inching up core and memory speeds until visible artifacts became apparent, the air-cooled PowerColor X800 GT Xtreme 256MB sample was stable at 561MHz core and 1176MHz memory. The memory speed is a little lower than what the Samsung GDDR3 1.6ns RAM is specified to run at, so PowerColor may well be using slightly tighter timings. The X800 GT EVO (Tide Water), thanks to the self-contained liquid-cooling unit, was stable at 580MHz core and 1170MHz memory. We re-ran Far Cry and DOOM 3, both at 1280x1024 4x AA 8x AF, to see what kind of performance benefit overclocking the cards gave. Overclocking both cards gave a reasonable increase in performance, as you can see. However, it must be noted that neither overclocked sample was as fast as a regular Radeon X800 GTO 256MB card.

PowerColor's added to its range of Radeon X800 GT-based graphics cards by releasing a couple of special editions that bring something new to the table. Taking the Xtreme version first, it's differentiated from the standard edition by the use of faster Samsung GDDR3 memory that's run at 1050MHz (up from the default 980MHz) and, in tandem, with an increased core speed of 500MHzm which, again, is above the default's 475MHz. The price you pay for faster clocks through the use of better components is a price rise of around £20 above the £105 X800 GT 256MB card.

The problem that PowerColor faces with its £125 X800 GT Xtreme 256MB package is one brought about by ATI having a number of SKUs at midrange price-points. £120 or so is now home to the Radeon X800 GTO 256MB model, which runs with 50% greater rendering pipelines, albeit with slower core and memory clocks. As our graphs indicated, the GTO is comfortably faster than PowerColor's souped-up dual-DVI 'GT, so much so that even in overclocked mode the X800 Xtreme GT was still slower. In view of this and the keen pricing of a bunch of Radeon X800 GTO 256MB cards, it becomes difficult to recommend it at all. Put simply, if you have £120 and want a PCI-Express card, we'd recommend looking at ATI's X800 GTO first. Moving on to the other PowerColor card that ships with an identical PCB and, consequently, identical core and memory speeds, the X800 GT EVO Tide Water is more of a design showcase than anything else. £199 for a package that performs at sub-X800 GTO levels tells you only half the story. The other half rests with just how PowerColor has architected the card. It's the first that we've seen which ships with a self-contained watercooling kit as standard.

In cahoots with Thermaltake and its Tide Water cooling system, PowerColor's managed to release an all-in-one bundle that performs reasonably well. However, we would have liked to have seen some form of thermal monitoring on the card and, really, cooling for memory chips, too. Tide Water cooling, by its very nature, would make better sense on high-end GPUs, we feel, and it will be available to buy separately in the near future. So, in summary, we've looked at a couple of PowerColor X800 GT cards and have come away with the feeling that whilst both offer something new in the marketplace, the respective asking prices takes away much of their shine. Novel, exciting products? Yes. Value-for-money? Not quite.

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