Imagine my excitement as I unpack this graphics card and prepare my system for this review. Utilizing an AGP8X motherboard, I assumed that I would be seeing the fastest graphics available and some impressive scores throughout the common benchmarks. However, upon installing the card in my system I was faced with a miserable dilemma.
Initially, there was no indication that anything was wrong. The system booted into Windows without a hitch and I was presented with the desktop without error. Yet, once I started the UT2003 demo, the system froze roughly five seconds into the game and hard-locked the system. Although disappointed, I figured this was some bug with the demo which needed to be addressed. As such, I decided to try Return to Castle Wolfenstein. Once again, the system hard-locked after only five seconds.
At this point, I realized that something was seriously wrong in the graphics department. Given my lack of familiarity with ATIís drivers, I thought that I might be using a notoriously bad driver. As a result, I proceeded to cycle-through the following different driver revisions without any improvement in my situation.
Stock Sapphire driver (version 11-002)
Prior to using this card, this system had run every game and application without error using NVIDIA AGP4X graphics cards. Therefore, it seemed safe to assume that the problems were somehow involved with the newly-released AGP8X specification. Looking to verify this theory, I dove into the BIOS and attempted to force the AGP to a 4X setting. Unfortunately, this setting was grayed-out and could not be altered. Grasping at straws, I installed Powerstrip and tried to use their utility to force the AGP settings. All of these efforts proved to be futile as the motherboard and graphics card were determined to remain at AGP8X.
Analyzing the problem in depth, I began to question how games could be displayed and run perfectly for that interim period if some issue was plaguing the AGP bus. Referencing some experiences with overclocking over the years, I couldnít help but draw parallels with processor overheating scenarios. Moments later, the card was out of the system and disassembled on my desk. To my dismay, my suspicions were correct. There in front of me lie a bone-dry graphics core without a hint of thermal compound on the face of the core or heatsink.
Applying some Arctic Silver thermal compound, I re-applied the heatsink assembly onto the core. Suspicious of this oversight, I decided to remove the heatsink again to ensure that there was proper contact between the heatsink and the core. Amazingly, the heatsink had no traces of heatsink compound!
Roughly ten minutes later, I had lapped the heatsink to a beautiful shine and now had a level surface to work with. Looking at the area around the core, I also realized that the shim protecting the core was actually taller than the chip itself. As a result, the shim also ad to be carefully sanded-down to allow proper contact of the heatsink.
With these modifications complete, I turned on the system. Once the desktop had posted, I immediately started the UT2003 demo again. To my surprise, the demo ran flawlessly! At no time was I faced with hard-locks or system freezes. After running through my arsenal of benchmarks, I was convinced that the problem had been solved.
Contacting Sapphire, I learned that this issue could only have effected a small handful of pre-production cards that were slated for reviews. Evidently, the final assembly of the cards ( including the attachment of the heatsink ) was completed in the offices of the distributor prior to shipping the cards. I was assured that this oversight would not occur in the retail production lines for the company.
After using this card for a number of weeks, I can honestly say that I have mixed emotions regarding its value. For those who can afford to buy the latest and greatest hardware the moment it comes out, purchasing a new generation card such as the Radeon 9700 Atlantis Pro is a no-brainer. Regardless of their system specifications, the Radeon 9700 Pro has a great deal of headroom to offer and can be carried through multiple system upgrades as a result. Furthermore, those looking to run enhanced image quality settings should seriously consider this card. As the benchmarks illustrate, this Radeon 9700 Pro has enough power to make maximum image quality settings a viable option in many games and resolutions.
However, the fact of the matter is that the Radeon 9700 Pro is likely overkill for the majority of the market. As evidenced by the benchmarks in this review, the key to unleashing the speed of this card is to utilize an extremely fast processor. Given the fact that processors such as 2.8GHz Pentium 4 Northwoods are only typical for hardware review websites and a handful of dedicated computer fanatics, it is difficult for me to recommend this product, or any other top of the line (expensive) graphics card. Given the $200 premium over other very capable cards such as the GeForce4 Ti4200, I find it a much more logical choice to use that extra money to purchase a high-end processor. The combination of a fast processor and a fast graphics card will undoubtedly best the fastest graphics card with a mediocre processor.
Despite this issue, I must admit I was extremely impressed with Sapphire's Radeon 9700 Atlantis Pro. Aside from the situation with the heastink assembly, the product and drivers proved to be very stable and always performed exceptional with the games I tested. Although I will forever be a fan of NVIDIA products, I certainly can respect the fantastic job ATI has done in developing the Radeon 9700 Pro. For those interested in purchasing the card, the Sapphire brand offers the same great product as ATI branded cards with a slightly cheaper price. Given the high price of the card to begin with, the sapphire Radeon 9700 Atlantic Pro is surely worth consideration.
I would like to thank both Sapphire and Blue-Alien for providing us with a review sample of their latest graphics card. This review represents a great deal of confidence on each side of this review. Sapphire truly believes in their product and its performance if they are willing to submit their card to an NVIDIA based hardware website. Similarly, we are entirely committed to being an objective and honest website and eagerly accepted the challenge of reviewing this product.
Though Sapphire is a relatively new name in the retail channel of the market, they are no strangers to this industry. A long time OEM product vendor, they have a great deal of experience in making a solid and stable product for a reasonable price. Fortunately for the consumer, they have carried this characteristic with them as they wade into the retail market. For those who are fans of ATI products, the Sapphire product line offers an exceptional alternative to the traditional ATI branded products.