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Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 Vapor-X

Date: February 21, 2011
Author(s): Rob Williams

Sapphire’s Vapor-X series of graphics cards have long been praised for their ability to deliver superb cooling with the help of an efficient cooler, and not surprisingly, the HD 6800 series isn’t without such a model. We’re taking a look at the company’s Radeon HD 6870 1GB variant, and see if its $10 price premium is worthy.



Introduction

A little over a month ago, amid the heat of the competition, AMD announced that some of its partners would be releasing pre-overclocked versions of the company’s Radeon HD 6870 cards. One of these cards came from Sapphire, in the form “Toxic”, but at around the same time, the company also released something with a slightly different flavor… the “Vapor-X”.

Vapor-X is no stranger to those who’ve been following Sapphire for some time, as the company prides this version on being the most efficient on the market. We’re not talking just about speed here, but far improved cooling ability and sometimes even better power consumption. Unlike the Toxic, the Vapor-X HD 6870 is not pre-overclocked at all, but that shouldn’t matter.

The Vapor-X targets those who want the best possible version of a particular card, and most often, that doesn’t mean it has to be the fastest. Instead, such a card should keep temperatures low, and remain reliable for years, and that’s exactly what Sapphire strives for here.

Here’s a quick run-down of AMD’s current fleet of products:

Model
Core MHz
Mem MHz
Memory
Bus Width
Processors
Radeon HD 6970
880
1350
2048MB
256-bit
1536
Radeon HD 6950
800
1250
2048MB
1024MB
256-bit
1408
Radeon HD 6870
900
1050
1024MB
256-bit
1120
Radeon HD 6850
775
1000
1024MB
256-bit
960
Radeon HD 5970
725
1000
2048MB
256-bit
1600 x 2
Radeon HD 5870 Eyefinity 6
850
1200
1024MB
256-bit
1600
Radeon HD 5870
850
1200
1024MB
256-bit
1600
Radeon HD 5850
725
1000
1024MB
256-bit
1440
Radeon HD 5830
800
1000
1024MB
256-bit
1120
Radeon HD 5770
850
1200
1024MB
128-bit
800
Radeon HD 5750
700
1150
512MB – 1GB
128-bit
720

Given the quick roll-out of the HD 6900 series that launched not long after the HD 6800 series, it seems that AMD might be taking its time with getting its other mid-range models ready – or also the HD 6990 dual-GPU card. As it stands today, the HD 6870 caters to the mainstream gamer who’s willing to part with ~$200 to get top-rate performance. Currently, NVIDIA doesn’t have a current-gen (as in 500-series) card to compete with this one.

After the HD 6800 series launch, Sapphire followed-up to its originally-launched card with other models featuring improved coolers, and on the surface, all look quite similar. The Vapor-X, however, has a greater focus on cooling-ability.

Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 Vapor-X

The premise of Vapor-X is that similar to heatpipes, a liquid is heated and vaporized and recycled to go through the loop again. This is an effective way to dissipate high temperatures, as is proven by the sheer popularity of heatpipe technology. Not surprisingly, Vapor-X cards are designed to offer superb airflow and modest noise levels.

Like the other HD 6800 cards, this one includes two DVI ports, an HDMI and two mini-DisplayPort. Up to six monitors can be used off of a single card with the help of DisplayPort extenders.

Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 Vapor-X

As the Vapor-X model from Sapphire is a stock-clocked offering, we’re not going to expect many differences in performance here, although there is about four months worth of driver updates we’ll be testing with compared to our launch results, so we’ll see if anything has improved in the games we test since then.

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.

Component
Model
Processor
Intel Core i7-975 Extreme Edition – Quad-Core @ 4.05GHz – 1.40v
Motherboard
Gigabyte GA-EX58-EXTREME – F13j BIOS (08/02/2010)
Memory
Corsair DOMINATOR – 12GB DDR3-1333 7-7-7-24-1T, 1.60v
ATI Graphics 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 (Reference CrossFireX) – Catalyst 10.10
Radeon HD 6850 1GB (Reference CrossFireX) – Catalyst 10.10
Radeon HD 6870 1GB (Sapphire Vapor-X) – Catalyst 11.2
Radeon HD 6870 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst Oct 5, 2010 Beta
Radeon HD 6850 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst Oct 5, 2010 Beta
Radeon HD 5870 1GB (Sapphire) – Catalyst 10.8
Radeon HD 5850 1GB (ASUS) – Catalyst 10.8
Radeon HD 5830 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst 10.8
Radeon HD 5770 1GB (Sapphire FleX) – Catalyst 10.9
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 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
Audio
ASUS Xonar D2X
Storage
Seagate Barracuda 500GB 7200.11
Power Supply
Corsair HX1000W
Chassis
Cooler Master HAF X Full-Tower
Display
Gateway XHD3000 30″
Cooling
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.

It doesn’t look like the four or five month’s worth of driver updates has improved performance much at all – at least with this particular title. But aside from that, performance is still quite good overall, and still continues to scale well with price.

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.

In what we expect to become a continuing theme, Sapphire’s Vapor-X card compares just as we’d expect with the reference offering.

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.

Both the reference and Vapor-X cards couldn’t get much closer in performance than this. Can we see some improvements with the latest drivers in Metro 2033 at least? Let’s check it out.

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.

Once again, the performance proves to be quite expected (but that’s a good thing).

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.

Wrapping up our game tests, we see the same results as the rest of our suite… Sapphire’s card performs on par with the reference card, just as expected.

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.

With the four or five driver updates that have come out since the HD 6870 reference card was benched, I expected to see at least a little gain here, but not so. Once again, nothing has changed performance-wise at all.

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.

Interestingly, it seems the latest drivers don’t actually increase the performance of any of our tests, but they do decrease them ever-so-slightly in Unigine. Due to tight scheduling, I wasn’t able to get to the bottom of this, but will this week.

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 power-related changes NVIDIA made with the GTX 580 & GTX 570, we couldn’t run OCCT on that GPU. Rather, we had to use a run of the less-strenuous Heaven benchmark.

Oddly, the idle wattage on Sapphire’s card is a bit higher than our reference, but the load wattage shaves 6W off. For temperatures, Sapphire’s card clearly dominates, proving to be our coolest card at max load than anything else in our line-up.

Overclocking Sapphire’s Radeon HD 6870 Vapor-X

Before tackling our overclocking results, let’s first clear up what we consider to be a real overclock and how we go about achieving it. If you read our processor reviews, you might already be aware that we don’t care too much for an unstable overclock. It might look good on paper, but if it’s not stable, then it won’t be used. Very few people purchase a new GPU for the sole purpose of finding the maximum overclock, which is why we focus on finding what’s stable and usable.

To find the max stable overclock on an AMD card, we stick to using the overclocking software included with the card, or at worst, AMD’s OverDrive tool. For NVIDIA, we use EVGA’s Precision, which allows us to reach heights that are in no way sane – a good thing.

Once we find what we believe might be a stable overclock, the card is put through 30 minutes of torture with the help of OCCT 3.0’s GPU stress-test, which we find to push any graphics card harder than any other stress-tester we’ve ever used. If the card passes there, we then further verify by running the card through a 2x run of 3DMark Vantage’s Extreme setting. Finally, games are quickly loaded and tested out to assure we haven’t introduced any side-effects.

If all these tests pass without issue, we consider the overclock to be stable.

Overclocking Sapphire’s Radeon HD 6870 Vapor-X

The reference clocks for the Radeon HD 6870 are 900MHz on the core and 1050MHz on the memory, while the Vapor-X card sticks to those. To overclock, I used Sapphire’s own TriXX tool, as AMD’s own OverDrive tool proved too limiting.

Because I wasn’t able to increase the voltage (the tool didn’t allow it), the top “stable” overclocked proved to be 1025MHz on the core and 1090MHz on the memory. This results in a fairly impressive boost for the core, and one a bit better than expected on the memory.

Given that our overall clock increase wasn’t major, the end results reflect that. Whether such gains are worth an overclock at all are for you to decide.

Final Thoughts

The current going price for a Radeon HD 6870 stock-clocked card is about $220, and Sapphire offers a model for just that price as well. Its Vapor-X model, which we took a look at here, is priced about $10 higher. Is that small premium worth jumping on?

If temperatures are a big concern, or the card is to be used in an HTPC-like PC, then I’d highly recommend the Vapor-X model, because as proven in our tests, it’s very effective. While the reference HD 6870 topped out at around 86°C, the Vapor-X shaved an impressive 23°C off of that.

Performance-wise, Sapphire’s Vapor-X card doesn’t deliver higher framerates than what we’ve seen in the past from our reference HD 6870, but that’s to be expected. On this card, Sapphire decided to focus on cooling-ability rather than pushing through a pre-OC, and for most people, that’s a major preference. I’d personally rather know my card tops out at just over 60°C than over 90°C.

Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 Vapor-X

What about the HD 6870 in general? Is it the “best” choice in today’s scheme? As mentioned in the intro, this card essentially has no direct competition at the moment. The closest would be NVIDIA’s GTX 465, but as a last-gen card, AMD’s HD 6870 looks a bit more attractive by default. As NVIDIA’s newly-launched GeForce GTX 560 Ti competes more with the HD 6950, we’re likely to see the company release additional follow-up cards in the near-future, one of which will surely compete with the HD 6870.

For the ~$220 price-point, the HD 6870 is a great choice, and for a $10 extra, you can score a card that runs far cooler and quieter. If that’s important to you, then the Vapor-X is a no-brainer.

Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 Vapor-X
Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 Vapor-X

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