If we've learned one thing about the graphics card market, it's that delays are rarely a good sign. Having waited for the first ATI DirectX 10.0 card since, well, DirectX 10.0 itself, we were therefore sceptical about the eventual results. But ATI and AMD's first collaboration looks like being a huge success.

ATI traditionally launches a new range with its most powerful card first, but not this time: we'll have to wait a bit longer to see how the XTX fares. In the meantime, the HD 2900 XT, a card that goes head to head with the 640MB version of the GeForce 8800 GTS, gives us plenty to ponder.

Memory matters

Given that ATI did so much to bring about GDDR4 memory, it's surprising that the firm settled for GDDR3 here – and only 512MB of it at that. This compares with the top-flight GeForce 8800 GTS's 640MB. But the XT's specs are otherwise impeccable.

Whereas the 8800 GTS cards make do with core and memory clocks of 500MHz and 800MHz respectively, the 2900 XT pushes the boat out with figures of 740Mhz and 825MHz. Throw in a 512bit memory interface and you get a card with a stunning memory bandwidth of 105.6GBps (gigabytes per second). That's getting on for twice the 8800 GTS's score. It even puts the top-of-the-line 8800 GTX in the shade.

Stream engine

The same could be said of the 2900 XT's processors. Its 320 stream processors (each capable of acting as either a pixel or a vertex shader) easily outnumber those of the 8800 GTS and GTX.

Fantastic specs don't always add up to a lead in real-world applications, but ATI has been able to convert its technological advantages into some lethal framerates. It didn't beat the 640MB version of the 8800 GTS in all of our game tests, but it did come awfully close (see chart, below). The advantage is greatest at a resolution of 1,024x768, which suggests that the less detail you want to stack on, the better this card will prove.

The XT's DirectX 10.0 support looks good but, as usual, we can't really test this until we see a glut of true DirectX 10.0 games. The 2900 XT's tendency to slow down at higher detail settings suggests it might not shine as much as we'd like. At this point in time, only the GeForce 8800 GTX looks to have the firepower for DirectX 10.0.

Sapphire Radeon HD 2900 XT: Specs

  • ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT graphics processor
  • 512MB GDDR3 RAM
  • core clock 740MHz
  • memory clock 825MHz (1.65GHz DDR effective)
  • manufacturing process 0.08-micron
  • 320 stream processors
  • 512bit memory interface
  • PCI Express
  • DirectX 10.0
  • DVI
  • video-out
  • ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT graphics processor
  • 512MB GDDR3 RAM
  • core clock 740MHz
  • memory clock 825MHz (1.65GHz DDR effective)
  • manufacturing process 0.08-micron
  • 320 stream processors
  • 512bit memory interface
  • PCI Express
  • DirectX 10.0
  • DVI
  • video-out

OUR VERDICT

Overall, though, the Sapphire Radeon HD 2900 XT is an excellent card with strong performance – and it's cheaper than the 640MB 8800 GTS. With an enticing software bundle chucked in (including some decent games titles), this is a winner.

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