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Sapphire Atlantis 9800 PRO 256MB UE - Getting acquainted
Sapphire, a company that has been around for good while now only came into prominence when ATI launched their Radeon 9700 PRO last year. Being one of ATI's premier partners, Sapphire were well placed to take advantage of the superiority ATI had in the ever-present GPU wars. Through aggressive product placing and availability, Sapphire managed to build a brand from almost scratch through one product.

As any well run company does, took to experimentation and tried to expand out of the niche that the 9700 PRO presented. Offering silent cooling on video cards is something that hadn't been done on the then top-of-the-range video cards. Zalman, popular with overclockers and case modders alike produced a range of coolers that catered for people who wanted good looking coolers and those who looked for silence.

Computer noise seemed to gain importance all through 2002 for a number of reasons. Computers are becoming increasingly useful as lifestyle devices. Take a simple task of watching a DVD movie on your computer. Would you like that movie with a helping of PSU grumbling? Maybe we can interest you in some fan chirping? No? We didn't think so. Noise was becoming a problem, and people looked to ways of reducing the number of moving parts in their computer to deaden this nuisance.

With "silent" PSUs available for sometime now (although still incorporating fans in their design), Zalman saw a large market for CPU and video card coolers that didn't incorporate fans. Like all good ideas, it was simple. Zalman also realised that many of their future customers like to show off their computer, through having cases with windows in them. In which case an extravagant cooler design would also help their sales. The 'Flower' design was thus born. Although it did incorporate a fan for cooling, many were able to get away without one on lower clocked processors.

Next came the heatpipe VGA cooler. We first saw this cooler in the flesh at NVIDIA's nForce 2 launch here in London. They proudly paraded a Geforce 4 Ti 4600 fitted with a Zalman heatpipe cooler. By that time the world had realized the Geforce 4 was far from being the performance king, and all one would achieve by buying a Geforce 4 Ti 4600 with a Zalman cooler would be lightening the load in their wallet. Surprisingly we didn't see a single NVIDIA board partner take Zalman's heatpipe idea up and it was left to the guys at Sapphire to take the lead.

Initially fitted their Atlantis 9700 PRO "Ultimate Edition", it provided silence blended with the power of the R300 core, which even today provides a tempting proposition for those looking for a decent level of performance. Fast forward to today. ATI's Radeon 9800 PRO, powered by the R350 GPU was launched on the 6 March 2003 cemented ATI's performance crown and whilst NVIDIA certainly have come back with a vengeance with the FX 5900 Ultra, thanks to the 256MB version of the 9800 PRO ATI managed to hold onto that crown. So where do Sapphire fit into all this? They've stuck a Zalman heatpipe onto a Radeon 9800 PRO 256MB to create a silent monster.

What one has to remember is that the Radeon 9800 PRO 256MB is an ultra premium product. Thus by nature it will have a limited production run. It's also ATI's first dabble into DDR-II memory for a desktop video card. DDR-II was also used to somewhat less acclaim on the Geforce FX 5800 Ultra. The most interesting story we heard was that the DDR-II RAM present on the Radeon 9800 PRO 256MB was the parts that were rejected by NVIDIA because the Geforce FX 5800 Ultra had to run the memory at 500MHz. Running RAM at such high frequencies does allow for mega bandwidth numbers but the by-product of which is heat. Thankfully ATI and Sapphire stuck to a sane 380MHz and only require small heatsinks on their Samsung modules.

So we've talked about the card itself, now let's talk about the Sapphire Atlantis 256MB Ultimate Edition. Deep down it is identical to the ATI card of the same model number. It even features identical heatsinks on the RAM. The main selling point is the heatpipe cooler. It's understandable that many will find it hard to fathom that such a high-end video card can still be cooled by a passive device, but Sapphire has shown it is possible. We say possible but the heatpipe solution gets so hot, you wouldn't want to touch it even after having your computer switched off for 20 minutes. We've got the burn marks to prove it.

It's important to find out how a heatpipe works in order to understand why it's used so widely in the computing industry. Although a fairly unused resource in desktop computers, it's widely used to cool notebooks. The main advantage with using cooling solutions that use heatpipes is size. The heatpipe itself can be routed past other components with consummate ease. To get a real idea of how a heatpipe works, we have to go deep into the physics. So listen up, here comes the science bit.

Materials are generally classed as thermal insulators (eg. asbestos, wood) or conductors (eg. most metals). The difference between being an insulator or a conductor is due to molecular structure. This is the way the molecules are arranged. Molecules can be arranged in many different ways, but we'll specifically talk about metal so you can see how it applies to the case in hand.

When solid, the atoms in metals as presented in a structure. The shape of that structure is not important, what is, is the rigidity of it. Atoms constantly vibrate. They only stop vibrating if we reach absolute zero (-273.15C). Heat is a form of energy, and when these atoms gain energy they vibrate faster. These vibrating atoms transfer the energy, in our case heat, from one atom to it's neighbouring one. That is how you end up with energy being transferred from the source to the 'end' of the heatpipe. You can think of it as a stream, where the source of water is similar to the source of heat. The water trickles down the channel, much like the heat energy through the channels of atoms to the end point.

Principally there are three types of thermal energy transfer. Conduction, convection and radiation. The explanation was for conduction. Convection occurs in gases. It occurs when hot gas rises (due to becoming less dense) leaving cool gas at the bottom. This occurs in your computer case. Radiation does occurs everywhere. But in the case of video cards and processors conduction is the primary heat energy transfer.

However the heatpipe has to transfer energy to something otherwise it will get very hot itself. This is where you start seeing heatplates and fans. In essence we have seen a passive cooling device become an active one if fans are used. The use of fans can be avoided if a large enough heatplate was used. And that's exactly what Sapphire have done. The heatplate on each side is over 2/3 the size of the PCB. To further increase surface area on the heatplate, fins are employed.

So we've talked a little about the history and the cooling solution, but lets take a quick refresher on the R350 GPU at the heart of the Atlantis 9800 Ultimate Edition.

There isn't a great deal of change between a 9800 PRO 128MB and 256MB in GPU terms, the only differences are found in the memory subsystem. The GPU still runs at 380MHz but the memory runs at 350MHz (10MHz faster than the 9800 PRO 128MB). The core features found in the R350 GPU are :

  • MS DirectX 9.0 support with programmable hardware vertex and pixel shaders
  • Vertex shaders 2.0 which support up to 65,280 instructions including flow control
  • Pixel shaders 2.0 supporting 16 textures per rendering pass
  • F-buffer technology that allows fragment shader programs that are unlimited in length
  • 32/64/128-bit per pixel floating point colour
  • Multiple Render Target support (MTR)
  • Shadow volume rendering acceleration
  • Feature set completely supported in OpenGL through extensions
  • High dimension floating point textures
  • 18 billion anti-aliasing samples per second
  • Support for 2x, 4x, and 6x modes with programmable sample patterns
  • Support for up to 16 trilinear filtered texture samples per pixel
  • Adaptive algorithm which tries to reduce performance hit
  • HYPER Z III+ :-
  • Hierarchical Z-buffer and an "Early Z test" to reduce overdraw
  • Loss-less Z-buffer compression and Fast Z-buffer clear aims to reduce bandwidth consumption by 50%
  • Z Cache enables real-time shadow rendering
  • We've talked about it enough, now lets take a look at the Sapphire Atlantis 9800 Ultimate Edition in the flesh.