- Review Price: £150.00
The Sapphire Hybrid X700 Pro has a certain elegance, sporting a small blue heatsink on the X700 Pro GPU and a total of eight heatsinks on the GDDR3 memory chips. It’s a mid-sized card with no need for an extra power connector and the PCI Express x16 connector is still novel enough to excite a certain amount of interest. No doubt we will look back on that comment in six months time with some embarrassment, but for now it’s true enough.
We had hoped that the Hybrid family name alluded to some sort of AGP/PCI Express adapter, but no, it seems that Hybrid is the odd monochrome cartoon character on the Sapphire box.
As you will recall, the X700 Pro chip is built on the technology of the X800, except that it has eight pixel pipelines rather than 16 or 12, and the memory controller is 128bit rather than 256bit. While nVidia is happy to have mid-range chips such as the GeForce 6600 which are effectively half of a GeForce 6800 Ultra, ATI takes a slightly different approach. Starting with the Radeon 9600 it has used its mid-range chips to prove the technology that it will use in the next generation fabrication process, so the X800 uses a 0.13 micron process and typically has 160 million transistors, but the X700 has moved to a 0.11 micron process and the reduction in the number of pipelines means that it has some 120 million transistors. Make no mistake, the X700 is not a crippled X800, and neither is it a jumped-up X600.
Moving to a smaller fabrication process has a number of virtues as the smaller core is cheaper, and it also allows ATI to work out the wrinkles of the process before it adopts it in the high-end chips. If the manufacturer gets the move to a smaller process absolutely right it can reduce power requirement, which also makes it easier to cool the chip, however Intel has proved with the Prescott Pentium 4 that a new fabrication process can be anything but a safe bet.
Sapphire has used the X700 Pro in a very conventional graphics card with one D-SUB port, one DVI-I and a TV-Out, while the box contains the usual DVI-to-D-SUB adapter, an S-Video extension cable, a composite TV cable and an S-Video-to-composite video adapter.
There’s a reasonable software package in the shape of PowerDVD 5 (stereo rather than surround sound), Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow and Sapphire’s usual Redline overclocking utility. We’re not massive fans of Redline as it is rather clunky and basic, and you have to use trial and error when you’re overclocking. Added to that, Redline doesn’t recognise the X700 and instead of issuing an update Sapphire has posted a patch on its website which you have to download and run before you can install the software, which is a bit messy and quite unsatisfactory.
In our initial batch of tests on the TrustedReviews Pentium 4 system the Sapphire did a good job of returning test results even when the resolution was cranked up and FSAA was enabled. No doubt this was aided by the 256MB of memory which ensured that the card never ran out of texture memory, but if you study the results you’ll see that the scores are rather slow. In the most intensive tests and games the frame rates were simply too low to make this ability to run high quality settings relevant. In Doom3, for instance, there was little point running a resolution above 1,024 x 768 and anti-aliasing was out of the question. Far Cry was less of a struggle for the Sapphire but you had to balance the settings to keep the frame rate up. You could have either a high resolution or anti-aliasing, but not both. So, what we needed, we reasoned, was some overclocking to see whether we could get the best of both worlds.
Moving on to a 3.4GHz Prescott test system on an Intel D925XCV motherboard with 1GB of dual channel DDR2 533MHz memory, we installed Redline on top of the Catalyst 4.10 drivers. Initially we could only raise the core speed from 425MHz to 439MHz, while the memory would barely move from 864MHz to 878MHz. Predictably this tiny overclock had a negligible effect, and we were rather unimpressed. What was the point of all of that GDDR3 memory if it wouldn’t scorch along at an infernal pace, we wondered?
At that very moment ATI released the Beta of Catalyst 4.12 so we gave it a whirl. On standard timings the scores in 3DMark05 didn’t change, while our Doom3 results rose by a few frames per second, but the real benefits came when we started overclocking. With the new Catalyst drivers we could push Redline almost to its limits, with the core speed hitting 486MHz and memory speeds up at 986MHz. It took us some time to get to those speeds as Redline requires you to use trial and error, and the speed sliders move in jumps of 4 or 5MHz. For the record we also tried overclocking with Riva Tuner and Powerstrip and the results were exactly the same as Redline.
We’d managed to bump up the speeds by 14 per cent, and when we re-ran 3DMark05 and Doom3 we saw the benefits as the scores rose by almost exactly that amount. That’s much more encouraging, but those numbers don’t tell the full story. Running Doom3 at 1,600 x 1,200 on standard timings gave a rate of 12.5fps, and when we overclocked the rate rose to 14.3fps. The thing is, neither of those speeds are playable, so the overclocking makes little difference. Of course it’s better to play Doom3 at 1,024 x 768 with an enhanced frame rate of 48.6fps, rather than the standard 44.5fps but the extra 4fps is the icing on the cake, rather than something that radically changes your perception of the graphics card.
That’s where this review gets a little sticky as the Sapphire X700 Pro is undoubtedly a good mid-range graphics card but it’s rather expensive at £150. For an extra £50 you could buy a basic GeForce 6800 which is far better in all respects, and then there’s the issue of the DirectX 9 support that ATI offers. The X700 Pro complies with Shader Model 2, rather than Shader Model 3, and while that may make no difference at all for the time being it’s something to bear in mind for the future.
The most bizarre aspect of the X700 range is that the X700 XT is the same price as the Pro, but has half the memory. This ultimately makes the X700 message a rather confused one, and we’d have rather seen the X700 Pro with 128MB of memory and a correspondingly lower price.
The Sapphire X700 Pro is too expensive to be a budget graphics card, and too slow to be ranked as a real gaming card, which leaves it in an uncomfortable position.
Below is a table showing the features of the board using both the Catalyst 4.10 and 4.12 drivers and the corresponding overclocked results.
Score in detail
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