This is just one of those days when you have to pass judgment
on two products that are both excellent but designed from two different perspectives. At one hand you have ATi’s Radeon X800 XT, small, quiet, low power, but with plenty of processing power. On the other hand there’s Nvidia’s GeForce 6800 Ultra, big, powerful, lots of raw processing power and plenty of new features, but also requiring more power. The Radeon X800 XT reminds me of a polished ruby, as there’s already a solid base of drivers because it is based on a previous architecture, the Radeon X800 XT will therefore be able to shine from the start, but will also not be much more than that, a polished ruby.
The 6800 Ultra however is a diamond in the rough, freshly excavated and off to be cut and polished. That cut and polishing process is what’s going to make or break the diamond, it can be either a true 24-carat diamond or one of lesser quality. What I’m referring to is that the success of the GeForce 6800 Ultra is largely determined by how Nvidia chooses to tap into the potential locked inside this new architecture. We’re talking about drivers, industry support for pixel shader 3.0 and 32-bit rendering, all these things have to fall into place to turn a rough diamond into a true 24-carat diamond. I’m quite sure Nvidia will go the distance to make sure their new architecture delivers on its promises but it’ll take a while for drivers and industry support to mature.
So at the end of the day we have the Radeon X800 XT, a card that’s able to perform right out of the box, which has drivers that are mature enough to receive a WHQL certification soon but also has a performance level that’s basically set in stone. ATi has been working on similar drivers for the past two years, so don’t expect big leaps in performance, a marginal increase is about the best you can expect. And then there’s the GeForce 6800 Ultra, with release candidate drivers at best, drivers that show promise, even though they’re still an early build. But the potential is there to boost performance significantly, offering performance levels far beyond what we’ve seen up till now.
And how about the clockspeed both these graphics processors run at? ATi used to have a lower clockspeed than Nvidia, yet offering better performance. Things seem to have reversed now, ATi needs a 520MHz graphics processor to keep pace with Nvidia’s 450MHz processor, this means that Nvidia’s new architecture is faster and more efficient. Both use a 0.13-micron process to manufacture their processors, Nvidia talked to IBM and cut a deal with them, whereas ATi turned to TSMC for their silicon. Both these manufacturers have what it takes, but neither will be able to go around the clockspeed limits imposed by the process used. About 600MHz is as far as you’ll be able to clock a >150 million transistor 0.13-micron part. This means that ATi is already giving itself very little headroom, Nvidia however has got some room to play, a good 150 MHz, double that of what ATi has got left.
All things considered ATi’s Radeon X800 XT is an excellent performer, but also one that has little headroom left. If Nvidia has good yields on their parts and decides to crank up the clockspeed to 500MHz tomorrow ATi won’t be able to keep pace. If they also release a new driver which boosts performance by a considerable margin ATi will be left biting the dust. ATi however has a part out today that has mature drivers and excellent performance, Nvidia has yet to ship their first card based on their NV4x architecture. I’d say the best card to buy today is ATi’s Radeon X800 XT, as it is a safe bet, with solid drivers and performance and it'll be a top performer for a while. However tomorrow, I expect much more from Nvidia’s GeForce 6800 Ultra, ATi had to push real hard to keep pace with the first product of a new generation. To me that’s a tell tale sign that Nvidia's new architecture holds a promise.