Sapphire Radeon HD 6950 Dirt 3 Edition Video Card Review

Company: Sapphire
Author: James Prior
Editor: Charles Oliver
Date: August 15th, 2011

Summary & Conclusions

Sapphire's Radeon HD 6950 DiRT3 is a definite improvement over the original reference design in two important ways. The dual fan cooler is more effective and better looking, as well as (most importantly) much quieter under load. This is definitely the design AMD should consider for reference cards, and interestingly Gigabyte, HIS, Powercolor and XFX all have custom cooler equipped HD 6950s for around the same price right now. Gigabyte challenged Sapphire with a triple-fan cooler-equipped model and a 70MHz factory overclock, but no game coupon; Sapphire's SKU without DiRT3 is $15 cheaper, still.

So there's a variety of custom cooler HD 6900s right now, hopefully these are a test by AMD and their partners as to the popularity and acceptance of effective low noise cooling that happen not to exhaust out of the case. Most modern gamers will have decent airflow in their cases, or at least understand the need to have it, and so it seems full external thermal exhaust is less critical than, say, two years ago.

The Sapphire HD 6950 overclocks quite nicely with the Sapphire TRIXX software, although the voltage limit is quite timid. Currently the voltage regulator is not supported by MSI Afterburner, so juicing it up higher and aiming for 1GHz on the core isn’t an option. It was also disappointing to find out that we were unable to unlock the core ASIC from Pro to XT with this new PCB design, although at this point yields may have stock piled enough genuine Cayman Pros that the unlock wouldn't work anyway.

Also disappointing is the lack of memory heatsinks on the RAM. A small low profile aluminum heatsink would go a long way towards increasing the overclocking headroom and keep the memory cool under load, although we didn't see any evidence of problems in that area at stock speeds. The 5Gbps chips might clock differently for each batch, some needing heatsinks to hit high clocks, others not capable even with heatsinks.

The output and crossfire configuration decisions are a little puzzling also, with the card sporting only one CrossfireX and one mini-DP connector, compared to the reference design's two. This shortens the PCB length, but that space saved is taken back by the length of the heatsink itself; we we're not sure what that really achieved. The lack of a second DP output restricts Eyefinity to 3 displays, perhaps a preferable display output config would have been a single DL-DVI, HDMI 1.4a and two mini-DP 1.2 outputs with passive DP-DVI adapter in the box. You still get 4-display capabilities, but also a full slot exhaust profile as well.

Overall the Sapphire HD 6950 DiRT is a nicely designed and well-built card, backed by a 2 year warranty (in the US) and a decent accessory bundle. The included game is a big saving, and if you don't like the title you can buy the SKU without the game coupon for about $20 cheaper (incidentally the cheapest HD 6950 available today). The custom cooler is quiet and powerful, providing confidence for noise sensitive gamers and multi-GPU configs. Ideally the Sapphire TRIXX software would let you push the card a bit harder, but as overclocking is an unsupported operation by itself it's hard to complain too hard. Rage3D awards 4 1/2 stars!