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Sapphire Radeon HD6870 Vapor-X

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Sapphire Radeon HD6870 Vapor-X Review  

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Introduction

With the release a few weeks ago of ATI's 6900 series still fresh in our minds, today we have the opportunity to review Sapphire's Radeon HD6950 to see how it performs in our usual benchmarks as well as other factors which may appeal to its intended market.

We're back in touch with Sapphire after a long break (before this year the last Sapphire card we reviewed was their Radeon 9800 AIW Pro) due to the team going their own way from 2005-2008 before we reformed in 2009. Sapphire have always championed innovation and quality and these priorities have helped build their reputation and business to the level where they are the largest manufacturer of ATI cards and in the past, when we have asked people what brand of graphics card they prefer, Sapphire has always been the most popular.

 

Specifications

Here are the specifications of this card:

 

Output 1 x Dual-Link DVI
1 x HDMI 1.4a
2 x Mini-DisplayPort
1 x Single-Link DVI-D
DisplayPort 1.2
 
GPU 900 MHz Core Clock
40 nm Chip
1120 x Stream Processors
 
Memory 1024 MB Size
256 -bit GDDR5
4200 MHz Effective
 
Software Driver CD
SAPPHIRE TriXX Utility
 

A much more detailed list of features can be found on the Sapphire product page here and all about Vapor-X here. We tend not to copy manufacturer's specs since product pages change over time and that renders our information inaccurrate.

 

GPU Radeon HD 5870 Radeon HD 6850 Radeon HD 6870 Radeon HD 6950 Radeon HD 6970
Die Size 334 230 255 289 389 
Shader units 1600 960 1120 1408 1536 
Texture Units 80 56 56 88  96 
ROPs 32 32 32 32  32 
GPU Cypress Barts Pro Barts XT Cayman  Cayman 
Transistors 2154M 2000M 1700M 2640M  2640M 
Memory Size 1024 MB 2048MB 2048MB 2048MB  2048MB 
Memory Bus Width 256 bit 256 bit 256 bit 256 bit  256 bit 
Core Clock 850 MHz 775 MHz 900 MHz 800 MHz  880 MHz 
Memory Clock 1200 MHz 900 MHz 1050 MHz 1250 MHz   1375 MHz 
Price $299 $179 $230 $300  $370

One of the complaints we have heard a lot from readers in the last few months is that the 6800 series is hardly any faster than the 5800 series and the simple answer to that is that it's not meant to be! The 6850 and 6870 are direct replacements for the 5850 and 5870 because they have a much smaller die size and are thus easier to manufacture. The benefit to the consumer is a lower priced product for the same or greater performance. The jump to 2GB of memory on the 69XX range as standard is an interesting move and we'll have to see how that translates into performance gains over 1GB models (like the one we are testing today).

To see how the 6800 series compares with its Nvidia competitors:

 

GPU Radeon HD 6870 Radeon HD 6850 GeForce GTX 470 GeForce GTX 480 GeForce GTX 570 GeForce GTX 580
Die Size 255 230 529  529  520  520 
Shader units 1120 960 448 480  480  512 
Texture Units 56 56 56 60 60 64
ROPs 32 32 40 48  40  48 
GPU Barts XT Barts Pro GF100 GF100  GF110  GF110 
Transistors 1700M 2000M 3000M 3000M  3000M  3000M 
Memory Size 2048MB 2048MB 1280MB 1536MB  1280MB  1536MB 
Memory Bus Width 256 bit 256 bit 320 bit 384 bit  320 bit  384 bit 
Core Clock 900 MHz 775 MHz 607 MHz 700 MHz  732 MHz  772 MHz 
Memory Clock 1050 MHz 900 MHz 1,215 MHz 1,401 MHz 1,464 MHz 1,544 MHz
Price $230 $179 $279 $449  $349  $509

Die size is almost half of the Nvidia products and is partially accounted for by the lack of a 320 or 384 bit memory bus. It will be seen in the months to come whether Nvidia's 384-bit bus or AMD's 2GB memory is a significant factor in performance. Price is lower but Nvidia are releasing a host of cut down cards which we shall keep an eye on. For now the jury is still out.

The key aspects of the 6800 series are as follows:

 

The dies are similar in size so one can assume that the 6850 has some capability deliberately disabled for product differentiation or that speed binning results in those that fail the 6870 test to be used as 6850 GPUs (assuming thay meet the criteria for these). Realistically, a combination of the two policies will be used.

Power consumption is better than the 5800 series - crucially 20W at idle is a good figure as the cards are unlikely to be going flat out all the time and power saving (and noise since fans will spin slowly when not needed) is an important consideration in total cost of ownership (TCO).

 

The maximum power draw of 150W and the fact that only two 6-pin connectors (and not a 6-pin and 8-pin) make this much more palatable to the mass market. Outputs are also much better for Eyefinity support so we are unlikely to see an Eyefinity version any time soon.

 

One thing that grabbed our attention was the support for 3D in games. We've already seen 3D take off in a big way with movies and now it looks as if games will do the same in 2011. Whether this will be through 3D glasses on a standard monitor or, as with 3D televisions, require the purchase of a 3D monitor remains to be seen. Nvidia offered an alternative technology a few years ago using special glasses that alternated shutters to produce a 3D effect but it never really took off due to double framerate requirements and users complaining of fatigue so it will be interesting to see the uptake of 3D gaming.

 

The Architecture

Quite a few changes have been made to streamline things and the key point from the slide is the reference to better performance than a Radeon 5850 using a quarter less silicon - there would have been no point in a launch if either factor was below par.

 

The GPU

Moving on to the Sapphire card itself lets start with the box.

 

Branding is very important for a manufacturer's product positioning, both against the offerings of competitors and to enhance product differentiation. The Vapor-X is a premium series in Sapphire's offering, the main benefit being enhanced cooling (hence the penguin motif) and low noise (more on that later).

 

It may seem strange to evaluate packaging (some people throw it away or tear it open) but it says a lot about brand positioning. Sapphire use a very strudy box with embossed/raised graphics and lettering. Given the lifespan of modern graphics cards (we've never had a single one go wrong in almost a decade of normal use) most users will want to keep the boxes safe to make it easier sell on or give as a gift to friends/relatives when the time comes to upgrade to a faster model. We much prefer the egg carton used for holding the card than the usual flimsy carboard inserts or foam that breaks apart when handled.

 

The box is awash with information on all sides and it's nice to see detailed specifications not being ommitted in favour of all-round marketing material. Shoppers at big stores will no doubt appreciate this (particularly those that have ever tried asking a technical question at PC World).

 

The card is completely different from the reference design to support the Vapor-X features. We used a bright light to illuminate the massive heatsink which extends almost the full length of the card and also to show the heatpipes which transfer heat from the center of the heatsink which covers the GPU to the edges. For this reason Sapphire have used a big (and quiet) fan positioned in the centre of the card and not at the internal edge..

 

An edge view gives some idea of the size of the heatsink covering the GPU. The two 6-pin connectors are mounted to the side for ease of installation in a greater variety of enclosures although no longer narrow ones.

 

The edge view compares the Sapphire 6870 (bottom) with a reference 5850 design (top). Not only is the exhaust grill larger but the Sapphire card has two mini display port connectors as well as the all important HDMI connector. This allows more options for Eyefinity and for daisy chaining mini-DP monitors (when they eventually become available in appreciable quantities).

 

It's interesting to note that the length of the Sapphire 6870 Vapor-X remains the same as the Radeon 5850 and will actuall fit into a smaller case because the reference 5850 has its 6-pin sockets on the internal edge as opposed to the side.

 

What else is included in the box? An HDMI lead of a good length, a mini-port to HDMI adapter, a DVI to VGA adapter, Crossfire connector and two cables to allow molex connectors to be used for the 6-pin power requirements if the PSU does not have 6-pin connectors. A note of caution - if your PSU doesn not have 6-pin power connectors for PCI-E cards then it is important to make sure both molex connectors used do not come off the same rail and to know the capabilities of the PSU by referring to the manual or manufacturers specifications. If it looks like the power requirements will be exceeded it may be time to upgrade to a new PSU and relegate the old one to a less demanding spare machine etc.

 

 

Test Setup

Test Configuration

System Hardware

CPU

Intel Core i7-2600K (3.3 GHz, 8MB Cache

AMD Phenom2 X6 1100T (3.3 GHz, 6MB Cache)

Motherboard

Intel DH67BL

ASUS M4A79T Deluxe

CPU Cooler

Corsair H50

Corsair H50

RAM

Kingston KHX2133C8D3T1K2/4GX 4GB 2133MHz DDR3 Non-ECC
CL8 (Kit of 2) Intel XMP Tall HS CAS 8-8-8-24

Kingston KHX1600C8D3T1K2/4GX 4GB 1600MHz DDR3 T1 Series Non-ECC
CL8 DIMM (Kit of 2) XMP CAS 8-8-8-24

Graphics

Sapphire Radeon HD6950, Sapphire Radeon 6870 Vapor-X, ATI Radeon 5850, ATI Radeon 5670, Intel HD3000 graphics

Sapphire Radeon HD6950, Sapphire Radeon 6870 Vapor-X, ATI Radeon 5850, ATI Radeon 5670, Intel HD3000 graphics

Hard Drive

Maxtor 300GB SATA-2

Maxtor 300GB SATA-2

Sound

Realtek® 1200 8 -Channel High Definition Audio CODEC

Realtek® 1200 8 -Channel High Definition Audio CODEC

Network

Gigabit LAN controller

Realtek® 8112 Gigabit LAN controller

Chassis

Antec 902 Midi Tower Case

Antec Sonata Elite Ultra Quiet Case

Power

Antec TruPower 750W

Antec TruPower 750W

Software

Operating System

Windows 7 Professional

Windows 7 Professional

Graphics

ATI Catalyst 9.11

ATI Catalyst 9.11

Chipset

Intel P55

AMD 790

Applications

  • SiSoft Sandra 2009

  • 3DMark Vantage Pro

  • CPU-Z

  • Far Cry 2

  • HAWX

  • Resident Evil 5
  • SiSoft Sandra 2009

  • 3DMark Vantage Pro

  • CPU-Z

  • Far Cry 2

  • HAWX

  • Resident Evil 5

We have two main test systems at present and recently upgraded our Intel one to an i7-2600K we received from Intel for the Sandy Bridge launch in January. The AMD system has the most powerful processor currently available in the AMD range.

 

Test Results - DX10

Firstly we will start with DX10 testing (the range of DX11 games is still limited at present although many are in the pipeline for release this year).

3DMark Vantage is a full DirectX 10 compliant synthetic benchmark. It tests out all of the DirectX 10 abilities of each card to give the user an idea of where they rank with their graphic card in a collective pool of many users all over the internet.

The testing was done with the default performance setting for all of the cards to give an idea where each one stands in the GPU line up.

 

 

Setting aside the orange bars (the CPU performance is fairly level as the only variable during testing is the graphics card) it can be seen that the performance of the 3 high end cards scales with their product positioning. The Radeon HD 5850 which has served us so well for over a year is still capable of putting up a good fight but is now end of line and is about the same price as the better performing Radeon HD 6870. The Sapphire Radeon HD 6950, currently priced about 20% higher than the two others shows a nice boost in performance and we'll see how that translates into real-world benchmarks. The four low cost alternatives put on a brave face and may appeal to those on a budget while we wait to see what plans ATI/AMD have for budget cards in the 6XXX series. Intel's on-chip HD3000 is shown for comparison purposes only to highligh the fact that built-in graphics still have a long way to go to reach discrete levels of performance despite the presence of a powerful processor.

 

Far Cry 2 is still a firm favourite and taxing on any system. The Sapphire Radeon 6870 Vapor-X is not far short of the 2GB 6950 and ahead of the similarly priced 5850. By contrast the HD3000 is unplayable at any resolution.

 

HAWX seems to be easy for most systems to handle with playable rates from all contendors at all resolutions. Even the HD3000 is playable at low resolutions. We'll have to see how that changes when we move to HAWX 2.

 

The current darling of horror games provides lots of eye candy and furious action. As with Far Cry 2 performance in very good but only the 6XXX series cards can provide triple digit frame rates at all resolutions. The Sapphire Radeon HD6870 Vapor-X is just as fast as the more expensive 6950.

We're in the process of changing our benchmarks to more demanding ones and appreciate any feedback suggestions.

 

Noise Performance

One of the key features of the Vapor-X range is better noise management. We cannot give exact decibel levels due to lack of sufficiently sensitive equipment but can confirm that the Sapphire HD6870 Vapor-X is incredibly quiet. Thanks to the large fan spinning at lower than normal speeds the fan is inaudible at idle performance levels unless we turn off all the fans in our test rig (we use water cooling so the CPU is safe). Even at performance levels we can only barely make out the sound of the graphics card above that of the system fans (running at slow speed - cannot make out the graphics card at all at medium and high speeds).

 

Analysis and Other Benefits

The Radeon 6xxx series is not just about playing faster and ATI want to emphasize the quality benefits their new technology brings to the mainstream. One of these is hardware acceleration in video playback and they illustrate this with Adobe's Flash player with support for hardware acceleration.

 

The difference is startling and shows how important this feature can be if widely implemented. Let's hope that ATI keep pestering the relevant software developers until they all have this level of support by default.

To see the benefits of DX11 that are unique to the ATI 6XXX series we need to dig further. It’s tricky to test to see how much of a speed difference DX11 makes as there are few reliable DX11 benchmarks but as a showcase of DX11 quality the situation is much better. We used Unigine’s Heaven Benchmark and can only convey the quality to our readers via YouTube.

 

The improvement in quality is apparent for all to see.

 

 

This next video shows the effects of Hardware Tessellation. The technical white paper on this feature is enough to send the most avid technophile to sleep but there's no denying the benefits of the end result.

If you have a DirectX 11 card then you can download the demo for yourself at http://unigine.com/download/

 

Conclusion

Sapphire have an extensive range of products aimed at different market segments. The Radeon HD6870 we looked at today is in their Vapor-X range. This means that it meets the needs of those that value cool and quiet performance through the use of large fans and heatpipe technology. They also have a Toxic range (factory overclocked and higher spec than reference design) as well as their mainstream products competing on price alone.

The Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 Vapor-X is well designed with branding to give the feeling of being a member of an exclusive club. Quality is second to none and over the years, reliability of Sapphire products has been of the highest standard. Performance is better than the more expensive (now end of line) Radeon HD5850 and, in many cases, as good as the higher specced Radeon HD6950. Sadly our test card was only on loan but if we had to choose a Radeon HD6870 for our test rig, there would be no better choice than Sapphire's Vapor-X offering.

If you're in the market for a Radeon HD 6870 but want to keep noise and GPU temperatures to a minimum then the Sapphire Radeon HD6870 Vapor-X is the ideal solution..

 

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