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[nextpage title=”Introduction”]

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.

Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2Figure 1: Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2 suitcase.

Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2Figure 2: Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2 suitcase.

Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2Figure 3: Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2 suitcase.

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.

Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2Figure 4: Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2.

[nextpage title=”Introduction (Cont’d)”]

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.

Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2Figure 5: Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2.

Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2Figure 6: Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2, back view.

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.

Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2Figure 7: Radiator from the water cooling system.

Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2Figure 8: Radiator from the water cooling system.

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.

[nextpage title=”More Details”]

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.

GPU Core Clock Shader Clock Proc. Memory Clock Memory Interface Memory Transfer Rate Memory Price
GeForce GTX 280 602 MHz 1,296 MHz 240 1,107 MHz 512-bit 141.7 GB/s 1 GB GDDR3 USD 649
GeForce 9800 GX2 600 MHz 1,500 MHz 128 1,000 MHz 256-bit 64 GB/s 1 GB GDDR3 USD 470 – 550
GeForce 9800 GTX 675 MHz 1,688 MHz 128 1,100 MHz 256-bit 70.4 GB/s 512 MB GDDR3 USD 270 – 355
Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2 857 MHz 857 MHz 320 927 MHz 256-bit 59.33 GB/s 1 GB GDDR3
Radeon HD 3870 776 MHz 776 MHz 320 1,125 MHz 256-bit 72 GB/s 512 MB GDDR4 USD 150 – 200

Some important observations regarding this table:

  • All these video cards are DirectX 10 (Shader 4.0).
  • The memory clocks listed are the real memory clock. Memory clocks are often advertised as double the figures presented, numbers known as “DDR clock.”
  • GeForce 9800 GX2 and Radeon HD 3870 X2 have two GPU’s. The numbers on the table represent only one of the chips.
  • All video cards included on our review were running at the chip manufacturer default clock configuration (i.e., no overclocking), except Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2, as already explained.
  • Prices were researched at Newegg.com one day before this review was published. The price for GeForce GTX 280 is the maximum suggested retail price (MRSP) set by NVIDIA.
  • We couldn’t find Sapphire Atomic HD 3870 X2 for sale. This model will be more expensive than cards from other vendors based on the same GPU because it features water cooling. Just for you to have an idea, prices on the regular Radeon 3870 X2 are quoted between USD 315 and USD 405.

Now let’s go to our tests.[nextpage title=”How We Tested”]

During our benchmarking sessions, we used the configuration listed below. Between our benchmarking sessions the only variable was the video card being tested.

Hardware Configuration

Software Configuration

  • Windows Vista Ultimate 32-bit
  • Service Pack 1

Driver Versions

  • nForce driver version: 15.17
  • AMD/ATI video driver version: Catalyst 8.5
  • NVIDIA video driver version: 175.16
  • NVIDIA video driver version: 177.34 (GeForce GTX 280)

Software Used

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: 1680×1050, 1920×1200, and 2560×1600. 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.

Error Margin

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.

[nextpage title=”3DMark06 Professional”]

3DMark06 measures Shader 3.0 (i.e., DirectX 9.0c) performance. We run this software under three 16:10 widescreen resolutions, 1680×1050, 1920×1200, and 2560×1600, 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.

GeForce GTX 280

3DMark06 Professional 1.1.0 – 1680×1050 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

3DMark06 Professional 1.1.0 – 1920×1200 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

3DMark06 Professional 1.1.0 – 2560×1600 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

3DMark06 Professional 1.1.0 – 1680×1050 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

3DMark06 Professional 1.1.0 – 1920×1200 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

3DMark06 Professional 1.1.0 – 2560×1600 – 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%

[nextpage title=”3DMark Vantage Professional”]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, 1680×1050, 1920×1200, and 2560×1600. 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 2560×1600 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.

GeForce GTX 280

3DMark Vantage Professional 1.0.1 – 1680×1050 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

3DMark Vantage Professional 1.0.1 – 1920×1200 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

 

3DMark Vantage Professional 1.0.1 – 2560×1600 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

3DMark Vantage Professional 1.0.1 -1680×1050 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

3DMark Vantage Professional 1.0.1 -1920×1200 – 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%

[nextpage title=”Call of Duty 4″]

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, 1680×1050, 1920×1200, and 2560×1600, 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.

GeForce GTX 280

Call of Duty 4 – 1680×1050 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

Call of Duty 4 – 1920×1200 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

Call of Duty 4 – 2560×1600 – 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%

[nextpage title=”Crysis”]

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, 1680×1050, 1920×1200, and 2560×1600, 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 2560×1600 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).

GeForce GTX 280

Crysis 1.2.1 – 1680×1050 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

Crysis 1.2.1 – 1920×1200 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

Crysis 1.2.1 – 2560×1600 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

Crysis 1.2.1 – 1680×1050 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

Crysis 1.2.1 – 1920×1200 – 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%

[nextpage title=”Half-Life 2: Episode Two”]

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, 1680×1050, 1920×1200, and 2560×1600, 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 fi
ltering 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.

GeForce GTX 280

Half-Life 2: Episode Two – 1680×1050 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

Half-Life 2: Episode Two – 1920×1200 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

Half-Life 2: Episode Two – 2560×1600 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

Half-Life 2: Episode Two -1680×1050 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

Half-Life 2: Episode Two – 1920×1200 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

Half-Life 2: Episode Two – 2560×1600 – 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%

[nextpage title=”Quake 4″]

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, 1680×1050, 1920×1200, and 2560×1600, 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.

GeForce GTX 280

Quake 4 – 1680×1050 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

Quake 4 – 1920×1200 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

Quake 4 – 2560×1600 – 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%
GeF
orce 9800 GTX
114.34 73.01%
GeForce 9800 GX2 100.07 97.68%

GeForce GTX 280

Quake 4 – 1680×1050 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

Quake 4 – 1920×1200 – 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%

GeForce GTX 280

Quake 4 – 2560×1600 – 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%

[nextpage title=”Conclusions”]

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 16850×1050 and 1920×1200 with no image quality settings enabled and around 16-17% faster than GeForce 9800 GX2 under the same tests. At 2560×1600 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 2560×1600, 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.