Sapphire HD 4890 Atomic Edition Review

ccokeman - 2009-04-30 21:13:17 in Video Cards
Category: Video Cards
Reviewed by: ccokeman   
Reviewed on: May 3, 2009
Price: $TBD


Sapphire is one ATI partner that really takes the time to build a better product for the consumer. Usually the lag time between the original reference video cards release and the "Improved" versions is a few months, at least. Not this time around. Just a scant one month ago, the HD 4890 was released with a clock speed of 850 MHz on the R790 core, and a clock speed of 975MHz on the 1GB GDDR5 memory. Pretty hefty increases from the HD 4870 it is replacing as the top dog single GPU in ATI's performance lineup. As ATI's largest partner, Sapphire seems to have a leg up when it comes to building enthusiast level video cards that usually start with their own PCB design. From there, the power circuits get the work over - and finally, to top it off, the "Improved" cards usually sport a readily available aftermarket cooling solution as seen on the HD 4850 Toxic model, or a full-on custom creation as seen on the HD 4870x2 Atomic video card.

Lately, the push on the cooling has been the extremely effective Vapor-X heatsink design that has adorned all of Sapphire's top end creations. This cooling concept was first released on the HD 3870 Atomic edition, back in early 2008. The last card we looked at from Sapphire, before the release of the HD 4890, was the HD 4870 2GB Vapor-X edition that took this concept to another level. Talking about going to the next level! What I have in my grubby hands here from Sapphire is a pre-production sample of the HD 4890 Atomic that really is a step above the standard HD 4890. The Vapor-X cooling is just the tip of the iceberg with this card. Let's see just what makes this card so special, and see what it can do.

Closer Look:

The HD 4890 is a stout performer that puts a serious dent in the performance lead that Nvidia enjoys with the GTX 285. Rather than wait out the sales rush on the initial HD 4890, Sapphire has stepped up the HD 4890 to Atomic status with the usual items: in-house PCB design, better voltage regulation and improved looks, and most importantly the cooling improvements. The PCB is the light teal blue that lets you know this is not the reference PCB, but Sapphire's own design that usually incorporates better voltage regulation to drive performance higher. The Atomic uses the RV790 core with clock speeds bumped up to a massive 1GHz from the stock cards' 850MHz. The 1GB of GDDR5 memory sees a bump up from 975MHz to 1020 MHZ, nowhere near as significant as the increase in the core clock, but still a bump up nonetheless. The cooling solution looks very similar to what is on the HD 4870 1GB Toxic Edition, but the heatpipes do not extend as far from the fin array. The Atomic version is a dual-slot card, so it will indeed cover two slots on the motherboard, while only physically being in one slot. The front of the card is decorated with the "Atomic" and "Vapor-X" logos.




The front side of the card features two Dual Link capable DVI ports, and a standard S-Video port for use with a dongle. On the rear of the card, you can suspect something is up with the inclusion of a 6-pin as well as an 8-pin power connection. If these implications are correct, this additional power should bring some stability at higher clock speeds. The HD 4890 Atomic is CrossFire capable by using the CrossFire bridge connections along the spine of the card. Of course, you will need a second card to make that option work.



The Vapor-X heatsink fan used on the HD 4890 Atomic has fewer fan blades than the fan on the HD 4870 2GB Vapor-X edition, released just a few weeks back. There are two heatsinks used on the HD 4890 Atomic: one for the GPU and memory, and a small aluminum finned block that covers the voltage regulation components on the tail end of the PCB. The main heatsink uses Sapphire's own Vapor-X technology, with a copper plate tied to three large heatpipes that carry the heat away to the fin array.




The Vapor plate is used to wick away heat, much the same way a heatpipe does. According to Sapphire's white paper on the Vapor plate technology, the liquid inside the Vapor plate is something we use each and every day - water, plain and simple. But water boils at 212 degrees F, right? Not when the pressure is reduced by pulling a vacuum. You can see the port where the vacuum was pulled, and the opening has been soldered shut to prevent vacuum loss. Rather than describe how the process works, I will let the blown-up images show just how simple the process really is. The last picture is a magnified image of the wicking material that is used in the assembly.




The Atomic HD 4890 is based off of the R790 core, with 800 shader cores and 16 ROPs built on a 55nm process. The core has almost one billion transistors packed onto that small piece of silicon! The clock speeds of the HD 4890 Atomic Edition are substantially higher than the standard HD 4890, with a core clock speed of 1000MHz. Yes, you heard that right - 1GHz! The GDDR5 memory speeds come in 45MHz higher than the reference clocks, at 1020MHz. The 1GB of GDDR5 memory used on this card is made by Qimonda, the same supplier used for the standard HD 4890, and is rated for operation at 1000MHz.



Without a bundle to show, I can only speculate as to what will come with the card. With the performance nature of this card, pricing may well have something to do with what you will get. Even so, Sapphire has consistently included a nice bundle of both software and hardware, so you can get the card installed and hooked up to your display, as well as software to take advantage of the card's capabilities. If the past is any indication, a full bundle should arrive with the card. Now I have to see just what this card is capable of, and see whether it can unseat the GTX 285 from the single GPU performance throne!



The only specifications we really know are the core's clock speed of 1000MHz, and the memory speed of 1020MHz I will leave you with what the stock card is capable of, and how it compares to the HD 4870.


GPU Type

HD 4870

HD 4890


Engine Clock (standard)


Stream Processors


Compute Performance

1.2 TFLOPs

1.36 TFLOPs

Texture Units


Texture Fillrate

30.0 GTexels/s

34.0 GTexels/s


Pixel Fillrate

12.0 GPixels/s

 13.6 GPixels/s

Z Fillrate

48.0 GSamples/s

54.4 GSamples/s

Memory Type


Memory Clock (standard)

900 MHz

975 MHz

Frame Buffer Size


Memory Data Rate

3.6 Gbps

3.9 Gbps

Memory Bus


Memory Bandwidth

115 GB/s

124.8 GB/s

Maximum Board Power

160 W

190 W

Idle Board Power






All information courtesy of Sapphire Technology


To test out this new video card from Sapphire, I will run it through a series of game tests and synthetic benchmarks to see just how the performance compares to that delivered by similar video cards, as well as its direct competition from the Green camp. The OverclockersClub test system will be run as listed, with the processor operating at 3.0GHz. The respective video card settings that will be used are the driver defaults, with settings made in-game as noted to provide as few variables as possible.


Testing Setup:

Comparison Video Cards:

Comparison Video Cards:



Overclocked settings:

The Atomic Edition has a 1GHz GPU core clock as the starting point. You have to figure there is not much more, if anything, left since I have yet to have any HD 48XX series card go over this level. Well, the Sapphire Atomic does this, and frankly has more left to give. Even though the temperatures were kept in check with the driver controlling the fan speeds, this was the first thing I changed. I upped the fan speed to 70% just to give a little cooling cushion. Rather than take the slow and steady approach, I just pushed the core clock speed to 1050MHz and started testing, and this clock speed was able to pass through a 20 minute loop of 3DMark06. Unfortunately, that was all I was able to pull from the core. Now the memory, on the other hand, yielded some pretty big numbers. The stock speed on the GDDR5 memory is 1020MHz. I just kept pushing upwards until I finally reached the limit of stability at 1255MHz, a 235MHz improvement, which equates to almost a 25% jump in memory speed. The increased clock speeds did contribute to much healthier scores when the Atomic Edition was run back through the testing suite.

  1. Far Cry 2
  2. Crysis Warhead
  3. BioShock
  4. Call of Duty: World at War
  5. Dead Space
  6. Fallout 3
  7. Left 4 Dead
  8. 3DMark 06 Professional
  9. 3DMark Vantage



Far Cry 2:

Featuring a new game engine named Dunia, this game looks to be another one to stress your video card. Built especially for Far Cry 2, this engine allows for real time effects and damage. This next generation First Person Shooter comes to us from Ubisoft surprisingly - not from Crytek. The game is set in a war-torn region of Africa where there is a non-existent central government and the chaos that surrounds this type of social environment. If you have seen the movie Blood Diamond, you know the setting. Ubisoft puts the main storyline of the game into focus with these statements: "Caught between two rival factions in war-torn Africa, you are sent to take out "The Jackal," a mysterious character who has rekindled the conflict between the warlords, jeopardizing thousands of lives. In order to fulfill your mission you will have to play the factions against each other, identify and exploit their weaknesses, and neutralize their superior numbers and firepower with surprise, subversion, cunning and, of course, brute force." In this version of the game, you don't have the beautiful water, but instead the beauty and harshness of the African continent to contend with. Most games give you a set area that can be played through, while Ubisoft has given the gamer the equivalent of 50km2 of the vast African continent to explore while in pursuit of your goals. The settings used are just a few steps below the maximum in-game settings and offer a good blend of performance vs. visual quality.








The Sapphire HD 4890 Atomic Edition offers up performance almost on par with the Asus GTX 285 TOP. At 1920x1200, the Atomic Edition actually ties the performance of the GTX 285 - no small feat, considering the fact that the GTX 285 is considered the fastest single GPU card on the market. The performance improvement from the stock card is pretty substantial, with the Atomic Edition beating every card but the GTX 285. When overclocked, the Atomic Edition comes to life and exceeds the performance of the GTX 285 in three out of four resolutions, and ties it at the big finale.



Crysis Warhead is a standalone expansion pack situated in time with the storyline of the original Crysis. As Sergeant "Psycho" Sykes, you have a secret mission to accomplish on the far side of the island. Along the way, there are EMP blasts and aliens to contend with, as you hunt down the KPA chief. This game uses an enhanced version of the CryEngine 2.














The performance delivered by the Atomic in this benchmark is almost identical to that of the standard HD 4890. Overclocking does provide a slight increase through all four resolutions, bringing its performance above that of the GTX 285.



BioShock is one of the creepier games you can play. The building of a perfect Utopian society undersea gone horribly wrong. Its inhabitants driven mad with the introduction of tonics and genetic modifications. Now Rapture is just a shadow of its former glory with little girls looting the dead of what little they have left while being shadowed by guardians known as "Big Daddies". It is a demanding game that will make your hardware scream for mercy. This First Person Shooter allows for an infinite number of weapons and modifications to provide a unique experience each time it is played. The environment as well as the story line will wrap you up for hours on end.


Video Settings:











The Atomic Edition HD 4890 falls below the GTX 285 in the first three resolutions, but delivers an identical performance at 2560x1600. Overclocking does not provide an advantage over the GTX 285 until 1920x1200, where the difference is in favor of the Atomic by five FPS. At 2560x1600, the overclocked advantage is eight FPS - something ATI cards have not really been capable of lately.



Activision's Call of Duty: World at War goes right back to the bread and butter of the franchise - WWII FPS action. In this rendition, you start off in the South Pacific and move through a series of missions that flip back and forth between the Russian front and the island hopping advance toward the Imperial Japanese homeland. Included is a mission on Peliliu Island, arguably one of the more difficult and costly battles in the Pacific theater. The gameplay in single player mode is rather short, but the game makes up for this shortcoming in online gameplay. If you thought COD4 looked nice, this game is amazing with the graphics maxed out playing at a large resolution. This game just may be my reason to move to a 30 inch monitor. I will use Fraps to measure a section of gameplay in the Semper Fi map on Makin Island to compare performance of these video cards.














As expected, the Atomic HD 4890 outperformed every card except the Asus GTX 285. Overclocking only helped overcome the GTX 285 at 1280x1024. The strong overclocking allowed for substantial performance increases at all four resolutions. This makes taking the time to tweak the card's clock speeds a worthwhile endeavor.



In Dead Space, as part of the crew of the USG Kellion you are headed on a repair mission to repair a ship in distress. Things go from bad to worse, starting with the crash landing and seemingly silent and "Dead" ship, the USG Ishimuru. Offering a non-traditional over the shoulder viewing angle, the game gets right into the action as soon as the ventilation systems are activated. From there, things get worse with the appearance of the Necromorphs. Survival now becomes a primary concern for the main character, Isaac Clarke. Survive and you may find the loved one that was aboard the Ishimuru.













At no point in the testing were the Nvidia cards in danger of being overtaken. This game seems to favor the Green team much more than the Red team. That being said, the Atomic showed just how much better than the stock HD 4890 it really is. The differential between the Atomic and the stock HD 4890 was between 7-19 FPS. That's a significant step forward in performance.



Fallout 3 takes place after the nuclear holocaust that nearly wipes out civilization, and leaves the world an irradiated mess. The vault, or fallout shelter, you are born in is Vault 101, situated in the Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia area. The premise of the game is that the vault has been sealed for 200 years, and now your father has opened the vault and escaped without a trace. The Overseer believes you are involved, so you must escape as well into the wasteland that was once our nation's capital. I find myself looking for landmarks since I am familiar with the streets of Washington DC.













When overclocked, the Atomic HD 4890 provided performance equal to that of the Asus GTX 285 TOP in three out of four resolutions. The Atomic, when not overclocked, provides performance better than or equal to all of the Nvidia cards, save the GTX 285.



Left 4 Dead is a new release from Valve that leaves you as part of a group of survivors in a world where an infection has rapidly turned the populace into a zombie horde. You goal is to make it to a rescue point, all the while fighting what seems like overwhelming odds. Along the way there are safe houses where you can replenish your weapons and health. The movie 'I Am Legend' comes to mind to set the stage for this game. But, unlike the movie, there are four characters and not just a lone gun and his faithful companion. The horde is not at all like the typical slow walking, foot shuffling zombie. These zombies are quick and work with the pack mentality. Your job: survival! Below are several screenshots to show some in-game action.















The same story keeps ringing true here. The Atomic is faster than the standard version by a wide margin - the Atomic is just that much better than the stock card. On the other hand, the Atomic outperforms every card except the GTX 285 in this test. When overclocked to 1050/1255, the differential shrinks, with the Atomic actually taking the lead at 2560x1600 by five FPS.



3DMark06 is one of the benchmarks that always comes up when a bragging contest is begun. 3DMark06 presents a severe test for many of today's hardware components. Let's see how this setup fares. The settings we will use are listed below.




















The Atomic HD 4890 besting all cards in three out of four resolutions; its only loss was at 2560x1600. When the core is overclocked above 1GHz, the Atomic has no rival in this test - including the Asus ENGTX 285 TOP. When compared to the stock HD 4890, the performance differential is pretty stunning.



Featuring all-new game tests, this benchmark is for use with Vista-based systems. "There are two all-new CPU tests that have been designed around a new 'Physics and Artificial Intelligence-related computation.' CPU test two offers support for physics related hardware." There are four preset levels that correspond to specific resolutions. 'Entry' is 1024x768 progressing to 'Extreme' at 1920x1200. Of course, each preset can be modified to arrange any number of user designed testing. For our testing, I will use the four presets at all default settings.












The performance delivered by the Atomic HD 4890 is again well above that delivered by the stock example. Against the Nvidia offerings, it still falls short against the GTX 275 and GTX 285. However, it does come much closer and only falls to the GTX 285. While ATI seems to enjoy considerable success in 3DMark06, the same can't be said in 3DMark Vantage. Even with PhysX turned off in the Nvidia control panel, the Nvidia cards perform better in this test - but the gap is shrinking.



The Sapphire HD 4890 Atomic Edition is a ready to be a prime time player. In the single GPU field, the GTX 285 has been the undisputed king of the mountain, and usually carries the title of the fastest single GPU card on the market. It now has competition in this category, as the HD 4890 Atomic puts a serious dent in the performance gap between ATI and Nvidia. So much so that when pushed, the Atomic HD 4890 even pulled ahead of the factory overclocked GTX 285 in more than a couple tests. Not quite there, but getting much closer. What makes this card appealing to me is the fact that Sapphire has once again gone out and produced a video card using their own PCB, with improved voltage regulation, added their own Vapor-X cooling, and delivered a factory overclocked video card that serves notice that ATI will not allow Nvidia to rest on its laurels. Usually you wait months for a card like this to appear, but Sapphire wasted no time bringing this one to market. The Vapor-X cooling design is different from that seen on the Vapor-X Edition HD 4870 2GB card I recently looked at; while different, it is just as effective. The stock HD 4890 peaked at 71 degrees Celsius under load in the Armor+ case, with the drivers controlling the fan speed. On the other hand, the Atomic only reached 59 degrees Celsius with the driver controlling the fan speed. The Atomic is running with a GPU core speed of 1GHz, so all the cooling is needed to keep this card happy. The stock card needed the fan speed bumped to 100% just to reach a 970MHz core speed when it was overclocked. To reach the maximum overclock on the Atomic, I needed to keep the fan speed right around 70%. The noise difference between the reference cooling solution and Sapphire's Vapor-X design is amazing - the high pitched hair dryer is no longer present on the Atomic version! While much less noisy than reference solution, the noise of the fan when pushed to 100% is still audible and can be annoying - much more than the design of the heatsink on the Vapor-X HD4870. The cooling performance at this noise level is much better than that delivered by the reference solution. With the fan at 100%, temperatures never rose above 54 degrees Celsius in my 25 degree Celsius room. All in all, a great improvement over the reference design. At this point I think Sapphire has hit a home run in the performance department with the HD 4890 Atomic Edition that will raise the stakes in the single GPU video card market. You could say that the shot has been fired over the bow. I want to sit back and see the next step from both ATI and Nvidia, as the Atomic Edition HD 4890 is the fastest single GPU card from ATI that I have tested. As a step up from standard cards, Sapphire's Atomic Edition cards always offer that extra bit of performance and cooling that make them the card to buy, even though they carry a price premium. You do get what you pay for! Increased performance, custom PCB design, and excellent cooling - what else do you need?