Sure, high-end video cards get all the attention, as their framerate-busting speeds are just inherently sexier than factors like high-value and class-leading performance. But mainstream buyers know what these terms mean, especially those buying right at the lip of the $100-$200 canyon. You can get a lot of value in this price range, and it still makes up the majority of gamer-related purchases. Sapphire has added a new wrinkle to the conventional mainstream card, and has given ATI's latest mid-range card the Ultimate treatment, resulting in a silent-running Radeon HD 2600 XT.
ATI has built the Radeon HD 2600 line on the 65nm RV630 core. The RV630 powers both the Radeon HD 2600 Pro and XT models, with the latter offering higher clock speeds and better performance. The Radeon HD 2600 XT is fully DirectX 10 compliant, and it offers a unified shader architecture using 24 shader processors with 120 individual Stream processing units. The number of Stream processors is much more than NVIDIA offers at the mainstream, but keep in mind that it is impossible to equate two differing architectures like this. In addition, the RV630 offers 8 texture mapping units (TMUs) and 4 Raster Operator units (ROPs), and can utilize either GDDR3 or GDDR4 onboard memory.
ATI has kept clock speeds on par with similarly-priced cards, and the base core speed of the Radeon HD 2600 XT is 800 MHz, which provides a fillrate of 6.4 GT/s. Memory clock speeds can differ based on the type used, with GDDR3 set at 1.4 GHz and GDDR4 running a bit faster at 2.2 GHz. Like most mainstream graphics cards, ATI has gone with a 128-bit memory interface, combined with a 256-bit internal ring bus memory controller, which results in a memory bandwidth of 22.4 GB/s for GDDR3 and 35.2 GB/s for GDDR4. The Radeon HD 2600 XT also supports other ATI-based features like CrossFire Multi-GPU and the Avivo HD Video and Display Platform (HDMI, HDCP, HD video acceleration, HD 1080p with 5.1 AC3).
The main difference between the Sapphire HD 2600 XT Ultimate 256MB and other similar cards should be quite obvious, even if you're not familiar with the Sapphire "Ultimate" treatment. The Sapphire Ultimate cards dispense with the cooling fan and replace it with a larger heatsink design that offers essentially the same thermal performance. The HD 2600 XT Ultimate does just that, and rather than the single-slot heatsink-fan we've become accustomed to, Sapphire incorporates a dual-pronged cooling assault with a "Fueled by Sapphire" heatsink on the GPU, which attaches to dual heatpipes, leading to a large heatsink-fin unit on the back of the card.
The added cooling apparatus does make the Sapphire card a bit heavier, and at approximately 380g, it compares to a standard Radeon HD 2600 XT at just over 300g. Not much of a weight difference, and the card's height is probably more important. The back-mounted heatsink is rather large, and while this translates into dual-slot dimensions, it only affects slots above the PCI Express graphics slot. As the Sapphire HD 2600 XT Ultimate 256MB only features a thin heatsink on the front of the card, and is actually slimmer there than a standard card, the PCI Express or PCI slots below it are unaffected.
Cooling designs aside, the Sapphire HD 2600 XT Ultimate 256MB PCI Express card is still a Radeon HD 2600 XT through and through. The card features 256MB of GDDR3 memory and is clocked at the standard 800 MHz core and 1.4 GHz memory speeds. The rest of the features are consistent with a standard Radeon HD 2600 XT, and the Sapphire card features integrated dual-link DVI display outputs, which can power displays at all resolutions up to 1920x1200 (single-link DVI) or 2560x1600 (dual-link DVI). Both outputs include a dual-link HDCP encoder for playback of protected digital content and the Sapphire card also features a TV-output port, supporting component/S-video/composite connectivity. The Sapphire HD 2600 XT Ultimate shares the ATI reference design, and does not require any external power.
Sapphire is another company you can really count on for a good retail bundle, and the HD 2600 XT Ultimate retail box includes everything you need to get up and running, and a few extras. Along with the card itself, we found a DVI-to-HDMI dongle, a DVI-to-VGA dongle, an HDTV breakout cable, a composite/S-Video adapter, a CrossFire cable, and a full hardcopy user manual. The bundled software was a nice surprise, and in addition to the Driver CD, Sapphire also includes CDs of Cyberlink PowerDVD and FutureMark 3DMark'06, along with STEAM vouchers for The Black Box, a collection of Half-Life 2-based games. Sapphire backs their VGA cards with a 2-year warranty.
As the DirectX 10 graphics cards offer a new type of architecture, it's very difficult to compare the latest products in terms of "pipelines" and other common terms of the previous GPU generations. Instead, we have assembled a set of specifications and performance metrics that should illustrate exactly where the Sapphire HD 2600 XT Ultimate 256MB fits in:
Radeon HD 2600
GeForce 8500 GT
GeForce 7600 GS
Radeon HD 2600
GeForce 7600 GT
Radeon X1650 XT
GeForce 7900 GS
Of course, the best performance metric is real-world testing, and to that end, we've assembled a wide range of game benchmarks in the next section.