Radeon 4870: Does It Matter Who Made Yours?

Once you’ve found the GPU that best fits your needs, does it really matter which vendor sells you the card? We recently compared the prices, features, and performance of two third-party Radeon HD 4870 designs—Palit’s HD 4870 Sonic Dual Edition and Sapphire’s HD 4870 Toxic Edition—against AMD’s reference design to determine which vendor offered the best value--or if there was any difference at all.

AMD is now following Nvidia's lead by transitioning away from offering its own video cards at retail, so that it will no longer compete head-to-head with its add-in-board (AIB) partners. However, both companies will design a reference board for each new GPU and give that design to their partners as a model from which to build (they might even build the entire card and sell it to the AIBs, whose only contribution then would essentially become adding the logo to the cooling shroud). Reference designs are invariably conservative with relatively low clock speeds and less-than-premium coolers. However, these reference designs are often the only implementations available to consumers during the first few months after the introduction of a new GPU.

Third-party vendors are later given the choice of sticking with these reference designs or differentiating their products in some other way. You buy a video card for the GPU more than anything else, but third-party vendors often depart from the GPU manufacturer’s reference design by pairing it with different types and amounts of memory, by overclocking the GPU and/or the memory, by attaching a different cooler, and by offering different outputs on the mounting bracket (with HDMI and DisplayPort being the most common). Third-party vendors also often bundle software—usually a game and/or an application—with their cards. Based on those criteria, which of these three manufacturers delivers the best bang for the buck? We look at each manufacturer’s design decisions first and then compare each board’s performance head-to-head.

Ed: One of the reasons we were interested in non-reference graphics cards was because they're so rare. Back in the days of Nvidia's TNT2 Ultra, manufacturers like Guillemot (remember them?) could use especially low-latency memory and super-high core clocks to set their boards apart. Customization was far more rampant. But today's cards are incredibly complex. And with so many different GPUs and models available, most board vendors just stick to the reference PCB. Today, you can choose between bone stock cards, cards centering on the reference design, but with altered cooling (Sapphire's board represents this group here), and completely custom PCBs that try improving on the lowest common denominator with more layers, better electronic circuitry, more efficient cooling, and so on (Palit's entry, in today's story). If there's a premium to be paid for the more advanced board, is it worth it? Do you get any additional performance? These are the questions Michael will be answering.

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  • MrMick
    Once you’ve found the GPU that best fits your needs, does it really matter which vendor sells you the card? We take a look at AMD's reference 4870, Sapphire's, and Palit's to get a better sense for what differentiates graphics cards.

    Radeon 4870: Does It Matter Who Made Yours? : Read more
  • wavetrex
    You can raise the fan speed of the reference card very easy using the 8.11 and 8.12 drivers.

    My totally stock card runs idle at 45 degrees with 35% fan speed ( inaudible ) and at 55 degrees full load ( in Crysis ) with 45% fan speed (audible). During the summer I'll probably raise the speed by 5-10% to compensate for the increased ambient temperature.

    non-reference is overrated...
    Reference has a problem with bios settings and NOT with the cooler itself.
  • Proximon
    The Palit may be the best in a well cooled case, but regardless I'll take the Toxic. Rear venting, 48-60C temperatures at a whisper quiet 34% fan speed.

    Good article though, especially since many here in the US have been curious about Palit lately. You might have added more about Vapor-X. My understanding was that ATI intends to make it reference design.
  • Anonymous
    I think what really matters about the vendor is at what quality the card was built. For example, If the vendor used a poor quality BGA process, one vendor may have more problems with artifacting in 3D applications later on down the road vs a different brand may have a higher percentage of product that makes it several years if need be without a single glitch.
  • montyuk
    talking about third party hsf - i bought the force3d dht which whilst it has a fantastic heatsink, decided to couple it with a fan that does not allow the fan speed to be controlled by software (yes i have tried the usual), so ive ended up replacing their fan with a new one which can be controlled.

    surely their engineers must have realised that the fan was stuck at 100%?
  • Tekkamanraiden
    Hmmm I wondered why my 3870 pc/mac hybrid card was blue in color. Now I know why.
  • V3ctor
    I put mine on water... 29ºc idle - 41º full... I just hope ATi uses the same pcb layout in the HD5800... That way I can re-use the waterblock
  • Malovane
    Exactly... how many times can you beat that horse to death? The cooling is fine on the reference 4870's. Just manually set the fan speed with the new catalyst control center and it will run cooler than the previous generation of ATI's products.
  • Shadow703793
    Good write up. But I don't care much for the software, but rather the cooling & Ocing. Tbh, you can find smiler software for totally free (ie VCL, Zoom,etc)
  • customisbetter
    I have the Palit in question and its awesome for two reasons.
    First, the card is physically shorter than the reference card so it actually fits in my case. The second is the amount of cooling comes from ONE fan. I unplugged the smaller fan due to noise and set the large fan to 45%. Its totally quiet and never goes over 70 degrees C. I highly recommend that card and whenit becomes obsolete, the HDMI and Display port connectivity will be great for a HD Media box.
  • malveaux

    Essentially, there's no difference amongst them.

  • Niva
    80 degrees won't burn you, it is hot to the touch though. I enjoyed this article, I still run a Tyan made ATI 9700 Pro card in my old PC which stays on all the time, that card is a champ!
  • Anonymous
    OMG, Catalyst 8.10, I didn't even bother going through the benchmarks.
  • cl_spdhax1
    add fanspeed control to catalyst for most cards.
    written by spyral,
    "START -> REGEDIT (RUN AS ADMIN) -> HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE -> SYSTEM -> CurrentControlSet-> CONTROL -> CLASS -> {4D36E968-E325-11CE-BFC1-08002BE10318} -> 0000 (be sure to tweak your CURRENT drivers key MINE IS 0000)





    under the overdrive menu, if it shows up, it works. if it doesn't, then your card doesn't support it. simple.
  • Transsive
    I have an Asus 4870. I think it's pretty much the same as the reference board.
    I set the fan speed at 30% and it usually sits at 55-70 degrees.
    It has a dual slot cooler with rear exhaust.
    750 core, 900 memory.
  • yyrkoon
    malveauxInteresting.Essentially, there's no difference amongst them.Cheers,

    Actually, there is a big difference in name brands. It's known as "customer relations". All companies can have lemons in any part, and it is their willingness to stand by their respective parts that counts. Sapphire is one of these companies that *will* stand by their products, and give customers very little hassles during such unfortunate circumstances *if* a RMA is imminent. However, I am not saying there are no other brands out there that may practice the same objective, but now days, with shoddy workmanship around every corner, I tend to not stray from something that works( and works well ).

    Driver support is another gotcha, but mostly now days ATI, and nVidia products are covered by their respective 'parent' companies. Overall system stability with said products installed would be another. But in the later situation here, there can be more than a single variable at fault.
  • Anonymous
    I can't say the voltage regulation of the Palit model is a step up, it's just cheaper and allows them to sell the card for less. Personnally, I'd stick with the Volterra system.
  • JonnyDough
    These benchmarks show one thing. Nothing.

    The slight fluctuations determined by the benchmarks show that a change of FPS by .7 or even two FPS mean absolutely nothing. Half a frame isn't going to make or break the playability of a game. For all we know a tiny background process decided to run at the exact moment the FPS snapshot was taken.

    Stick to differences of steady 5 FPS differences or more, or don't even bother writing these types of "articles."

    The difference is minimal at best, and even an OC'd card will barely make any difference over a stock card. 100mhz does little for gaming today. Maybe it made a difference in the Commodore era, but it makes very little difference now.

    Anyone with a brain knows that the difference between vendors is the over-clockability, but the following are really the deciding factors:

    1. Price.
    2. Silence.
    3. Included adapters.
    4. Included software.
    5. Consumer relations.

    Any 100mhz increment or frame rates over any other similar card is next to pointless.

    Tell us something we didn't know.
  • ideapete
    Be aware that most if not all new graphics cards Nvidia or ATI ( Or a subset like powercolor ) all have poor OGL support and if you use the cards for modeling with sketchup or 3dMax or similar CAD programs they are useless. If you are a modeler get recommendations from your software supplier or your gray hairs will increase accordingly

    We recently tried ATI Pwrclr AGP 3650 and the performance and support was atrocious
  • avatar_raq
    Michael, I just wanted to say don't pay attention to cranky people that impose destructive criticism, you should have got used to them by now.
    Your article is so good and it answers questions I've had in mind for a long time about the diffrences between the available 8800 GTs for example, I guess the same results apply there, right?