AMD ATI Radeon HD 4850

High-end gaming just got cheaper

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AMD ATI Radeon HD 4850
  • AMD ATI Radeon HD 4850
  • AMD ATI Radeon HD 4850
  • AMD ATI Radeon HD 4850

Pros

  • Unmatched performance for the asking price, low power consumption, DirectX 10.1 support, good all-rounder

Cons

  • Potential overheating issues

Bottom Line

If you have a graphics enthusiast’s heart, but lack the wallet size to match, then ATI's Radeon HD 4850 is the kind of bargain you’ve been waiting for. It offers a solid performance in all but the most power-hungry applications, at a price that even a pauper could afford.

Would you buy this?

The gulf that separates casual gamers from their hardcore equivalents has just narrowed with the release of the ATI Radeon HD 4850. With 800 stream processors, a core GPU clock speed of 625MHz and 512MB of GDDR3 memory at 993MHz (1986 MHz effective) connected to a 256-bit memory bus, this 'mid-range' graphics card delivers an incredible amount of oomph for the asking price.

In terms of specifications, the HD 4850 is roughly comparable to NVIDIA's high-end 9800 GTX card, which just slashed its price tag to match its new rival. (A revised version, dubbed the 9800 GTX+, is also slated for release in the coming month.) However, if our benchmarks are anything to go by, the HD 4850 is more than capable of going head-to-head with the NVIDIA usurper. Simply put, it's currently the best valued mid-range graphics card on the market by a wide margin.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let's take a look at the Radeon 4800 series' new architecture. Much like the latest generation of NVIDIA cards, AMD's ATI Radeon 4800 series can be viewed as an evolution of its previous offering. Codenamed RV770, the new chip offers several notable improvements over the RV670 (as found on cards like the Radeon HD 3870). The most significant change is probably to the number of stream processors — up from 320 to 800. Other notable improvements include an increased transistor count from 666 million to 965 million, and a substantial boost in texture units (40, rather than 16). The HD 4850's core clock speed has been reduced from 775MHz to 625MHz, and its maths processing rate now sits at one TeraFLOP. Interestingly, the RV770 GPU also supports GDDR5 memory (though this isn't implemented in the current crop of cards).

What all this means is that the ATI Radeon HD 4850 offers a superior graphical performance compared to its Radeon forbearers at less cost to the consumer. Some of the other features new to the HD 4850 are enhanced DVD upscaling to HD, automatic video contrast adjustment and a revamped 'TeraScale' Graphics Engine geared towards high resolution gaming.

For the purpose of this review, we have looked at ATI's vanilla reference board, which the initial batch of HD 4850 cards should all be identical to (well, apart from the obligatory cyborg-babe/ninja-chick artwork, which is unfortunately absent). All the usual ATI features and connections are present, including two dual-link DVI outputs, component/S-video/composite ports and HDMI output support (a DVI-to-HDMI adapter is included in the sales package).

A single-slot copper fan sink takes care of your cooling needs — or at least, tries to. When idle, the card's temperature hovered around the 80 degree mark. (AMD's previous card, the Radeon HD 3870, rarely topped 40 degrees when not in use). Naturally, this could make overclocking an issue unless you take additional cooling precautions. On the plus side, the HD 4850 benefits from less power consumption, as indicated by its single 6-pin PCI Express power connector (peak power consumption is rated at just 110 Watts).

Another benefit of the HD 4850 is its support for CrossfireX. This allows up to four compatible graphics cards to be strung together in the one computer (and, if you're feeling loopy, up to eight monitors at the same time). If you're after an ultra-powerful gaming rig and already own a motherboard based on the 790 chipset, then a HD 4850 CrossfireX-configuration is a great cost-effective option.

Naturally, the Radeon HD 4850 also features support for DirectX 10.1: an incremental update to Microsoft's DirectX 10 API that was released with Windows Vista Service Pack 1. It provides minor graphical improvements (such as enhanced shader models) to DX10.1 compatible games.

In our DirectX 9 benchmarks, the HD 4850 returned some very impressive results for a mid-range graphics card. In 3DMark 2006 it received an overall score of 11861, which is a pretty good result in anyone's book. When we ran the game F.E.A.R. with maximum settings enabled, the HD 4850 averaged 89 frames per second (fps). In our Half-Life 2 performance test, the average frame rate was 169.65fps. Again, these are both very solid results for a graphics card in this price range.

When it came to our DirectX 10 benchmarks, the results were naturally less favourable. In Crysis, the Radeon HD 4850 averaged just 17.2 frames per second, which is all but unplayable. More impressive was Call of Juarez, which managed an average frame rate of 42.7fps. Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, meanwhile, returned a result of 27fps. While none of these results are exactly mouth-watering, it's important to note that this is not a high-end card. By contrast, NVIDIA's GeForce 9800 GTX — which originally retailed for twice the price — returned slower frame rates in all of the above games (12.6 for Crysis, 30.3 for Call of Juarez and 24fps in Lost Planet: Extreme Condition).

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