Sapphire PULSE Radeon RX 7900 XT Review
An Understated Design Tuned for Silence
I look forward to Sapphire cards with every new Radeon launch, as we generally get a cooler, quieter version of the latest and greatest AMD GPU compared to the reference card. We already looked at the NITRO+ RX 7900 XTX, which is currently the flagship RDNA 3 card from Sapphire (no TOXIC card so far this generation), and today we will look at their PULSE version of the RX 7900 XT.
Another aspect of testing 3rd party entries into the Radeon family is the chance to observe performance improvements since launch, as we test on the latest drivers. And in this review, rather than plugging new results into old charts, I ended up re-testing our reference RX 7900 XT on the latest drivers, and comparing those results to our launch numbers – and the Sapphire PULSE. Let’s get started.
The Sapphire PULSE Card
The PULSE design offers a triple-fan cooling solution and occupies three slots (listed as “2.7 slot” width); when vertical it measures 313 mm long, 133.75 mm tall, and 52.67 mm thick.
The PULSE RX 7900 XT GPU features a small factory overclock, with a Game Clock of up to 2075 MHz (reference is 2025 MHz), and a Boost Clock of up to 2450 MHz (reference is 2394 MHz). Power is also slightly higher than reference, with a specified 331 watt Total Board Power, up from AMD’s 315 watts.
While committed to switching to an updated test platform this year, for the time being we are still going to be looking at test results using the Ryzen 9 7950X on our AM5 platform, paired with DDR5-6000 CL30 memory. For consistency, the BIOS on our X670E ACE board was rolled back to AGESA 184.108.40.206, rather than the 220.127.116.11 from our recent 7950X3D review. This allows for a direct comparison with original launch results.
|PC Perspective Test Platform|
|Processor||AMD Ryzen 9 7950X (stock)|
|Motherboard||MSI MEG X670E ACE
AGESA 18.104.22.168 Patch A
Resizable BAR Enabled
|Memory||G.Skill Trident Z5 Neo 32GB (2x16GB) DDR5-6000 CL30|
|Operating System||Windows 11 Pro 21H2|
|Graphics Drivers||Adrenalin 22.40.00.57 (Launch Press Driver)
Adrenalin 23.3.1 (March, 2023)
Looking first at a synthetic benchmark, we see how the two cards (and two driver versions) stack up in the demanding 3DMark Speed Way test:
This is exactly the kind of scaling I was hoping for. The reference card has benefitted from driver maturity since launch, and the PULSE card offers an additional boost over reference performance. But will this remain constant in game benchmarks? I have three examples below.
Well, it didn’t go exactly as foreseen, considering the anomalous results from DiRT 5, in which the latest driver actually showed a performance regression compared to launch with our reference card – though other factors could certainly have been at play (the recent story about the impact of Windows 11 Virtualization Based Security on GPU performance came at an interesting time).
In general, though it does depend on the game, it’s safe to expect – based at least on 3DMark – slightly better than reference performance from the PULSE RX 7900 XT, with its slightly higher-than-reference clocks and power draw.
Let’s examine some PCAT hardware logging:
PCAT hardware does not rely on any reported figures from monitoring software, as it directly monitors all PCI Express power connectors and slot power via direct passthrough. In this instance, the PULSE and reference cards (measured during identical runs of 3DMark Speed Way) present very similar power draw numbers.
Both cards easily exceed their listed power, with frequent trips to the 350 watt line on the chart. The highest measured power (one brief spike) with the reference card was 404.1 watts, while the PULSE card had a spike of 400.2 watts, but did hit higher power draw at times, with multiple readings in the 360 – 370 watt range.
Thermals and Noise
To generate heat for a period longer than the typical benchmark run, I ran the Unigine Heaven test continuously for 15 minutes (at 1080/ultra) with each card, relying on GPU-Z logging for the temperatures. When charted, it looked like this:
This seems backwards at first, considering that most partner cards with big triple-fan coolers offer better thermals than reference – unless AMD really has a better solution with the RX 7900 XT. But look closer at that area I circled on the left side of the chart. See that? The reference card’s fans ramp up as the GPU temp first begins to rise, and it keeps both GPU temp and Hot Spot well controlled for the duration of the test – at the expense of noise (more on noise shortly). The Sapphire card has a very conservative fan profile out of the box, and thus higher temperatures.
Here’s a look at what the fans were doing during this test run:
Well, that’s clear enough. While the PULSE RX 7900 XT is content to run at around 1400 RPM under load – which is honestly perfectly fine as temps are still very much under control – the reference card ramped up considerably to around 1750 RPM initially, and then returned to 1700 RPM as needed to keep up those great thermals. In terms of percentage, the Sapphire PULSE stayed within 35% of its max fan speed, while the reference card hit 66%, eventually dropping closer to 60%.
The fan speeds had an obvious effect on noise, with the PULSE RX 7900 XT coming in at a very quiet 35.5 dBA under load, compared to the reference card at 39.4 dBA. These measurements are truly “worst-case” as the cards were measured on an open testbed from a distance of just 12 inches from the front of the card.
The PULSE Radeon RX 7900 XT is an excellent entry in the Sapphire family. It can perform a bit better than a reference card thanks to higher clock speeds and board power, and it is really, really quiet. In fact, though Sapphire offers a NITRO+ variant, I think this PULSE version hits a sweet spot – but you will need to move up to the NITRO+ if you require RGB.
The only area in which our AMD reference card performed better was actually thermals, but this is due to the reference card’s aggressive fan profile vs. the very conservative fan profile that our Sapphire sample shipped with. If you are willing to trade a bit of noise for lower temps, a simple fan curve adjustment (easily done in software) places this right up there with the AMD card.
Pricing Update, 03/22/23:
The value of this card is now a major part of the story, as pricing has dropped – literally overnight – from a $50 premium over the going rate of reference RX 7900 XT cards. It can now be found at an identical $799 street price. As of today (March 22) the PULSE RX 7900 XT is listed for $799.99 USD after a $20 rebate (Newegg link). At this point the only reason NOT to choose this card over reference would be a strict requirement for the smaller dimensions of AMD’s design in your particular build.
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How Product Was Obtained
The product is on loan from Sapphire for the purpose of this review.
What Happens To Product After Review
The product is being returned to Sapphire.
Sapphire had no control over the content of the review and was not consulted prior to publication.
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Neither PC Perspective nor any of its staff were paid or compensated in any way by Sapphire for this review.
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So a total no brainer over the reference design, plus it reminds me of The Terminator nightclub scene. Nice.