Once we got going with the testing we soon noticed that while we were getting some seriously high numbers they were nevertheless falling short of what we achieved with the X850 XT PE reference car last month. For example, in 3DMark03 the reference board broke 13,000 but the Sapphire only reached 12,882. The pattern was repeated in 3DMark05. Proof that nothing was awry with the hardware itself came with the scores in Unreal Tournament 2004 with the Sapphire exactly matching those of the reference board. In the rest of the game results however, the Sapphire once again consistently fell behind the reference card by consistently similar margins. The big surprise though was in Half-Life 2 at high resolutions, where the card was losing around 30fps to the reference board when anisotropic filtering was applied at both 1,280 x 1,024 and 1,600 x 1,200, far below what we would have expected.
There is a possible explanation however, for this unusual behaviour. While the reference board was tested with a special driver supplied by ATI, the Sapphire was tested with the official 4.12 release and this appears to be less aggressive than reference board driver. That said, the results at 1,600 x 1,200 in Half-Life 2 are clearly anomalous and hopefully ATI will sort this out with its next driver release. It’s especially puzzling as the 4.12 drivers had a positive effect of performance when we tested the X800XL.
Despite this the card is still worthy of an award. At the other resolutions in Half-Life 2, the card is still faster than anything we’ve tested, save for the water cooled Gainward PowerPack CoolFX! GeForce 6800 card. However, that was a highly unusual card requiring a lot of difficult installation, and will still set you back £590. So when you consider that the Sapphire is on sale in the same price bracket as a GeForce 6800 GT, there really is no contest. And while SLI may well spoil ATI’s party, it’s still early days for the much hyped technology. Its also worth mentioning that even with the lower scores, the Sapphire X850 XT PE puts ATI on a more or less even keel with nVidia in Doom 3, which is impressive considering that the iD title really does play to the GeForce 6800’s strengths.
It may be disappointing that the it's slower than the reference board and that there are some odd results at 1,600 x 1,200 in Half-Life 2 but there is still a lot to celebrate about this card. Hopefully the issues will be sorted out in the next driver release because these aside the Sapphire Radeon X850 XT Platinum Edition is one very attractively priced, powerhouse of a graphics card.