Summary: While the Radeon X1900 XTX is one terrific performer, one of the chief criticisms that's been directed at retail cards is that they run too loud, especially in comparison to NVIDIA's GeForce 7900 GTX. To help combat the noise issue, as well as deal with heat, Sapphire has elected to use a liquid-based cooler from Thermaltake on the Blizzard Radeon X1900 XTX. In addition, it also boasts factory overclocked speeds for the GPU and memory. But does everything work as Sapphire advertises? Let's find out!
All this adds up to a GPU that’s been designed to tackle the pixel shader-heavy DX9 games that are becoming increasingly common today under the most demanding situations: high screen resolutions with AA applied.
The one real chink in the Radeon X1900 XTX’s armor so to speak however has been its heat and noise. With 384 million transistors onboard running at such high clock speeds, the Radeon X1900 XTX’s R580 graphics core generates quite a bit of heat which must be dissipated by the card’s heatsink/fan cooling unit. It’s here where NVIDIA’s GeForce 7900 GTX has a clear advantage over the X1900 XTX. Whereas both cards rely on dual-slot cooling solutions, the fan used on NVIDIA’s 7900 GTX card runs significantly quieter than ATI’s fan used for the X1900 XTX, particularly once the card is running under intense load and the fan’s RPMs are cranked up to the max. Powering up a Radeon X1900 XTX CrossFire system from a cold boot yields noise levels reminiscent of a jumbo jet throttling up for takeoff as the cards fans have a deep, menacing tone.
Before we sound too much like alarmists, we should remind you that the X1900 XTX’s noise output is directly proportional to the board’s temperature. As long as you can keep heat in check, the board’s fan won’t generate a lot of noise. If you can manage to keep the card cool -- either by installing an additional case fan to blow cool air over the board, or some other method -- the X1900 XTX isn’t that much louder than other high-end cards that have come before it, if at all (depending on the card).
But what if a Radeon X1900 XTX board manufacturer were to develop a card that ran silently or nearly silent; that would be quite a coup don’t you think? You wouldn’t have to worry about noise levels or keeping the card cool, you could just enjoy the performance of your X1900 XTX board.
This is precisely what Sapphire has set out to do with their Blizzard Radeon X1900 XTX board. In fact, Sapphire even overclocks their X1900 XTX Blizzard card from the factory for even more performance! Let’s see how well Sapphire executes it all…
The cooler employed by Sapphire is definitely unique in comparison to other X1900 XTX cards on the market. Unlike other X1900 XTX cards, which rely on the more copper traditional heatsink/fan unit from ATI, Sapphire has enlisted the help of Thermaltake to produce a liquid-cooled unit that’s self-contained; everything you need to install the card is included in the box, there are no parts or tools you’ll need to get it all up and running, and the cooler is completely assembled for you out-of-the-box. All you have to do is plug in the Blizzard card and its cooling, and you’re good to go.
As you’ve no doubt seen from the pictures, the Sapphire Radeon X1900 XTX card and its Blizzard cooling unit are two separate units. Sitting atop the X1900 XTX’s R580 graphics core is a copper waterblock which is attached via two fairly flexible hoses to Sapphire’s Blizzard cooling unit. Inside the Blizzard cooler lies an all-copper radiator, water reservoir, 12V pump, and finally, a fan for supplying fresh air to the whole setup. So how does it all work?
The GPU is supplied with fresh, cool distilled water from one of the Blizzards two hoses. This cool water is directly responsible for cooling the GPU. This heated water is then passed back to the external Blizzard cooling enclosure (via the second rubber hose) where it’s cooled and then passed back to the GPU. This cycle is constantly running in motion, working to keep the graphics core cool. The 12V pump at the back of the Blizzard unit is responsible for keeping the water in motion, while the radiator works to keep the water cool. Heat from the water is transferred to the air via a radiator at the front of the Blizzard unit. The radiator is a large, all-copper unit, and is composed of numerous thin fins to increase its surface area. Finally, to help keep the radiator cool, a fan is used to pass fresh cool air from within your PC’s case over the radiator and its fins before the air exhausts outside your system’s case at the end of the card. The fan’s RPMs can be adjusted via a switch on Blizzard cooling unit, two different modes are provided a “High” setting, and a “Low” setting.
The overall design of the Blizzard cooler is very similar to Thermaltake’s own Tide Water units that they sell to the public, right down to the adjustable fan and 12V pump, only Sapphire’s Blizzard card is a slimmer design that also relies on a slightly different fan. Thermaltake’s TideWater unit is good for 10,000 hours before its reservoir needs to be refilled, we wouldn’t be surprised if the same is true for the Sapphire Blizzard Radeon X1900 XTX, although Sapphire’s website is mum on specifics. Fortunately the back of the Blizzard cooler has a water line, so you can keep track of once the reservoir needs to be refilled. A Molex connector is located on the back of the card in order to supply power to the Blizzard unit’s pump and fan.
One potential issue that’s always a concern when dealing with liquid cooling is leakage. As you can imagine, if one of the hoses were to spring a leak or come loose, it could really spoil your day.
Fortunately we can report that this doesn’t appear to be an issue with the Radeon X1900 XTX Blizzard. The hoses on our review sample card were fit quite snugly – it would take quite a bit of force to loosen them, not that you’d want to anyway.
The rest of the cooling
Other than the Blizzard cooling unit, the rest of Sapphire’s Blizzard Radeon X1900 XTX card is fairly stock. Here we should note that like Thermaltake’s TideWater liquid cooling unit, the memory modules on Sapphire’s Blizzard Radeon X1900 XTX aren’t actively cooled by the liquid cooler, instead Sapphire relies on your typical RAMsinks to cool the memory. Sitting atop each of the board’s eight 1.1ns memory modules is a small aluminum heatsink. Sapphire doesn’t do anything special to cool the other hotspot on their Blizzard X1900 XTX board either -- flanking the VRMs is the same red aluminum heatsink ATI and all of their board partners use to cool the power circuitry on their X1900 XTX cards.
Higher clock speeds
Besides outfitting their Blizzard Radeon X1900 XTX with an enhanced cooler, Sapphire has also bumped up the clock speeds on their Blizzard board for better performance. Whereas your typical X1900 XTX card ships with its GPU clocked at 650MHz, the GPU on Sapphire’s Blizzard card runs at 675MHz, 25MHz beyond stock speeds. Meanwhile, the board’s memory operates at an even 800MHz, also 25MHz over stock. This makes Sapphire’s Blizzard Radeon X1900 XTX the first X1900 XTX card to be overclocked from the factory, up to now board manufacturers have been sticking to ATI’s stock clock speeds. By default this gives Sapphire’s Blizzard Radeon X1900 XTX board the unique distinction of being the fastest X1900 XTX card on the market right now.
Software and accessories
Rather than bundling their latest graphics cards with an assortment of games and game demos (like most manufacturers do), Sapphire has recently instituted their Sapphire Select game bundle program. Included inside the packaging of the Blizzard Radeon X1900 XTX is a Sapphire Select DVD. On the Sapphire Select DVD you’ll find four games: Tony Hawk’s Undergound 2, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, and Richard Burns Rally. You can try all four games for up to one hour, at that point you’ll then pick two games to be unlocked for the full version. The other two games can then be purchased at a discount if you’d like.
Pacific Fighters 4.04 (with Perfect landscape setting for ATI and NVIDIA)
Half-Life 2: Lost Coast – Direct3D
Battlefield 2 – Direct3D
Quake 4 – OpenGL
LOMAC – Direct D
Pacific Fighters – OpenGL
F.E.A.R. – Direct3D
Call of Duty 2 – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
Half-Life 2: Lost Coast – Direct3D
Radeon X1900 XTX core: With ATI’s emphasis on dynamic looping/branching in their entire R5xx line and R580’s emphasis in particular on pixel shading by including 48 dedicated pixel shading units, some have made the argument that ATI’s Radeon X1900 XTX is better equipped to handle future Shader Model 3.0 games coming later this year (that will feature more extensive shader effects) than NVIDIA. On paper, this certainly seems like a fine argument, and it can even be suggested that current games like F.E.A.R. and Oblivion have proven this out, with the X1900 XTX outperforming NVIDIA’s GeForce 7900 GTX in these titles, but we’ve also got to remind you that the game engine everyone’s looking forward to seeing is Epic’s Unreal Engine 3. UE 3 will use 3.0 shaders extensively, as well as other eye candy effects like HDR lighting, stencil buffered shadow volumes and volumetric fog. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that Epic has also picked up dozens of licensees for UE 3 either, many of which will be released this year. Another advantage ATI’s high-end R520 and R580 GPUs share is their more efficient memory subsystem. ATI outfits both GPUs with eight 32-bit memory controllers, versus the four 64-bit controllers that were used previously, this allows them to serve more read/write requests simultaneously than before.
No liquid cooling for RAM: Sapphire’s Blizzard liquid cooling solution does such an excellent job cooling the GPU, that we’d love to see Thermaltake/Sapphire also cooling the board’s memory modules and perhaps even power circuitry. Fortunately these hotspots on the board are minor in comparison to the GPU, so we can’t complain too much.
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