When a new product gets launched we always see a bunch of reference designs that change in nothing but the sticker for a while. Gradually as the product matures we start to see factory overclocked models and eventually ones with non-reference coolers.
The ASUS Top range has always been one that combines both elements of a factory overclock and a non-reference cooler to potentially provide one of the best performing models of that type around.
Of course the model that you start with has a large bearing on the quality and performance of the finished product, so we were delighted that the latest in the Top range is based upon the Radeon HD5850, a card we've already tested in stock format and found to have plenty of overhead available if you're willing to tweak.
As always we popped along to the ASUS website to grab the technical specifications and see what we've got to play with.
|Graphics Engine||ATI Radeon HD 5850|
|Video Memory||GDDR5 1G|
|Engine Clock||765 MHz|
|Memory Clock||4500 MHz ( 1125 MHz DDR5 )|
|CRT Max Resolution||2048 x 1536|
|DVI Max Resolution||2560 x 1600|
|VGA Output||Yes x 1 (via DVI to D-Sub adaptor x 1 ) |
|DVI Output||Yes x 2 (via HDMI to DVI adaptor x 1 )|
|HDMI Output||Yes x 1|
|Adaptor/Cable bundled||1 x DVI to D-Sub adaptor |
1 x Power cable
1 x HDMI to DVI adaptor
|Software Bundled||ASUS Utilities & Driver|
The two main features of note besides the factory overclock are the ASUS Voltage Tweak BIOS which enables us to "give it the beans", and the DirectCU which is ASUS Direct Contact Cooler which should keep the noise and temperatures down.
Starting as we always do with the external packaging. It's like Christmas, gradually unwrapping layers.
ASUS always impress with their packaging and sure enough they have done so again here. The front of the box has a lovely drawing of a mythological human/wings/panther hybrid next to the 110% speed advertisement. Along with that we have the standard model and manufacturer details and the various badges explaining the feature set.
On the rear we get a good close up of the board and information about the Voltage Tweak and DirectCU parts special to this particular model.
The frontal artwork is carried around on the side as well. Often we find artwork limited to just the front, or generic enough that you don't really notice. With this though it's a very classy looking box. Of course we're far more interested in the contents, so let's take the inside box out.
As always with ASUS it's a very sturdy box adorned with a simple gold ASUS logo. It adds such an air of quality and really heightens our desire to see what treats lay within. Once the main flap is open we find the box that contains the manuals and the smaller one with the cables. With the manual box out the way we get our first glimpse of the card in its static wrappings. But you can wait a moment before we can feast our eyes on that.
Inside the box we find a quick start manual, a PDF disk manual and the driver disk that also contains the ASUS overclocking utilities. Also provided are a Molex to PCI-6, a Crossfire bridge and two DVI adaptors to VGA and HDMI respectively.
One thing I do have to point out though is the manual disk. Not, for once, that any product costing more than a tenner has got a PDF manual because I think we all understand that is so frustrating as to be beyond a joke, but rather the disk itself. Apparently it's a "Muti Language Manual". That doesn't bode well for the quality of the manual within but thankfully it's a small mistake.
So blindingly obvious it's disappointing ASUS didn't pick it up though.
Enough teasing. Let's see what this cooler looks like.
The 5850 TOP Up Close
The first thing that strikes you, apart from the racing stripes, is that this isn't a full length cooler. This is something we're always concerned about as the heat is expelled into the case and the less of that the better. With a good sized case and decent airflow this isn't a major problem, but with graphics cards just situated under the processor and heat rising any degree is one we could do without.
The rear view gives us our first glimpse of the huge heatpipes and how well laid out the board is.
Unlike the standard reference design ASUS' DirectCU cooler has a large amount of fins, two big heatpipes and a very large fan that should dissipate the heat far more efficiently than the standard one, and with the the size of the fan hopefully much quieter too.
Despite the size it's still well within a double-card depth, and has a nice little ASUS logo on the side, to go along with the one on the fan, and the one on the cooler shroud, and the one on the board. Nobody will be in any doubt about who makes this when it's in your show case.
Finally we have the three outputs on the rear of the HD5850 Top. One DVI-D, one HDMI and one DisplayPort, providing Eyefinity compatibility right out the box without needing adaptors.
One of the things the pictures don't do full justice too is how solid this thing feels. This is definitely a well built piece of kit.
Test Setup, Overclocking and Temperatures
Intel Core i7 920 @ 3.2GHz
6GB Corsair Dominator @ 1600MHz
Asus P6T Deluxe
Windows 7 64 Bit
ASUS HD5850 Top
Catalyst 10.3 Final
ASUS HD5850 Reference for comparison
Our overclocking tests used a combination between the ASUS Smart Doctor, that allows us to modify the speed of the core and also the voltages, along with Furmark to test the stability of our overclock.
Starting at the default 765MHz we quickly hit 940MHz before any voltage adjustment was needed. It took an increase of 0.1v to move to 980MHz with stability and eventually 1.27v to crack the 1GHz barrier. Even with our fan at a modest 50%, the same we use with all our GPU overclocks, the HD5850 TOP didn't pass 65 degrees C after 5 minutes of the intense Furmark benchmark.
Temperatures were taking from GPUz after 5 minutes of Furmark testing. Because of the auto-underclock when in 2D applications the idle temperatures were within a gnats chuff of each other and so have been left out for clarity.
So we know what we're using, and what it'll do. Let's see how it performs under pressure.
3D Mark and Gaming
For our tests we're using two cards at three settings. A reference design HD5850 at our best overclock (940MHz), and the ASUS Top at Stock (765MHz) and Overclocked (1014MHz). We're using the latest Catalyst 10.3 drivers that give a nice boost in most of our test games.
Vantage Performance Test
Vantage, whilst pushing cards very hard indeed, naturally doesn't make a big fuss in the default performance benchmark because the resolution is so low. As you can see the stock performance isn't bad, the overclocked reference is good, but the overclocked Top really stretches its legs pushing past the 20000 barrier. Definitely got plenty of oomph at lower resolutions.
Vantage High Test
Moving to the high test which is much more realistic we find that although the difference between them naturally diminishes as architecture plays as bit a role as clock speed, but still the Top shows its worth by stretching a lead over the stock and reference models.
Modern Warfare 2
Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare 2 provides both great looking graphics and also isn't too hard on the system requirements. Although the overclocked Top has a clear lead they all are well clear of the 60FPS rock-solid frame rate we need for smooth gaming.
Crysis Warhead Gamer
Crysis Warhead gives us our first slight stumbling block in that we're not past 60FPS. But the new drivers are clearly working a treat because with Gamer settings we're not far off a fully playable experience on all three, although once again the power of the Top shows through.
Crysis Warhead Enthusiast
Moving to Enthusiast settings with 4 x Anti-Aliasing we really get a feel for what is under the hood. Sure none of our cards on test provide a particularly glorious experience, but the gap between the ASUS HD5850 Top overclock and the reference design overclock stands out a mile at these low frame-rates. When you're down here one or two frames can make all the difference and the playing experiences was unquestionably smoother.
Gaming Part 2
Here is our first strange result. Now before you jump up and down it has to be noted that the numbers we're dealing with are so small as to be barely noticeable, and within error tolerance. Nonetheless the Top in stock format did better than the overclocked reference model.
Venerable old Grid is very much past the end of its life but we've got a soft spot for the old girl here and couldn't resist dusting her off again.
After the anomaly of Dirt 2 we return to the familiar pattern with the Overclocked Top standing proudly at the top of the pile.
Need for Speed Shift definitely enjoys a little more grunt and here the rewards of a more modern card with better cooling and a higher speed are obvious. About the only way you could make the driving experience more enjoyable would be to have a warm tin of Castrol R on the desk and get the other half to burn some rubber.
So my fine friends who actually read the review rather than skipping to the conclusion, let's join the impatient ones shall we.
Phew. That was a lot of testing.
One of the things that became apparent very quickly was that the extra headroom allowed by the better cooling, which gave a better overclock, meant this was definitely going to come out on top. In some ways that made testing slightly frustrating because the answer was clear before the benchmarks were run. However, for accuracy, run them we must and it's good we did because the Dirt 2 result was very surprising.
Let's go back a little bit first. The packaging, as we've come to expect from ASUS, is excellent. Nicely following the ASUS standard of a good box, with their standard black box of goodies within. The foam around the card was cut out accurately giving a tight fit and, with the manual box on top, ensuring your precious HD5850 Top wouldn't get bumped by an errant postman.
The box contains all you'd expect and the driver installation process is swift and pain free.The card definitely looks the business in its serious gun-metal coating and is weightier than most we've had through the labs.
Performance is excellent as, thanks to the Voltage Tweak BIOS and the brilliant cooler, even a monster 250MHz overclock didn't stress the card at all. Our benchmarks also bore this out with it coming out on top in all our tests.
The real star of the show though is the DirectCU cooler. For comparable results we always run all our graphics card fans at 50%. More often than not we find an assault on the ears rather than a treat for the eyes. With the ASUS HD5850 Top we had that magical combination between great cooling performance and low noise.
Finally we, as ever, need to consider pricing. It looks like this will hit the streets around £265, which is about the price you'd expect to pay for a reference card and a third party cooler. To get both professionally fitted and with the ASUS warranty is obviously something that, if silence is an element you care about, something that can't be missed. The performance differential between the reference design and this is small enough that you might consider saving a few pennies. I wouldn't.
Good performance and excellent noise levels make this clearly a winner of our Gamers Choice award.
We would like to thank Asus for the sample today, you can discuss this review in our forums.