Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 3GB Vapor-X Review

Waco - 2012-08-29 08:51:45 in VGA Cooling
Category: VGA Cooling
Reviewed by: Waco   
Reviewed on: September 18, 2012
Price: $329.99

Introduction:

Let's face it; not everyone can afford the latest and greatest parts at the top of the performance chain. That doesn't mean, however, that you have to sacrifice a lot to get great performance at a lower price. Thankfully, AMD saw this need and developed the HD 7950; a slightly cut-down version of the flagship HD 7970. It still boasts 3 GB of GDDR5 texture memory, the same 384-bit memory interface, and the same feature set in terms of connectivity and software. Instead of the fully enabled Tahiti XT core, you get the slightly less capable Tahiti Pro core along with slower memory clocks. The HD 7950 has been a favorite for a long time because of its great price/performance ratio...but what about today?

While the reference cards straight from AMD's design have no obvious flaws, many companies have taken the design one step further. Today, I'll be taking a look at the Sapphire HD 7950 3GB Vapor-X Edition video card. Deviating entirely from the reference board from AMD, Sapphire has outfitted this card with the same great cooler you saw recently on the OCC review of the Sapphire HD 7970 Vapor-X GHz Edition card. This means cooler temperatures, higher overclocking margins, and less noise. In addition to the custom cooler, the 7950 Vapor-X also has a full 8-phase power system with "Black Diamond" chokes and DirectFET technology to deliver smooth clean power while staying both efficient and cool. All of these goodies are contained on a fully custom PCB in the trademark Sapphire blue color.

Will the Sapphire HD 7950 3GB Vapor-X be able to justify its premium over the reference card?  Keep reading to find out!

 

Closer Look:

Just like the recently reviewed Sapphire HD 7970 Vapor-X GHz Edition, the box for the Sapphire HD 7950 Vapor-X card features AMD's Ruby in snow camouflage. It definitely puts the idea in your head that this card will run nice and cool thanks to its Vapor-X cooler. The usual features of the 7000 series cards are listed along the front and back of the box - for a full listing, check out the Features and Specifications page. In bright red on the front of the box, you can also see the large sticker pronouncing the Sapphire overclocking button. This button, when pressed, raises the clock speeds of the GPU from the stock 850 MHz to a factory overclock of 950 MHz. Why would anyone ever not push this button?  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Slipping open the packaging reveals yet another box. Opening this box reveals what you've been waiting for - the Sapphire HD 7950 3GB Vapor-X. Now, since I'm cruel, you'll have to wait until the next page to see it. Packaged along with the card itself is a decent number of goodies: a Crossfire bridge, Molex to 6-pin and Molex to 8-pin adapters, a 1.8 meter HDMI cable, a DVI to VGA adapter, the product manual, and a driver/software CD. If you're planning on running Eyefinity out of the box, you're going to need at least one DisplayPort to HDMI or DVI adapter to get rocking.

 

 

If you're familiar with Sapphire's Vapor-X cooling and how it works, just skip to the next page. However, if you're not quite sure just how Sapphire has managed to make its products run so cool, continue reading! While heatpipes are a fairly common method of removing heat from a CPU or GPU, any given solution must use quite a few of them for good heat dissipation. The problem with this approach is that the core must be in direct contact with the heatpipes for optimal cooling and while heatpipes can be small, GPU and CPU cores tend to be a lot smaller than a bundle of heatpipes. Enter Sapphire's Vapor-X cooling! The Vapor-X technology works very similarly to a heatpipe, but instead of being a tube that relies on vaporization and wicking action to cool, Sapphire has managed to make this work in a flat package. It allows the entire core to be cooled by the Vapor-X chamber without any of the common issues associated with direct-contact heatpipes.

 

Continue on to the next page to see the Sapphire HD 7950 3GB Vapor-X out of its packaging and in the nude!

Closer Look:

If you read over OCC's review of the Sapphire HD 7970 Vapor-X GHz Edition, you might do a double-take on these pictures. The Sapphire HD 7950 3GB Vapor-X looks identical to the naked eye, with the exception of the model number stickers on the backside of the card. Just like the 7970 Vapor-X card, the trademark Sapphire Vapor-X cooler keeps the card cool and quiet at the same time with dual 92mm fans. The Sapphire blue PCB is identical to that on the Sapphire HD 7970 Vapor-X GHz Edition as well - right down to the 8-phase power featuring "Black Diamond" chokes and DirectFET technology to deliver power to the GPU core smoothly and efficiently. Unlike many older cards, this HD 7950 does not include a backplate, as there are no core components on the backside of the PCB that require cooling. On the side of the cooler, you can see the Sapphire logo that lights up in brilliant white whenever the card is powered on. On the other side of the heatsink shroud, you can see the two pairs of 6 mm and 8 mm heatpipes sneaking out from the vapor chamber. This card is intended to be run in a PCIe 3.0 x16 slot, but is also backwards compatible with the PCIe 2.0 specification.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unlike many other cards in AMD's top-end 7900 series, the Sapphire HD 7950 does not have a pair of mini-DisplayPort ports. Instead, it replaces them with a single full-size DisplayPort port. Along with the larger DisplayPort port, there is an HDMI port, a single link DVI port, and a dual-link DVI port. If you're planning on using Eyefinity with this card, you'll need, at the very least, an active DisplayPort to DVI or DisplayPort to HDMI adapter to get up and running. The backplate does have a small port for air to exhaust out of the heatsink and behind your case, but the majority of the heat load from this card will be dumped into the interior of your case. Most cases built in the past few years have been designed with the thermal load of a graphics card in mind, but if you have an older case, it is possible that you'll see higher CPU temperatures from this design versus the fully-exhausted heatsink on the reference card. Other than the single connection for the dual 92 mm fans, the back side of the card is essentially bare.

 

 

This Sapphire HD 7950 3GB VaporX supports configurations up to four-way CrossfireX. Here is where the vaunted Vapor-X cooler is a disadvantage though: it requires more than 2 slots of space on your motherboard. Unless you have a very odd board with enough room for three or four 2.5 slot cards, you won't be running anything other than standard two-card Crossfire. If you do manage to find a board that fits three or four of these cards (or you outfit them with custom full-cover water blocks), there are two Crossfire fingers to allow interconnection between the various GPUs and lessen the crosstalk load on your PCIe slots. Right next to those Crossfire fingers is the inconspicuous little Sapphire EZ OC button. Pressing this boosts the clocks from 850 MHz on the core right up to 950 MHz without any effort at all. I can't imagine why you'd ever turn this off...but just in case, Sapphire has made the button light up in bright Sapphire blue to give you a quick visual indicator that the button is enabled for maximum performance. Moving to the other end of the card, you can see the two PCIe power connections; one 8-pin (150 watts) and one 6-pin (75 watts). Combined with the 150 watts available from the PCIe x16 slot, this card can pull up to 375 watts before violating the PCIe specification.

 

 

Removing the Vapor-X cooler is a simple task; four screws and a bit of force pull it free from the PCB. Below, you can see the bare PCB, video memory, and power circuitry on the right. Sapphire has upped the ante and provided this card with full 8-phase power for both higher efficiency and cooler temperatures. A single CHiL CHL8228G voltage controller is used to control how much voltage the 8-phase circuitry sends to the GPU core and memory.

 

 

  

 

Like Sapphire's past cards, the Vapor-X cooler is no slouch. With a large vapor chamber directly cooling the core and four heatpipes (two 6 mm and two 8 mm) pulling heat from the vapor chamber out to the aluminum cooling fins, this heatsink is definitely built to cool! The base that contacts the core is stamped smoothly and lapped for optimal contact and heat dissipation. Around the vapor chamber itself is a large aluminum baseplate that contacts the GDDR5 memory modules through twelve thermal pads. Along with the large main heatsink is a small extruded aluminum heatsink that covers the 8-phase power circuitry and is cooled by the downflow from the rightmost fan on the cooler.

 

 

 

Each of the fans used on the Sapphire HD 7950 3GB Vapor-X are identical. They both utilize a sealed bearing design to extend the life of the fans long past when standard fans would have failed from dust. Both are 92 mm in size and controlled via a PWM circuit on the card for smooth and quiet ramping of fan speeds from idle to load. Both can pull up to .55 amps at 12 volts (6.6 watts each), so while they can pull a fair amount of power, they won't blow the power budget even if you leave them at full speed 24/7. These fans were near silent in testing at stock speeds and only became audible when cranked to 100% for the overclocking section of testing. Even when pushed all the way to 100%, they were nowhere near as loud as a reference card ramped up to full speed (the blower-style cooler of the reference cards is notoriously loud).

 

 

Behold; the Tahiti Pro core. Boasting 1792 unified shaders (or Stream Processors if you want to call them that), 112 texture units, and 32 ROPs, this core is only slightly cut down from the full 28 nm Tahiti XT core (at 2048:128:32 respectively). With 4.31 billion transistors, this is no small core, even with the advanced 28nm process. With the EZ OC button engaged, the core runs at 950 MHz. The 12 GDDR5 dies are similar to those on the Sapphire HD 7970 Vapor-X GHz Edition, but are a slightly different model rated at 1250 MHz (Hynix part number H5GQ2H24MFR-T2C). Considering that I managed to get the memory stable at 1450 MHz, the realization that it was only rated at 1250 MHz revealed why overclocking it was so finicky...I was far beyond the rated speeds for the memory.  The memory is connected to the GPU core via the same 384-bit bus that is employed on the full-fledged HD 7970 solution.

 

 

Now that you've seen the guts of this Sapphire HD 7950 3GB Vapor-X, move on to see how the awesome cooling solution and tweaked clock speeds perform in the OCC test suite!

Specifications:

 

Output:

1 x HDMI (with 3D)
1 x DisplayPort
DisplayPort 1.2
Dual-Link DVI-I
Single-Link DVI-I
GPU:
850/950(Boost) MHz Core Clock
28 nm Chip
1792 Stream Processors
Memory:
3072 MB Size
384-bit GDDR5
5000 MHz Effective
Dimensions:
285(L)x135(W)x45(H) mm Size.
2.5 x slot
Software:
Driver CD
SAPPHIRE TriXX Utility
Accessory:
CrossFire™ Bridge Interconnect Cable
DVI to VGA Adapter
8-PIN to 4 PIN x2 Power Cable
HDMI 1.4a high speed 1.8 meter cable(Full Retail SKU only)

 

Features:

 

 

All information provided Courtesy of Sapphire @ http://www.sapphiretech.com/presentation/product/?cid=1&gid=3&sgid=1157&pid=1547&psn=&lid=1&leg=0

Testing:

Testing of the Sapphire HD 7950 3GB Vapor-X 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 a range of capabilities to show where each card falls on the performance ladder. The games used are some of today's newest and most popular titles, which should be able to provide 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 11 testing, where PhysX will be disabled in the NVIDIA Control Panel, if applicable. I will first test the cards at stock speeds, and then overclocked to see the effects of an increase in clock speed. The cards will be placed in order from highest to lowest performance in each graph to show where they fall by comparison. All NVIDIA comparison cards will be using the 305.37 drivers; AMD will be using Catalyst 12.6 drivers.

 

Comparison Video Cards:

 

Overclocking:

Overclocking the Sapphire HD 7950 3 GB Vapor-X was an interesting endeavor. Using the included Sapphire TriXX software was quite easy and intuitive, so the software really wasn't an issue at all. Using Unigine Heaven 3.0 looping for 30 minutes at a time, I slowly brought up the core clocks; after settling on a maximum core clock, I did the same thing with the memory clocks (while leaving the core clock at the maximum stable value). Usually, this process goes quite smoothly, but for some reason, this card was a bit more picky than most and took me a lot longer to settle in on stable values. Thankfully, after hours of testing, I arrived at the rock solid values of 1100 MHz core clock and 1450 MHz memory clock using 1200 mV and the board power limit at +20. This amounts to an overclock of 150 MHz (16%) on the core and 200 MHz (16%) on the memory over the stock boost clocks. Not too shabby, but I was hoping for more.

 

 

Maximum Clock Speeds:

Testing for the maximum clock speed consists of looping Unigine 3.0 for 30 minutes each to see where the clock speeds fail when pushed. If the clock speed adjustment fails, then the clock speeds are adjusted and the test is rerun until each card passes the testing.

 

 

  1. Metro 2033
  2. Batman: Arkham City
  3. Battlefield 3
  4. Sid Meier’s Civilization V
  5. Unigine Heaven Benchmark 3.0
  6. DiRT 3
  7. Mafia II
  8. 3DMark 11
  1. Temperature
  2. Power Consumption

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:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compared to other cards within its price range, the Sapphire HD 7950 Vapor-X is at the top of the pack! Even Eyefinity poses no challenges here when overclocked.

Testing:

Batman: Arkham City is the sequel to Batman: Arkham Asylum released in 2009. This action adventure game based on DC Comics' Batman super hero was developed by Rocksteady Studios and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. Batman: Arkham City uses the Unreal 3 engine.

 

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After hours of trying to get this HD 7950 Vapor-X to run Arkham City, I had to call it quits. Every run ended in either a driver crash or full system lock, which required a reboot. Overclocked, stock, and underclocked, it all failed to finish on multiple systems. This is likely a problem with this specific review sample, but this card failed to do anything except frustrate with Batman. A zero for every test is awarded.

Testing:

Battlefield 3 is a first-person shooter video game developed by EA Digital Illusions CE and published by Electronic Arts. Battlefield 3 uses the Frostbyte 2 game engine and is the direct successor to Battlefield 2. Released in North America on October 25, 2011, the game supports DirectX 10 and 11.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At 1920 x 1080, the Sapphire HD 7950 3GB Vapor-X lags a bit behind the green team's cards. When moving to Eyefinity/Surround testing, the 7950 clearly has the upper hand providing much smoother frame rates both stock and overclocked.

Testing:

Unigine Heaven Benchmark 3.0 is a DirectX 11 GPU benchmark based on the Unigine engine. This was the first DX 11 benchmark 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 very intensive test, the Sapphire HD 7950 3GB Vapor-X simply trounces the competition. No other card comes close to delivering the frame rates of this card in stock or overclocked configurations at any resolution.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Game to game variation seems to have robbed the Sapphire HD 7950 3GB Vapor-X from the crown here. While it performed admirably for all test runs, its older sibling - the Sapphire HD 7950 OC Edition - takes the crown in Civilization V.

Testing:

DiRT 3 is the third iteration of this series. Published and developed by Codemasters, this game uses the EGO 2.0 game engine and was released in the US on PC in May of 2011.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sapphire HD 7950 3GB Vapor-X simply laughs at this game. Even in Eyefinity, it delivered buttery smooth frame rates and topped the pack in terms of overall FPS.

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 avoiding his jail sentence, to finding 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All of the nVidia cards clearly have an advantage in Mafia II at Eyefinity/Surround resolutions. However, at 1920 x 1080, the Sapphire HD 7950 3GB Vapor-X performs at the top of the pack and is visually indistinguishable from its price peers.

Testing:

3DMark 11 is the next installment in Futuremark’s 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 year proceeding its release (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 is 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 is only allowed for a single test run. The advanced edition costs $19.95 and unlocks nearly all of the features of the benchmark, while 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 simulation 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. Unlike the tests, however, these contain basic audio. The first demo is titled "Deep Sea" and involves a few vessels exploring what looks to be a sunken U-Boat. The second demo is titled "High Temple" and presents a location 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 – 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 3DMark 11, the nVidia cards have a clear advantage. That said, the Sapphire HD 7950 3GB Vapor-X keeps right up with its older sibling and leads the pack of AMD cards. All in all, not a bad showing!

Testing:

Temperature testing will be accomplished by loading the video card to 100% using Unigine's Heaven Benchmark Version 3.0, with Sapphire's TriXX overclocking utility for temperature monitoring. I will be using a resolution of 1920 x 1080 using 8x AA and a five-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 involve a 20-minute cool-down, with the fan speeds left on automatic in the stock speed testing and bumped up to 100% when running overclocked.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At stock speeds, the Vapor-X cooler is both silent and cool-running. Even when overclocked to the maximum stable speeds, the cooler doesn't break a sweat and delivers extremely competitive temperatures while not sounding like a massive vacuum cleaner in your case. Temperatures are very unlikely to be a limiting factor, even if you have a relatively high ambient temperature.

Testing:

Power consumption of the system will be measured at both idle and loaded states, taking into account the peak wattage of the entire system with each video card installed. I will use Unigine's Heaven Benchmark version 3.0 to put a load onto the GPU using the settings below. A 15-minute load test will be used to simulate maximum load with the highest measured wattage value recorded as the result. The idle results will be measured as the lowest wattage value recorded with no activity on the system.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As expected, the Sapphire HD 7950 3GB Vapor-X pulls very little power at idle speeds, but does pull a bit more than the rest of the field when running at full load. When overclocked, the numbers are again similar: good idles with relatively high load power draw. Compared to the GTX 660s rounding out the field, this card does pull a bit more power, but also tends to perform better as well.

Conclusion:

How to sum up this card? Overall it performed admirably in all tests and did so with surprisingly low noise. The Vapor-X cooling solution held true to its roots and kept the card both cooler and quieter than most other cooling solutions even when pushing the card to its maximum capabilities. The EZ OC button offers an effortless factory overclock that improves performance for free, though it is really of questionable value since I can't imagine any user ever not enabling the higher clock speeds.

The output configuration on the card is a bit different than others, but not to a degree that will hamper many configurations. As with almost all AMD cards, you will need an active DisplayPort to HDMI or DVI adapter to run Eyefinity resolutions. It would have been nice to see an active adapter included in the bundle with this premium card, although the free HDMI cable is a nice addition.

Unfortunately, there is one real flaw with this card; the price. With the recent drop in prices for the AMD 7900 series lineup, other HD 7950 cards from other venders are sitting as low as $289 shipped to your door and Sapphire's own is priced at $279. This Sapphire HD 7950 3GB Vapor-X, while having a better cooler and PCB design, comes in at nearly $340 with shipping. Personally, I have a hard time justifying that extra $50-$60 when you can get a reference PCB card with a custom cooler for nearly 15% - 25% less cash out of your wallet. Yes, the Vapor-X cooling solution is awesome...but personally I don't think it is 15% - 25% more awesome than the custom coolers from other vendors or even the Dual-X HD 7950, also from Sapphire.

If you're a stickler for noise, this card won't disappoint, but if you can handle a slightly higher noise floor, perhaps you'll want to save the extra money and grab the older Dual-X HD 7950 instead.

 

Pros:

 

Cons: