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Introduction
For too long now ATI have been playing second fiddle to their arch rival, NVidia. The ATI cards recently, while being very good cards in their own right, have not had quite the impact ATI would have liked and more often that not have fallen short of the high standard NVidia were setting. When Advanced Micro Devices (AMD to you and I) requisitioned ATI, the enthusiast market was buzzing with talk that ATI could make it back to the heyday of reproducing revolutionary graphics cards such as the magnificent 9800 Pro, which stomped on anything NVidia could muster. Sadly we have had to wait some time, with ATI instead targeting the mid-range sector instead of the ultra high end. Times, as always, change and although still not exactly the dominating force they once were, AMD/ATI have made significant advances with the 3000 series of GPU's and more recently the 4000 series. More importantly, these series of cards didn't need a Platinum credit card to own nor were they significantly lower performing than their NVidia counterpart despite being more quite alot cheaper.
 
So then, to the pinnacle of the current cards available in the 4000 series, the HD4870 512mb DDR5 version from Sapphire. Being a top tier ATI partner, Sapphire are usually one of the first manufacturers to release the latest GPU's from ATI and so it was no different with the HD4870. With a Terascale graphics engine, GDDR5 memory, coupled with a 256bit memory interface, the HD4870 was set to take the GPU world by storm raising the bar for not only the mid/high end market but also snapping at the heels of the Ultra high end sector, namely the 9800GX2 and GTX280 cards from NVidia. Add to that, the possibility to run Crossfire and indeed CrossfireX (790FX motherboard required for quadfire) as well as the capability to run 24x custom filter anti-aliasing and support for DirectX10.1 and ATI have seemingly pulled out all the stops to release a flagship card with all the latest technologies on offer.
 
So it's all good news... or is it? Too many times have we been promised so much by that latest release which ultimately failed to live up to those promises, more often than not falling flat on its silicon. There was no doubting the 3870(x2) series were fantastic cards but the Achilles heal was their inability to deliver AA/AF at any significant level without the cards grinding to a halt, especially at higher resolutions. So can the HD4870 finally deliver on its promises? Can it actually out pace NVidias finest? Surely that would be a massive blow to NVidia, prompting them to once again step up to the plate and give the tech guys a kick up the rear they so need, as in my humble opinion, NVidia have sat on the laurels for far too long, basking in the glory of the 8800GTX. Let's find out of the ATI underdog can upset the record books and punch above its price tag...


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Packaging & Appearance
 
The outer packaging is a standard affair with Sapphire's interpretation of what can only be assumed as ATI's 'Ruby' clad in a Tomb Raider style costume. 'Prepare to Dominate' is emblazoned across the front of the printed cardboard box along with the main features of the card and included software. Surprisingly, the GDDR5 emblem seems little more than an after thought rather than being a priority in the design of the box. To the side, there is a brief run down of the specifications of the card.
 
 
 
The rear of the box goes more in-depth into the features and capabilities of the card, mainly DX10, PCIe 2.0, 55nm process and unified Video decoder capabilities.
 
 
 
When opening the box, I was shocked at the shoddy packing. While the actual materials used were fine, the packing and presentation was dire at best. It was like the card and accessories had just been thrown in the box with 2 slabs of foam used for protection! Sapphire would do well to look at other manufacturers quality packing process in this respect. In contrast, the actual accessories included are both quality and complete. Everything you could want from a GPU package is there including PCIe PSU connectors, DVI & HDMI connectors, driver disks, aswell as a suite of useful software including a full version of the Futuremark 3DMark06 edition. Not only that but Sapphire have also been generous enough to include a 2GB USB pen drive.
 
 
The card itself is based on the reference design of the card with a Sapphire sticker on the heat sink fan assembly. The card is the same length as the width of a standard ATX motherboard so there will be no issues with this card overhanging the motherboards like it's NVidia counterparts. The rear of the card, again, is no different from a reference HD4870. In testing we found the fan to be almost silent and only spun up when under load. This is when the fan becomes noisy and may be an issue for some i.e those not wearing ear phones.
 
I should also add the card seemed to spin up for 1 second then drop back down at bizarre intervals, such as when browsing the motherboard BIOS, which let me tell you, can be a little shocking when it first happens! Why the card spins up to full pelt then back down to idle instead of a slow increase I have no idea and would certainly prefer the latter of the two options given the choice.
 
 
As you can see, the HD4870 reference card is based on a dual slot design. The top of the PCI back-plate is used as a vent and the bottom houses the ports of the card including 2xDVI and an S-Video connection. To the front of the card we see the main power connectors in the form of 2x 6pin PCIe connectors. There is a lot of heat being expelled through the back of the card which was surprising given the 55nnm chip now in place but it is reassuring that the heat sink is doing its job.
 
 
 
Taking the main heat sink off was a very simple process as all the screws are the same size apart from the backplate screws which are spring loaded which is good news for anyone wishing to water cool the card. The spacing of the holes is such that generic water blocks attached to the previous generation of cards should also be transferable to this one - once more keeping the cost down for the enthusiast looking to improve gaming performance without breaking the bank.
 
The two banks of Qimonda GDDR5 memory run at 1800mhz (giving an effective speed of 3.6ghz!) are cooled via thermal pads as are the VRM's and while I would have liked to see 1GB being used, 512mb is more than adequate for the time being, provided the previous issues are solved with AA/AF. Looking at the R770XT core itself, which is the only part of the card that is cooled via paste, once more it appears a standard affair but disappointingly is not covered with an IHS so be careful mounting those water blocks! The core is very small for the amount of transistors it has, testament to the 55nm process employed in its design.
 

 
The power delivery section of the card is served by a multitude of VRMS with only the smaller of them requiring any cooling. Other voltage is regulated by the use of a Vitec MPI (multi phase inductor) coupled with 2 Pulse VRM's. Interesting the Vitec module has 2 solder points unused which may allow the V-modders to release yet more power to the HD4870 by means of replacement.
 
All in all, a very neat and tidy looking card with a great design and adequate cooling abilities. The only real let down is the actual packaging - but if that's the only area that cuts have been made then I will be happy as although I do like a well packed and presented product, I don't expect to pay a massive premium for the privilege.


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Features
 
Normally we at OC3D don't write about the 'features' of a graphics cards unless the card warrants it by a leap in technology. This is one such occasion.

 
Perhaps the biggest departure from the R600 series core is the introduction of what AMD likes to call One Tera or 'TeraScale GPU engine'.
As the name suggest the card is theoretically capable of over 1 trillion FPO's per second i.e 1 teraflop all the while utilising effiency and affordability in its transition allowing the consumer to benefit from lower costs. The 55nm process employed by AMD should in theory, make the GPU more effieicient, so not only will it run cooler but it will be cheaper to produce. This is an achievement in iteslf but the advances don't stop there. Without going to far into the specifics of the Terascale engine, it has been re-designed from the ground up making better use of the GDDR5's higher bandwidth available by granting each of the memory controller hubs its own cache, so while it may have a physical 256-bit memory interface, the increase in badwidth is actually on a par with a 512-bit interface. This, ATI calim, has enabled the 4000 series of cards to perform much better when AA is applied in comparison to the 3000 series cards.
 
 
 
Power Requirements
 
As graphics cards are getting faster and faster we are seeing the introduction of more and more power connectors to feed the required power to the cards. Long gone are the days when a PCI slot could power a card, we are now seeing upto 14 PCIe (6+8) pins being used for the high end cards and you can double that should you wish to go with SLI/Crossfire, or if you have Chernobyl tucked away under your desk you may want to go for TRI or even quadfire!  The 4870 fortunately makes do with 2x 6pin PCIe power connectors requiring 75w each and as such Sapphire recommend a 500W PSU for a single card, with a 600w minimum requirement for Crossfire based setups. So the power requirements are not too drastic as any gamer worth his salt should have a 500w+ PSU.
 
Obviously, depending on your setup you would be wise to opt for a bigger PSU as it's always better to have that little extra available, especially if you like to dabble in the dark art of overclocking.


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Test Setup
 
A common mistake made when benchmarking graphics cards is that the rest of the PC system isn't sufficient enough to test the GPU to its limits. This results in a bottleneck situation, where the system can only run at the speed of its slowest component. For this reason, the test configuration chosen below has been specially selected to give each of the graphics cards on test the headroom they require in order to produce the best results.
 
 
A selection of games and benchmark suites has also been chosen to test each of the cards with several game engines. Each of the cards will be run at both low and high resolutions with varying levels of texture filtering to represent the use of the card with both small and large screen sizes.
 
3DMark05
1024x768 / 0xAA / 0xAF (Default)
1920x1200 / 4xAA / 0xAF
 
3DMark 06
1280x1024 / 0xAA / 0xAF
1920x1200 / 4xAA / 0xAF

3DMark Vantage
1280x1024 / Performance Mode
1900x1200 / Extreme Mode
 
Quake4
1280x1024 / Ultra / 4xAA / 4xAF
1920x1200 / Ultra / 4xAA / 4xAF
 
Unreal Tournament III
1280x1024 / DX10 / High / 0xAA / 0xAF
1920x1200 / DX10 / High / 0xAA / 0xAF
 
Call of Duty 4
1280x1024 / Max / 4xAA / 4xAF
1920x1200 / Max / 4xAA / 4xAF
 
F.E.A.R
1280x1024 / Max / 4xAA / 4xAF
1920x1200 / Max / 4xAA / 0xAF
 
BIOSHOCK
1280x1024 / DX10 / High / 0xAA / 0xAF
1920x1200 / DX10 / High / 0xAA / 0xAF
 
Crysis
1280x1024 / DX10 / High / 0xAA / 0xAF
1920x1200 / DX10 / High / 0xAA / 0xAF
 
During the benchmarking phase, we will be using the following prices extracted from aria.co.uk on 30/07/08 to produce our CPF graphs. Please remember that these graphs are static and only represent a snapshot of the market at the time of this review.
 
MSI GTX280 - £317.19
ASUS 4850 - £123.90
ASUS GTX260 - £199.69
PowerColor HD4870 - £174.97
Sapphire HD4870 - £183.07
 
Overclocking
 
The Powercolour version of the same card we have here manage to max out the ATI Overdrive tool in our previous review so lets see how the Sapphire fairs :
 
 
True to form the Sapphire HD4870 also maxes out the ATI overdrive tool. I am in no doubt that this card can be pushed much  further but cooling could become an issue as at idle the card is reading 77c. Load temps will no doubt be a limiting factor in any overclocking adventure but it is nice to know that the card is capable should you find the means to keep it cool.


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3DMark is a popular synthetic gaming benchmark used by many gamers and overclockers to gauge the performance of their PC's. All 3DMark runs were performed a total of 5 times, with the highest and lowest results being removed and an average calculated from the remaining 3 results.
 
 
 
As was to be expected, the Sapphire and Powercolour cards give the same results, both bettering the GTX260 and not too far behind the NVidia flagship model GTX280.
 
 
Again we see the Sapphire card matching that of the Powercolour but this time the GTX260 takes a slight advantage over the ATI counterparts. The results however are a little closer once the resolution is increased and AA applied.
 
 
Finally we arrive at Futuremark's latest benchmark. The 4870's struggle to keep up with their NVidia rivals here and considering that the PhysX driver was not used in this run, one can only assume that the gap would increase further. For a card costing apx £40 less though it is a very good showing from ATI. I was especially pleased to see that when adding AA the card didn't appear to be crippled as with the 3870 series. So far so good!


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Call of Duty 4 is a stunning DirectX 9.0c based game that really looks awesome and has a very full feature set. With lots of advanced lighting, smoke and water effects, the game has excellent explosions along with fast gameplay. Using the in-built Call Of Duty features, a 10-minute long game play demo was recorded and replayed on each of the GPU's using the /timedemo command a total of 5 times. The highest and lowest FPS results were then removed, with an average being calculated from the remaining 3 results.
 
 
 
The advantage the ATI cards held in the 3DMark set of benchmarks seems to have wavered once we start playing 'real' games. Although not a drastic deficit, the NVidia cards had the advantage in COD4, albeit at a greater cost per frame.
 
 
 
BioShock is a recent FPS shooter by 2K games. Based on the UT3 engine, it has a large amount of advanced DirectX techniques including excellent water rendering and superb lighting and smoke techniques. All results were recorded using F.R.A.P.S with a total of 5 identical runs through the same area of the game. The highest and lowest results were then removed, with an average being calculated from the remaining 3 results.
 
 
 
 
Unsurprisingly the two 4870's were evenly matched. What is surprising as that both managed to out perform the GTX260 at both resolutions with the gap increasing once AA was applied. A very good performance for ATI in the first of our DX10 benchmarks.


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Crysis is without doubt one of the most visually stunning and hardware-challenging games to date. By using CrysisBench - a tool developed independently of Crysis - we performed a total of 5 timedemo benchmarks using a GPU-intensive pre-recorded demo. To ensure the most accurate results, the highest and lowest benchmark scores were then removed and an average calculated from the remaining three.
 
 
 
Being a DX10 game and seeing how the Sapphire card performed in Bioshock I half expected to see the ATI cards out perform the GTX260 in Crysis aswell. However this game seems to favour NVidia based setups at both resolutions. The NVidia cards also claw back a little bit of cost in this game but are still more expensive cost per frame. Still a very good performance from the ATI cards given that they are alot cheaper and still keep within a couple of FPS of their main rival.
 
 
 
F.E.A.R. is a game based on the Lithtech Jupiter EX engine. It has volumetric lighting, soft shadows, parallax mapping and particle effects. All results were recorded using F.R.A.P.S, with a total of 5 identical runs through the same area of the game. The highest and lowest results were then removed, with an average being calculated from the remaining 3 results.
 
 
 
 
 
F.E.A.R has always taken a preference to the NVidia camp and today was no different seeing the GTX260 and 280 cards easily dispatch the ATI offerings. The NVidia cards do take a much bigger hit when AA was applied though and one can only assume that the more AA and higher the resolution the more even the playing field would be.


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Quake 4 is a game built on the Doom 3 engine. Benchmarking was performed using Quake4Bench and a custom timedemo recording. The benchmark was set to run a total of 5 times, with Quake4Bench automatically calculating an average result at the end of the run.
 
 
 
 
The Quake engine sees the NVidia cards once again take the advantage. I was bemused that the Quake engine seemed to limit the ATI's performance somewhat with the application of AA not making any discernible difference to the results. The NVidia cards had no such trouble ripping through the benchmark with ease. Perhaps not the best game for ATI fans.
  
 
 
Unreal Tournament 3 is the highly anticipated game from Epic Games and Midway. The game uses the latest Unreal engine, which combines fast gameplay along with high quality textures and lighting effects. All benchmarks were performed using UTbench with a fly-by of the DM-BioHazard map. As usual, all benchmarks were performed 5 times, with the highest and lowest results being removed and an average calculated from the remaining three.
 
 
 
Again NVidia land on top with the Unreal graphics engine proffering NVidia to ATI. This is not to say that the ATI cards had a poor showing in Unreal Tournament III as 136FPS is nothing to be sniffed at but they are some 35 FPS shy of their NVidia counterparts in this particular game.
 
Throughout all the benchmarks, particular attention should be given to cost per frame which shows that the ATI cards have a distinct advantage over NVidia - even after NVidia dropped their prices recently.


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Conclusion
 
After reviewing an HD4870 previously, we were fairly sure that the Sapphire card would give us the similar results, being that, in effect, it is the same card. Sure enough, the Sapphire HD4870 didn't disappoint giving nigh identical results to the previous HD4870 we reviewed, as well as almost matching and at times beating the GTX260 in every benchmark we threw at it. Because of this, we didn't quite get the WOW factor that we had with the previous review. Obviously this is not a fault of the Sapphire version, far from it  as not only did it match the previous HD4870, it served to emphasize the tremendous improvements ATI have put in place with the 4000 series of GPU's compared to their NVidia counterparts. While the GTX280 still has the performance advantage the HD4870 costs a fraction of the amount and on occasion even beats the 280's sibling, the GTX260, which again is more expensive. Bang per buck the only card that can touch it at the time of writing this review is the HD4850, however, the faster HD4870 is still an extraordinary buy and the card I would choose at this price point. The Sapphire HD4870 is without doubt one of the fastest cards out there and for the price it is in a league of it's own.
 
Deciding on one card over the other is a very difficult affair as both have plus and minus points. Support for both cards is great so there is little to differentiate there. The PowerColor card has the superior packaging but the Sapphire has the better accessories, however those accessories do come at a little extra cost.. If the Sapphire had much improved packaging and could throw in the accessories with no extra cost then the decision would become a no brainer. Therefore, I guess it would come down to how much you value the bundled software and the temptation of the 2GB Flash drive. Considering flash drives of this size and quality can be bought for under £10 these days, the price of both cards can be leveled out. The websites of both manufacturers are both easy to navigate and both offer a 2 year warranty with their products. So what else is there to compare, the sticker? I think I'll leave that one for you to decide.
 
 
The Good
- Performance equalling that of the GTX260
- Amazing Bang per Buck.
- Overclocks for fun
 
The Mediocre
- Random bursts of fan speeds are not for the faint hearted!
- Noisy fan on full load
 
The Bad
- The packaging. While not enough to put me off buying the product, is something Sapphire need to improve upon.
 
 
Overclock3D Recommended Award Overclock3D Value For Money Award
 
Thanks to Sapphire for sending the HD4870 for review. Discuss this review in our forums.