Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 6600 XT review: Simple is better
- 13 August, 2021 20:00
Sometimes simple is better.
The Radeon RX 6600 XT graphics cards we’ve reviewed so far—the US$550 Asus ROG Strix, and the US$419 XFX Speedster Merc 308—represent the pinnacle of those manufacturers’ lineups, bristling with heavy-duty coolers and fancy extras like dual-BIOS switches and glittering lights. And yes, both designs impressed. But the US$399 Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 6600 XT takes the opposite tack, cutting out the fat to focus solely on delivering good performance and good cooling at a good price. (In theory, at least, since the crippling GPU shortage means graphics card prices skyrocket the second they hit store shelves.)
Don’t let that fool you, though. Even though the Sapphire Pulse lacks fanciful hardware luxuries, it manages to pull ahead of those pricier Radeon RX 6600 XT models in our benchmark tests—and it’s because of software. Sapphire has spent years honing its “Trixx Boost” feature, which marries slight image upsampling with AMD’s Radeon Image Sharpening technology to fantastic performance-boosting effect. Activating Trixx pours on extra frames, and to a large enough extent that the Pulse delivers solid 1440p gameplay in titles that can give other Radeon RX 6600 XT models some fits.
So yes, the hardware is only part of the story for the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 6600 XT. Let’s dig in.
Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 6600 XT specs, features, and design
Be sure to check out our original Radeon RX 6600 XT review for a deeper discussion around this GPU’s setup. It’s worth the time if you’re a chip nerd. AMD’s RDNA 2 architecture helps the Radeon RX 6600 XT sip power and hit sky-high clock speeds, but technical details about how this GPU’s Infinity Cache was implemented—and paired with a tiny memory bus—means it is better suited for ultra-fast 1080p gaming than stepping up to 1440p. (Sapphire’s Trixx Boost tech makes that less true for the Pulse, at least for today.)
For this review, we’ll just plop a chart below that shows how the Radeon RX 6600 XT’s key specifications stack up against last generation’s US$279 Radeon RX 5600 XT and US$400 Radeon RX 5700 XT. They’re apt comparisons, because while the new card might carry the 5600 XT’s lineage, it also comes in at the 5700 XT’s higher price tag.
In comparison, the Pulse doesn’t change up too much aside from one key spec: Clock speeds. Sapphire bumped the typical Game Clock up to 2,382MHz from the default 2,359MHz. That’s a modest increase, and behind the 2,428MHz we saw in the pricier 6600 XT models, but as you’ll see in our benchmarks, these all deliver essentially identical performance in their stock configurations. Plus, Sapphire needed to leave its step-up US$450 Nitro+ offering some room to work.
Sapphire left all the fancy extra features to the Nitro+ as well. The Pulse RX 6600 XT sticks to a plain, black design with some red Pulse and Radeon branding, but nary an RGB LED, exchangeable fan, or dual-BIOS switch in sight. Don’t mistake plainness for ugliness, however, as the simple aesthetic should fit very well in most gaming PCs. An aluminum backplate atop the graphics card keeps things looking nice and clean, while the black plastic shroud includes some light texturing that helps it look more attractive.
While it’s not loaded down with heavy metal, the Pulse doesn’t skimp on the cooling front either. A standard-sized heatsink supports the GPU and other vital components, working in conjunction with Sapphire’s “hybrid fan design” that we first witnessed in the Nitro+ Radeon RX 6800 XT. The new hybrid fan blades merge characteristics from both axial and blower-style fans, improving both airflow and air pressure compared to yesteryear’s axial fans, while keeping noise levels low. The two fans on the Pulse each comes loaded with nine of the shallow, swooping blades, compared to twelve on the Nitro. Cut-outs in the backplate help air flow cleanly through the heatsink.
It’s straightforward but effective—a cornerstone for the Pulse series. Sapphire’s card manages to run almost inaudibly while keeping temperatures well tamed, with characteristics similar to the fantastic custom cooler on XFX’s rival Merc 308 Radeon RX 6600 XT. That’s especially impressive when you consider that the XFX sports a big, long cooler, and the Pulse measures in at just a hair over two slots thick. Good stuff.
Speaking of good stuff, like other RX 6000-series GPUs, XFX’s take on the RX 6600 XT supports all of RDNA 2’s various features, including FidelityFX Super Resolution and Smart Access Memory to boost performance, real-time ray tracing capabilities, AV1 video decoding, DirectX 12 Ultimate goodies, an improved version of Radeon Boost that wraps in Variable Rate Shading, Radeon Anti-Lag across all major DX APIs, FreeSync display support, AMD Link streaming to other devices, and much more. AMD’s robust Radeon Settings app includes both manual and automatic performance tuning controls, so you can tweak the card to your heart’s extent with those dual BIOS profiles.
And Sapphire’s own custom software solution adds so much more.
Next page: Sapphire Trixx Boost
Sapphire Trixx Boost
Like all Sapphire graphics cards in the RDNA era, the Pulse RX 6600 XT supports Trixx Boost, a clever feature that speeds up frame rates using a combination of slight image downsampling and AMD’s wonderful Radeon Image Sharpening technology. It’s like a less complex version of the idea behind Nvidia’s DLSS and AMD’s new Fidelity FX Super Resolution features: Render at a lower resolution to improve frame rates, then clean up the resulting image artifacts with the help of smart software.
We’re surprised that other GPU makers haven’t ripped off the idea, frankly. Trixx Boost has helped Sapphire GPUs earn high marks in our reviews for several years now—it earned the “best innovation” award on our Full Nerd podcast’s yearly best-of episode all the way back in 2019—and doesn’t rely on any exclusive technologies. Instead, it helps several existing technologies that can be activated via complex manual methods work together in a easy-to-understand interface. Its secret sauce is simplicity.
Better yet, while Nvidia DLSS works with only a few dozen games, and AMD’s infant FSR works in under ten, Trixx Boost works with any DirectX 9, DX11, DX12, or Vulkan game. That covers all but the most niche PC games being played today.
You’ll need to install Sapphire’s overarching Trixx software suite (which also includes features like hardware monitoring and fan health checks, depending on your GPU) to use Boost. And yes, despite the similar-sounding name, Trixx Boost and AMD’s Radeon Boost are two very different technologies with very different use cases, though both require modern Radeon GPUs. You can even use them together.
Trixx Boost creates custom display resolutions for your display, scaled down in customizable 5-percent increments all the way down to 50 percent. Rendering at a lower resolution percentage gives you a corresponding performance bump, so using 80 percent on the scaling slider will deliver faster performance than using 90 percent of your native resolution. (The performance increase can vary from game to game, however.) You can also opt to activate AMD’s Radeon Image Sharpening feature to reduce the shimmering that can be introduced by running at less-than-native resolutions—and you definitely should, as it can greatly help with image quality.
Play around with that resolution slider a bit though, especially at the 1080p resolution that the Radeon RX 6600 XT works best at. Trixx Boost defaults to a custom resolution at 85 percent of your native screen output. That works wonderfully well when you’re playing at more pixel-packed 1440p and 4K resolutions when paired with RIS, but subjectively, I found it too aggressive at 1080p. The lower resolution means that cutting it back even more results in shimmering and occasionally janky edges that are really perceptible in motion at 85 percent. (This isn’t just a Trixx Boost issue; both DLSS and FSR also have troubles maintaining image quality at 1080p resolution, but not at higher fidelity.)
I found it much more pleasant to bump the slide up to 90 percent of the screen resolution for 1080p gameplay, so those are the settings we’ll use in our benchmark results today. (I left the 1440p scaling set at 90 percent for the sake of simplicity as well, though that resolution works very well at 85 percent scaling by my eye.) It still isn’t quite perfect; you may still see slight visual artifacts in some scenes, such as faint shimmering on narrow stairs in motion, or faint blurriness in static menu screens depending on their setup. But those distractions proved few and far between at 90-percent scaling in my opinion, and the extra performance provided by Trixx Boost made the occasional graininess worthwhile. If you disagree, you can always stop using it.
One final note: You need to select the custom resolution manually in-game to take advantage of Trixx Boost. Simply selecting the 1080p or 1440p resolutions you’re used to doesn’t work. Instead, go into the game’s graphical or display options menu and pick the resolution that Boost created at your chosen scaling percentage. Fortunately, the Trixx Boost tab in Sapphire’s software shows you the exact custom resolution when you create it, as you can see in the screenshot above. You can always go back to that for reference if you forget the particulars.
Let’s get to benchmarking!
Next page: Our test system, benchmarks begin
Our test system
Our AMD Ryzen 5000-series test rig can benchmark the effect of PCIe 4.0 support on modern GPUs, as well as the performance-boosting AMD Smart Access Memory and Nvidia Resizable BAR features (which are both based on the same underlying PCIe standard). Currently, we’re testing it on an open bench with AMD’s Wraith Max air cooler; in the future, we’ll add an NZXT Kraken liquid cooler to the mix. Most of the hardware was provided by the manufacturers, but we purchased the storage ourselves.
- AMD Ryzen 5900X, stock settings
- AMD Wraith Max cooler
- MSI Godlike X570 motherboard
- 32GB G.Skill Trident Z Neo DDR4 3800 memory
- EVGA 1200W SuperNova P2 power supply
- 1TB SK Hynix Gold S31 SSD
We’re comparing the US$399 Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 6600 XT against the various cards it’s replacing either spiritually or practically: The US$279 Radeon RX 5600 XT, the US$350 Radeon RX 5700, and the US$400 Radeon RX 5700 XT, as well as Asus’s spin on this GPU, the US$550 ROG Strix RX 6600 XT, and the US$419 XFX Speedster Merc 308 Radeon RX 6600 XT. On the Nvidia front, we’ve included results for the reference-spec’d US$330 EVGA RTX 3060 XC Black Gaming as well as EVGA’s fearsome GeForce RTX 3060 Ti FTW3 Ultra, because this card hovers in the same general price range as the Ti models. All of these suggested prices are a fraction of what you’ll pay for these GPUs in the real world right now, of course, but using suggested pricing helps evaluate graphics cards as they were intended.
We test a variety of games spanning various engines, genres, vendor sponsorships (Nvidia, AMD, and Intel), and graphics APIs (DirectX 11, DX12, and Vulkan). Each game is tested using its in-game benchmark at the highest possible graphics presets unless otherwise noted, with VSync, frame rate caps, real-time ray tracing or DLSS effects, and FreeSync/G-Sync disabled, along with any other vendor-specific technologies like FidelityFX tools or Nvidia Reflex. We’ve also enabled temporal anti-aliasing (TAA) to push these cards to their limits. We run each benchmark at least three times and list the average result for each test.
As mentioned in the prior section, we’ve also included benchmark results with Trixx Boost active at 90 percent scaling of the native cited resolutions, paired with Radeon Image Sharpening. We don’t do that for Nvidia DLSS or AMD’s FSR, but Trixx Boost works in virtually every game available, and it’s worth highlighting what it can do, especially since the Radeon RX 6600 XT can sometimes struggle at 1440p resolution due to its configuration. Trixx Boost can really help there.
Be sure to check out our original Radeon RX 6600 XT review for much deeper conversation about the GPU’s technical prowess and capabilities. We’ll be presenting the data without comment here until the end of the review. Keep an eye on those Trixx Boost results.
Gaming performance benchmarks
Watch Dogs: Legion
Watch Dogs: Legion is one of the first games to debut on next-gen consoles. Ubisoft upgraded its Disrupt engine to include cutting-edge features like real-time ray tracing and Nvidia’s DLSS. We disable those effects for this testing, but Legion remains a strenuous game even on high-end hardware with its optional high-resolution texture pack installed. The game allocates more than 8GB of memory even at 1440p. Oof.
Horizon Zero Dawn
Yep, PlayStation exclusives are coming to the PC now. Horizon Zero Dawn runs on Guerrilla Games’ Decima engine, the same engine that powers Death Stranding.
Next page: gaming benchmarks continue
Gears Tactics puts it own brutal, fast-paced spin on the XCOM-like genre. This Unreal Engine 4-powered game was built from the ground up for DirectX 12, and we love being able to work a tactics-style game into our benchmarking suite. Better yet, the game comes with a plethora of graphics options for PC snobs. More games should devote such loving care to explaining what flipping all these visual knobs mean.
You can’t use the presets to benchmark Gears Tactics, as it intelligently scales to work best on your installed hardware, meaning that “Ultra” on one graphics card can load different settings than “Ultra” on a weaker card. We manually set all options to their highest possible settings.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood is more fun when you can play cooperatively with a buddy, but it’s a fearless experiment—and an absolute technical showcase. Running on the Vulkan API, Youngblood achieves blistering frame rates, and it supports all sorts of cutting-edge technologies like ray tracing, DLSS 2.0, HDR, GPU culling, asynchronous computing, and Nvidia’s Content Adaptive Shading. The game includes a built-in benchmark with two different scenes; we tested Riverside.
One of the best games of 2019, Metro Exodus remains one of the best-looking games around, too. The latest version of the 4A Engine provides incredibly luscious, ultra-detailed visuals, with one of the most stunning real-time ray tracing implementations released yet. The Extreme graphics preset we benchmark can melt even the most powerful modern hardware, as you’ll see below, though the game’s Ultra and High presets still look good at much higher frame rates.
We test in DirectX 12 mode with ray tracing, Hairworks, and DLSS disabled.
Borderlands is back! Gearbox’s game defaults to DX12, so we do as well. It gives us a glimpse at the ultra-popular Unreal Engine 4’s performance in a traditional shooter. This game tends to favor AMD hardware.
Strange Brigade is a cooperative third-person shooter where a team of adventurers blasts through hordes of mythological enemies. It’s a technological showcase, built around the next-gen Vulkan and DirectX 12 technologies and infused with features like HDR support and the ability to toggle asynchronous compute on and off. It uses Rebellion’s custom Azure engine. We test using the Vulkan renderer, which is faster than DX12.
Next page: gaming benchmarks continue
Total War: Troy
The latest game in the popular Total War saga, Troy was given away free for its first 24 hours on the Epic Games Store, moving over 7.5 million copies before it went on proper sale. Total War: Troy is built using a modified version of the Total War: Warhammer 2 engine, and this DX11 title looks stunning for a turn-based strategy game. We test the more intensive battle benchmark.
F1 2020 is a gem to test, supplying a wide array of both graphical and benchmarking options, making it a much more reliable (and fun) option that the Forza series. It’s built on the latest version of Codemasters’ buttery-smooth Ego game engine, complete with support for DX12 and Nvidia’s DLSS technology. We test two laps on the Australia course, with clear skies on and DLSS off.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Shadow of the Tomb Raider concludes the reboot trilogy, and it’s still utterly gorgeous a couple of years after its debut. Square Enix optimized this game for DX12 and recommends DX11 only if you’re using older hardware or Windows 7, so we test with DX12. Shadow of the Tomb Raider uses an enhanced version of the Foundation engine that also powered Rise of the Tomb Raider and includes optional real-time ray tracing and DLSS features.
Rainbow Six Siege
Rainbow Six Siege still dominates the Steam charts years after its launch, and Ubisoft supports it with frequent updates and events. The developers have poured a ton of work into the game’s AnvilNext engine over the years, eventually rolling out a Vulkan version of the game that we use to test. By default, the game lowers the render scaling to increase frame rates, but we set it to 100 percent to benchmark native rendering performance on graphics cards. Even still, frame rates soar.
Next page: Power, thermals, and noise
Power draw, thermals, and noise
We test power draw by looping the F1 2020 benchmark at 4K for about 20 minutes after we’ve benchmarked everything else and noting the highest reading on our Watts Up Pro meter, which measures the power consumption of our entire test system. The initial part of the race, where all competing cars are onscreen simultaneously, tends to be the most demanding portion.
This isn’t a worst-case test; this is a GPU-bound game running at a GPU-bound resolution to gauge performance when the graphics card is sweating hard. If you’re playing a game that also hammers the CPU, you could see higher overall system power draws. Consider yourself warned.
The Radeon RX 6600 XT demonstrates terrific power efficiency, and the Sapphire Pulse does nothing to muck that up.
We test thermals by leaving GPU-Z open during the F1 2020 power draw test, noting the highest maximum temperature at the end.
Despite having a lower price and less imposing cooler, the Pulse Radeon RX 6600 XT manages to hang tough with the XFX Merc 308’s wonderfully low temperatures and nearly inaudible operation. This doesn’t act like a budget cooler whatsoever. The Asus ROG Strix achieves stunningly frigid temps but does so by cranking up fan speeds, making it somewhat less pleasant to actually play with than the Sapphire and XFX models.
Should you buy the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 6600 XT?
As I said in my initial Radeon RX 6600 XT review, most people should be avoiding buying a graphics card right now. Prices remain insane while we suffer through a global chip shortage. In a vacuum, paying US$400 for a graphics card finely tuned for 1080p gaming—high refresh-rate 1080p gaming, sure, but still 1080p gaming—feels utterly outlandish. (Trixx Boost helps cushion the blow, though.) That goes doubly so with the much faster GeForce RTX 3060 Ti costing only US$20 more than the 6600 XT’s US$379 baseline price tag. In a sane world, that would clearly be the better option.
But we’re still living in interesting times. The GeForce RTX 3060 that the Radeon RX 6600 XT card handily bests is selling for US$700 or more when you can find it, despite ostensibly being a US$330 GPU. The RTX 3060 Ti is selling for US$800 to US$1,000 on Ebay right now. Worse, AMD’s new offering showed up on resale sites for US$600-plus hours after it debuted, making even that too-high US$379 price tag look like a relative discount.
All of which is to say, if you can sit out this generation, sit out this generation. Maybe give Nvidia’s GeForce Now a whirl. Hopefully things will calm down eventually.
If you must upgrade now, the Radeon RX 6600 XT delivers wonderfully fast 1080p gameplay for high refresh-rate monitors. That’s really the best use case for this GPU due to its memory setup, which falls off pace a bit if you step up to a higher 1440p resolution.
The Sapphire Pulse’s terrific Trixx Boost software helps pick up the slack there and propels the 6600 XT’s already-awesome 1080p performance to blistering new heights. This feature remains a game-changer for Sapphire—quite literally, as it can get up around 60 fps in games that rivals can’t at 1440p. I’m shocked that no other company has ripped it off yet. Add up Trixx; a surprisingly good cooler; performance on a par with much more expensive 6600 XT models; and a modest (if fictitious) US$20 premium for all that, Sapphire really has crafted a winning package here. Sometimes simple is better.
We can’t give this GPU an Editors’ Choice award or a higher rating, because paying US$400 for a 1080p GPU remains poor value. If MSRPs were real, the GeForce RTX 3060 Ti truly would be the no-brainer pick. But all that stuff doesn’t matter if you’re upgrading your graphics card at this point in time. You get what you can get. And if you’re looking for a capable no-frills graphics card to power your kick-ass high refresh-rate 1080p monitor, price be essentially damned, look no further. The Sapphire Pulse is the Radeon RX 6600 XT I’d personally buy if I were willing to spend this sort of money on a 1080p graphics card, and I’d be sure to turn on Trixx Boost.