Did I read those benchmarks right? (Source: PC Magazine, June 15, 2007)

Techland's Call of Juarez
The ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT gives the GeForce 8800GTX a run for its money in high end applications

Kelt Reeves is the CEO of Falcon Northwest.  This story was originally published on Kelt's Take.

It would probably come as no surprise to even the most casual PC hardware enthusiast that NVIDIA has been dominating the high end graphics card market for going on two years now. What was the years-running battle of ATI and NVIDIA, each leapfrogging the other with a faster card every six months, seems to be a thing of the past. The R600, ATI’s long awaited DirectX10 card, was ATI’s last hope for remaining an option on the high-end enthusiast’s shopping list. Seriously delayed, when the R600 finally arrived last month (as the officially named ATI Radeon HD 2900XT) the press was… less than kind.     
  • "ATI Radeon HD 2900 XTX, doomed from the start."
    • DailyTech
  • "...the ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT, in our opinion, is a flop."
    • [H]ardOCP
  • "Sometimes it has a hard time keeping up with a 320MB 8800GTS..."
    • Guru3D
The Radeon HD 2900XT got the kind of press normally only reserved for unrepentant hotel heiresses convicted of multiple DUIs. It got its butt kicked at almost every press outlet. Instead of being ATI’s great hope for DX10 performance titles in the future, it’s been relegated to the bargain-card bin.    
  • "That boy was our last hope."
    • -Ben Kenobi
  • "No. There is another."
    • -Yoda
What other hope? I must be shamelessly quoting Yoda hypothetically, in a cheap pop-culture reference to some future card ATI PR is now saying will make .5 past lightspeed. It’s obvious that ATI lost this round. Isn’t it?     
What if ATI won a round, and not even ATI noticed?
This is of course, impossible. If ATI had a winner product their PR department would be crowing about it to the heavens. That’s what PR does, over-hypes wins and spins losses. Even if every other part of a company has problems, PR still manages to fill the world with FUD. You know PR guys - they’re full of it. [Disclaimer: I do most of the PR for Falcon] There’s just no conceivable way the ATI Radeon HD 2900XT card was anything but a disappointment or we would’ve heard about it somewhere.
Did I read those benchmarks right?

Yes. This is Falcon’s fastest ATI Crossfire based system put up against our own fastest SLI based system that PC Magazine had reviewed less than two months earlier. The testing was done under Windows Vista 32-bit. And yes, our ATI based system destroyed the NVIDIA based system. Even given that NVIDIA had made driver improvements in between the time these two systems were benchmarked, these scores aren’t even close. Prey at 2560 resolution was almost twice as fast on ATI than it was on NVIDIA. Company of Heroes at 2560 was more than twice as fast. And we couldn’t clock the CPU on the Intel/ATI combo as high as we could on the Nvidia motherboard. Want to see the full story for yourself? Here’s the link to the PC Magazine review.    

So how did ATI win, exactly? And why are PC Magazine and Falcon Northwest the only ones that know it?

It's complicated, but I can boil it down to 3 main reasons:
  1. Super-secret hardware with dastardly effective codenames.
  2. Great Windows Vista drivers.
  3. Someone at ATI mistakenly sending "the good cards" out to Falcon Northwest.
ATI, despite being purchased by AMD, is still essentially a Canadian company. As such, I believe they name their products in metric. It’s the only excuse I can invent for them. For instance, the code names of their R6xx series products: R600 is the fastest. R610 is the slowest. R630 is in the middle. Okay so maybe this isn’t metric so much as just unhelpful. The U.S. tried to go metric in the ‘70s. I found that also unhelpful, but I digress.

To graduate from unhelpful idea to shooting yourself in the foot: Make 3 different Radeon HD2900XT cards that are vastly different performers but all have the same name. Then do not publicly acknowledge the existence of the fastest card. Continue denying all knowledge of the faster card even when the press eviscerates the slower version. This is what ATI did.     
So here are the Cliff’s Notes on the 3 different cards so you can identify them in the wild:
  1. ATI Radeon HD2900 XT- 9" Long, 512 Megs of GDDR3 memory. This is the card that’s getting all the bad press. Deservedly so? Possibly. Suffice to say it’s not the high end product that Falcon Northwest’s clients would be most interested in.

  2. ATI Radeon HD2900 XT- 12" Long, 1024 Megs of GDDR4 memory. Huh? You probably would’ve noticed the world’s first GDDR4 based graphics card. Especially if it was a gigantic 12" monstrosity that would have a hard time fitting in most PCs, right? This card was only sampled to system builders, and to my knowledge none of them picked it up as a product. It’s too big, WAY too hot, has clearance issues - forget I brought it up.

  3. ATI Radeon HD2900 XT - 9" long, 1024 megs of GDDR4. This is what we’re talking about! Two of these are what walked all over the SLI’d NVIDIA 8800 GTX cards at PC Magazine. Ask for it by name. Wait, that won’t really help. Some places have called this the "XTX". While technically incorrect, I’ll go with it. Anything to differentiate the winning version from the losing. For now, this card will only be available from Falcon Northwest and a handful of other boutiques in new systems.
Adding to unhelpful metric nomenclature, the 9" GDDR3 512 Megabyte card appears to be physically identical to the 9” 1024MB GDDR4 version. If you had one of each in your hands you would not be able to tell them apart. Come on ATI, even TV executives by the late ‘60s had figured out how to identify the good version and the bad version of otherwise identical looking things. At the very least ATI could’ve painted goatees on the slow cards.         
It's the drivers.
This article’s need for existence is cause for a bit of retroactive chastising for NVIDIA's drivers. I say retroactive because NVIDIA and ATI are constantly improving drivers, and some benchmarks I ran just days ago have Nvidia catching up on some of the scores PC Magazine saw. But of course, ATI is always working on driver improvements of their own. It’s always tough to draw a line in time and to say accurately how fast each card is at that moment. But that’s what all the press reviewers did in their write-ups of the Radeon HD 2900XT – benchmarked them against Nvidia’s cards at the same moment. How come PC Magazine’s results are so different?

Every review we found online was only testing single graphics cards, no SLI vs. Crossfire dual card setups. And all were under Windows XP. And we only saw one review that even got a hold of a GDDR4 version (that was leaked against ATI's wishes), and none with two GDDR4s run in Crossfire. So the vast majority of reviews we saw were pitting a single GDDR3 Radeon against NVIDIA's offerings, under Windows XP. And in that environment, I do not disagree with their findings.

But isn’t the big selling point of this entire new generation of cards from both ATI and Nvidia their Direct X10 ability? Sure there’s very little Direct X10 content to test right now, but Windows XP isn’t going to support Direct X10, so why not at least test it on the new OS?

And Falcon Northwest’s customers typically buy high end setups. All of our tower systems are dual-card ready, and most of our clients buy two cards with their new systems. If you were buying a new high end PC, wouldn’t your goal be for the fastest DX10 performance you could prepare for? Crysis IS coming people.
  • "Twins Basil! Twiiins!"
    • -Austin Powers
PC Magazine’s benchmarks show how two similar Falcon machines did with dual card setups under Vista. And the Crossfire setup easily beat the SLI setup. It’s no secret NVIDIA has had huge Vista driver issues, despite being first to market with a Vista-ready DX10 card by 5 months. Under XP, where both NVIDIA and ATI have established and polished drivers, NVIDIA's faster hardware wins. For any of our customers running Windows XP, I’d recommend NVIDIA's cards over any of the new Radeons. When you move to Vista, scores start to even out. And when you move to dual card setups under Vista, SLI encounters significant scaling problems. Crossfire scales up performance well. The end result is what you see on that benchmark chart.
  • Caveat Emptor Magnus Conclamatio - 'Buyer Beware of Loud Noises'
Sure I made that up with Google’s dubious translating help, but there is one downside to the Radeon card that carries more weight when it’s in questionable Latin: The Radeon cards are loud. Two of them are very loud. The loudest cards ever made? No. But Nvidia has been lowering the decibel bar lately, and our clients tend to really appreciate that. The NVIDIA 8800 Ultra, with its oversize fan, is the much quieter choice at the highest end. It’s something ATI should have considered, and depending on whether you care about how much noise your system makes, something you may need to as well.
  • "There are three kind of lies; lies, damned lies, and benchmarks."
    • -Loyd Case      
 I believe I’m stealing Loyd Case’s own twisting of Mark Twain’s famous saying about statistics here, but it fits. Benchmarks, like statistics, can be used selectively to prove a point. The benchmark table from PC Magazine above is of two of our own PCs against each other. My point? Falcon’s Swiss-like neutrality. Falcon Northwest has no vested interest in which brand of graphics card you purchase in your system from us, as long as we get you the right brand for your needs. We sell both ATI and NVIDIA cards, and enjoy working with both companies. This article is not about selling you an ATI card. I just want Falcon’s visitors to realize there is finally another viable option in graphics cards for them to look at. I felt the need to tell you, as no one else - not even ATI, did.

Epilogue: Graphics card guys, you've had 5 months since Vista shipped. The DX10 drivers need to be ready. Now.

In the past couple weeks some very important developments have occurred in Vista gaming. The first two games that require Vista to run shipped. Not surprisingly, both are published by Microsoft: Halo 2 and Shadowrun. Whether these games are your cup of tea or not, expect more of this trend. Microsoft has a lot of muscle and wants you to move to Vista. That’s not such a bad thing. No one’s enjoying Windows 95 anymore. You will move to Vista, it’s just a question of when. Microsoft making their games Vista only already can best be termed the "stick" approach.

I prefer the "carrot" approach, which recently shipped in the form of the first 'real' DirectX10 game: Call of Juarez. I say "real", because the also recently available DirectX10 patch for Company of Heroes really doesn’t seem to add much graphical goodness, and it cripples the framerate. Call of Juarez ships with both a DirectX9 version and a DirectX10 version, which looks significantly better. And when you run the DX10 version, it warns you of all the extra graphical goodies it’s going to enable and that this will require a lot more PC power. As a system builder, that’s music to my ears. As a gamer, it’s the reason why I love this hobby.

"The Space Elevator will be built about 50 years after everyone stops laughing" -- Sir Arthur C. Clarke
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