Great Value from Sapphire: Radeon HD 6870 Dirt 3 Edition and Radeon HD 6850 Vapor-X Graphics Cards

The new graphics cards from Sapphire prepare to win over their market share due to increased frequencies, unique cooling systems and very rich accessories bundles.

by Sergey Lepilov
10/23/2011 | 07:44 PM

We’ve recently tested a number of top-end graphics cards including Sapphire Radeon HD 6950 Toxic Edition, Gigabyte GeForce GTX 580 Super Overclock, EVGA GeForce GTX 580 Classified and MSI Radeon HD 6950 Twin Frozr III. All of them are undoubtedly very fast but, unfortunately, not quite affordable. It is mainstream ($150-200) or even entry-level ($75-150) products that attract more customers and the manufacturers offer plenty of them to everyone's taste. Sapphire Technology has released a couple of such cards and we're going to the review them today.

Closer Look at Testing Participants

Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 1GB DiRT 3 Edition

 

Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 1 GB DiRT 3 Edition card is shipped in a beautifully designed large box:

Besides the racing car from DiRT 3 on the face side of the box and the gym girl on the back, there is a lot of information on the packaging: graphics memory amount, interface, technologies supported by the card, and a long list of awards from online and offline media.

Included into the box are two power cables (PATA -> 6-pin connector), an HDMI cable, a mini-DisplayPort->DisplayPort adapter, a DVI-I->D-Sub adapter, a CrossFireX bridge, a coupon for downloading DiRT 3, a Sapphire Select Club member card, a brief installation guide, and a CD with drivers and utilities.

The box contains everything you need to use the card plus a free game. The card is manufactured in China and costs about $209 in retail. Its warranty period is 1 year.

Let’s have a look at it:

Covered with a glossy figured cooler casing with two fans, the card looks quite attractive. It’s far more stylish and elegant than the plain-looking cooler of the reference Radeon HD 6870. The Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 DiRT 3 Edition isn't large at 245x110x36 millimeters.

The card is equipped with one dual-link DVI-I output, one DVI-D output, one HDMI 1.4a port and two mini-DisplayPorts. There is also a vent grid in its mounting bracket:

One CrossFireX connector for building dual-card configurations can be found in the top part of the PCB next to the outputs. On the opposite end of the card there are two 6-pin power connectors.

 

The Radeon HD 6870 is specified to have a peak power draw of 151 watts but the Sapphire version may need more due to its increased clock rates. Anyway, the company recommends a 500W PSU for this card, just like AMD does in its system requirements for Radeon HD 6870.

The PCB is designed in an original way. The power components have all moved from the front to the back part of the card:

 

Despite the different location, the power system follows the 4+2 design of the reference Radeon HD 6870. There are no new-fangled components here typical of the top-end cards we’ve discussed in our recent reviews. After all, the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 DiRT 3 Edition hails from a lower product class.

 

The Barts XT GPU was manufactured in Taiwan on 40nm tech process on the 47th week of 2010. The open die is 255 sq. mm large. It's protected with a metallic frame surrounding its wafer.

The GPU has the standard Barts XT configuration with 1120 unified shader processors, 56 texture-mapping units and 32 raster operators. The reference AMD Radeon HD 6870 having a GPU frequency of 900 MHz, the Sapphire version is pre-overclocked to 920 MHz, which is 2.2% higher. This factory overclocking can hardly be felt even in benchmarks, let alone actual games, though. The card lowers its GPU frequency to 100 MHz in 2D applications.

The graphics card comes with 1 gigabyte of GDDR5 memory in eight FCFBGA chips on the face side of the PCB.

Manufactured by Elpida, the W1032BBBG-50-F chips have a rated access time of 5 nanoseconds which means a clock rate of 5000 MHz. However, the card clocks them at 4200 MHz, which is 200 MHz above the memory frequency of the reference Radeon HD 6870 but far from the chips’ rated frequency. Perhaps they can be overclocked even more. The memory frequency is lowered to 600 MHz in 2D applications; the memory bus is 256 bits wide.

Here is a summary of the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 DiRT 3 Edition specs:

The Sapphire card can’t boast serious factory overclocking or a double amount of memory, so the only original thing we can found about it is its cooler.

The cooler has an aluminum heatsink with a copper base and two 8mm heat pipes.

The copper base is no thicker than 2 millimeters, so there are no grooves in it. The pipes are somewhat flattened (to enlarge the area of contact) and soldered to the base.

We can notice some soldering where the pipes contact the heatsink fins. The whole arrangement is high quality.

The cooler has two 9-blade fans set within a plastic frame:

The fans are manufactured by FirstD.

The speed of the fans is PWM-regulated automatically within a range of 1250 to 3250 RPM.

We checked out the card’s temperature while running Aliens vs. Predator (2010) in five cycles at the highest settings (1920x1080, 16x anisotropic filtering). We used MSI Afterburner 2.2.0 Beta 8 and GPU-Z 0.5.5 as monitoring tools. This test was carried out with a closed system case (you can view its full configuration in the appropriate section of the review) at an ambient temperature of 24.5°C. The default GPU thermal grease was replaced with Arctic MX-4.

Let’s see how efficient the cooler is.


Auto mode

Max RPM

When the cooler's fans are regulated automatically, their speed is 2070 RPM while the peak GPU temperature is 74°C. At the maximum speed of the fans the temperature wasn’t higher than 68°C. Both numbers are good, but not impressive. On the other hand, we are yet to check out how noisy the cooler is. We’ll do this right after the next card's description. Right now, let's see if we can overclock the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 DiRT 3 Edition any further.

The clock rates of 980/4780 MHz are just what you can expect when overclocking a Radeon HD 6870. Alas, our GPU couldn’t notch 1000 MHz whereas the memory chips were not stable even at their rated 5000 MHz.

When overclocked, the card’s GPU got only 2°C hotter (to 76°) while the fan speed was 2180 RPM.

And that’s a very nice result.

Sapphire Radeon HD 6850 1GB Vapor-X

The Sapphire Radeon HD 6850 1GB Vapor-X is packed into a black-and-blue box with lots of information on its sides.

The country of origin, warranty and accessories are exactly the same as those of the previous card.

However, the retail price of the Sapphire Radeon HD 6850 Vapor-X is $40 lower at $169.

The graphics card itself looks different, even though is similar to its cousin in dimensions (238 x 98 x 37 millimeters). It's got the same denim-colored PCB and a plastic cooler casing covering its face side.

The Sapphire Radeon HD 6850 Vapor-X is equipped with the same selection of outputs as the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 DiRT 3 Edition:

It’s got a MIO connector and two 6-pin power plugs as well.

 

The PCB is different, though. First off, the Sapphire Radeon HD 6850 Vapor-X features a 10-phase power system.

 

Sapphire doesn’t spare rapturous epithets here, drawing our attention to the use of high-quality components like second-generation Black Diamond chokes.

 

The power system is rather too complicated for a product of this class. Loads are going to be much lower than with the Radeon HD 6970, for example. Did they do that to ensure a longer service life? Possibly, but are there any gamers who run the same graphics cards for over 2 years? Stability at high frequencies? That’s possible, too, but the reference power system might be just as good at that. Again, graphics cards like this do not have high power requirements by today’s standards.

The GPU of our Radeon HD 6850 Vapor-X was manufactured on the 14th week of 2011.

It incorporates 960 unified shader processors, 48 texture-mapping units and 32 raster operators. The GPU is pre-overclocked by 25 MHz to 800 MHz (+3.2%). This looks like very cautious factory overclocking to us.

We’ve got the same memory chips, totaling 1 gigabyte, as with the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 DiRT 3 Edition.

The memory frequency is pre-overclocked 4400 MHz (+10% to the default level).

The card’s cooling system combines an evaporation chamber, heat pipes and slim aluminum fins. One 11-blade fan is set to blow at the whole arrangement.

There are three heat pipes, 8 mm in diameter, lying right on the evaporation chamber.

 

The pipes are supposed to cool the center of the copper base and transfer the heat to the heatsink fins whereas the chamber distributes the heat among the low-profile fins below the PWM-regulated fan. The next two diagrams show how efficient this design is:


Auto mode

Max RPM

In the automatic regulation mode of the fan (up to 2120 RPM) the GPU temperature reached 68°C. At the maximum speed of the fan (3690 RPM), the temperature was only 59°C. Now, what about the noise factor?

We measured the level of noise using an electronic noise-level meter CENTER-321 in a closed room about 20 sq. meters large. The noise-level meter was set on a tripod at a distance of 15 centimeters from the graphics card which was installed on an open testbed. The mainboard with the graphics card was placed at an edge of a desk on a foam-rubber tray.

The bottom limit of our noise-level meter is 29.8 dBA whereas the subjectively comfortable (not low, but comfortable) level of noise when measured from that distance is about 36 dBA. The speed of the graphics card’s fan was being adjusted by means of a controller that changed the supply voltage in steps of 0.5 V.

For the comparison’s sake, we’ve added the results of a Gigabyte GeForce GTX 560 Ultra Durable (GV-N56GOC-1GI), a reference AMD Radeon HD 6870 and an MSI Radeon HD 6950 Twin Frozr III into the following diagram and table:

Although the coolers of both Sapphire cards are quieter than the reference Radeon HD 6870 cooler, they are only really quiet in 2D applications at a fan speed of up to 1300 RPM. Take note that the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 DiRT 3 Edition with its two fans turns out to be less noisy than the Sapphire Radeon HD 6850 Vapor-X which has only one fan. The Gigabyte GeForce GTX 560 Ultra Durable and MSI Radeon HD 6950 Twin Frozr III prove to be the quietest coolers in this comparison, although there can be even quieter solutions as you will learn from our next review.

Now let’s check out the overclocking potential of the Radeon HD 6850 Vapor-X. Our sample could work at the same clock rates as its cousin: 960/4800 MHz.

The temperature of the overclocked card increased to only 71°C at a fan speed of 2230 RPM.

Technical Specifications

Testbed Configuration and Testing Methodology

All graphics cards were benchmarked in a closed system case with the following configuration:

As you can see from the testbed configuration description, we also included the results of two other graphics cards:

 

 

The first one will allow us to estimate the performance difference between Radeon HD 6950 and Radeon HD 6870 at different frequencies, while the second one is a direct competitor to Radeon HD 6850 in price and maybe even to Radeon HD 6870 in performance. We’ll see.

In order to lower the dependence of the graphics cards performance on the overall platform speed, I overclocked our 32 nm six-core CPU with the multiplier set at 25x and “Load-Line Calibration” (Level 2) enabled to 4.5 GHz. The processor Vcore was increased to 1.46875 V in the mainboard BIOS:

The 6 GB of system DDR3 memory worked at 1.44 GHz frequency with 7-7-7-16_1T timings and 1.5V voltage. Turbo Boost and Hyper-Threading technologies were disabled during our test session.

The test session started on September 20, 2011. All tests were performed in Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate x64 SP1 with all critical updates as of that date and the following drivers:

The graphics cards were tested in the today’s most popular 1920x1080 resolution. The tests were performed in two image quality modes: “High Quality+AF16x” – maximum texturing quality with enabled 16x anisotropic filtering and “High Quality+ AF16x+MSAA4(8)x” with enabled 16x anisotropic filtering and full screen 4x anti-aliasing (MSAA) or 8x if the average framerate was high enough for comfortable gaming experience. We enabled anisotropic filtering and full-screen anti-aliasing from the game settings or configuration files. If the corresponding options were missing, we changed these settings in the Control Panels of Catalyst and GeForce drivers. There were no other changes in the driver settings.

The list of games and applications used in this test session includes two popular semi-synthetic benchmarking suites, one technical demo and 15 games of various genres:

If the game allowed recording the minimal fps readings, they were also added to the charts. We ran each game test or benchmark twice and took the best result for the diagrams, but only if the difference between them didn’t exceed 1%. If it did exceed 1%, we ran the tests at least one more time to achieve repeatability of results.

Performance

Each graphics card is equipped with 1 gigabyte of onboard memory, so we don’t indicate the number in the diagrams. The cards are sorted by retail price in descending order.

3DMark Vantage

3DMark 2011

Unigine Heaven Demo

BattleForge: Lost Souls

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat

Left 4 Dead 2

Metro 2033: The Last Refuge

Just Cause 2

Aliens vs. Predator (2010)

Lost Planet 2

StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty

Sid Meier’s Civilization V

Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. 2

 

Crysis 2

Total War: Shogun 2

DiRT 3

World of Planes (alpha)

Hard Reset Demo

With but a few exceptions, we've got a consistent general picture of performance, so let's check out the summary diagrams.

The first diagram helps compare the two Sapphire cards at their rated frequencies. Here is how slower the Sapphire Radeon HD 6850 Vapor-X is compared to the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 DiRT 3 Edition:

As you can see, the senior card enjoys a rather large advantage, up to 33% in one game. The average advantage across all the tests is 17.6% in the MSAA-less mode and 16.3% with MSAA. On the other hand, the Radeon HD 6870 DiRT 3 Edition is about 24% more expensive, so the Radeon HD 6850 Vapor-X may look a better buy, especially as the latter card gets closer to its cousin when overclocked.

So, the Radeon HD 6850 clocked at 960/4800 MHz is almost as fast as the Radeon HD 6850 clocked at 920/4200 MHz. The average gap across all the tests is no larger than 1%. Of course, the Radeon HD 6870 can be overclocked as well. Will it be able to compete with the more expensive MSI Radeon HD 6950 if the latter works at its default frequencies? Let's see.

Well, the overclocked Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 DiRT 3 Edition doesn’t show us anything exceptional. It is 8.7% and 10.1% behind the MSI Radeon HD 6950 with MSAA off and on, respectively. The gap narrows in Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. 2 and Crysis 2 and gets larger in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, Aliens vs. Predator (2010), Left 4 Dead 2 and the synthetic benchmarks.

Now let’s compare the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 DiRT 3 Edition with the Gigabyte GeForce GTX 560 Ultra Durable at their default clock rates, the latter card serving as a baseline.

So, the Sapphire card is ahead in Just Cause 2, Sid Meier’s Civilization V, World of Planes and Aliens vs. Predator (2010) whereas the Gigabyte is superior in 3DMark Vantage, Lost Planet 2, Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. 2, DiRT 3 and Hard Reset. They are roughly equal in the rest of our games and tests. The Gigabyte GeForce GTX 560 Ultra Durable is about $20 cheaper than the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 DiRT 3 Edition and $20 more expensive than the Sapphire Radeon HD 6850 Vapor-X, the latter being slower in almost every test.

We can only add that you can request any summary diagram based on this test session in the comments. Here is a table with the full test results.

Conclusion

Sapphire’s Radeon HD 6870 1GB Dirt 3 Edition and Radeon HD 6850 1GB Vapor-X cards are truly unique products with one-of-a-kind coolers, increased frequencies, a full selection of interfaces, nice-looking and reliable packaging and very large accessories bundles. Moreover, the Vapor-X also boasts an enhanced power system which should make it more stable at high frequencies and make its life span significantly longer.

On the other hand, we haven’t found anything very out-of-the-ordinary about these products. The coolers are efficient but not as quiet as we might wish they were. Their overclocking potential is high but not record-breaking. Their performance is up to the mark for their class, but they’ve got a strong opponent, GeForce GTX 560. So, the new cards from Sapphire are surely interesting products but can hardly be called a perfect buy in their respective price groups.

Well, perhaps there is no such thing as a “perfect buy” anyway and you always have to compromise. The choice is up to you.