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HIS Excalibur 9600XT TURBO VIVO EDITON

The HIS Excalibur Radeon 9600XT Turbo is a mid-priced (approximately $200) video card that performs well and has an excellent bundle (which includes Half-Life 2). It also looks good, with chrome heatsinks and a blue LED fan.


Introduction


The HIS Excalibur 9600XT TURBO VIVO EDITON is a great mid-priced card. It has full DirectX 9.0 support, 128MB DDR, and it’s a good performer, with a great bundle. I’m reviewing the VIVO Edition, which means it has the optional Video In/Out. The non-VIVO version has an MSRP of $199; I haven’t been able to determine the price of the VIVO Edition, but It’s likely to be only a little more expensive.

Oh and by the way, it comes with a coupon for a free copy of Half-Life 2.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s about the best possible bundle, although Doom 3 would be a close second. I’m glad to see a real top-tier game bundled with a video card again. That means that if you were planning to buy HL2 anyway, the “true” cost of the Excalibur is more like 150 bucks.

The box is reasonably attractive and features some sort of chrome medallion in the center. Or maybe it’s a shield. It’s not a sword, which is odd, given the name of the card. The box is literally covered with stickers; I counted 8, including the bar code. Here’s a pic:

The box is decent, and the contents arrived undamaged. What more is there to say? Let’s open the box and take a peek inside…

This card comes with a great bundle! It includes a coupon for Half-Life 2, which rates to be Game of the Year, in my opinion. The coupon makes the whole package a much better value, since you will save yourself the time and expense of having to buy a copy of HL2 when it finally hits the stores.

There are 5 CDs: A driver disk, PowerDVD 5, PowerDirector Pro 2.5 VE, a game called Zanzarah – The Hidden Portal, and a Games Collection CD which includes demos of the following games: Vietcong, Railroad Pioneer, Neighbors From Hell, Tropico 2: Pirate Cove, and Aquanox 2: Revelation. This is a newer, fresher set of games than I’ve seen bundled with the cards I’ve reviewed lately.

Of course there’s a manual, and it’s pretty good but a little skimpy (the English section is only 9 pages). There are German and French sections too. It covers hardware and software installation as well as “Using Video Out” and “Using Video In.” The manual is well-written (the English section is written by someone who can actually speak English). Lately, I’ve noticed some real improvement in the manuals for the video cards I’ve reviewed. Let’s hope this trend continues!

There’s a good selection of cables: A VIVO splitter (both S-Video and composite), an S-Video extension cable, and an S-video to RCA female adapter cable. There’s even a DVI to VGA adapter, in case you wish to hook up 2 analog monitors.

All-in-all this is the best bundle I’ve ever received with a video card.

Specifications


  • Powered by ATI RADEON™ 9600 XT Visual Processing Unit
  • 500MHz Graphics Engine Clock
  • 128/256MB-650MHz DDR memory (TURBO Model Only)
  • 128-bit memory interface
  • Dual integrated 10-bit per channel palette DACs operating at up to 400MHz
  • AGP 8X / 4X
  • VGA, S-Video, and DVI-I connectors

Click HERE for the full specs.

Features


  • Features ATI’s TRUFORM™2.0, SMARTSHADER™2.0 and SMOOTHVISION™2.1, and HYPER™Z III+ technologies
  • SMARTSHADER™2.0 technology supports DirectX?.0 and enables more complex and realistic lighting effects
  • Sharper-looking 3D graphics with ATI SMOOTHVISION™2.1 technology
  • TRUFORM™2.0 technology that makes the outlines of 3D characters and objects look smoother and more natural than ever before
  • Dual display support with HYDRAVISION™
  • Integrated TV-Out support up to 1024 x 768 resolution
  • Integrated DVI-compliant TMDS transmitter
  • VIVO model available

The Card and Installation


The HIS Excalibur 9600XT TURBO VIVO EDITON is a sturdy, attractive video card. It’s a lot smaller than the FX5700 Ultra that I’ll be comparing it to later. It weighs a lot less too. And unlike the FX5700, it does not need a separate molex (hard drive type) power connection. That makes for simpler installation.

This card looks fairly cool too, especially when it’s installed in your case, and the blue LED lights up in the “iCooler” cooling system. The shiny chrome heatsinks are reasonably attractive and more importantly are attached to the RAM without the really thick layer of thermal goo that some other boards use (to fill gaps).

The fan and heatsink keep the front side of this card nice and cool, but what about the back?

There are RAM heatsinks on the back, as expected. The rear heatsinks are not just for show; they do get warm (but not very hot at all). That’s to be expected since it’s using DDR. There is no fan on the back side of the card; however, it’s not really necessary since the RAM does not get all that hot.

Installation


Here’s a shot of the board just after I installed it. Notice that this board only requires a single slot. While I recommend that one or two of the PCI slots adjacent to the AGP (video card) slot are left empty (so that ventilation is maximized), it’s nice when the video card does not actually occupy two slots. A single slot is a definite plus for those who have a small / cramped case. Notice too that this card does not need a molex connector that has to be hooked up to the power supply.

The Excalibur looks quite pretty when its heatsink is lit up by the blue LED. If you have a case window and are looking for an attractive graphics card, this board deserves your consideration.

Here’s a shot of the three boards that I will be benchmarking in this review. The HIS Excalibur is at the top, then comes an Albatron FX5700 Ultra, and at the bottom is a Connect3D Radeon 9600 Pro.

As you can see, the Albatron FX5700 Ultra is a much larger card than either the HIS Excalibur 9600XT or the 9600 Pro. It requires an extra power connection too. Since it uses more power, it also puts out more heat. It’s also a lot heavier; the Albatron weighs 11.2 oz (319 g) versus the Excalibur which weighs 7.4 oz (210 g) or the 9600 Pro which only weighs 5.6 oz (161 g). This is something you might want to consider if you plan on lugging your system to LAN parties.

All of these cards were easy to install; however, the FX5700 does require one extra step. It’s an easy step, but it’s also easy to forget. Like many of the newest graphics boards, there is a molex (hard drive type) connector, which must be plugged into the system’s power supply. I prefer cards like the Excalibur, which simply need to be inserted in the AGP slot and don’t need an extra power connection.

All of these boards are fairly quiet too. I cannot hear any of them over my other case fans once the computer case is closed.


Benchmarks / Performance



System Configuration

The video cards in this review are:

The video drivers used in this review are:

  • ATI Catalyst version 4.3 drivers, TRUEFORM was set to the default (OFF)
  • NVIDIA Detonators version 53.04

All benchmark scores were rendered at the highest quality settings (in the game/benchmark and in the video card drivers), with 4x antialiasing (AA), 8x anisotropic filtering (AF), and sync to vertical retrace turned off, unless otherwise noted. Many of the following scores were gathered using BenchemAll, an excellent benchmark utility program.

No synthetic benchmark is a perfect substitute for running real games (and other applications) on your own system, but personally, I do believe that synthetic benchmarks fill a few legitimate needs, such as running antialiasing and filtering tests in a highly repeatable environment. However, real game benchmarks are the best test of real-world performance, so I ran some of those too.

3DMark2001SE Pro – Build 330

1024×768 – 4xAA / 8xAF
Graphics Card
3DMarks
HIS Excalibur 9600XT7509
FX5700 Ultra7902
Radeon 9600 Pro6471

Well, it looks like the Excalibur is off to a slow start, but rest assured it wins most of the benchmarks. Next up is AquaMark3, which uses lots of “shaders,” so it should be a fairly good test of future game performance.

AquaMark3

1024×768 – NoAA / 8xAF
Graphics Card
FPS (Avg)
HIS Excalibur 9600XT28.97
FX5700 Ultra26.92
Radeon 9600 Pro24.96
1280×1024 – NoAA / 8xAF
HIS Excalibur 9600XT22.51
FX5700 Ultra20.34
Radeon 9600 Pro18.61
1600×1200 – NoAA / 8xAF
HIS Excalibur 9600XT17.05
FX5700 Ultra15.75
Radeon 9600 Pro14.01

Ah, this is more like it. The Excalibur easily wins when antialiasing is turned off, but what about when AA is enabled?

AquaMark3

1024×768 – 2xAA / 8xAF
Graphics Card
FPS (Avg)
HIS Excalibur 9600XT26.79
FX5700 Ultra22.50
Radeon 9600 Pro22.80
1280×1024 – 2xAA / 8xAF
HIS Excalibur 9600XT20.21
FX5700 Ultra16.38
Radeon 9600 Pro16.83
1600×1200 – 2xAA / 8xAF
HIS Excalibur 9600XT14.63
FX5700 Ultra12.41
Radeon 9600 Pro12.25

The Excalibur wins the 2x antialiasing round and jumps further ahead of the FX5700 Pro.

AquaMark

1024×768 – 4xAA / 8xAF
Graphics Card
FPS (Avg)
HIS Excalibur 9600XT24.92
FX5700 Ultra19.24
Radeon 9600 Pro21.07
1280×1024 – 4xAA / 8xAF
HIS Excalibur 9600XT18.54
FX5700 Ultra13.80
Radeon 9600 Pro15.52
1600×1200 – 4xAA / 8xAF
HIS Excalibur 9600XT12.08
FX5700 Ultra10.54
Radeon 9600 Pro10.25

The Excalibur sweeps the AquaMark3 benchmarks. Let’s take a look at UT2003, since I don’t have UT2004 yet:

Unreal Tournament 2003 – ver. 9/14/2002 – Flyby

1024×768 – 4xAA / 8xAF
Graphics Card
FPS (Avg)
HIS Excalibur 9600XT92.018219
FX5700 Ultra89.166225
Radeon 9600 Pro78.087934
1280×960 – 4xAA / 8xAF
HIS Excalibur 9600XT65.072618
FX5700 Ultra61.722281
Radeon 9600 Pro55.123804
1600×1200 – 4xAA / 8xAF
HIS Excalibur 9600XT29.865115
FX5700 Ultra42.465305
Radeon 9600 Pro25.902266

The Excalibur wins the first two-thirds of UT2003 Flyby competition, but it runs out of steam at 1600×1200. Let’s see if the pattern holds up in the botmatch test.

Unreal Tournament 2003 – ver. 9/14/2002 – Botmatch

1024×768 – 4xAA / 8xAF
Graphics Card
FPS (Avg)
HIS Excalibur 9600XT54.623005
FX5700 Ultra56.370920
Radeon 9600 Pro51.480721
1280×960 – 4xAA / 8xAF
HIS Excalibur 9600XT44.557980
FX5700 Ultra45.077950
Radeon 9600 Pro38.168011
1600×1200 – 4xAA / 8xAF
HIS Excalibur 9600XT21.813340
FX5700 Ultra31.913169
Radeon 9600 Pro18.909695

Yep, the Excalibur just can’t quite keep up at 1600×1200, at least for UT2003. Let’s check out a different game benchmark.

NASCAR Racing 2003 Season Demo ver 1.0.0.1

1024×768 – 4xAA / 8xAF
Graphics Card
FPS (Avg)
HIS Excalibur 9600XT23.839
FX5700 Ultra20.567
Radeon 9600 Pro20.811
1280×1024 – 4xAA / 8xAF
HIS Excalibur 9600XT17.045
FX5700 Ultra14.039
Radeon 9600 Pro14.710
1600×1200 – 4xAA / 8xAF
HIS Excalibur 9600XT11.489
FX5700 Ultra12.777
Radeon 9600 Pro10.041

The NASCAR results are similar. The Excalibur is off to a great start, but the FX5700 Pro grabs the crown at 1600×1200. So far, I’ve only looked at performance under DirectX; let’s examine the performance under OpenGL.

Return To Castle Wolfenstein – ver 1.31 MP – Checkpoint demo

1024×768 – 4xAA / 8xAF
Graphics Card
FPS (Avg)
HIS Excalibur 9600XT97.8
FX5700 Ultra97.2
Radeon 9600 Pro93.3
1280×1024 – 4xAA / 8xAF
HIS Excalibur 9600XT80.4
FX5700 Ultra78.4
Radeon 9600 Pro70.4
1600×1200 – 4xAA / 8xAF
HIS Excalibur 9600XT0
FX5700 Ultra59.5
Radeon 9600 Pro0

In RTCW, the Excalibur and the FX5700 Pro are very close at 1024×768 and 1280×1024, but what the heck happened at 1600×1200? Both ATI cards repeatedly crashed at the very end of the benchmark playback, just before the results menu would have been displayed. I’m not sure if this problem would affect actual gameplay or not. This issue appears to be a driver bug, since the Radeon 9600 Pro received a score of 43.3 FPS with the 3.10 version of ATI’s Catalyst drivers.

The Excalibur performs better than the FX5700 Pro in most benchmarks, making this card an excellent choice in the mid-priced range. The visual quality of all of these cards is very good; however, in my opinion, the ATI Radeons look a little better on-screen, especially when using 4x antialiasing.

Unfortunately, I am currently unable to test the VIVO features of this board, but ATI is well known for their good quality video subsystems, so I would expect this board would work well in a home-built TIVO-type setup.


Overclocking and Conclusion


ATI now has a built-in overclocking tool in their Catalyst drivers. The feature is called OverDrive, and it’s a panel on Advanced Display Options dialog box. Unfortunately, OverDrive does not allow you to adjust the video card’s memory speed, so it’s unlikely that the card’s full potential will be reached. One nice thing about the OverDrive feature is that it includes a real-time VPU (ATI’s name for GPU) temperature display. During normal use, I found my VPU temperature ranged from 40-42°C. When overclocking, it went as high as 45°C, when measured at the end of a benchmarking run. Too bad there’s no graph or logging capability so that you can track temperatures while actually benchmarking.

(To access OverDrive, go to Control Panel / Display. Then go to the Settings tab and click the Advanced button. Then click the tab labeled OVERDRIVE(tm).)

Unfortunately, since OverDrive does not increase the clock speed of the card’s RAM, the overall increase in performance is slight, about 3% overall. That won’t do at all.

Now it’s time for some real overclocking! (Disclaimer: Overclocking your hardware can ruin it — Overclock at your own risk!) There are several overclocking utilities available for ATI Radeons; I used RadClocker version 2.006. RadClocker is easy-to-use: It simply adds yet another panel to the Advanced Display Options dialog box:

If you decide to use RadClocker, here’s a tip: Remember to turn OverDrive OFF; otherwise, the two settings will fight, and you’ll wind up running only at OverDrive speeds, regardless of your clock settings in RadClocker! Also, keep in mind that the true memory speed is double the clockrate, since it’s DDR memory.

3DMark2001SE Pro – Overclocking

1024×768 NoAA NoAF
Graphics Card
3DMarks
HIS Excalibur – overclocked 580/67512542
HIS Excalibur – OverDrive 526/64812165
HIS Excalibur – default 500/64811820

AquaMark3 Overclocking

1024×768 – NoAA / 8xAF
Graphics Card
FPS (Avg)
HIS Excalibur – overclocked 580/67531.32
HIS Excalibur – OverDrive 526/64829.88
HIS Excalibur – default 500/64828.97
1280×1024 – NoAA / 8xAF
HIS Excalibur – overclocked 580/67525.18
HIS Excalibur – OverDrive 526/64823.09
HIS Excalibur – default 500/64822.51
1600×1200 – NoAA / 8xAF
HIS Excalibur – overclocked 580/67519.22
HIS Excalibur – OverDrive 526/64817.45
HIS Excalibur – default 500/64817.05

AquaMark3 Overclocking – 4xAA

1024×768 – 4xAA / 8xAF
Graphics Card
FPS (Avg)
HIS Excalibur – overclocked 580/67527.25
HIS Excalibur – OverDrive 526/64825.69
HIS Excalibur – default 500/64824.92
1280×1024 – 4xAA / 8xAF
HIS Excalibur – overclocked 580/67520.64
HIS Excalibur – OverDrive 526/64819.01
HIS Excalibur – default 500/64818.54
1600×1200 – 4xAA / 8xAF
HIS Excalibur – overclocked 580/67513.25
HIS Excalibur – OverDrive 526/64812.27
HIS Excalibur – default 500/64812.08

As you can see, bumping the VPU clock speed to 580.5 (+16%) and memory speed to 675 (+4%) yields much better performance, in the range of 9%-13%, compared to OverDrive which provided a measly 3% overall increase, which is not really noticeable. I achieved a reasonable overclock but did not quite reach the limits that I had hoped for (especially the memory speed). Increasing the VPU speed caused lock-ups, and increasing the memory speed introduced video artifacts (horizontal bars), but 580.5 / 675 was completely stable in all tests.

Conclusion

The HIS Excalibur 9600XT TURBO VIVO EDITON is a mid-priced (approximately $200) video card that performs well and has an excellent bundle (which includes a coupon for Half-Life 2). It’s well built, and it also looks good, with chrome heatsinks (front & back) and a blue LED fan. In the benchmarks, it wins most of the tests but loses out to NVIDIA’s FX5700 Ultra some of the time (especially at 1600×1200 resolution).

If you’re looking for a new video card, I’m sure you’d be happy with any of the three cards I reviewed, but in my opinion, the Excalibur is clearly the best of the bunch.

Pros

  • Good performer
  • Faster memory clock than a “standard” Radeon 9600XT
  • Excellent bundle (includes coupon for Half-Life 2)
  • Attractive silver heatsinks and blue LED fan
  • It’s smaller than an “enthusiast” card and does not require the use of an adjacent PCI slot or an extra Molex connection to the power supply

    Cons

  • Slightly disappointing overclocking potential: 9%-13%

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