We were first introduced to Sapphire late last year, during Comdex. It was an immediate standout in a sea of “been there” and “done that,” due in part to a unique product that demonstrated originality. That card, the Sapphire Atlantis 9700 Pro Ultimate, was a standard RADEON 9700 Pro card equipped with a Zalman ZM80 heat pipe cooler designed to run silently without any sort of performance sacrifice. Of course, the card carried a price premium when it debuted. And as well it should have – it included the large cooler, a software bundle and a package of cables to enable television output and a second display, either VGA or DVI.
Fast-forward eight months, and the video card market has changed considerably. Mainly, NVIDIA’s GeForce FX 5900 Ultra is finally available and competing head-to-head with ATI’s flagship, the RADEON 9800 Pro. Both products are extremely complex. And as a result, there hasn’t been much in the way of innovation from third-party hardware vendors peddling high-end graphics cards. Wave after wave of reference boards pass through our labs, undifferentiated for the most part. This isn’t to say reference designs are bad. Clearly, ATI and NVIDIA both back their processors with plentiful resources, the result of which is a stable graphics platform for gaming. But at the same time, reviewing reference boards can be an arduous undertaking. After all, each card performs comparably and the only points for comparison are price, bundle, and availability.
Sapphire: Stepping Out
These days, gargantuan cases are giving way to chic small form factor systems that often sport similar feature sets and comparable performance. The obvious tradeoff is a reduction in expandability – most boast an AGP slot and a single PCI slot. The natural extension of smaller cases is a push for less noise. Shuttle’s systems can be cooled with a single fan and smaller mini-ITX boards often make due with a simple heat sink.
Recognizing that silent PCs are becoming evermore popular, Sapphire has designed another card bearing the ‘Ultimate’ moniker - this one is based on the RADEON 9800 Pro board. As with all of the other 9800 Pro products seen thus far, the Sapphire Atlantis 9800 Pro Ultimate centers on a reference board. However, it is covered with a Zalman VGA cooler from the ZM80 family.
Sapphire's 9700 Ultimate (black)
and 9800 Ultimate (red)
Bottom of the Ultimate cards
To recap, the RADEON 9800 Pro reference board is based on the ATI R350 Visual Processing Unit clocked at 380MHz. It is, of course, fully compliant with DirectX 9 and it sports a couple of features not found on its predecessor, the RADEON 9700 Pro. The first is called an F-buffer, a FIFO buffer within the chip’s core that theoretically enables fragment shader programs of unlimited length. We’ve yet to see a game that utilizes the DirectX 9 feature set, so it remains to be seen what, if any, effect the F-buffer has in real-world apps, especially since massive shader programs have a particularly adverse effect on performance. Additionally, R350 has an enhanced memory controller and Z cache said to augment stencil buffer performance. The cumulative result is a marked improvement in especially intensive situations, such as anti-aliasing at high resolutions. These features are common to all RADEON 9800 Pro cards, though. What makes the Atlantis 9800 Pro Ultimate noteworthy is its method for cooling.