The Radeon 9800XT is the latest in a line of high-performance ATI video cards, and is based on the latest R360 core design. This update takes the popular R350 core, featured in the Radeon 9800 Pro, to the next performance level, and uses manufacturing "quick wins" to eke out as much power as possible. This translates into faster core and memory speeds to start, which place it above the other Radeon 9800-based cards, but ATI snuck another bonus into the design: OverDrive. This is a form of on-demand overclocking, enabled through Catalyst 3.8 and higher driver revisions, which gives the Radeon 9800XT an extra boost of power.
Sapphire has been one of the most prolific ATI 3rd-party manufacturers, and virtually from the moment ATI started selling chips alongside their retail products, Sapphire's ATI-based line-up has been second to none. These not only included standard designs of all possible ATI models, but also the innovative Ultimate cards, which use passive cooling and provide noise reduction unmatched in the video card market. Their latest foray includes a trip to the current high-end, and the Sapphire Radeon 9800XT 256-MB. This card transitions ATI's near-unbeatable combination of ultra high-end performance, excellent image quality, and adds that distinctive Sapphire touch to the bundled software.
The Sapphire Radeon 9800XT 256-MB is based on the standard ATI design, but with a small tweak. The physical layout is the same, with the large copper heatsink-fan unit and the matching back-mounted copper brace covering the R360 core, the 256-MB of DDR, and the majority of the PCB. The card's backplate is also a match, and includes VGA, DVI-I and S-Video outputs, but does not add VIVO to the mix. Like all Radeon 9800XT-based cards, the Sapphire board requires external power through its onboard Molex connector. The main difference with the Sapphire card is an aesthetic one, and the heatsink-fan unit now has Sapphire Radeon 9800XT-branded logo, and adds a bit of color compared to the standard ATI model.
The Sapphire Radeon 9800XT 256-MB utilizes the same 412 MHz core and 730 MHz DDR memory clock speeds, which is the main reason for ATI upgrading the cooling hardware. The heatsink is copper and the main unit creates a maze of ducts for airflow to not only cool the GPU but the DDR memory as well. As with the ATI card, the Sapphire Radeon 9800XT 256-MB is a heavy piece of hardware and almost on-par with the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra boards. ATI OverDrive is also supported, and this automatic-overclocking feature allows for on-demand core speed increases as the game and physical environment dictate.
The Sapphire Radeon 9800XT 256-MB retail box contains the standard hardware needed to get up and running, along with a few extras. In addition to the card itself, Sapphire has also bundled S-Video and composite cables, a composite-to-S-Video adapter, a Molex power cord extension, a DVI-I to VGA dongle, and a full hardcopy user manual.
The bundled software side is where things get interesting, and the retail pack includes the driver CD, a copy of PowerDVD, and their Redline overclocking software - which was a bit of head-scratcher, since it listed the Radeon 9800 XT as "unsupported". Our retail box also shipped with a full retail copy of Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, but this title could be different depending on your region. The crown jewel of the retail pack has to be the free copy of Half-Life 2. Obviously, this game is currently unavailable at retail (current ETA: March 2004), so you receive a redemption coupon instead. The actual process is a bit deeper than simply mailing it in for the game, as Valve also has a special offer concerning their STEAM online service.
If you sign up before the HL2 release, you will receive not only a HL2 download upon release, but also a free Premier Pack, which includes Half-Life, Counter Strike, Team Fortress Classic, Deathmatch Classic, Half-Life: Opposing Force and Ricochet. Once HL2 ships, this offer becomes null and void. This is obviously a teaser to get people on STEAM for their gaming fix, and when evaluating a physical HL2 CD to an online download (STEAM currently requires you be online while playing), we're taking the CD any day of the week. But with the free Premium Pack, the advantage has definitely shifted to the Valve STEAM option.