Summary: With a 520MHz R480 graphics core, and 256MB of memory running at 540MHz, the X850 XT is one incredibly powerful graphics card, packing enough performance for feasible 2048x1536 gaming. Sapphire is the first ATI board partner to bring an X850 XT card to market, already these cards can be found online for under $500. See how this card performs in comparison to the X800 XL, X850 XT Platinum Edition, GeForce 6800 GT, and 6800 Ultra in today's review!
It is because of this that we generally recommend most enthusiasts fantasize about the flagship product(s), but spend their hard-earned cash on the level just beneath the top. These products typically support all the same features as the flagship product, and contain most of its key ingredients, only they cost significantly less. In the CPU world, AMD’s Athlon 64 4000+ is nothing more than a multiplier-locked Athlon 64 FX-53. The Athlon 64 4000+ runs at the same speed as the FX-53, features a dual-channel memory controller, 1MB L2 cache, and sits on a 1GHz HyperTransport bus. The Athlon 64 4000+ also sells for $100 less than the FX-53. Another popular solution for gamers looking to save a little more money is the Athlon 64 3500+. The 3500+ runs 200MHz slower than the 4000+ and ships with a smaller L2 cache, but also sells for half the price of the Athlon 64 4000+ while delivering 90% of the Athlon 64 4000’s performance in most games and software applications. This is an incredible value.
It’s these types of products that most enthusiasts really rally behind. NVIDIA’s GeForce 6800 GT has enjoyed an incredible amount of success since it was first introduced last year, despite its expensive $400 price tag. This is because the GeForce 6800 GT shares all of the same key features as its more expensive brother, the GeForce 6800 Ultra, including the same 16 pixel pipeline architecture and 256-bit memory interface with 256MB of GDDR3 memory (for most 6800 GT cards), only it ships at slower clock speeds: 50MHz slower on the graphics core, and 50MHz slower memory. ATI employed a similar strategy with their X800 XT card, only it was introduced to address the supply issues ATI was experiencing with X800 XT Platinum Edition. If the PE hadn’t run into these issues, consumers never would have seen an AGP variant of the X800 XT at the retail level.
ATI’s first true effort to capture the same spirit NVIDIA enthusiasts currently enjoy with the GeForce 6800 GT are the X800 XL and the X850 XT. Both of these cards feature 16 pipeline architectures and high-speed memory interfaces with 256-bit memory controllers, giving them the same fundamental elements that are found in ATI’s flagship X850 XT Platinum Edition card. The one key difference between the two lies in their underlying plumbing: X800 XL is built on TSMC’s 0.11-micron manufacturing process, while X850 XT is built at 0.13-micron.
The larger, 0.13-micron process TSMC uses for the X850 XT and X850 XT PE features low-k black diamond dielectric, which allows these graphics cores to scale to higher clock frequencies. The X850 XT’s 0.13-micron R480 core runs 120MHz faster than X800 XL, and only 20MHz slower than the X850 XT Platinum Edition. X850 XT cards also ship with the same dual-slot cooler that is found on the X850 XT PE, giving them better cooling than the X800 XL.
For the gamer that truly wants everything that is found in ATI’s high-end flagship, only at a lower price, the X850 XT is technically the ideal solution.
SIDEBAR: Sapphire X850 XT Product Webpage
After all, the time needed to procure additional parts (such as better cooling), manufacture, and properly test a modified board could cost the board manufacturer weeks, if not longer. Instead board manufacturers will save these extras for their second-generation cards; latter GeForce4 Ti 4200 cards in particular saw a number of improvements that never would have been considered for a first generation card.
Where is dual DVI?
One aspect of Sapphire’s X850 XT board that did surprise us however was the lack of dual DVI connections. If you recall our original X800 XL Performance Preview article from last year, dual DVI was one feature that ATI claimed they would provide on their retail X850 XT and X850 XT Platinum Edition cards. Now granted, ATI and Sapphire are two different companies, but we expected board partners to fall in line with ATI’s reference specifications. Apparently those specs have changed since December however, as a quick look at X850 XT cards from MSI, PowerColor, and even ATI’s own X850 XT retail card reveals that Sapphire isn’t the only X850 XT board manufacturer to rely on the more traditional DVI/VGA combination we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing over the years.
The rest of the Sapphire RADEON X850 XT card is fairly standard. As we said before, the card borrows the same dual-slot cooler from the X850 XT Platinum Edition. The cooler is unlike anything we’ve seen in an ATI card to date, with a large copper heatsink sitting directly above the card’s R480 VPU, while an aluminum plate is responsible for keeping the board’s GDDR3 memory modules cool. The cooling system features a ducted design, with the card’s fan drawing in air from within your system, blowing it across the copper heatsink’s fins, before it exits out the side of your system case.
Like previous ATI cards, the X850 XT’s fan runs dynamically, with the RPMs varying based on temperature. During operation we’ve found that the card runs very quietly, even when the card is running under load and overclocked.
Unlike some of Sapphire’s previous cards, which have come with a copy of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, the RADEON X850 XT ships without a game bundle. Instead the board ships with just a copy of PowerDVD and Redline, Sapphire’s overclocking utility which is based on Rage3D Tweak. Hardware accessories include an S-Video cable, HDTV cable, power cable, DVI adapter, and composite cable.
Lock On: Modern Air Combat (Mig-29 custom demo)
Lock On: Modern Air Combat – Direct3D
SIDEBAR: The anaconda, one of the world's largest snakes, gives birth to its young instead of laying eggs
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB - OpenGL
SIDEBAR: If a red giant star was the size of an ordinary living room, its energy-generating core would be the size of the period at the end of this sentence.
Pacific Fighters - OpenGL
Far Cry – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
DOOM 3 – OpenGL
DOOM 3 – OpenGL
Half-Life 2 – Direct3D
Half-Life 2 – Direct3D
DOOM 3 – OpenGL
Performance: ATI’s RADEON X850 XT VPU is no slouch when it comes to performance. With 16 pixel pipelines, a 520MHz graphics core, and memory running at 540MHz (1,080MHz effective), the X850 XT is second only to the X850 XT PE in raw paper specs when it comes to performance, and as you saw in our benchmark results, the X850 XT is often trails the X850 XT PE by 5% (or less in the case of our testing with flight sims).
Lacking dual DVI and VIVO: Again, as we mentioned on page 2 of this review, this isn’t a knock against Sapphire, as they’re merely following ATI’s own reference X850 XT board specifications by not providing dual DVI or VIVO. It’s just too bad to see ATI make this change to final X850 XT boards. Back in December, ATI’s philosophy was dual DVI and VIVO for everyone at the $500+ price point, now the only card that must ship with these features in order to follow ATI’s reference specifications is the flagship $550 RADEON X850 XT Platinum Edition. At least ATI gives enhanced OVERDRIVE support to X850 XT cards like the Sapphire unit we’re testing. Clock speeds for the core and memory can be adjusted in 1MHz increments via OVERDRIVE.