The Sapphire Radeon HD 3850 Ultimate
If there’s one thing that we admire about Sapphire, it’s their vast collection of SKUs based on a given GPU. Besides manufacturing the basic cookie cutter cards based on AMD’s reference design that every Radeon board partner sells, Sapphire also goes out of their way to develop and produce cards with factory overclocking, custom cooling and other unique features that go beyond the basics. The one downside to this though is with so many SKUs available, keeping up with the various cards can be confusing: Sapphire has used brands like “Toxic”, “Ultimate”, “Blizzard”, and now “Atomic” in the past – keeping track of all these SKUs can be bewildering if you don’t follow the industry religiously, so we’ll start by quickly explaining Sapphire’s Ultimate line.
Sapphire’s Ultimate cards have traditionally been targeted towards hardware enthusiasts looking to build a silent, or near silent PC. While there have been a couple of exceptions to this rule (most recently with the Radeon X1950 Pro), for the most part, Sapphire’s Ultimate line has accomplished this by integrating heatpipe cooling exclusively on their Ultimate cards. With a heatpipe in place cooling the GPU, a fan isn’t necessary to keep the chip cool. This allows the card to run silently.
We’ve reviewed multiple Ultimate cards over the years and found that while Sapphire’s heatpipe cooling units (frequently manufactured by the cooling aficionados at Zalman) do a good job of keeping the graphics card cool under stock conditions, the PCB of the graphics board itself gets quite hot, creating a hotspot within the PC that can be troublesome, particularly in small, cramped cases with little or no airflow. Therefore in the past we’ve recommended that card owners looking to pick up an Ultimate card also ensure that they’ve got good airflow running over the graphics card itself. At one point Sapphire even bundled an optional accessory fan with their 9800 XT Ultimate card.
With their latest Ultimate card, the 3850 Ultimate, Sapphire has come closer than ever to solving this problem in our opinion (no doubt helped in part by the 55-nm RV670 GPU), although there is one key caveat. Let’s discuss the new cooler first though.
At first glance the Sapphire cooler resembles Zalman’s VNF100 heatpipe, but it’s definitely a slightly different design. Like the VNF100, the heatsink responsible for keeping the heatpipes cool is located on the bottom of the graphics card, allowing the 3850 Ultimate to remain a single-slot graphics card. Sitting directly atop the GPU is a copper plate and three aluminum heatpipes. These heatpipes extend from the top of the GPU all the way to the back of the graphics card. Here you will find a massive aluminum heatsink, which transfers heat from the heatpipes to its fins where the heat is then dispersed into the air. This system does an incredible job of keeping the GPU cool, in fact, in our testing the GPU on the Sapphire Ultimate card ran cooler than the stock AMD reference board! And unlike some of the previous Ultimate cards we’ve seen that ran with blazing hot PCBs, the heatpipe cooler on the 3850 Ultimate is also able to accomplish this without turning the 3850 Ultimate’s PCB into a fire hazard. Now don’t get us wrong, the PCB still gets quite toasty under load, but it’s not nearly as bad as other Ultimate boards we’ve tested in the past, and quite frankly if you’ve ever owned any midrange or high-end card lately then you know that the PCB gets rather hot under even moderate use.
There is one downside to this system though. By placing such a large heatsink on the underside of the graphics card, the Ultimate board may have problems fitting in some situations. The North Bridge cooler on some motherboards can be quite tall, most notably on many high-end AMD-based nForce 590 SLI motherboards. In the past we’ve found that the heatsink used to cool the North Bridge on many of these motherboards can often interfere with graphics cards that have cooling on the back of the board.
Fortunately to get around this, Sapphire has placed the heatsink up high: if you look at the back of the board you’ll see that there’s nearly 1.5” of clearance between the bottom of the 3850 Ultimate and the bottom edge of the board’s heatsink. This provided just enough clearance for us to install the card on our ASUS M2N32-SLI Deluxe without running into any issues (with the card in place though, there were only a few mm worth of clearance between the two components).
Things weren’t as rosy with our Corsair Dominator memory modules however. You see, the heatsink Sapphire uses on the 3850 Ultimate is so thick that the heatsink actually extends over the memory module slots on the motherboard. With conventional memory modues this isn’t an issue, as the modules aren’t tall enough to interfere with the card -- we were able to run OCZ Platinum, Kingston HyperX, and Corsair XMS modules just fine with the Sapphire 3850 Ultimate -- but the heatsink Corsair uses for their Dominator modules is over 1.5” tall and as a result, the heatsink on the 3850 Ultimate bumps up against the heatsink on the Dominator module. Unless you’re willing to somehow pry the 3850 Ultimate into the PCI Express graphics slot, there’s no way you can install the graphics card onto the motherboard.
Hardware accessories bundled with the Ultimate card include a CrossFire cable, 6-pin PCI Express power cable, a DVI to VGA adapter, and an HDMI to VGA adapter, and a component video cable. The card also comes with two CyberLink programs: PowerDVD and a DVD Suite which includes several CyberLink programs (PowerProducer 4, PowerDirector 5 Express, Power2Go 5.5, Medi@Show 3, and trial versions of PowerBackup 2.5, PowerDVD Copy, and Label Print 2), a voucher for Valve’s Orange Box, and a copy of 3DMark 06 Professional.