Product: PowerColor HD 3850 AGP 512MB
Estimated price: ?199 (about £150)
WITH PCI EXPRESS having become the standard for graphics cards over the past years ? we could hardly believe our ears when ATI partners started announcing they were doing their own AGP thing with the HD 3850. We immediately bummed a card and as sure as eggs the delivery guy was knocking at our door a couple of weeks later ? the delay justified by “driver development”.
But “an AGP card?” you ask. We’ve got good reason to: late last year we retired an aging Pentium 4 machine, long past its glory days (if ever it had one, it was a Pentium 4 after all...) and now, low and behold, PowerColor springs this surprise on the world, saving AGP graphics from extinction with the very surprising HD 3850 PCS AGP 512MB.
“Ole faithful” is a Pentium 4 3.2GHz Northwood core on an Asus P4S800D (nothing special here), with 1GB of DDR400 a Radeon 9700 Pro and 2x120GB SATA (RAID 0) drives ? all of this running Windows XP Pro SP2 (read below to find out why). In its prime, it was about as good as it got in the Intel camp and, in some nostalgic sense; it’s still a pretty decent rig. It’s over four years old by now and the dated Radeon 9700 Pro is noisy as always and barely able to keep up any decent framerates in modern games. If not for this new card, this PC would have been put out of its misery at a recycling station or donated to our fave school.
The card is pretty spacious, being way bigger than your standard AGP card. It has a PEG hanging off the end of the card to boot, so make way for some serious piece of graphics silicon. Since we’re talking a 6-pin PEG, and considering that most AGP machines don’t have “modern” power supplies, PowerColor did remember to include the necessary adapter so you can stick a molex plug on the other end.
The contents of the box itself are a simple cables+driver disk+GPU affair, no real extras, no fancy stuff, just what you’d expect in a fast upgrade card. Also, bringing the RV670 down to the ancient AGP bus required a bit of Rialto bridge magic. Yeah, the same chip that was launched over two years ago when ATI started making native PCIe cards and adapting them to the AGP interface. It’s on the back, just between the GPU and the golden fingers. The two DVI plugs you’re presented with can dual-link, allowing you to bring 2560x1600 joy to your desktop. Getting down to the specs, the PowerColor HD 3850 PCS AGP is a 512MB GDDR3 card that rocks to the sweet tune of 668MHz/828MHz (x2 on a 256-bit memory interface). This is all cooled down by a ZEROTherm all-copper fan and a copper plate slapped on the RAM chips playing the part of a heatspreader.
Installing the card is a cinch, just pop out the old one, pop in the new one. It’s big, but it’ll fit your rig if you can move stuff around inside ? you might need to be careful with the DIMM slot latches as they used to come very close to the card plane. The ZEROTherm cooler and copper ramsink seem overkill for this card, but the end result is very worthwhile and it’ll even give the card with some overclocking headroom.
Getting to the software, this is where we hit a big “BUT” in the review. For all intents and purposes, PowerColor packed a driver and Catalyst Control Cent er. It IS an older version of CCC, so if you have an old ATI card with a modern CCC, you’ll have to uninstall the older-but-newer first. If not, you get a clean, simple and quick install of the CCC with all the added benefits, BUT the driver itself is XP only ? yes, no Vista support so far. This also means no DirectX10.1 out of the box (well DX10.1 on the PCIe HD3850 hasn’t been quite as gobsmacking as expected, so it isn’t that big a loss).
The only other real nag with the driver installation was that once the HDMI Audio Out feature was activated, it automatically redirected your audio without some much as a “thank you, sir” ? so you have to go to your sound devices and reselect your output.
PowerColor was nice enough to bring not only ATI’s latest generation of hardware but the software too. This means you get, out of the box, a fully featured ATI Catalyst Control Panel with all the tricks. Since the 55nm RV670 comes clocked in at 670MHz, a little AMD OverDrive magic is used to automatically take the GPU a bit higher. 720MHz/929MHz were the new settings after the test ? and that was without any real fine-tuning or exotic cooling. Although +50MHz/+100MHz doesn’t sound like much, and with the CPU limitations weighing in the balance, it’ll just help with AA and AF rather than pushing a higher framerate in your games. The ZEROTherm fan+sinks does a great job of keeping the card cool, through and through. OverDrive auto-tunes but doesn’t register the upped frequencies where it should ? we had to pull out a couple of other apps in order to ascertain if it was so... and it was.
Gaming performance on an aging Pentium 4 platform is nowhere close to current gaming systems: you’ve got that fabulous Netburst Microarchitecture that despite its high clock, fell behind Athlon when it came to FPU performance. Let’s not even get into comparisons with Core or Athlon 64 levels.
Our rig scored a healthy (albeit CPU-castrated) score in 3DMark ’06 as you can see below.
Come GR:AW2, we met with a pretty good performance. GR:AW2 delivers some punishment to our card ? as we could hear it rev up the fan to the max while playing, although temps never reached anything over 58 celsius.
World in Conflict is a serious piece of graphics candy in the RTS genre. We ran its internal benchmark in medium settings, at 3 different resolutions. Very playable too...
Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance is one of the most CPU-demanding benchmarks on the market, and a challenge for our aging Pentium 4. For what it’s worth, it produced a composite score of 14384 with an average framerate of 25.99fps @1024x768 High Quality. We looked this up online and found that it was in line with 3.4GHz Prescotts (1MB cache) running PCIe HD 3850s, so the PCIe-to-AGP isn’t presenting a real problem here.
So what do we have here? On the one hand, there are no Vista drivers. We don’t expect many AGP-ridden users to be upgrading to Vista when they can keep on working with XP without the resource/performance hit. On the other hand, until the Vole creates a DX10 release for XP ? (hell... freeze... over...) what’s the real advantage in owning such a card? Well, brute force performance alone in DirectX 9 titles.
The question remains, however. If you have an ailing AGP system, should you buy this card or not? Well, if you have no plans on buying a new PC until the end of the year, we’d say the HD 3850 PCS AGP 512MB is a sure bet ? it’ll get you up and playing the current generation of games at resolutions and image quality you’ve never experienced before on your system. It’s a tad bit expensive, though ? and you don’t get much out of the box, software-wise.
Just remember, this is about all ATI’s partners can do to improve your performance, short of you going out and buying a modern PC. The HD 3850 AGP gives your midget Pentium something to stand on in a world of Core2/Athlon/Phenom giants. If you are one of the latter, do not mock the 3850 on AGP, it scores 900% better than our old Geforce FX5900 and almost 800% better than our Radeon 9700Pro. You can rest assured your AGP rig has a year's worth of gaming left in it.
Enough performance to play today’s games, ZeroTherm fan is way better than your old AGP dustbusters, HDMI with HD Audio out.
Big card, pricey.
No Vista / DX10 support.
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