Sapphire Radeon HD 6950 DiRT 3 Edition Review

Author: Chris Ledenican
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Thursday, June 30th, 2011
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Hardware/Reviews/sapphire_hd_6950_dirt3/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

The Sapphire HD 6950 DiRT 3 Edition is essentially a standard Cayman Pro based graphics card with key features that separate it from the rest of the herd. The first "feature" is, as the name suggests, a free code good for downloading a copy of DiRT 3, the third iteration in Codemasters' celebrating off-road racing game series and one of the hottest titles released this summer. Sapphire has also improved the on-board thermal solution by increasing the size of the cooling surface area and adding five copper heatpipes. By including a $50 game and improving the GPU cooling of the HD 6950 alone, Sapphire has effectively increased the overall value of their HD 6950 model.

Along with the free code for DiRT 3 and the improved thermal performance, the HD 6950 DiRT 3 Edition graphics card also includes all the key features supported by AMD's Northern Islands architecture. These consist of support for DirectX 11, Eyefinity Multi-Dispaly technology, AMD HD3D, High-Speed HDMI 1.4a and Accelerated Parallel Processing. This model also utilizes a large 2GB GDDR5 memory buffer that makes it ideal for gaming at high resolutions and settings.

Perhaps the best aspect of the Sapphire HD 6950 DiRT 3 edition graphics card is that it includes the bundled software and improved thermal solution without increasing the premium of the graphics card. In fact, a quick online retailer search actually shows that the DiRT 3 edition graphics card is currently retailing for $5 lower than the reference board. Already this model looks to be an excellent solution for anyone looking for a new graphics card and wanting to add a copy of DiRT 3 to their gaming library.

Specification
Output 1 x Dual-Link DVI
1 x HDMI 1.4a
1 x DisplayPort
1 x Single-Link DVI-D
DisplayPort 1.2
GPU 800 MHz Core Clock
40 nm Chip
1408 x Stream Processors
Memory 2048 MB Size
256 -bit GDDR5
5000 MHz Effective
Dimension 260(L)x110(W)x35(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)

If you are familiar with Sapphire's graphics cards over the last few years, the packaging for the HD 6950 DiRT 3 Edition should be familiar enough. Overall the package is quite large for a graphics card, but seeing how Sapphire has included plenty of accessories, the size seems appropriate.

The accessories and graphics card are packaged in an inner box that includes separate cardboard compartments to for each component, and also includes styrofoam inserts to add extra protection. Sapphire has included more than enough accessories to connect the HD 6950 to any monitor and power supply, but what really sets this model apart is the inclusion of an HDMI 1.4a cable and of course, a free code for DiRT 3.

The Sapphire HD 6950 DiRT 3 Edition utilizes the reference clock speeds of the Cayman Pro GPU, which gives it a GPU clock speed of 800MHz. The GPU also includes 22 SIMDs, which equates to 1408 ALUs and 88 texture units, giving the card a total compute power of 2.25 TFLOPs. Unlike some models released after the initial Cayman launch, this model features a 2GB GDDR5 frame buffer that utilizes a 256-bit bus and comes clocked at 1250MHz (5.0Gbps QDR).

The HD 6950 DiRT 3 Edition also comes with a heatsink that has not been utilized on any prior Sapphire cards. The heatsink is a five heatpipe thermal solution that covers a large surface area and features dual 80mm fans. Dual fan solutions have become popular as of late in comparison to standard single fan solutions, with the main reasons being the reduced noise levels due to dual fans spinning at slower speeds, and increased air pressure created by the dual fans.

Since the release of the Cayman architecture AMD has classified their power consumption ratings into two categories, the PowerTune rating and the typical gaming power rating. AMD has given the HD 6950 a PowerTune rating of 200 watts, and a 140 watt typical gaming power rating. Dual 6-pin power connectors found toward the back of the PCB are used power the board, facing toward the side of the case.

Though it is hard to see (to be fully honest I almost missed it entirely), there is a dual BIOS switch on the HD 6950 DiRT 3 Edition card. This means that some degree of BIOS tweaking can safely be done without damaging the graphics card, but we are not entirely sure if the model is capable of being flashed to a HD 6970. As always, this sort of soft-modding is something to be done at your own risk.

Only a few manufacturers leave the reference video outputs intact, as most decide to only include a single mini-DisplayPort connector as opposed to the standard dual. Sapphire followed suit in removing the dual mini-DP ports, so ultimately this model features an HDMI 1.4a port, a single DisplayPort, one SingleLink-DVI port, and a DualLink-DVI port. Like other cards in the series, the DisplayPort connector uses the 1.2 specifications, which gives the port a higher bandwidth and refresh rate allowing it to support Stereoscopic 3D, A/V, and up to three displays. The HDMI port is also updated to support the latest technologies; the 1.4a connection includes support for 3D Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.

The thermal solution used to cool the Cayman Pro GPU utilizes a large aluminum array and has six 8mm copper heatpipes positioned strategically throughout it. The positioning of the heatpipes allows the heat traveling through the pipes to be isolated to an individual portion of the array, which in turn makes it easier for the fan to dissipate the heat. Another feature of the heatsink is that the portions of the array positioned below the fans are concave. This will allow the airflow to more effectively pass through the array as it works to exhaust the heat.

The base of the heatsink consists of a solid copper block that makes direct contact with the GPU. Copper is a highly efficient materiel and one of the best available for transferring heat. The heat from the GPU is first absorbed into the copper base, where it is then divided among the heatpipes and then distributed throughout the aluminum array.

The Sapphire HD 6950's heatsink shroud utilizes a dual fan design. Each fan is physically attached to the shroud and is 80mm in size. The advantages of using dual fans is that they are able to supply more airflow throughout a larger area with less noise. Each fan attached to the shroud has a 4-pin PWM connector, but Sapphire has included a Y cable that allows both fans to be powered off a single source. The means that both the fans can spin at the same RPM at all times.

Sapphire has decided to create a custom PCB for the DiRT 3 Edition graphics cards, and by the looks of things, it should prove to be robust. The PCB includes eight HYNIX memory chips that surround the 40nm Cayman Pro in an L shape. So far this is standard for the HD 6950, but looking at the voltage area we can see that Sapphire has moved the VRM to the front of the board, and also added cooling over the components. In addition, the HD 6950 includes all solid capacitors along with four phase units at the front of the PCB and an additional two at the back.

 

Overclocking:

To overclock the Sapphire HD 6950 we used the MSI Afterburner utility and increased the clock frequencies to their maximum threshold. Overall our results were average for a HD 6950, which is to say we were able to increase the GPU clock by about 10%, and slightly higher for the memory. While the total overclocking percentage wasn't too high, the GPU was still almost able to reach a stable frequency of nearly 900Mhz. Graphics cards that use a Cayman GPU don't necessarily overclock excessively because AMD has already set the reference clock speeds relatively high, so the only way to get more than a 10% overclock is to add additional voltage to the GPU, which does increase the headroom and at times can lead to a 1000MHz GPU clock speed.

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
AMD Radeon HD 6870 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
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
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 performance of the HD 6950 was right in line with our previous tests of the HD 6950, both at the stock and overclocked levels.

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 Sapphire HD 6950 showcases excellent performance in 3DMark 11, but it is not quite up to the level of the GTX 570.

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.

The results in Unigine 2.1 show the HD 6950 performing at roughly the same level as the GTX 560 Ti in all but the highest resolution. Overclocking yielded higher frames rates during the testing process, which allowed the HD 6950 to produce performance numbers closer to that of the GTX 570.

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 Aliens vs Predator, the Sapphire HD 6950 was able to maintain a good frame rate up to 1920x1200, but there was a huge performance decrease when we pushed the resolution up to 2560x1600. Overclocking did help the performance though, so any resolution should be playable with this graphics 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.

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.

The overall performance of the Sapphire HD 6950 was good, but we were surprised to see that overclocking did nothing to help improve the frame rates.

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.

Metro 2033 is one of the most demanding titles currently on the market, so it is not surprising that even the HD 6950 struggles at 2560x1600. However, after overclocking the GPU and memory it was able to reach a more stable frame rate of 30FPS, but since that is the average and not the minimum, this game may still require either more horsepower to run properly or lower in-game settings than the ones used for benchmarking.

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.

Total War: Shogun 2 shows good performance across the board and the HD 6950 is able to surpass 30FPS at 2560x1600, which means it will run this game without lag at any resolution.

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 6950 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 nearly 50FPS at 2560x1600.

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, but unlike most of the other games that show good scaling between both companies, Dragon Age II has a strong preference for AMD hardware. With this being the case, the HD 6950 was able to perform better than even the GTX 580 at all the tested resolutions.

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.

Batman is coded to work best with Nvidia hardware, and our benchmarking results show that the HD 6950 is only able to compete with graphics cards such as the GTX 460. With the second game in the series coming, it will be interesting to see if the results are going to be the same or if AMD can make up some ground.

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.

The high memory bandwidth is one of the features we really like about the Norther Islands graphics cards, and Crysis Warhead is a game that demands memory bandwidth or else the cards will suffer. At the lowest resolution of 1050p, the Nvidia based graphics cards perform best but once the resolution is increased, the AMD cards are able to withstand the high settings and thus deliver higher frame rates.

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 Sapphire HD 6950 was able to reach a smooth frame rate at all the tested resolutions, but as you can see the Nvidia cards were the strongest performing models in this benchmark.

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.

The thermal efficiency of the new dual fan heatsink used on the DiRT 3 model works exceptionally well. It isn't often we see a high performance graphics card that remains under 70°C even while playing through some of the most demanding games on the market.

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 Sapphire HD 6950 has a slightly lower power consumption rating than the reference model, which could be do to the use of high quality components which make the design more power efficient.

When it comes to graphics cards, AMD designs the graphics processors, memory interface, thermal parameters and recommended specifications, but they leave the AIB partners some freedom to tweak the design. A few of the options available to the board partners including increaing the clock speeds to yield higher performance, or using high quality parts and customizing the PCB to improve the power efficiency and thermal design.

With the HD 6950 DiRT 3 Edition graphics card, Sapphire leveraged two of the available options by improving the design of the thermal solution to include five copper heatpipes, a large surface area and dual 80mm intake fans. We feel Sapphire has created a highly efficient heatsink design that dominates the cooling performance of reference heatsink.

Beyond the thermal solution, Sapphire has also improved the power efficiency of the board via custom PCB that includes four phase units located next to a VRM that has a dedicated cooling solution. In addition, Sapphire has also used all solid Japanese capacitors, which go a long way in increasing the total power efficiency and longevity of the board.

The Sapphire HD 6950 also comes with a free copy of DiRT 3, and even while this is not the only card currently bundling a free version of the game, it is one of the few cards on the market that can run it at resolutions up to 2560x1600. The HD 6950 also scales well above 2560x1600, which makes this an ideal graphics card for games that utilize multiple monitors via Eyefinity. So, even while other AMD based graphics cards are being bundled with DiRT 3, this model is among the few that can run the game at the highest settings and resolutions. The really improves the overall value of this board, as Sapphire is essentially including a free game, along with the improved thermal design without increasing the MSRP.

The only issue we have to report on this product is that the total overclocking potential was rather weak, and we observed only minimal headroom when increasing the GPU frequency. In all we were able to increase the GPU clock speed to 870MHz, which is an increase of just under 9%. The memory did better as we were able to increase the frequency of the GDDR 5 memory by 11%, giving us a total speed of 1395MHz (5.6Gbps effective). While we weren't completely impressed with the overclocking results, they did yield increased performance across the board.

Our overall take of the Sapphire HD 6950 DiRT 3 edition is that it is one of the best deals currently available in the high-end market. Not only does it come with an excellent bundle that includes DiRT 3, but Sapphire has also improved the thermal design and power efficiency of the reference graphics card via high quality components.

»Neoseeker.com

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