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Sapphire Radeon HD 5850 1GB Toxic Edition Review

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SKYMTL

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Sapphire Radeon HD 5850 1GB Toxic Review





Product Number: 100282TXSR
Price:
Price @ NCIX.com
Price @ Newegg.ca
Price @ Newegg.com
Warranty: 2-years



With Hardware Canucks cluttered with reviews of ATI cards, it is obvious that competition isn’t something the graphics card market is seeing a lot of lately. A situation such as this wasn’t expected by anyone about a year ago but we have to live with it for the time being. In the meanwhile, ATI hasn’t been pulling their punches or resting on their laurels and neither has their board partners. While competition against NVIDIA cards is virtually nonexistent at this point, there are some healthy battles going on between the heavyweights within ATI’s stable of partners. These manufacturers are striving to differentiate themselves from their rivals by releasing cards sporting increased clock speeds and some downright interesting cooling solutions and this review will be focusing on one such card. While any sort of competing product from NVIDIA would be welcome by the market, we’re more than happy to make do with Sapphire, ASUS, Gigabyte, PowerColor, and others releasing ATI-based cards of ever-increasing potential.

Sapphire usually leads the pack when it comes to custom versions of ATI cards and even before the official release of the HD 5000-series, they were already leaking information about what would become the first custom HD 5870 available on the market: the HD 5870 Vapor-X. They have followed up that impressive card with a successive number of non-reference DX11 products but have so far stuck to the mostly reference-clocked Vapor-X products. Missing in action were the Toxic and Atomic editions which made a serious name for themselves when they were released as HD 4890 cards not that long ago but it was only a matter of time before comparable HD 5000-series cards saw the light of day. Well, the wait is over because Sapphire has now introduced their HD 5850 1GB Toxic into the market.

The HD 5850 Toxic represents a significant step forward for Sapphire and HD 5850 cards in general since it throws out the reference design, adds a custom cooler and pushes clock speeds above and beyond what we are used to seeing. In order to keep the heat from an overclocked core under control, Sapphire has decided to use their Vapor-X cooling technology as well as a truly impressive heatsink design. There are other features as well such as specially designed chokes but we will get into those a bit more later on in this review. To make matters even better, all of these additions don’t come at an exorbitant price increase as we have seen this card retailing for under $340 which represents a mere $30 premium over a reference HD 5850.

In our opinion, there is a lot about the Sapphire HD 5850 Toxic to get excited about and by the end of this review; we hope you will feel the same way.


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SKYMTL

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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 the upcoming 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 upcoming 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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SKYMTL

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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.
 
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Specifications / Packaging & Accessories

Specifications


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Within their product line-ups, Sapphire usually releases a number of different versions: the reference card, the Vapor-X, a Toxic Edition and finally an Atomic-branded card. Both the reference and Vapor-X series usually stick to near-reference clocks while the Toxic and Atomic versions really work on pushing things to the next level with increased clock speeds on top of a more advanced cooling solution.

In this case, the HD 5850 Toxic bumps the core clocks up by 40Mhz which won’t make too much of an impact on framerates. However, when the core speed increase is combined with the 500Mhz memory speed bump we should see some noticeable differences in certain games.


Packaging & Accessories


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One of the first things we usually say about Sapphire’s packaging is how similar all of their boxes are but considering the somewhat exclusive nature of this card, things are done a bit differently. Gone is the usual drab black color scheme which is replaced by a combination of shiny blue highlights on a black backdrop.

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True to Sapphire’s legacy of great protection for their cards, the HD 5850 Toxic is not only suspended within a cardboard holder but also encased in a bubble-wrap sleeve. There is an additional foam spacer to ensure the card doesn’t slip back and forth within the box.

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The included accessories are pretty much part for the course without any games or extra programs thrown in. As you may have already noticed, ATI’s Dirt 2 promotion has run its course so free serial numbers are no longer being included with HD 5000-series cards. Other than the usual instruction manual, SimHD messenger add-on and DVI to VGA dongle, also get a pair of extremely long Molex to 6-pin PCI-E adaptors and a Crossfire bridge.

The Crossfire bridge is actually an amazingly long affair when compared to the standard one that’s usually included with ATI cards. This will be a welcome addition for those of you with a larger than normal space between their motherboard PCI-E slots.
 
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A Closer Look At the Sapphire HD 5850 Toxic

A Closer Look At the Sapphire HD 5850 Toxic


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Not only is the design of the HD 5850 Toxic unique but it is also one stunning looking card. The full-length black and blue heatsink shroud stands at a sharp contrast to the usual red ATI corporate colour but we happen to like the change, especially when the result looks this good. There are probably some of you wishing that Sapphire had stayed with ATI’s black PCB and we’re with you on that one but even this doesn’t detract from the overall masculine looks of this particular card.

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The heart of this card’s cooling system is a 90mm centrally-located fan that forces cool air over the internal fin assembly. Of those of you wondering, the heatsink is made up of a copper contact plate that touches the core as well as a secondary aluminum plate that comes into contact with the memory modules to provide some additional cooling. The heat is drawn up and away from the core by copper heatpipes which are bisected by aluminum fins to evenly disperse the increased temperatures.

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The back of the Toxic shows us the usual dual 6-pin power connector arrangement that is always found on HD 5850 cards. It is also interesting to see that the back of the heatsink shroud is cantilevered over the back of the PCB in order to make space for the power distribution section’s VRMs and capacitors. Additionally, the 4-pin fan header points to this card having a temperature / load controlled fan which should cut down on noise.

Sapphire has also added what they call “Black Diamond Chokes”. This choke design incorporates a finned design used to quickly dissipate heat by utilizing more surface area and thereby increases overall efficiency.

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The backplate is taken from a reference HD 5850 which includes two DVI outputs as well as connectors for DisplayPort and HDMI 1.3. This results in full compatibility for ATI’s Eyefinity technology.

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The back of the PCB shows what looks like a custom design from Sapphire and the Toxic’s length in comparison to a reference HD 5850 does cement this fact. Overall, Sapphire’s card is a full 10 ¼” in long which puts it somewhere between the HD 5850 and HD 5870 in terms of the space it takes up. Just remember, once installed, this card will probably take up around 11” of usable space within your case due to the fact that it uses rear-mounted power connectors.
 
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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 1GB (Stock)
ATI HD 4890 1GB (Reference)
Sapphire HD 5850 1GB (Stock)
EVGA GTX 285 (Stock)
GTX 275 896MB (Stock)
GTX 295 (Stock)
EVGA GTX 260 216 (Stock)


Drivers:

ATI 10.3 Beta
NVIDIA 195.62 WHQL


Applications Used:

Batman Arkum Asylum
Borderlands
Dawn of War II
DiRT 2
Dragon Age: Origins
Far Cry 2
Left 4 Dead 2


*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
 

SKYMTL

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Batman: Arkham Asylum

Batman: Arkham Asylum (DX9)


Even though Batman: AA has its own in-game benchmarking tool, we found that its results are absolutely not representative of real-world gaming performance. As such, we used FRAPS to record run-through of the first combat challenge which is unlocked after completing the first of The Riddler’s tasks. It includes close-in combat with up to 8 enemies as well as ranged combat. In addition, we made sure to set the smoothframerate line in the game’s config to “false”. No AA was used as the game engine does not natively support it.


1680 x 1050

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1920 x 1200

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2560 x 1600

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