|Price:||£145.71 inc VAT|
|Review Date:||Mar 2004|
Verdict: The premium commanded for the passive cooler is well worth paying if silence is a major requirement
They say ignorance is bliss; we say silence is bliss. And thanks to the new Ultimate Edition 9600XT from Sapphire, you can trade the noisy whine of a graphics card fan for the complete absence of noise.
And this card won't hit your wallet too hard either, as the price is no more expensive than an actively cooled 9600XT was two months ago. Sapphire hasn't tried to re-invent the wheel with this latest passively cooled card and sensibly uses the same Zalman heatpipe cooler as it did for the Radeon 9600 Pro. The top half has a low enough profile so you could reasonably install a PCI card directly below it, but we'd recommend leaving room for air to flow around the card, especially as there's no cooling fan.
We tested the card in our usual graphics test rig, a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 with 1GB of RAM. Under load, the heatpipe cooling system measured a maximum temperature of around 60ûC - certainly not hot enough to cause problems. In part, this is testament to ATi's engineering ability: the RV360 core uses a 0.13 micron low-k manufacturing process which helps keep temperatures under control.
Performance is the key feature of a 3D card, though, and on paper the Sapphire looks good. The 128MB of DDR memory runs at an effective 600MHz while the core clock of the GPU runs at 500MHz - the default 9600XT specifications. However, these are considerably faster than a vanilla Radeon 9600 which has a 325MHz core and weedy 400MHz memory.
We installed the Catalyst 3.10 drivers and fired up Unreal Tournament 2003 to begin the torture process. At 1,280 x 1,024 with 2x AA and 4x AF, the card breezed past 30fps and hit 48fps dead on. Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory proved more taxing but the 9600XT still managed 35.3fps. Splinter Cell was just about playable at 26.5fps. Interestingly, using the latest Catalyst 4.1 drivers, Wolfenstein takes a 10fps performance hit at 1,280 x 1,024. This is a known issue that ATi is resolving in the next release, but for now it's best to stick with 3.10 for Enemy Territory.
Upping the stakes to 1,600 x 1,200 without AA or AF was a tougher challenge, but the Sapphire still managed playable frame rates on all three game tests. However, running at 1,600 x 1,200 with 4x AA and 8x AF brought the Sapphire to its knees. Wolfenstein suffered the most, dropping to a slideshow-like 9.7fps. For raw speed, you're better served with MSI's 5900XT (see p40).
As the card is passively cooled, we weren't expecting much overclocking potential, but we were wrong. The card was happy to run Unreal Tournament with a small core clock boost of 60MHz to 560MHz and we managed to up the memory by the same amount to 660MHz. This gave a small increase of 2.1fps in UT at 1,600 x 1,200 4x AA 8x AF.
Adding weight to the Ultimate name is a decent bundle of software and accessories - at least it would be if Half-Life 2 was in the box. The coupon, which takes the game's place, provides instructions on how to download it when it's finally released (and this might not be until the end of this year) and if you want a real CD, you'll have to wait an extra four to six weeks. What a swizz.
Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness is in the box, but although it uses DirectX 9 graphics, it certainly isn't the greatest game ever released.
Sapphire includes a DVI to D-SUB converter so you can connect two analog monitors to the card. There are also S-Video and composite cables included, and a converter to change the card's S-Video output to composite.
All in all, the 9600XT Ultimate Edition is decent mid-range graphics card and the premium commanded for the passive cooler is well worth paying if silence is a major requirement.