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Sapphire Radeon HD 5850 Xtreme 1GB Review

Date: April 14, 2011
Author(s): Rob Williams

It may seem odd that we’re taking a look at an HD 5850 card in 2011, but Sapphire just released an “Xtreme” edition that’s well worth the look. In addition to great pricing, the card features an improved VRM design, a more efficient cooler, and a shorter PCB. But, in the end, it’s the $150 price tag that makes this card an absolute winner.


Before we kick off this review, I’d like to give everyone a moment to regain their composure either from having a hearty laugh or being greatly confused. Yes, this is a review of an HD 5850 graphics card in, *checks calendar*, 2011.

When our friends at Sapphire a couple of weeks ago contacted us about reviewing the “Xtreme” edition of its Radeon HD 5850, I was a little taken back. “Are they serious?”, I thought. It was the first time ever that I can recall where I saw a company release a last-gen product well into the current-gen cycle. So what’s the deal?

According to Sapphire, the HD 5850 was one of the most heralded graphics cards released over the past couple of years, and in some ways, it out-performs the newer HD 6850. One example is with the computational power (2.088 TFLOPS vs. 1.488 TFLOPS) and texture fill rates (52.2GT/s vs. 37.2GT/s) – but even so, can releasing a last-gen card more than six months into the new cycle ever make sense?

Sapphire Radeon HD 5850 Xtreme

I thought Sapphire was a bit nuts when we were first asked to review a last-gen, yet current, graphics card, but I wanted to give the company the benefit of the doubt and see just what it was that made the “Xtreme” more extremey than the original, so I decided to get one in and take it for a spin.

Before explaining some of the improvements, let’s take a quick look at the current Radeon line-up, with the HD 5850 fused in:

Core MHz
Mem MHz
Bus Width
Radeon HD 6990
Radeon HD 6970
Radeon HD 6950
Radeon HD 6870
Radeon HD 6850
Radeon HD 5850
Radeon HD 6790

I mentioned a moment ago that the HD 5850 has more computational horsepower than the HD 6850, and the reason is easily seen above; the older card has 50% more cores to work with. While I do believe the HD 6850 to be the more capable card in terms of overall features and architecture, the HD 5850 is just a smidgen faster – even in gaming.

There are a couple of things that set the Xtreme apart from previous HD 5850s. First, Sapphire has implemented a brand-new VRM design, to improve power efficiency. Second, the card features a new cooler – optimized for efficient heat dissipation and of course, improved overclocking. Third, Sapphire promises some great pricing.

Oh, and there’s just one more thing… something Sapphire didn’t even tell us about prior to sending us the card. The Xtreme is nearly two inches shorter than older HD 5850s:

Sapphire Radeon HD 5850 Xtreme

For the life of me, I couldn’t locate one of our older HD 5850 samples anywhere – even after a solid hour of looking – so I am unfortunately unable to compare the cards with their shrouds and coolers off. Judging by the picture above, however, Sapphire’s card is a major improvement.

To improve the cooling-ability of the Xtreme card, Sapphire dropped one of the DVI ports so that air could better stream out the back, and as you can see in the image below, there’s little to impede good airflow.

Sapphire Radeon HD 5850 Xtreme

At this point, I’d love to say, “Need two DVI ports? No problem!”, but there is in fact a problem. For what I assume was to keep prices down, there’s only a single connector in the box, and that’s to convert the DVI into VGA. So, if you need to hook up a second display, hopefully one of them will be DisplayPort or HDMI, else you will need to pick up an adapter. For Eyefinity hopefuls, the same rules apply – you’ll be fine if you have three monitors that can natively make use of these three ports.

Before we can see if the Xtreme HD 5850 makes any sense today, we’ll need to pit the card against our usual fleet of games, so let’s quickly take care of our testing methodologies, and then we’ll kick things off with Dirt 2. Please bear in mind, however, that because we tested the original HD 5850 long ago, some gains will be seen over it, with the Xtreme. This is thanks to driver improvements made since we benchmarked the original card (we did our last revamp this past fall). With that said, let’s get a move on!

Test System & Methodology

At Techgage, we strive to make sure our results are as accurate as possible. Our testing is rigorous and time-consuming, but we feel the effort is worth it. In an attempt to leave no question unanswered, this page contains not only our testbed specifications, but also a detailed look at how we conduct our testing.

Test Machine

The below table lists our testing machine’s hardware, which remains unchanged throughout all GPU testing, minus the graphics card. Each card used for comparison is also listed here, along with the driver version used. Each one of the URLs in this table can be clicked to view the respective category on our site for that product.

Intel Core i7-975 Extreme Edition – Quad-Core @ 4.05GHz – 1.40v
Gigabyte GA-EX58-EXTREME – F13j BIOS (08/02/2010)
Corsair DOMINATOR – 12GB DDR3-1333 7-7-7-24-1T, 1.60v
AMD Graphics Radeon HD 6990 4GB (Reference) – Catalyst 11.4 Beta

Radeon HD 6970 2GB CrossFireX (Reference) – Catalyst 10,12 Beta

Radeon HD 6950 2GB CrossFireX (Reference) – Catalyst 10.12 Beta

Radeon HD 6970 2GB (Reference) – Catalyst 10.12 Beta

Radeon HD 6950 2GB (Reference) – Catalyst 11.1

Radeon HD 6950 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst 11.1

Radeon HD 6870 1GB CrossFireX (Reference) – Catalyst 10.10

Radeon HD 6850 1GB CrossFireX (Reference) – Catalyst 10.10

Radeon HD 6870 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst October 5, 2010 Beta

Radeon HD 6850 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst October 5, 2010 Beta

Radeon HD 6790 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst March 23, 2011 Beta

Radeon HD 5870 1GB (Sapphire) – Catalyst 10.8

Radeon HD 5850 1GB (Sapphire Xtreme) – Catalyst 11.3
Radeon HD 5850 1GB (ASUS) – Catalyst 10.8
Radeon HD 5830 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst 10.8

Radeon HD 5770 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst 10.8

Radeon HD 5750 1GB (Sapphire) – Catalyst 10.8
NVIDIA Graphics GeForce GTX 580 1536MB (Reference) – GeForce 262.99

GeForce GTX 570 1280MB (Reference) – GeForce 263.09

GeForce GTX 560 Ti 1024MB (Reference) – GeForce 266.56

GeForce GTX 550 Ti 1024MB (MSI) – GeForce 267.59

GeForce GTX 480 1536MB (Reference) – GeForce 260.63
GeForce GTX 470 1280MB (EVGA) – GeForce 260.63

GeForce GTX 460 1GB (EVGA) – GeForce 260.63

GeForce GTX 450 1GB (ASUS) – GeForce 260.63
ASUS Xonar D2X
Seagate Barracuda 500GB 7200.11
Power Supply
Corsair HX1000W
Cooler Master HAF X Full-Tower
Gateway XHD3000 30″
Corsair H50 Self-Contained Liquid Cooler
Et cetera
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit

When preparing our testbeds for any type of performance testing, we follow these guidelines:

To aide with the goal of keeping accurate and repeatable results, we alter certain services in Windows 7 from starting up at boot. This is due to the fact that these services have the tendency to start up in the background without notice, potentially causing inaccurate test results. For example, disabling “Windows Search” turns off the OS’ indexing which can at times utilize the hard drive and memory more than we’d like.

The most important services we disable are:

The full list of Windows services we assure are disabled is large, but for those interested in perusing it, please look here. Most of the services we disable are mild, but we go to such an extent to have the PC as highly optimized as possible.

Game Titles

At this time, we benchmark with three resolutions that represent three popular monitor sizes available today, 20″ (1680×1050), 24″ (1920×1080) and 30″ (2560×1600). Each of these resolutions offers enough of a variance in raw pixel output to warrant testing with it, and each properly represent a different market segment: mainstream, mid-range and high-end.

Because we value results generated by real-world testing, we don’t utilize timedemos. The possible exceptions might be Futuremark’s 3DMark Vantage and Unigine’s Heaven 2.1. Though neither of these are games, both act as robust timedemos. We choose to use them as they’re a standard where GPU reviews are concerned.

All of our results are captured with the help of Beepa’s FRAPS 3.2.3, while stress-testing and temperature-monitoring is handled by OCCT 3.1.0 and GPU-Z, respectively.

For those interested in the exact settings we use for each game, direct screenshots can be seen below:

Colin McRae: Dirt 2

Colin McRae: Dirt 2 - Settings

Colin McRae: Dirt 2 - Settings

Just Cause 2

Just Cause 2 - Settings

Mafia II

Mafia II - Settings

Metro 2033

Metro 2033 - Settings

StarCraft II

StarCraft II - Settings

Colin McRae: Dirt 2

It’s not that often that faithful PC gamers get a proper racing game for their platform of choice, but Dirt 2 is one of those. While it is a “console port”, there’s virtually nothing in the game that will make that point stand out. The game as a whole takes good advantage of our PC’s hardware, and it’s as challenging as it is good-looking.

Colin McRae: Dirt 2

Manual Run-through: The race we chose to use in Dirt 2 is the first one available in the game, as it’s easily accessible and features a lot of GPU-pounding effects that the game has become known for, such as realistic dust and water effects, a large on-looking crowd of people and fine details on and off the track. Each run-through lasts the entire two laps, which comes out to about 2.5 minutes.

Sapphire might have a possible winner here if these kinds of results keep up. With recent driver improvements, the HD 5850 is made quite a bit faster than the HD 6850, but remains a bit cheaper, and compared to the equally-priced HD 6790 and GeForce GTX 550 Ti, Sapphire’s card comes out well ahead.

Let’s see if this trend continues.

Just Cause 2

Just Cause 2 might not belong to a well-established series of games, but with its launch, it looks like that might not be the case for long. The game offers not only superb graphics, but an enormous world to explore, and for people like me, a countless number of hidden items to find around it. During the game, you’ll be scaling skyscrapers, racing through jungles and fighting atop snow-drenched mountains. What’s not to like?

Just Cause 2

Manual Run-through: The level chosen here is part of the second mission in the game, “Casino Bust”. Our runthrough begins at the second-half of the level, which requires us to situate ourselves on top of a car and have our driver, Karl Blaine, speed us through part of the island to safety. This is a great mission for benchmarking as we get to see a lot of the landmass, even if some of it is at a distance.

The gains compared to the originally-benchmarked HD 5850 are minor, but once again comparing the Xtreme to the HD 6790, HD 6850 and GTX 550 Ti… Sapphire’s card is without question, the most impressive of the bunch.

Mafia II

For fans of the original Mafia game, having to wait an incredible eight years for a sequel must’ve been tough. But as we found out in our review, the wait might be forgotten as the game is quite good. It doesn’t feature near as much depth as say, Grand Theft Auto IV, but it does a masterful job of bringing you back to the 1940’s and letting you experience the Mafia lifestyle.

Mafia II

Manual Run-through: Because this game doesn’t allow us to save a game in the middle of a level, we chose to use chapter 7, “In Loving Memory…”, to do our runthrough. That chapter begins us on a street corner with many people around, and from there, we run to our garage, get in our car, and speed out to the street. Our path ultimately leads us to the park, and takes close to two minutes to accomplish.

Sapphire’s Xtreme card does show some improvements here compared to the older HD 5850, but they’re incredibly minor. But again, compared to the competition that retails at the same $150 price-point, Sapphire takes all.

Metro 2033

One of the more popular Internet memes for the past couple of years has been, “Can it run Crysis?”, but as soon as Metro 2033 launched, that’s a meme that should have died. Metro 2033 is without question one of the beefiest games on the market, and though it supports DirectX 11, it’s almost a feature worth ignoring, because the extent you’ll need to go to in order to see playable framerates isn’t likely going to be worth it.

Metro 2033

Manual Run-through: The level we use for testing is part of chapter 4, called “Child”, where we must follow a linear path through multiple corridors until we reach our end point, which takes a total of about 90 seconds. Please note that due to the reason mentioned above, we test this game in DX10 mode, as DX11 simply isn’t that realistic from a performance standpoint.

Thanks to recent driver improvements that have targeted Metro 2033, the HD 5850 is about 6 FPS faster than it was a couple of months ago, at 1080p resolution. That pushes it a fair bit past the HD 6850, and likewise, even further ahead of the other similarly-priced options.

StarCraft II

Of all the games we test, it might be this one that needs no introduction. Back in 1998, Blizzard unleashed what was soon to be one of the most successful RTS titles on the planet, and even as of today, the original is still heavily played all around the world – even in actual competitions. StarCraft II of course had a lot of hype to live up to, and it did, thanks to its intense gameplay and superb graphics.

StarCraft II

Manual Run-through: The portion of the game we use for testing is part of the Zero Hour mission, which has us holding fort until we’re able to evacuate. Our saved game starts us in the middle of the mission, and from the get-go, we build a couple of buildings and concurrently move our main units up and around the map. Total playtime lasts about two minutes.

I dislike StarCraft II more as a benchmark the more I use it, but even with its sporadic minimum frame rates, Sapphire’s card still surpassed the other cards in its price-range – and even surpassed the $230 GTX 560 Ti. Given the major boost between the last time we benched the HD 5850 and now, it’s clear that AMD has made some major improvements in its driver… the gain is much more stark than in the other games we’ve tested.

Futuremark 3DMark 11

Although we generally shun automated gaming benchmarks, we do like to run at least one to see how our GPUs scale when used in a ‘timedemo’-type scenario. Futuremark’s 3DMark 11 is without question the best such test on the market, and it’s a joy to use, and watch. The folks at Futuremark are experts in what they do, and they really know how to push that hardware of yours to its limit.

Futuremark 3DMark 11

Similar to a real game, 3DMark 11 offers many configuration options, although many (including us) prefer to stick to the profiles which include Performance, and Extreme. Depending on which one you choose, the graphic options are tweaked accordingly, as well as the resolution. As you’d expect, the better the profile, the more intensive the test. The benchmark doesn’t natively support 2560×1600, so to benchmark with that, we choose the Extreme profile and simply change the resolution.

3DMark 11 goes ahead and backs up the same results we’ve see throughout the rest of our review so far. Sapphire’s Xtreme card is faster than all of its $150 competition, and by a fair margin.

Unigine Heaven 2.1

While Futuremark is a well-established name where PC benchmarking is concerned, Unigine is just beginning to become exposed to people. The company’s main focus isn’t benchmarks, but rather its cross-platform game engine which it licenses out to other developers, and also its own games, such as a gorgeous post-apocalytic oil strategy game. The company’s benchmarks are simply a by-product of its game engine.

Unigine Heaven 2.1

The biggest reason that the company’s “Heaven” benchmark grew in popularity rather quickly is that both AMD and NVIDIA promoted it for its heavy use of tessellation, a key DirectX 11 feature. Like 3DMark Vantage, the benchmark here is overkill by design, so results here aren’t going to directly correlate with real gameplay. Rather, they showcase which card models can better handle both DX11 and its GPU-bogging features.

A ha! We finally run into a test where we can see the HD 5850 falling short of the HD 6850. With AMD’s HD 6000 series, major considerations were taken with regards to tessellation performance, and the results of that work are made evident here. But, compared to the HD 6790 and GTX 550 Ti, the Xtreme still comes out well ahead.

Power & Temperatures

To test our graphics cards for both temperatures and power consumption, we utilize OCCT for the stress-testing, GPU-Z for the temperature monitoring, and a Kill-a-Watt for power monitoring. The Kill-a-Watt is plugged into its own socket, with only the PC connect to it.

As per our guidelines when benchmarking with Windows, when the room temperature is stable (and reasonable), the test machine is boot up and left to sit at the desktop until things are completely idle. Because we are running such a highly optimized PC, this normally takes one or two minutes. Once things are good to go, the idle wattage is noted, GPU-Z is started up to begin monitoring card temperatures, and OCCT is set up to begin stress-testing.

To push the cards we test to their absolute limit, we use OCCT in full-screen 2560×1600 mode, and allow it to run for 15 minutes, which includes a one minute lull at the start, and a four minute lull at the end. After about 5 minutes, we begin to monitor our Kill-a-Watt to record the max wattage.

In the case of dual-GPU configurations, we measure the temperature of the top graphics card, as in our tests, it’s usually the one to get the hottest. This could depend on GPU cooler design, however.

Note: Due to changes AMD and NVIDIA made to the power schemes of their respective current-gen cards, we were unable to run OCCT on them. Rather, we had to use a less-strenuous run of 3DMark Vantage. We will be retesting all of our cards using this updated method the next time we overhaul our suite.

Interestingly, Sapphire’s Xtreme draws more power than the original HD 5850, but its temperatures are much improved.

Final Thoughts

It might seem logical, and that’s because it probably is, but I never touch a “Final Thoughts” page until I am 100% done the rest of the article. The reason is simple… in order to be as accurate as possible with my final thoughts, I need to understand all of the angles, and in the case of Sapphire’s HD 5850 Xtreme, I think it’s a good thing I didn’t start writing the final thoughts too early.

As I mentioned in the intro, I found it rather bizarre that Sapphire would ask us to take a look at an HD 5850 product now, and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. But after seeing the performance results… the reason is clear.

We were told last week by Sapphire that the HD 5850 Xtreme would be priced at $150, and according to current Newegg pricing, that’s holding true. While the card has the potential to go up in price in the future, I have my doubts. After all, the pricing is clearly the reason Sapphire released this card in the first place. It had enough of an overstock on HD 5850s in order to make a return on what’s considered a very modest price-tag compared to the other HD 5850s lingering about.

Sapphire Radeon HD 5850 Xtreme

Compared to the HD 6790 and GTX 550 Ti, which both retail for the same $150 price as the HD 5850 Xtreme, Sapphire’s card totally obliterates those in our benchmarks. In 3DMark 11 at 1080p, Sapphire’s Xtreme proved 33% faster than the HD 6790, and 61% faster than the GTX 550 Ti. Those are not small differences.

Sapphire’s Xtreme card for some reason draws more power, despite the new VRM design, but it’s still within reason (+44W at full load), and might not matter too much to some – especially given how solid the performance/$ ratio is.

Even with the nice performance, does purchasing a last-gen card make sense? In this particular case, absolutely. AMD’s HD 6000 series doesn’t bring enough to the table to warrant passing up a deal like this, and though tessellation gains are nice, as are the additional ports on the back, for people who care about straight-out performance, this card wins the $150 battle.

Sorry for doubting you, Sapphire.

Sapphire’s Radeon HD 5850 Xtreme

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