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Sapphire HD 5870 2GB Toxic Edition Review

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SKYMTL

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TOXIC-31.jpg

Sapphire HD 5870 2GB Toxic Edition Review




Product Number: 11161-10-40R
Availability: April 8th, 2010
Price: Approx. $450USD




If we rewind to a few weeks ago, ATI’s HD 5000-series sat atop the graphics card market without any competition when it came to offering DX11 compatibility and extremely good performance per dollar. Times were good since the competition didn’t have anything to offer and there were constant rumors of NVIDIA’s next gen products sporting horrible performance and power sucking characteristics coming from several sources. However, the GPU market just got a lot more competitive and even though the GTX 480 and GTX 470 do consume gobs of electricity and at times exude blast furnace-like heat, they have proven to be equal to the task of competing with ATI’s latest and greatest.

While NVIDIA just launched their GTX 400 series after nearly a year of delays, ATI’s board partners are already well into their revisions of the HD 5000 series. We have seen numerous overclocked and custom cooled versions of the lower-end cards but the HD 5870 hasn’t seen much up-market treatment other than a few products sporting advanced cooling and minor clock speed increases. Due to the new market realities, several manufacturers have decided to cut loose and introduce impressive-looking HD 5870 cards which many hope will bridge the sometimes-substantial gap between ATI’s single GPU prize fighter and the GTX 480. Gigabyte will soon have their Super Overclock Edition, ASUS has announced a Matrix-branded card and of course Sapphire has their Toxic version. While we will be reviewing both the Gigabyte and ASUS versions very soon, it will be the Sapphire HD 5870 2GB Toxic we will be taking a closer look at today.

Back when the HD 5870 Vapor-X was reviewed, we mentioned that Sapphire had yet to announce their usual limited-edition Toxic but it was on its way. Well, it has finally landed and in addition to sporting the expected high clock speeds and Vapor-X heatsink, this card also packs an interesting surprise: 2GB of GDDR5 memory. Many of ATI’s fans have been hoping the extra gigabyte of memory will lead to better performance at higher resolutions and IQ settings which could make this card a direct competitor to the GTX 480. What is even more surprising is the fact that Sapphire’s MSRP for the Toxic is $449USD, making it a good $50 less than the paper launched GTX 480 and a mere $25 more than most HD 5870 cards on the market. The only problem we see with this price is actually how popular it will cause the Toxic Edition to be. Historically, Toxic branded cards only see a very limited release and then they are gone for good. As with the HD 4890 Toxic we reviewed last year, we are not expecting stock to last more than a few days.

There is no denying the fact that Sapphire has come to play with the big boys by launching the HD 5870 Toxic 2GB but the real question many people will want to know is how it competes with NVIDIA’s GTX 480. We intend to answer that in this review.


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SKYMTL

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A Look at the ATI 5000-series

A Look at the ATI 5000-series


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As you can probably tell by the chart above, all of the HD 5000-series fit perfectly into ATI’s current lineup. At the top of the heap we have the ultra high performance dual GPU HD 5970 which carries most of the same specifications as a pair of HD 5870s. There are however some sacrifices that had that had to be made in the clock speed department in order to keep power consumption within reasonable levels. So, while this card has the same number of texture units and stream processors as the HD 5870, its core and memory run at speeds identical to the HD 5850.

Judging from paper specifications alone, the HD 5870 is a technological marvel considering it packs all of the rendering potential of ATI’s past flagship card and then some while not being saddled by an inefficient dual processor design. The fact that this new card could trump the performance of a HD 4890 just a few months after that card’s release is nothing short of stunning.

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The HD 5850 on the other hand looks to be the purebred price / performance leader of the new ATI lineup. Barring slightly lower clock speeds for both the core and memory along with eight disabled texture units (totalling 160 stream processors), it is basically a clone of the HD 5870. This is the card ATI hopes will compete directly with the GTX 285 for the near future and then come into its own when DX11 games make their way into the market. We believe this card will appeal to the majority of early adopters since it allows them to buy class-leading DX9 and DX10 performance now without gambling $400 on unproven DX11 potential.

The HD 5830 was also recently released and while it didn't quite live up to expectations, it does bridge the gap between the HD 5850 and the HD 5770.

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Meanwhile, we now have the HD 5700-series of code-named Juniper cards as well with the HD 5770 and HD 5750. The HD 5770 1GB is one of the first sub-$200 cards which will come stock with 1GB of memory and along with the GDDR5 memory, comes with some hefty clock speeds as well. However, even though upon first glance the HD 5770 looks like it can compete with the HD 4890, this isn’t the case. According to ATI, the 128-bit memory interface will limit this card’s performance so it lies right within its stated price range.

The HD 5750 on the other hand is simply a cut down HD 5770 with lower clocks, less SPs and a cut down number of Texture Units. It is this card that ATI sees going head to head with the NVIDIA GTS 250 and 9800 GT. It uses GDDR5 memory but there will be both 512MB and 1GB versions released to cater to the $100 market along with those looking for a little jump in performance.
 

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Focusing on DX11

Focusing on DX11


It has been a hair under three years since the release of Windows Vista and with it the DirectX 10 API. In that amount of time, a mere 33 DX10 games were released. That isn’t exactly a resounding success considering the hundreds of titles released in that same time. Let’s hope DX11 does a bit better than that.

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DX11 is focused on taking the lessons learned from the somewhat inefficient DX10 and shaping them into a much more efficient API which will demand less system resources while being easier to develop for. In addition to the usual 3D acceleration, it will also be used to speed up other applications which in the past have not been associated with the DirectX runtime. This may be a tall order but with the features we will be discussing here, developers have already started using DX11 to expand the PC gaming experience. It is an integral component in Windows 7 and according to Microsoft, will also be adopted into Windows Vista through a software update.

Let’s scratch the surface of what DX11 can bring to the table.

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Unlike past DirectX versions, DX11 endeavours to move past the purely graphics-based uses of the API and push it towards being the lynchpin of an entire processing ecosystem. This all begins with the power which DirectX Compute will bring into the fold. Not only can it increase the efficiency of physics processing and in-game NPC intelligence within games by transferring those operations to the GPU but it can also be used to accelerate non-3D applications.

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Through the use of Compute Shader programs in Shader Model 5.0, developers are able to use additional graphical features such as order independent transparency, ray tracing, and advanced post-processing effects. This should add a new depth of realism to tomorrow’s games and as mentioned before, also allow for programs requiring parallel processing to be accelerated on the GPU.

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For the majority of you reading this review, it is the advances in graphics processing and quality that will interest you the most. As games move slowly towards photo-realistic rendering quality, new technologies must be developed in order to improve efficiency while adding new effects.

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Some of the technologies that ATI is championing are DX11’s new Depth of Field, OIT (or Order Independent Transparency) and Detail Tessellation. While the pictures above do a good job of showing you how each of these works, it is tessellation which ATI seems most excited about. They have been including hardware tessellation units in their GPUs for years now and finally with the dawn of DX11 will these units be finally put to their full use. OIT on the other hand allows for true transparency to be added to an object in a way that will be more efficient resource-wise than the standard alpha blending method currently used.

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Let’s talk about DX11 games. As you would expect, due to the ease of programming for this new API and the advanced tools it gives developers, many studios have been quite vocal in their support. Even though some of the titles listed above may not be high on your list of must have games, A-list titles like Aliens vs. Predator from Rebellion and DiRT 2 are sure to get people interested. What we like see is at least three DX11 games being available before the Christmas buying season even though BattleForge is already available and will have DX11 support added through a patch.

Another exciting addition to the list is EA DICE’s FrostBite 2 Engine which will power Battlefield games. Considering the popularity of this series, the inclusion of DX11 should open up this API to a huge market.

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OpenCL: The Next Big Thing?

OpenCL: The Next Big Thing?


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As consumers, we have all heard of the inroads GPUs have been making towards offering stunning performance in compute-intensive applications. There have been attempts to harness this power by engines such as NVIDIA’s Compute Unified Device Architecture (CUDA) and ATI’s Stream SDK (which in v2.0 supports OpenCL).

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“Build it and the will come” says the old mantra but industry adoption of CUDA and Stream was anything but quick since there were two standards being pushed for the same market. CUDA in particular is having a hard time of it since it is vendor-specific without hardware support from any other vendor. The industry needed a language that was universal and available across multiple platforms. That’s were OpenCL (Open Computing Language) along with DirectX Compute come into play. It is completely open-source and managed by a non-profit organization called the Khronos Group which also has control over OpenGL and OpenAL

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At its most basic level, OpenCL is able to be executed across multiple mediums such as GPUs, CPUs and other types of processors. This makes it possible to prioritize workloads to the processor that will handle them most efficiently. For example, a GPU is extremely good at crunching through data-heavy parallel workloads while an x86 CPU is much more efficient at serial and task-specific This also allows developers to write their programs for heterogeneous platforms instead of making them specific to one type of processor.

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So what does this mean for gamers? First of all, AMD has teamed up with Bullet and PixeLux in order to achieve more realistic environments for players. The Bullet Physics is an open-source physics engine which has an ever-expanding library for soft body, 3D collision detection and other calculations. Meanwhile, PixeLux uses their DMM (Digital Molecular Matter) engine which uses the Finite Element Analysis Method of calculating physics within a game. In past applications, it has been used to calculate actions which have an impact on the game’s environment such as tumbling rubble or debris movement.

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With Stream moving to OpenCL, ATI is truly moving towards an open platform for developers which they are hoping will lead to broader developer and market adoption than the competition’s solutions. At this point it looks like we will soon see ATI’s GPUs accelerating engines from Havok, PixeLux and Bullet through the use of OpenCL. Considering these are three of the most popular physics engines on the market, ATI is well placed to make PhysX a thing of the past.
 

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ATI’s Eyefinity Technology

ATI’s Eyefinity Technology


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The term Surround Gaming may not mean much to many of you who are reading this article but with the advent of ATI’s new Eyefinity technology, now is a good time to educate yourself. Basically, Eyefinity will give users the ability to use multiple monitors all running from the same graphics card. In the past, simple dual monitor setups have been used by many graphics, CAD or other industry professionals in order to increase their productivity but gaming on more than one monitor was always a bit of a clunky affair. Granted, some products like Matrox’s TripleHead2Go were able to move multi monitor setups into the public’s perception but there were always limitations (resolution and otherwise) associated with them. ATI is aiming to make the implementation of two or even more monitors as seamless as possible within games and productivity environments while offering the ability to use extreme resolutions.

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While the price of two or even three new monitors may be a bit daunting at first for many of you, but good 20” and even 22” LCDs have come down in price to the point where some are retailing below the $200 mark. ATI figures that less than $600 for three monitors will allow plenty of people to make the jump into a true surround gaming setup. Indeed, with three or even six monitors, the level of immersion could be out of this world.

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The reason that main in the professional field are familiar with multi monitor setups is for one simple matter: they increase productivity exponentially. Imagine watching a dozen stocks without having to minimize windows all the time or using Photoshop on one screen while watching a sports broadcast on another and using the third screen for Photoshop’s tooltips. The possibilities are virtually limitless if it is implemented properly.

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When it comes to a purely gaming perspective, the thought of a massive view of the battlefield or the ability to see additional enemies in your peripheral vision is enough to make most gamers go weak in the knees. Unfortunately, the additional monitors will naturally mean decreased performance considering the massive amount of real-estate that would need rendering. This will mean tradeoffs may have to be made in terms of image quality if you want to use Eyefinity.

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According to ATI, all of the new HD 5800-series graphics cards will have the ability to run up to three monitors simultaneously. This is done by having a pair of DVI connectors as well as a DisplayPort and HDMI connector located on the back of the card. It should be noted that ATI will be releasing a special Eyefinity version of the HD 5870 in the coming months which features six DisplayPort connectors for those of you who want to drive six monitors from a single card.

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This technology is all made possible through the use of DisplayPort connectors but this also provides a bit of a limitation as well. Above we can see that a number of 3-screen output combinations which the current HD5800-series support and one thing is constant: you will need at least one monitor which supports DisplayPort. Unfortunately, at this time DP-supporting monitors tend to carry a price premium over standard screens which will increase the overall cost of an Eyefinity setup. Luckily the other two monitors can either use DVI or a combination of DVI and HDMI for connectivity.
 

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HD Audio and Video

HD Audio and Video


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One of the main drawing points of the lower-end cards in the HD 5000 series lineup is the fact that they are literally unmatched when it comes to HTPC use. Granted, the GT 210, 220 and 240 cards from NVIDIA are the first cards from the green side of the pond to receive native audio processing without having to resort to a clunky S/PDIF cable but their HD audio compatibility is limited to non-PAP (Protected Audio Path) implementations. Meanwhile, the HD 5000 series features not only support for native HDMI audio support with compatibility with AC3, 8-channel LPCM and DTS among others but it also introduces PAP support for bitstream output of Dolby True HD, DTS HD Master Audio, AAC and Dolby AC-3. This allows high-end audio for 7.1 sources to be passed unhindered from your computer onto your receiver and is a huge step up from what the competition offers.

As for HD video, you get everything that you would expect from and ATI card: compatibility with HDMI 1.3 formats, an option for a DisplayPort connector and full support for ATI’s UVD 2.2.


Enhanced DVD Upscaling & Dynamic Contrast

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While there are plenty of us who will use HD signals through the HD5000-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.

While there are other benefits of using the 5000-series for audio and video pass-through for your home theater, we will stop here and get on with the rest of this review.
 

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The Inner Workings of Vapor-X Technology

The Inner Workings of Vapor-X Technology


Vapor-X technology is basically a patented Sapphire technology which is used to cool off the GPU core using a vapor chamber. In a nutshell, a vapor chamber cooler will hold water which is vaporized by the heat generated by the core. This vapor will carry the heat to a condensation wick which will then be dispersed through the top plate and transported back to the base plate where the process repeats itself. In this section we will look a bit closer at how Sapphire has implemented this technology to efficiently cool this card.

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Here we have a breakdown of the different components which go into the manufacturing of a vapor chamber. Let’s start at the bottom with the lower cover which is in this case the copper base-plate that makes direct contact with the core. From there we have the vaporization wick which is placed directly above the GPU core and sits on the lower cover so the water contained therein will quickly vaporize and make its way through the chamber to the condensation wick. The condensation wick is placed in direct contact with the upper cover which is also copper in order to disperse the heat generated as the water vapor condenses on the condensation wick. As we saw, nearly the entire top cover has aluminum fins on it in order to quickly move away the heat. Finally, we have the transportation wick that is used to transport the condensed water back to the vaporization wick.

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In order for this method to be effective, the entire chamber needs to be sealed and put under vacuum. This is due to the fact that water vaporizes much easier in an environment with extremely low air pressure. Thus, it is very important that a vapor chamber cooler is well made without any manufacturing defects or the air pressure within the vapor chamber will decrease and this will result in lowered heat dissipation capabilities.

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If all of this explanation was a bit too much for you, Sapphire provided us with a handy diagram that shows the process which the heat takes in its journey through the vapor chamber. Something to note here is because this is water vapor in a vacuum, it will spread evenly over the whole condensation wick instead of accumulating all on one spot directly above the core.

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So after all of that information, what are the claimed benefits of a vapor chamber-based heatsink? Here you can see the main benefit is that the heat evenly spreads over the top plate which makes it much easier to disperse via more traditional methods. Sapphire has chosen to use aluminum fins which are cooled directionally by a single fan so this should result in quick heat transfer.

According to the documentation we have from Sapphire, a vapor chamber has 50% less thermal resistance than copper while having TWICE the heat conductivity. Add to that the fact that is it omni-directional (due to the low air pressure) whereas copper sticks to the old “heat rises” mantra and this looks to be a hell of a technology.
 

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HD 5870 Toxic Specifications / Packaging & Accessories

Sapphire HD 5870 Toxic 2GB Specifications


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Usually the Toxic name brings with it large clock speed increases and unfortunately, the HD 5870 version seems to buck that trend. Granted, a 75Mhz increase in core speed is impressive but we know many people were hoping to see at least 950Mhz out of this card. That wasn’t meant to be due to the fact that it seems more and more of ATI’s board partners are reporting poor overclocking potential on newer batches of chips.

The memory is also given a slight bump as well but 100Mhz isn’t much to write home about considering some HD 5870 cards we have looked at didn’t have any issue hitting 5100Mhz QDR. In addition, Sapphire’s own HD 5870 Vapor-X sported memory running at 5Ghz without exhibiting any issues. It seems like Sapphire was originally intent on bringing this card to market with memory clocked at 5Ghz but stepped back and brought speeds down a bit to ensure overall stability.


Packaging and Accessories


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Sapphire’s packaging for this card is unique and is sure to stand out on any retailer’s shelf. There isn’t all the much information on it other than a few marketing blurbs and a feature list on the back and this also highlights its greatest weakness: a lack of clock speed information. Granted, if you are reading this review, you will already know all there is to know about this card but a listing of clock speeds would have gone a long way selling it to people at traditional brick and mortar stores.

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As is the norm with Sapphire cards, the protection with the box is extremely well done. Not only is the card wrapped in a padded anti-static bag but there is also a thick cardboard insert that protects the contents from every imaginable bump and bruise it can get on its way to you.

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The accessory package is complete but it doesn’t hold any extras like games or useful applications. You get the driver CD, a demo of the SimHD messenger add-on, a DVI to VGA dongle, a long crossfire bridge, a molex to 6-pin adaptor and finally an extremely long 6-pin to 8-pin PCI-E cable.
 
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A Closer Look at the Sapphire HD 5870 Toxic

A Closer Look at the Sapphire HD 5870 Toxic


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With its masculine good looks, Sapphire’s HD 5870 Toxic cuts an imposing figure even though many of its design elements are understated in their simplicity. What we get is a minimalistic heatsink shroud that doesn’t carry any tacky stickers or odd, tacked-on additions with a centrally mounted fan. To us, this thing looks great.

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Looking at bit closer at the Vapor-X heatsink and its black plastic shroud, it is quite obvious it was designed to deal with some major heat even though the core on this card runs relatively cool. However, where the stock HD 5870 heatsink exhausts most of the heat outside of the case, this one is designed to disperse the heat both outside and inside your enclosure. This isn’t too much of a concern since most good cases have more than passable internal airflow which will help keep the impact of this card’s thermals to a minimum.

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The rear end of the Toxic shows us a 6-pin connector in addition to an 8-pin PCI-E power connector. This is a step away from the usual 6+6 pin layout as the overclocked nature of this card coupled with an additional 1GB of GDDR5 means that it consumes more power than a reference HD 5870. We can also see that Sapphire added a substantial heatsink over the VRMs in order to ensure adequate cooling.

The backplate has a small opening for heat exhaust along with all the necessary connectors for 3 monitor Eyefinity compatibility. This means a pair of DVI connectors as well as outputs for DisplayPort and HDMI are included.


Sapphire has kept the traditional HD 5870 rear aluminum heatsink for their Toxic edition but have added their own silver-etched logo which is unfortunately pointed the wrong way for accurate reading once you install the card. Below this heatsink are memory modules which are passively cooled through the use of thermal pads that transfer the heat to the aluminum plate.

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In a side to side comparison with the reference HD 5870, it seems like Sapphire has gone for a custom design with their Toxic Edition. At around 10” long it shaves a good 3/4” off of the standard card’s length. This is however negated by the fact that Sapphire’s high end product locates the PCI-E connectors on the back of the PCB rather than on the side.
 
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SKYMTL

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Test System & Setup

Test System & Setup

Processor: Intel Core i7 920(ES) @ 4.0Ghz (Turbo Mode Enabled)
Memory: Corsair 3x2GB Dominator DDR3 1600Mhz
Motherboard: Gigabyte EX58-UD5
Cooling: CoolIT Boreas mTEC + Scythe Fan Controller (Off for Power Consuption tests)
Disk Drive: Pioneer DVD Writer
Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB
Power Supply: Corsair HX1000W
Monitor: Samsung 305T 30” widescreen LCD
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate N x64 SP1


Graphics Cards:

Sapphire HD 5870 Toxic 2GB
NVIDIA GTX 480
NVIDIA GTX 470
ATI HD 5970 2GB (Stock)
Sapphire HD 5870 1GB (Stock)
Sapphire HD 5850 1GB (Stock)
EVGA GTX 285 (Stock)
GTX 275 896MB (Stock)
GTX 295 (Stock)


Drivers:

ATI 10.3a Preview + 10.3 Profile 1.0
NVIDIA 197.17 Beta


Applications Used:

Aliens Versus Predator
Battlefield: Bad Company 2
DiRT 2
Dragon Age: Origins
Far Cry 2
Left 4 Dead 2
Metro 2033
Unigine: Heaven


*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 2 benchmark runs

All game-specific methodologies are explained above the graphs for each game

All IQ settings were adjusted in-game
 
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