The graphics card market continues to become more splintered and specialized as time goes by. ATI and NVIDIA are both working overtime to find a specific market niche that the other is not servicing, which has led to many very interesting product releases. The Radeon HD 3800 series is one, and these cards are targeted at just above and below the magic $200 mainstream ceiling.
The Radeon HD 3850 is the little brother of the two, and in addition to being a price-performance champion, its lower power and heat production has led to Sapphire offering another of their innovative Ultimate Edition models. The Sapphire HD 3850 Ultimate 512MB includes a heatpipe cooling design that not only dispenses with an active fan, but lowers the power requirements as well.
AMD has experienced some problems lately, but the ATI Radeon HD 3800 series has been an unexpected surprise, and a hot seller. The Radeon HD 3850 GPU has 666 million transistors and is built using a 55nm process. It features a unified shader architecture with 320 Stream processors, 16 texture units and 16 ROPs, and utilizes a 256-bit bus to either GDDR3 or GDDR4 memory.
Default clock speeds are 668 MHz for the core and 1.656 GHz for the memory, which drives the card to a fillrate of 10,700 MT/second and 53 GB/second of memory bandwidth. The card can support either 256MB or 512MB of onboard memory and supports DirectX 10.1 and Shader Model 4.1. Other standard features include Avivo HD Video, ATI Powerplay, and ATI CrossFireX.
Sapphire is well-known for its heatpipe video card designs, which utilize a fanless cooling design, and sport the "Ultimate Edition" brand. The Sapphire HD 3850 Ultimate 512MB follows right along with prior efforts, and includes a large heatpipe/heatsink cooling design, with three heatpipes linking to the top of the card, and then traveling to a substantial heatsink on the back of the card.
This type of design offers a silent-running, lower power variant of a standard Radeon HD 3850 card, but there are some concessions. One is the size of the card, and the Sapphire HD 3850 Ultimate 512MB is a very big boy. Although it is a dual-slot card, its design means that only peripherals located above the card will be impacted. Although it looked a bit daunting at first, we didn't have any installation issues with our reference systems. Card weight looked like another consideration, but the Sapphire HD 3850 Ultimate 512MB checks in at approximately 500 grams, and not much heavier than a basic Radeon HD 3850 at 475 grams.
Once you get past the elaborate heatpipes and heatsinks, the Sapphire HD 3850 Ultimate 512MB is a standard model that offers reference clock speeds and features. The Sapphire card is set at the default 668 MHz core and 1.656 GHz memory speeds. The card's backplate features integrated dual-link DVI outputs, each with dual-link HDCP encoders, and support for all resolutions up to 1920x1200 (single-link DVI) or 2560x1600 (dual-link DVI). Sapphire also includes a video out port with component, S-video and composite support.
The retail bundle is a nice mix of both hardware and software. Along with the Sapphire HD 3850 Ultimate Edition card, you'll find a full user manual, a DVI-to-VGA dongle, a DVI-to-HDMI dongle, a HDTV break-out cable, a CrossFire connector, a composite-to-S-video adapter, and a PCI Express power cable. Sapphire has also kept a close eye on the software side of things, with a driver CD, a full copy of 3DMark06, and OEM versions of Cyberlink Power DVD 7 and DVD Suite. While there are no bundled games, Sapphire has included a certificate for a free Steam-downloadable copy of The Black Box, which is only available through this type of offer.
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 3850 Ultimate 512MB fits in:
Radeon HD 3850
GeForce 7900 GT
GeForce 7950 GT
Radeon HD 3870
GeForce 8800 GT
Of course, the best performance metric is real-world testing, and to that end, we've assembled a wide range of game benchmarks.