Meet The Sapphire R9 285 Dual-X OC 2GB

Our sample provided by AMD for today’s launch is Sapphire’s R9 285 Dual-X OC 2GB. As we mentioned before this is a non-reference launch, so rather than ship out engineering cards that won’t see retail AMD has sent us proper retail cards.

Sapphire’s R9 285 Dual-X OC is in turn a good example of what kinds of cards are appearing on store shelves. As R9 285 is a sub-200W product all of the launch cards have followed the same basic design, utilizing their manufacturer’s respective dual fan open air designs. So if you like full size open air cards then you’ll have your pick of the litter. However it also means that there aren’t any blowers on the market – nor do we expect any in the development pipeline – so for the moment the market for R9 285s is rather homogenous. In Sapphire’s case, though not available at launch, we will eventually see them break the mold with a smaller single-fan card specifically designed for use in ITX systems.

But getting to the R9 285 Dual-X OC, the Dual-X is a solid entry from Sapphire that is very typical of their current designs. As given away by the name, this card utilizes a 10” version of Sapphire’s Dual-X open-air cooler, and among Sapphire’s product lineup it can be considered the company’s baseline cooler for products up to 250W. Meanwhile as an OC model Sapphire is shipping this card with a mild factory overclock of 965MHz for the core and 5.6GHz for the memory, which represents a 47MHz (5%) core overclock and 100MHz (2%) memory overclock. Though note that Sapphire is also producing an identical version of this hardware without the factory overclock.

Continuing with our overall theme of R9 285 being a lateral product for AMD, the same is unsurprisingly true for Sapphire. For the R9 285 Dual-X Sapphire has opted to port over the design of their existing R9 280 Dual-X (which happens to be our R9 280 test card), building a suitable new PCB for Tonga but otherwise retaining the R9 280’s cooler and functionality. With R9 280 being a more power hungry part (on paper at least), this means the R9 285 Dual-X cooler is slightly overpowered in comparison, which should bode well for temperature/acoustic performance and for overclocking.

The Dual-X cooler itself is something of a tried and true design for Sapphire at this point, as years of iteration on dual fan coolers has resulted in these designs coalescing into similar and highly effective coolers. Starting from the top, the 10” version of the Dual-X cooler utilizes a pair of 85mm fans, allowing it to provide more than sufficient airflow for the primary and VRM heatsinks. Buyers with cramped cases will want to note that the use of such a large fan does result in a shroud larger than the PCB itself, with the shroud extending an additional 1cm over the PCB.

Below the fans we find Sapphire’s primary heatsink, which is composed of aluminum and runs just short of the entire length of the cooler. Sapphire attaches the primary heatsink to the GPU through the use of 4 copper heatpipes which run between the GPU and various points on the heatsink. The heatpipes in turn do not make direct contact with the GPU, but instead attach to a copper baseplate which in turn is what makes contact with the GPU and channels heat into the heatpipes.

Surrounding the copper baseplate is a secondary aluminum baseplate which provides both structure for the overall heatsink and additional cooling. Through the use of thermal pads, the aluminum baseplate covers the card’s RAM chips, providing direct cooling for the RAM. Meanwhile the card’s VRMs are not part of the primary heatsink assembly, and are instead cooled via a smaller secondary “strip” heatsink that sits over the MOSFETs towards the rear of the card. Airflow making it through the primary heatsink is in turn responsible for cooling this secondary heatsink.

Removing the heatsink and accessing the PCB, Sapphire’s PCB is typical for a 200W card. Sapphire places the bulk of the VRM circuitry towards the rear of the card, between the GPU/RAM and the PCIe power sockets. Meanwhile Sapphire’s RAM of choice is 6GHz Elpedia, which means this card ships at a lower memory frequency than what the RAM is capable of. For overclockers this means there’s some guaranteed headroom on the RAM, while the lower shipping frequency may indicate that AMD has tuned Tonga’s memory controllers for sub-6GHz operation, similar to what happened with Hawaii.

Throughout all of this the R9 285 Dual-X OC is generally a solid card, but the heatsink/PCB interaction does expose the card’s one real weakness/design flaw, which is a lack of rigidity. As is almost always the case with these large heatsink cards, the heatsink is massive enough that for all practical purposes the PCB is attached to the heatsink rather than vice versa. However Sapphire only attaches the heatsink to the PCB at the 4 screws around the GPU, which for a 10.25” card means the far end of the card is far removed from these attachment points and is left free to flex. Sapphire does include a plastic leg at one corner of the shroud to keep the PCB from flexing too much, but this leg isn’t secured to the PCB and indeed isn’t even long enough to touch the PCB without flexing. Ideally we would like to see all 9”+ cards reinforced against flexing for this reason, either by securing the shroud to the PCB at the rear of the card or by employing a stiffener along the top edge of the PCB.

Moving on, Sapphire doesn’t list an official TDP for the R9 285 Dual-X OC, however given the factory overclock it’s fair to say that in practice it’s going to be a bit higher than AMD’s official 190W TDP of a stock R9 285. Providing power for the card is a pair of 6pin PCIe power connectors at the top-rear of the card, which along with the PCIe slot connector means the card has the means to deliver up to 225W of power (VRMs willing). Interestingly Sapphire’s PCB has an additional pair of solder points for replacing one of the 6pin connectors with an 8pin connector, which may indicate a future Sapphire card or Sapphire hedging their bets for the inevitable higher tier Tonga card with all 32 CUs enabled.

Meanwhile though you won’t find a Crossfire connector at the top of the card – having been made obsolete by GCN 1.1+’s XDMA engines – what you will find on the Sapphire card is a BIOS switch. Sapphire ships the R9 285 Dual-X as a dual BIOS UEFI card, with one BIOS for legacy systems and a second BIOS for UEFI systems. The card’s default shipping state will be for the legacy BIOS, while depressing the BIOS button will switch to UEFI. Outside of reference cards we don’t see too many dual BIOS cards, and given the limited selection of such cards we are rather fond of the fact that Sapphire uses a button here as opposed to a more difficult to access switch.

Finally, towards the front of the card we see the standard AMD 200 series I/O configuration of 1x DL-DVI-I, 1x DL-DVI-D, 1x HDMI, and 1x DisplayPort. Tonga has up to 6 display controllers, and while not easy it should be possible to use all 6 of them through a careful use of MST off of the DisplayPort and identical monitors hanging off of the HDMI and DVI ports.

Wrapping things up, the retail price on the R9 285 Dual-X OC is currently running at $259. This puts Sapphire’s card at $10 over the R9 285 MSRP of $249, though given the fact that this is a factory overclocked card this is par for the course. We haven’t seen the non-OC version for sale yet, but one way or another you’re essentially looking at paying a 4% price premium for roughly as much of a performance advantage over a stock R9 285.

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  • chizow - Thursday, September 11, 2014 - link

    No issues with Boost once you slap a third party cooler and blow away rated TDP, sure :D

    But just as I said, AMD's rated specs were bogus, in reality we see that:

    1) the 285 is actually slower than the 280 it replaces, even in highly overclocked factory configurations (original point about theoretical performance, debunked)
    2) the TDP advantages of the 285 go away, at 190W target TDP AMD trades performance for efficiency, just as I stated. Increasing performance through better cooling results in higher TDP, lower efficiency, to the point it is negligible compared to the 280.

    Its obvious AMD wanted the 285 to look good on paper, saying hey look, its only 190W TDP, when in actual shipping configurations (which also make it look better due to factory OCs and 3rd party coolers), it draws power closer to the 250W 280 and barely matches its performance levels.

    In the end one has to wonder why AMD bothered. Sure its cheaper for them to make, but this part is a downgrade for anyone who bought a Tahiti-based card in the last 3 years (yes, its nearly 3 years old already!).
    Reply
  • bwat47 - Thursday, September 11, 2014 - link

    I think the main reason for this card, was to bring things up to par when it comes to features. the 280 (and 280x), were rebadged older high end cards (7950, 7970), and whole these offered great value when it came to raw performance, they are lacking features that the rest of the 200 series will support, such as freesync and trueaudio, and this feature discrepancy was confusing to customers. It makes sense to introduce a new card that brings things up to par when it comes to features. I bet they will release a 285x to replace the 280x as well. Reply
  • chizow - Thursday, September 11, 2014 - link

    Marginal features alone aren't enough to justify this card's cost, especially in the case of FreeSync which still isn't out of proof-of-concept phase, and TrueAudio, which is unofficially vaporware status.

    If AMD released this card last year at Hawaii/Bonaire's launch at this price point OR released it nearly 12 months late now at a *REDUCED* price point, it would make more sense. But releasing it now at a significant premium (+20%, the 280 is selling for $220, the 285 for $260) compared to the nearly 3 year old ASIC it struggles to match makes no sense. There is no progress there, and I think the market will agree there.

    If it isn't obvious now that this card can't compete in the market, it will become painfully obvious when Nvidia launches their new high-end Maxwell parts as expected next month. The 980 and 970 will drive down the price on the 780, 290/X and 770, but the real 285 killer will be the 960 which will most likely be priced in this $250-300 range while offering better than 770/280X performance.
    Reply
  • Alexvrb - Thursday, September 11, 2014 - link

    You just can't admit to being wrong. It maintains boost fine - end of story. That's what I disagreed with you on in the first place. No boost issues - the 290 series had thermal problems. Slapping a different cooler doesn't raise TDP, it just removes obstacles towards reaching that TDP. With an inadequate cooler, you're getting temp-throttled before you ever reach rated TDP. Ask Ryan, he'll set you straight.

    On top of this, depending on which model 285 you test, some of them eat significantly less power than an equivalent 280. Not all board partners did an equal job. Look at different reviews of different models and you'll see different results. Also, performance is better than I figured it would be, and in most cases it is slightly faster than 280. Which again, I never figured would happen and never claimed.
    Reply
  • chizow - Friday, September 12, 2014 - link

    Who cares what you disagreed with? The point you took issue was a corollary to the point I was making, which turned out to be true about the theoreticals being misstated and inaccurate when basing any conclusion about the 285 being faster than the 280.

    As we have seen:

    1) The 285 barely reaches parity but in doing so, it requires a significant overclock which forces it to blow past its rated 190W TDP and actually draws closer to the 250W TDP of the 280.

    2) It requires a 3rd party cooler similar to the one that was also necessary in keeping the 290/X temps in check in order to achieve its Boost clocks.

    As for Ryan setting me straight, lmao, again, his temp tests and subtext already prove me to be correct:

    "Note that even under FurMark, our worst case (and generally unrealistic) test, the card only falls by less than 20Mhz to 900MHz sustained."

    So it does indeed throttle down to 900MHz even with the cap taken off its 190W rated TDP and a more efficient cooler. *IF* it was limited to a 190W hard TDP target *OR* it was forced to use the stock reference cooler, it is highly likely it would indeed have problems maintaining its Boost, just as I stated. AMD's reference specs trade performance for efficiency, once performance is increased that efficiency is reduced and its TDP increases.
    Reply
  • Alexvrb - Friday, September 12, 2014 - link

    Look, I get it, you're an Nvidia fanboy. But at least you admitted you were wrong, in your own way, finally. It sustains boost fine. Furmark makes a lot of cards throttle - including Maxwell! Whoops! Should we start saying that Maxwell can't hold boost because it throttles in Furmark? No, because that would be idiotic. I think Maxwell is a great design.

    However, so is Tonga. Read THG's review of the 285. Not only does it slightly edge out the 280 on average performance, but it uses substantially less power. Like, 40W less. I'm not sure what's Sapphire (the card reviewed here) is doing wrong exactly - the Gigabyte Windforce OC is fairly miserly and has similar clocks.
    Reply
  • chizow - Saturday, September 13, 2014 - link

    LOL Nvidia fanboy, that's rich coming from the Captain of the AMD Turd-polishing Patrol. :D

    I didn't admit I was wrong, because my statement to any non-idiot was never dependent on maintaining Boost in the first place, but I am glad to see not only is 285 generally slower than the 280 without significant overclocks, it still has trouble maintaining Boost despite higher TDP than the rated 190W and a better than reference cooler.

    You could certainly say Maxwell doesn't hold boost because it throttles in Furmark, but that would prove once and for all you really have no clue what you are talking about since every Nvidia card they introduced since they invented Boost has no problems whatsoever hitting their rated Boost speeds even with the stock reference blower designs. The difference of course, is that Nvidia takes a conservative approach to their Boost ratings that they know all their cards can hit under all conditions, unlike AMD which takes the "good luck/cherry picked" approach (see: R290/290X launch debacle).

    And finally about other reviews lol, for every review that says the 285 is better than the 280 in performance and power consumption, there is at least 1 more that echo the sentiments of this one. The 285 barely reaches parity and doesn't consume meaningfully less power in doing so. But keep polishing that turd! This is an ASIC only a true AMD fanboy could love some 3 years after the launch of the chip it is set to replace.
    Reply
  • chizow - Saturday, September 13, 2014 - link

    Oh and just to prove I can admit when I am wrong, you are right, Maxwell did throttle and fail to meet its Boost speeds for Furmark, but these are clearly artificially imposed driver limitations as Maxwell showed it can easily OC to 1300MHz and beyond:

    http://www.anandtech.com/show/7764/the-nvidia-gefo...
    http://www.anandtech.com/show/7854/nvidia-geforce-...

    Regardless, any comparisons of this chip to Maxwell are laughable, Maxwell introduced same performance at nearly 50% reduction in TDP or inversely, nearly double the performance at the same TDP all at a significantly reduced price point on the same process node.

    What does Tonga bring us? 95-105% of R9 280's performance at 90% TDP and 120% of the price almost 3 years later? Who would be happy with this level of progress?

    Nvidia is set to introduce their performance midrange GM104-based cards next week, do you think ANYONE is going to draw parellels between those cards and Tonga? We already know what Maxwell is capable of and it set the bar extremely high, so if GTX 970 and 980 come anywhere close to those increases in performance and efficiency, this part is going to look even worst than it does now.
    Reply
  • Alexvrb - Saturday, September 13, 2014 - link

    You were wrong about it being unable to hold boost, you claimed that GCN 1.1 can't hold boost despite clear evidence to the contrary. Silly. Then you were wrong about Maxwell and Furmark - though you kind of admitted you were wrong.

    Regarding that being a "driver limitation" you can clock a GPU to the moon, and it's fine until it gets a heavy load. However most users won't even know they're being throttled. I had this same discussion YEARS ago with a Pentium 4 guy. You can overclock all you want - when you load it up heavy, it's a whole new game. In that case the user never noticed until I showed him his real clocks while running a game.

    Tonga averages a few % higher performance, dumps less heat into your case, and uses less power. Aside from this Sapphire Dual X, most 285 cards seem to use quite a bit less power, run cool and quiet. With all that being said, I think the 280 and 290 series carry a much better value in AMD's lineup. I'm certainly not a fanboy, you're much closer to claiming that title. I've actually used mostly Nvidia cards over the years. I've also used graphics from 3dfx, PowerVR, and various integrated solutions. My favorite cards over the years were a trusty Kyro II and a GeForce 3 vanilla, which was passively cooled until I got ahold of it. Ah those were the days.
    Reply
  • chizow - Monday, September 15, 2014 - link

    No, I said being a GCN 1.1 part meant it was *more likely* to not meet its Boost targets, thus overstating its theoretical performance relative to the 280. And based on the GCN 1.1 parts we had already seen, this is true, it was MORE LIKELY to not hit its Boost targets due to AMD's ambiguous and non-guaranteed Boost speeds. None of this disproved my original point that the 285's theoreticals were best-case and the 280's were worst-case and as these reviews have shown, the 280 would be faster than the 285 in stock configurations. It took an overclocked part with 3rd party cooling and higher TDP (closer to the 280) for it to reach relative parity with the 280.

    Tonga BARELY uses any less power and in some cases, uses more, is on par with the part it replaces, and costs MORE than the predecessor part it replaces. What do you think would happen if Nvidia tried to do the same later this week with their new Maxwell parts? It would be a complete and utter disaster.

    Stop trying to put lipstick on a pig, if you are indeed as unbiased as you say you are you can admit there is almost no progress at all with this part and it simply isn't worth defending. Yes I favor Nvidia parts but I have used a variety in the past as well including a few highly touted ATI/AMD parts like the 9700pro and 5850. I actually favored 3dfx for a long time until they became uncompetitive and eventually bankrupt, but now I prefer Nvidia because much of their enthusiast/gamer spirit lives on and it shows in their products.
    Reply

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