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Sapphire Radeon X850 Pro 256MB PCI Express
Date: Jun 13, 2005
Author: Jeff Bouton
Introduction and Product Specifications

Today, we're going to take a look at the Sapphire Radeon X850 Pro PCI Express Graphics Card.  The X850 Pro follows ATI's reference design closely, sporting 12-Pixel Pipelines and 256MB of GDDR3 memory.  Based on the R480, the X850 Pro offers several advantages over the R423, the core driving the X800 series.  Like the R423, the R480 is built on a 130nm manufacturing process, but with a refined core that has been reworked for lower power requirements and higher yields.  Aside from that, the R480's base design is not all that different from its predecessor.

The Radeon X850 Pro 256MB from Sapphire aims to bring the features of the X850 to the mid-range consumer, offering a solid gaming experience while weighing in about $160 less than the high end Platinum Editions and $110 less than the standard X850 XT, the 16-Pixel Pipe equivalent to the Pro.  On the surface, the card initially appeared to be a standard X850 Pro, but as we dug deeper, we did find that the Sapphire edition deviated from the reference design somewhat.  Let's get down to business and see what the Sapphire Radeon X850 Pro 256MB is all about.

Specifications of the Sapphire Radeon X850 Pro 256MB PCI Express

Technology Features
* Radeon X850 Pro VPU @ 506MHz
* 256MB of GDDR3 memory @ 1040MHz
* 256-bit memory interface
* 12 parallel pixel pipelines
* PCI Express x16 lane native support or *AGP Models*
* Dual display support
* Dual integrated 400MHz DAC's
* 2048x1536 @ 85Hz Maximum Resolution
* S-Video TV-out port
* Full support for DirectX 9.0 and the latest OpenGL 2.0 functionality
* SMARTSHADER HD technology
* SMOOTHVISION HD technology
* 3Dc High quality 4:1 Normal Map Compression delivers beautiful scenes without the performance hit.
* Unique VIDEOSHADER HD engine uses programmable pixel shaders to accelerate video processing and provide better-looking visuals
* HYPER Z HD is optimized for performance at high display resolutions, including widescreen HDTV resolutions.

Display Features
*Dual integrated display controllers
*Dual integrated 10 bit per channel 400 MHz DACs
*Integrated 165 MHz TMDS transmitter (DVI 1.0 compliant / HDMI interoperable and HDCP ready)
*Integrated TV Output support up to 1024x768 resolution
*YPrPb component output for HDTV display connection*
*Single and dual link external TMDS transmitter support for high resolution and/or multi-monitor DVI configurations
*Compatible with ATI's THEATER™ video decode and capture devices for VIVO (Video Input / Video Output) configurations
*Redline Tweak Utility
*Splinter Cell - Pandora Tomorrow
*Prince of Persia - The Sands of Time
*CyberLink PowerDirector 3D
*CyberLink PowerDVD 5 2 Channel Edition

Retail Package

The Sapphire Radeon X850 Pro 256MB came with a solid retail bundle, chock-full of extras.  The bundled software included Sapphire's Redline Tweak Utility, Splinter Cell - Pandora Tomorrow, Prince of Persia - The Sands of Time, CyberLink PowerDirector 3D, and CyberLink PowerDVD 5 2 Channel Edition.  There is also a User Guide that focuses mainly on driver installation using the included setup CD.


The package also comes with ample cabling to take advantage of the card's VIVO functionality.  There was an S-Video cable, Composite cable , Input Cable and YPrPb component output cables for HDTV connection included.  Lastly, was a power adapter to marry a standard molex power supply connector to the card's power block.  Completing the bundle was a DVI-to-VGA adapter.

Redline Tweak Utility

Redline Tweak Utility is a comprehensive tool for customizing, tweaking, overclocking and doing whatever else you can think of to your ATI based graphics card.  The menus are plentiful and so are the options.  In fact, the casual user may find that there are too many options to play with.  Don't fret, though.  The menus are structured clearly with good organization, so it shouldn't take too long to get the hang of it.



In a nutshell, Redline Tweak Utility offers a window into the inner setting of the graphics card.  The Direct 3D and OpenGL tabs mirror the setting available in ATI's Catalyst drivers.  The Drivers tab gives another avenue into the drivers settings, most of which are also available in the Catalyst driver set.  The real strength is the utility's ability to maintain profiles for multiple games, for greater fine tuning in certain situations.  Additionally, the tool offers a good overclocking tab that can automatically scan for maximum settings as well as artifacts.

Closer Inspection and Image Quality
The Sapphire Radeon X850 Pro 256MB Up Close
Closer Inspection

The Sapphire Radeon X850 Pro graphics card follows the ATI reference design to a "T".  In fact, the only discernable difference was the Sapphire label on the cooler.  The R480 core of the Sapphire model comes clocked slower than the reference 520MHz though, dialing in at 506MHz.  Additionally, the 256MB of GDDR3 memory was clocked at 1040MHz DDR, 40MHz slower than ATI's reference specifications of 1080MHz.  We're not entirely sure what the reasoning was for Sapphire's conservative approach to clock speed, but as we'll address at the end of this review, there could be a fair degree of confusion that will ultimately leave the end user coming up short.


The heatsink/cooling package was a slim design that drew air in at the fan and exhausted toward the rear of the card, ejecting the warm air into the path of case fan airflow.  The assembly was a three piece design that consisted of fan and base on the one side and memory plate and retention clip on the other.  The base was mainly aluminum with a copper core over the GPU.  The memory modules and GPU had an even layer of thermal pasted applied to help with proper heat conductivity.  Overall, the fan was fairly quiet and effective, although under load, the card got quite warm to the touch.


The memory chips installed on the card were Samsung K4J55323QF-GC16s rated for 1200MHz DDR, meaning we should have a little extra headroom available in the overclocking department.  The VIVO features of the Sapphire Radeon X850 Pro 256MB were handled by ATI's Rage Theater chip mounted on the rear of the PCB.  The front of the card sported the familiar combination of VGA, DVI and VIVO ports, while the rear end was equipped with a single power input which married up to the power adapter included in the package.

Image Quality with the Sapphire Radeon X850 Pro 256MB
For the Fun of It

Before we segue into the benchmarking segment of this review, let's take a moment to assess image quality with the Sapphire Radeon X850 Pro 256MB.  To do this, we loaded FarCry, a house favorite here at HotHardware, in an effort to demonstrate quality with various filtering methods enabled.

X850 Pro - No AA / No Aniso
X850 Pro - 4X AA / 8X Aniso
X850 Pro - 6X AA / 16X Aniso

With the first image we can see the effects of no Antialiasing or Anisotropic Filtering being applied.  We see jagged edges on the top of the gun, where the glove edge meets the wrist and the island shores, especially visible on the left of the image.  When we turned on 4X Antialiasing and 8X Anisotropic Filtering, we saw a marked improvement in all three areas and the forest in the distance also gained more detail.  With the setting set to their maximum, the image sharpened nicely, with the highest level of detail and much sharper edges throughout the image.

HH Test Platform, Benchmarking with FFXI and 3DMark05
HotHardware's Test System
Not all are created equal...

Pentium D 820 at 2.8GHz
Intel D945GTPLR system board
(Intel 945G Chipset)
2x512MB PQI24200 Turbo Memory DDR2-533
CL 3-3-3-8
Sapphire Radeon X850 Pro 256MB (506/1040)
Gigabyte X800 Turbo 256MB (400/988)
HIS X700 Pro 256MB (460/960)

On-board Ethernet
On-board Audio
7200 RPM IDE
Windows XP Pro SP-2

DirectX 9.0c
ATI Catalyst 5.5

Performances Comparisons With Final Fantasy XI Benchmark 3
A Classic Console Franchise On The PC

Final Fantasy XI
The Final Fantasy franchise is well known to console gamers, but Squaresoft has since made the jump to the PC with a MMORPG version of this classic. The Final Fantasy XI benchmark 3 runs through multiple scenes from the game and displays a final score every time a full cycle of the demo is completed. Although the demo is meant the check an entire system's readiness to play the game, the number of frames rendered scales when different video cards are used. 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 its "High Resolution" option (1024x768), with anti-aliasing disabled.

With Final Fantasy XI's Benchmark 3, there was little differentiation between the three cards tested.  The Sapphire X850 Pro and Gigabyte X800 Turbo were neck-in-neck while the HIS X700 Pro trailed by 250 points.

Performance Comparisons With 3DMark05
Futuremark's Latest - The Jury is Still Out...

3DMark05 is the latest installment in a long line of synthetic 3D graphics benchmarks, dating back to late 1998.  3DMark99 came out in October of 1998 and was followed by the very popular DirectX 7 benchmark, 3DMark2000, roughly two years later.  The DirectX 8.1-compliant 3DMark2001 was released shortly thereafter, and it too was a very popular tool used by many hardcore gamers.  3DMark03, however, wasn't quite as well received thanks in no small part to the disapproval of graphics giant NVIDIA.  With 3DMark05, though, Futuremark hopes to win back some of its audience with a very advanced DirectX 9 benchmarking tool.  We ran 3DMark05's default test (1,024 x 768) on all of the cards we tested and have the overall results for you posted below...

3DMark05 showed a much broader variation in scores than we saw with Final Fantasy.  With the X850 and X800 cards, it was all about the clockspeed, with the X850 Pro benefiting from a 106MHz core advantage over the X800.  The 8-Pixel Pipe X700 Pro trailed the X850 Pro byclose to 1750 3DMarks.

Benchmarks with Halo
Benchmarks with Halo
Halo - All Patched & Ready To Go!

For many gamers, the release of Halo marked the end of a long wait, since it was originally released as an Xbox exclusive a few years back. No additional patches or tweaks are needed to benchmark with Halo, as Gearbox has included all of the necessary information in their README file. The Halo benchmark runs through four of the cut-scenes from the game, after which the average frame rate is recorded. We patched the game using the latest v1.06 patch and ran this benchmark twice, once at 1024x768 and then again at 1600x1200. Anti-aliasing doesn't work properly with Halo at the moment, so all of the test below were run with anti-aliasing disabled.

Halo proved to be a balanced performer at 1024x768, allowing both X8xx cards to stay within a frame of each other.  Only the X700 Pro dropped below 60 FPS, trailing the X8xx's by approximately 25 FPS.  At 1600x1200, the X850 Pro took a slight lead over the slower clocked X800 Turbo.  The 8-Pixel Pipe X700 Pro slid closer to 20 FPS at this resolution.

Performances Comparisons With Splinter Cell
Performances Comparisons With Splinter Cell
Stealthy Combat

Splinter Cell
Splinter Cell's version 1.2 patch includes three pre-recorded demos and incorporates a previously unavailable benchmarking tool. The demos included with the patch are somewhat limited by CPU performance, however, so we opted for the 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 realistic looking ocean water surrounding an Oil Rig in the demo, as well as simulating a night vision effect for a brief period. Also note that anti-aliasing doesn't work with Splinter Cell. Due to this fact, we do not have any AA scores listed in the graphs below.

At 1024x768, the 12-Pixel Pipe cards had no trouble hitting the 70 FPS mark, while the X700 Pro couldn't touch 45 FPS.  At 1600x1200, the X850 Pro and X800 Turbo kept things close, with the X800 trailing by 4 FPS.  As expected, the X700 continued to be outpaced, lagging 15-20 FPS overall.

Performance Comparisons With Aquamark 3
Performance Comparisons With Aquamark 3
DX8 and DX9 Shaders

Aquamark 3
Aquamark 3 comes to us by way of Massive Development. Massive's release of the original Aquanox in 1999 wasn't very well received by the gaming community, but it was one of the first games to implement DX8 class shaders, which led to the creation of Aquamark 2 - a benchmark previously used by many analysts. Since the Aquamark benchmarks are based on an actual game engine, they must support old and new video cards alike. Thus, the latest version of Aquamark, Aquamark 3, utilizes not only DirectX 9 class shaders, but DirectX 8 and DirectX 7 as well. We ran this benchmark at resolutions of 1024x768 and 1600x1200 with no anti-aliasing followed by 4X AA and 8X anisotropic filtering.

We continued to see the same performance trend, with the Sapphire X850 Pro having an edge over the X800 Turbo.  The margins were broader at 1024x768, with the differences hovering in the 6 FPS range while 1600x1200 scores narrowed to 4 FPS.

Head-to-Head Performance With Unreal Tournament 2004
Head-to-Head Performance With Unreal Tournament 2004
Epic's Next Smash Hit!

Unreal Tournament 2K4
Epic's "Unreal" games have been wildly popular, ever since the original Unreal was released in the late '90s. Unreal, Unreal Tournament, and then Unreal Tournament 2003, rapidly became some of our favorites, for both benchmarking, and for killing a few hours when our schedules allowed it! Epic recently released the latest addition to the franchise, Unreal Tournament 2004. We used the demo version of the game to benchmark these cards at resolutions of 1024x768 and 1600x1200, without any anti-aliasing, followed by 4X AA and 8X anisotropic filtering.

UT2004 was a tight race for the two X8xx Radeons.  At both resolutions tested, each the X800 ran within 3 FPS of the X850 Pro.  At 1024x768, the Radeon X700 Pro faired well with NO AA, but suffered with filtering enabled and at the higher 1600x1200 resolution.

Benchmarks & Comparisons With Far Cry
Benchmarks & Comparisons With Far Cry
DX9 Effects Galore.

Far Cry
If you've been on top of the gaming scene, you probably know that Far Cry is one of the most visually impressive games to be released on the PC to date.  Although Doom 3 and Half Life 2 have both arrived, Far Cry still looks great in comparison, especially with the new v1.3 patch installed and some special effects turned on.  Far Cry came along and gave us a taste of what was to come in next-generation 3D gaming on the PC.  We benchmarked the graphics cards in this review with a custom-recorded demo run taken in the "Catacombs" area checkpoint at various resolutions without AA or Aniso Filtering enabled and then with 4X AA enabled along with 8X anisotropic filtering.  Geometry instancing and normal map compression were enabled for these tests, but HDR rending was disabled.  The default pixel shader code path was used.

All three Radeons offered comperable performance at 1024x768, but once we enabled AA and Anisotropic Filtering the X700 took a major hit.  The X800 also dropped somewhat, while the X850 Pro maintained a narrow lead.  At 1600x1200, the X700 continued to be outpaced, while the X850 Pro held a firm lead over both comparison cards.

Benchmarks & Comparisons With Doom 3 - Single Player
Benchmarks & Comparisons With Doom 3 - Single Player
In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb.

Doom 3
id Software's games have long been pushing the limits of 3D graphics.  Quake, Quake 2, and Quake 3 were all instrumental in the success of 3D accelerators on the PC.  Now, years later, with virtually every new desktop computer shipping with a 3D accelerator, id is at it again with the release of the visually stunning Doom 3.  Doom 3 is an OpenGL game using extremely high-detailed textures and a ton of dynamic lighting and shadows.  We ran this benchmark using custom demos with Doom 3 set to its "High-Quality" mode, at resolutions of 1,024 x 768 and 1600 x 1200 without any AA and then with 4X antialiasing and 8X anisotropic filtering enabled.  Note: Doom 3 enabled 8X anisotropic filtering automatically when set to "High Quality" in the game's control panel.

With our Doom 3 Single-Player test, we saw some of the widest variances in scores we've seen thus far between the X8xx series cards.  At 1024x768, the X850 held a solid 14 FPS lead in No AA testing and a 9 FPS lead with the 4X AA/8X Aniso Test.  At 1600x1200, the margins narrowed a bit, with the X850 holding a 7 FPS lead in No AA testing and a mere 1 FPS lead with 4X AA/8X Aniso testing.

Benchmarks & Comparisons With Doom 3 - Multi-player
Benchmarks & Comparisons With Doom 3 - Multi-player
The Wait Is Over!.

Doom 3
The first round of Doom 3 focused on single-player performance.  In this round we'll run a series of multiplayer tests and see how things unfold.  These timedemos were run with our custom "HH_Frag2" demo, which is a recording of a five-player online match that took place in the "Frag Chamber" map area. We ran benchmarks with Doom 3 set to its "High-Quality" mode at resolutions of 1,024 x 768 and 1600 x 1200 without any anti-aliasing enabled and then with 4X AA and 8X Aniso enabled concurrently.  Note: Doom 3 enabled 8X anisotropic filtering automatically when set to "High Quality" in the game's control panel.

We saw more of the same behavior with the Multi-Player test as we saw with the Single-Player module.  At 1024x768, the X850 Pro maintained an even 11 FPS lead in both tests.  At 1600x1200, the No AA test differences were 10.5 FPS while the 4X AA/8X Aniso test tightened up to a 3 FPS difference.

Benchmarks & Comparisons With Half-Life 2
Benchmarks & Comparisons With Half-Life 2
It Shipped!  And it's GOOD!

Half Life 2
Thanks to the dedication of millions of gamers and a huge mod-community, the original Half-Life became one of the most successful first person shooters of all time.  So when Valve announced Half-Life 2 was close to completion in mid 2003, gamers the world over began chomping at the bit.  Unfortunately, thanks to a compromised internal network; the theft of a portion of the game's source code; a couple of missed deadlines; and a tumultuous relationship with the game's distributor, Vivendi Universal, we all had to wait until November 2004 to get our hands on this gem.  We benchmarked Half-Life 2 with a long, custom- recorded timedemo that takes us along a cliff and through a few dilapidated shacks, battling the enemy throughout.  These tests were run at resolutions of 1,280 x 1,024 and 1,600 x 1,200 without any AA or aniso and with 4X anti-aliasing and 8X anisotropic filtering enabled concurrently.

Running our Half-Life 2 timedemo at 1024x768 proved to be an easy challenge for all three cards tested, each of which topping triple-digit scores.  At 1600x1200, the test became more taxing, returning to a more familiar performance pattern.  The X850 Pro, running 105MHz faster core speed than the X800 Turbo, kept a 5-7 FPS lead over the X800.  The X700 Pro maintained an average 25 FPS gap compared to the Sapphire X850 Pro.

Overclocking and Final Thoughts
Overclocking the Sapphire Radeon X850 Pro 256MB PCI Express
Making The Fast Even Faster

To round out the benchmarking phase of this review, we loaded Sapphire's own Redline Tweak Utility to manually overclock the X850 Pro.

We tried the Find Max Mem and Core clock speeds with the Redline Tweak Utility, but found it took too long without giving some sign of progress.  Instead, we did things manually and ended up with a peak core speed of 585MHz, 79MHz over stock speeds, a boost of 15.61%.  The GDDR3 memory had a fair amount of headroom left as well, pushing from 520MHz (1040MHz DDR) to 600MHz (1200MHz DDR), exactly what the memory was rated for.  This resulted in an increase of 15.38% overall.  When we revisited our Half-Life 2 4X AA/ 8X Aniso test at 1600x1200, the added horsepower resulted in an increase in performance of roughly 6% in the end.

As we bring this review to a close, we need to look at the Sapphire Radeon X850 Pro from a couple of different angles.  First, we have the overall package and performance of the Sapphire Radeon X850 Pro 256MB to consider, which was impressive on both fronts.  The retail package was complete, with a solid complement of documentation and software backed by an equally complete collection of cables to take full advantage of the card's VIVO capabilities.  Performance was equally good, with solid numbers posted in all of our tests.  Overclocking the X850 Pro was also excellent, where we managed to achieve an impressive 79MHz increase in VPU speed, with the memory peaking at its rated speed of 1200MHz DDR.

The other things to consider are the clock speeds at which the X850 Pro comes clocked at from the factory.  ATI rates the X850 Pro at 520MHz core and 1080MHz memory, while the Sapphire card came in at 506MHz and 1040MHz, respectively.  Furthermore, Sapphire makes no mention of the card's clock speeds on their website.  However, most retailers we've seen that carry this card are claiming it's clocked at ATI's reference clock speeds.  To make sure our experience wasn't an anomaly, we searched the web for more information regarding the Sapphire Radeon X850 Pro and found some other publications listing the same range of clock speeds for this card.

Let's be clear, we are not saying Sapphire is doing anything deceptive with their Radeon X850 Pro 256MB card.  In fact, we saw the same clock speed discrepancy with the ASUS equivalent to this card, although ASUS clearly states actual clock speeds on their website.  What we're seeing is that most online retailers are making gross assumptions on the clock speeds of this particular card, listing ATI reference speeds rather than what the manufacturer has actually clocked the card at.

Fortunately, Sapphire's included Red Line Utility does make it easy to run the card at ATI's reference specifications - and then some.  Overall, we liked the Sapphire Radeon X850 Pro and find it to be a capable mid-to-high end graphics card.  However, with a current street price hovering around $350, there are better buys out there.  The 16-pipeline Radeon X800XL would be an excellent alternative, with its lower price and less demanding power requirements.  And if you have the funds, you may even want to invest a few more dollars and pick up a more powerful 16-pipe graphics card like a GeForce 6800GT or X850XT. 

We give the Sapphire Radeon X850 Pro 256MB a Hot Hardware Heat Meter rating of 7.

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