Summary: Looking for a factory OC'ed single-slot Radeon 3870? How about a silent 3850 512MB? If so, Sapphire's Radeon HD 3850 Ultimate and 3870 Atomic should appeal to you. Both of these cards sport impressive cooling and awesome bundles -- including Valve's Orange Box. See how the boards performed and OC'ed in this article!
After suffering through most of 2007 without a compelling mainstream lineup to counter NVIDIA’s GeForce cards in the $150-$300 range, AMD-ATI is finally back with a pair of GPUs that have everyone buzzing: the Radeon HD 3850 and the Radeon HD 3870.
Sporting codenames like “Gladiator” and “Revival”, the 3850 and 3870 came at just the right time for AMD; many gamers were disappointed with the performance of previous mainstream offerings like the GeForce 8600 GTS and Radeon HD 2600 XT, opting instead to stick with more powerful existing DX9 cards like the Radeon X1950 Pro. Since they are largely based on the R600 graphics core first used in the Radeon HD 2900 XT, the 3850 and 3870 are much more capable performers than the Radeon 2600 series were – the Radeon HD 3870 actually performs on par with the 2900 XT, yet sells for nearly half the price, meanwhile the Radeon HD 3850 runs anywhere from 25-40% faster than the GeForce 8600 GTS!
The biggest competitor by far to the Radeon HD 3850 and 3870 is the GeForce 8800 GT, but cards based on this GPU sell for more than the Radeon cards, and can still be hard to find at MSRP to this day. While NVIDIA and their board partners are having a tough time keeping up with GeForce 8800 GT supply, cards based on the 3850 and 3870 are plentiful, although admittedly the 3870 has been selling above MSRP for weeks now.
With the initial GPU launch now behind them, AMD’s board partners are now focusing on their 2nd generation Radeon HD 3850 and 3870 cards. Many of these newer Radeon boards ship with custom cooling and/or higher clock speeds than the early 3850/3870 cards that were released last year.
Sapphire is one of the first out of the gates with cards that fit in this category. Today we’re taking a look at their flagship Radeon HD 3870 card, the Sapphire HD 3870 Atomic Edition, and their high-end Radeon HD 3850 board for silent PC fans, the Sapphire HD 3850 Ultimate Edition. Both of these cards take a dramatic step beyond the basic Radeon cards designed by AMD. Let’s start by taking a look at the Ultimate board first!
Sapphire’s Ultimate cards have traditionally been targeted towards hardware enthusiasts looking to build a silent, or near silent PC. While there have been a couple of exceptions to this rule (most recently with the Radeon X1950 Pro), for the most part, Sapphire’s Ultimate line has accomplished this by integrating heatpipe cooling exclusively on their Ultimate cards. With a heatpipe in place cooling the GPU, a fan isn’t necessary to keep the chip cool. This allows the card to run silently.
We’ve reviewed multiple Ultimate cards over the years and found that while Sapphire’s heatpipe cooling units (frequently manufactured by the cooling aficionados at Zalman) do a good job of keeping the graphics card cool under stock conditions, the PCB of the graphics board itself gets quite hot, creating a hotspot within the PC that can be troublesome, particularly in small, cramped cases with little or no airflow. Therefore in the past we’ve recommended that card owners looking to pick up an Ultimate card also ensure that they’ve got good airflow running over the graphics card itself. At one point Sapphire even bundled an optional accessory fan with their 9800 XT Ultimate card.
With their latest Ultimate card, the 3850 Ultimate, Sapphire has come closer than ever to solving this problem in our opinion (no doubt helped in part by the 55-nm RV670 GPU), although there is one key caveat. Let’s discuss the new cooler first though.
At first glance the Sapphire cooler resembles Zalman’s VNF100 heatpipe, but it’s definitely a slightly different design. Like the VNF100, the heatsink responsible for keeping the heatpipes cool is located on the bottom of the graphics card, allowing the 3850 Ultimate to remain a single-slot graphics card. Sitting directly atop the GPU is a copper plate and three aluminum heatpipes. These heatpipes extend from the top of the GPU all the way to the back of the graphics card. Here you will find a massive aluminum heatsink, which transfers heat from the heatpipes to its fins where the heat is then dispersed into the air. This system does an incredible job of keeping the GPU cool, in fact, in our testing the GPU on the Sapphire Ultimate card ran cooler than the stock AMD reference board! And unlike some of the previous Ultimate cards we’ve seen that ran with blazing hot PCBs, the heatpipe cooler on the 3850 Ultimate is also able to accomplish this without turning the 3850 Ultimate’s PCB into a fire hazard. Now don’t get us wrong, the PCB still gets quite toasty under load, but it’s not nearly as bad as other Ultimate boards we’ve tested in the past, and quite frankly if you’ve ever owned any midrange or high-end card lately then you know that the PCB gets rather hot under even moderate use.
There is one downside to this system though. By placing such a large heatsink on the underside of the graphics card, the Ultimate board may have problems fitting in some situations. The North Bridge cooler on some motherboards can be quite tall, most notably on many high-end AMD-based nForce 590 SLI motherboards. In the past we’ve found that the heatsink used to cool the North Bridge on many of these motherboards can often interfere with graphics cards that have cooling on the back of the board.
Fortunately to get around this, Sapphire has placed the heatsink up high: if you look at the back of the board you’ll see that there’s nearly 1.5” of clearance between the bottom of the 3850 Ultimate and the bottom edge of the board’s heatsink. This provided just enough clearance for us to install the card on our ASUS M2N32-SLI Deluxe without running into any issues (with the card in place though, there were only a few mm worth of clearance between the two components).
Things weren’t as rosy with our Corsair Dominator memory modules however. You see, the heatsink Sapphire uses on the 3850 Ultimate is so thick that the heatsink actually extends over the memory module slots on the motherboard. With conventional memory modues this isn’t an issue, as the modules aren’t tall enough to interfere with the card -- we were able to run OCZ Platinum, Kingston HyperX, and Corsair XMS modules just fine with the Sapphire 3850 Ultimate -- but the heatsink Corsair uses for their Dominator modules is over 1.5” tall and as a result, the heatsink on the 3850 Ultimate bumps up against the heatsink on the Dominator module. Unless you’re willing to somehow pry the 3850 Ultimate into the PCI Express graphics slot, there’s no way you can install the graphics card onto the motherboard.
Hardware accessories bundled with the Ultimate card include a CrossFire cable, 6-pin PCI Express power cable, a DVI to VGA adapter, and an HDMI to VGA adapter, and a component video cable. The card also comes with two CyberLink programs: PowerDVD and a DVD Suite which includes several CyberLink programs (PowerProducer 4, PowerDirector 5 Express, Power2Go 5.5, Medi@Show 3, and trial versions of PowerBackup 2.5, PowerDVD Copy, and Label Print 2), a voucher for Valve’s Orange Box, and a copy of 3DMark 06 Professional.
The second RV670 card we’re looking at today is Sapphire’s 3870 Atomic. Like the 3850 Ultimate Edition, the Atomic’s most distinguishing feature is its cooling, but while the Ultimate Edition runs at the stock Radeon 3850 clock speeds, the Atomic board is overclocked from the factory for additional performance. First we’ll discuss the board’s cooling though.
If you recall our Radeon HD 3870/3850 Performance Preview article, you’ll remember that we discussed the possibility of single-slot Radeon HD 3870 cards. As you can clearly see, Sapphire’s 3870 Atomic is one such board. How does Sapphire accomplish this? Vapor chamber technology.
Sapphire’s Vapor chamber technology works much like a conventional heat pipe. The following chart diagrams the various components within the vapor chamber cooler:
As you can see, the cooler is a sealed vacuum chamber composed of various “wicks”. There’s a vaporization wick, condensation wick, and a transportation wick. Heat from the GPU heats up the liquid (pure water) within the vaporization wick, causing it to vaporize. This water vapor then moves through the vacuum until it hits the condensation wick. Here the water vapor condenses and forms back into a liquid (releasing the heat in the process); this liquid is then absorbed by the transportation wick (by capillary action), where it’s then transported back to the vaporization wick and the process is repeated.
So what makes vapor chamber technology superior to heatpipes? According to Sapphire, vapor chamber is more effective, as its omni-directional versus the uni-directional nature of heatpipes. Sapphire also claims that their vapor chamber cooler boasts 50% lower thermal resistance than copper, with higher heat conductivity as well.
But how does it perform? In our testing, the Sapphire vapor-x cooler outperformed the stock Radeon 3870 cooler, while generating very little noise as well. Also keep in mind that the Sapphire cooler was able to accomplish this while the card was running at higher clocks…
Higher clock speeds
Rather than relying on the stock Radeon HD 3870 clock speeds, Sapphire has chosen to overclock the 3870 Atomic. The GPU is clocked at 825MHz, which is 50MHz higher than the stock 3870 speeds, while the board’s memory runs at 1200MHz (2.4GHz effective), an improvement of 75MHz over the stock AMD specifications.
Bundle and accessories
Sapphire really went out of their way with the Atomic bundle and packaging. You see, rather than relying on a traditional cardboard box for the card’s packaging, Sapphire houses the card inside a small metal briefcase! Once you pop open the case, you’ll be greeted to the Atomic card itself, as well as a promotional brochure listing the card’s specs. Lying underneath the card you’ll find even more goodies including a voucher for Valve’s Orange Box, which includes Team Fortress 2, Portal, and HL2: Episode Two, a copy of 3DMark 06 Pro, Cyberlink PowerDVD and DVD Suite.
Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800
EVGA nForce 680i SLI motherboard (for GeForce cards)
2GB Corsair TWIN2X2048-6400C4
AMD Radeon HD 3850 256MB
AMD Radeon HD 3870 512MB
Sapphire Radeon HD 3850 Ultimate 512MB
Sapphire Radeon HD 3870 Atomic 512MB
GeForce 8800 GT 256MB
GeForce 8800 GT 512MB
Palit GeForce 8800 GT Super+1GB
300GB Western Digital Caviar SE
Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2
Company of Heroes 1.71 (running DX9)
Crysis – Direct3D
The 3850 Ultimate stands out thanks to its heatpipe cooling, which allows it to run completely silent. This feature, combined with the 3850’s built-in video prowess, should make the card a standout among enthusiasts looking to build a silent or near silent HTPC for watching movies. The heatpipe Sapphire has developed does an excellent job of keeping the GPU cool, in fact in our testing the 3850 Ultimate ran a surprising eight degrees cooler than the cooling on our Radeon 3850 reference board at load. Quite honestly, we were shocked by how cool the 3850 Ultimate ran – normally cards with heatpipe cooling run hotter than conventional cards with more traditional heatsink/fan units, but that wasn’t the case for the 3850 Ultimate.
We were so impressed by Sapphire’s heatpipe cooling that we actually OC’ed the card, which is something we typically don’t do with cards that are passively cooled solely with heatpipes. The 3850 Ultimate performed well here also; we were able to hit speeds of 752MHz on the GPU – roughly 20MHz shy of the 3870 – and 917MHz on the memory.
Finally, Sapphire outfits the Ultimate board with 512MB of GDDR3 memory, twice as much as your typical Radeon 3850 card. The extra memory came in handy at 1920x1200 in all the games we ran tests with, so if you’re gaming at a higher screen resolution with AA/AF, you’ll want to opt for a graphics card with 512MB of memory like the Sapphire Radeon HD 3850 Ultimate. Adding copies of 3DMark 06 and a download code for Valve’s Orange Box is just icing on the cake in our opinion. We actually use the loop feature in 3DMark 06 to test stability during overclocking, where you can literally set the system to loop 3DMark indefinitely.
The biggest downside to the 3850 Ultimate is size of the heatpipe cooler Sapphire has implemented. As we mentioned earlier, while the card fit with a wide variety of motherboards, the 3850 Ultimate wouldn’t fit with Corsair Dominator modules housed in the memory slots. Basically, you’ll want to keep your receipt handy in case the card won’t fit within your PC.
We were even more impressed with Sapphire’s Radeon HD 3870 Atomic. Not only is the board overclocked from the factory, it also boasts a single-slot cooler, making it compatible with a wider variety of cases than the stock 3870. Sapphire’s vapor-x cooler is also an incredible performer.
In our testing, the Atomic card’s single slot vapor-x cooler not only outperformed the stock AMD cooler by 10 degrees at load, also keep in mind that it did this while the Sapphire card was running at the Atomic card’s stock clock speeds of 825MHz core/1.2GHz memory, which is an improvement of 50MHz on the GPU over the stock 3870, and 75MHz on the memory. Clearly based on this, Sapphire’s vapor-x technology works quite well and we can’t wait to see it applied to other GPUs.
Like the Ultimate board, Sapphire also includes copies of the Orange Box and 3DMark 06, as well as an HDMI cable and a cold cathode case light which you can use to light your system case. If you weren’t sold on the capabilities of the card by itself, these bundled extras really push the card over the top. In our opinion, Sapphire’s 3870 Atomic is without a doubt, the best Radeon HD 3870 card on the market right now.
The problem with both these Sapphire cards right now is availability: only the 3850 Ultimate has hit US retailers shelves, where it currently sells for $230 at Newegg. At that price, it’s priced awfully close to the Radeon 3870 512MB.
We’ve been told that 3870 Atomic pricing should be $10-$15 over the stock Sapphire boards, and if that does indeed become the case, upgrading to one of these cards over the stock 3870 would be a definite no-brainer. We’re going to stop short of handing out our Bull’s Eye Award to this card though because we haven’t seen the final street price. If Sapphire’s estimates end up being accurate, and it is only slightly more expensive than the equivalent stock offering from Sapphire, consider it a Bull’s Eye product.
|© Copyright 2003 FS Media, Inc.|