That's why we were excited when the new generation of eight-pipe graphics cards arrived this past fall, including the GeForce 6600 series and ATI's answer, the Radeon X700 line. The GeForce 6600 GT, in particular, was an excellent newcomer, and ATI countered by announcing the Radeon X700 XT, which we promptly reviewed. ATI's new mid-range card was a little slower than the GeForce 6600 GT, but the Radeon X700 XT wasn't a bad option, save for one thing: you couldn't buy one. ATI kept promising that we'd see them soon, but very few cards ever materialized. In the end, the Radeon X700 XT was stillborn, and ATI announced a replacement with better performance at the same price: the Radeon X800.
The Sapphire Radeon X800 card that we're reviewing today is one of the very first Radeon X800 cards available on the market, and it promises to be stiff competition for the GeForce 6600 GT. In fact, given the Radeon X800's 12-pipeline design, this shouldn't be a fair fight. But it should be fun to watch.
Sapphire's new gem
Let us say right up front that Sapphire's rendition of the Radeon X800 is not the $199 card that ATI predicted. Instead, this card ships with 256MB of GDDR3 memory and a robust bundle of goodies for a list price of $249. That's fifty bucks well spent to get the extra memory, as far as I'm concerned. Let's have a gander at the card itself.
This is a PCI Express card (sorry upgraders; ATI hasn't announced an AGP rendition yet) that uses the exact same PCB design as its big brother, the sixteen-pipe Radeon X800 XL. That's expected, because the Radeon X800 is based on the same ATI R430 chip, only it's had one of its four pixel-pipeline "quads" disabledostensibly because that section of the chip didn't come out quite right, although sometimes a perfectly good section of a graphics chip might be disabled for product positioning purposes.
Like the XL, Sapphire's Radeon X800 has VGA and DVI outputs, plus a TV-out port. The major visible differences between ATI's Radeon X800 XL card and Sapphire's Radeon X800 are the Sapphire's bright blue hue and its smaller copper cooler. Let's have a close-up of that puppy, please.
This cooler is shaped a little like those on the Radeon X700 XT review unit that we tested a while back, but it's not as heavy as that one was, and it doesn't make as much noise. I'd say this cooler is roughly as quiet as the one of the GeForce 6600 GT, subjectively speaking. (The sound level meter is out on loan, or I'd have numbers for you. Sorry.) One of the keys to that quietude may be the cooler's unique blower design. Notice how the blades aren't angled like a fan; they're straight, intended to scoop air out across the copper fins of the cooler. They really do tend to move a lot of air.
Sapphire doesn't skimp on the extras bundled with this thing, either.
The bundled software includes (from left to right in the picture) Sapphire's home-brewed overclocking utility, a drivers disc, CyberLink's PowerDVD 5 DVD player, and two very decent gamesSplinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (not to be confused with Splinter Cell: Peanut Butter Monkey) and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Graphics card game bundles don't get much better than this one, in my book. Sapphire also packs a clutch of cables and adapters into the box, including a DVI-to-VGA dongle, a composite video adapter, a composite video cable, an S-Video cable, and a component output adapter cable for HDTV. All in all, a very decent package.
There is one place where Sapphire has skimped a little, and that's the core clock speed of its Radeon X800. The official word from ATI on its introduction was that the Radeon X800 would have a 400MHz core clock and 700MHz memory, but Sapphire's card ships with a 392MHz core and 700MHz RAM. The 8MHz difference won't exactly shake the Earth off its axis, but it's possible that other manufacturers' versions of the X800 will run at exactly 400MHz, for what it's worth.
The big question, of course, is: how does this carefully calibrated combination of Radeon X800 pixel pipelines, memory chips and clock speeds perform in today's games? For that, we have some answers...