Sparkle Calibre P980X+ Review

RHKCommander959 - 2009-03-20 09:49:19 in Video Cards
Category: Video Cards
Reviewed by: RHKCommander959   
Reviewed on: April 5, 2009
Price: 159.99

Introduction:

When looking for video cards, users cannot always afford top-tier versions. Especially in times of economic difficulties, companies offer varieties of mid-range solutions that are often coupled with tweaks and improved cooling to push the card closer to more expensive models. The card reviewed here is aimed for this market segment - the Sparkle Calibre P980X+, a 55nm fabrication 9800GTX+ with 512MB of RAM, 128-shader processors, and designed for lower power consumption.

SPARKLE is a company that was founded in 1982 and is based in Taiwan. The company strives for quality in its products, good customer service, to help the environment, and bring unique products enabled by strong research and development. SPARKLE produces video cards solely and only for Nvidia.

Closer Look:

The box comes sealed in a plastic bag that helps keep the product dry and clean during shipping. The front of the box features a proud unicorn in chrome, similar to a medallion. A SPA Tune sticker for the included software of the same name, which allows for clock modulation and temperature checking, is located in the corner opposite an HDMI Ready sticker. GeForce is also prominently displayed three times across the front of the box, while the model is saved for an attached tag. The package is also covered in a textured checker pattern, some with circles in them, which makes the box stand out more – especially in well-lit areas.

 

 

 

 

 

The rear lists a few of the features - Better Reliability, Rigorous Quality Tests, and Cooling System Technology (CST) - and services available with this card, including 48-hour response, 3 year limited warranty, and exclusive membership benefits for owning a Calibre card. Logos of the supported technologies and attributes line the top, including Vista/XP compatibility, SLI capability, and PureVideo HD, along with a few at the bottom. The top has a collapsible handle with the double-sided tag that denotes this as a 9800GTX+. The bottom is void of any information.

 

 

Both sides contain more technical information, with one side listing minimum system requirements of a 350w or greater power supply, and a free PCI Express slot. The other side lists that it is an Nvidia GeForce 9800GTX+ with 512MB GDDR3 running through a 256-bit memory interface. The card is PCI Express 2.0 compatible and features dual 400MHz RAMDAC’s, DVI-I, HDMI, HDCP support, and HDTV resolution up to 1920x1080i.

 

 

The tag has a very dark unicorn, with PCI Express and Sparkle logos above the Calibre GeForce 9800GTX+ notation. The rear matches the side of the box, but also includes a graph of the Calibre versus a vanilla 9800GTX+, scoring nearly 9% higher in 3D Vantage on the high setting. A picture to the right side of the specifications says Super Clock Technology with a gauge in the red zone; we shall see how true that statement is!

 

 

Opening the box immediately reveals the card, protected by a plastic case and cardboard cutout. Lifting the card out shows the accessories and manuals underneath the cardboard stand. Modest protection from impacts, but should do good against dust and moisture.

 

 

The video card is wrapped in an antistatic bag and enclosed in a formed plastic clamshell package, ensuring that moisture and dirt will have a difficult time getting to the card. The card comes with a DVI-VGA adapter, the audio cable for HDMI audio from the card to motherboard, and two Molex male and female Y-splitters with 6-pin PCI Express. Personally I find it a little odd to include the VGA adapter when the card has a VGA port, where a DVI port would have been more fitting.

 

 

With the card comes a Quick Start Guide, a short and easy manual for getting things going, driver CD, Membership Warranty card with warranty details and terms of service, and a slip of paper warning users to connect both 6-pin power connectors to the video card.

 

With that all settled, let's get the card out and poke around!

Closer Look:

The 9800GTX+ line is built on the 55nm fabrication process and sports 128 shader processors and GDDR3. Looking at the card, the prominent feature is the dual heat pipe, non-reference cooler. Sparkle offers the heat sink for sale separately for use with other video cards. The unicorn logo and Calibre branding adorn an ornament in the center, with dual fans to each side also branded with Calibre and the website address www.calibrestyle.com.tw. A few smaller heat sinks are also visible. The rear of the card has the voltage regulation circuitry neatly laid out with the heat sink using pushpins, and a few groupings of circuits for the memory and core. The board also retains mounting holes from the design, so it shouldn’t be hard to find better memory cooling solutions and mount them. The main heat sink is bolted in and equalized with springs. The card is Tri-SLI ready with dual SLI ports available.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Viewing the card from the side gives view to the low profile voltage regulation and memory heat sinks sitting neatly under the heat pipe mechanisms. The audio input for this card is located between the dual SLI ports and the 6-pin power plugs. The sides are less interesting than some other cards with all of the more important things on the top and bottom.

 

 

The card comes with HDMI, VGA, and DVI ports and should easily sync with most setups, except dual monitor applications using DVI and users of the video out port. The rear shows the voltage regulation heat sink, and the capacitors around it. The four-pin fan cable plugs in next to the 6-pin power connections.

 

 

The card supports regular SLI and Tri-SLI with its dual SLI ports. The model and serial number are located on a bar-coded sticker near the SLI ports. The dual 6-pin PCI Express power plugs are located at the rear of the card, and point away from the motherboard when installed, making it easy to install the cables in cramped cases. The small two-pin audio header with white casing is near those, and is used to provide the audio portion of the HDMI digital signal.

 

 

The heat sink can be arranged into a multitude of shapes thanks to its unique rotating capability, which uses the heat pipes wedged between the heat sinks' housing to act as a pair of hinges. Each heat pipe assembly is independently controlled and moved into place using clamps that lock into holes in the housing unit – one for flat low-profile expansion slot size, and the second to prop the units into a V-shape, requiring more space, but possibly providing better cooling for the motherboard and core by allowing the fans to breath with less restriction.

 

 

The G92 core of the 9800GTX+ is smaller than the prior 65nm models by nature, but is not protected by an integrated heat shield or large shim around the chip, but rather a smaller shim around the core. Eight memory modules with aluminum heat sinks surround the core, each with a density of 64MB.

 

 

Here the heat sink with its three different mounting holes is visible. The copper base is flat enough, but not perfectly smooth, so performance could be increased with some lapping. Three screws hold the base together against the heat pipes, two hold the Calibre badge in place, and three hold each fan in place. The clamps have one each to hold them onto the heat sinks. The housing block has spires dotted along it to help dissipate heat while it reaches the heat pipes, possibly helping with the cooling. The fan wires run along the center trough, and are held down out of the way of the black Calibre cover with a small black bit. The Calibre badge protects the fan wires but more importantly it is there to look good.

 

 

The heat pipe assemblies are held in place by the clamping pressure from the base, and adjust the fan angle by using the spring-loaded forceps. Heat is dissipated from the fins via the 3W EverFlow fans. These fans produce airflow of 20.24CFM at a noise level of 31.8dB(A). The speed is 3600RPM and they give a static pressure of 1.87mmH20.

 

 

Let's reassemble the card and get it installed!

Closer Look:

Loading up the disk brings up the Calibre SmartInstall package. This includes drivers and software, and many languages are supported and can be changed at the bottom by choosing the appropriate option. 'System information' brings up a small window with the card name and brand, operating system, and driver install information. From here users can also install the drivers, or use the help file if necessary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clicking 'Driver installation' brings up a similar small window as the System Information minus driver information. Users may choose where to install the files and then can proceed to install drivers for the video card. Clicking 'Disk information' brings up the disks contents and allows users to explore and open files on the disk easily.

 

 

'Additional installations' bring up an installation window for DirectX 9, Sparkles SPAtune card clock management and diagnostic utility, and Intel, VIA, and SiS video drivers. Clicking on 'Display settings' brings up the Windows Display Settings page, where users can adjust resolution, color display, and monitor selection along with more advanced settings for visual quality.

 

 

Clicking on 'Visit our website' brings up a HTML file in the frame that held the pictures of the Sparkle unicorn. The web addresses are www.calibrestyle.com.tw, www.sparkle.com.tw, and www.sparkleevga.com.cn. The links are clickable and will launch the address in the system's default browser. The 'Help' button brings up a different frame, with 'SmartInstall Guide' and 'User Guide' as the available help options.

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SPAtune installation is straight forward, and similar to regular program installations. Once running, users can click 'Core CLK' for current core speed, 'Memory CLK' for current memory speed, and 'Shader CLK' for the shader processors' speed. Clicking 'GPU temp.' will bring up the temperature at the time the user clicks it, but it does not update itself and is rather a snapshot of the moment it is clicked. 'FAN Speed' gives the speed of the heat sink fans. Clicking OverClock (OC) puts the card into its overclocked settings of 761/1161/1911, which are also set by default in the card's BIOS. Standard Mode (STD) sets the card to stock 9800GTX+ speeds of 738/1100/1836. Green Mode (GRN) is for the power saving option, which runs at nearly half speed with less performance and with the fan running nearly silent thanks to the reduced temperatures.

 

 

 

Now that we are up and running, let's test this puppy!

Specifications:

Chipset
GeForce 9800 GTX+ 55nm

Core Clock

761 MHz

Shader Clock (Stream Processors)

1911 MHz

Memory Clock (Clock rate / Data

rate)
1161 MHz / 2322 MHz
Total Video Memory
512MB GDDR3
Memory Interface
256-bit
Total Memory Bandwidth
74.3 GB/s
Processor Cores
128
Bus Technology
PCI-Express 2.0 X16
DVI Output
Yes
HDMI Output
Yes
HDCP support
Yes
Power Connectors
2 x 6-pin
Minimum System Power Requirement (W)
450 W

 

Features:

All information courtesy of Sparkle @ http://www.calibrestyle.com.tw/productDetail.asp?id=17

Testing:

Testing is done through the use of benchmarks; here we use a standardized array of tests, which are currently Far Cry 2, Crysis Warhead, BioShock, Call of Duty: World at War, Dead Space, Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead, 3DMark06, and 3DMark Vantage. The drivers are not tweaked and run at the default setup with the exception of turning PhysX on and off. The test system is overclocked slightly to 3GHz to remove some of the bottleneck from the GPU, and the card is tested once at stock and a second time overclocked. The test results are then compared to video cards that are considered to be in the same performance class.

 

Comparison Video Cards:

 

 

Overclocking:

Overclocked settings:

Overclocking the card was more complicated than expected. The card artifacted at its factory overclocked speeds, and would begin artifacting at reference clocks as well. Thus the difficulty in overclocking – setting the speeds themselves was easy with Rivatuner and SPAtune. Temperatures were around 55C idle and 75C load, so I dismantled the card and replaced the stock thermal paste with some high performance paste. As a safeguard, while the heat sink was off, I also applied more paste to the heat pipe assembly, coating the pipes in a stickier paste to ensure that there would be good thermal contact. The pipes had little paste, and it seemed somewhat grainy, where the paste replacing it was similar to toothpaste. Once the card was refreshed with two thermal pastes, idle and load temperatures dropped 10C to 15C and the card ran stable at reference speeds. The factory default would still artifact although not as quickly or vigorously, and was caused by the high shader clock speed. The core didn’t have much room left in it, a mere 38MHz over the factory tune, while the memory ran up to 1346MHz – a 185MHz overclock! Overall a 5% overclock on the core, 16% on memory, and technically –2.6% on the shader clock speed. Not great, but not bad either – at least the card was pre-overclocked and the memory had some room.

 

 

Video benchmarks:

 

 

Testing:

Far Cry 2:

Featuring a new game engine named Dunia, this game looks to be another one to stress your video card. Built specially 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 Far Cry 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.

 

Settings:

 

 

 

 

The card performed well, except when compared against the big boys, the GTX260 and 4870. With these frame rates the game is still playable.

Testing:

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 P980X+ performed very similarly to the BFG GTS 250 until the higher resolution, unsurprisingly. The card performed at the top level excluding the high-end cards, until the higher resolution where the 4850 and GTS 250 passed by.

Testing:

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 Daddys". 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 storyline, will wrap you up for hours on end.

 

Video Settings:

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here the card surpasses the competition, except of course the high end cards.

Testing:

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 the 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.

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The only real leader in the pack is the GTX 260 in World at War. Overclocked, the P980X+ pulls in second place in the lower resolutions and a close third in the high resolution.

Testing:

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 of the 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 primary character Isaac Clarke. Survive and you may find the loved one that was aboard the Ishimuru.

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here the card surprisingly dominated even the GTX 260, and overclocked pushed it further ahead. The worst card was the 4850, which scored half as high as the GTX 260.

Testing:

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.

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fallout 3 saw the card keeping up with the higher end cards in all the resolutions when overclocked.

Testing:

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. Your goal is to make it to a rescue point, all 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 zombies. These zombies are quick and work with pack mentality. You have but one job; survival!

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With Left 4 Dead, the P980X+ was able to fill the gap between the mid and high end cards, while at stock it fit well with the midrange cards.

Testing:

3DMark06 is one of the benchmarks that always comes up when a bragging contest begins. 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.

 

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the default 3DMark06 resolution of 1280x1024, the overclocked P980X+ was in a close second, dropping to a close third in the higher resolution runs.

Testing:

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.

 Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Overclocked, the card comes in third place in all four of the 3DMark Vantage preset tests, destroying its cousin the GTS 250. The 4850 nearly closed the gap. At stock, the card lost steam as the resolutions rose.

Conclusion

Overall this card did pretty well against the other midrange cards. The shader speed instability was a disappointment but that’s just the way of things. The memory overclock was pretty impressive and seemed to really help. The included software, SPAtune, seemed useful enough, although it might be more beneficial to some to see real-time temperature updates rather than snapshots.

The cooling solution is fairly unique, although sharing some resemblance to the Thermaltake Duo Orb in the aspect of the dual fans and rounded fin pipe. The cooler is able to be purchased separately, and performed well after being applied with a fresh coat of thermal paste to the heat pipes and core. It is unfortunate that it caused artifacts beforehand, and the heat sink didn’t seem to perform any noticeably better in either arrangement.

The performance was about average at stock, but excelled once overclocked. A newer card from Sparkle called the X250 features the same clock speeds, memory, but also comes in a 1GB X250G model. The manual was somewhat dated, and the members-only page is fairly empty minus drivers and warranty information. All in all, it was a good package, just make sure to have some extra paste lying around – just incase.

 

Pros:

Cons: