Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 DiRT 3 Edition Review

Author: Chris Ledenican
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Wednesday, September 28th, 2011
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Hardware/Reviews/sapphire_hd_6870_dirt3/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

AMD's Radeon HD 6870 is already one of the best graphics cards in the sub $200 market, but manufacturers have been working to improve the features, thermal performance and even the bundled accessories to increase the card's value even further. To this end, Sapphire has souped up their latest HD 6870 with not just an advanced dual heatpipe thermal solution, but with a free copy of the hit game DiRT 3. In addition, the Sapphire HD 6870 DiRT 3 edition graphics card comes with an overclocked GPU that will improve overall performance in comparison to the reference models.

Though the HD 6870 DiRT 3 edition graphics card includes an impressive bundle with plenty of accessories alongside that free copy of DiRT 3, Sapphire has not tacked on too much of an additional premium, as the card should still retail at or near $199. This even further increases the overall value, and since the HD 6870 is technically a mid-range card, users should appreciate all that Sapphire has included. Especially when some of the other companies resort to simply adding a DVI to VGA adapter and drivers disc.

Since you probably already know what to expect from the performance of the HD 6870 from Neoseeker's past reviews of the card, our review will focus on putting the HD 6870 DiRT 3 edition's thermal performance, acoustics, overclocking potential and value to the test. This way you'll know how well it compares to other HD 6870 graphics cards currently available on the market outside of performance, because let's face it, the Barts XT graphics processors are not going to be too different from one another when it comes to stock performance.

Specification
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 920 MHz Core Clock
40 nm Chip
1120 x Stream Processors
Memory 1024 MB Size
256 -bit GDDR5
4200 MHz Effective
Dimension 245(L)x110(W)x36(H) mm Size.
Software Driver CD
SAPPHIRE TriXX Utility
1 x Dirt®3 Coupon
Accessory CrossFire™ Bridge Interconnect Cable
DVI to VGA Adapter
6 PIN to 4 PIN Power Cable x 2
HDMI 1.4a high speed 1.8 meter cable(Full Retail SKU only)

The Sapphire HD 6870 is packaged in a sleek box that uses a black and blue color scheme and lists all the main features on the front. The largest icon found on the box of course advertises the free copy of DiRT 3 that comes with the package, but just as noticeable are the labels indictating this graphics card as an overclocked version, the total memory capacity, and the fact that it comes with a free 1.8 meter HDMI cable.

The back of the packaging maintains the DiRT 3 theme, and better describes the main features and technologies of the graphics card. Also along the bottom of the back panel is a list of reviewer awards Sapphire has accumulated throughout the years. If you look hard enough, you will notice Neoseeker's recommended award is included as a mark of pride. This is not too surprising, as Sapphire has taken home Neoseeker's recommended award more than a few times in the past.

The accessories and graphics card are packaged in the same manner as the high-end HD 6950 DiRT 3 edition graphics card, and Sapphire has even managed to include the same accessories. So, what do you get ? More than enough, considering this is a mid-range graphics card that already comes equipped with a free copy of DiRT 3. In all the bundle includes a CrossFire Bridge interconnect cable, D-Sub adapter, Mini-DP to DP cable, dual 6-pin to 4-pin power cables, a 1.8 meter HDMI 1.4a high-speed cable and the DiRT 3 download code which unlock a free copy of the game from Valve's Steam online gaming platform.

The Sapphire HD 6870 DiRT 3 Edition comes with a slight frequency bump in comparison to the reference model. Sapphire has set the GPU clock speed to 920MHz, which is a small increase over 800MHz default clock, but any boost helps and it should yield some additional performance in the lower resolutions.

By this point the Barts XT graphics processor is well known for both its processing abilities and low cost. Essentially the Barts XT GPU uses the same internal architecture as the standard HD 6870, meaning this card is built on a 40nm process and has a 255mm² die size. Additionally, the GPU packs 1120 Stream processors, 1.7 billion transistors, 32 ROPs and 56 Texture Units, giving the HD 6870 strong performance for its respective price point. The HD 6870 also includes a 1GB frame buffer of GDDR5 memory clocked at 1050MHz (4200MHz effective) and runs on a 256-bit bus.

The DiRT 3 Edition graphics card also includes a dual fan thermal solution that utilizes dual 80mm intake fans to direct heat through a large heatsink that is attached directly to the GPU. The heatsink is different from the solutions seen from Sapphire before as it uses only two heatpipes, but each pipe has a larger diameter than than those traditionally found on graphics cards using more. From the top, the thermal solution also resembles the robot Johnny Five from the 80's classic (well, classic to some people) Short Circuit movies. This really adds to the visuals of the graphics card, especially if you're a tech geek with a soft spot for 80's nostalgia.

The back of the PCB uses the standard design for a Barts based graphics card, and shares a lot in common with other mid-range boards recently released by Sapphire. Not only do they share a similar layout, but they also include a CHL8228G voltage controller from the 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 improves the overall power efficiency. Additionally, the HD 6850 includes a single CrossFire bridge that will support CrossFire in a 2-way configuration, and the graphics card utilizes a PCI-Express 2.1 interface.

While this SKU uses an overclocked Barts XT graphics processor, the total voltage requirements are not going to be dramatically different. The board has a power consumption rating of just 19W when idle and 151W while under full load. Dual 6-pin power connectors will be used to provide up to 75W of power to the 6870, which along with the PCIe lane adds up to 225 watts of available power. The recommended power supply capacity for this graphics card is 500 watts for a single card, and around 650 watts when it is paired with another card in a CrossFire configuration.

The video options on the Sapphire HD 6870 DiRT 3 edition graphics card consist of two Mini-DisplayPorts, an HDMI 1.4a port and and two digital DVI ports. The Mini-DP ports port uses the new 1.2 standard which allows them to support up to three monitors per connection, and also includes support for AMD's HD3D technology. There are are also two DVI ports on the HD 6870, which due to bandwidth limitations uses a different connection standard. Of the two, the topmost is a DL-DVI port which supports 30" monitors with resolutions up to 2560x1600, while the other DVI port uses the single-link connection type which supports resolutions up to 1920x1200.

Aside from looking like good ol' Johnny Five, the thermal solution used on the HD 6870 DiRT edition card really has a lot going on. It's four-part solution that consists of the outer heatsink cover, and dual 90mm fans with thin impellers that can move the same amount of air at 10% lower rotation speeds than conventional fans. This will not only reduce the overall noise level, but increase the efficiency of the fans at lower RPM.

Disassembling the heatsink was an easy enough task, allowing a closer look of the thermal solution from all angles. The top portion of the heatsink is the shroud, which covers the heatsink to ensure the airflow is directed efficiently throughout the array. The shroud is also the base for the dual 90mm fans which are connected to a recessed area in the cover, and separated just enough to ensure the entire heatsink is provided with ample airflow. Additionally, the fans each utilize a special dust repelling bearing that reduces any dust build-up, thus increasing the operational lifetime of the fans.

Below the plastic shroud is a large heatsink that utilizes a unique heatpipe design. The heatsink consists of two isolated aluminum arrays that sit on each end of a thick metal block with seven independent fins. Directly below this block is the dual copper heatpipes that are 8mm in size each, and a solid copper base. Each heatpipe runs through a separate array which will isolate the heat and allow it to be evenly distributed throughout the array. For a mid-range graphics card, the design of the heatsink is extremely robust and its performance should be far superior than that of the reference cooler both in thermal efficiency and acoustic levels.

Getting down to the bare PCB, Sapphire has decided to go with a custom design that places the Barts XT graphics card and memory modules in the standard locations, but sees the VRM set at the back of the PCB as opposed to the front. Additionally, the custom design includes a robust 4+1 phase design, and a clean layout for the transistors and capacitors. Unlike some other Sapphire models reviewed previously, the memory on this model is not from Samsung or HYNIX, but instead manufactured by Elpida. Each chip is exactly 128MB in capacity, which in all gives the HD 6870 DiRT 3 edition graphics card its total frame buffer of 1024MB.

To improve the overall thermal efficiency of the graphics card, Sapphire has attached a small heatsink directly to the VRM. Other than the GPU, the VRM tends to be the hottest point on the graphics card, because electric current passes through the VRM before being routed to the graphics processor. To ensure maximum stability and improve the lifetime of the graphics card, it is important to keep this area nice and cool which the added heatsink should be well capable of.

Overclocking:

To overclock the Sapphire HD 69870, Sapphire's TriXX utility was used to increase the clock frequencies to their maximum threshold. Overall the results were average for an HD 6870. The DiRT 3 edition graphics card was able to achieve a GPU clock speed of 1035MHz, which is an increase of 13% over reference clocks. This is an impressive overclock, as most graphics cores have a hard time remaining stable at any setting beyond 1000MHz. Additionally, the memory was able able to scale well, as the frequency of the GDDR5 memory pushed all the way to 1270MHz (5.1GHz effective). Again this is a excellent overclock, representing an increase that is approching 20%.

Hardware Configuration:

Drivers:

Benchmarks DX11:

Benchmarks DX10:

Test Settings:

All in game benchmarks were performed at resolutions of 1680x1050, 1920x1200 and 2560x1600. Vsync is disabled in the control panel, AA is set to x4 with AF set to x16 and all the in-game settings are turned up to high.

Usage:

Specifications:

(Note: All models might not be included in this review. The table below is to be used for comparison purposes)
AMD Specifications
Model
Sapphire HD 6870 DiRT 3
AMD Radeon HD 6850 AMD Radeon HD 6750 AMD Radeon HD 6770 AMD Radeon HD 5830 AMD Radeon HD 5870 AMD Radeon HD 6950 AMD Radeon 6970
Processing Cores
1120 960 720 800 1120 1600 1408 1536
Core Clock
920MHz 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
NVIDIA Specifications
Model
Nvidia GTS 450 Nvidia GTX 460 Nvidia GTX 470 Nvidia GTX 480 Nvidia GTX 560 Nvidia GTX 560 Ti Nvidia GTX 570 Nvidia GTX 580
Processing Cores
192 336 448 480 336 384 480 512
Core Clock
783MHz 675MHz 607MHz 700MHz 810MHz 822MHz 742MHz 782MHz
Memory Clock
900MHz 1100MHz 837MHz 924MHz 1002MHz 10002MHz 1250MHz 1002MHz
Memory Interface
128-bit 256-bit 128-bit 320-bit 256-bit 256-bit 320-bit 384-bit
Memory Type
1GB GDDR5 1GB GDDR5 1.25GB GDDR5 1.5GB GDDR5 1GB GDDR5 1GB GDDR5 1.25GB GDDR5 1.5GB GDDR5
Fabrication Process
40nm 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!

The Sapphire HD 6870 DiRT 3 edition graphics card not only easily outpaced the reference HD 6870, but it also performed better than the GTX 560 at all settings. This is impressive considering the GPU is only clocked 20MHz higher than the reference models.

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 benchmark tests that make extensive use of all the new DirectX 11 features including tessellation, compute shaders and multi-threading.

The HD 6870 DiRT 3 edition once again put up strong performance numbers, and like the last benchmark managed to perform better than the reference model though the difference was minimal. However, once overclocked, the performance improved significantly and actually put up numbers close to that of the HD 6950.

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 is an extremely demanding benchmark and even while the Barts XT graphics processor is optimized for DX11 performance, it still fell behind the GTX560. In this benchmark the 20MHz overclock did very little to improve the overall frame-rate. Once overclocked,  the performance got quite a kick in the pants and frame for frame its performance was nearly identical to the GTX 560 Ti.

Aliens vs Predator 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.

In the first real-world benchmark the HD 6870 DiRT 3 edition graphics card landed right where it expected was to, that is to say it was slightly ahead of the reference model when testing the lower resolutions. As the settings increased, the margin narrowed. Excellent scaling was still seen in the overclocked results, which was due to the impressive overclocking headroom available to this card.

DiRT 3 is the third installment in the DiRT series and like it's predecessor incorporates DX11 features such as tessellation, accelerated high definition ambient occlusion and Full Floating point high dynamic range lighting. This makes it a perfect game to test the latest DX11 hardware.

DiRT 3 is the game this particular graphics card comes bundled with, and fortunately it appears Sapphire's solution was able to handle it quite well. The HD 6870 did extremely well when benchmarking up to 1920x1200, maintaining frame-rates of nearly 50FPS. The upper resolution did tend see a dramatic decrease in performance due in no small part to the 1GB frame buffer, but since this is a mid-range card the performance above 1920x1200 is going to suffer most of the time.

Lost Planet 2 is a sci-fi action-adventure game from CAPCOM that puts players on a fictional planet called E.D.N. III 10 years after the events of the first game. Like the other new games added to our reviews, Lost Planet 2 includes support for DX11 features to enhance the lighting, charters and environments.

Lost Planet favors Nvidia-based graphics card, and this really shows throughout testing. In this benchmark the HD 6870 DiRT 3 edition graphics card has a hard time keeping up with the GTX 560, and only managed to get close when testing at 2560x1600 due to both graphics cards having a 1GB memory interface. Overclocking did improve the performance, but anything at or above 1920x1200 will start to look choppy.

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 perform under the latest standard.

The results in Metro 2033 were very good. First off the model was able to outperform its stock counterpart, but even more impressive was that overall performance was extremely close to high-end graphics cards such as the GTX 570 and GTX 480. This benchmark really shows how the HD 6870 is a solid graphics card, even while playing some of the most demanding games on the market.

Total War: Shogun 2 is a game that creates a unique gameplay experience by combining both real-time and turn-based strategy. The game is set in 16th-century feudal Japan and gives the player control of a warlord battling various rival factions. Total War: Shogun 2 is the first in the series to feature DX11 technologies to enhance the look of the game, but with massive on-screen battles it can stress even the highest-end graphics cards.

Good performance was demonstrated up to 2560x1600, and excellent scaling continued to remain evident once overclocked. However, in this test the 920MHz clock speed did little to improve the overall performance. It really wasn't until the graphics card was overclocked that the DiRT 3 edition graphics card came out of its shell and really put up some impressive numbers.

F1 2010 is a video game based on the 2010 season of the Formula One world championship and is a mutliplatform release. It was developed by Codemasters and released in September 2010 for the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360, with the PC version including DX11 features.

The Sapphire HD 6870 DiRT 3 Edition graphics card was able to maintain frame rates well above 30FPS during all the tests, and once overclocked it was even able to reach a average frame rate of 42FPS at 2560x1600. Not bad for a mid-range graphics card.

Dragon Age II is a role-playing video game created by Bioware's Edmonton studios and is the follow up to the highly successful Dragon Age: Origins. In this game players take the role of Hawke who has just fled fled the nation of Ferelden with his family after it was destroyed. The PC version of Dragon Age II includes DX11 features such as tessellation for enhanced geometric detail, and compute shader for post process rendering like blur, bloom, film effects.

Dragon Age II is part of the AMD Gaming Evolved program, and is heavily optimized for AMD based graphics cards. This makes the results in this game no surprise. If you are wanting the best while playing this title, it makes since to have a graphics card that performs the best and right now that would be anything from the red team.

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

Unlike Dragon Age II, Batman is coded to work best with Nvidia based graphics cards. Since the HD 6870 still managed to get a minimum of 58FPS at 2560x1600, it's safe to say that this game is going to be playable at any resolution.

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

Crysis Warhead is a memory hog, especially at higher resolutions, so it isn't surprising to see excellent performance at 1680x1050 and 1920x1200, but not at 2560x1600. Still, 30FPS is considered playable, but like Lost Planet 2, things could get choppy when gaming above 1920x1200.

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 environmental destruction. With explosions and gunfire galore, this game is perfect for testing out the latest hardware.

The final results are consistent with what was seen throughout benchmarking, which really demonstrates how the HD 6870 is a solid graphics card when playing games at or below 1920x1200. The performance does tend to slow down when the resolution is increased to 2560x1600. Like in other benchmarks, the large frequency increase reached through overclocking really helped improve the performance substantially.

Temperature:

To measure core GPU temperatures, we run three in-game benchmarks and record the idle and load temperature according to the min and max temperature readings recorded by MSI Afterburner. The games we test are Crysis 2, Lost Planet 2 and Metro 2033. We run these benchmarks for 15 minutes each. This way we can give the included thermal solution and GPU time to reach equilibrium.

To be perfectly honest I was expecting the load temperature to be slightly lower than the results observed, but the overall thermal performance was still impressive. The dual fan solution used on the DiRT 3 edition graphics card manged to drop the load temperature down by 10°C in comparison to the reference model while remaining extremely quiet. So, even though the temperatures where a bit higher than expected, the solution is still more efficient than the reference model and certainly far more quiet.

Power Consumption:

To measure power usage, a Kill A Watt P4400 power meter was used. Note that the 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 after running the system through the same in-game benchmarks we used for the temperature testing. This way we are recording real-world power usage, as opposed to pushing a product to it's thermal threshold.

The power consumption rating of the Sapphire HD 6870 DiRT 3 fell right in line with the reference model, but the Sapphire model did have a slightly reduced maximum power rating of 305 watts.

When it comes to creating excellent graphics cards, Sapphire is one of the best manufacturers and their bundled accessories and excellent thermal solutions really speak to this. Most manufacturers only include the bare essentials when it comes to mid-range market, but not Sapphire. The manufacturer included the same bundle seen in high-end graphics cards, and in the case of this particular card you'll get a CrossFire Bridge interconnect cable, D-Sub adapter, Mini-DP to DP cable, dual 6-pin to 4-pin power cables, a 1.8 meter HDMI 1.4a high-speed cable and the DiRT 3 code. That is quite the bundle for a graphics card priced under $200.

In addition, the Sapphire HD 6870 utilizes an outstanding dual fan thermal solution that kept the core relatively cool while keeping the noise low. During testing the HD DiRT 3 model maintained a load temperature of 71°C, which was a full 10°C cooler than the reference model. While this is not a huge difference and not the greatest result for thermal efficiency seen in the labs, the dual fans were nearly inaudible as the fans were rotating below 50% of the maximum rotation. They were only mildly audible even when the fans were running at their maximum level.

The overclocking headroom offered by the Sapphire HD 6870 DiRT 3 edition graphics card was also outstanding. The core clock pushed all the way up to 1035MHz, which is an increase of just over 13%. Overclocking the core clock to this level did require a substantial increase in the amount of voltage flowing through the card, but even with the voltage increase there were no issues keeping the core cool through increasing the RPM level of the fans. Similarly, the memory was also able to overclock quite well and results tapped out at 5080MHz Quad Data Rate, which is an increase of over 17%.

All in all this is yet another excellent graphics card based on the Barts XT graphics processor, that offers a lot of bang for the buck and would be a great option for any gamer looking for good performance when playing games at or below 1920x1200.

»Neoseeker.com

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