Reviving the ULTIMATE line
If you recall Sapphire’s previous ULTIMATE Edition cards, with the “ULTIMATE” brand, Sapphire aimed to deliver cards with silent cooling, or at least as close to silent as possible. Sapphire was actually the first ATI board partner to emphasize this, with their early ULTIMATE Edition cards cooled solely by Zalman heatpipe solutions; noisy fans had become a thing of the past.
As ATI’s VPU’s became more powerful however, heatpipe cooling alone wasn’t sufficient enough to adequately cool the graphics core. Sapphire began bundling their 9800 XT ULTIMATE Edition with an additional Zalman ZM-OP1 fan. In our review of the 9800 XT ULTIMATE we noted that the fan did an excellent job of cooling the card without generating an excessive amount of noise, the only downside was that the fan was rather large, taking up a large amount of room inside the system case, and also required additional packaging for Sapphire to handle. This increased cost for shipping.
Eventually Sapphire had to incorporate more traditional heatsink/fan cooling from Arctic Cooling, integrating their VGA Silencer 4 into the Sapphire TOXIC X800 PRO. Many figured Sapphire had severed their ties with Zalman after the TOXIC line was launched.
The ULTIMATE line and Sapphire’s relationship with Zalman lives on however, as the Sapphire X800 XL ULTIMATE uses Zalman’s VF700 unit to cool ATI’s X800 XL VPU.
Unlike previous ULTIMATE products, the Sapphire X800 XL ULTIMATE Edition differs in that it doesn’t rely on heatpipe cooling. The Zalman VF700 cooler that the card relies on instead is based on a heatsink/fan unit design, employing aluminum cooling for the heatsink unit’s fins.
The design of the cooler itself though is anything but conventional, with a heatsink shaped like a flower, with some of the longest fins we’ve ever seen on a graphics card heatsink, giving the cooler greater surface area and thus increasing its effectiveness. The fins are tightly crammed together for even better performance. The heatsink is then mated to a large, yet quiet 2-ball bearing fan, ensuring better longevity for the fan’s motor.
Zalman claims the whole system is so effective it not only cools the graphics core effectively, but the entire PCB of the graphics card itself as well. The only snag is that the cooler is so large it engulfs the PCI slot adjacent to the graphics card, but for most enthusiasts this isn’t a problem.
In operation, the ULTIMATE X800 XL isn’t silent, but at under 30 decibels, the card’s fan is pretty hard to hear under the noise of other system components such as the CPU and system chipset coolers, even in our open-air testing environment. Inside a system case you’d be hard-pressed to pick it out. Like all X800 XL cards, the fan operates dynamically, with the RPMs varying based on the VPU’s temperature. As the temperature increases, so do the RPMs. During our testing the fan never had to hit 100% to keep the card cool, but it would leave it’s slowest setting for an intermediate mode occasionally. But even at these levels the card barely registers at 30 decibels.
The rest of the ULTIMATE X800 XL’s board design is carried over strictly from Sapphire’s previous X800 XL card, including the board’s DVI/VGA output combination. Considering that the ULTIMATE line is targeted towards enthusiasts, we would have liked to have seen dual DVI outputs, but Sapphire chose not to implement them. The ULTIMATE X800 XL also lacks video input for VIVO (video-in/video-out) support. Perhaps these features will be included in a future TOXIC Edition X800 XL board? Sapphire’s stance going forward is that the ULTIMATE line will continue to emphasize quiet, near-silent operation, while the TOXIC boards will be targeted towards overclocking.
Hardware accessories bundled with the board include a DVI adapter, component video cable (for hooking the card up to an HDTV), as well as S-Video and Composite video cables. Software titles bundled with the card include the DVD-ROM version of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and PowerDVD 5 2-channel edition.