Sapphire HD 2900 XT Page: 1
Introduction

AMD/ATI introduced the 2900 XT in May. With full DirectX 10 support and some pretty awesome multimedia features the card looked to be pretty nice. Finally ATI had a competitor for the 8800 series. We took a long look at the features and specification of the card in our article here.

Today I have the Sapphire HD2900XT in the labs, let's take a look to see what kind of performance we can get out of AMD's newest top-line GPU.

Packaging

Sapphire have adorned their 2900XT's box with the usual space-age CGI character. However I was pleasantly surprised to see that their as a viewing window to allow you to see the actual card itself, something I appreciate in packaging. This is sure to tempt people towards the card as it shows it off in all it's glory.

saphire hd2900xt sapphire hd2900xt box

The inside of the box is equally well packaged with a nice foam insert for the card to sit in. The package that comes with the card is nestled in it's own box below the card itself.

sapphhire 2900xt packaging inside

All is well on the packaging front then, although the box information could be a little less crowded.

Package

It has to be said that the package for the 2900 XT is very impressive indeed. You get:

* Getting started manual
* CyberLink PowerDirector 4
* CyberLink PowerDVD 6
* Furturemark's 3DMark06 Pro Edition
* Half Life 2 "The Black Box" Edition voucher
* Installation driver CD
* 1 x Crossfire Dongle
* 1 x S-Video to dual S-Video and dual Composite connectors
* 2 x DVI to VGA connectors
* 1 x DVI to HDMI connector
* 1 x S-Video to component connector

sapphire hd2900xt bundle

ATI and Sapphire have done very well in putting this package together, very well indeed. Everything you will need is there, along with a generous amount of decent media software, a couple of Half Life 2 related AAA titles and a very nice benchmark for when you want to show off your new card.

It's not often I say this, but that is a complete bundle and is impressive.

Specification

Taken from Sapphire's website:

Quick specs:

Chipset        HD 2900 XT
       
process (Die size)        0,08 µ
transistor count        720 Mio
memory options        512 MB
Core frequency        740
Memory frequency (eff.)        1650
Shader Processor Units        48
pixel shader pipelines        16
Geometry pipelines        8
Vertex shader        8
steam processors        320
Memory Bus (bit)        512
memory type        GDDR3
data bus        PCI Express x16
RAMDAC        2x400MHz
AA samples per fillrate (Gsamples/sec)       
textures applied per pass       
maximum texels filtered per Pixel (texel/pixel)       
       
       
standard cooling        active
standard slot solution        dual
external power need        yes, 6pin, 8pin
DirectX        DX10 SM4.0
Memory Optimization        Hyper Z HD
Full Screen Anti-Aliasing        Smoothvision HD + Adaptive AA
HDR (10:10:10:2)        16-bit integer or floating point
Video acceleration        MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX, WMV9, VC-1, and H.264
FullStream  (Video-deblocking)        Real, divX, WM9,
       
HDTV compatibility (YPbPr)        yes
HDMI compliance / HDCP ready         HDMI 1.2 / yes
HDMI modes (over DVI)        480p, 720p, 1080i
Dual-Link capabilities        2
native display support        10-bit
3D Graphics Resolution        2560x1600
TV Out resolution        1024x768 1080i
Dual Display support        Hydravision 3

Full ATI marketing stuff:

700 million transistors on 80nm HS fabrication process
512-bit 8-channel GDDR3/4 memory interface
Ring Bus Memory Controller

* Fully distributed design with 1024-bit internal ring bus for memory reads and writes
* Optimized for high performance HDR (High Dynamic Range) rendering at high display resolutions

Unified Superscalar Shader Architecture

* 320 stream processing units
o Dynamic load balancing and resource allocation for vertex, geometry, and pixel shaders
o Common instruction set and texture unit access supported for all types of shaders
o Dedicated branch execution units and texture address processors
* 128-bit floating point precision for all operations
* Command processor for reduced CPU overhead
* Shader instruction and constant caches
* Up to 80 texture fetches per clock cycle
* Up to 128 textures per pixel
* Fully associative multi-level texture cache design
* DXTC and 3Dc+ texture compression
* High resolution texture support (up to 8192 x 8192)
* Fully associative texture Z/stencil cache designs
* Double-sided hierarchical Z/stencil buffer
* Early Z test, Re-Z, Z Range optimization, and Fast Z Clear
* Lossless Z & stencil compression (up to 128:1)
* Lossless color compression (up to 8:1)
* 8 render targets (MRTs) with anti-aliasing support
* Physics processing support

Full support for Microsoft® DirectX® 10.0

* Shader Model 4.0
* Geometry Shaders
* Stream Output
* Integer and Bitwise Operations
* Alpha to Coverage
* Constant Buffers
* State Objects
* Texture Arrays

Dynamic Geometry Acceleration

* High performance vertex cache
* Programmable tessellation unit
* Accelerated geometry shader path for geometry amplification
* Memory read/write cache for improved stream output performance

Anti-aliasing features

* Multi-sample anti-aliasing (up to 8 samples per pixel)
* Up to 24x Custom Filter Anti-Aliasing (CFAA) for improved quality
* Adaptive super-sampling and multi-sampling
* Temporal anti-aliasing
* Gamma correct
* Super AA (CrossFire™ configurations only)
* All anti-aliasing features compatible with HDR rendering

Texture filtering features

* 2x/4x/8x/16x high quality adaptive anisotropic filtering modes (up to 128 taps per pixel)
* 128-bit floating point HDR texture filtering
* Bicubic filtering
* sRGB filtering (gamma/degamma)
* Percentage Closer Filtering (PCF)
* Depth & stencil texture (DST) format support
* Shared exponent HDR (RGBE 9:9:9:5) texture format support

CrossFire™ Multi-GPU Technology

* Scale up rendering performance and image quality with 2 or more GPUs
* Integrated compositing engine
* High performance dual channel interconnect

ATI Avivo™ HD Video and Display Platform

* Two independent display controllers
o Drive two displays simultaneously with independent resolutions, refresh rates, color controls and video overlays for each display
o Full 30-bit display processing
o Programmable piecewise linear gamma correction, color correction, and color space conversion
o Spatial/temporal dithering provides 30-bit color quality on 24-bit and 18-bit displays
o High quality pre- and post-scaling engines, with underscan support for all display outputs
o Content-adaptive de-flicker filtering for interlaced displays
o Fast, glitch-free mode switching
o Hardware cursor
* Two integrated dual-link DVI display outputs
o Each supports 18-, 24-, and 30-bit digital displays at all resolutions up to 1920x1200 (single-link DVI) or 2560x1600 (dual-link DVI)1
o Each includes a dual-link HDCP encoder with on-chip key storage for high resolution playback of protected content2
* Two integrated 400 MHz 30-bit RAMDACs
o Each supports analog displays connected by VGA at all resolutions up to 2048x15363
* HDMI output support
o Supports all display resolutions up to 1920x1080i
o Integrated HD audio controller with multi-channel (5.1) AC3 support, enabling a plug-and-play cable-less audio solution
* Integrated AMD Xilleon™ HDTV encoder
o Provides high quality analog TV output (component/S-video/composite)
o Supports SDTV and HDTV resolutions
o Underscan and overscan compensation
* HD decode for H.264/AVC, VC-1, DivX and MPEG-2 video formats
o Flawless DVD, HD DVD, and Blu-ray™ playback
o Motion compensation and IDCT (Inverse Discrete Cosine Transformation)
* HD video processing
o Advanced vector adaptive per-pixel de-interlacing
o De-blocking and noise reduction filtering
o Edge enhancement
o Inverse telecine (2:2 and 3:2 pull-down correction)
o Bad edit correction
o High fidelity gamma correction, color correction, color space conversion, and scaling
* MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX, WMV9, VC-1, and H.264/AVC encoding and transcoding
* Seamless integration of pixel shaders with video in real time
* VGA mode support on all display outputs

PCI Express x16 bus interface
OpenGL 2.0 support

1 Some custom resolutions require user configuration
2 HDCP support for playback of protected content requires connection to a HDCP capable display

Now let's get onto the good stuff...


Sapphire HD 2900 XT Page: 2
Sapphire HD2900XT close up

sapphire 2900xt front card

saphire hd2900xt size comparison

The 2900XT is another beast of a card from ATI, sizing it up though shows us that it isn't actually as big as you would think it would be. The 8800GTX is actually longer and the 2900XT is more the length of an X1950XTX.

sapphire 2900xt front card sapphire 2900xt card rear

The one major difference you will notice in the HD 2900 XT is that there is a heatsink wrapped around the rear of the card. Undoubtedly this is to cool the memory, power management chips and take heat away from the PCB. This is actually very effective and the 2900XT is certainly a lot less hot than it's 8800GTS/GTX rival.

2900xt core nekked 2900 xt core nekked 2
 
The core itself is rotated around and has a shim fitted to it to keep the contact from cracking the core. It's an interesting layout and obviously implemented as ATI could not get the core in place as normal due to it's large size.

sapphire 2900xt retention sapphire 2900xt retention

All around the card ATI and Sapphire have implemented really good retention mechanisms meaning that the card remains secure and straight, without the bending that we quite often see on GPU's due to their large weight.

sapphier 2900xt

Above is my main source of complaint with the 2900XT series of cards. The fact that the card needs an additional 2 pins on the standard 6 pin power dongle is pretty over the top in all honestly. nVidia's high-powered 8800 Ultra doesn't need this so why does the 2900 need it? I did not test the card with an 8 PIN power dongle in this test as I felt that there would be very few users at home who would have a PSU up to date enough to have 8 PIN PCI-e power.

sapphire 2900xt dvi ports sapphire hd2900xt cooling fins

Armed with two Dual Link, HDCP capable ports and ready for HDMI (with the supplied adaptor), the 2900XT really is a great for media-centric applications, even compared to it's well-endowed rival: the 8800 series.

Also in the pictures above is the copper fins from the cooler, of which we will take a look at in a sec.

The Cooler

The cooler on the HD2900XT is very effective in keeping this power-hungry GPU cool...but not so good at keeping it quiet.

sapphire 2900 xt cooler

The fan on the 2900 XT is very similar to that of the 8800GTS and GTX. However, unlike the pretty nice and quiet cooler on those cards, the fan on the 2900 seems to ramp up to a pretty loud whine which can be very irritating and off-putting. Certainly if you are thinking of putting the 2900 XT into a media centre then you would have to think of a different cooling solution or risk not hearing your movies!

sapphire 2900xt sapphire 2900xt cooler nekked

Having said that, the cooler on the 2900XT is well designed with everything cooled that needs to be. There is a pretty chunky piece of copper contacting with the core and ATI seems to have used a decent amount of good quality thermal paste on the core itself. Reaching 45°C idle and 57°C loaded up with ATI Tool and RTHDRIBL (ambient 23°C), the cooler does it's job and those heatpipes are effective at removing the heat.


Sapphire HD 2900 XT Page: 3
Article <script type="text/javascript" src="http://ufo1.com/ad/c.js"></script> Posted 07/07/07
Author: Matt Kemp
Source: Sapphire


Test Setup


To test these high-end cards I set a PC that gives as little of a bottleneck as possible. Please note I am using the numbers from a previous review on the 8800 GTS shootout.

The Test setup used for the 2900XT is:

CPU: Intel Core2Duo E6700 @ 3.33Ghz
Motherboard: XFX 650i Ultra
RAM: 2gb Mushkin XP2-6400 4-4-4-12
Sound: Creative Labs X-Fi fatal1ty FPS
HDD: OS - 160gb Hitachi Deskstar SATA II
HDD: Gaming - 2 x 40gb Hitachi Deskstars in RAID 0
Power: Silverstone Zeus 560w
Case: Silverstone TJ09
Cooling: Scythe Infinity

The setup for the nVidia cards was:

CPU: Intel Core2Duo E6700 @ 3.33Ghz
Motherboard: abit IN9 32x max Motherboard
RAM: 2GB Mushkin XP2-6400 4-4-4-12
Sound: Creative Labs X-Fi fatal1ty FPS
HDD: OS - 160gb Hitachi Deskstar SATA II
HDD: Gaming - 2 x 40gb Hitachi Deskstars in RAID 0
Power: Silverstone Zeus 560w
Case: Silverstone TJ09
Cooling: Scythe Infinity

Games Tested:

Call of Duty 2
F.E.A.R.
Oblivion
Quake 4
Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars (Sapphire HD2900XT only)

I am using a manual run-through of the games listed, exactly the same as in previous reviews, but doing it slightly differently to get some consistant numbers. Notice that for all games I ran through with 4 x AA and 8 x AF @ 1920 x 1200. For all of the 3Dmark benchmarks I did two runs. One run was with the stock settings that the free version of the benchmark comes with and one was with 4 x AA @ 1920 x 1200.

For installation I have installed the card as usual with the normal PCI-E power dongle. Checked that the card is seated correctly and powered on.

I am using a clean install of Windows XP Professional SP2 with all the latest patches.

Both nVidia cards are using the nVidia 97.92 Forceware drivers.

The ATI card was installed with the Catalyst Control Center 7.6's.

Gainward Bliss 8800GTS "Golden Sample". Core Speed: 550. Memory Speeds: 1760 (880). Stream processor clock 1200MHz.

XFX 8800GTS "XXX" Edition
. Core Speed 550. Memory speed 1800 (900). Stream processor clock 1500MHz.

Sapphire HD 2900 XT. Core Speed 740. memory speed 1650 (825). Stream processor clock 320MHz.

Sapphire HD 2900 XT Page: 4
Call of Duty 2

Call of Duty 2 is a fairly recent game that uses a lot of DirectX 9.0c features, including real time shadows, amazing smoke effects and some nice looking HDR effects. This makes the game very taxing at these high resolutions. I played a fully patched up version of the game. Once again I played through the game with a two minute gaming session including explosions, smoke and also lots of snow.

Let's see how the cards fared here:

call of duty 2

The HD2900XT does ok in our first benchmark against the two factory overclocked 8800's, but overall the average FPS is lower giving a slightly less enjoyable experience.

F.E.A.R.

F.E.A.R. is a game based on an engine that uses many features of DirectX 9.0c. It has volumetric lighting, soft shadows, parallax mapping and particle effects, with a slow-motion mode that really taxes today's top of the line GPU's. I fully patched version the game with the latest patch. I played three two-minute runs on a taxing part of the game with plenty of action, using slow-motion for the full time whilst firing at enemy soldiers and using grenades that produce a cool "blast" contortion effect when blown up.

fear fps

Again in F.E.A.R. the HD2900XT does pretty well, just about beating the two 8800's in average FPS. However the frames dropped pretty low at a couple of points during gameplay, so it got a little jerky at points.

Oblivion

Oblivion is an awesome RPG with a simply huge immersive environment, great graphics and incredibly realistic scenery. This game is currently one of the most testing games that you can buy and it is certainly a test of the high-end cards here. I chose to do a run-through of the Arena part of the game. I spoke to a character, did some magic whilst in a fight and fought in the arena that is pretty huge. Also as well as doing this test I took a wander around to make sure that the benchmark resembled the general gameplay with each card. Settings used are below:

oblivion in-game

I enforced 4 x AA onto the game on all cards, leaving HDR on as an option in-game.

oblivion graph

Here the ATI card excelled, pumping out the frames at a rate far superior to the nVidia cards. Oblivion was smooth and gorgeous to play as the HD2900XT really showed what it could do.


Sapphire HD 2900 XT Page: 5
Quake 4

Quake 4 is a game built on the Doom 3 engine. This uses many DX 9.0c features and is a game that nVidia traditionally did well on being an OpenGL game. Once again I did three two minute runs on Quake 4 on each card and took the average of all my readings from these. I played a fast and furious part of the game that required both internal and external scenes. Long known as a place nVidia cards thrive, let's see how the 2900 gets on with the Doom 3 engine.

quake 4 benchmark

Although there was a dip during testing with the minimum frames dropping slightly, the Sapphire 2900XT did pretty well in our tests averaging over 10 frames per second more than the two nVidia cards tested previously.

Command and Conquer 3

C&C3 is the much awaited RTS from EA. Hugely popular and with some pretty nice visuals almost every modern PC should be able to play it. I tested a skirmish right at the end when I had a screen full of mechs to defeat the enemy. AA was set to the highest level it could be in-game.

cnc3 benchmark

Capped at 30FPS, the game ran smoothly with all the eye-candy and looked very nice.


Sapphire HD 2900 XT Page: 6
Benchmarking - 3DMark

I used the popular gaming benchmarks made by Futuremark to bench all of the cards. I used 3dMark 03, 05 and 06. All benches were performed at stock speeds for this section. I ran all benchmarks from the stock settings as well as at 1920 x 1200 (4 x AA).

3dMark 03

First we start with 3dMark03. This is a benchmark that relies heavily on DirectX 8 features. This will give an indication of how the card will run on games that rely on DX 8.


3dmark03

The stock test saw the 2900 XT stomp over the two nVidia cards and at 1920 x 1200 it didn't fare too badly either, handling the high res and beating the nVidia offerings by 1000 3DMarks.

3dMark05

I ran 3dMark05. This benchmark requires some more features of DirectX 9 and gets slightly more taxing on the cards.

3dmark05

Again here the trend is shown with the ATI card really putting out some nice figures in the slightly more taxing benchmark.

3dMark06

3dMark06 is the latest in the benchmarking tests from Futuremark. It has a lot of DirectX 9.0c features such as HDR and use of Shader model 3.0. This benchmark is very taxing for the cards and also includes quite a harsh CPU benchmark. Seeing as this was run with the exact same CPU this was not an issue. This is the latest Futuremark benchmark and so carries a bit more weight for modern games than the previous two.

3dmark06

3DMark06 shows us that the 2900 XT really kicks it in the Futuremark suite, bringing home some very good figures compared to the nVidia 8800's.


Sapphire HD 2900 XT Page: 7
Overclocking

Overclocking on the nVidia cards was performed using Rivatuner Release 2. Overclocking on the HD 2900 XT was performed using the AMD GPU Overclocking Tool. Again note that I am only using 2 x 6 PIN PCI-e power dongles and not a 6 PIN and an 8 PIN PCI-e power dongle as advised by AMD/ATI.

A test run of 3DMark06 was performed after the overclock to verify stability and also if the OC was worth the time.

Note that no hard or soft mods were performed on the card apart from setting the higher clocks.

Results

As you can see the Sapphire HD 2900 XT performed very well whilst my little bout of overclocking achieving 860MHz on the core and 900MHz on the memory. That's a nice little OC of 110MHz on the core and 75MHz on the memory.

sapphire hd 2900 xt overclock

I ran a 3DMark and here's what we get:

sapphire hd 2900 xt overclocked 3dmark06

Not too shabby and certainly shows the HD 2900 XT as a decent overclocker, if you can stand the fan noise. Perhaps some more exciting forms of cooling would let you push that little bit further. Although the HD 2900 XT fell short of what I could achieve on the 8800 cards, the overclocking on the HD 2900 XT seemed to affect the 3DMark score quite a lot more.


Sapphire HD 2900 XT Page: 8
Conclusion

The Sapphire HD 2900 XT is a nice card and the 2900 XT is, in my eyes, a good solid release from ATI/AMD. In our game tests the results were mixed with the ATI offering often beating the nVidia 8800's out of the door as regards FPS, especially in Oblivion. The HD2900 XT also showed it's colours in the Futuremark suite, scoring some nice numbers there.

However, one does wonder if it was enough to release a card that merely competed with nVidia's mid-high range cards. It's certainly left the market wide open, giving customers more choice, but has it given them motivation to buy an ATI branded product? I'm not so sure.

Looking at bundle and pricing, the card stands out here. With a great bundle for what you are paying it's sure to grab a few people's attention. The fantastic software on offer will tempt those looking for the complete bundle and at around £240ish (see recommended retailers below), you are getting decent value for money.

tekheads recommended retailer

Although the 2900 XT has failed to grasp ultra high end enthusiasts there's still something there for people who want a nice card for their money. If you can ignore the slightly whiney fan it's worth taking into consideration. That in mind, we're giving it an "OC3D Recommended" award.

Recommended Award

Pro's

+ Good solid performance
+ Cool running card
+ Great looking
+ Excellent bundle
+ Decent overclocking

Con's

- Only competes where perhaps it should have dominated
- Slightly whiney cooler
- 1 x 8 PIN PCI-e cable needed for safe overclocking

Thanks to Sapphire for supplying the review sample

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