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Appeared on: Wednesday, June 22, 2005
Sapphire X850XT


1. Introduction

A few weeks ago, we reviewed Sapphire's X800 VGA card for the AGP slot. This time round, the company provided us with one of its flagship models, the X850XT. The X850 series comes in Pro and XT versions while there is a Platinum Edition for the XT series. In all cases, the memory is 256MB GDDR3.

- Packaging/Bundle

The card ships in the impressive package you see in the pictures above. The back of the box is transparent in order for the card to show through.

Inside it we found a set of CD-ROMs with the following software:
- Prince of Persia : Sands of time
- Splinter Cell : Pandora Tomorrow
- Catalyst Drivers
- PowerDVD
- PowerDirector
- Redline overclocking software

Apart from the software, a full set of accessories is also included with the card:
- VGA to DVI adaptor
- S-Video
- Video cable
- Video to S-Video adaptor
- Composite cable
- VGA power cable


2. Features
X850 Pro
X850 XT
X850 XT Platinum
Core(MHz) 520 520 540
Memory(MHz) 540 540 590
Pipelines 12 16 16
GPU R480 R480 R480
Approx. Retail Price $350 $470 $530

SMARTSHADER! HD
Full hardware acceleration of Microsoft® DirectX® 9.0 programmable vertex and pixel shaders in hardware
DirectX 9.0 Vertex Shaders
- Vertex programs up to 65,280 instructions with flow control
- Single cycle trigonometric operations (SIN & COS)
DirectX 9.0 Extended Pixel Shaders
- Up to 1,536 instructions and 16 textures per rendering pass
- 32 temporary and constant registers
- Facing register for two-sided lighting
- 128-bit, 64-bit & 32-bit per pixel floating point color formats
- Multiple Render Target (MRT) support
Complete feature set supported in OpenGL®
via extensions

SMOOTHVISION! HD
2x/4x/6x Anti-Aliasing modes Sparse multi-sample algorithm with gamma correction, programmable sample patterns and centroid sampling Lossless Color compression (up to 6:1) at all resolutions, including widescreen HDTV resolutions Temporal Anti-Aliasing 2x/4x/8x/16x Anisotropic Filtering modes
- Up to 128-tap texture filtering per AA sample
- Adaptive anisotropic filtering algorithm with bilinear (performance) and trilinear (quality) options

HYPER Z! HD
3-level Hierarchical Z-Buffer with Early Z Test
Lossless Z-Buffer Compression (up to 48:1)
Fast Z-Buffer Clear
Z cache optimized for real-time shadow rendering • Optimized for performance at high display resolutions, including widescreen HDTV resolutions

VIDEOSHADER! HD
Seamless integration of pixel shaders and video in real time
FULLSTREAM™ video de-blocking technology for Real, DivX, WMV9 and WMV10 formats
VIDEOSOAP™ noise removal filtering for captured video
MPEG1/2/4 decode and encode acceleration DXVA support Hardware Motion Compensation, iDCT, DCT and color space conversion
All-format DTV/HDTV decoding
Adaptive Per-Pixel De-Interlacing and Frame Rate Conversion (temporal filtering)


3. A closer look

The Sapphire X850XT is built on the same fire red PCB we're used to seeing in all of ATI's X850 series.

The front side of the card.(click for hi-res).

On the back, there is a metal plate responsible for holding the cooling system in place and at the same time contacting the memory chips, dissipating the heat across its surface.

Rear view of the card (click for hi-res)

One of the 8 32MB GDD3 memory chips:

The memory type used is the K4J55323QF-GC15 from Samsung. According to Samsung, the maximum frequency for this memory is 667Mhz and the maximum data rate 1334Mbps/pin.

Below, you can see the cooling system that the card has. We do not recommend you remove the cooler, since this will void the unit's warranty. For this reason, we provide you with the picture:-)

Over the GPU, there is a copper plate which is much more efficient in thermal transfer than most other metal surfaces. Over each memory chips, there are the usual pink coverings for thermal transfer.

A picture of the GPU core can be found below, the R480!!!

 

The card's output, as in most cases, consists of one standard VGA for CRT monitors, one DVI-I for TFT monitors and a D-sub for VIVO use. There is also a model with dual DVI-I.


4. Test System

Processor: AMD 3500+
Case: Antec 1080AMG
Motherboard: Abit AN8 Fatal1ty
Memory: 2x512MB OCZ PC-4200 Memory
Hard Disk Drive: WD800JD 80GB 7200RPM
CD-RW: LiteOn LTR-52246S
Power Supply: Levicom 500Watt
Microsoft WindowsXP Pro SP2
DirectX v9.0c



Benchmarking Software
3DMark05,03,01
Codecreatures Benchmark Pro
ATiTool 0.0.23
Farcry v1.3
CounterStrike Source
Doom 3
Thief 3
Ground Control II
Colin McRae '05


5. 3DMark05

With 3DMark05, Futuremark continues the tradition in its benchmarking software by providing a state-of-the-art Microsoft ® DirectX ® 9 3D performance benchmark. 3DMark05 is an all new 3DMark version making the most of Microsoft's DirectX 9. The previous version, 3DMark03, did a nice introduction into this level of technology. However, 3DMark03 used DirectX 9 specific features in a limited manner, because fully supporting hardware was rare at the time of its launch. In contrast, 3DMark05 requires DirectX 9 hardware with full support for at least Shader Model 2, and takes shader usage to never before seen levels.

Just like its predecessors, 3DMark05's point system is set so that at the moment of release, the high-end VGA cards available in stores can only score around 5000 3DMarks, whereas the worst card that meets the programs requirements yields a score of 1000.

Game Test 1 -Return to Proxycon

Being the sequel to the "Battle of Proxycon" from 3DMark03, in "Return to Proxycon" we're once again set in space and the battle continues as space pirates invade a cargo ship in order to take control of its valuable cargo.

This test, tries to simulate a future first-person shooter game with all the high details that entails. The dynamic shadows, high-detailed environment and advanced lighting techniques ensure that under normal circumstances, no recent card can run it with decent frame rates.

Game Test 2 - Firefly Forest

A forest gets filled with magic fireflies in the night. The moon is nearly full, illuminating the forest with a bluish faint light. The magic fireflies have flickering bright green lights that playfully move around the forest.

This scene is a nice example of a smaller scale outdoor scene with rich vegetation. Immediate visibility is not so far, and there is a skybox surrounding the whole scene.

A large number of trees with their branches swinging separately, and dense vegetation being dynamically distributed according to the camera movements, make this test the most demanding of the three.

Game Test 3 - Canyon Flight

A Jules Verne type airship flies through a canyon guarded by a dangerous sea monster. The airmen defend their ship using heavy cannons, but these seem to have no effect on the huge sea monster. Finally the crew manages a narrow escape using the "last resort" afterburners of the airship.

This scene is fairly complex with large areas of water reflecting the high canyon walls. The water actually is one of the key points of interest in this scene. The water not only does realistic looking reflections and refractions, it has a depth fog, making the sea monster swimming under the airship actually look deep down in the water. The air in this scene also uses a volumetric fog, making distant cliffs of the canyon really look far away.

High FPS rates for the Sapphire card. The card was slightly better than the Club3D model, while the ASUS N6600GTI SLI was faster only in the third test.

Final Score

 3DMarks on 3DMark05 are now calculated by the following formula:

(Game Test 1 * Game Test 2 * Game Test 3)^0.33 * 250

This is basically the geometric mean of the total frames in each game multiplied by 250. This means that all game tests are now equal.

The total score in 3DMark05 is quite high for the Sapphire X850XT.


6. 3DMark03

3D Mark is a widely used and accepted benchmark that stresses the DirectX performance of a VGA card. A very strong point of 3DMark is that it's VGA card measuring is does not require any CPU power. So the resulting fps are a good reference a VGA card's rendering performance. For testing the performance of each card we used the 4 game benchmarks 3DMark has.

3Dmark03 also includes sound and CPU tests as well as some other feature tests.

- Game Test 1 - Wings of Fury (DX7)

This test is a combat flight simulator written for older hardware (DirectX 7). Particles are used a lot in this test - smoke and vapor trails, flak and gunfire, and explosions are produced using point sprites and quads.

- Game Test 2 - Battle of Proxycon (DX8)

This test is a simulation of first person shooter game types. 1.1 and 1.4 Vertex shaders are widely used since all character models are skinned using vertex shaders.This makes this test a good vertex shader comparison for VGA cards.

- Game Test 3 - Trolls' Lair (DX8)

This test should be the favorite of all RPG lovers. It is a cut scene of a female warrior facing two malicious trolls. Again the same vertex and pixel processing is used as in game test 2.

This test also uses post-processing effects, such as Depth of Field and Bloom effects which are widely used in today's game cut scene sequences.

- Game Test 4 - Mother Nature (DX9)

Mother nature represents the level of effects and realism that are possible using 2.0 vertex and pixel shaders, plus some other features that DirectX 9 offers.

Only in the first test, the Sapphire card reported higher fps than the other two cards.

- 3DMark Official score

If you test your machine with 3DMark, you can post the results at 3DMark's online result browser. For more information visit futuremark.com.

In 3DMark03, the resulting score for the Sapphire card is lower than those of the the Club3D and Asus 6600 SLI.


7. Codecreatures

CodeCreatures is a synthetic 3D benchmark that is a good reference for VGA performance comparison. This is a high-end 3D benchmark that also requires DirectX 8 hardware, making a good tool for measuring the potential of DirectX 8 game performance.

The Codecreatures benchmark is written with Microsoft's DirectX 8.1 API and incorporates the use of Vertex and PixelShaders popular on next generation 3D accelerators.

The benchmark plays a photo-realistic nature scene and calculates the performance of the graphics adapter by measuring the fps that it can display at 1024x768, 1280x1024 and 1600x1200 resolutions.

-Codecreatures number

The codecreatures number is the resulting score of the total benchmarking process and is basically the geometric mean of the three frame rates multiplied by 100.

High frame rates and a very impressive total score for the Sapphire X850. Way ahead of the other two cards.


8. 3DMark 2001

3DMark 2001 is the predecessor to 3DMark03. It's mainly a directx8.1 benchmark and the score depends a lot on the CPU power of your computer. However for reference use only we decided it'd be best to just leave it in our benchmark list so you can compare the next generation cards with the possibly outdated you have at home.

Once again, the Sapphire card leads the race...


9. Half life 2

Half life 2 is no doubt the most anticipated pc game of all times. Gamers keeping the excellence of Half Life 1 in their mind as well as the remarkable E3 demo preview, have been anxiously waiting for the much delayed release of HL2.

Characters - Advanced facial animation system delivers the most sophisticated in-game characters ever seen. With 40 distinct facial "muscles," human characters convey the full array of human emotion, and respond to the player with fluidity and intelligence.

Physics - From pebbles to water to 2-ton trucks respond as expected, as they obey the laws of mass, friction, gravity, and buoyancy.

Graphics - Source's shader-based renderer, like the one used at Pixar to create movies such as Toy Story® and Monster's, Inc.®, creates the most beautiful and realistic environments ever seen in a video game.

AI - Neither friends nor enemies charge blindly into the fray. They can assess threats, navigate tricky terrain, and fashion weapons from whatever is at hand.

To measure performance we used the Video Stress Test(VST) that is available in the CounterStrike:Source beta available through Steam. We set all the details to the highest level and each time changed the resolution from 800x600 up to 1600x1200.

No matter what the resolution, the Sapphire reported excellent performance.

Even with Anti-Aliasing and Anisotropic-Filtering enabled, the performance of the Sapphire card was very good.


10. Doom 3

A massive demonic invasion has overwhelmed the Union Aerospace Corporations? (UAC) Mars Research Facility leaving only chaos and horror in its wake. As one of the few survivors, you struggle with shock and fear as you fight your way to Hell and back, in an epic clash against pure evil.

Activision made it's miracle again with Doom 3 which is said to be the best-looking game ever, thanks to the brand-new OpenGL graphics engine used to generate its convincingly lifelike, densely atmospheric, and surprisingly expansive environments. If you are a fan of the previous Doom games then you will get many flashbacks with this revision, since you will find reimagined versions of almost every monster from both Doom and Doom II.

To measure performance on the game we used the timedemo demo1 command from the console (Alt+Ctrl+~).
Enabling the high quality setting and executing the timedemo demo1 command twice for each resolution, we witnessed the following:

First, without the Anti-Aliasing and Anisotropic Filtering settings enabled, we got the following results:

Doom 3, even at high resolution, is not a problem for the Sapphire X850XT.

With advanced features enabled, the two X850XT cards reported similar performance.


11. Far Cry

You are Jack Carver running your own boat charter business in beautiful Micronesia. With a past best left behind you, you'll be focusing on your present assignment: escorting an ambitious journalist named Valerie Cortez to the Island of Cabatu. It seems like a piece of cake, but you'll soon learn: paradise can be hell.

Farcry is an awesome First Person Shooter (FPS) based on a last generation 3D engine named as CryEngine. Real-time editing, bump-mapping, static lights, network system, integrated physics system, shaders, shadows and a dynamic music system are just some of the state of-the-art features that the CryEngine offers.

A great advantage and strong point of the CryEngine is its physics system which supports character inverse kinematics, vehicles, rigid bodies, liquid, rag doll, cloth and body effects. All physics seem to be very realistic and you never get bored when facing enemies, since character models have multiple animations that blend in believable ways.

With an integrated shader system and a massive terrain which maximizes the view distance to 2km, these features make Farcry a perfect action game and also a referable benchmark to speak of.

- Benchmark Settings

For this game we recorded a custom demo from the start of the Rebellion stage. We chose an indoor scene in order to avoid getting the CPU bound effect. This will result in slightly higher results since it is also less GPU intensive, but we can't afford being stuck at 40-50 fps because of our CPU.

The latest patch (1.3) was used for our tests which updates the game's graphics engine to use the 3.0 Shader model. This option is only supported for the 6800 series.

The resolutions we ran the demo under, are the following: 800x600,1024x768, 1280x1024 and 1600x1200.

SLI mode from NVidia seems to feel more at home with FarCry.

FarCry at 1600X1200 with Anti-Aliasing and Anisotropic-Filtering enabled is a breeze for the Sapphire card. Excellent frame rate.


12. Thief 3

Instead of Deus Ex from now on we'll be testing our cards using Thief 3. It's based on the same engine but it's much less GPU intensive and playable by more VGA cards than Deus.

The game makes severe use of Pixel Shader 1.1 instructions, the bloom effect and stencil shadows to achieve a wonderful result in your screen.

In the game you play the part of Master Thief Garrett who is back to rule out any evil forces using his unique stealth abilities. Deadly Shadows shows what stealth gameplay is all about. This game really gives you the feel of sneaking around and holding your breath when stuck in a sticky situation.

Since there is no official benchmark for the game, we'll do our tests using a GPU intensive scene from the tutorial-level which we believe that represents the average fps you'll get when playing the game.

Thief 3 is a torture test for graphics cards. All lower class cards fail to provide stable performance in this benchmark when selecting full details from the settings menu.

The specific game is one of the hardest tests for a VGA card. Due to its engine, it is hard to play at high resolutions with all filters enabled. The Sapphire card successfully passed even this test. With almost double the frame rate of the Club3D card at 1600X1200, it shows its supremacy.


13. Colin McRae 05

For all you racing fans out there, this test is for you and will represent the Racing game category in our benchmarks.

From the graphics point of view the first thing you'll notice in the game is the excellent amount detail of your racing car. High resolution textures on the car and lighting make it quite impressive. All the eye candy such as the sun reflection in the virtual camera are still the same as the older CM versions but motion blur has been added when your card hits something hard which will happen most often if you're new to the racing simulation world.

To measure performance on the game we used fraps to get the average fps of the whole 8th stage of UK which is actually the only stage you get to play on the demo.

No matter what the resolution, the Sapphire X850XT had the highest frame rate.

Enabling 4x Anti-Aliasing and 8x Anisotropic Filtering to increase image quality is something that is easy for ATI cards and the Sapphire card certainly confirms this.


14. Ground Control II

Ground Control 2 is an action-oriented game of tactics and warfare. As Captain Jacob Angelus of the Northern Star Alliance, you will command squads of infantry, artillery, and air power against the might of the Empire of Terra. Base building and resource-collecting are replaced with unit control and combat tactics where your knowledge of the battlefield maneuvers will make the difference in your fight against a ruthless enemy. Position your troops on hilltops for better aim or inside buildings and forests for protection as you'll need to use every inch of terrain to your advantage.

For our benchmarks, we used the highest possible settings on the first mission of the single player game and moved around the camera to get an average frame rate using fraps.

Ground Control II offers really impressive graphics without requiring much GPU power. Click on the picture above to view a screenshot from the game. Check out these excellent water effects!

The high resolutions seem not to affect the performance of the ATI cards. At 1280X1024, both cards reported similar performance.

Setting AA to 4x and AF to 8x, the frame rates fall for all cards. Once again though, the Sapphire X850XT has the highest frame rates.


15. Overclocking

No matter your graphics card, there comes a time in your computer's life when it can no longer cope with the latest technology the ever so popular games use. This is one of the main reasons for overclocking your graphics card. Gamers are always looking forward for a little extra boost in terms of framerate. Even though most of the times the boost is far from noticeable, overclocking remains the last resort when you can't afford to buy a brand new VGA card.

The stock clocks are set to 520MHz and 540MHz, according to ATiTool.

The standard factory frequencies for the Sapphire X850

The maximum settings for the Sapphire X850XT

Using AtiTool once again, step by step we increased the memory and core frequencies until we found the maximum stable settings for each clock.

The 533/560Mhz for the Core and Memory respectively probably shows that the card's clocks were already set at the highest possible levels. We also set the clock to 540/565 but after a while the so-called "artifacts" were visible, so we had to go back. Before this however, we tried even higher clock frequencies, but the result was blue screens and restarts.

Increasing the memory clock too much,
produces the so-called "artifacts".

Let's see the performance boost we got from this:

It seems there is no actual in-game difference, a couple of fps more are negligible values. In the 3DMark benchmarks, there was slightly better performance but this is not something you'll notice in the games.


16. Conclusion

The performance of the Sapphire X850XT is great. We have already reviewed two X850XT from different manufacturers but this specific card reported the best frame rates, even with Anti-Aliasing and Anisotropic Filtering on.

The cooling system that the Sapphire card has adopted maintains the GPU temperatures at fairly low levels while the noise is not too loud, in comparison with Nvidia's 6800Ultra series.

Overclocking with the Sapphire X850XT is something you'd better forget. None of the benchmarks we ran showed any actual in-game difference. Probably the reason for this is that the card's clocks were already set at the highest possible levels. The extra 10~15MHz we increased on the core clock and the memory speed had no great affect on our tests. In the 3DMark tests, there was a small difference but as we said above, no actual in-game difference.

The bundle is also good, with all the required cables included, while the software is more than the usual. However, we believe that the games are a little outdated...

At the time of this review, the retail price on the US market for the specific Sapphire X850XT was approximately US$470 while in Europe it can be found for close to €435. If you would like a dual DVI-I connection, then there is no great difference, close to US$475 and €445. If we consider the excellent performance in our reviews, the price can be considered as good. Other cards, for example Nvidia's 6800Ultra, costs even more and their performance is lower.

Pros:
- Excellent performance with most of the game tests
- Fairly quiet cooler
- Reasonably priced

Cons:
- Overclocking

Performance:
Overclocking:
Bundle:
Value for money:


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