The Black Sapphire: Sapphire Toxic HD 4850 512MB GDDR3 Graphics Card Review

The logics of the graphics card market and simplistic design should have sooner or later born unique Radeon HD 4800 modifications that would stand out among the numerous ATI reference solutions. One of solutions like that will be discussed today. It is the new Sapphire Toxic HD 4850 512MB GDDR3.

by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
10/09/2008 | 09:14 PM

AMD’s graphics department ATI had put its bet on relatively inexpensive but high-performance medium-price graphics processors and won. The ATI Radeon HD 4800 series proved to be well-balanced and welcome on the market that had longed for a worthy alternative to Nvidia’s solutions. Most of such Radeons available now are still copies of ATI’s reference samples, differing only in packaging, accessories and the sticker on the card’s cooler. The Radeon HD 4800 doesn’t have a sophisticated PCB design, though. As opposed to Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 200, unique models of Radeons were sure to come to the market sooner or later.

 

Sapphire Technology was among the first companies to offer such products. We could expect it to be because it had long had the status of the largest and closest partner of ATI Technologies and AMD. Most of graphics cards developed by ATI are manufactured at Sapphire’s facilities. Besides reference cards, Sapphire’s product line-up has always included unusual versions such as the Sapphire Radeon 9800 XT Ultimate Edition that was equipped with a silent passive cooler from Zalman or the Sapphire Toxic Radeon X1900 XTX that employed a liquid cooling system.

The company had intended to use the Blizzard brand for unique products but had to replace it with Toxic due to disagreements with Blizzard Entertainment. So, Sapphire’s graphics cards with unique features are introduced under the Toxic brand now. The company is constantly experimenting with various cooling systems, collaborating with such renowned cooler makers as Zalman and Thermaltake as well as inventing something completely new. For example, we can recall its experiments with fusible metals as a heat carrier and the evaporating chamber technology that allowed to create a cooler capable of handling a Radeon HD 3870 but measuring no bigger than the single-slot cooler of the Radeon HD 3850.

The use of a metallic heat carrier in cooling systems of modern graphics cards that have a heat dissipation of 200W and more is a promising method, but this technology is yet to overcome a number of technical obstacles before it becomes really popular, if it ever does. However, one of the most popular graphics cards of our time, the Radeon HD 4850, does not really need a sophisticated and advanced cooling system. ATI’s reference cooler is questionable because the developer chose single-slot form-factor for it. Considering that the GPU has a heat dissipation of 110W, the Radeon HD 4850 is prone to overheat, especially in hot weather.

Sapphire took these things into consideration when developing the new model of the Toxic series. So, this review is about the Sapphire Toxic HD 4850 512MB GDDR3 graphics card which claims to be the best Radeon HD 4850 available. Let’s take a look at its package and accessories first.

Package and Accessories

The packaging of the Toxic HD 4850 is much different from that of Sapphire’s non-Toxic card we reviewed earlier. It is designed in a simple and restrained way, indicating the elite character of the product. The box looks stylish and expensive.

There is a pseudo-holographic picture on the box that is barely visible under normal conditions but stands out clear under bright lighting. Still, we guess this design is not as good as the stern laconism of Club3D products, for example. The front panel of the box tells you all the necessary technical information, mentioning the pre-overclocked frequencies. The exact GPU and memory frequencies of the card are not reported, though. It is also clear that the card comes with a Zalman VF900 cooler whose design and capabilities will be discussed later on.

The quality and protective properties of the packaging are okay. The main box is made from think cardboard and its fragile contents are protected with thick sheets of wavy foam-rubber. The graphics card is additionally packed into a blister wrap and is thus safeguarded against any possible hazards during storage and transportation. The box isn’t large. It can easily fit into a standard plastic bag. We found the following accessories included with the card:

So, the kit contains everything you need to use the graphics card’s features: a set of adapters, a user manual, and even software for playing HD video. As for the included discs, the DVD Suite contains software for editing and recording video. It may be useful for people who are going to install the card into a home entertainment center. 3DMark Vantage doesn’t need our recommendations. The Ruby ROM disc contains demos of various games and exclusive screensavers from AMD.

It is impossible to find fault with the packaging or accessories of the Sapphire Toxic HD 4850. Both are top quality, making this product an example for other graphics card makers. Now let’s check out the design of the card for any special traits.

PCB Design and Specifications

Although the PCB of the Sapphire Toxic HD 4850 card is azure, not a typical color for ATI, its wiring copies the reference card precisely. The PCB design is good, simple and inexpensive, so there is no need to develop a completely new PCB for the Radeon HD 4850 especially as Sapphire is the largest contract partner of AMD’s graphics department.

The card has a simple two-phase GPU voltage regulator based on an uP6201 controller. The power transistors are cooled with a small individual heatsink on this card because it uses a nonstandard cooler. The memory voltage regulator has one phase and is based on an uP6101 chip. The PCB carries one 6-pin PCI Express 1.0 power connector with a load capacity of 75W. As we found out in our earlier tests, this connector fully satisfies the power requirements of the Radeon HD 4850. This card being pre-overclocked, we are going to re-measure its power draw, but we think it will only consume 5-7W more than the reference card due to the modest growth of the GPU and memory frequencies.

The card is equipped with GDDR3 memory in chips from Samsung rather than Qimonda as on the reference Radeon HD 4850. The eight K4J52324QH-HJ08 chips with a capacity of 512MB (16Mb x 32) are rated for a frequency of 1200 (2400) MHz and make up a standard memory bank with a total capacity of 512 megabytes accessed across a 256-bit bus. The card’s memory frequency is increased to 1100 (2200) MHz relative to the reference Radeon HD 4850, ensuring an increase in bandwidth from 64 to 70.4GBps. That’s a useful addition because the RV770 can digest a much bigger stream of data as our tests of the Radeon HD 4870 showed. Each memory chip has a small individual heatsink fastened with a gluey thermal pad.

The GPU has a standard configuration with 160 superscalar execution modules with five ALUs in each, 10 texture processors equivalent to 40 TMUs, and four raster back-ends equivalent to 16 ordinary rasterization processors. The core frequency is increased from the reference card’s 625MHz to 675MHz. This is far below the core frequency of the Radeon HD 4870, so we expect a performance growth of 10% or something in games. You can also try to overclock the card further. The Toxic HD 4850 is a good card for such experiments thanks to its advanced Zalman VF900 cooler.

The card has two dual-link DVI-I ports, a universal 7-pin mini-DIN port for analog video output, and two CrossFireX connectors for building a graphics subsystem out of four such cards. The card also supports audio-over-HDMI, including high-definition formats described in the HDMI 1.3 standard, thanks to the new-generation audio core integrated into the RV770.

So, the Toxic HD 4850 doesn’t differ much from the reference card. It just has an azure-colored PCB, a more advanced cooler, and slightly higher GPU and memory frequencies. On the other hand, this card looks quite original in comparison with the precise copies of the reference card offered by other makers.

Cooling System

The cooling system of the Toxic HD 4850 is dedicated a separate section in this review although it is not unique. As the text on the box says, the card is equipped with a Zalman VF900-Cu cooler. It is a not new but popular and universal system capable of coping with most of modern graphics cards, save for such monsters as Nvidia GeForce GTX 200 and dual-processor Radeon HD models. It deservedly received our Reader’s Choice Award in the Coolers nomination in 2007.

The translucent impeller shouldn’t mislead you: the fan lacks highlighting. The highlighted version exists and is called VF900-Cu LED.

The heatsink has Zalman’s traditional design. It is a round “flower” consisting of 160 figured copper plates. But unlike with the VF700, the plates are not pressed together to form the base of the heatsink. The heat is transferred by means of two heat pipes that pierce the heatsink plates along the perimeter and make up a closed ring. The ends of the pipes are soldered together. The cooler is fastened by means of an X-shaped plate and four threaded posts. The graphics core is protected against chipping by the metallic frame installed on it.

This cooler is highly efficient. Having a reasonable height, it allows to use not only the bottom but also the side airflow created by the classic axial fan. The base of the heat-spreader is flat and polished off to a mirror shine. Coupled with high-quality thermal grease, this ensures good thermal contact and high cooling efficiency. An additional advantage of this cooler design is that the fan also cools the PCB and memory chips. The latter are equipped with small individual heatsinks as we noted above.

The fan is connected to the header on the PCB via an adapter. It uses a classic 3-pin connection, so the PWM-based regulation pin is not utilized. There are no resistors in the +12V circuit but the official specs say that the cooler is only as loud as 25dBA even at maximum speed. It means that the Sapphire Toxic HD 4850 is going to be almost silent.

Sapphire’s choice of the cooler is good because the reference cooler of the Radeon HD 4850 is criticized for its low efficiency. It is indeed hard to expect that a compact single-slot cooler can dissipate 110 watts of heat easily. On the other hand, the Zalman VF900-Cu is a time-tested solution with high potential. The only drawback is that it blocks the neighboring slot, but this is quite normal for a modern graphics card. The performance of this cooling system will be discussed in the next section.

Power Consumption, Noise, Temperature

Notwithstanding the modest growth of the GPU and memory frequencies, we decided to measure the power draw of the Toxic HD 4850 to see if the factory overclocking had any effect on the card’s electrical characteristics. We used a special testbed configured like follows:

The 3D load was created by means of the first SM3.0/HDR test from 3DMark06 running in a loop at 1600x1200 with 4x FSAA and 16x AF. The Peak 2D mode was emulated by means of the 2D Transparent Windows test from PCMark05. This test is important as it simulates the user’s working with application windows whereas Windows Vista’s Aero interface uses 3D features. Here are the results:


Click to enlarge

The results are even lower than we expected. The Sapphire consumes a mere 5 watts more than the reference Radeon HD 4850 and doesn’t differ much from the latter in terms of temperature. The load on the 6-pin PCI Express connector is increased, but the 1.5W violation of the permissible limit shouldn’t be a problem.

Zalman’s cooler helped achieve wonderful results. The GPU temperature was 44-47°C in idle mode and no more than 65°C under load. For comparison, the reference cooler from ATI keeps the CPU temperature at 62°C and 86°C, respectively. That’s a superb result, proving the wise choice of the developer.

Next we measured the card’s noise with a digital sound-level meter Velleman DVM1326.

The results agree with what we could hear with our ears: the card is silent under ordinary conditions. You can only hear it in a fan-less PC system but the Toxic HD 4850 is not meant for them. And if the system case is closed, the card’s noise will be barely perceptible.

So, the Sapphire Toxic HD 4850 proved to have superb noise and thermal characteristics. Let’s now check it out in games to see if the factory overclocking has an effect on its performance.

Testbed and Methods

For our performance tests of Sapphire Toxic HD 4850 we put together the following testbed:

According to our testing methodology, the drivers were set up to provide the highest possible quality of texture filtering and to minimize the effect of software optimizations used by default by both: AMD/ATI and Nvidia. Also, to ensure maximum image quality, we enabled transparent texture filtering. As a result, our ATI and Nvidia driver settings looked as follows:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia ForceWare:

For our tests we used the following games and synthetic benchmarks:

First-Person 3D Shooters

Third-Person 3D Shooters

RPG

Strategies

Synthetic Benchmarks

We selected the highest possible level of detail in each game using standard tools provided by the game itself from the gaming menu. The games configuration files weren’t modified in any way, because the user doesn’t have to know how to do it. The only exception was Enemy Territory: Quake Wars game where we disabled the built-in fps rate limitation locked at 30fps. Games supporting DirectX 10 were tested in this particular mode.

Besides Sapphire Toxic HD 4850 we have also included the following graphics accelerators to participate in our test session:

Since our main hero doesn’t belong to the high-end solutions segment, we didn’t test it in 2560x1600 resolution. We ran the performance tests in three standard resolutions including 1280x1024, 1600x1200 and 1920x1200. We used 1920x1440 instead of the latter if the game didn’t support 16:10 aspect ratio.

We used “eye candy” mode almost everywhere, where it was possible without disabling the HDR/Shader Model 3.0/Shader Model 4.0. Namely, we ran the tests with enabled MSAA 4x antialiasing and anisotropic filtering 16x in all tests except 3DMark. We enabled them from the game’s menu. If this was not possible, we forced them using the appropriate driver settings of ATI Catalyst and Nvidia ForceWare drivers.

Performance was measured with the games’ own tools and the original demos were recorded if possible. Otherwise, the performance was measured manually with Fraps utility version 2.9.1. We measured not only the average speed, but also the minimum speed of the cards where possible.

Performance in First-Person 3D Shooters

Battlefield 2142

This game doesn’t support display resolutions of 16:10 format, so we use resolutions of 4:3 format for it.

The Sapphire card is only 6-7% ahead of the reference Radeon HD 4850. The gap corresponds to the difference in their clock rates. Both cards ensure a frame rate of 70-80fps, so the Sapphire doesn’t provide any practical benefit here.

BioShock

BioShock doesn’t support FSAA when running in Windows Vista’s DirectX 10 environment. We benchmark graphics cards without FSAA in this game.

 

The Toxic HD 4850 is overtakes the more expensive GeForce GTX 260 in BioShock at a resolution of 1920x1200. However, the reference version from ATI ensures as much comfort as the Sapphire – you won’t feel any difference while playing this game. Obviously, such modest overclocking can’t do much good to the Radeon HD 4850. It had inherited this trait from its ancestors from the Radeon HD 3800 series.

Call of Juarez

The game doesn’t support resolutions above 1920x1200, so there are no results for 2560x1600.

It is the frequency of the GPU’s computing modules that determines a graphics card’s performance in Call of Juarez. Therefore the Sapphire enjoys the biggest advantage here: over 10% at 1920x1200.

Unfortunately, the bottom speed is too low even at 1280x1024, so none of the tested cards makes the game playable at the highest graphics quality settings. The GeForce GTX 260 looks better than the others, yet its bottom speed is below the desired 25fps, too.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

As you could expect, the pre-overclocked frequencies of the Toxic HD 4850 do not ensure any advantage over the reference card from ATI. These cards both deliver superb performance in this game, being only inferior to the Radeon HD 4870 at resolutions above 1280x1024.

Crysis

This game is tested at the High level of detail, excepting the Shaders option which is set at Very High. This way we try to achieve a compromise between image quality and speed.

Nvidia’s solutions are superior in Crysis although they cannot keep the frame rate above 25fps, either. The Sapphire card has but a negligible advantage over the reference Radeon HD 4850 in terms of performance. It offers a better and quieter cooler, though.

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

The frame rate is fixed at 30fps in this game as this is the rate at which the physical model is being updated at the server. Thus, this 30fps speed is the required minimum for playing the game.

There is no performance growth in this game because its speed depends on the GPU’s texture-mapping resources as well as on the memory subsystem bandwidth. The Sapphire doesn’t differ much from the reference Radeon HD 4850 in these parameters. Therefore there is only a 3% increase in performance at 1920x1200. Both cards are suitable for playing this game. Considering the frame rate limit, the owner of a Radeon HD 4850 will have a twofold reserve of speed.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

The Sapphire is almost 10% faster than the Radeon HD 4850 at 1920x1200, which is good considering the small growth of the GPU and memory frequencies. With this 10% addition to speed the Toxic HD 4850 hits the psychologically important barrier of 60fps which is traditionally considered the border of the full-comfort zone for a first-person shooter.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl

The game doesn’t support FSAA when you enable the dynamic lighting model, but loses much of its visual appeal with the static model. This is the reason why we benchmarked the cards in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. using anisotropic filtering only.

Alas, the pre-overclocked card from Sapphire doesn’t extend the playability zone in this game: 1600x1200/1680x1050 is the highest resolution you can play with more or less comfort at. The resolution of 1920x1200 is only playable on the dual-chip Radeons, including the outdated Radeon HD 3870 X2.

Performance in Third-Person 3D Shooters

Lost Planet: Extreme Condition

The Sapphire Toxic HD 4850 has a lower bottom speed than the reference HD 4850 for some reason. We reran the test but to the same effect. The average frame rates of the two cards are similar although a very small performance growth can be observed at high resolutions.

Tomb Raider: Legend

The Sapphire card does best at high resolutions where it outperforms the reference HD 4850 by about 10%. The game is quite playable even though the Sapphire is inferior to the GeForce GTX 260 and even to the GeForce 9800 GTX.

Performance in RPG

Hellgate: London

Like in the previous case, it is at a resolution of 1920x1200 that you can see the biggest effect from the factory overclocking but the Sapphire Toxic HD 4850 doesn’t give you a comfortable bottom speed. You can’t get it even with the Radeon HD 4870. The only card capable of that in this test session is the GeForce GTX 260.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

The game loses much of its visual appeal without HDR. Although some gamers argue that point, we think TES IV looks best with enabled FP HDR and test it in this mode.

The Sapphire Toxic HD 4850 is not pre-overclocked hard to enjoy a considerable advantage in this game which is not a heavy test for modern graphics cards. The frame rate is high even by the standards of first-person shooters at every resolution and in every scene.

Performance in Strategies

Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts

The new add-on to Company of Heroes is tested in DirectX 10 mode only since it provides the highest quality of the visuals.

The factory overclocking ensures a 5% increase in performance at every resolution but doesn’t produce a tangible advantage over the reference card. The cards are equally fast and slow at exactly the same resolutions.

Command & Conquer 3: Kane’s Wrath

The add-on to C&C 3: Tiberium Wars brought no changes into the technical aspect of the game. The game still having a frame rate limiter, you should consider the minimum speed of the cards in the first place.

As usual, we can’t see any difference between the Sapphire and any other card in C&C because each of them hits the game’s frame rate limiter at every display resolution.

World in Conflict

The integrated benchmarking tools are not very accurate, having a precision of 1fps and higher, but that’s enough to see the lack of any advantage of the Sapphire Toxic HD 4850 over the reference card from ATI. Both cards are inferior to the GeForce 9800 GTX in terms of bottom speed.

Performance in Synthetic Benchmarks

Futuremark 3DMark06

The Sapphire Toxic HD 4850 scores only 90 points more than the reference card just as we could expect considering that the benchmark runs at 1280x1024 without FSAA by default. The SM2.0 tests show a total lack of any performance growth.

The individual SM2.0 tests confirm the point. Despite the use of 4x FSAA, there is but a small difference between the two versions of Radeon HD 4850. It fits into the measurement error range even.

The gap is somewhat larger in the SM3.0/HDR tests and you cannot write it off to some inaccuracies of the benchmarking mechanism. Anyway, the gap is no larger than 5% even here.

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage

We minimize the CPU’s influence by using the Extreme profile (1920x1200, 4x FSAA and anisotropic filtering).

The cards are working under heavier load now, and we can see a larger gap between the Sapphire Toxic HD 4850 and the ATI Radeon HD 4850. The difference of 160-170 points is quite considerable when the overall scores are about 2600-2700 points. It is 6-7%.

The individual tests agree with the overall scores. The Sapphire Toxic HD 4850 is 6-7% ahead of the reference card and keeps its third place, being only inferior to the GeForce GTX 260 and Radeon HD 4870.

Conclusion

The Sapphire Toxic HD 4850 512MB GDDR3 left a most positive impression on us. This product has no drawbacks if you don’t regard its too small advantage over the reference Radeon HD 4850 as such. However, even those 5 to 8% of performance growth in games is quite a good effect from the increase of the GPU and memory frequencies by 50MHz and 100MHz, respectively. Of course, there is no dramatic improvement in performance due to such overclocking, so everything we’ve ever written about the Radeon HD 4850 in our reviews can be applied to the Sapphire Toxic HD 4850 as well.

The specific product from Sapphire we have described today may be called a perfect Radeon HD 4850 that offers somewhat higher performance and, most importantly, an advanced and quiet cooler. The original card from ATI comes with a compact single-slot cooler, but it looks dubious to us considering the heat dissipation of almost 110W. Our concerns are confirmed by the temperature of the GPU on the Radeon HD 4850 which is as hot as 85-90°C under load. The Sapphire Toxic HD 4850 is free from that problem thanks to the advanced cooler from Zalman. Besides low temperature, stable operation and longer service life, this cooler has a positive effect on the card’s overclockability.

The packaging and accessories of this card are noteworthy, too. The product carries on the good tradition we noted in our Sapphire HD 4850 CrossFire review: the package design is stern and appealing, the accessories are everything you may want to use the card, including a HD video player. There is a nice bonus, a full version of 3DMark Vantage. Of course, the accessories of the Toxic HD 4850 are not as rich as those of the Sapphire HD 4850, but there are many even more expensive products from other brands that come with scantier accessories. Sapphire makes a good example for other vendors.

So, the only reason why you may not want to choose the Toxic HD 4850 is that the particular reseller offers it at a too steep a price. Otherwise, it is an excellent product worthy every cent of your investment into it.

Generally speaking, ATI’s Radeon HD 4850 cards are currently the best in terms of price/performance ratio. With their retail price having already dropped below the recommended $199, they ensure excellent performance in modern games. They are often not much slower than the far more expensive GeForce GTX 260 from Nvidia and even beat it occasionally.

Highs:

Lows: