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Sapphire Radeon HD 4890 2GB Vapor-X Video Card Review

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SKYMTL

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Sapphire Radeon HD 4890 2GB Vapor-X Video Card Review




Manufacturer’s Product Page: SAPPHIRE- HOME
Product Number:
11150-09-40R (Reviewed)
100269-2GVXL (“Lite” Edition)

Price: Click Here to Compare Prices
Warranty: 2-years



It has been a while since we last looked at a video card here on Hardware Canucks but let’s be honest; there really hasn’t been much going on in the GPU industry as of late as the major players gear up for their next generation products. In the interim both ATI’s and Nvidia’s board partners have released a successive number of products which improve upon the original designs by catering to certain markets. Some carry insanely high clocks while others use passive cooling for all those HTPC enthusiasts out there but one thing has remained constant: companies always want to one-up each other. In the end it is the consumer that reaps the benefits from this competition as prices are driven down while performance, cooling potential and efficiency increase.

Sapphire is one company that has waded into this competitive marketplace with all guns blazing and has released some of the best ATI-based cards on the market. Once having been known for rigidly sticking to the ATI reference design and indeed being used as an OEM for ATI’s “white box” cards, Sapphire has really turned things around as of late. Not only are they releasing highly overclocked versions of their cards but they have also begun to explore the finer points of advanced cooling technologies. These cooling technologies are at the heart of the card that we are reviewing here today: the HD 4890 2GB Vapor-X.

The last time we saw the Vapor-X technology, it was used on a heatsink strapped to a decidedly underperforming HD 3870 but this time we get to see what it’s all about when paired up with a HD 4890. Not only is this the most powerful single-chip ATI card on the market but it also produces a significant amount of heat so this new heatsink may be sorely pressed to keep up with the temperatures. One way or another, Sapphire has found yet another way to add some spice to their lineup.

While Sapphire has been near the forefront of the ATI crowd lately, their higher-end cards have been a bit lacking when it comes to availability. The HD 4890 1GB Atomic we so highly regarded in our last roundup never had widespread availability in North America even though customers were literally lined up around the block waiting for it. This card on the other hand is already available from retailers for around $275CAD / $250USD but at the time of writing this review, it seems the first shipment has already sold out.

All in all it seems the with the Vapor-X version of the HD 4890 2GB, Sapphire has come to the table ready to play. Let’s see how it performs.

 

SKYMTL

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The R700-series Features

The R700-series 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 RV700-series 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


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


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


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


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.
 

SKYMTL

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Enhancing the Visual Experience

Enhancing the Visual Experience



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


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


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


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.


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.
 

SKYMTL

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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 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 (and its accompanying UVD 2) 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 HD 4670`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 HD 3600-series all the way up to the HD 4800-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


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.


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 movies on a high resolution screen, I personally set it to Vector Adaptive and Pulldown Dection.


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.
 

SKYMTL

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.
 

SKYMTL

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Sapphire Vapor-X Specifications / Packaging and Accessories

Sapphire HD 4890 2GB Vapor-X Specifications



As you can see, even though the Vapor-X cooler on this card supposedly makes short work of temperatures, for some reason the core receives a paltry overclock of 20Mhz. This in and of itself won’t make a perceptible difference in games but the 300Mhz (QDR) added to the memory speeds could add a few frames per second here and there. Where this card differentiates itself from the other products on the market is its 2GB framebuffer which should help at extremely high resolutions and texture settings.

To be honest, we were hoping for some serious overclocks on the Vapor-X but that just wasn’t meant to be. Granted, the clock speeds on the memory should help differentiate it from a stock speed card but the main selling point of Sapphire’s card is its 2GB of memory. Whether or not it makes any difference will only be decided once the benchmarks are complete.


Packaging and Accessories


*Please note that it has been brought to our attention that the accessory package of the product reviewed here differs from the version that is widely available at retail. While this package you will see below includes a number of software products, the version at the majority of retailers only holds a driver disk. Meanwhile, the cables and connectors detailed below remain the same. The version reviewed here has an SKU of 11150-09-40R while the version most retailers list is the 100269-2GVXL.


Vapor-X boxes are usually a predominantly white color to show off how “cool” they are and this one doesn’t buck the trend. Sapphire’s Vapor-X technology also has a pair of mascots so to speak and they make an appearance as well in the guise of those penguins you see on the front and back of the box.

The exterior graphic design for this box does a lot to tell us exactly what’s inside –from software to the Vapor-X technology itself but nowhere can clock speed specification be found.


The exterior package is nothing more than a sleeve that hides the plan brown box which contains the card and all the accessories. Once this box is opened we can see that Sapphire did a great job of protecting the precious cargo within by padding every exposed side with high density memory foam.


The HD 4890 is additionally protected within an anti-static bubble wrap speeve.


The accessories are housed within their own box and include an 8-pin PCI-E adaptor, a Molex to 6-pin cable, a HDMI to DVI break-out box and a Crossfire bridge. Software-wise, this card comes with a good bundle including 3DMark Vantage, DVD Creator, Power DVD and a driver CD.
 

SKYMTL

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A Closer Look at the Sapphire HD 4890 2GB Vapor-X

A Closer Look at the Sapphire HD 4890 2GB Vapor-X



Sapphire’s HD 4890 2GB Vapor-X has a unique design with a partial-length heatsink covering the area directly above the core and making its way towards the backplate. Meanwhile, the rear portion of the card has a separate heatsink which is used to cool off the hot running VRMs. Its blue PCB makes the whole affair look faintly Gigabyte-esque while the length sticks to the reference 9.5”.


The cooler on the Vapor-X is comprised of a standard shroud that hides an aluminum and copper-based heatsink. Meanwhile, the topside memory modules are covered by way of a flat aluminum plate to dissipate their heat. Sapphire has also moved towards a bit more unique shroud design this time around with the inclusion of an inset blue logo on the outside edge.


The rearmost portion of this card holds a massive heatsink which is used to help cool down the VRMs of the 6-phase power design. We can see that Sapphire has also chosen to go with a 6-pin and 8-pin power connector layout due to the increased power consumption that comes with the larger amount of GDDR5 memory.

Sapphire seems to pride themselves on advancing technology on many fronts and here they have used their new “patent pending” Black Diamond chokes. These solid-state chokes have an integrated heatsink for improved thermal characteristics and supposedly offer 25% more efficiency than a normal choke.


The back of the Vapor-X shows us a simpler PCB layout when compared to the reference design but the largest differences lie with the additional heatsink here as well as the lack of a backplate or x-shaped support for the topside heatsink. The black heatsink we see here is used for the additional GDDR5 memory modules.


The backplate holds an amazing assortment of connectors and includes a single DVI-D, a VGA, a DisplayPort and finally a standard HDMI connector. This is more than enough to make this card future-proof on the connectivity end of things and for those of you who need an additional DVI connector, the included HDMI to DVI adaptor works extremely well.
 

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
Disk Drive: Pioneer DVD Writer
Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB
Power Supply: Corsair HX1000W
Monitor: Samsung 305T 30” widescreen LCD
OS: Windows Vista Ultimate x64 SP1


Graphics Cards:

Palit HD 4870X2
Sapphire HD 4890 1GB (Stock)
EVGA GTX 285 (Stock)
GTX 275 896MB (Stock)
GTX 295 (Stock)


Drivers:

ATI 9.9 WHQL
Nvidia 190.62 WHQL


Applications Used:

Call of Duty: World at War
Call of Juarez II: Bound in Blood
Crysis: Warhead
Dawn of War II
Fallout 3
Far Cry 2
Left 4 Dead
Tom Clancy’s HawX


*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

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

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Messages
13,264
Location
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Call of Duty: World at War

Call of Duty: World at War



To benchmark this game, we played through 10 minutes of the third mission (Hard Landing) starting from when the player first enters the swamp, through the first bunker until the final push onto the airfield. This was benchmarked using FRAPS.


1680 x 1050





1920 x 1200





2560 x 1600



 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Messages
13,264
Location
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Call of Juarez II: Bound in Blood

Call of Juarez II: Bound in Blood



CoJ is a bit of an oddity without any in-game AA options but nonetheless, it looks incredible. For this benchmark we used a 10 minute gameplay sequence which included panoramic views of a town and gun battles. FRAPS was used to record the framerates.

1680 x 1050



1920 x 1200



2560 x 1600

 
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