Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2 Video Card Review
By Gabriel Torres on June 18, 2008
Atomic HD 3870 X2 is a limited edition water-cooled video card from Sapphire. In this review we will take an in-depth look at this card and compare its performance to the performance of its main competitors today like GeForce 9800 GX2 and GeForce 9800 GTX and also to the standard Radeon HD 3870. Read on.
Being a special edition, Atomic HD 3870 X2 comes in a fancy metallic suitcase, as you can see in Figure 1. Inside the suitcase the video card and its water cooling system are surrounded by gray foam, just like gun cases in secret agent movies, see Figures 2 and 3.
In Figure 4 you have an overall look of the video card and its water cooling system. We will talk more about them in the next page.
Atomic HD 3870 X2 water cooling system comes pre-assembled, so no assembly is required by the user. The water pump and the water tank comes attached to the radiator and the system is sealed, coming already with coolant installed – i.e., this is a “maintenance free” system.
The memory chips located on the back of the card, however, aren’t cooled by the water cooling system, which is the only negative point we saw on this video card.
On Figures 7 and 8 you can see the radiator. It uses one 120 mm brushless fan, which spins very slowly, producing no noise. Talking about noise, the water cooling system is somewhat noisy when you first turn on the computer, but the noise level drops after a while, when the water is flowing at a constant rate.
The video card requires two auxiliary power cables, one using a 6-pin connector and the other using a 8-pin connector. The water cooling system requires one standard peripheral power connector.
To make the comparison between Atomic HD 3870 X2 and the other video cards we included in this review easier, we compiled the table below comparing the main specs from these cards. If you want to compare the specs of Atomic HD 3870 X2 to any other video card not included in the table below, just take a look at our NVIDIA Chips Comparison Table or on our AMD ATI Chips Comparison Table.
The official core clock for Radeon HD 3870 X2 is 825 MHz, while its official memory clock is 900 MHz. Atomic HD 3870 X2 comes factory-overclocked, with its two GPU’s running at 857 MHz and its memory running at 927 MHz. As you can see, this is far from being a big overclocking. Since we hadn’t any other Radeon HD 3870 X2 available we couldn’t see how fast this overclocking made this card to be compared to the standard HD 3870 X2.
Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2 uses Samsung K4J52324QE-BJ1A GDDR3 chips. These chips officially support a clock frequency of up to 1,000 MHz. As mentioned on this video card they run at 927 MHz, so there is a tight 7.9% headroom for you to overclock the video card memories still maintaining them inside their specs. Of course you can always try pushing memories above their specs, but it isn’t guaranteed that the overclocking will work.
Memory Transfer Rate
GeForce GTX 280
1 GB GDDR3
GeForce 9800 GX2
1 GB GDDR3
USD 470 - 550
GeForce 9800 GTX
512 MB GDDR3
USD 270 - 355
Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2
1 GB GDDR3
Radeon HD 3870
512 MB GDDR4
USD 150 - 200
Some important observations regarding this table:
During our benchmarking sessions, we used the configuration listed below. Between our benchmarking sessions the only variable was the video card being tested.
Resolutions and Image Quality Settings
Since we were comparing very high-end video cards, we ran all our tests under three 16:10 widescreen high resolutions: 1680x1050, 1920x1200, and 2560x1600. We always tried to run the programs and games in two scenarios for each resolution, one with low image quality settings and then maxing out the image quality settings. The exact configuration we used will be described together with the results of each individual test.
We adopted a 3% error margin; thus, differences below 3% cannot be considered relevant. In other words, products with a performance difference below 3% should be considered as having similar performance.
3DMark06 measures Shader 3.0 (i.e., DirectX 9.0c) performance. We run this software under three 16:10 widescreen resolutions, 1680x1050, 1920x1200, and 2560x1600, first with no image quality enhancements enabled – results we call “low” on the charts and tables below –, then setting 4x anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering. See the results below.
|3DMark06 Professional 1.1.0 - 1680x1050 – Low||Score||Difference|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||16260|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||15623||4.08%|
|GeForce GTX 280||14904||9.10%|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||12759||27.44%|
|Radeon HD 3870||10694||52.05%|
|3DMark06 Professional 1.1.0 - 1920x1200 – Low||Score||Difference|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||15547||0.37%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||15489|
|GeForce GTX 280||14215||8.96%|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||11631||33.17%|
|Radeon HD 3870||9454||63.84%|
|3DMark06 Professional 1.1.0 - 2560x1600 - Low||Score||Difference|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||13015||5.68%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||12315|
|GeForce GTX 280||11766||4.67%|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||8743||40.86%|
|Radeon HD 3870||6823||80.49%|
|3DMark06 Professional 1.1.0 - 1680x1050 – High||Score||Difference|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||16260|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||13900||16.98%|
|GeForce GTX 280||12157||33.75%|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||8981||81.05%|
|Radeon HD 3870||6915||135.14%|
|3DMark06 Professional 1.1.0 - 1920x1200 – High||Score||Difference|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||15489|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||12213||26.82%|
|GeForce GTX 280||10991||40.92%|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||7811||98.30%|
|Radeon HD 3870||6114||153.34%|
|3DMark06 Professional 1.1.0 - 2560x1600 – High||Score||Difference|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||12315|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||9829||25.29%|
|GeForce GTX 280||8704||41.49%|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||5774||113.28%|
|Radeon HD 3870||4319||185.14%|
3DMark Vantage is the latest addition to the 3DMark series, measuring Shader 4.0 (i.e., DirectX 10) performance and supporting PhysX, a programming interface developed by Ageia (now part of NVIDIA) to transfer physics calculations from the system CPU to the video card GPU in order to increase performance. Mechanical physics is the basis for calculations about the interaction of objects. For example, if you shoot, what exactly will happen to the object when the bullet hits it? Will it break? Will it move? Will the bullet bounce back?
We ran this program at three 16:10 widescreen resolutions, 1680x1050, 1920x1200, and 2560x1600. First we used the “Performance” profile, and then we used the “Extreme” profile (basically enabling anti-aliasing at 4x, anisotropic filtering at 16x, and putting all detail settings at their maximum or “extreme” value. The combination of 2560x1600 resolution with extreme settings didn’t produce reliable results according to the program, so we aren’t going to add them here. The results being compared are the “GPU Scores” achieved by each video card.
|3DMark Vantage Professional 1.0.1 - 1680x1050 – Performance||Score||Difference|
|GeForce GTX 280||7695||36.17%|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||6990||23.69%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||5651|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||3805||48.52%|
|Radeon HD 3870||2977||89.82%|
|3DMark Vantage Professional 1.0.1 - 1920x1200 – Performance||Score||Difference|
|GeForce GTX 280||6106||40.82%|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||5379||24.05%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||4336|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||2891||49.98%|
|Radeon HD 3870||2269||91.10%|
|3DMark Vantage Professional 1.0.1 - 2560x1600 – Performance||Score||Difference|
|GeForce GTX 280||3549||48.99%|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||2910||22.17%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||2382|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||1557||52.99%|
|Radeon HD 3870||1244||91.48%|
|3DMark Vantage Professional 1.0.1 -1680x1050 - Extreme||Score||Difference|
|GeForce GTX 280||6005||68.35%|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||4858||36.19%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||3567|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||2703||31.96%|
|Radeon HD 3870||1855||92.29%|
|3DMark Vantage Professional 1.0.1 -1920x1200 - Extreme||Score||Difference|
|GeForce GTX 280||4732||77.29%|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||3508||31.43%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||2669|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||2038||30.96%|
|Radeon HD 3870||1439||85.48%|
Call of Duty 4 is a DirectX 9 game implementing high-dynamic range (HDR) and its own physics engine, which is used to calculate how objects interact. For example, if you shoot, what exactly will happen to the object when the bullet hits it? Will it break? Will it move? Will the bullet bounce back? It gives a more realistic experience to the user.
We ran this program at three 16:10 widescreen resolutions, 1680x1050, 1920x1200, and 2560x1600, maxing out all image quality controls (i.e., everything was put on the maximum values on the Graphics and Texture menus). We used the game internal benchmarking feature, running a demo provided by NVIDIA called “wetwork.” We are putting this demo for downloading here if you want to run your own benchmarks. The game was updated to version 1.6.
|Call of Duty 4 - 1680x1050 – Maximum||Score||Difference|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||106.2||40.29%|
|GeForce GTX 280||105.3||39.10%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||75.7|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||69.1||9.55%|
|Radeon HD 3870||43.0||76.05%|
|Call of Duty 4 - 1920x1200 - Maximum||Score||Difference|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||94.5||54.16%|
|GeForce GTX 280||91.7||49.59%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||61.3|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||57.7||6.24%|
|Radeon HD 3870||35.4||73.16%|
|Call of Duty 4 - 2560x1600 - Maximum||Score||Difference|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||64.8||59.61%|
|GeForce GTX 280||64.8||59.61%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||40.6|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||38.3||6.01%|
|Radeon HD 3870||22.4||81.25%|
Crysis is a very heavy DirectX 10 game. We updated this game to version 1.2.1 and used the HOC Crysis Benchmarking Utility to help us collecting data. Since we don’t think the default demo based on the island map stresses the video card the way we want, we used the HOC core demo available with the abovementioned utility. We ran this demo under three 16:10 widescreen resolutions, 1680x1050, 1920x1200, and 2560x1600, first with image quality set to “low” and then with image quality set to “high.” Since all video cards achieved a number of frames per second below 10 at 2560x1600 with image details set to “high,” we are not including this test as the results aren’t reliable. We ran each test twice and discarded the first result, as usually the first run achieves a lower score compared to the subsequent runs since the game loses time loading files. The results are below, in frames per second (FPS).
|Crysis 1.2.1 - 1680x1050 – Low||Score||Difference|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||125|
|GeForce GTX 280||125||0.00%|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||84||48.81%|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||75||66.67%|
|Radeon HD 3870||71||76.06%|
|Crysis 1.2.1 - 1920x1200 – Low||Score||Difference|
|GeForce GTX 280||115||6.48%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||108|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||69||56.52%|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||63||71.43%|
|Radeon HD 3870||58||86.21%|
|Crysis 1.2.1 - 2560x1600 – Low||Score||Difference|
|GeForce GTX 280||95||33.80%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||71|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||44||61.36%|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||42||69.05%|
|Radeon HD 3870||35||102.86%|
|Crysis 1.2.1 - 1680x1050 - High||Score||Difference|
|GeForce GTX 280||42||61.54%|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||29||11.54%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||26|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||25||4.00%|
|Radeon HD 3870||19||36.84%|
|Crysis 1.2.1 - 1920x1200 - High||Score||Difference|
|GeForce GTX 280||34||70.00%|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||22||10.00%|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||21||5.00%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||20|
|Radeon HD 3870||16||25.00%|
Half-Life 2 is a popular franchise and we benchmark the video cards using Episode Two with the aid of HOC Half-Life 2 Episode Two benchmarking utility using the “HOC Demo 1” provided by this program. We ran the game in three 16:10 widescreen resolutions, 1680x1050, 1920x1200, and 2560x1600, under two scenarios. First with quality set to maximum, bilinear filtering and anti-aliasing set to x0. This configuration we are calling “low” on the charts and tables below. Then we maxed out image quality settings, enabling x16 anisotropic filtering and 16xQCS anti-aliasing. This configuration we are calling “high” on our charts and tables. We updated the game up to the June 9th 2008 patch.
|Half-Life 2: Episode Two - 1680x1050 – Low||Score||Difference|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||160.4|
|GeForce GTX 280||156.3||2.62%|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||153.8||4.29%|
|Radeon HD 3870||145.7||10.09%|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||136.8||17.25%|
|Half-Life 2: Episode Two - 1920x1200 - Low||Score||Difference|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||156.7|
|GeForce GTX 280||156.3||0.26%|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||146.9||6.67%|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||135.2||15.90%|
|Radeon HD 3870||120.1||30.47%|
|Half-Life 2: Episode Two - 2560x1600 - Low||Score||Difference|
|GeForce GTX 280||145.1||11.87%|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||130.6||0.69%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||129.7|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||107.9||20.20%|
|Radeon HD 3870||72.8||78.16%|
|Half-Life 2: Episode Two -1680x1050 – High||Score||Difference|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||137.9||9.36%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||126.1|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||125.4||0.56%|
|GeForce GTX 280||89.3||41.21%|
|Radeon HD 3870||68.3||84.63%|
|Half-Life 2: Episode Two - 1920x1200 – High||Score||Difference|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||116.3||9.20%|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||111.1||4.32%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||106.5|
|GeForce GTX 280||70.3||51.49%|
|Radeon HD 3870||56.8||87.50%|
|Half-Life 2: Episode Two - 2560x1600 – High||Score||Difference|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||71.3||40.91%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||50.6|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||37.5||34.93%|
|GeForce GTX 280||35.5||42.54%|
|Radeon HD 3870||34.9||44.99%|
We upgraded Quake 4 to version 1.4.2 and ran its multiplayer demo id_perftest with SMP option enabled (which allows Quake 4 to recognize and use more than one CPU), under the same three 16:10 widescreen resolutions, 1680x1050, 1920x1200, and 2560x1600, first with image quality settings configured at “low” and then with image quality settings configured at “ultra.” You can check the results below, given in frames per second.
|Quake 4 - 1680x1050 – Low||Score||Difference|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||285.30|
|GeForce GTX 280||268.80||6.14%|
|Radeon HD 3870||227.75||25.27%|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||225.52||26.51%|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||220.48||29.40%|
|Quake 4 - 1920x1200 – Low||Score||Difference|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||266.23|
|GeForce GTX 280||235.92||12.85%|
|Radeon HD 3870||188.40||41.31%|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||174.06||52.95%|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||158.87||67.58%|
|Quake 4 - 2560x1600 – Low||Score||Difference|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||197.82|
|GeForce GTX 280||168.81||17.19%|
|Radeon HD 3870||116.01||70.52%|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||114.34||73.01%|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||100.07||97.68%|
|Quake 4 - 1680x1050 – Ultra||Score||Difference|
|GeForce GTX 280||246.39||3.53%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||237.98|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||218.80||8.77%|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||194.65||22.26%|
|Radeon HD 3870||167.26||42.28%|
|Quake 4 - 1920x1200 – Ultra||Score||Difference|
|GeForce GTX 280||224.44||2.66%|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||218.62|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||158.35||38.06%|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||158.18||38.21%|
|Radeon HD 3870||144.80||50.98%|
|Quake 4 - 2560x1600 – Ultra||Score||Difference|
|Sapphire Atomic Radeon HD 3870 X2||177.36|
|GeForce GTX 280||168.43||5.30%|
|GeForce 9800 GTX||102.04||73.81%|
|GeForce 9800 GX2||94.68||87.33%|
|Radeon HD 3870||94.40||87.88%|
We liked this video card a lot. Not only because this particular model from Sapphire comes with a liquid cooling solution pre-assembled, but also because of its good performance for its price point.
On 3DMark06, which simulates DirectX 9.0c (Shader 3.0) games, Atomic HD 3870 achieved a performance similar to GeForce 9800 GX2 and was a little bit faster than the new and expensive GeForce GTX 280 (5%-9%) when no image quality enhancements were enabled, but when we enabled them the reviewed video card was between 16% and 26% faster than GX2 and between 34% and 42% faster than GeForce GTX 280.
Atomic HD 3870 X2 also achieved a good performance on Quake 4, being between 6% and 17% faster than the new GeForce GTX 280 and between 29% and 98% faster than GeForce 9800 GX2 when image quality was set at “low.” Increasing image quality made Atomic HD 3870 X2 to achieve the same performance level as GeForce GTX 280, but the reviewed card continued to be faster than GX2 (between 9% and 87.33%).
Half-Life 2: Episode Two also showed some good results for Atomic HD 3870 X2, with this card achieving the same performance level as GeForce GTX 280 at 16850x1050 and 1920x1200 with no image quality settings enabled and around 16-17% faster than GeForce 9800 GX2 under the same tests. At 2560x1600 also with no image quality settings enabled it achieved the same performance level as GeForce 9800 GX2, but GeForce GTX 280 was 12% faster. Maxing out image quality settings made Atomic HD 3870 X2 to achieve the same performance level as GeForce 9800 GX2, except at 2560x1600, where the video card from Sapphire was 35% faster.
On Call of Duty 4 maxing out image quality settings GeForce 9800 GX2 was between 40% and 60% faster than Atomic HD 3870 X2. Here, however, the reviewed card was a little bit faster than GeForce 9800 GTX.
On Crysis with image quality set to “low” Atomic HD 3870 X2 was between 67% and 71% faster than GeForce 9800 GX2 and when we set image quality to “high” both cards achieved similar performance, but GeForce 9800 GTX was around 10% faster than the reviewed card.
Besides Call of Duty 4 Atomic HD 3870 X2 also took a beat from GeForce 9800 on the new 3DMark Vantage, which simulates DirectX 10 games. Here GX2 was between 22% and 36% faster. In this program, however, Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2 was between 31% and 53% faster than GeForce 9800 GTX.
After we prepared this review we got the word that this video card won’t reach the US retail market, as only 300 pieces were manufactured – bummer! But we decided to publish this review anyway because we think most readers wanted to see a comparison between Radeon HD 3870 X2 and its main competitors (GeForce 9800 GX2 and GeForce 9800 GTX) and the regular Radeon HD 3870.
If you are looking for a high-end video card and don’t want to sell a kidney to buy the new GeForce GTX 280, Radeon HD 3870 X2 is a great option, especially when you think it is cheaper than GeForce 9800 GX2 and that it could beat this card from NVIDIA on several scenarios. Against GeForce 9800 GTX the reviewed card is a no-brainer, even though it costs more. But, of course, if you have money to buy either GeForce 9800 GX2 or GeForce GTX 280 go for it.