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Sapphire Radeon HD 5870 Vapor-X 1GB Review

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SKYMTL

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Sapphire Radeon HD 5870 1GB Vapor-X Review




Product Number: 100281VXSR
Price: $400USD / $450CAD (est.)
Warranty: 2-years


If you have been living under a rock or have been taking a hiking trip through the Himalayas for the last few weeks, you would be forgiven if the ATI HD 5000-series release didn’t register on your radar. Otherwise, you better know about these cards because they are currently kicking ass and taking names across nearly every price point in the GPU marketplace. Unfortunately, much like that ultra-hot girl you remember from high school who was popular for all the right reasons, the HD 5870 and to a greater extent the HD 5850 seems to be all but unattainable for many people. This isn’t due to sky high prices but rather the fact that the cards have been very hard to find due to a combination of popularity and insufficient supply to meet demand.

Even though availability of the HD 5870 hasn’t been what anyone was hoping it would be, ATI’s board partners are still forging ahead with plans to release custom cooled and overclocked versions in a mad dash to differentiate themselves from the competition. While many manufactures we have spoken to in the past few weeks have stated their custom cards will be available closer to the end of November, Sapphire is bucking that trend. Today marks the release of their overclocked, custom cooled and eagerly-anticipated HD 5870 1GB Vapor-X.

We all remember those telltale leaked images of this card from when the HD 5870 was initially launched and to be honest with you, not much has changed since then. Its main claim to fame is Sapphire’s Vapor-X heatsink technology that supposedly allows it to cool off the core better than the already-large reference cooler while having a smaller acoustical footprint. This is actually a pretty bold goal considering (according to us) the stock HD 5870’s cooling setup is anything but loud and it actually does a fairly good job of shunting the heat away from the efficient 40nm core.

Sapphire can talk all they want about the merits of their flagship card but hard part of this equation is getting the cards into people’s hands and at a fair price to boot. From what we hear, the HD 5870 Vapor-X should be listed at a few retailers on launch day but actual availability may take a few weeks to sort itself out. You can also expect to pay a premium of around $10 for this card when compared to reference HD 5870 units which would put it into the $400USD / $450CAD bracket.

Even though $450 may be a hefty amount to pay for a GPU these days, Sapphire is hoping that this card’s advanced cooling, slight overclocks and stunning good looks are enough to draw people’s attention.


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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. In essence, The HD 5870 takes the place of the expensive-to-produce and comparably inefficient dual GPU HD 4870X2 as the top dog for the time being. 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.

We can also see that ATI did some careful price cutting prior to launch since even though the HD 4890 looks to offer significantly less performance than a HD 5850, it is actually priced accordingly. As such, this previously high end card will stick around for the next few months in the $200 price bracket but that isn’t to say that it will stay there indefinitely...

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In short order, ATI will have a full range of DX11 cards on the market; all of which have been talked about in rumours over the last quarter. To begin with we will see the two “Cypress” series cards which are the HD 5870 and HD 5850 followed before the new year by the dual GPU Hemlock card which will make use of two Cypress processors. The Hemlock sticks to ATI’s mantra of never releasing a card that retails for above $500 but it will nonetheless take over the premier position of this DX11 lineup.

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 a 1GB framebuffer 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. We should also mention that ATI won’t be replacing the HD 4890 until at least the first quarter of 2010 even though the HD 5770 is looking to take over from the HD 4850.

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.

So there you have it. In the high stakes game of poker that is the GPU industry, ATI has shown its hand. All that is left is for the competition to respond.
 

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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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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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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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Specifications / Packaging & Accessories

Specifications


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One thing is certain; pushing the architecture to its limits isn’t the goal of the Sapphire HD 5870 Vapor-X. It sports some minor overclocks on both the core and the memory but nothing that will be noticeable when playing a game. According to Sapphire, we will have to wait a bit longer for higher clocked versions of the HD 5870 but they are on their way so expect a full selection of Toxic, Atomic and other cards in the near future.


Packaging and Accessories



The box design for the majority of Sapphire’s Vapor-X products uses a predominantly white color scheme and this one is no different. What we don’t like however is that the HD 5870 box we see in front of us is festooned with all manner of stickers proclaiming which games are included. This makes an otherwise subtly designed package look like an ad board in a back alley.

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The main protection for the card comes from a plain brown paper box that holds a type of egg crate-style holder for the card. In order to make sure the HD 5870 doesn’t move around, Sapphire added in an extra foam pad in addition to placing the card in an anti static bubble wrap bag.

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Sapphire seems to be hell-bent on adding a great deal of value to this card through the inclusion of two games. As you may have already guessed from our pictures of the box, a full DVD version of Battlestations: Pacific along with a code to download the full version of DiRT are included. Along with that, you get the usual Molex to PCI-E adaptors, a Crossfire bridge and a DVI to VGA dongle. All in all, this is a well-rounded accessory package.
 

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A Closer Look at the Sapphire HD 5870 Vapor-X 1GB

A Closer Look at the Sapphire HD 5870 1GB Vapor-X


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Even though beauty is all in the eyes of the beholder, to us this card simply looks stunning in an industrial, bad-ass way. Like with most cards, the cooler is the most visually impacting item on the card but coupled with the black PCB, this combination will be sure to catch anyone’s eye.

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The Vapor-X heatsink is a thing of beauty which utilizes a centrally-mounted 90mm fan to move cool air over the internal fin assembly. Not only is this setup supposed to cut down on noise but it will also allow the core to run up to 13°C cooler than when using a stock heatsink. The only issue we can see with this setup is that it doesn’t give the hot exhaust air a direction that will bring it out of your case’s confines. This means any heat generated by the core and memory will stay within your case which could lead to an overall increase in your other components’ temperatures.

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While the heatsink’s shroud is unique to say the least, the fin array it protects is your standard affair with aluminium fins that disperse the heat generated by copper heatpipes. As we mentioned above, since the back of the shroud is left open, it allows hot air to escape into the confines of your case.

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Power for the Vapor-X is supplied by a pair of 6-pin PCI-E connectors which is par for the course with HD 5870 cards. Meanwhile, the backplate gets a bevy of connectors which fully support ATI’s Eyefinity technology. There are a pair of DVI outputs along with HDMI and Displayport connectors.
 

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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:

Sapphire HD 5870 Vapor-X
ATI HD 4870 X2 (Reference)
Sapphire HD 5870 1GB (Reference)
XFX HD 5850 (Reference)
ATI HD 4890 (Reference)
NVIDIA GTX 295 (Reference)
NVIDIA GTX 275 (Reference)
EVGA GTX 285 (Reference)


Drivers:

ATI 9.10 WHQL
NVIDIA 191.07 WHQL


Applications Used:

Call of Duty: World at War
Call of Juarez: 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

All IQ settings were adjusted in-game
 
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SKYMTL

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Call of Duty: World at War

Call of Duty: World at War


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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

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1920 x 1200

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2560 x 1600

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