The Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT is an affordable Direct 10.0 graphics card from ATI.
With the dawn of Windows Vista comes a new battlefield for graphics cards, with DirectX 10.0 positioning itself as the next crucial collision site for today's top games programmers and graphics chip makers.
We've already seen nVidia's attempt to produce DirectX 10.0 cards that are affordable to a mass audience, and we weren't totally bowled over by the results (see PNY GeForce 8600 GTS 256MB graphics card review).
Now it's ATI's turn. Has it fared any better with the Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT? Well, not really, suggesting that perhaps we were expecting a little too much from cards that, in all fairness, offer decent power and features for a very modest outlay.
With a price tag that falls pretty much slap-bang between the GeForce 8600 GT and GTS cards, the Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT ought to be able to beat the GT and come close to the GTS. On paper, though, the Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT has rather loftier ambitions.
While the 8600 chips contented themselves with GDDR3 memory, the Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT goes for the jugular and specifies GDDR4. This isn't perhaps surprising, since no company did more to push through this faster memory type than ATI. But there are advantages for the Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT elsewhere too.
ATI's smaller 0.065-micron manufacturing process (the nVidia chips are created using 0.08-micron) means that the 2600 XTs are more compact and generate less heat. Consequently, they can be run at higher clock speeds. The nVidia cards have historically had an advantage here, but the Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT's core and memory clock speeds of 800MHz and 1.1GHz (2.2GHz with DDR) compare very favourably indeed with the 8600 GT's figures of 560MHz and 810MHz (1.62GHz). Even the GTS lags miserably behind with 675MHz and 1GHz (2GHz DDR).
In addition, the Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT offers a mighty 120 stream processors rather than the 32 of the 8600 chips, and it matches them on the 128bit memory interface. As a result, the 2600 XT's memory bandwidth reaches a very decent 35.2GBps (gigabytes per second) – 3.2GBps higher than on the 8600 GTS and a significant 9.3GBps up on the humble 8600 GT.
So, the specifications suggest a rosy outlook for the Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT. Sadly for ATI, the realworld performance doesn't quite bear that out. It's not that this isn't a good chip. It's just that it finishes pretty much where you'd expect it to finish based on price – which is to say a safe distance ahead of the 8600 GT, but nowhere near beating the 8600 GTS.
There'll be no 2900 XT-style romping ahead with the Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT. But we shouldn't dismiss its performance. Indeed, over some titles (particularly Company of Heroes) it pulls out a valiant effort and actually beats the 8600 GTS. It also posts a decent showing in Far Cry, while its Stalker performance placed it squarely in the middle of the two 8600 cards. Only in FEAR did the Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT struggle, finishing somewhere behind the 8600 GT.
Of course, we might expect performance to improve further when ATI has had time to develop the drivers more. In particular, the anti-aliasing facilities need work, with performance dropping significantly more on the Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT than on the 8600 GT and GTS. We think the gap here might well close a little in the coming months. And nobody should dismiss the ATI Avivo HD facilities, which makes the Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT wonderful for displaying HD video.
CrossFire has also been improved upon, with ATI now moving to the internal bridge solution (rather than connecting the cards via a messy external cable) favoured by nVidia in its own chips.