ATi Radeon HD 3850 review

£81
Price when reviewed

With Nvidia firmly on top in the high-end battle towards the end of 2007, ATi focused its efforts on the larger, mass-market segment of the graphics card market: the mid-range. The Radeon HD 3800 series was launched, and – with the mid-range failing to offer any real gaming power in previous generations from both sides – it surprised everyone by putting in a pretty good performance.

Its main strength is that it offers considerable frame rates for a very affordable price, something made allthe more possible by the move to the 55nm fabrication process.

This allows it to cram 666 million transistors onto its medium-sized board – almost as many as an 8800 Ultra. Its stream processor count of 320 is more than double that of Nvidia’s top offering, too, and it’s right up to date with support for DirectX 10.1 and Shader Model 4.1, as well as the PCI Express 2.0 interface.

The HD 3850 is clocked at 670MHz as standard, and comes in both 256MB and 512MB GDDR3 flavours. It makes sense to spend an extra £13 on the version with more memory, which managed a healthy 47fps in Crysis at 1,280 x 1,024 and Medium settings – a perfectly enjoyable level. Our High Call of Duty 4 test was playable at 34fps, too, and it’s a lot faster than Nvidia’s admittedly cheaper 8600 cards.

The move to 1,600 x 1,200 and High settings in Crysis, where it dropped to 19fps, shows that even the larger capacity 512MB version isn’t quite enough. At those levels, only cards with 768MB can reach playable frame rates.

The HD 3850’s price is both a strength and a weakness. At £81 for the 256MB version or £94 for the 512MB, it can be considered a mid-range card, but its performance belongs in a higher category.

Admittedly, the next step up – HD 3870 – costs just £21 more and offers even smoother gaming. But if you need to draw the line at under £100, this is the best card on the market.

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