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Sapphire Atlantis 9700 - Getting acquainted
Sapphire Technologies have built up a good name for themselves here in the United Kingdom over the past year. Their cards have become a firm favourite with power users who still like to look after their budget whilst retaining the same functionality and build quality. Sapphire have managed to get the balance between price and performance pretty even and this has led them to become one of the most popular board partners for ATI here in the UK. However the company's success is of course not only down to the slightly more 'wallet friendly' prices but also the great performance and support.

Sapphire offer a huge choice of retail cards to cater for all requirements, taking a look at numerous retailers we appear to have a choice ranging from the slightly dated Rage128 Pro all the way up to Sapphire's top-of-the-range 9700 Pro "Ultimate Edition" and soon the 9800 PRO will be added to that list.

For this review we will be concentrating on the Sapphire Radeon 9700 Atlantis graphics card. The card comes just under their top-of-the-line 9700 'Pro'. Utilizing the same graphics processing unit, the R300 but clocked lower and the same is the case with the memory on board. The exact timings are :-

R300 "Pro" : Core - 325MHz | Memory - 310MHz (620MHz DDR)
R300 "non-Pro" : Core - 275MHz | Memory - 270MHz (540MHz DDR)

On the face of it, there is ample difference in clock speeds, however when coupled to the 70-75 price difference, and as we will see yet again, overclocking capabilities, the "non-Pro" 9700 is one of the best value cards on the market. Sapphire price this card agressively at just under 170 excluding VAT.

One of the main reasons why we wanted to review this card was to supplement our adventures with Hercules' Prophet 9700 a few weeks back. We were able to get massive performance gains through overclocking and we had many emails asking whether other boards could do the same. Obviously it would be wrong of us to say every board overclocks identically like the one we have, but it's certainly interesting to find out. Our review of the Prophet 9700 can be found here.

We have already looked at the technologies within the R300 core some time ago but if you want to refresh yourself more information can be found here.

It comes nicely presented as is usually the case as first impressions do count, even with something like a graphics card, the artwork is fairly attractive, not massively so but it works. The front also gives a brief specification list whereas the back of the box carries the more technical details and in this case, is provided three different languages.

The internal packaging isn't what we'd like to see. The box opens from either end but with most graphics cards you are able to remove an inner box containing the card and extras but with this one it is not the case. The card itself is firmly lodged in a small cardboard surrounding inside but this is fixed in place and we actually had a problem getting our hands inside to remove the card whilst the extras were loosely packed around this piece of cardboard.

The main problem with this packaging is the lack of protection for the card itself; it has the obligatory anti-static bag but apart from that the only thing protecting it from bangs and bashes is really the thin cardboard of the outer box, so a bad drop or a bash in transit for those who order online could certainly have devastating effects on the card. Certainly something to be looked at in the future.

The card comes complete with the usual array of TV-out and SVHS leads along with extensions. A DVI to VGA adaptor is supplied should you want to use a standard monitor without a DVI connection. You will also receive two CDs with this card, one containing Sapphire drivers (or rather repackaged ATI drivers) and the other containing Sapphire's Redline tweak utility. A concise user manual which contains physical installation instructions along with driver installation instructions in no less than six different languages - English, German, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese.

Upon closer inspection of the card itself, the first thing you notice is the well finished heatsink and fan which is effectively anodised in silver. The unorthodox shape coupled with the 'flaring' out style of the fins making it very pleasing to the eye and as we'll find out, highly effective. After the initial 'ooh' you realise the PCB itself is a fairly standard affair finished in a rather unfetching shade of brown (not the most attractive of colours).

The DDR memory chips are bare on this card with no mini-heatsinks for that extra help in dissipating heat, however most cards in this market go down the no heatsink route so we can probably assume they are not hugely effective or needed on these chips anyway but not necessarily. Sadly in overclocking, all the cooling you can muster helps.

Before we set about benchmarking the card we decided to have a go at overclocking this unit, after what can only be described as a major success in overclocking the Hercules Prophet 9700. We wanted to see if it was a similar case with the same board from a different manufacturer.

Initially using Sapphire's Redline utility we quickly hit the limit of the software and moved onto trusty old PowerStrip. Things were looking good. As usual we went up in 2MHz steps and running a few benchmarks to test stability. We set about clocking up the core first and we managed to get this up to 360mhz. A 85MHz extra over stock speed and even 35mhz over the 9700 Pro speeds which is another great result.

Next we put our hand on the memory. We knew from past experience this would not overclock greatly from our escapades with the Hercules unit. Using the same overclocking method, we were able to reach 300MHz. A 25MHz increase and only 10mhz short of the 9700 Pro speeds. Should it have had heatsinks on the memory there is a chance the memory should clock a bit higher.

Not quite the same speeds we got with the Prophet 9700, but this card is cheaper and more widely available. As you will see in it's overclocked state, the 9700 is a card to watch.