AOpen Aeolus 6800 Ultra-DVD512 PCI-E review

Price when reviewed

There’s a general rule in computing that where hardware leads, software follows. This is no more true than in the graphics market, where the latest tweaks in GPUs oftenlead to new visual effects in games only six months later. Famously, id Software turned this principle on its head by including an Ultra detail setting in Doom 3, the uncompressed textures requiring 512MB of local RAM.

AOpen Aeolus 6800 Ultra-DVD512 PCI-E review

It’s taken card manufacturers roughly a year to catch up. In theory, a card ‘only’ having 256MB of RAM will have to sample some textures from system RAM, with the extra latency causing stuttering in the game. In practice, we saw little evidence. An ATi Radeon X850 XT PE with 256MB of RAM showed a drop of only 2fps between High and Ultra settings (at 1,600 x 1,200, 4x AA, 8x AF) – the Aeolus dropped from 40fps to only 39fps at the same settings, showing a marginal advantage.

As befits the flagship chip in nVidia’s fleet, the frame rates were consistently high throughout our tests. At 1,280 x 1,024, none of our DirectX 9 games proved much of a challenge. Even adding the extra sampling and filtering and upping the resolution didn’t scupper the Aeolus. Bizarrely, considering the optimisations in the nForce drivers and GPU for OpenGL games, especially Doom 3, this actually proved the most taxing. Half-Life 2 proved some considerate coding by returning the highest frame rate of 49fps (1,600 x 1,200, 4x AA, 8x AF), while still looking absolutely stunning. The X850 XT PE still outperforms the Aeolus with 58fps.

We were so impressed with the high frame rates in Far Cry at our most extreme settings that we decided to play with the High Dynamic Range (HDR) rendering enabled in the 1.3 patch. At 1,280 x 1,024 with AA and AF removed, we saw a 39fps average. This is quite incredible considering that the GPU has to work especially hard for the extra contrast range. However, we still saw the frame rate occasionally drop below the magic 30fps smooth-and-playable threshold in shadow-rich areas. This indicates that even this ludicrously expensive card is unlikely to handle the next generation of even more realistic games expected this winter, although ATi cards currently won’t run HDR rendering at all as it’s a Shader Model 3-enabled effect.

This Aeolus card controls airflow by throttling the large, double-height fan back to a soft whine when the card is idling. It isn’t too distracting and has the added bonus of throwing off so much air that it could keep your hard disks cool too. It also comes bundled with a couple of decent games; Doom 3 is present as is the excellent Call of Duty.

Another maxim of computing is ‘there’s always something better on the horizon, so if you want something now just go and buy it’. However, we’d advise against this, since ATi and nVidia have already announced the next generation of high-end GPUs. These chips will double the parallelism of even this 6800 Ultra and could cost roughly the same. It doesn’t make sense to buy a high-end card at the moment, and we haven’t yet seen a compelling reason for a 512MB one either.

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