Specialist versions of graphics cards have been a little hit and miss over the years. Sometimes huge coolers and tiny overclocks have created over-priced cards with barely any performance improvement over their stock brethren. Others though, such as the TOXIC Editions from Sapphire that we're looking at today, have been consistently impressive.
The last couple of HD6850s that we have reviewed have been good performers in stock trim, but rather disappointing when it came to either their ability to overclock, or the benfits that are to be gained from doing so.
Rather than focus on producing a non-reference cooling solution bristling with heat-pipes and the like, Sapphire have focussed on improving an already good value product with increases to GPU Core speed and Memory.
Given how minimal the gains from overclocking a stock HD6850 are, we're very interested to see if a manufacturer overclock can lead to any worthwhile improvements or if this is a possibly an upgrade too far.
Popping over to the excellent Sapphire website we find the technical specs for the HD6850 TOXIC Edition as follows.
|Output||1 x Dual-Link DVI|
1 x HDMI 1.4a
2 x Mini-DisplayPort
1 x Single-Link DVI-D
|GPU||820 MHz Core Clock|
40 nm Chip
960 x Stream Processors
|Memory||1024 MB Size|
256 -bit GDDR5
4400 MHz Effective
SAPPHIRE TriXX Utility
|Accessory||CrossFire™ Bridge Interconnect Cable|
Mini-DP to DP Cable
6 PIN to 4 PIN Power Cable
HDMI 1.4a high speed 1.8 meter cable
The main improvement is an upgrade of the GPU Core speed from the default of 775MHz to 820MHz. Memory also sees a significant boost from the 4000MHz of the original HD6850 to a monster 4400MHz on the TOXIC. Sapphire have also greatly increased the output options available.
Sapphire TOXIC Up Close
The HD6850 TOXIC is a very standard looking card. Nothing particularly impressive stands out about it from a cooling point of view. Indeed you'd be forgiven for wondering if it was a special edition at all. Our test sample is a pre-retail one but we're assured that it's identical in every way to the ones you'll buy on the shelf with the only difference being that ours came in a plain brown box rather than the full packaging you'd expect.
The input end of the card is where the first real changes are to be found. We have a Dual-Link DVI-D, a Single-Link DVI-D, a HDMI 1.4a port and two mini DisplayPorts. The Sapphire HD6850 TOXIC is certainly awash with connectivity options.
Speaking of which Sapphire haven't been stingy with the accessories either. Besides the standard power cables and adaptors, we have a HDMI 1.4 cable supplied too, which is a nice touch.
The rear of the card hints that something special is going on, with plenty of solder covering seemingly every available gap. A close-up of the area surrounding the GPU itself shows the quality that's typical of the high-end Sapphire cards.
In fact we'd go so far as to say this is a 6870 PCB with the relative power phases, just using a 6850 GPU.
Sapphire HD6850 TOXIC Edition
Intel Core i7-870
4GB Kingston HyperX RAM
Cougar 1000CM 1000W PSU
Windows 7 x64
Overclocking and Temperatures
As you can see when compared to the reference design HD6850 the Sapphire TOXIC increases core speed by 45MHz and the Memory by 100MHz.
If there is one thing the Sapphire does, it's earn the TOXIC badge with aplomb. The Memory wasn't really happy going anything worth keeping above the already speedy 4400MHz, but the Core was almost indestructable.
Using the Trixx software, which we'll go over on the next page, the card hit 1056MHz before falling over. Backing off to 1026MHz ran nearly every test perfectly but eventually keeled over during Metro 2033, and so our bench runs were done using 1000MHz core.
1000MHz core ladies and gentlemen. How impressive is that?! 180MHz over the stock TOXIC, 225MHz over a stock Radeon HD6850.
After a 3D Mark Vantage Extreme run the GPU topped out at 83°C which is heading towards as comfortable as we like. But if one thing is clear it's that with serious cooling, and a willingness to push the voltage as high as you can, then it seems like the only limit to the Sapphire HD6850 TOXIC is your imagination. Or the overclocking slider.
One of the new additions with a Sapphire card is their own overclocking software, TriXX. It does everything you could hope for it to do, in a very painless manner.
The first page shows the information about the card itself in a similar manner to GPUz and other monitoring programs.
The second "overclocking" tab is where the real heart of the program lies. Not only has it got the GPU Core and Memory clocking aspect that is common to so many applications, but also gives a live temperature reading and allows voltage control. These are features we've seen before with an MSI utility but where the Sapphire TriXX really stands out is that it will adjust all these aspects, even voltage, regardless of the manufacturer of your card and without needing to use any specific drivers or adjust any ini files. Exceptional.
The third page is where you can control the fan speed. The fixed option does what you'd expect but any changes are made "live" so you can easily reach a balance between fan volume and cooling ability, without endlessly applying your settings. Speaking of volume, because it's a reference card anything above about 52% fans becomes audible, although 40 is about the perfect balance of cooling and volume.
Finally we have the settings page. This allows for simple control over the software including whether you'd like it to load and apply at startup, control all of your cards at once should you have Crossfire'd cards, includes a gadget that is a sidebar version of the information on the first page, and even the ability to have live clock changes as you adjust the slider. Of course the "set clock on change" option needs to be treated with caution. You don't want to have a knock on your arm and suddenly pump 2 volts through your core.
3D Mark Vantage
For testing we're going up against the HIS Digital HD6850 we reviewed at the launch of the HD68 series from AMD. At stock the TOXIC is about the same as the reference HD6850, but its ability to benefit from an overclock is someting else entirely.
At most the reference card gained 90 points for a healthy overclock, but the Sapphire TOXIC is almost a different card giving massive gains across the board. Nearly 17000 P-Score for a sub £200 card is magnificent. Hopefully it will keep this up through the rest of the tests.
The Unigine benchmark is notoriously hefty and it takes a huge increase in performance to get any benefits at all in the results. Although you could be forgiven for sneering at a mere 1.5FPS increase with the overclock compared to the stock card, for the Heaven benchmark that's a significant increase. The maximum frame-rate hints at how much extra power is available to us.
With the image quality increased to biblical levels the Sapphire card really comes into its own. At stock it pulls an extra couple of frames over the reference designed card, and when overclocked it ekes another couple of frames again. The difference between 25 and 30 frames per second is the difference between unplayable and bearable. This is one of those times when the results might not contain big numbers, but what they represent is huge.
Far Cry 2
Ubisofts Dunia engined game, Far Cry 2, is a little long in the tooth but still has eye-candy aplenty. Our stock TOXIC just about edges the reference design again, but the overclock is where the real performance is to be had, taking Far Cry 2 at Ultra High settings just past the 60 frames per second barrier.
Metro follows Unigine in which it can bring most systems to their knees and really needs another card to make the most of it. However once again the Sapphire HD6850 TOXIC Edition really has loads to offer once the card is overclocked and its latent performance unleashed.
Although a game that we've long berated as being poorly optimised, Crysis Warhead was one of the few games that showed any benefit at all when we overclocked the reference card and therefore is the only card on test in which the Sapphire TOXIC doesn't romp home in the top two places. 50 frames per second average from a £168 graphics card anybody? Yeah we think so too. So enough rambling, let's wrap this up.
We've long held the belief that graphics cards coolers are deliberately shoddy to allow the partners of nVidia and AMD to produce something special that would bring them the brand loyalty that everyone from Tesco to Ferrari seek.
However, conversely to CPU giants Intel and AMD who endlessly bring out chips that will run way above their rated specifications, GPUs are usually pretty close to their limits already.
Therefore what we are used to seeing time and again when it comes to specialist models from the GPU heavyweights is a card that has heat-pipes and fans on every inch of the card, but only a small increase in Core speed.
Sapphire have taken the mighty TOXIC Edition branding and turned the tables. Rather than focussing on a cooler that helps anyone tell at a glance the card in your rig is something special, they have concentrated everything on making it perform.
Looks, although nice, aren't really vital in our lust for the latest eye-candy crunching beast and the Sapphire TOXIC is bland at best. A very nice blue circuit board but otherwise it's the standard shroud style cooler with nothing specific to separate it from the pack.
Like the best 'street sleeper' performance car or Class A amplifier, everything about the Sapphire TOXIC is hidden under the hood. A 100 MHz increase in the GDDR5 has the obvious performance benefits we'd expect to see especially when the Image Quality is increased.
It's the GPU though that is far and away the star of the party. The 45MHz increase that Sapphire have given the HD6850 TOXIC over the standard HD6850 helps it just edge ahead of a reference design, but the quality of the chip and the board it's used on mean that the overclocking headroom is almost obscene.
We're used to getting maybe 50 or 60 MHz out of a good card. A great card and chip can give us perhaps 100 MHz improvement and if you've struck gold across the board you might see 150 MHz. By contrast the HD6850 TOXIC happily gave us 235MHz and has plenty more to give if the cooling and voltage was increases sufficiently. Even on stock voltage and cooling we were able to run at everything we could think of at 1000 MHz core, 225 MHz over a stock card and 180 MHz over the stock TOXIC itself.
I'm sure that the use of the higher capacity 6870 PCB is largely responsible for the improved overclocking performance and overheads. This does take a little of the gloss off of the wonderful nature though, because it's such a simplistic solution. Rather than being something that takes the TOXIC Edition branding and employs extraordinary tweaks to bring out the ultimate performance, it's just a 6850 GPU on the circuit board of it's bigger brother. The results can't be argued with though, but it does mean anyone could do it.
With a price-tag of around £165 we've already got a Gold Award worthy product, but the cherry on this delicious cake is the TriXX overclocking software that is also provided. It's simple to use, has a clear GUI and has everything you could want, including a small memory footprint. It works with any manufacturers card too which is just an added bonus and is the finest manufacturer overclocking utility we've seen.
The perfect blend of price and performance, with the biggest available headroom this side of a Hanger, the Sapphire HD6850 TOXIC Edition should be top of anyones mid-range want list and wins the OC3D Gold Award.
Thanks to Sapphire for providing the HD6850 TOXIC Edition for review. Discuss in our forums.