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Palit Radeon HD 4870 512MB Sonic Dual Edition Video Card Review

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SKYMTL

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Palit Radeon HD 4870 512MB Sonic Dual Edition Video Card Review




Manufacturer Product Page: Palit Microsystems Ltd.
Product Number: AE=4870S+0452
Availability: Now
Warranty: 2 Years
Price: Click Here to Compare Prices




In the last few months we have seen more new graphics card releases than many people were ever expecting after the longest time without much change in the GPU market. While some of these new cards were just rehashes of existing technology, some were brand new series based on evolutionary technologies. One of the more talked-about topics lately has to be ATI’s new 4800-series of graphics cards and how it has provided a springboard for a whole new generation of competitive products from the boys in Markham. Without a doubt, the ATI HD 4800-series has helped vault ATI’s name back into the limelight after many people had begun reading them their last rites. We have had several reviews of these cards and their follow-up designs here on Hardware Canucks and have been impressed again and again.

With all the hoopla surrounding recent releases in the graphics card industry, it has been a bit hard to focus on the cards which are based on existing technology but still bring something new to the table. Nvidia’s board partners are well known for releasing legions of pre-overclocked cards into the channel but ATI’s partners have always been somewhat lacking when it comes to introducing anything other than reference designs. However, with the release of the HD4800-series, things have rapidly changed with custom PCBs, better cooling solutions and higher clock speeds becoming more common place on ATI graphics cards. While it doesn’t seem like these out-of-the-box overclocks reach the same heights as their Nvidia counterparts, ATI’s partners are trying and succeeding in adding value to their products.

One of the first companies to release their non-reference cards is always Palit Multimedia and when it comes to the HD 4870, they came to the table with all guns blazing. They have released their HD 4870 512MB Sonic Dual Edition which not only sports a custom dual slot, dual fan heatsink but it also features a unique dual BIOS setup. With this type of setup, a user is able to quickly and painlessly switch between a stock BIOS and a custom overclocked BIOS. There will also be a 1GB version of the Sonic Dual Edition which will be released within the next few weeks with all the same features and (of course) a “slight” price premium.

Speaking of pricing, the Palit Sonic Dual Edition is surprisingly affordable at around the same price most other reference-based HD 4870 cards. Unfortunately, while the bang for buck value may be through the stratosphere Palit’s paltry 2-year warranty sours the experience somewhat but just remember that two years is probably longer than you will probably keep this card.

All things considered, it seems like Palit’s stars have aligned perfectly since the HD 4870 Sonic Dual Edition is being released at just the right time to compliment the rest of the ATI lineup while adding some needed spice with its faster clock speeds. Let’s hope it performs up to our expectations.

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SKYMTL

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The New ATI Lineup / Palit HD 4870 Sonic Specs.

The New ATI Lineup


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As the ATI lineup takes better shape, it becomes apparent that like Nvidia before them they are trying to have something for everyone. This market saturation brought Nvidia shouts of disdain from both the community and resellers as their lineup was far too confusing for the average consumer but ATI has taken a fundamentally different approach. Instead of releasing cards across two different series at the same time (like the boys in green did with the 8 and 9-series), Team Red has now almost completely discontinued the 3xxx-series in favor of the 4-series architecture. However, there are still 3-series cards on the market at various price points and this causes an unfortunate overlay with the new 4-series. We wouldn’t be surprised to see some 3-series cards like the HD3870 stick around for a little while longer to not only clear out stocks but also retain an ATI presence in the $100 to $200 price bracket.

At this point the beastly X2 cards take the top spots even though the HD 4850 X2 has not seen the light of day other than the few words we mentioned a while ago. The HD 4870 X2 still carries the title of the most powerful graphics card on the fact of the planet and has a price to match but even that high MSRP has been slowly falling. Meanwhile, the HD 4870 currently occupies the upper portion of the highly lucrative and popular $200 to $300 price bracket along with the HD 4850.

Speaking of that magical $100 to $200 price bracket, there is amazingly little ATI can offer since the HD4600-series is priced below $100 while the next-level HD4850 is sitting pretty between $180 and $200. Granted, the HD3870’s technology is getting a bit long in the tooth and performs relatively poorly against the 9600GT and 8800GT, but it is all ATI has for now. Hopefully this will change but until then hopefully ATI can get retailers to cut down on pricing a bit since $150 and more for an HD3870 is far too much in our books.


Palit HD 4870 512MB Sonic Dual Edition Specifications


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We have seen Palit’s Sonic cards in the past and they usually carry with them impressive overclocks but unfortunately, their HD 4870 didn’t follow suit. The core gets an overclock of a mere 25Mhz which is barely worth mentioning but the memory gets a pretty good increase of 400Mhz. Looking at these figures, it is a bit disappointing to see that Palit didn’t push this card’s core speed just a bit further even though we predict that the increased memory speeds will probably help make up for it in some ways. On the other hand it seems for some reason that ATI’s board partners are being very conservative when it comes to pre-overclocking their cards and we can’t help but wonder why that is.
 
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SKYMTL

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The R700 Features

The R700 Features


It seems like in this brave new world of parallel processing capabilities of GPU cores, both ATI and Nvidia are racing to take advantage of the potential the modern graphics card has locked away within its confines. What we will soon see is a massive increase in the performance of certain applications like video transcoding, Folding and physics calculations. ATI has been on this bandwagon for some time now with their Folding @ home application which first came out for X19xx-series graphics cards, made the jump to the R600 / RV670 cores a few months ago and will soon be move over to the new HD4800 / HD4600-series as well. With their massive number of stream processors, the R700 cards should be able to handle any application thrown at them. Let’s take a look at what ATI has to offer with additional features.


DirectX 10.1

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Even though DX10.1 is a minor update to the Vista-exclusive DX10, ATI feels that its implementation will benefit gamers quite a bit in today’s market. Let’s cut right to the chase: DX10.1 doesn’t offer us anything particularly new in terms of outlandishly new features but it does offer new paths for developers to simplify their code which in turn has the potential to increase performance in certain areas. At present, among the “big two” graphics processor manufacturers, ATI is the only one which supports DX10.1

Even though we run the risk of editorializing here we have to say that ATI’s acceptance of the DX10.1 API seems to be the right thing to do in today’s graphics card industry. After seeing first-hand the performance benefits it brings when applying AA to a DX10 environment in games like Assassin’s Creed we can only express disappointment and outright shock that other GPU manufacturers haven’t followed ATI’s lead. Consumers have been left high and dry without any reason to purchase an OS with DX10 for the simple fact that the performance in impact of DX10 is does not justify minor graphical benefits. DX10.1 works to alleviate those performance hurdles by offering developers more options when producing their games. We can only hope that ATI’s present generation cards become widespread enough that more game developers will implement DX10.1 into their titles.


Crossfire X

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Up until the HD2900-series was introduced, running more than one ATI card was a clumsy affair which included external cables and more headache than should have been necessary. Then they introduced their very own Crossfire bridge connector and it was all sunshine and roses since daisy chaining two, three or even four cards together became possible. This technology continues today with the HD4000-series cards and AMD has promised that users will get better drivers, quick driver revisions and better industry acceptance among game developers.


PowerPlay Technology

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In ATI’s never-ending quest to offer us the most power savings possible they have introduced something called PowerPlay. This technology allows the Catalyst software to dynamically adjust voltages and core speeds depending on the application it is being used for. This results in less idle power consumption and power being distributed when and where you need it.


Havok Physics

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When AMD and Havok announced their partnership to optimize the Havok physics engine to run on ATI hardware, many enthusiasts perked up and listened. Havok Physics has been implemented into a vast variety of games form every single genre the vast majority of the industry’s upcoming blockbuster titles (including Starcraft II) support it. This not only gives ATI’s physics push a massive installed user base but it also guarantees that there will be games with Havok released for years to come. With both ATI and Nvidia firmly entrenched in the war to bring physics processing to a wider market acceptance, we may look back at this point in time as the moment when the renaissance of in-game physics really began.
 

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Enhancing the Visual Experience

Enhancing the Visual Experience


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ATI’s cards have been the staple of people building HTPCs for some time now with features like UVD, HDMI and high-end audio options. With the HD4000-series, AMD are taking things to the next level with some very interesting advances on their already-established technologies which will make these cards even more appealing to HTPC aficionados and regular consumers alike.

To do this they have set before themselves three primary goals: to provide multi-stream HD playback as supported in Blu-Ray 2.0 profiled movies, to improve the visual quality on HD monitors and to accomplish fast video transcoding by taking advantage of the processing power of the R770 core. Considering we have seen in the past how well features like UVD work, any enhancements to already-existing features is more than welcome in today’s quickly changing world of high definition. While we will be going over some of the features ATI has implemented it is just the tip of the iceberg of what is being offered to those of us who use our graphics cards to process HD signals.


UVD 2 – Dual Bitstream Playback

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With Blu-Ray finally winning the high definition format wars, manufacturers have taken lightning-quick steps to step up support for the format. One of the many ways AMD is doing this is through full support of the Blu-Ray 1.1 profile and BD Live (profile 2.0). With UVD 2 the R700-series processors are able to decode two streams of high definition (H.264, VC-1 and MPEG-2) content in order to give the viewer the picture-in-picture options present in the 1.1 profile. This gives us the capability to watch a movie in large format while having something like an alternate scene or director’s commentary playing in the smaller picture in the corner of the screen.


High Definition Audio & Video through HDMI & Displayport

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HDMI is quickly becoming the standard of choice for high definition movie and audio aficionados. With the HD3800 series AMD supported 5.1 channel audio-out through the HDMI connector but with the HD4800-series, they have taken things one step further by offering full 7.1 channel output. This means the these new cards will have support for AC3, DTS, Dolby True-HD and DTS HD formats with a full 6.144 Mbps bit rate and 192KHz sample rate along with up to 24 bits/sample. Add to this native HDCP support and true 1080P output and what we have here is a true multimedia powerhouse.

Did we mention that the R700-series core has native support for Display Port as well? Well, it does but it is up to the board partner’s discretion whether or not they add the necessary output connector.


Enhanced DVD Upscaling & Dynamic Contrast

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While there are plenty of us who will use HD signals through the HD4000-series of cards, whether we like it or not we will still be outputting lower definition signals to our wonderful new HDTV every now and then. In these cases, a standard 480i picture will look absolutely horrible if it is scaled up to fit on a high definition 1080P TV so ATI provides the Avivo HD upscaling option in their drivers. What this does is take the low resolution signal and clean it up so to speak so it looks better when displayed on a high definition screen.

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Another interesting feature ATI has packed into their drivers is the Dynamic Contrast Adjustment. Personally, I more often than not adjust the contrast manually based on the application since the values from one game or movie to the next can vary a lot. ATI has taken the guesswork and thrown it out the window by providing a post-processing algorithm which will automatically (and smoothly) adjust the contrast ratio in real time.
 

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AVIVO HD: The Real Deal

AVIVO HD: The Real Deal


Even though we have reviewed quite a few ATI graphics cards which support AVIVO HD which uses their UVD2 (Unified Video Decoder) technology, we have never really touched upon its benefits. Since this card can caters to the HTPC crowd as much as it does towards the casual gamer crowd, we figured now would be as good a time as any to touch upon the benefits.

First of all, AVIVO HD offers hardware decoding of high definition video streams which will minimize load on your CPU and thus provide smoother playback. What many people have to remember is that the HD4670`s closest competitor (the Nvidia 9500GT) is based on Nvidia’s older technology and thus only supports Purevideo 2. This means that the 9500GT offers full H.264 decoding and AACS decryption but offloads decoding of VC-1 video streams to the CPU. Meanwhile, all of the cards in ATI’s lineup from the lowest HD3600-series all the way up to the HD4800-series support full VC-1 and H.264 hardware decoding. Just remember, you need software which supports hardware decoding such as Cyberlink’s PowerDVD.

Let’s take a look at what is offered in the Catalyst Control Center when it comes to AVIVO options

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Click on images to enlarge

When you first enter the AVIVO portion of the CCC, you have a quick-select box which will give you various preset video settings so you won’t have to fiddle around with too many settings to get your desired color levels. However, for those of you with a finer taste for the perfect picture, ATI has more for you.

In the Basic Color section you have all of the, brightness, contrast, tint and saturation controls at your fingertips. There is also a Use Application Settings which will cause any game or software-specific color profiles to override the settings you choose in this section.

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Click on images to enlarge

ATI also includes and area with finer color adjustments for skin tone and color vibrancy. Normally, we don’t dare touch these settings but since some movies tend to have different color parameters than others, they come in handy every now and then.

In the Basic Quality section, you are able to control the deinterlacing mode used in videos. While we normally recommend you keep this at its default value, when watching HD movies I personally set it to Vector Adaptive and Pulldown Dection.

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Click on images to enlarge

The two final options you have here are Theatre Mode and All Settings. In Theatre Mode, you are able to scale the video output across multiple displays while the All Settings holds….well..all the settings from the previous sections without their accompanying thumbnail preview.
 

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A Closer Look at the Palit HD 4870 Sonic

A Closer Look at the Palit HD 4870 Sonic


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The Sonic’s box is basically a carbon copy graphic-wise of past Palit cards but it is hair larger and has more muted colors. Overall, it is something which will definitely catch your eye in a brick and mortar store.

The accessory package is Spartan at best and it doesn’t even include a Crossfire bridge. This omission has been confirmed by Palit not to be a packaging SNAFU but rather a cost-cutting measure which shaves off a few bucks per card. Come on Palit, that extra $3 won’t break the bank, will it? Other than that one obvious missing CF bridge, you get the usual Molex to 6-pin power adaptor, a DVI to HDMI connector, a DVI to VGA dongle, a quick start guide and finally a driver CD.

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The design of this card is nothing if not stunning with its dual slot cooler and red and black color scheme but the most distinctive feature of the Palit HD4870 Sonic Dual Edition is its signature dual fan heatsink. Oddly enough, it seems some sacrifices were made due to either financial or size constraints since the fans are not of equal size. Rather, one is an 80mm unit while the other is a smaller 70mm in diameter.

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The heart of this beast is Palit’s custom 3-heatpipe cooler we will look a little closer at it in the next section but while we are here looking at it from the outside, there is one overriding concern we have: there is no exhaust area on the backplate. This means that all of the hot air generated by the core will stay within your case and drive up the temperatures of your other components. To have a dual slot heatsink and not include a slot of hot air to escape reeks of bad design.

Luckily, Palit will be fixing this with a new revision of this card but this brings another question to mind: if Palit is coming out with a new Sonic Edition, why buy this one?

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The backplate of this card offers up some a unique feature in the way of a Displayport connector but as we already mentioned, lacks any type of exhaust grille. Something that should also be noted is that only ONE of the DVI connectors (the one above the DisplayPort) has dual link capabilities while the other is single link. Just remember this when hooking up a 24” or 30” monitor since the single link connector won’t allow you to run at native resolution on one of these large screens.

Also on the backplate we have a small switch which allows you to change between the stock BIOS and the one containing the pre-overclocked clock speeds. While this may seem completely pointless for some of you, I am sure that it brings up some very interesting possibilities for others. Even though we have not tried this (yet) it seems possible to flash your OWN custom BIOS to the card while retaining the original stock settings just in case something goes wrong. Unfortunately, if you don’t use it this way the switch does become a bit redundant.

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The back of the Sonic doesn’t offer up anything interesting upon first glance but when it is placed next to a reference HD 4870, differences start rearing their heads. Not only is the Palit card about 1/2” shorter but it also sports a custom, deeper red PCB.
 

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The Palit Sonic Heatsink

The Palit HD 4870 Sonic Heatsink


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Once the heatsink shroud is removed we are able to get a bit closer look at the inner workings of Palit’s seemingly impressive cooler design. There are three large 6mm independent heatpipes to pull heat away from the core to be dispersed on the numerous aluminium cooling fins. Overall, this heatsink looks well suited for providing adequate cooling to the overclocked R770 core.

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Since this is a low-slung heatsink, Palit didn’t have the place to install any additional cooling on the memory modules but considering the amount of air movement from the two fans, we would say that the ICs are well cooled nonetheless. Also, the VRMs for the 4-phase power distribution are covered by a black aluminium heatsink.


Now we have finally come to the part of this review where the first major issue with this card rears its ugly head. Tell me, what is wrong with the pictures above other that the fact we have two fans of different sizes? Those eagle-eyed readers among you have already picked it up: only ONE of the two fans is temperature controlled. As you can see, the larger 80mm fan has the trademark four wires while the smaller 70mm is left to fend with 2 wires meaning it has two settings: off and full speed ahead. Does this design make for a louder than necessary experience? We will find out in the Heat & Acoustics section.
 

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Test System & Setup

Test System & Setup

System Used

Processor: Intel Core 2 Quad Extreme QX9770 @ 3.852Ghz
Memory: G.Skill 2x 2GB DDR2-1000 @ 1052Mhz DDR
Motherboard: ASUS P5E Deluxe
Disk Drive: Pioneer DVD Writer
Hard Drive: Hitachi Deskstar 320GB SATAII
Fans: 2X Yate Loon 120mm @ 1200RPM
Power Supply: Corsair HX1000W
Monitor: Samsung 305T 30” widescreen LCD
OS: Windows Vista Ultimate x64 SP1



Graphics Cards:

Palit Hd 4870 512MB Sonic Dual Edition
EVGA GTX 260 Core 216 Superclocked Edition
BFG GTX 260
Sapphire Radeon HD 4850 512MB
Palit Radeon HD 4870 512MB
EVGA Geforce GTX 280 (stock)
BFG 9800 GTX (stock)
EVGA 8800GT (stock)


Drivers:

Nvidia 177.79 Beta
ATI Catalyst 8.9


Applications Used:

3DMark06 Professional
3DMark Vantage
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
Devil May Cry 4 Demo
Crysis
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Prey
World in Conflict


*Notes:

- All games tested have been patched to their latest version

- The OS has had all the latest hotfixes and updates installed

- All scores you see are the averages after 4 benchmark runs

- If the game did not support 2560 x 1600 resolution, the closest resolution to that was used
 
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SKYMTL

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3DMark 06

3DMark 06


While some may wonder at the use of still including 3DMark06 in the tests it gives us a good idea of the basic limitations of a graphics card. Since the standard test runs at 1280x1024 there will be a fair amount of CPU bottlenecking with higher-end cards and remember that in many cases a higher 3DMark score does not equate better performance. Here we have also included tests with AA and AF enabled

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It seems like the Palit card benefits a bit from the overclocks it receives when it comes to this first synthetic benchmark which puts it ahead of the overclocked GTX 280 216 at everything but the highest resolution.
 
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SKYMTL

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3DMark Vantage

3DMark Vantage


3DMark Vantage is the follow-up to the highly successful 3DMark06. It uses exclusively DX10 so if you are running Windows XP, you can forget about running this benchmark. However, it presents us with a truly stressful test of any modern graphics card so we have decided to begin including it in our testing procedure.

Overall Score

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GPU Score

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In Vantage the Sonic isn’t quite able to keep up with the GTX 260 Core 216 and isn’t too far above the stock HD 4870 but at least it looks like the overclock is good for something.
 
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