This super quiet, passively cooled card from Sapphire delivers solid performance and even quieter computing.
There comes a time when high performance computing just isn't what you're after. Though we are at first challenged by this unnerving - and quite frankly, scary - impulse, there are a few ways we can reduce noise without handing in our self-respect. After all, Maximum Power is not always synonymous with silence! One of the largest culprits of noise in any given system is most likely the graphics card - until recent trends started encouraging low noise levels as a feature, it was not uncommon for these slabs of silicon to boast fans the size of Batman's rubber nipple; forced to spin horrendously fast to move any air at all.
We've moved past these embarrassingly loud solutions for the higher-end cards (in the most part), but it's where we look at the mid-range cards that we start to see the tiny fans creeping back in. Sapphire have just done away with a fan entirely, but rather than causing a catastrophic meltdown, it seems in this case to offer an improvement over an actively-cooled design!
The reason for the Ultimate's heatsink success can be attributed solely to just that: the heatsink is designed superbly well. It is simple, consisting of a shaped aluminium plate with lateral fins that catch any available case airflow and channel it along the length of its heat-radiating surface. To aid it in this task, two heatpipes have been added that both begin within the primary plate, curving beneath its ridged surface to distribute the heat across it more effectively, then curling upwards to a secondary series of aluminium fins that take advantage of any remaining case airflow.
It works too: idle temperatures were a cool 42 degrees, while load temperatures in Crysis hit a maximum of 58 degrees - in the worst-case scenario of being placed out in the open without any real airflow. The Ultimate did warm up a little more when placed under extreme stress using Kombustor, though it topped out at 66 degrees. We imagine this card would be more than manageable in a case with even the barest of air movement.
It's even a decent overclocker, hitting the ill-enforced software clockspeed limit of 850MHz core and 1050MHz memory without breaking stride, using both EVGA Precision and MSI Afterburner. Not ones to let something so trivial hold us back, we flung open AMD GPU Clock Tool and pushed the core clocks to their ultimate resting place at 900MHz, resulting in a sixteen per cent improvement over factory clocks. Stable without additional airflow. Under Kombustor load. Sure, temperatures did rise somewhat to 72 degrees, but this is still well within the limits of hardware stability.
Overclocking the card netted a nice performance increase for the additional expense of zero dollars, returning a boosted 3DMark Vantage score of P7207. This represents an additional 14 per cent of measurable performance, and is nothing to sneeze at for a card sans fans. Interestingly this is on par with the reference-design 5670 card, online here.
However, there are some caveats to be had. Prime amongst them is the bundle for the card, which is barer save an instant messenger plug-in that claims to improve the quality of webcam streams. Not exactly exciting stuff there. It also commands a higher price than the reference design - while there is no official price set, passive requires more metal, which is expensive.
All things considered, the Ultimate is a nice little card for a media rig, is screaming out for a very easy overclock, but won't quite satisfy those power-hungry users out there.