Date: March 13, 2006
Author(s): Rob Williams
Are you building a new PC or HTPC and are looking for a great budget card? PowerColor may have exactly what you need, with their X1600XT 256MB. It offers great gaming performance for a budget card, and includes the AVIVO technology to make your video experience even better.
If you are considering an upgrade to the PCI-Express platform and don’t know which GPU to pick up, then this review may be for you. In the GPU-world, there’s always a low and high end card. The card we are taking a look at today lands itself in the middle somewhere, and proves to be a worthy contender to it’s competitors.
The X1600 series has a lot to offer. If you are familiar with ATI’s AVIVO technology, you will get it here. In gist, AVIVO is everything video related. It offers superb video playback quality, crisp and clear images and vibrant colors. It includes benefits for HD TV’s and other high-definition monitors. You can look below in the features list for a more detailed look at what AVIVO offers. Today, we are taking a look at the gaming aspect of the card, not the video playback.
If you are a budget gamer, which you must be if you are reading this review, then you may benefit from the Crossfire capabilities that the card offers. If you have a Crossfire capable motherboard and a X1600 Crossfire card, you are good to go with multi-GPU. PowerColor offers two versions of their X1600XT, but the only difference is that one offers VIVO (Video-In, Video-Out). The cards otherwise are clocked at the same speed and include the same extras.
The X1600XT is the top offering available in it’s class, with the next step up being the X1800XL. At the time of writing, the X1600XT retails for around $170US, while the X1800XL retails for $370. That’s quite a jump, and at that point you may as well shell out the extra for an X1900. The card I’m taking a look at today is one I couldn’t wait to shove in the machine. All of the benchmarking tests throws this card against my 6800GT. Granted, the 6800GT was top end of last gen, and offers more pixel pipelines and a wider memory bus, but that’s why it will be a fun challenge!
Before we jump into looking the card over, here is a huge chunk of text that compares today’s card to others on the market and below you can read the specifics and features.
|Current Avg. $|
The card arrived in a small box that packs a lot of content. Of course, there is a heroine standing in front of a robot, because that only makes perfect sense. In all seriousness though, the box is small, and I love it. Every detail you need to know is found on the front and back. The first thing you see after opening the box are some CD’s. They include a free game called Pacific Fighters, in addition to driver discs.
In terms of accessories, the box includes an S-Video cable, DVI Dongle in case your monitor uses VGA, S-Video to AV, VIVO Cable, Composite Cable and finally, an HDTV cable.
The card is standard size for most in it’s class and looks great. The board is red PCB as expected, and uses a black heatsink. The heatsink is topped by a thin clear plastic layer with “X1600XT” painted on. The fan is completely clear, but non-LED. As mentioned earlier, the card has two Dual-link DVI ports, in addition to a video output.
Overall, it’s a sweet looking card. Nothing amazing, but nothing less than expected.
We will quickly explain our benchmarking practices. Before any benchmarking goes on, the computer is cleaned up and defragged. All unnecessary programs such as Anti-Virus, Firewall and sound trays are closed so that only necessary applications are active. In between swapping graphics cards, Driver Cleaner is used to clean up the prior driver installation.
Each benchmark score is acquired by a custom run-through. We do not use automatic demos to benchmark because it does not reflect a realistic view of performance. Because each run-through will be different than the one prior, scores could tend to jump around a little bit. Example: In one run-through we could look up at the sky for a few seconds longer which could increase the score. When we play the same level over and over, we play through the level as if it was our very first time, so we explore and look around. We don’t just zoom through the level at light speed in order to get it over with.
We use FRAPS to capture our FPS information. With it, we can determine the Low, Average and Max FPS that we acquired through the entire test. Because the low and max are usually 0 and 200+, we ignore those and stick with the average. As soon as the level we are playing begins, we begin recording the information with FRAPS. FRAPS is set to stop recording information after 5 minutes of gameplay.
Each of our GPU reviews will use 1024*768 and 1280*1024 as the primary resolutions. To choose appropriate max settings, we pump up the AA and AF until we feel the game is completely playable at a specific setting. We do not use FPS readouts to determine how playable a game is, because this factor can vary between game to game. For instance, Call of Duty 2 is well playable at 25 – 30 FPS, but in Quake IV is just seems too choppy.
Ok, now that that is out of the way, let’s get right into our first game: Half-Life 2.
Half-Life 2 is undoubtedly one of the best first person shooters ever made. Not only is it an immersive experience, it’s still graphically brilliant a year and a half after it’s release. As soon as the game first launched, it quickly became a standard in GPU benchmarks, and there’s no sign of that letting up soon.
For testing in this game, I loaded up my favorite benchmarking level “canals_07”. This level starts you out beside your speedboat, and you continue along the river and travel through a building in order to blow up a few gas containers which triggers a few steel beams to bust the large door open. If you take your time, it will take about 5 minutes to complete the entire section of this level.
The runs at each resolution used max settings, including 4x AA and 8x AF.
I am immediately impressed by the results here. The 6800GT is a much beefier card that boasts 4 extra Pixel Pipelines and a 256bit bus width, and the X1600XT does a great job of keeping up to it. On both tests, the X1600XT stuck only 10FPS behind what the 6800GT could muster.
Let’s see if this performance continues with our benchmark test of Battlefield 2.
Battlefield 2 is one of the most power hungry games on the market today. Every aspect of your computer can make a substantial difference on the game, whether it be a slow CPU or slow ram. Of course, it was quickly evident that in order to play this game comfortably, you really need at least 2GB of speedy memory.
The level I chose to play in was an offline match in the Dalian Plant. I play the game offline due to the fact that each benchmark run is only 5 minutes long, so there’s little point to make an online event out of it. Thankfully, the offline experience closely mimics the online counter-part.
Both runs used the default graphics settings, with the AA bumped up to 4x.
The game played like a dream at 1024*768, but at 1280*1024 the game did seem a little sluggish at times. I am sure the game could end up being unplayable if you were to get in a massive battle with many people. Again though, the X1600XT gave us great performance with over 45 FPS at 1280*1024. Not bad considering just how demanding this game is!
Let’s now take a look at one of the top WWII shooters of all time, Call of Duty 2.
In the past two years there have been a few first person shooters that have been extremely well done. At a time when many people were getting tired of WWII based games, Infinity Ward comes along and blows us away with this. Yes, this game is amazing. The incredible audio and graphics certainly aide in helping CoD 2 become the game of year by many publications.
The level I played for this benchmark, was the first mission immediately following the tutorial. This is not due to laziness, but rather due to a fresh install of the game! The level begins you out with your team in a building which is also inhabited by Germans. You must chase after them and head through the field into the next building.
This is a very demanding game, but 4x AA was used in all tests.
Call of Duty 2 is one of the few games out there that still play very well at a lower FPS. Even at 1280*1024, there is no way I could have realized the game was only running at 23FPS… it’s a very well programmed game. Either way, this is a demanding game and helped even out the gap between both cards here. Really though, looking at the scores, you’d think that the 6800GT could certainly do better than it did.
Next up on the agenda is our most serious benchmark yet.
How could someone seriously not enjoy this game? The game is chock full of eye candy, but it seriously works great on most video cards available. Though the gameplay is nothing really to brag about, it’s a great platform for benchmarking because it throws many graphic effects your way. If you have not looked into this game before, you should seriously check out our review of the game here.
Again, I took the easy way out in this benchmark. I loaded up the first level and progressed through it until the end. The level begins you in a very small village filled with blue people, and you progress through to reach an open field. After hopping on Dino, a small dinosaur, you continue along and take on a brute with a magic axe. Playing through this level reminds me of a cartoon version of Far Cry, because of the lush landscapes.
The benchmarks were run using 4x AA and all other graphic settings at default.
Here we can find the largest gap between the performance of the X1600XT and 6800GT. Now, this game is supposedly ‘optimized’ for NVIDIA, which could explain the larger difference. Even still, the game was extremely smooth at 1280 with almost 50FPS being pushed out.
Next up is Quake IV, which should prove quite a worth challenge for this budget card.
Like Serious Sam II, Quake IV doesn’t have mind blowing gameplay, but it packs a serious punch in the graphics department. Based on the Doom III engine, the game takes you through countless levels of demon blasting. Even though I didn’t personally enjoy the game that much, I appreciate the level design and monster graphics.
The level I played through here is convoy1, which begins you outside of a large ship. You follow your path to reach a few teammates on a small train, and you get on your way to facilities five minutes ahead. As you progress, you only make one stop to do some baddie bashing, but there is little time during this level that things are not going on. Planes flying by and crashing into walls, missiles flying through the air, and my constant firing of the Dark Matter gun… it’s great!
Just like all the previous games, I ran Quake IV using 4x AA. The High detail setting was used.
The gap between the two cards is evident here once again. The 6800GT already has an advantage for being able to handle OpenGL so well, but the X1600XT still holds its own. 1024*768 is the preferred resolution on this card though, because 1280 stuttered at some parts and would be worsened in some parts of the game.
Ok, now that we put this card through 5 first person shooters, it’s time to try something different. For our final game, let’s see how well the card can handle Age of Empires III.
Age of Empires III was highly anticipated, and didn’t disappoint upon launch. In the graphics department, it’s the most impressive RTS game on the market today. It was actually the first RTS game to implement HDR, although it doesn’t seem to make a huge difference in the levels that I have played.
The first level was the one I used for testing this time around. The level is simple… it begins you out with a few men and many enemies coming towards the fort raring to blow things up. Even though this is a small level, there is a lot of detail in the buildings, characters and HDR.
Surprisingly, AoE III can be a more demanding game than the previous ones we have benchmarked today. During these tests, default graphic settings were used, and AA was turned completely off.
This is a very demanding game, with over 50 sprites on the screen during small battles. The detail level is very high, and and with the added HDR, it can make the game crawl in some areas. Like Quake IV, 1024*768 is going to be the preferred resolution here. While 1280 was playable, it became choppy in some areas. At 1024, the game flowed a lot better and played great. The 6800GT didn’t do that much better though.
Now that all the games are out of the way, let’s take a quick look at the loved/hated 3D Mark scores.
For as many people that love 3D Mark, there is an equal amount that dislike it. Even though you should never base your GPU purchase on a synthetic benchmark, it is still a fun demo to run to see how well your card performs compared to another.
For these tests, I ran the default benchmarks for each 3D Mark 03, 05 and 06. For 05 and 03, I disabled the extra CPU benchmarks. I re-ran all three once the card was overclocked to get a general idea of performance improvement.
In the older version of 3D Mark, the 6800GT has an obvious advantage. The stock score is almost 3,000 higher than the X1600XT. It’s interesting to look at the ’05 test though, because the X1600XT actually beat out the 6800GT. Why this is, I have no idea. The 6800GT regained the crown in ’06 though, but it’s not exactly a large difference.
Now that 3D Mark is out of the way, let’s head into our benchmark overview and Image Quality tests.
When competing against the 6800GT, the X1600XT certainly doesn’t give up without a fight. When I first received the card, I expected performance similar to a 6600GT, but I was pleasantly surprised when I seen that it kept up to the bigger card quite well. Of course, nobody will really go out and purchase a 6800GT now, unless it’s used, but it shows just how well a ‘budget’ card can keep up to one of the top cards of early last year.
I was impressed with the card during most of the gaming runs. The card handled Half-Life 2 so well, I swore I must’ve been using one of my bigger cards. Even in games like Call of Duty 2, the frame rate was rather low, but the game still played like a dream. Serious Sam didn’t prove to be too much of a challenge for either card at the default settings, but again the game ran completely smooth without a hitch.
It’s games like Quake IV and AoE III that really can push hard on the card at 1280*1024. In each game, there is such a high level of detail, that the card just can’t handle the game to play that smoothly at the higher resolutions. If you were to judge the card on 3D Mark scores, the X1600XT scores averaged out at around 60% of what a 7800GT scores. That’s actually quite an accurate look, because the X1600XT is approximately 60% of the cost of a 7800GT.
To see the differences in image quality between the two cards tested, I used Half-Life 2: Lost Cost, Call of Duty 2 and Age of Empires 3.
There are some immediate differences between the image quality in HL2: LC. On the NVIDIA, the HDR is a little too strong, and it affects some of the shadows on the landscape. They look sharper than they should. The ATI screenshot overall is a little less bright, but looks more natural.
Once again, ATI improves the look of CoD 2 also. While the differences are not immediate, if you flicker between the two images you can easily see a difference between textures around the room. While one section of the wall looks great, it may be fuzzy right beside it. On the ATI version though, the textures are clean all around.
AoE III looks far better on the NVIDIA card. If you compare the rooftops, they are a lot brighter in the ATI version. Other details in the scene are more refined and cleaner looking in the NVIDIA version.
Let’s head right into our conclusions.
As a whole, I was very impressed with the performance of this card. When comparing it to the 6800GT, it certainly held it’s own and never came very far behind. So the question really is, if you are a budget gamer, is the card worth your $170? At this price point, the next ATI step up would be the X1800XL, which can cost around $325US. This is a huge jump. On the NVIDIA side of things, this card competes nicely with the 6800GS. I wish I had a 6800GS on hand, as it would have been a more fair competition. The 6800GS is equipped with 12 Pixel Pipelines as the X1600XT is, but it’s memory bus is better at 256Bit.
Both the X1600XT and 6800GS are priced similarly, so depending on what side you wish to take, you cannot go wrong with either. The 256-Bit memory bus on the GS may improve some games at higher details though. I can’t speak from experience with the GS, so it’s hard to have a real opinion.
The X1600XT offers superb performance for the price though, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants an ATI card in their machine. In the future if you wish to upgrade and have a Crossfire board, you could purchase an X1600 Crossfire card to help you out. As a standalone card though, it impressed me throughout all of the tests. Even at 1280 resolutions, it handled all of the games very well, although some parts of certain games became evidently laggy.
The bundle with the card is primarily a game I never heard of, nor tried out. If you are a fan of the flight sim genre though, you will appreciate this addition. The fact that this card includes all of the extra video cables you need for AVIVO adds to the value.
Simply put: If you are a gamer on a budget, then you cannot go wrong with this card. It offers amazing performance for the price, and overclocks quite well. Coupled with the great AVIVO capabilities, this card would be perfect even if you are building an HTPC but don’t need all of the functionality that the All-In-Wonders offer. I award the PowerColor X1600XT a 9 out of 10, along with our Editors Choice award!
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