Sapphire HD 6870 Vapor-X Edition Review

Author: Chris Ledenican
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Sunday, February 6th, 2011
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Hardware/Reviews/Sapphire_HD6870_Vapor_X/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

Over the last few years both NVIDIA and AMD have started to allowed their partners to release custom designed graphics cards whenever a new reference design launches, but often it still takes a few months before the more exciting offerings hit the market. Each manufacturer has their own design and style when it comes to making a custom product; some companies chose to alter the clock speeds and thermal solutions, while others make changes at the PCB level. There are some companies, however, that improve upon a product in just about every way, as is the case with the popular Toxic and Vapor-X edition graphics cards designed by Sapphire.

The product that we are going to be looking in this review is part of the Vapor-X series, which uses Sapphire's custom design, built around a reference clocked Barts XT GPU. This card features Sapphire’s exclusive Vapor-X heatsink to ensure the core runs at its optimal efficiency level, along with a custom 10-phase power control and patented Black Diamond chokes. The improvements used on this model will allow the Vapor-X edition graphics card to have enhanced power efficiency and cooling capabilities while also increasing the total overclocking potential.

Along with the Vapor-X edition graphics card, Sapphire is also releasing a Toxic version of HD 6870 that utilizes the same thermal solution, but comes with increased clocks speeds of 970MHz for the core, and memory rated at 1150Mhz (4600MHz effective). This will give the consumer additional graphics processing power out-of-the-box, further improving price to performance ratio. Both of these cards do command a slight premium over the reference design, so we will have to take in-depth look at the Vapor-X to see exactly how the improvements affect the overall performance, acoustics and overclocking.

Specifications
Output 1 x Dual-Link DVI
1 x HDMI 1.4a
2 x Mini-DisplayPort
1 x Single-Link DVI-D
DisplayPort 1.2
GPU 900 MHz Core Clock
40 nm Chip
1120 x Stream Processors
Memory 1024 MB Size
256 -bit GDDR5
4200 MHz Effective
Software Driver CD
SAPPHIRE TriXX Utility
Accessory CrossFire™ Bridge Interconnect Cable
D-Sub Adapter
Mini-DP to DP Cable
6 PIN to 4 PIN Power Cable
HDMI 1.4a high speed 1.8 meter cable (Full Retail SKU only)

The package art for the Sapphire HD 6870 Vapor-X graphics card box is a departure from the usual scantily-clad video vixen, or a guns-blazing firefight that we have become accustomed to. Sapphire this time around has opted to go with a lone penguin standing on a glacier field, no doubt to highlight the cooling efficiency of the Vapor-X design. Along with the penguin, Sapphire has also included the model number, amount of memory, included software and supported feature set of the HD 6870 Vapor-X graphics card.

The back of the packaging continues the same theme as the front, but this time around the penguin has a cute little buddy at its side. On the back panel Sapphire lists the products main highlights, the awards they've garnered over the years and all the supported features. As an added bonus, Sapphire remind us of how they are being a environmentally conscious company that uses all recycled materials to make both the outer and inner packaging.

Sapphire continues to be generous with their included accessories, as they have bundled a CrossFire Bridge Interconnect Cable, D-Sub Adapter, Mini-DP to DP Cable, dual 6-PIN to 4-PIN Power Cables and an HDMI 1.4a high-speed 1.8 meter cable with the Vapor-X graphics card.

The overall look of the Sapphire HD 6870 Vapor-X graphics card is in some ways similar to other Vapor-X cards, as it uses a dual slot form factor, is printed on a blue PCB, uses black as its primary fansink color and has a large centralized intake fan. However, there have been some changes made from the HD 4000 and HD 5000 series models. This version has a more refined shape and includes silver accents along with a white product sticker. Sapphire has kept the measurements of the HD 6870 mostly untouched, as the length of the Vapor-X is just over 9.5 inches.

Even though the Sapphire HD 6870 Vapor-X uses an after-market thermal solution and custom design, it still features the AMD reference clock speeds for the GPU and memory. This gives this model a 900MHz GPU clock speed with a 1GB of GDDR5 memory that runs on a 256-bit memory interface and is rated at 1050MHz (4200MHz effective). In addition, it uses the Barts XT graphics processing unit, which is built on a 40nm fabrication process and includes 1120 Stream processors, 1.7 billion transistors, 32 ROPs and 56 Texture processing Units in a 255mm² die.

The reverse side of the PCB in some regards looks similar to the reference model, but the back-end of the Vapor-X really shows off the improved PWM and also houses a CHL8228G voltage controller from CHiL Semiconductor Corporation. The CHL8228G is a dual-loop digital multi-phase controller that can drive up to 8 phase units and features Input Voltage Management to allow up to 3 input voltages to be monitored. This will ensure the card is adequately powered and improve the overall power efficiency.

Since the Vapor-X uses the same clocks as the reference model it has the same 225W power consumption rating. To power the card, Sapphire has placed dual outward facing 6-pin power connectors toward the end of the PCB. Sapphire recommends at least a 500 Watt Power Supply be used in your rig to properly power this graphic card.

The card uses the PCI-Express 2.1 interface, which effectively doubles data throughput from 2.5Gbps to 5Gbps from older PCI-E versions. The PCI-E 2.1 interface is backwards compatible and it can be used on older motherboard models as well newer ones via a PCI-E x16 slot.

The Sapphire HD 6870 Vapor-X includes a single CrossFireX interconnect design, which adds 2-way CrossFireX support.

The rear video options on the Sapphire HD 6870 Vapor-X include a HDMI 1.4a port, dual version 1.2 Mini-DisplayPorts, one SingleLink-DVI port, and a DL-DVI port. The DP ports used on the 6000 series cards feature a higher bandwidth and refresh rate, which allows each port to support Stereoscopic 3D, A/V and even multiple displays through a single port. The HDMI port is also updated to support the latest technologies and the 1.4a connection now adds support for stereophonic 3D via AMD's HD3D Technology. Like the other cards in the series, the Vapor-X graphics card supports AMD Eyefinity technology.

The Vapor-X design is a four-part solution comprised of the fan, aluminum array, three heatpipes and the vapor chamber. The design should be highly efficient, lowering the acoustic level as less air is needed to cool down the core. In addition to just cooling the GPU, Sapphire has also included thermal pads to transfer heat from the memory chips, and improved PWM cooling.

Along with the Vapor-X thermal solution Sapphire has also included a separate heatsink on the PWM area. This will improve the cooling as the voltage is increased due to overclocking or extreme use.

The Vapor-X cooler design utilizes a large liquid filled chamber that's located just within the base of the cooler. The Vapor Chamber is essentially a large heatpipe which instead of extending out of the base and back into the array, sits directly below the array and transfers the heat upward. Inside the chamber the liquid coolant is vaporized and circulated throughout the chamber, which ensures the heat is transferred away from the GPU. This design is very efficient and both AMD and NVIDIA now use it on their high-end graphics cards. In addition to the Vapor Chamber cooler, this model also features a large 80mm PWM intake fan, three copper heatpipes and a aluminum finned surface area. With all the technologies Sapphire has included in this design, the Vapor-X graphics card should be very quiet and efficient.

At the PCB level you can easily see the improved PWM design used by the Vapor-X edition graphics card. Sapphire has included a on-board 10-phase power control and their highly efficient, cool-running patented Black Diamond chokes. Both of these will improve the overall power efficiency and should also increase the maximum stable overclocking potential. Also along with the improved PWM Sapphire has included all solid capacitors, a huge amount of SMD capacitors and uses memory chips manufactured by Hynix .

Overclocking:

For overclocking we used Sapphire's TRIXX utility and adjusted the GPU and memory clock speeds until video errors occurred, or the system started to hang. In our testing we were able to push the Vapor-X card further than any other HD 6870 that has entered our labs, which is impressive, but ultimately not surprising. This is due to the use of high quality parts such as the 10-phase power control, Black Diamond Chokes and the Vapor-X heatsink. Ultimately we were able to push the GPU clock up to 1013MHz, and the memory capped out at 1188MHz (4752MHz effective). That's nearly a 13% increase to both the GPU and memory clock speeds.

Hardware Configuration:

Software:

All the ATI cards released prior to the 6800 series will be tested using AMD's Catalyst 10.8 drivers, while the 400 series NVIDIA graphics cards will be tested using their 260.89 drivers. The GTX 570 and GTX 580 were tested with the release drivers. The Sapphire HD 6870 Vapor-X, however, will be tested with AMD's latest 11.1 drivers.

Benchmarks DX11:

Benchmarks DX10:

Test Settings:

All in game benchmarks were performed at resolutions of 1280x1024, 1680x1050, 1920x1200 and 2560x1600. Vsync is disabled in the control panel and AA is set to x4 with AF set to x16. The only benchmarks performed with lower AA and AF is Street Fighter IV and the Futuremark test which either showed better scaling when AA and AF were disabled, or have their own built in settings.

Usage:

MSI's Kombuster will be used to gauge the power requirement and temperature of the graphics cards. The program applies a very heavy load to the GPU and as such will push the card beyond that of a game or benchmark. For the minimum temperature and power consumption the system will be left in an idle state for 15 minutes and for load Kombuster will be left on for 15 minutes.

Comparison Specifications AMD:

 
AMD Radeon HD 6870
AMD Radeon HD 6850
ATI  Radeon
HD 5750
ATI Radeon HD 5770
ATI Radeon HD 5830
ATI Radeon HD 5870
AMD Radeon HD 6950
AMD Radeon HD 6970
Processing Cores
1120
960
720
800
1120
1600
1408 1536
Core Clock
900MHz
775MHz
700MHz
850MHz
800MHz
850MHz
800MHz
880MHz
Memory Clock
1050MHz
1000MHz
1150MHz
1200MHz
1150MHz
1200MHz
1250MHz
1375MHz
Memory Interface
256-bit
256-bit
128-bit
128-bit
256-bit
256-bit
256-bit
256-bit
Memory Type
1GB GDDR5
1GB GDDR5
1GB GDDR5
1GB GDDR5
1GB GDDR5
1GB GDDR5
2GB GDDR5
2GB GDDR5
Fabrication Process
40nm
40nm
40nm
40nm
40nm
40nm
40nm
40nm

 

Comparison Specifications Nvidia:

 
Nvidia GeForce GTS 450
Nvidia Geforce GTX 460 FTW
Nvidia GeForce GTX 470
Nvidia GeForce GTX 480
Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti
Nvidia GeForce GTX 570
Nvidia Geforce GTX 580
Processing Cores
192
336 448 480 384 480 512
Core Clock
783MHz
850MHz
607MHz
700MHz
822MHz
742MHz
782MHz
Memory Clock
900MHz
1000MHz
837MHz
924MHz
1002MHz
950MHz
1002MHz
Memory Interface
128-bit
256-bit
320-bit
384-bit
256-bit
320-bit
384-bit
Memory Type
1GB GDDR5
1GB GDDR5
1.25GB GDDR5
1.5GB GDDR5
1GB GDDR5
1.25GB GDDR5
1.5GB GDDR5
Fabrication Process
40nm
40nm
40nm
40nm
40nm
40nm
40nm

3DMark Vantage is the stunning sequel to 3DMark 06. Futuremark's benchmarking programs have always been at the center of every bragging match. The best way to show that you've got the greatest gaming rig, is to show that you've got the highest 3DMark score. Vantage does just that. It puts your system through a series of strenuous tests, and provides you with a score to brag about!

In 3DMark Vantage the Sapphire Toxic HD 6870 did very well, as it was able to slightly outperform the reference model at stock speeds. The overclocked results were decent, but still not enough to push it past the HD 5870.

Futuremark's latest 3DMark 2011 is designed for testing DirectX 11 hardware running on Windows 7 and Windows Vista. The benchmark includes six all new tests that make extensive use of all the new features in DirectX 11 including tessellation, compute shaders and multi-threading.

In 3DMark 11 the Sapphire card has a very strong showing at both the stock and overclocked level. This benchmark uses heavy Tessellation during the testing, which makes it impressive that the Toxic card was able to perform better than the GTX 560 Ti.

Unigine Heaven became very popular very fast, because it was one of the first major DirectX 11 benchmarks. It makes great use of tessellation to create a visually stunning...heaven.

Unigine 2.1 is another DX11 benchmark that utilizes tessellation, but this time around the GTX 560 Ti was able to perform better than the HD 6870 Toxic at both the stock and overclocked levels. Still, the overall performance is excellent as the HD 6870 has better tessellation performance than the HD 5870.

Aliens vs Predators is a DX11 Benchmark that runs though a scene straight out of the classic 80's movie, Aliens. Since it uses DX11, it can often be more than a graphics card can handle.

Again we are seeing excellent DX11 performance from the Sapphire HD 6870 Toxic along with performance results that are close to those of the GTX 560 Ti.

Metro 2033 puts you right in the middle of post apocalyptic Moscow, battling Mutants, rivals and ratio-active fallout. The game is very graphics intensive and utilizes DX11 technology, making it a good measure of how the latest generation of graphics cards performs under the latest standard.

The card's results in Metro 2033 are very strong up to the 2560x1600 resolution. However, even the stronger cards in our comparison charts struggle at the maximum setting, so overall the Sapphire offering does very well.

Street Fighter IV doesn't necessarily push a graphics card to the limits, but it is a good benchmark to gauge the overall performance. This test is run at default settings to show the best scaling possible.

At stock HD 6870 has a relatively weak showing, but once overclocked it is able to climb the charts, ending up just shy of the GTX 560 Ti.

Batman: Arkham Aslyum mixes extraordinary visuals with great gameplay, in order to make an excellent benchmark. It's not a stressful as Crysis, but it can still push cards to their limits.

In Batman, the HD 6870 Toxic manages to achieve a good frame rate across all the resolutions, but the nVIDIA cards simply dominate this benchmark.

Crysis Warhead is one of the most graphically intensive games on the mainstream market. It's graphically breathtaking, and can bring any system crashing to it's knees.

The overclocked HD 6870 Toxic is able to compete with the GTX 570, and at the stock level it manages to perform better than the GTX 560 Ti. The performance is very good, but not surprising as this benchmark will always favor cards with larger frame buffers.

Call of Duty is one of the most successful game franchises of all time and Modern Warfare 2 is the latest iteration in the series. The games combine modern-day settings and locations with jaw-dropping graphics and explosions.

While running at it's reference clock speeds, the HD 6870 Toxic is able to perform nearly equal to the GTX 560 Ti and GTX 480. After we overclocked the card though, it was able to outperform both, at least in the two highest resolutions.

Darkest of Days puts the player in historic battles to ensure the survival of key figures from the past. It is a very interesting concept and the use of real life conflicts keeps the title engaging. The in-game options does not allow PhysX to be disabled, so it can often favor NVIDIA graphics cards over those from ATI.

Once again we see a good showing from the Toxic edition graphics card at the stock speeds, but it isn't until the card is overclocked that it really comes into its own.

Resident Evil 5 is the latest installment of the Resident Evil series. The game comes with a built in benchmark that features a bunch of zombies walking around the center of a village. Believe it or not this seemingly simple benchmark can push video cards way out of their comfort zone!

The Sapphire HD 6870 yields excellent FPS across all the resolutions, and again outperforms the GTX 560 Ti once overclocked.

Just Cause 2 places you in Panau, Southeast Asia as Agent Rico Rodriguez. The game is a third-person shooter that pits you against countless enemies with the opportunity for plenty of environment destruction. With explosions and gun fire galore, this game is perfect for testing out the latest hardware.

The Sapphire Toxic edition graphics card performs better than the GTX 560 Ti at stock, and even manages to compete with the GTX 480 once overclocked!

Temperature:

To measure core GPU temperature, MSI's Kombustor was used. The idle temperature was taken after leaving nothing running for up to 15 minutes. The load temperature was taken 15 minutes after starting Kombuster for Multi-Core graphics cards

Sapphire's second generation Vapor Chamber was able to keep the core very cool during our testing process and even when overclocked beyond 1GHz, it didn't even break 80°C!

Power Usage:

To measure power usage, a Kill A Watt P4400 power meter was used. Note that the above numbers represent the power drain for the entire benchmarking system, not just the video cards themselves. For the 'idle' readings we measured the power drain from the desktop, with no applications running; for the 'load' situation, we took the sustained peak power drain readings at the end of a 30 minute Kombustor run.

The power usage of the HD 6870 Toxic was very good, but nVIDIA's closest competition -- the GTX 560 Ti -- did prove to be slightly more efficient while running the same benchmark.

 

Conclusion:

When looking at the performance of the Sapphire HD 6870 Vapor-X it tends to fall directly in line with the reference models, which is due to Sapphire's decision to maintain the stock memory and GPU clock speeds. However, when looking at the Vapor-X edition graphics card as a complete package, it really starts to distinguish itself from other Barts XT based graphics cards on the market. This is due to the use of Sapphire’s highly efficient Vapor-X thermal solution and inclusion of high-quality components throughout the PCB. With these enhancements to the reference design, the Vapor-X had a higher overclocking ceiling than any other HD 6870 that as entered our labs, while still maintaining a high efficiency level and relatively low acoustics.

With the clock GPU and memory clock speeds increased to 1013MHz and 1188MHz (4752MHz effective) respectively, the Vapor-X edition graphics card was able to achieve a much higher frame rate than at the reference model, which only increases the overall price to performance ratio. Additionally, with the clock speeds set at the increased frequencies the Sapphire HD 6870 was able to either match or outperform the GTX 560 Ti in eight of our twelve benchmarks. This is quite impressive as the GTX 560 Ti commands a slightly higher premium than that of the HD 6870.

Along with the excellent performance and overclocking headroom, the HD 6870 Vapor-X offers also features all the included technologies that come from being part of the AMD 6xxx family. These include support for Eyefinity, Avivo, Advanced parallel processing, HD3D Technology and improved Tessellation performance. Through the use of these technologies the 6000 series graphics cards are multi-functional and are not just limited to the PC gaming market.

The HD Sapphire HD 6870 Vapor-X is a high performance graphics card that really comes into its own after a little overclocking. Additionally, the card features a very quiet and efficient Vapor chamber heatsink, making this model an excellent choice for anyone in the market for a new high performance mid-range graphics card.

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