||Sapphire Atlantis Radeon 9800 Pro Ultimate Review
July 25, 2003 Chris Angelini
Summary: Planning on building the ultimate silent PC? Sapphire's got the card for you: the Sapphire Atlantis 9800 Pro Ultimate Edition! Based on ATI's RADEON 9800 PRO VPU, the Atlantis 9800 Ultimate packs plenty of power for today's latest games, and with Zalman's heat pipe built-on, the card doesn't generate any noise. Does this innovative design have any flaws? Find out in this review!
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 16 )|
We were first introduced to Sapphire late last year, during Comdex. It was an immediate standout in a sea of “been there” and “done that,” due in part to a unique product that demonstrated originality. That card, the Sapphire Atlantis 9700 Pro Ultimate, was a standard RADEON 9700 Pro card equipped with a Zalman ZM80 heat pipe cooler designed to run silently without any sort of performance sacrifice. Of course, the card carried a price premium when it debuted. And as well it should have – it included the large cooler, a software bundle and a package of cables to enable television output and a second display, either VGA or DVI.
Fast-forward eight months, and the video card market has changed considerably. Mainly, NVIDIA’s GeForce FX 5900 Ultra is finally available and competing head-to-head with ATI’s flagship, the RADEON 9800 Pro. Both products are extremely complex. And as a result, there hasn’t been much in the way of innovation from third-party hardware vendors peddling high-end graphics cards. Wave after wave of reference boards pass through our labs, undifferentiated for the most part. This isn’t to say reference designs are bad. Clearly, ATI and NVIDIA both back their processors with plentiful resources, the result of which is a stable graphics platform for gaming. But at the same time, reviewing reference boards can be an arduous undertaking. After all, each card performs comparably and the only points for comparison are price, bundle, and availability.
Sapphire: Stepping Out
These days, gargantuan cases are giving way to chic small form factor systems that often sport similar feature sets and comparable performance. The obvious tradeoff is a reduction in expandability – most boast an AGP slot and a single PCI slot. The natural extension of smaller cases is a push for less noise. Shuttle’s systems can be cooled with a single fan and smaller mini-ITX boards often make due with a simple heat sink.
Recognizing that silent PCs are becoming evermore popular, Sapphire has designed another card bearing the ‘Ultimate’ moniker - this one is based on the RADEON 9800 Pro board. As with all of the other 9800 Pro products seen thus far, the Sapphire Atlantis 9800 Pro Ultimate centers on a reference board. However, it is covered with a Zalman VGA cooler from the ZM80 family.
|<% print_image("01"); %>||<% print_image("02"); %>|
To recap, the RADEON 9800 Pro reference board is based on the ATI R350 Visual Processing Unit clocked at 380MHz. It is, of course, fully compliant with DirectX 9 and it sports a couple of features not found on its predecessor, the RADEON 9700 Pro. The first is called an F-buffer, a FIFO buffer within the chip’s core that theoretically enables fragment shader programs of unlimited length. We’ve yet to see a game that utilizes the DirectX 9 feature set, so it remains to be seen what, if any, effect the F-buffer has in real-world apps, especially since massive shader programs have a particularly adverse effect on performance. Additionally, R350 has an enhanced memory controller and Z cache said to augment stencil buffer performance. The cumulative result is a marked improvement in especially intensive situations, such as anti-aliasing at high resolutions. These features are common to all RADEON 9800 Pro cards, though. What makes the Atlantis 9800 Pro Ultimate noteworthy is its method for cooling.
SIDEBAR: As a result of the Zalman cooler, expect to lose the PCI slot adjacent to the AGP connector.
| The Atlantis 9800 Pro Ultimate||Page:: ( 2 / 16 )|
Without question, the massive heat pipe cooler adorning the newest Ultimate card is its most distinguishing feature. The heat sink’s large size is intended to compensate for a lack of active cooling. But covering one side simply isn’t enough. The RADEON 9800 Pro dissipates a lot of heat running at 380MHz and without a fan, it becomes necessary to cover both sides of the card with roughly 1,200 square centimeters of surface area. A gold plated copper tube filled with liquid connects the top and bottom halves, creating something along the lines of a RADEON 9800 Pro sandwich. As the processor heats up (and in turn transfers heat to the cooler), the liquid in the tube begins to boil and eventually evaporates. Hot vapor is forced to the other end of the pipe where it transfers heat to the other side of the heat sink, cools, condenses, and returns to the other end of the heat pipe once again. This condensation-evaporation cycle continually removes heat from the core.
Because R350 is manufactured on a .15-micron process and because it runs at 380MHz, our main concern with the passive cooling implementation was saturation. There is a point where the heat input exceeds the heat output and the cooler simply can’t keep up. Considering that our Atlantis 9700 Pro Ultimate topped out at 130 degrees Fahrenheit, we didn’t see much room for higher temperatures. Nevertheless, Sapphire claims to have worked with Zalman to improve its mechanism, resulting in better heat transfer. We can certainly confirm that the new version is more securely fastened. And with the help of a Raytek ST30 non-contact thermometer, we were able to measure the front of the card at up to 166 degrees and the back of the card at 158. As such, we decided against overclocking the card. It was already too hot to touch, even on an open-air test bench.
|<% print_image("04"); %>||<% print_image("05"); %>|
Several manufacturers have approached RADEON 9800 Pro sales as minimalists. Forsaking bundles and other extras, they aim for the lowest price possible assuming gamers interested in a 9800 Pro will have the means to buy their favorite games. Sapphire takes a different route with the Ultimate. Of course, the pricey Zalman cooler has a profound impact on the card’s price. So, rather than compete under the auspice of value, Sapphire has gone all-out, bundling Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, a limited version of PowerDVD 4.0, the Redline tweak utility and a complete set of cables. Final pricing hasn’t yet been announced, but expect the package to weigh in around $450.
SIDEBAR: Sapphire has also unveiled an ‘Ultimate’ version of its RADEON 9600 Pro card, which sports a slightly smaller heat sink.
| System Setup||Page:: ( 3 / 16 )|
Pentium 4 3.2GHz Processor
Intel D875PBZ 875P Motherboard
512MB DDR400 Memory
Sapphire Atlantis 9800 Pro Ultimate (Catalyst 3.6)
ATI RADEON 9800 Pro Reference 128MB (Catalyst 3.6)
ATI RADEON 9700 Pro Reference 128MB (Catalyst 3.4)
NVIDIA GeForce FX 5900 Ultra 256MB Reference (Detonator 44.03)
120GB Seagate Serial ATA 7200RPM HDD
Silicon Image Reference Serial ATA Controller Card
Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1
Desktop resolution 1024x768, 32-bit color, 75Hz refresh
All power saving options were turned off, as were the Automatic Update and System Restore services. Graphics options under the ‘Performance’ tab were all disabled for maximum performance.
Unreal Tournament 2003 (T2 custom demo)
3D Mark 2003 v.330
IL2 Sturmovik: Forgotten Battles, (The Black Death)
NASCAR Racing 2003 Season (Bristol custom demo)
Quake III: Arena version 1.32 (fscrusher custom demo)
Splinter Cell (FS custom demo)
SIDEBAR: Sapphire’s Ultimate box sports a window so you can see the massive Zalman cooler inside.
| 3D Mark 2003 v.330||Page:: ( 4 / 16 )|
3D Mark 2003 – DirectX 9
Controversial as it may be, 3D Mark 2003 is our only indicator of DirectX 9 performance, and that’s the way it will remain until actual games start appearing. Now, more than ever, take these results with a grain of salt, knowing that they are subject to manipulation by outside sources. At the same time, this may very well be the way chips fall when these advanced features are finally utilized in actual games.
The RADEON 9800 Pro and 9700 Pro cards take the two top positions in 3D Mark 2003, followed by NVIDIA’s GeForce FX 5900 Ultra. Surprisingly, Sapphire’s Atlantis
SIDEBAR: Sapphire affixes heat sinks to the card’s onboard memory modules. The cooling value of these is questionable, though.
| 3D Mark 2003 Frame Rates||Page:: ( 5 / 16 )|
3DMark03 – Wings of Fury
3DMark03 – Battle of Proxycon
3DMark03 – Troll’s Lair
3DMark03 – Mother Nature
SIDEBAR: When we reviewed the Atlantis RADEON 9700 Pro Ultimate, the Zalman cooler would move back and forth. This time around, Sapphire has implemented an improved anchoring device to keep the cooler in place.
| NASCAR Racing 2003 Season – DirectX||Page:: ( 6 / 16 )|
NASCAR Racing 2003 Season (Bristol custom demo) – Direct3D
As a simulator of sorts, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season is very much processor intensive. Even at 1600x1200, where we’d expect some sort of variation in scoring, the cards all achieve roughly 80 frames per second using FRAPS.
SIDEBAR: A DIP switch on the surface of the 9800 Pro allows you to select between NTSC and PAL output. It is hard to access with the Zalman heat sink attached, though.
| Quake III: Arena||Page:: ( 7 / 16 )|
Quake III v.1.32 (fscrusher custom demo – OpenGL
The GeForce FX 5900 turns the tides on ATI’s lineup, besting the 9800 Pro by nearly 10 percent at 800x600 and nearly nothing at 1600x1200. Whereas we’re used to seeing frame rates in the 300’s, the new fscrusher demo effectively taxes even the fastest cards, lowering scores to a significant degree.
SIDEBAR: The new Zalman ZM80 looks to be of the ‘C’ variety, secured at the top by screwed-in brackets.
| IL2 Sturmovik: Forgotten Battles||Page:: ( 8 / 16 )|
IL2 Sturmovik: Forgotten Battles (The Black Death demo) – OpenGL
IL2 Sturmovik again turns the tides in favor of ATI, as the RADEON 9800 Pro takes first place, followed by the 9700 Pro and finally by NVIDIA’s GeForce FX 5900 Ultra. In this instance, FRAPS was again used to measure frame rates between the :05 and 2:30 minute marks.
SIDEBAR: Besides selling graphics cards, Sapphire is also set to start selling its Axion line of motherboards with ATI’s RADEON 9100 IGP chipset onboard.
| Unreal Tournament 2003||Page:: ( 9 / 16 )|
Unreal Tournament 2003 (t2 custom demo) – DirectX 8
The GeForce FX 5900 Ultra establishes a small lead in Unreal Tournament 2003. The RADEON 9800 Pro follows, with the 9700 Pro not far behind.
SIDEBAR: Check out Sapphire’s RADEON 9800 Atlantis Pro Ultimate Edition product page.
| Splinter Cell||Page:: ( 10 / 16 )|
Splinter Cell (FS custom demo) – DirectX
There is very little difference between competing cards under Splinter Cell at low resolutions. The GeForce FX 5900 Ultra does hold a performance advantage that grows to nearly seven percent at 1600x1200.
SIDEBAR: Check out Sapphire’s RADEON 9600 Atlantis Pro Ultimate Edition product page.
| 4x Anti-Aliasing||Page:: ( 11 / 16 )|
Quake III – High Quality
SIDEBAR: The version of PowerDVD included with the RADEON 9800 Atlantis Pro Ultimate only supports two channels of audio decoding, unless of course you send a digital stream straight to an external decoder.
| 8x Anisotropic Filtering||Page:: ( 12 / 16 )|
Quake III – High Quality
SIDEBAR: Formerly, Sapphire bundled Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Soldier of Fortune II with its cards.
| 4x Anti-Aliasing and 8x Anisotropic Filtering||Page:: ( 13 / 16 )|
Quake III – High Quality
SIDEBAR: The included Redline tweak utility can be used for overclocking. Do so at your own risk, though.
| Unreal Tournament 4x Anti-Aliasing, 8x Anisotropic Filtering||Page:: ( 14 / 16 )|
Unreal Tournament 2003 - (t2 custom demo)
Editor’s Note: Currently there has been some debate concerning the use of trilinear filtering with the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra and Unreal Tournament 2003. In some cases the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra does not use trilinear samples, sacrificing some image quality for greater speed. This is not the case for the RADEON 9800/9700 family. We’re currently looking into the issue, and just how significant the impact is on our custom demo, taken on the insidious map.
SIDEBAR: If you already have an R300 or R350-based card, check out the DX9 demos ATI has posted here.
| Ballistics Report||Page:: ( 15 / 16 )|
Performance: As a standard, reference RADEON 9800 Pro 128MB, the RADEON 9800 Atlantis Pro Ultimate is an outstanding performer – just as much so as any other RADEON 9800 Pro card, in fact.
Silence: Most GeForce FX 5900 Ultra cards consume an AGP and a PCI slot. The Sapphire ‘Ultimate’ card does as well, but it does so at the hands of a heat pipe cooler that operates under complete silence. This is something that will appeal to the home-theater PC types looking for gaming performance in a silent enclosure.
Feature Set: The RADEON 9800 Atlantis Pro Ultimate 128MB may be a reference board, but ATI has taken great care to ensure that the standard 9800 Pro card is ready to accept multiple display configurations and robust driver support (not to mention an active driver team that interacts with users).
Bundle: Instead of including chintzy titles nobody would want anyway, Sapphire includes a very recent title in Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness. Further, the R350’s video decoding prowess is exposed through PowerDVD and all of the cables necessary for interfacing with a television and second monitor are included.
Price: Admittedly, a card like the RADEON 9800 Atlantis Pro Ultimate is designed to fill a niche where silence commands a price premium. Most gamers haven’t yet reached this point, but the audience that appreciates the elegance of a silent PC is growing. At least for the time being, expect the Ultimate to be a high-priced contender.
Heat: Though you may be tempted to throw the 9800 Atlantis Pro Ultimate in a small form-factor box, consider that we found a hot spot on the card’s surface that hit 166 degrees. Even if the card fit in the confines of such a box, you probably wouldn’t want to radiate quite that much heat in such confined quarters.
Size: It’s a fairly safe bet that you’ll have to sacrifice a PCI slot with an Ultimate installed. Simply, cooling the RADEON 9800 Pro passively requires quite a bit of surface area – there’s no way around it.
SIDEBAR: Size be damned, there is something to be said for a silent flagship graphics card.
| Final Verdict||Page:: ( 16 / 16 )|
Let us know!