The mainstream performance area of the graphics market has become very congested, filled with a lot of extremely powerful video cards. There is a wealth of options for the sub-$200 buyer, and from the impressive Radeon HD 3850 to the powerful GeForce 8800 GT, it's a windfall of potential cards. The Radeon HD 3870 is the big brother of the HD 3850, and is ATI's challenger at the top of this range. The card has done extremely well here, not only offering competitive performance, but a set of cutting-edge features as well.
Vendors like ASUS and Gigabyte have been producing the standard reference cards, but have also put their own spin on a few ATI and NVIDIA models. The Gigabyte Radeon HD 3870 512MB card we are reviewing today is one such product, with a specialized Zalman GPU cooler and a smaller and lighter card design. We'll be checking out how it fares in the gaming performance arena, as well as its thermal and overclocking results.
The ATI Radeon HD 3800 series has been an expected success for ATI, and has provided the company with its best news of 2007 and 2008. The Radeon HD 3870 GPU uses the same 55nm RV670 as the Radeon HD 3850, and it features a unified shader architecture with 320 Stream processors, 16 texture units and 16 ROPs, with a 256-bit bus linked to either GDDR3 or GDDR4 memory. It also supports DirectX 10.1, Shader Model 4.1, UVD, Avivo HD Video, ATI CrossFireX/Hybrid graphics, and ATI PowerPlay.
The default clock speed for the Radeon HD 3870 is 775 MHz for the core, while the memory clock depends on the type of GDDR used - 1800 MHz for GDDR3 and 2250 MHz for GDDR4. This provides a default fillrate of 12,400 MT/second and 57.6 (GDDR3) or 72.0 (GDDR4) GB/second of memory bandwidth. The Radeon HD 3870 is a native PCI Express 2.0 part and can support either 512MB or 1GB of onboard GDDR3/GDDR4 memory.
The Gigabyte Radeon HD 3870 512MB (GV-RX387512H) features GDDR3 memory, but is clocked a bit higher than the reference design - set at 780 MHz core and 1900 MHz memory speeds. This ramps up its fillrate and memory bandwidth numbers slightly, and should give the Gigabyte card an edge over comparable products. The Gigabyte card still won't match the performance of a true GDDR4 model, but it should be able to undercut its cost.
The latest Gigabyte version of the Radeon HD 3870 offers a slightly different take on the design. Gone is the standard heatsink-fan, and in its place is a custom Zalman cooler based on the popular VF700-AlCu. This offers the advantage of a smaller and lighter card, but it still takes up two slots and without a variable speed fan, or a heat exhaust system to get rid of hot air. Zalman offers a "silent" operating mode on a 5-volt connection, but the Gigabyte Radeon HD 3870 512MB uses a standard 12V connector. On the other hand, the constant fan speed keeps the card extremely cool in both idle and 3D modes. This card is also perfect for enthusiasts, as the Zalman cooler is easy to remove and ensures compatibility with other 3rd-party coolers.
Gigabyte has incorporated their Ultra Durable 2 component list with the GV-RX387512H, which includes ferrite core chokes (low power loss), low RDS (on) MOSFET (ultra cooling) and lower ESR solid capacitors (longer life). The card's backplate features integrated dual-link DVI outputs, with dual-link HDCP encoder, and support for all resolutions up to 1920x1200 (single-link DVI) or 2560x1600 (dual-link DVI). The video out port on the Gigabyte card provides component and S-video support at up to 1080i resolution. As with all Radeon HD 3870 cards, the Gigabyte version requires external power through a standard 6-pin PCI Express connector.
A standard Radeon HD 3870 512MB, with the full heat exhaust system, checks in at approximately 650 grams, or about the same as a dual-slot GeForce 8800 GTS/GTX/Ultra card. At approximately 360 grams, the Gigabyte Radeon HD 3870 512MB is significantly lighter. It also utilizes ATI OverDrive and PowerPlay features, and downclocks properly when in desktop mode. The card also runs exceptionally cool, hitting high-30's at idle, and mid-50's at load.
As usual, the Gigabyte retail bundle includes a nice mix of both hardware and software. Along with the Radeon HD 3870 512MB card, it includes a full user manual, a Quick Install fold-out guide, two DVI-to-VGA dongles, a HDTV break-out cable, a CrossFire connector, and a PCI Express power cable. Bundled software includes a driver CD and a full DVD copy of Neverwinter Nights 2 with hardcopy manual. We really like to see a bundled game with any mainstream or higher graphics cards, and the only disappointment with this package is the lack of a DVI-to-HDMI dongle.
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 Gigabyte Radeon HD 3870 512MB fits in:
Radeon HD 3870
Radeon HD 3870
GeForce 7950 GT
Radeon HD 3850
GeForce 9600 GT
GeForce 8800 GT
Radeon HD 2900
Of course, the best performance metric is real-world testing, and to that end, we've assembled a wide range of game benchmarks.