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Sapphire's Ultimate HD 3850 and Atomic HD 3870
Date: Jan 24, 2008
Author: Robert Maloney

It seems like a new year always evokes the feeling of renewed hope and high expectations.  And for AMD / ATI at least, 2008 appears to have reinvigorated their graphics division, which appears to be firing on all cylinders at the moment.  After a year or so of NVIDIA dominating the high-end graphics space, ATI released the Radeon HD 3870 and HD 3850 cards, which have proved to be competent alternatives at their respective price points.  Based on the RV670 GPU, the HD 38xx series has been able to provide similar or better performance than the preceding 2900 XT, while running cooler and consuming less power.  That, and their lower price points, makes them much more suitable choice for eventually running CrossFireX configurations somewhere down the road.

Of course, as time passes, board partners will go out and take a popular card and "make it their own" so to speak, typically by modifying the cooling solution and/or bumping up the core and memory speeds.  Sapphire, as it turns out, always seems up to the challenge.  This article features not one, but two cards that offer differing takes on existing products.  One card is built with a completely fanless cooling solution, the other is a pre-overclocked, top-of-the line screamer, complete with vapor-cooling.  Two cards, separate target audiences, and Sapphire is out to conquer both.

The first model we're going to show you is the Ultimate HD 3850, the name of which applies more to its silent operating mode than its speed or packaging.  It does include 512MB of RAM over the original 3850's 256MB, however, and uses a heat-pipe cooling system which does differentiate it from the competition.  The latter card is called the Atomic HD 3870.  It features higher speeds, fancy single-slot cooling, and one of the best bundles we have seen in a while - it's a card that definitely warrants some attention.  Differences abound, but here's a look at the common specs between the two.

ATI Radeon HD 3850 & 3870
Features & Specifications

666 million transistors on 55nm fabrication process

256bit 8-channel GDDR3/4 memory interface

Ring Bus Memory Controller

  • Fully distributed design with 512-bit internal ring bus for memory reads and writes
  • Optimized for high performance HDR (High Dynamic Range) rendering at high display resolutions

Unified Superscalar Shader Architecture

  • 320 stream processing units
    • Dynamic load balancing and resource allocation for vertex, geometry, and pixel shaders
    • Common instruction set and texture unit access supported for all types of shaders
    • Dedicated branch execution units and texture address processors
  • 128-bit floating point precision for all operations
  • Command processor for reduced CPU overhead
  • Shader instruction and constant caches
  • Up to 80 texture fetches per clock cycle
  • Up to 128 textures per pixel
  • Fully associative multi-level texture cache design
  • DXTC and 3Dc+ texture compression
  • High resolution texture support (up to 8192 x 8192)
  • Fully associative texture Z/stencil cache designs
  • Double-sided hierarchical Z/stencil buffer
  • Early Z test, Re-Z, Z Range optimization, and Fast Z Clear
  • Lossless Z & stencil compression (up to 128:1)
  • Lossless color compression (up to 8:1)
  • 8 render targets (MRTs) with anti-aliasing support
  • Physics processing support

Full support for Microsoft DirectX 10 / 10.1 

  • Shader Model 4.0
  • Geometry Shaders
  • Stream Output
  • Integer and Bitwise Operations
  • Alpha to Coverage
  • Constant Buffers
  • State Objects
  • Texture Arrays

Dynamic Geometry Acceleration

  • High performance vertex cache
  • Programmable tessellation unit
  • Accelerated geometry shader path for geometry amplification
  • Memory read/write cache for improved stream output performance

Anti-aliasing features

  • Multi-sample anti-aliasing (up to 8 samples per pixel)
  • Up to 24x Custom Filter Anti-Aliasing (CFAA) for improved quality
  • Adaptive super-sampling and multi-sampling
  • Temporal anti-aliasing
  • Gamma correct
  • Super AA (CrossFire configurations only)
  • All anti-aliasing features compatible with HDR rendering

CrossFire Multi-GPU Technology

  • Scale up rendering performance and image quality with 2 or more GPUs
  • Integrated compositing engine
  • High performance dual channel interconnect
Texture filtering features
  • 2x/4x/8x/16x high quality adaptive anisotropic filtering modes (up to 128 taps per pixel)
  • 128-bit floating point HDR texture filtering
  • Bicubic filtering
  • sRGB filtering (gamma/degamma)
  • Percentage Closer Filtering (PCF)
  • Depth & stencil texture (DST) format support
  • Shared exponent HDR (RGBE 9:9:9:5) texture format support

ATI Avivo HD Video and Display Platform

  • Two independent display controllers
    • Drive two displays simultaneously with independent resolutions, refresh rates, color controls and video overlays for each display
    • Full 30-bit display processing
    • Programmable piecewise linear gamma correction, color correction, and color space conversion
    • Spatial/temporal dithering provides 30-bit color quality on 24-bit and 18-bit displays
    • High quality pre- and post-scaling engines, with underscan support for all display outputs
    • Content-adaptive de-flicker filtering for interlaced displays
    • Fast, glitch-free mode switching
    • Hardware cursor
  • Two integrated dual-link DVI display outputs
    • Each supports 18-, 24-, and 30-bit digital displays at all resolutions up to 1920x1200 (single-link DVI) or 2560x1600 (dual-link DVI)
    • Each includes a dual-link HDCP encoder with on-chip key storage for high resolution playback of protected content
  • Two integrated 400 MHz 30-bit RAMDACs
    • Each supports analog displays connected by VGA at all resolutions up to 2048x1536
  • HDMI output support
    • Supports all display resolutions up to 1920x1080
    • Integrated HD audio controller with multi-channel (5.1) AC3 support, enabling a plug-and-play cable-less audio solution
  • Integrated Xilleon HDTV encoder
    • Provides high quality analog TV output (component / S-video / composite)
    • Supports SDTV and HDTV resolutions
    • Underscan and overscan compensation
  • HD decode for H.264/AVC, VC-1, DivX and MPEG-2 video formats
    • Flawless DVD, HD DVD, and Blu-Ray playback
    • Motion compensation and IDCT (Inverse Discrete Cosine Transformation)
  • HD video processing
    • Advanced vector adaptive per-pixel de-interlacing
    • De-blocking and noise reduction filtering
    • Edge enhancement
    • Inverse telecine (2:2 and 3:2 pull-down correction)
    • Bad edit correction
    • High fidelity gamma correction, color correction, color space conversion, and scaling
  • MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX, WMV9, VC-1, and H.264/AVC encoding and transcoding
  • Seamless integration of pixel shaders with video in real time
  • VGA mode support on all display outputs

PCI Express 2.0 x16 bus interface

OpenGL 2.0 support



As we've covered the architecture of the HD 3850 and HD 3870 in-depth in the past, we won't go into heavy detail in this article.  Instead, we suggest you take a look at the following articles for some background information: 

        ATI Radeon HD 3850 and 3870
        ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT

What isn't fully covered there, is that the RV670 is the first GPU that supports DirectX 10.1.  This update to the API brings with it better support for multi-sample anti-aliasing, improved shadow filtering capabilities, and better support for multi-core systems.  Also, a major addition will be the mandatory use of 32-bit floating point filtering (over the 16-bit filtering found in DX9 and DX10) that will make HDR rendering even more dynamic.  With Vista SP1 supposedly only weeks away, it's always good to see hardware out there that will be ready to utilize these new features, even if game developers won't support them right out of the gate.

Sapphire Ultimate Radeon HD3850

First up is the Ultimate HD 3850, which ships in a glossy box with a busty female wielding a long blade.  We don't quite remember exactly when or where the placing of warrior princesses began on PC hardware, but it doesn't appear to be a trend that's about to end anytime soon.  A small sticker labels this as the Ultimate version which, as we pointed out earlier, differs from Sapphire's original release by upping the memory to 512MB and slapping on a passive cooler.


Inside the box, secured in pink styrofoam is the card itself.  Although this isn't the first card to receive the passive cooler treatment, it's always a bit of a shock to see a setup that almost seems like it has been reversed; more barren on the front than the back.  The bulk of the cooling solution actually lies on the back of the card, facing upward.



The GPU die and RAM are completely covered by a very slim heatplate, with a cutout for some circuitry.  Above this plate is a branded metal cover protecting an area where three heatpipes meet a copper section placed directly over the GPU.  The copper provides a better medium for conducting heat away from the GPU and into the heatpipes which, in turn, whisk it away to the backside of the card.  Just above the heatsink are the two CrossFire connectors, which will allow 2 (and later more) similar Radeons to be combined to increase performance.  The RV670 GPU is less power hungry than than the previous generation, and thus only requires a single 6-pin MOLEX power connection.


Three heatpipes branch off from each other, and wind up spaced evenly, dispersing their heat into the large set of fins on the back of the card.  In theory, the fins should not only allow heat to rise up and away from the card, but possibly receive extra cooling airflow from the nearby CPU fan plus other fans cooling this area.  In practice, however, we found that this setup completely conflicted with the design of the MSI P6N Diamond we selected for testing.  As the P6N Diamond is setup for Quad SLI, the first SLI X16 slot is placed too close to the Northbridge and DIMM slots for the Ultimate HD 3850 to be installed.  We wound up installing the card into a different slot, which caused some consternation for Windows Vista that we eventually solved.


The bundle that came with the Ultimate HD 3850 was a decent mix of games, software, and other cables and accessories, and as such we really can't complain.  Want to watch a DVD, they've got that covered with Cyberlink's PowerDVD 7. How about Gaming?  That's covered too in a suite of games from Valve called "The Black Box".  Heck, you can even jump onboard and benchmark your own card with an included copy of FutureMark's 3DMark06.  Throw in the manual, power cable converter, Component Video cable, plus a CrossFire connector and converters for HDMI-to-DVI and VGA-to-DVI and you're all set.

Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD3870


The Atomic HD 3870's packaging is the kind of stuff that will get you stopped in airports and public places, as silver briefcases with day-glo atoms might send out the wrong message.  Seriously, the briefcase concept is a great way to showcase Sapphire's high-end product and it prominently advertises their gaming-oriented Atomic website.  The sticker used for "HD 3870" probably indicates that we will see the case used again for future Atomic branded products as well.  Our only concern with the packaging is that once the card is installed, what is there left to do with the metal briefcase?  More clutter for the lab or home-office, we suppose, but first impressions do count and Sapphire wins in this department.


Rather than advertise the features on the case, an overlay inside quickly lists the main selling points of the Atomic HD 3870: pre-overclocked core and memory speeds, 512MB GDDR4 memory, and Vapor-X cooling.  Unlike the reference model that ATI originally displayed, the Atomic HD 3870 does not require dual-slot cooling, using a single-slot solution based on Vapor Chamber Technology (VCT) from Microloops.  In principle, VCT is not unlike the heatpipes we've seen used time and again on other graphic cards and motherboards.  In both cases, heat vaporizes a fluid within a sealed chamber, the resulting gas of which moves to a cooler region where it condenses and releases its heat.  The fluid is then returned to the hotter area for re-vaporization and the process repeats itself.

Where the process differs, is that the vapor chamber in a VCT cooler is a vacuum vessel with wicks lining the walls that facilitate the movement of the working fluid, in this case, water.  In effect, heat transmission is both bi-directional and planar, and thus much more efficient that a basic heat-pipe, which is unidirectional and linear.  VCT coolers can be made into any shape with a maximum size of 400mm x 400mm, and only need a thickness of between 3.5mm and 4.2mm.  Thus, a more efficient yet lighter weight and smaller footprint GPU cooler is born.  Sapphire has partnered with Microloops for future products as well.



The Vapor-X chamber is really what makes the Atomic HD 3870 so different from the rest, changing the reference dual-slot design into a quiet, single-slot card with pre-overclocked speeds of 825 MHz for the GPU (over a default 777 MHz) and 1200 MHz for the memory (default of 1126 MHz).  The rest of the card is essentially the same with two DVI and one S-Video output, a 6-pin power connector, and two CrossFireX connectors along the top.  Although the HD 3850 and HD 3870 cards are PCI-Express 2.0 graphics cards, they still function perfectly in PCIe 1.1 slots.


Aside from the card, the bundle has a few surprises of its own.  While the accompanying media remains the same as what we found with the Ultimate HD 3850, the assortment of cables included a 9-foot HDMI cable, as well as two cold cathodes that can be used to jazz up your PC.  The HDMI cable alone runs for $30-40 U.S., which makes this a welcome addition to what is looking like an early winner from Sapphire.

Test System and 3DMark06 Results

HOW WE CONFIGURED THE TEST SYSTEMS: We tested all of the graphics cards used in this article on an MSI P6N Diamond motherboard powered by a Core 2 Duo E6600 processor and 2GB of low-latency Corsair RAM. The first thing we did when configuring our test systems was enter into the BIOS and set all values to their "optimized" or "performance" default settings. Then we manually configured the memory timings and disabled any integrated peripherals that wouldn't be put to use. The hard drive was then formatted, and Windows Vista Ultimate was installed. When the installation was complete we fully updated the OS, and installed the latest DX10 redist and various hotfixes along with the necessary drivers and applications.

The HotHardware Test System

Enjoy the beautiful Vista


Motherboard -

Video Cards -

Memory -

Audio -

Hard Drive

Hardware Used:
Core 2 Duo E6600 

MSI P6N Diamond
nForce 680i SLI chipset

GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB
GeForce 8800 GTX
Radeon HD 3870
Sapphire Atomic HD 3870
Sapphire Ultimate HD 3850

2048MB Corsair PC2-6400C4D
2 X 1GB, 4-4-4-12 (1T)

Integrated Creative X-Fi

Seagate Barracuda

750GB - 7,200RPM - SATAII

OS - 

DirectX -

Video Drivers

Synthetic (DX) - 

DirectX9 -
DirectX10 -
OpenGL -
DirectX10 -
DirectX10 - 

DirectX10 - 
Relevant Software:

Windows Vista Ultimate

DirectX 10

NVIDIA Forceware v169.25
ATI Catalyst v7.12

Benchmarks Used:
3DMark06 v1.1.0
Half Life 2: Episode 2*
Company of Heroes
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars 1.2*
Crysis Demo
Bioshock 1.1
PT Boats: Knights of the Sea

* - Custom Test
(HH Exclusive demo)

Performance Comparisons with 3DMark06 v1.1.0
Details: www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark06

3DMark06 is the most recent addition to the 3DMark franchise. This version differs from 3Dmark05 in a number of ways, and includes not only Shader Model 2.0 tests, but Shader Model 3.0 and HDR tests as well. Some of the assets from 3DMark05 have been re-used, but the scenes are now rendered with much more geometric detail and the shader complexity is vastly increased as well. 3DMark06 also employs much more lighting and there is extensive use of soft shadows. With 3DMark06, Futuremark has also updated how the final score is tabulated. In this latest version of the benchmark, SM 2.0 and HDR / SM3.0 tests are weighted and the CPU score is factored into the final tally as well.

According to the 3DMark06 results, the Radeons HD 3870s have finally begun to catch up again to the juggernaut that the 8800 family has been over the past year.  Although the highest scores go to the 8800 GTS 512 and 8800 GTX, the HD 3870s closely tail behind, with the pre-overclocked Atomic HD 3870 bettering the default clocked version by nearly 80 points.  Ultimately, the Ultimate HD 3850 finds itself at the bottom of this list, trailing the other cards by 12 percent or more, mainly due to the SM 3.0 / HDR results.

Half-Life 2: Episode 2

Performance Comparisons with Half-Life 2: Episode 2

Details: www.half-life2.com

Half Life 2:

Episode 2

Thanks to the dedication of hardcore PC gamers and a huge mod-community, the original Half-Life became one of the most successful first person shooters of all time.  And thanks to an updated game engine, gorgeous visual, and intelligent weapon and level design, Half Life 2 became just as popular.  Episode 2 offers a number of visual enhancements including better looking transparent texture anti-aliasing. These tests were run at resolutions of 1280x1024 and 1600x1200 with 4X anti-aliasing and 16X anisotropic filtering enabled concurrently.  Color correction and HDR rendering were also enabled in the game engine as well.  We used a custom recorded timedemo file to benchmark all cards in this test.


In our first of many games that we benchmarked, the Sapphire Radeons did not fare as well as could be expected.  At the lower resolution, the faster Atomic HD 3870 still found itself from 9-11 frames behind the 8800 cards.  This delta doubled once we raised the resolution to 1600x1200.  The Atomic's higher speeds, however, consistently manage to keep it a few frames above the reference model.  Even with the larger frame buffer on the Ultimate version of the HD3850, this card still finds itself far behind the rest of the pack due to its lower clock speeds.

Company of Heroes

Performance Comparisons with Company of Heroes

Details: www.companyofheroesgame.com

Company of Heroes

Relic Entertainment's World War II era real-time strategy game Company of Heroes was originally released as a DirectX 9 title for Windows.  But recent upates to the game have incorporated support for new DirectX 10 features that improve image quality and enhance the game's finer graphical details.  The game features a built-in performance test which which we used to attain the results below. Our Company of Heroes tests were run at resolutions of 1280x1024 and 1600x1200 with 4X anti-aliasing and all of the game's image-quality related options set to their maximum values.


The higher GPU and memory speeds of the Atomic HD 3870 don't translate as well in Company of Heroes, with modest gains of about a frame per second at either resolution.  The Ultimate HD 3850 struggles a bit with this benchmark, barely reaching 30 fps at 1280x1024 and slipping further at 1600x1200 to just under 24 fps.

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

Performance Comparisons with ET: Quake Wars

Details: www.enemyterritory.com

Enemy Territory: 
Quake Wars

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is Based on id's radically enhanced Doom 3 engine and viewed by many as Battlefield 2 meets the Strogg, and then some.  ET: Quake Wars also marks the introduction of John Carmack's "Megatexture" technology that employs extremely large environment and terrain textures that cover vast areas of maps without the need to repeat and tile many small textures.  The beauty of megatexture technology is that each unit only takes up a maximum of 8MB of frame buffer memory.  Add to that HDR-like bloom lighting and leading edge shadowing effects and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars looks great, plays well and works high end graphics cards vigorously.  The game was tested with all of its in-game options set to their maximum values with soft particles enabled in addition to 4X anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering.


id's games have always fared better on GeForce cards, which partially helps explain the wide margin between the 8800s and the three Radeon HD 38xx cards at 1280x1024.  Raising the in-game resolution seems to level the playing field somewhat, as we saw a much larger performance hit on the two NVIDIA cards when compared to the Radeons.


Performance Comparisons with Crysis

Details: www.ea.com/crysis


If you're at all into enthusiast computing, the highly anticipated single player demo of the hot, new, upcoming FPS smash-hit Crysis, should require no introduction. Crytek's game engine visuals are easily the most impressive real-time 3D renderings we've seen on the computer screen to date.  The engine employs some of the latest techniques in 3D rendering like Parallax Occlusion Mapping, Subsurface Scattering, Motion Blur and Depth-of-Field effects, as well as some of the most impressive use of Shader technology we've seen yet.  In short, for those of you that want to skip the technical jib-jab, Crysis is HOT.  We ran the SP demo with all of the game's visual options set to 'High' to put a significant load on the graphics cards being tested.


Even without Anti-Aliasing, the most powerful card in our suite only breaks the 30 fps barrier at 1280x1024 with the rest of the benchmarks falling mostly between 15-25 frames per second.  As seen in previous games, the two HD 3870s are separated by about a frame in each of our testing runs.  The HD 3850's performance lies some 20% behind either of the Radeon HD 3870s.


Performance Comparisons with Bioshock

Details: www.2kgames.com/bioshock/enter.html


BioShock is the "genetically enhanced" first person shooter with RPG elements, that has a feel very reminiscent of System Shock 2 or Deus Ex.  It uses a modified Unreal Engine 3.0 with heavy emphasis on enhanced water effects to the extent that Irrational Games actually hired a water programmer and water artist just for this game.  Part horror flick, part sci-fi novel, BioShock is an experience that one won't soon forget.  We gathered our testing results by measuring frame rates through FRAPS while performing the same set of actions in the opening corridors of Rapture at 1280x1024 and 1600x1200 with all graphical settings turned to High.


When using DX10 rendering paths for Bioshock, we found that the Radeon HD 38xx cards fell far behind the performance levels of the GeForce 8800 cards with frame rates that were a third less or more at the lower resolution. Jumping to 1600x1200 cut the GeForces down to size, with each card falling into the 60 fps range wherea the performance hit is much less for any of the Radeons.  For example, where there was a 29% difference between the 8800 GTX and Atomic HD 3870 at 1280x1024, it was halved to 14% at 1600x1200.

PT Boats: Knights of the Sea

Performance Comparisons with PT Boats: Knights of the Sea

Details: www.pt-boats.net

PT Boats:
Knights of the Sea

PT Boats: Knights of the Sea is a naval war-sim based on a substantially modified version of the Storm engine.  It takes a full grip of all DirectX 10 graphics and film-quality features to create a more realistic gaming experience. These improvements include: advanced ocean rendering, soft particles, reflections, light beams and advanced transparency, and advanced HDR for gunfire and sun reflections.  We used the DX10 Benchmark available from their website using High Quality settings at 1280x1024 and 1600x1200 without any Anti-Aliasing applied.


PT Boats is the only non-FPS game in our testing, but it is just as punishing as Crysis on graphic cards.  Originally we had planned on using 4xAA but this resulted in mostly single digit frame rates with some odd anomalies so we decided to ease back a bit and disable AA for now.  The results are in line with what we've seen in the other benchmarks with the 8800s in the front, the two HD 3870s in the middle with very similar frame rates, and the HD 3850 posting the lowest, yet still respectable, scores.

Overclocking Results


Although the Atomic HD 3870 comes pre-overclocked and the Ultimate HD 3850 lacks active cooling, we still wanted to see if there was any room left to raise speeds further.  Doing so doesn't require anything other that the Catalyst drivers themselves.  We went in to the Overdrive section, noted the default speed and slowly raised the core and memory speeds until we either saw visual artifacts while running a game or benchmark, or noticed any other system instability.

Overclocking the Atomic HD 3870 and Ultimate HD 3850

Gotta Love 'Free' Performance

Our first foray was with the Atomic HD 3870, which was already overclocked from default core and memory speeds of 777/1126 MHz to 825/1200.  We expected to hit a ceiling right away due to this, but we ended up with a heady 865/1306 as our final clock speeds.  Clearly the Vapor-X cooling system was a major factor in keeping temps down and allowing the card to reach this far.  Results with the HD 3850 were a bit more modest, raising the GPU speed from 670 MHz up to 719 MHz and memory from 830 MHz to 939 MHz.  We re-ran a couple of benchmarks and noted their new frame rates:

Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 Overclock - GPU=865MHz, Memory=1306MHz (2.6GHz DDR)
Sapphire Ultimate HD 3850 Overclock - GPU=719MHz, Memory=939MHz (1.86GHz DDR)

Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 Overclock - GPU=865MHz, Memory=1306MHz (2.6GHz DDR)
Sapphire Ultimate HD 3850 Overclock -
GPU=719MHz, Memory=939MHz (1.86GHz DDR)

Overclocking each of the cards resulted in a few extra frames per second, as expected.  Results were a bit higher with Half-Life 2 than they were in ET: Quake Wars.  Even with this extra boost in performance, the Atomic HD 3870 was still a decent ways behind the GeForce 8800 GTX and GTS 512.

Performance Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary:

The Sapphire Ultimate Radeon HD 3850 and Atomic HD 3870 cards performed as expected throughout our battery of tests.  The Atomic card's higher GPU core and memory clock speeds allowed it to outperform a reference Radeon HD 3870 card in every benchmark.  The performance deltas separating the two 3870 cards were not very large, however.  The Ultimate HD 3850 card's 512MB frame buffer helped its performance at higher resolutions, but it couldn't quite compete with the 3870 due to its lower clock speeds. 


One thing we've liked about some of ATI's board partners, such as HIS and Sapphire, is that they always seem to take popular products and tweak or modify them into their own creations.  Anyone can slap their logo onto a heatsink and maybe raise clock speeds a hair, but it takes something extra from a manufacturer to go beyond and look for new ways to improve upon a product.  In the cases of the Ultimate HD 3850 and Atomic HD 3870, we saw two completely different ideas at work, and both succeed.

Sapphire Ultimate HD 3850

The Radeon HD 3850 is admittedly the less powerful of the two 3800 series Radeons, originally equipped with half of the memory and slower GPU frequencies.  Sapphire upped the memory to 512MB with their model, however, which helps performance at higher resolutions, but they didn't budge on the core and memory speeds.  Instead, the Ultimate is geared toward silent operation, making it a better choice for HTPCs or other machines where gaming performance is not the sole reason for their existence.

At a price of around $230, it's hard for us to outright recommend this card unless you absolutely need silent operation, especially when higher performing HD 3870 and GeForce 8800 GT cards can be found for just a few dollars more, but we certainly see the appeal of a 512MB Radeon HD 3850 card that generates absolutely no noise.

  • Silent, "ultimate" cooler
  • Double memory size over reference model
  • Decent overclocker
  • One of the highest priced HD 3850's on market
  • Could conflict with motherboard components

Sapphire Atomic HD 3870

As the inaugural member of the Atomic line of cards, the Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 was a great start.  From the moment you first see the briefcase, you know you're in for something different.  Vapor-X cooling is not so much revolutionary as evolutionary, replacing standard heatpipes with a more efficient means of transferring heat away from the GPU, while still maintaining a slim profile.  Microloops, the maker if the cooler, could really find themselves in an enviable position here, if others decide to follow suit.

The pre-overclocked speeds of the Atomic HD 3870 provided a small boost to our gaming frame rates, as expected.  We found we could continue to push the envelope by overclocking, however, and ending up hitting 865 MHz for the GPU - nearly 90 MHz over the default of 777 MHz.  While this did add even more performance in our gaming suite, we still couldn't catch up to NVIDIA's latest card, the 8800 GTS 512.  At under just $300 though, the Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 is still a solid buy considering it includes a high-quality HDMI cable and ships from the factory pre-overclocked. It's definitely not the least expensive Radeon HD 3870, but the Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 stands-out from the crowd in so many ways, it has earned itself an Editor's Choice award.

  • Sapphire thinking outside the box with this bundle
  • Great overclocker 
  • Super-efficient new cooling system 
  • Still not faster than most 8800 series


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