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Sapphire Atlantis 9800XT
Date: Jan 01, 2004
Author: HH Editor
The Sapphire Atlantis 9800XT - Page 1

The Sapphire Atlantis 9800XT
Up Close and Personal with Sapphire's Radeon 9800 XT 256MB

By, Marco Chiappetta
December 30, 2003

In late September '03, ATi refreshed their fall line-up with the Radeon 9800 XT, knocking the then dominant Radeon 9800 Pro from its perch atop ATi's video card food chain.  We reviewed one of the first Radeon 9800 XTs to come out of ATi back then, and were thoroughly impressed with the card's performance and in-game image quality, but we did find the $500+ price tag a bit tough to swallow.  With this new XT branded card, ATi didn't pioneer many new features, but rather they refined their existing technology so it would run at higher clock speeds.  In doing so, they introduced a new, massive copper cooling solution with a variable speed fan that ensured the GPU and RAM hummed along at acceptable temperature levels.  The one new feature that was added to the 9800 XT, was an on-die thermal sensor that monitors the GPU's internal temperature.  The data collected from this sensor is used in conjunction with another new feature added to ATI's Catalyst drivers, dubbed "Overdrive".  The "Overdrive" feature dynamically overclocks the card, and if temperatures get out of control, the GPU fan spins-up and clock speeds are throttled back down to default levels.  ATi also struck a deal with the Game Developer Valve, to bundle Half Life 2 with all new XT models .  The hardware may not have been revolutionary at the time, but ATi ended up putting together an overall package that was compelling to hard-core enthusiasts, with adequate disposable incomes.  It then came as no surprise that a multitude of ATi's board partners like Visiontek, Asus, Gigabyte and Sapphire, soon announced that they too would be adding the Radeon 9800 XT to their product lines.

So far, we've had first hand experience with ATi's own Radeon 9800 XT and Asus' take on the card.  Today on HotHardware.Com, we're going to get up close and personal with Sapphire's version, the Atlantis Radeon 9800 XT 256MB.  This card sports all of the same features as ATi's model, but lacks the ViVo functionality found on Asus' card.  Sapphire's card, however, is available at a somewhat lower price point, and includes some extras not found with competing products.  Read on for the full report...

Specifications & Features of The Sapphire Atlantis Radeon 9800 XT
ATi's Current Flagship GPU


RADEON 9800 XT Visual Processing Unit (VPU)
412MHz Core Clock

256MB of DDR SDRAM - 730MHz DDR

- Eight parallel rendering pipelines process up to 3.3 billion pixels per second
- Four parallel geometry engines process up to 380 million transformed and lit polygons per second
- High precision 10-bit per channel frame buffer support
- 256-bit DDR memory interface
- AGP 8X support

- Full support for Microsoft® DirectX® 9.0 programmable pixel and vertex shaders in hardware
- 2.0 Pixel Shaders support up to 16 textures per rendering pass
- 2.0 Vertex Shaders support vertex programs with an unlimited number of instructions and flow control
- 128-bit per pixel floating point color formats
- Multiple Render Target (MRT) support
- Shadow volume rendering acceleration
- Complete feature set also supported in OpenGL via extensions

- State-of-the-art full-scene anti-aliasing
- New technology processes up to 18.2 billion anti-aliased samples per second for unprecedented performance
- Supports 2x, 4x, and 6x modes with programmable sample patterns
- Advanced anisotropic filtering
- Supports up to 16 bilinear samples (in performance mode) or trilinear samples (in quality mode) per pixel
- 2x/4x/6x full scene anti-aliasing modes
- Adaptive algorithm with programmable sample patterns
- 2x/4x/8x/16x anisotropic filtering modes
- Adaptive algorithm with bilinear (performance) and trilinear (quality) options
- Bandwidth-saving algorithm enables this feature with minimal performance cost

- Hierarchical Z-Buffer and Early Z Test reduce overdraw by detecting and discarding hidden pixels
- Lossless Z-Buffer Compression and Fast Z-Buffer Clear reduce memory bandwidth consumption by over 50%
- Fast Z-Buffer Clear
- 8.8 : 1 Compression Ratio
- Optimized Z-Cache for enhanced performance of shadow volumes

- 2nd generation N-patch higher order surface support
- Discrete and continuous tessellation levels per polygon for dynamic LOD
- DirectX 9.0 displacement mapping

- Seamless integration of programmable pixel shaders with video data
- High quality, hardware accelerated de-blocking of internet streaming video
- Noise removal filter for captured video
- Integrated MPEG-2 decode
- Hardware accelerated iDCT, motion compensation, and color space conversion
- Top quality DVD and all-format DTV/HDTV decode with low CPU overhead
- Back-end scaler delivers top quality playback
- Upscaling and downscaling with 4-tap horizontal and vertical filtering
- Filtered display of images up to 1920 pixels wide
- Unique per-pixel adaptive de-interlacing feature combines the best elements of the ?bob? and ?add-field? (weave) techniques

FULLSTREAM? video de-blocking technology
- Noise removal filtering for captured video
- MPEG-2 decoding with motion compensation, iDCT and color space conversion
- All-format DTV/HDTV decoding
- YPrPb component output
- Adaptive de-interlacing and frame rate conversion
- Dual integrated display controllers
- Dual integrated 10-bit per channel 400MHz DACs
- Integrated 165 MHz TMDS transmitter (DVI and HDCP compliant)
- Integrated TV Output support up to 1024x768 resolution
- Optimized for Pentium® 4 SSE2 and AMD Athlon? 3Dnow!
- PC 2002 compliant

- Dual integrated display controllers
- Drive two displays simultaneously with independent resolutions and refresh rates
- HYDRAVISION? software provides complete control over multi-display configurations with a user-friendly interface
- Dual integrated 10-bit per channel palette DACs operating at up to 400MHz
- Integrated 165MHz TMDS transmitter supports resolutions up to QXGA (2048x1536) and complies with DVI and HDCP specifications
- Integrated TV-Out support up to 1024x768 resolution
- YPrPb output for direct drive of HDTV monitors

- 15-pin VGA connector for analog CRT
- S-video or composite connector for TV/VCR
- DVI-I connector for digital CRT or flat panel
- Independent resolutions and refresh rates for any two connected displays


- Comprehensive 2x, 4x, and 8x AGP support
- High performance quad-channel DDR or DDR2 memory interface supports 64/128/256MB configurations
- Fully compliant with PC 2002 requirements
- Optimized for Pentium® 4 SSE2 and AMD Athlon? 3Dnow! processor instructions
- Supports optional THEATER? 200 companion chip for NTSC/PAL/SECAM video capture
- Highly optimized 128-bit 2D engine with support for new Windows® XP GDI extensions

The Bundle:


By now, we all know that a voucher for Valve's highly anticipated first person shooter Half Life 2 is being bundled with all ATi Radeon 9800 XTs, but with the Atlantis Radeon 9800 XT Sapphire took things a step further.  Not only are owners greeted by the coupon for Half Life 2, but they'll also find a full copy of Eidos' Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness as well.  That's about $100 worth of games for those that are counting, and yet there's still a bit more.  One of the best pieces of DVD playback software is also bundled with this card, Cyberlink's excellent PowerDVD.  Obviously, a driver CD is also included with the Atlantis 9800 XT, as well as another CD containing Sapphire's proprietary Redline overclocking / tweaking utility.  Rounding out the bundle is a user's manual, composite and S-Video cables, an S-Video to composite adapter, a 4-Pin Molex power cable splitter and lastly a DVI-to-DB15 adapter, for those looking to connect dual analog monitors to the card.

The Card & Some Screenshots

The Sapphire Atlantis 9800XT - Page 2

The Sapphire Atlantis 9800XT
Up Close and Personal with Sapphire's Radeon 9800 XT 256MB

By, Marco Chiappetta
December 30, 2003

When manufacturing video cards, most companies tend to adhere strictly to the chip maker's reference designs (which isn't necessarily a bad thing).  This is the case with Sapphire's Atlantis Radeon 9800 XT.  The only thing that differentiates this product from a "Built by ATi" Radeon 9800 XT, is the "Sapphire" decal adorning the fan guard.

The Sapphire Atlantis Radeon 9800XT
Up Close and Personal




Like ATi's own Radeon 9800 XT, this card is outfitted with a large, all copper heatsink on the front that cools not only the GPU, but the 256MB of RAM on the card as well.  The cooler is equipped with an 80mm-ish, variable-speed fan that pushes quite a bit of air, while operating at near-silent levels.  The cooler isn't completely silent, but it is inaudible next to a stock Pentium 4 heatsink for example, and it requires only a single slot, unlike some competing high-end products.  Cooling the RAM on the back of the card is handled by a copper heat-plate, that actually makes contact with the rear of the GPU as well.  On the back of the card, a metal clip is used to keeps the heat plate pressed firmly against the backside of the GPU.  This clip could use a redesign, however, as it can easily be removed with one finger.  Luckily, this simple clip is not the only thing keeping the coolers in place.  There are also two spring-loaded screws (visible in the second to last picture) that secure the entire assembly together and ensure the plates are properly mated.  As you can see on the external plate, the Sapphire Atlantis Radeon 9800 XT has a single DB15 analog monitor output, along with DVI and TV-Out connectors.  Using the supplied adapter, this card can drive dual independent analog displays, or a single analog and single digital display simultaneously.  Owners of this card will also need to supply it with additional power, so make sure you've got an extra 4-pin Molex connector available in your system.  If not, don't fret - Sapphire includes a power cable splitter with the card.

Screenshots of Sapphire's Redline Utility v1.93
Lots of Options




As we mentioned earlier, Sapphire bundles a copy of their Redline utility with the Atlantis Radeon 9800 XT.  We normally don't get very excited over these proprietary, bundled apps, but we found the Redline utility to be quite useful.  With this application, users can tweak virtually every driver setting, along with some more advanced options that aren't available from within ATi's drivers alone.  Specific setting profiles are set for some popular games and benchmarking applications, which makes it easy to bounce between different options without having to manually configure each setting manually.  Users can also overclock their card with the Redline utility, with simple sliders available on the "Overclocking" tab.  Generally we found the Redline utility to a solid software addition and think it does add some value to the package, but we do have some gripes. 

First, the font used on all of the menus is a bit "cartoon like" for our taste.  There are other easier to read fonts that could have been used but this is a subjective issue so we won't dwell too much on it.  Secondly, the copy included with out card wasn't compatible with the Atlantis Radeon 9800 XT.  We had to download a new copy from Sapphire and request an installation code from their technical support department to get it working.  Obviously, we were able to get the Redline utility up and running, as is evident by the above screenshots, but Sapphire needs to take care of this problem with the bundle, to prevent end users from having to jump through hoops just to use the utility.

In-Game Screenshots With The Sapphire Atlantis Radeon 9800 XT
Call of Duty

For more comprehensive image quality comparisons between a Radeon 9800 XT and GeForce FX 5950 Ultra, Click Here.





You can't evaluate a video card using benchmarks alone, so before we got down to the business of testing the Sapphire Atlantis Radeon 9800 XT's performance, we spent some time with a few popular games.  There's no point is dropping serious money on a video card, if the games you want to play don't look the way you would like them to, especially when there are so many options at the moment.  We played some Medal of Honor, Max Payne 2 and Need For Speed: Underground with the Atlantis 9800 XT and every one of these games looked and played great.  We found these games ran best at 1280x1024 with 4X AA and 16X anisotropic filtering, with all of the in-game options maxed out, but your tastes may vary.  To demonstrate what Call of Duty looked like on this card, we snapped off a few screen shots at 1024x768, with the same settings we use while benchmarking (No AA, 4X AA, 6X AA and 4X AA + 8X Aniso).  Pay special attention to the wires dangling between the building, and you'll get a good idea of the benefits of anti-aliasing.  Looks pretty good, doesn't it?  The same can be said for Aniso Filtering.  Look at the cobblestones in the street area around the building.  The benefits are obvious and dramatic for both AA and AF.

The Test System, AquaMark3 & Halo

The Sapphire Atlantis 9800XT - Page 3

The Sapphire Atlantis 9800XT
Up Close and Personal with Sapphire's Radeon 9800 XT 256MB

By, Marco Chiappetta
December 30, 2003

Benchmarks With Unreal Tournament 2003
DX8 Performance

Unreal Tournament 2003

Epic's Unreal Tournament series has consistently been one of the most popular first person shooters, and by no coincidence is it also one of the most commonly used video card benchmarks.  We continued our DirectX benchmarking with a completely patched, retail version Unreal Tournament 2003.  When benchmarking with UT2003, we use a utility that ensures all of the cards are being tested with the exact same in-game settings and "High-Quality" graphical options. We ran the UT2003 benchmarks at resolutions of 1024x768 and 1600x1200, without anti-aliasing and then again with 4X and 6X AA enabled.  We kept Anisotropic filtering disabled here because NVIDIA and ATi aren't doing the same level of trilinear filtering when aniso and trilinear are enabled together.

In all but two test scenarios, the Sapphire Atlantis Radeon 9800 XT was the best performer in the Unreal Tournament 2003 benchmark.  At 1024x768, using every level of anti-aliasing, the Sapphire card outperformed the competition.  When we raised the resolution to 1600x1200, Sapphire's 9800 XT again outran the Asus card and the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra when 6X AA was enabled, but when no anti-aliasing or 4X anti-aliasing was used the 5950 Ultra was the victor.

Head-to-Head Performance With Splinter Cell
Stealth Pixel Shading

Splinter Cell

Splinter Cell's version 1.2 patch includes three demos in addition to a benchmarking feature.  The demos included with the patch at somewhat limited by CPU performance, however, so we used a custom Oil Rig demo created by the folks at Beyond 3D to test with this game.  Beyond 3D's demo removes two CPU intensive routines while increasing dependence on Pixel Shader performance.  Shaders are used to render the realistic looking ocean water surrounding the Oil Rig in the demo, as well as simulating a night vision effect.  As we've mentioned in the past, anti-aliasing doesn't work with Splinter cell (at least with the current version).  Due to this fact, we do not have any AA scores listed in the graphs below.

It was another strong showing for the Radeon 9800 XTs in the Splinter Cell benchmark.  The GeForce FX 5950 Ultra was about 8.9% slower than the Sapphire Radeon 9800 XT at 1024x768.  With the resolution turned up to 1600x1200, the gap widened a bit with the Sapphire card surging ahead of the 5950 Ultra by almost 14%.  The GeForce FX 5700 Ultra obviously it couldn't keep up with the heavy-hitters in this test, but at less than half the cost, its not really expected to.  We've included the scores in this review simply as a point of reference.

Final Fantasy & Gun Metal Tests

The Sapphire Atlantis 9800XT - Page 4

The Sapphire Atlantis 9800XT
Up Close and Personal with Sapphire's Radeon 9800 XT 256MB

By, Marco Chiappetta
December 30, 2003

Performances Comparisons With Final Fantasy XI Benchmark 2 v1.01
Chocobos on the PC

Final Fantasy XI

Final Fantasy is a title that is well known to console gamers, and now Squaresoft is ready to make the jump to the PC, with a MMORPG version of the classic. The Final Fantasy XI benchmark runs through a few scenes from the game and displays a final score every time a full cycle is completed.  Although the demo is meant the check an entire system's readiness to play the game, the number of frames rendered in the demo scales well with different video cards installed.  Lower scores indicate some frames were dropped to complete the demo in the allotted time.  The scores below were taken with the demo set to "High Resolution" (1024x768), with anti-aliasing disabled. 

The Sapphire Atlantis Radeon 9800 XT performed very well in the Final Fantasy benchmark, outpacing all of the other cards we tested.  It beat the Asus Radeon 9800 XT by 19 frames, and pulled ahead of the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra by 282 frames, or roughly 5%.  The GeForce FX 5700 Ultra performed at a level much closer to the high-end cards in this test; it seems like $175 can buy quite a bit of performance these days.

Benchmarks / Comparison With Gun Metal
Transformers? Thexder? or is it Gun Metal?

Gun Metal

We continued our testing with the DX9 based Gun Metal benchmark developed by Yeti Studios. This benchmark, like all of the others used in this review, is based on an actual game engine.  Gun Metal uses Vertex Shader 2.0 and Pixel Shader 1.1 ops in the creation of the game world.  This test is heavily GPU limited, and because Yeti's intent was to stress all modern 3D accelerators, anti-aliasing (2X) and Anisotropic filtering are enabled by default, and cannot be disabled.  We ran this test at 1024x768 and then again at 1280x1024.

The 9800XTs and GeForce FX 5950 Ultra performed at very similar levels in the Gun Metal benchmark.  At 1024x768, a miniscule performance delta of .64 FPS separated the first from third place finisher.  We saw more of the same at 1280x1204, where the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra pulled ahead of the Sapphire Atlantis Radeon 9800 XT by only .67 FPS.  Its amazing what a few driver revisions can do.  When this benchmark was first released, NVIDIA's cards were dominant.  Now the virtual playing field is level.

Next Up: Comanche 4 & Wolfenstein

The Sapphire Atlantis 9800XT - Page 5

The Sapphire Atlantis 9800XT
Up Close and Personal with Sapphire's Radeon 9800 XT 256MB

By, Marco Chiappetta
December 30, 2003

Performances Comparisons With Novalogic's Comanche 4
Combat Helicopter Sim

Comanche 4

We used Novalogic's combat helicopter simulator Comanche 4 for our next batch of DirectX benchmarks. Comanche 4 uses DX8 class pixel and vertex shaders to produce some of the realistic visuals used throughout the game. Unlike some of the previous tests, this benchmark is heavily influenced by CPU and system memory performance, especially at lower resolutions. However, when the resolution is raised and anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering are enabled, the current crop of video cards tend to slow down quite a bit.

With the resolution set to 1024x768 in the Comanche 4 benchmark, all of the cards performed similarly.  With 4X AA enabled at the same resolution, the 9800 XTs and 5950 Ultra held the same pace, but the 5700 Ultra's performance dropped off quite a bit.  When we enabled 6X AA, however, the Radeon 9800 XTs walk away with a decisive win, but they lost some ground when 8X anisotropic filtering was enabled along with 4X AA.  The graph representing the performance levels at 1600x1200 somewhat mirrors what we saw at 1024x768, but at the higher resolution, the GeForce was able to nudge ahead of the 9800 XTs by a few frames per second when 4X AA and 8X aniso were enabled simultaneously.

Benchmarks / Comparison With Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory
Q3 Engine Based Freebie

Wolfenstein: ET

We also ran through a batch of timedemos with the OpenGL game Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory.  Wolfenstein: ET is a free, standalone multiplayer game that is based on the original Return to Castle Wolfenstein, which was released a few years back.  It uses a heavily modified version of the Quake 3 engine which makes it a very easy to use benchmarking tool.  We created a custom demo and used the built-in timedemo feature to check each card's frame rate.  The tests below were run at 1024x768 and again at 1600x1200, without anti-aliasing, with 4X AA and again with 4X AA and 8X anisotropic filtering.

Both of the Radeon 9800 XTs performed well in our custom Wolfenstein Enemy Territory benchmark, with the Sapphire card pulling slightly ahead of the Asus card, but the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra dominated here.  At both resolution, regardless of what level of anti-aliasing or anisotropic filtering was used, the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra held onto a sizable lead.  The GeForce FX 5700 Ultra also performed well, almost catching the Radeon 9800 XTs at 1024x768.

Tomb Raider: AOD, Overclocking & Our Final Analysis

The Sapphire Atlantis 9800XT - Page 6

The Sapphire Atlantis 9800XT
Up Close and Personal with Sapphire's Radeon 9800 XT 256MB

By, Marco Chiappetta
December 30, 2003

Head-to-Head Performance With Tomb Raider: AOD
Lara is Back! As Crappy as Ever!

Tomb Raider: AOD

Although Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness won't be winning any "Game of the Year" awards, it is one of the more advanced DirectX games currently available.  We've recorded a custom demo of Lara jogging through an indoor garden area of the "Prague3" map. When using the Pixel Shader 2.0 code path, this area of the game utilizes a DOF (depth of field) blurring effect to enhance your sense of depth and size. We ran our custom demo at 1024x768 and again at 1600x1200 using both the Pixel Shader 1.4 and 2.0 code paths (with and without 4x anti-aliasing in the PS 2.0 tests).

When using the Pixel Shader 1.4 code path (DirectX 8.1), the Radeon 9800 XTs and GeForce FX 5950 Ultra maintained similar frame rates (as expected the 5700 Ultra performed much lower).  However, when using the Pixel Shader 2.0 code path the Radeon 9800 XTs performed much better than the competition, outpacing the 5950 Ultra by roughly 30% at both resolutions.  When we enabled 4X anti-aliasing, the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra gained some ground, but it still couldn't come close to the Radeon 9800 XTs.

Overclocking With The Sapphire Atlantis Radeon 9800XT
Fast is Good.  Faster is Better!

Sapphire's Redline Utility

By including their custom "Redline" overclocking / tweaking utility, Sapphire almost ensures that all of their customers will easily be able to overclock their cards.  Whether they included their utility or not, however, we would have taken this card to its limit, because that's the kind of people we are here!  Sure, the Sapphire Atlantis Radeon 9800 XT is fast, but if there's more performance to be had by overclocking, we're going after it!  Ultimately, we were able to squeeze quite a bit of extra performance from our card, take a look...

We raised the Atlantis Radeon 9800 XT's core and memory clock speeds until we began to see visual artifacts in our benchmarks and then brought it back down to a speed that was both stable and glitch free.  In the end, we brought the card's core clock speed up to 445MHz (up from 412MHz), and the memory clock speed up to 398MHz - 796MHz DDR (up from 364MHz).  With the card overclocked, we ran the Gun Metal benchmark again at 1280x1024 and saw a 9.6% performance gain.  Interestingly enough, while overclocked, the Sapphire Radeon 9800 XT surpassed the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra by a tiny margin, something it was not able to do at default speeds, in this specific benchmark. 

We should also mention that we experimented with ATi's Overdrive feature a bit as well.  With Overdrive enabled, our GPU core was automatically overclocked to only 418MHz, while the memory clock stayed at default.  Not very exciting to say the least but this is by design for all 9800XT cards and a guaranteed stable setting by ATi.  Hardcore enthusiasts will likely go the way of Sapphire's Redline or other utilities, to unlock more of the card's potential.

If you look at the Sapphire Atlantis Radeon 9800 XT in the proper context, you can't help but be impressed by it.  At roughly $430, the Atlantis 9800 XT isn't cheap, but it is less expensive than similar cards, and only slightly more expensive than some 5950 Ultras (Asus 9800XT = $480 / ATi 9800XT = $435 / FX 5950 Ultra $410).  Sapphire has also done a good job with the card's bundle, including their proprietary Redline utility and one up-to-date game, along with a voucher for Half Life 2.  As is the case with all Radeon 9800 XTs, image quality in games, 2D and DVD playback is top-notch and looking at the graphs, its obvious this card is an excellent performer as well.  The only thing we stuggled over with the Sapphire Atlantis 9800 XT, was the simple installation problem we had with the Redline utility, but this was easily resolved after a simple update download.  Ultimately, we were very pleased with the Sapphire Atlantis Radeon 9800 XT and are giving it a solid 9 on the HotHardware Heat Meter.  If you can afford it, you will definitely enjoy gaming with this card.

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