Summary: Looking for a semi-inexpensive AGP or PCI Express upgrade? If so, today's combo review may be just for you. In one corner we have Sapphire's X1950 Pro AGP. This card is the first X1950 Pro AGP on the market to ship with 512MB of memory, but does the extra RAM really make a difference? In the other corner we have Sapphire's X1950 Pro Ultimate Edition. This card utilizes the PCIe interface and ships from the factory with overclocked memory and Zalman's VF900-Cu copper cooler. But how does it perform in comparison to the stock X1950 Pro card? All those questions and more are answered in today's review!
Sapphire’s Ultimate line continued to evolve over the years as ATI introduced new GPUs, with Sapphire integrating newer heat pipe units from Zalman and eventually an external fan that operated nearly silently in the 9800 XT Ultimate, although eventually Sapphire had to abandon the heat pipe in favor of the more traditional heatsink/fan unit starting with the X800 line of GPUs. Meanwhile NVIDIA’s board partners began to increasingly add additional features to their cards such as cards that were overclocked from the factory -- while Sapphire hasn’t provided out-of-the-box overclocking with their cards, Sapphire did respond by providing their TRIXX utility, which would overclock the graphics card automatically once loaded; all while remaining under the factory Sapphire warranty.
Most recently Sapphire has introduced a line of liquid-cooled graphics cards that fall under their Toxic brand. We recently reviewed X1900 XTX and X1950 XTX graphics cards that utilized this unique form of cooling. Sapphire uses a modified version of Thermaltake’s Tide Water liquid cooling unit on these cards, with the added addition of TRIXX for higher clock speeds and performance.
For the Radeon X1950 Pro GPU, Sapphire’s really pulling out all the stops. Not only does Sapphire provide a stock Radeon X1950 Pro card that closely follows ATI’s reference design, Sapphire has also developed another Ultimate card based on the X1950 Pro GPU, their Sapphire Radeon X1950 Pro Ultimate, and the Sapphire X1950 Pro AGP, both of which we’re reviewing today. At CES a few weeks ago Sapphire also announced an additional Radeon X1950 Pro SKU that combines two Radeon X1950 Pro GPUs onto one card, the Sapphire X1950 Pro Dual.
The Sapphire X1950 Pro Dual ships at the standard Radeon X1950 Pro clock speeds, although the board ships with 1GB of RAM (512MB of memory per GPU) so performance is slightly higher than a stock Radeon X1950 Pro CrossFire configuration thanks to the added memory, plus you get the added versatility of only using one PCI Express slot. As a result, the card brings Radeon X1950 Pro CrossFire performance to motherboards with only one PCI Express graphics slot. The card uses a dual-slot cooler however, so physically it takes up a similar amount of space inside your system as two X1950 Pro cards would. Sapphire hopes to ship the X1950 Pro Dual sometime next month, but a price hasn’t been announced.
We’ll be taking a look at two cards that should be much cheaper than the X1950 Pro Dual though, the X1950 Pro Ultimate and the X1950 Pro AGP, which ships with 512MB of memory. Let’s take a look at the Ultimate card first though…
Until the X1950 Pro Dual debuts, the X1950 Pro Ultimate Edition is the flagship Radeon X1950 Pro card from Sapphire.
At the heart of the card is Zalman’s VF900-Cu VGA cooler. The VF900 is a little slimmer and lighter than the VF700 cooler that has been used previously on Sapphire’s Ultimate and Toxic cards in the past, making it easier to fit inside some cases. Keep in mind however that it’s still a dual-slot cooler; it will definitely eat up the slot directly adjacent to your PCIe graphics slot. To hold the card’s cooler in place, Zalman uses four thumbscrews. These thumbscrews rest on the underside of the card and could potentially get in the way of some motherboards that place massive heatsink/fan units on the North Bridge of the system chipset. Fortunately we tried out a range of ASUS and Gigabyte motherboards, including the latest 975X and P965 boards, as well as the ASUS Crosshair and M2N32-SLI and didn’t run into any issues.
As the “Cu” implies, Zalman’s VF900-Cu is composed entirely of copper. To further increase the effectiveness of the cooler, Zalman employs two heat pipes which wring their way around the entire upper portion of the cooler. For cooling, Zalman employs a large variable speed fan that can be manually adjusted to run from 1350-2400 RPMs on retail VF900 units via Zalman’s Fanmate fan speed controller. Sapphire doesn’t include the Fanmate controller with their Ultimate card, opting instead to run their board at around 1800 RPMs. With the card’s fan spinning so slow, it produces very little noise while also doing a very good job of keeping the graphics core and memory cool. In operation Sapphire’s X1950 Pro Ultimate not only runs quieter than the stock ATI Radeon X1950 Pro and its cooler, it also runs cooler. We ran back-to-back idle and load testing in 3DMark and noted a difference of over six degrees Celsius at idle in favor of the Sapphire card (36 degrees versus 42) and 14 degrees Celsius under load for the Sapphire Ultimate (45 degrees for the Sapphire versus 59 for the ATI card).
Sapphire also uses a large copper heatsink to cool the board’s VRM circuitry, at the center of the heatsink is a large “S”, giving the heatsink a bit more flair. Sapphire also uses RAMsinks to cool the graphics card’s memory modules.
Sapphire has made no changes to ATI’s Radeon X1950 Pro reference board design; all the board’s components are placed exactly as they are on the ATI reference board, although obviously one difference that separates Sapphire’s board from the rest of the crowd is their use of a blue PCB, rather than the red PCB used by ATI and the rest of their board partners. Another key difference between the Sapphire X1950 Pro Ultimate and many other X1950 Pro cards is that Sapphire removes the Rage Theater chip necessary for VIVO (video-in/video-out) support. This means that you can’t hook the card up directly to a camcorder or game console for instance. The card however does have a video jack for outputting to an HDTV or SDTV (via S-Video or composite connection).
In terms of clock speeds, Sapphire runs the graphics core on their Radeon X1950 Pro Ultimate at the standard X1950 Pro clock speed of 580MHz. The memory however is overclocked 110MHz, from the default X1950 Pro speed of 690MHz, to 800MHz (1.6GHz effective) on Sapphire’s X1950 Pro Ultimate. This improves memory bandwidth by about 7GB/sec, from 44.2GB/sec on the stock X1950 Pro to 51.2GB/sec on Sapphire’s X1950 Pro Ultimate. As a result, the X1950 Pro Ultimate should run a little faster than your typical stock Radeon X1950 Pro card, Sapphire claims their board is about 5% faster, although obviously this is going to depend on the game you’re testing and the resolution and eye candy settings used. Keep in mind that the board runs its memory overclocked to 1600MHz out-of-the-box, Sapphire’s TRIXX utility is no longer required.
For connectivity, the board is equipped with two dual-link DVI connectors and supports HDCP. As we mentioned earlier, VIVO isn’t provided, but the card can be hooked up to an HDTV via the component video cable which is included in the card’s packaging. Also inside the box you’ll find two DVI adapters, a PCIe power adapter, CrossFire cable, S-Video cable, composite video cable, driver CD, manual, and a copy of the game Just Cause on DVD-ROM.
For starters, Sapphire uses a PCB that’s much larger than any we’ve seen on a graphics card in this class before. The PCB Sapphire uses is considerably taller than anything we’ve seen in recent memory, excluding perhaps the GeForce 7900 GX2. In fact it reminds us of some of the debug cards we’ve come across over the years. Fortunately we don’t think this should be an issue, as the PCB is still shorter than many of the aftermarket CPU coolers we use around here from the likes of Zalman, Thermaltake, Scythe, and others. For reference purposes though we did measure the card at just over 5” tall when housed inside the AGP slot. Also as you can see, Sapphire continues to employ a blue PCB on their cards, both X1950 Pro boards we’re reviewing here today have blue PCBs.
The other key difference between Sapphire’s X1950 Pro that you’ll immediately notice are the dual Molex power connectors on the back of the graphics card. With the PCIe version of the X1950 Pro requiring an external power connection, it’s no surprise to see that the AGP variant of the board needs an external power source also, but we were a little surprised to see dual Molex connectors. If you recall, NVIDIA’s GeForce 6800 Ultra required dual Molex connectors also.
If you forget to plug in one of the Molex connectors, or one of them comes loose, the card won’t operate – during POST the system fails to get a video signal. Like the GeForce 6800 Ultra, each Molex connector needs its own dedicated power connection – in other words, if you run one power cable with two power connections into the card it won’t operate. You need to run two separate, distinct power cables to the card in order for it to function properly.
With this in mind, we were a little disappointed to see that Sapphire only includes one power adapter cable with their Radeon X1950 Pro AGP card. Back in the GeForce 6800 Ultra days, NVIDIA’s board partners were very good about including two power adapters. Fortunately, you can piggyback one or both of the card’s power connections on other devices, say for instance a hard drive(s) and/or optical drive(s); just make sure you aren’t using the same physical power cable to power both of the graphics card’s Molex connectors and you’ll be okay. Of course, a wiser move on Sapphire’s part may have been to just use the same 6-pin power connector Sapphire uses for their PCIe boards, that’s the solution PowerColor has implemented on their X1950 Pro card and we haven’t noticed any problems with it.
The other feature that stands out on Sapphire’s card is their use of 512MB of GDDR3 memory. Sapphire is the first card manufacturer to integrate 512MB of memory on a Radeon X1950 Pro AGP, in fact, most PCIe-based X1950 Pro cards only ship with 256MB of memory. We’ll be curious to see if the larger frame buffer provided by the extra memory yields any performance gains for the 512MB Sapphire board. In theory the extra memory could come in handy under higher resolutions, particularly once AA is applied. As a result, this could make the Sapphire X1950 Pro AGP board a little more future-proof than other X1950 Pro cards, at least on paper.
The rest of the board is pretty standard fare, at least among Radeon X1950 Pro cards. The board ships with two dual-link DVI connections and supports HDCP out-of-the-box, so you can watch HD-DVD and Blu-ray movies at full 1080p resolution with no compromises (provided you have an HDCP compliant monitor), and the board ships at the standard X1950 Pro clock speeds of 580MHz core/700MHz memory. For cooling the GPU and memory modules, Sapphire uses the standard ATI heatsink/fan used for the Radeon X1950 Pro PCIe.
Like the X1950 Pro Ultimate, Sapphire’s X1950 Pro AGP lacks support for VIVO. This may or may not be a big issue, depending on whether or not you need this feature.
Inside the box you’ll find the driver CD, two DVI adapters, a power adapter, HDTV cable, and S-Video and composite video cables. The card ships without a game bundle to save costs.
Company of Heroes 1.3
3DMark 06 – Direct3D
Half-Life 2 Lost Coast – Direct3D
Battlefield 2 – Direct3D
Quake 4 – OpenGL
Pacific Fighters – OpenGL
F.E.A.R. – Direct3D
Oblivion – Direct3D
Oblivion – Direct3D
Call of Duty 2 – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
Company of Heroes – Direct3D
Radeon X1950 Pro core: ATI’s Radeon X1950 Pro packs in a ton of features for a card that carries an MSRP of $200. The GPU boasts 36 pixel shaders and eight vertex shaders, and sports a 256-bit memory interface. In addition, ATI and their board partners endow the cards with HDCP, and it’s the first ATI GPU to be equipped with native CrossFire support that’s built in to the GPU. And with HDR+AA, the X1950 Pro is built to dish out stunning visuals.
Lack of VIVO: Sapphire has elected not to provide ATI’s Rage Theater chip on their Radeon X1950 Pro Ultimate card, so the board lacks VIVO capabilities. Many competing Radeon X1950 Pro cards ship with built-in VIVO support, so this puts the card at a disadvantage from a features perspective from other X1950 Pro manufacturers, many of which ship with their own exotic cooling solutions.
Performance: With the Radeon X1950 Pro at its heart, and the extra 256MB of memory (512MB total) Sapphire’s Radeon X1950 Pro is the fastest AGP card we’ve ever tested. That’s saying a lot, as over the years we’ve tested a lot of graphics cards.
Dual Molex connectors: Sapphire’s Radeon X1950 Pro AGP is the first AGP card to require dual Molex connectors for operation since NVIDIA’s GeForce 6800 Ultra graphics card from a few years ago. This is highly inconvenient for end users whose power supplies are getting short on free power connections.
Sapphire Radeon X1950 Pro Ultimate
On the AGP front, Sapphire’s Radeon X1950 Pro AGP is the fastest AGP graphics card we’ve ever tested. This is due in large part thanks to its 512MB of GDDR3 memory.
The only real glaring downside to the board is its requirement of dual Molex connectors in order to operate. Again, in order for the card to function properly, you must run two distinct power cables from your system’s power supply to the graphics card. If you don’t, your system won’t get a video signal. This could be a huge hassle for users with older 400W and 450W power supplies that may not have as many connections as today’s latest 700W and 1-kilowatt power supplies do. Fortunately as we mentioned earlier, you can daisy chain your VGA power connection, allowing you to piggyback off the power cable(s) you already use for your optical or hard disk drives, but you can’t run both Molex connectors off the same power cable.
Sapphire could have eased end user’s pain by including dual power adapters inside the card’s packaging, but unfortunately only one adapter is provided. Sapphire also should have spelled this out more explicitly on the card’s packaging and inside the manual. We honestly wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few perfectly good cards end up getting returned because end users didn’t know this.
The only reason we mention this is because we still vividly remember all the hassle NVIDIA’s board partners went through with this back during the GeForce 6800 Ultra days.
If this isn’t a concern for you, Sapphire’s X1950 Pro AGP is highly recommended due to its 512MB of memory onboard. Right now the card is selling for the same price as 256MB X1950 Pro AGP boards, so the extra memory doesn’t carry the expensive premium you normally expect to pay for a card in this segment. This feature alone makes it worth it in our opinion, as upcoming games could potentially really begin to take advantage of the additional memory later this year. By including the additional memory on their X1950 Pro AGP SKU, Sapphire is essentially thinking ahead to those games, helping to future-proof your investment. And of course, the card’s performance in today’s games is nothing short of spectacular. Just make sure to connect the card properly…
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