Sapphire HD 6970 FleX Battlefield 3 Edition Review

airman - 2011-11-03 11:48:51 in Video Cards
Category: Video Cards
Reviewed by: airman   
Reviewed on: November 23, 2011
Price: $399.99

Introduction:

It wouldn't be out of line to say that EA's Battlefield 3, released only a couple of weeks ago, was one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the whole year. Almost everyone who has played it, including myself, has fallen in love and has since forgotten about all the other games that they used to play up until its release. I must say that the multiplayer gameplay is phenomenal and offers infinite incentives to keep playing — especially with a good group of teammates. However, that's not the focus of this review; it is merely a small part of it. On the day that Battlefield 3 launched came Sapphire's HD 6970 FleX Battlefield 3 Edition. Now, the only thing that makes it the Battlefield 3 Edition is that retail copies of the card come with a registration key for the game. Of course, the cost of the game is going to be a part of the package, but it still offers incentive to those looking for a new card and were going to purchase the game anyways.

As I've stated in my recent reviews of Sapphire cards, these cards are not anything new at the base/hardware level. Sure, they may come with different coolers, clock speeds, port availabilities, etc., but at the core they are the same. Sapphire has been keeping the market busy with many different varieties of the HD series cards, mainly in the 6800 and 6900 flavors. The HD 6970 is a very powerful card and I thoroughly enjoy my own. I am looking forward to seeing how this card compares to other HD 6970s and seeing how far I can overclock it! In this review, I will provide a thorough evaluation of Sapphire's HD 6970 FleX Battlefield 3 Edition, including its unboxing, exterior and interior evaluation, specifications and features, and OCC's intense testing and benchmarking suite that will put it up against the latest of games and highest of stress levels.

 

Closer Look:

Covering the package from top to bottom is Battlefield 3 artwork. The front of the box features the same image as everywhere else Battlefield 3 is advertised; an armored soldier walking toward the field of view with a tank and other buildings behind him. All the individual features that the card offers and other specifications are displayed on the front of the box as well. There is an "Overclocked" stamp indicating that it runs at slightly higher speeds than reference clocks, a Dual-Bios icon, and more at the bottom that are general features, such as DX11, HDMI and DisplayPort support, and other AMD features like Eyefinity and CrossFire. The top, bottom, and sides all say "Radeon HD6970 FleX Edition", with the graphics from the front wrapping onto them. The rear of the box mainly goes into detail about the individual features that are listed in icon form on the lower-front of the box, some of which I listed above. Inside of the outer, decorated "sheath" is a plain cardboard box that houses the card and the accessory contents.

 

 

 

The card itself is protected inside of a taped-shut, anti-static bag and arrived in good condition. Underneath the recycled cardboard housing for the video card is another cardboard box that contains the accessories. These accessories include: CrossFire bridge, HDMI to DVI adapter, mini DisplayPort to DisplayPort adapter, 6' HDMI cable, driver CD, users manuals, and of course, a Battlefield 3 voucher.

 

 

With the card out of the box, it's time to play!

Closer Look:

As with the other special edition Sapphire cards, there is generally no reference to the game/etc that the card represents on the card itself, possibly to protect the zeitgeist of the card and not leave it stuck at a potential date/landmark in time or make it appear gimmicky. As such, the Sapphire HD 6970 FleX Battlefield 3 edition does not have any Battlefield 3 logo or propaganda attached to it physically — it's the fact that it is packaged with the game itself. Anyways, on the top/front of the card we see the AMD logo to the left of the text "Radeon HD 6970" to identify the card. On the other side of the fan is the text "FleX edition", reminding the user of the card's capability to use a combination of three monitors using the two DVI ports and the HDMI port. On non-FleX cards, you cannot use the HDMI port and Single Link DVI port independently. The cooling shroud is composed of black plastic, and offers a neat, rugged look due to its shape, textures, and pattern. Taking a look at the back side of the card will expose the signature blue Sapphire PCB. Nothing particular stands out from the back side, other than the visibility of the PCI slot contacts and the two CrossFire notches at the top. Having two CrossFire notches means that the card is capable of running a triple-card setup.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the mounting bracket side of the card you will find the two DVI ports (Dual Link and Single Link), one HDMI port, and the two DisplayPort jacks. In total, this card is capable of driving five monitors, more than most other cards can handle (at least those without a separate clock generator on the HDMI port). With the amount of ports taking up the majority of the space on the backplate, little room is left for the exhaust vents. Most cards are limited in this way, but do not have any issues with cooling. Peering at the opposite side of the card under the cooling shroud, you can see some of the capacitors on the board, the outside of the power ports (one 2x2-pin plug and one 2x3-pin plug is required), the fan header on the PCB, and some small heatsinks toward the edge of the PCB. You can also see some of the fins on the outside of the heatsink. Rotating to the front side of the card, a good look at the location of the power plugs can be made on the right side, along with the CrossFire plugs on the far left of the card. Similar to other Sapphire offerings in the HD 69x0 line, there is a dual-BIOS switch to the right of the CrossFire area that allows users to switch between different BIOS images, if they require. This is particularly handy because if a BIOS flash goes bad, a user can jump over to the redundant version to resolve the problem.

 

 

 

Getting under the hood of this card requires removal of nine screws from the back of the board. Taking a quick glance at the hole and component layout, I can tell that it is AMD's newer reference design, which has a slightly different hole pattern from the original, R1 reference version. All that can be seen on the underside of the cooler is the copper area surrounded by an aluminum mounting mechanism. The copper area is the technology deemed VaporX — a vapor chamber that resembles a 2D heatpipe, or for lack of a better word, a "heatplate". Spreading out of the vapor chamber are three generic, one-dimensional heatpipes that branch out to the aluminum fin array. Removing the cooling shroud exposes its general simplicity, just like the other VaporX units.

 

 

 

As you'll find on the next page in the Specifications table, the HD 6970 is based off of the 40nm Cayman architecture. It sports a 389mm2 die with 2.64 billion transistors, 1536 Stream processors, 96 texture units, and 32 ROPs, with clock speeds of 930MHz (versus 880MHz stock) on the core and 1375MHz on the GDDR5 memory. Seen on this unit is Hynix memory, a top pick among memory chips over many different manufacturers nowadays.

 

 

With the card now completely dissected, it's time to put it back together and move on to getting it mounted and tested!

Specifications:

GPU
HD6970
GPU Core
Cayman
Technology
40nm
Die Size
389mm2
Transistor Count
2640 Million
ROPs
32
Shaders
1536 Unified
Pixel Fillrate
29.8 GPixel/s
Texture Fillrate
89.3 Gtexel/s
Memory Type
GDDR5
Bus Width
256-bit
Memory Size
2048MB
Bandwidth
176.0 GB/s
GPU Core Clock
930 MHz
Memory Clock
1375 MHz
DirectX Support
11.0
Shader Model Support
5.0

 

Features:

 

 

All information courtesy of Sapphiretech @ http://www.sapphiretech.com/presentation/product/?cid=1&gid=3&sgid=1041&pid=1359&psn=000101

Testing:

Testing of the Sapphire HD 6970 FleX Battlefield 3 Edition will consist of running it and comparison cards through the OverclockersClub.com suite of games and synthetic benchmarks. This will test the performance against many popular competitors. Comparisons will be made to cards of equal and greater capabilities to show where they fall on the performance ladder. The games used are some of today's newest and most popular titles to give you an idea of how the cards perform relative to each other.

The system specifications will remain the same throughout the testing. No adjustment will be made to the respective control panels during the testing, with the exception of the 3DMark Vantage testing, where PhysX will be disabled in the NVIDIA control panel if applicable. I will test the cards at stock speeds, then overclocked in order to see the effects of any increases in clock speed. The cards are placed in order from highest to lowest performing in the graphs to show where the cards fall by comparison. The drivers used are the 11.7 Catalyst drivers for AMD-based cards and the 275.27 for NVIDIA-based cards.

 

Comparison Video Cards:

 

Overclocking:

I already had a good feeling as to what this card would overclock to and what I experienced with this card was nothing out of the ordinary. After using Sapphire's TriXX Utility to find the max speeds at stock volts, I ramped the voltage up to 1.275V and went at it. After much hope, I wasn't able to get this card stable over 1000MHz on the core — but I honestly tried. Some chips are better than others, and even with this being one of the "better" clock speeds out there, I was hoping to break the 1GHz barrier! Nevertheless, coming from stock (out of the box) speeds of 930MHz on the core and 1100MHz on the memory, I achieved an overclock of only 7% on the core, though I managed over 35% on the memory! I didn't expect a huge "percentage" on the core clock because it is already 50MHz over the reference speed, so in reality I was able to reach over 13% above stock. It appears that regardless of the cooler temperatures from the upper-end cooler, this was all I was going to get at 1.275V where I'm comfortable about the health of the card. Comparing to other cards [in this review], it fared out at third place overall in core speed and second place on the memory. Not too bad!

 

 

Maximum Clock Speeds:

Testing for the maximum clock speed consists of looping Crysis Warhead and Unigine 2.5 for 30 minutes each to see where the clock speeds will fail when pushed. If the clock speed adjustment fails, then the clock speeds and tests are rerun until they pass the full hour of testing.

 

 

  1. Aliens vs. Predator
  2. Metro 2033
  3. Civilization V
  4. HAWX 2
  5. Just Cause 2
  6. Unigine Heaven Benchmark 2.5
  7. Mafia II
  8. Battlefield: Bad Company 2
  9. Lost Planet 2
  10. 3DMark 11
  1. Temperature
  2. Power Consumption

Aliens vs. Predator, developed by Rebellion Developments, is a science fiction first-person shooter and is a remake of its 1999 game. The game is based off the two popular sci fi franchises. In this game, you have the option of playing through the single player campaigns as one of three species, the Alien, the Predator, and the Human Colonial Marine. The Game uses Rebellion's Asura game engine that supports Dynamic Lighting, Shader Model 3.0, Soft Particle systems, and Physics. To test this game I will be using the Aliens vs. Predator benchmark tool with the settings listed below. All DirectX 11 features are enabled.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here we see the HD 6970 at the top of the pack for all six tests and staying one step ahead of the competitor HD 6970 during stock tests due to its slightly higher clock speed. According to these tests, the GTX 580 is really the only card that outperforms it in AvP.

Testing:

Part first-person shooter, part survival horror, Metro 2033 is based on the novel of the same name, written by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. You play as Artyom in a post-apocalyptic Moscow, where you'll spend most of your time traversing the metro system, with occasional trips to the surface. Despite the dark atmosphere and bleak future for mankind, the visuals are anything but bleak. Powered by the 4A Engine, with support for DirectX 11, NVIDIA PhysX and NVIDIA 3D Vision, the tunnels are extremely varied — in your travels, you'll come across human outposts, bandit settlements, and even half-eaten corpses. Ensuring you feel all the tension, there is no map and no health meter. Get lost without enough gas mask filters and adrenaline shots and you may soon wind up as one of those half-eaten corpses — chewed up by some horrifying manner of irradiated beast that hides in the shadows just waiting for some hapless soul to wander by.

 

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this test, you can clearly see the AMD cards climbing the ladder toward the top while heading toward the higher resolution tests, where we generally find the AMD cards in the results spectrum already — so nothing new there. Even while overclocked I did not see a performance gain on this card during the 1680x1050 scenario — interesting anomaly.

Testing:

Civilization V is a turn-based strategy game. The premise is to play as one of 18 civilizations and lead the civilization from the "dawn of man" up to the space age. This latest iteration of the Civilization series uses a new game engine and massive changes to the way the AI is used throughout the game. Civilization V is developed by Firaxis Games and is published by 2K games and was released for Windows in September of 2010. Testing will be done using actual game play with FPS measured by Fraps through a series of five turns,150 turns into the game.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing unusual appears in these tests. In fact, the two HD 6970s are nipping at each others' heels throughout the entire benchmark session.

Testing:

H.A.W.X. 2 is an arcade-style flight game and is the sequel to H.A.W.X.. The Game is published by Ubisoft and was released in late 2010.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HAWX 2 really performs a regular beating on these poor AMD cards. In almost every test, all the NVIDIA cards are ahead of the rest of the AMD ones. This gaming session is a superior example at how certain cards/drivers can dominate the competition in specific software!

Testing:

Published by Capcom, Lost Planet 2 is the sequel to Lost Planet: Extreme Condition and uses the MT Framework 2.0 engine. The storyline takes place on the fictional planet E.D.N. III some 10 years after the events of the first game. This time, the snow cover is gone and has been replaced by a tropical landscape. With this new rendition of the game comes the ability to run it using either DirectX 9 or 11. Along with this ability comes the chance to use that new DX 11 hardware to effect. DX11 features in this game include tessellation, displacement mapping on water, bosses and player characters, soft body compute shaders on “Boss” characters, and wave simulation by way of DirectCompute. This gives you smoke that is lifelike and reacts to inputs, water that looks and reacts how you would expect it to in a "real life" situation, and "Boss" characters rendered with more depth and detail. If the latest graphics quality settings are not enough, NVIDIA has included support behind this game for both 3D Vision and 3D Vision Surround, which gives you 3D effects over multiple screens. There is no better way to see how a game will perform than to test it out. Capcom has made this easy with a downloadable benchmark that we will be using to test out a cross section of today's currently available performance video cards.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here again we see NVIDIA's pack at the top of the graphs. Even so, Sapphire's HD 6970 FleX Edition is at the top of the competing AMD cards.

Testing:

Unigine Heaven Benchmark 2.5 is a DirectX 11 GPU benchmark based on the Unigine engine. This was the first DX 11 benchmark out to allow testing of DX 11 features. What sets the Heaven Benchmark apart is the addition of hardware tessellation, available in three modes — Moderate, Normal and Extreme. Although tessellation requires a video card with DirectX 11 support and Windows Vista/7, the Heaven Benchmark also supports DirectX 9, DirectX 10, DirectX 11 and OpenGL 4.0. Visually, it features beautiful floating islands that contain a tiny village and extremely detailed architecture.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this benchmark, the Sapphire HD 6970 FleX Edition stays right in the middle of the results, swapping levels with the comparison HD 6970. Its numbers are also very comparable to the GTX 480.

Testing:

Just Cause 2 is a third-person shooter that takes place on the fictional island of Panau in Southeast Asia. In this sequel to 2006's Just Cause, you return as Agent Rico Rodriguez to overthrow an evil dictator and confront your former boss. When you don't feel like following the main story line, you're free to roam the island, pulling off crazy stunts and causing massive destruction in your wake, all beautifully rendered by the Avalanche Engine 2.0. In the end, that's what the game basically boils down to — crazy stunts and blowing things up. In fact, blowing things up and wreaking havoc is actually necessary to unlock new missions and items.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing out of the ordinary here either!

Testing:

Mafia II is a third-person shooter that puts you into the shoes of a poor, Sicilian immigrant, Vito Scarletta. Vito has just returned home from serving overseas in the liberation of fascist Italy — to avoid serving his jail sentence — to find his family in debt. The debt must be repaid by the end of the week, and his childhood friend, Joe Barbaro, conveniently happens to have questionable connections that he assures will help Vito clear the debt by that time. As such, Vito is sucked into a world of quick cash. Released in North America for PC in August of 2010, the game was developed by 2K Czech published by 2K and uses the Illusion 1.3 game engine.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here again we see the two HD 6970s battling to see who gets ahead of the other. In this test, the Sapphire HD 6970 FleX Edition beat the other HD 6970 three times, tied twice, and only lost once.

Testing:

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is a first-person shooter developed by EA Digital Illusions CE (DICE) and published by Electronic Arts for Windows, PS3, and XBox. This game is part of the Battlefield franchise and uses the Frostbite 1.5 Engine, allowing for destructible environments. You can play the single player campaign or multiplayer with five different game modes. Released in March 2010, it has so far sold in excess of six million copies.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking of Battlefield, it's not quite time yet to have Battlefield 3 testing in our video card reviews. Anyways, the Sapphire HD 6970 FleX stays in the middle again. Interesting observation — the comparison HD 6950 beats both of the HD 6970s in the 1920x1200 overclocked test!

Testing:

3DMark 11 is the next installment for Futuremark in the 3DMark series with Vantage as its predecessor. The name implies that this benchmark is for Microsoft DirectX 11 and with an unintended coincidence, the name matches the upcoming date in number (which was the naming scheme to some prior versions of 3DMark nonetheless). 3DMark 11 is designed solely for DirectX 11 so Windows Vista or 7 are required along with a DirectX 11 graphics card in order to run this test. The Basic Edition has unlimited free tests on performance mode whereas Vantage only allowed for a single test run. The advanced edition costs $19.95 and unlocks nearly all of the features of the benchmark and the professional edition runs $995.00 and is mainly suited for corporate use. The new benchmark contains six tests, four of which are aimed only at graphical testing, one to test for physics handling and one to combine graphics and physics testing together. The open source Bullet Physics library is used for physics simulations and although not as mainstream as Havok or PhysX, it still seems to be a popular choice.

With the new benchmark comes two new demos that can be watched, both based on the tests but unlike the tests, these contain basic audio. The first demo is titled "Deep Sea" and have a few vessels exploring what looks to be a sunken U-Boat. The second demo is titled "High Temple" and is similar to South American tribal ruins with statues and the occasional vehicle around. The demos are simple in that they have no story, they are really just a demonstration of what the testing will be like. The vehicles have the logos of the sponsors MSI and Antec on their sides with the sponsorships helping to make the basic edition free. The four graphics tests are slight variants of the demos. I will use the three benchmark test preset levels to test the performance of each card. The presets are used as they are comparable to what can be run with the free version so that results can be compared across more than just a custom set of test parameters.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We find the AMD cards creeping toward the front here, narrowing its gap by a few cards in the 3DMark 11 testing. During the Extreme test at stock speeds, only two cards separated the Sapphire HD 6970 FleX from the pole position.

Testing:

Temperature testing will be accomplished by loading the video card to 100% using Crysis Warhead with MSI's Afterburner overclocking utility for temperature monitoring. I will be using a resolution of 1920x1200 using 8xAA. I will use a 10-run sequence to run the test, ensuring that the maximum thermal threshold is reached. The fan speed will be left in the control of the driver package and video card's BIOS for the stock load test, with the fan moved to 100% to see the best possible cooling scenario for the overclocked load test. The idle test will be a 20-minute cooldown with the fan speeds left on automatic in the stock speed testing and bumped up to 100% when running the overclocked idle and load testing.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was very impressed to see the temperatures on this card and was rewarded with a nice feeling of knowing that the coolers for these cards are improving! The comparison HD 6970 card uses the reference, blower-style cooler. Sapphire's FleX edition uses VaporX technology (basically a two-dimensional heatpipe) as its base, with other heatpipes scattered about the cooler as well (see Closer Look page). Compared to the other HD 6970, this card keeps cool!

Testing:

Power Consumption of the system will be measured in both idle states and loaded states and will take into account the peak voltage of the system with each video card installed. The idle results will be measured after 15 minutes of inactivity on the system. For load testing I will once again use Crysis Warhead run at 2560x1600 using the Gamer setting with 8xAA looping the Avalanche benchmark scenario.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Power consumption — nothing alarming here. At idle, we find that the card pulls a few watts more than the reference HD 6970. Aside from statistical deviation, the main assumption of the cause of this is the slightly higher base clock speed. During the load testing, we find it a few points below.

Conclusion:

Even though there are only minute differences in performance between the recently released cards from Sapphire versus earlier cards of the same model, there are advantages to grabbing one of the newer, though redundant cards. Yes, the clock-for-clock performance of this HD 6970 is going to be pretty much identical to that of the nearly one-year old models, but there are some perks to buying new. First, even though there has hardly been any milestone introductions to the video card market since the HD 69x0 series, you can now find them for $50-$100 cheaper than they were previously. Second, many new cards are no longer using the original, reference-style cooler. Almost all of Sapphire's cards (and other manufacturers) have moved away from a blower and a block of copper toward heatpipes, vapor chambers, and quieter propeller-style fans. We can clearly see the major decrease in idle and load temperatures in both stock and overclocked scenarios with these new coolers — and at the same or lower noise level. Not only do you get an improved cooler, but you'll also get more stability and reliability out of the new cards with the now common dual-BIOS switch, newer firmwares, and additional monitor support with the FleX edition cards from Sapphire.

To speak more specifically about the Sapphire HD 6970 FleX Battlefield 3 Edition, I will say that none of the results are surprising or mind-blowing because we already knew what to expect. The Cayman architecture is no different than it was before, and the only thing we get with it are slightly higher out-of-the-box speeds and a superior cooler. No raw performance gains were expected and none were seen. In fact, in every framerate test that was run, both this Sapphire HD 6970 and the comparison HD 6970 stayed within a few frames per second, or about 5% ahead or behind. The advantage lies in the higher "stock" clock speed, in which case this Sapphire HD 6970 generally had a slight edge.

There is no doubt that Battlefield 3 is a showstopper and "career-changer" for many active FPS players, especially those who very eagerly awaited its release and wasted no time in getting a copy. I can speak for myself and plenty of others that I know of who abandoned their staple FPS games they play regularly to put those hours into BF3 instead. As far as the price-point of this card goes, the copy of Battlefield 3 is certainly not "free". Currently through many retailers, this edition is about $50 more than Sapphire's regular FleX edition and also those from completely separate manufacturers. That being said, if Battlefield 3 and an HD 6970 are in your shopping cart or wishlist as separate items, save $10 by getting this card instead.

 

Pros:

 

Cons: