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Sapphire Atlantis 9600 PRO 128MB UE - Getting acquainted
Sapphire, one of the most popular ATI board partners launched their latest products to bolster the "Ultimate Edition" range a few weeks ago. They featured the R350 and RV350 GPUs from ATI. We've already had a good look at the Atlantis 9800 PRO 256MB which offered a great mix of performance and silent cooling. Whilst the Altantis 9800 remains an exciting prospect for any computer owner, today we look at a more widely affordable unit, the Atlantis 9600 PRO 128MB.

When ATI first launched the RV350 GPU which is at the heart of their 9600 PRO it was received with a muted applause. Although no one argued that it was a solid mainstream offering that allowed the massed to get DirectX 9.0 supporting hardware, when it was put in direct comparison to it's older brother, the 9500 PRO people saw it was actually slower. So why did ATI replace one of their most popular products with something that was clearly slower? The widely held belief was that the 9500 PRO was not economical for ATI to manufacture. Since it was essentially a stripped down 9700, ATI needed a completely different GPU that was cheaper to make and still catered for the mainstream market.

The mainstream market remains by far the biggest revenue generator for companies like ATI and NVIDIA, with both admitting that although the high-end is important, the big bucks come in the mainstream. So, filling this niche with a well-priced and competitive product is important. ATI felt they did that with the RV350 GPU in the Radeon 9600.

The RV350 was the first GPU that ATI made that employed a 0.13 micron fabrication process. NVIDIA had yield issues with the NV30 GPU which was their first 0.13 micron GPU, ATI were keen to show that their new chip was able to roll off their production line with relative ease. Yield issues usually arise from either poor manufacturing (the fault lies with the foundry, in this case TSMC) or poor chip design (NVIDIA’s fault). In this industry there's a lot of playground behaviour and ATI stressed their allegiance with TSMC and getting the GPU working "first time". So through these messages ATI were trying to say that it was poor chip design that resulted in the poor yields. It has to be said that the NV30 GPU was a radical design, but a chip designer needs to weigh up the ‘prettiness’ of a design along with it’s economic and production viability – there’s no point in having designed the best processor in the world if no one can make it or afford it. ATI did however admit that the RV350 wasn't a radically designed GPU specifically to avoid production problems.

Regardless of the background, the RV350 ran cool and didn't require a large cooling solution. The small heatsink and fan that we saw present on the reference board at the time of launch looked more at home on a motherboard chipset rather than a graphics card. Nevertheless, the conservative frequencies at which the R360 ran at meant massive overclocking was possible. Whilst initial performance doesn't set your juices flowing, when overclocked you had a pretty good bang for your buck.

So up comes Sapphire with their now trademark Ultimate Edition series of video cards. Having already applied their handiwork to the 9700 PRO and 9800 PRO we see passive cooling on the 9600 PRO. Passive cooling has gained an increased following in the past 12-16 months thanks to consumers wanting to reduce the amount of noise emitted by their computer. With computers becoming increasingly used in people's lifestyles the requirement for any product that reduces the constant hum of a personal computer has gained importance.

So it might seem surprising for us to say that Sapphire are the only company that produce widely available, passively cooled video cards on the market today. After teaming up with Zalman, who are already world famous for their range of extravagantly designed cooling products, it was no surprise that Sapphire and their Ultimate Editions were a hit. Today we look at the Atlantis Radeon 9600 PRO 128MB Ultimate Edition.

The front of the box gives a fair amount of information, with the model number and the amount RAM that is present on the board clearly stated. Also included is a little information on what software titles are bundled.

The back features a cut-out piece that lets you see the card that is inside, including a large portion of the heatsink which remains the biggest selling point of this package. More information is included on the back pertaining to the technologies present in the GPU.

Inside we see a lot of foam and cardboard holding the card in place. No anti-static is provided; although one has to remember that cardboard isn't the best conductor of charge. The card is held into place by the piece of blue sponge and the cardboard cut-out. On the rear it is supported by a large piece of foam. On the left compartment we find the cables and software that is bundled in the package.

The bundle isn't a bad one and Soldier of Fortune II, although not a new game is still a good first person shooter based on the Quake 3 engine. All relevant video cables are supplied and the manual is good at getting you started quickly and with little trouble. The 9600 PRO doesn't require external power, which is why you see no power cable bundled.

The black PCB compliments the gunmetal-esque heatplate that dominates the card. On the front we see the Sapphire logo proudly placed above the 'Powered by ATI' logo. The heatplate is smaller than the one we saw on Sapphire's Atlantis 9800 PRO Ultimate Edition and for a very good reason; the RV350 produces a lot less heat than it's bigger brother. The golden heatpipe which runs from the front in an elliptical shape over to the rear heatplate is angled slightly.

The heatplate on the back is smaller and doesn't make direct contact with the PCB. It's mounted on top of a plastic guide onto which the front heatsink is screwed into. There's no real requirement for the rear heatplate to make direct contact since very little heat would be dissipated in the real world.

Taking a look around the card we see good attention to detail. The badge, although like most others has a high level of finishing which is consistent all through the card. The Samsung 3.1ns BGA RAM modules, which is rated to run at 350MHz (700MHz DDR) Sapphire decided to clock it at a 'safer' 300MHz (600MHz DDR). This should means there is some headroom for overclocking.

On the back, we find the second heatplate to which the heatpipe connects. These heatplates are extremely important in a heatpipe cooling solution as they offer a very large surface area for the pipe to dissipate heat. Without these heatplates the heatpipe would get too hot for it to be an effective cooling device.

Taking a closer look at the cooling solution, in the first picture we can clearly see the thin aluminium heatsink that interfaces between the RV350 GPU and the cooling solution. The heatpipe isn't inset into the heatsink, but makes contact with both heatsink and heatplate. You'll also notice the ridged surface of the heatplate on both sides, done to increase the surface area of each plate and thus increase it's cooling performance.

Removal of the Zalman cooling solution isn't hard, with the two screws that are on the front taken out the whole solution comes apart neatly. The heatsink and the top heatplate are separate pieces of metal and we found masses of white thermal paste between these two to ensure no air gap was present. The heatsink itself screws through to the plastic mount positioned on the back.

On the back, the heatplate is nicely finished off with the ridges sharply cut and the heatpipe making good contact with the heatplate. The plastic mount serves a dual purpose in acting as a hole for the screws from the front heatsink and serving as a guide to place the heatpipe.

Looking down the card we can see there is a fair amount of distance between the rear heatplate and the PCB itself. Although the bottom half of the heatplate is screwed together, the top half is held together stiffened springs. Because Sapphire have managed to get the main heatplate on the front of the card positioned in between other electrical components, the Atlantis 9600 PRO is still a single slot unit.