One of my main gripes with all the AIB¹ manufacturers is what seems like an unwillingness to take a chance and design a truly unique and innovative graphics card, something to really scream at the consumer that this card is new and different and deserves your attention. There have of course been some somewhat hesitant attempts by various AIBs to grab the attention of the customers, but nothing even close to what I would really like to see. While I think there is still plenty of room to truly go nuts in the attention grabbing department, Sapphire has finally taken a giant step up with their recently released line of videocards known simply as "Toxic".
The first thing that you notice about the Toxic is the cooling unit, not only for its overwhelming size but also for its odd colour as well. A bright semi-transparent orange with a dark purple fan, the Toxic cooler is even more shocking when you finally manage to notice the blue circuit board its mounted on. What's funny about this combination is that it actually works and even manages to convey the whole "Toxic" theme pretty darn well. Your initial impression might be bleh, but once you get over the surprise of something this unique looking, you actually start appreciating it on some weird, comfortably uncomfortable level.
So three cheers to Sapphire for banging out something that couldn't possibly be mistaken for anything else. But, looks are one thing and performance is something else entirely. After all, good performance can be achieved on a 100% reference card just as easily as it can on something as striking as the Toxic. So what can be done?
Framerate is still everything (anyone who says differently is full of it), so the most obvious option for an AIB looking to grab some extra attention is to modify the videocard BIOS to increase the usually conservative core and/or memory speeds set by their IHV² guidelines. The problem there is that the two big IHVs don't like their AIB partners messing around with the BIOS as any potential instability introduced there is usually looked at as the fault of the IHV and usually not the AIB. If the AIB ignores the IHV guidelines and goes ahead and factory overclocks the card anyway then they can expect to lose their IHV warranty and support. Obviously that's not something any AIB would want to risk.
So is there a loophole for enterprising AIBs? Well, yes, a couple actually. One option is to provide special software with the card that users can use to overclock with themselves. A daunting and dangerous prospect for inexperienced users who would understandably be reluctant to risk their warranty and expensive new card. While Sapphire still provides this type of software with their cards for more experienced users (known as RedLine), they've also come up with a much easier, much more ingenious solution that barely requires any user knowledge or effort to get working, is 100% guaranteed by Sapphire, and doesn't risk your warranty. This new approach is Sapphire's Automatic Performance Enhancer, or "APE" for short.
So what exactly is APE? APE is a small program that overclocks the Toxic X800 Pro's memory to a level that Sapphire guarantees to work. There is no interface or control panel for it and no configuration or interaction of any kind is neither provided nor necessary, it simply does what it's supposed to do and nothing more. Installing APE is as simple as any other Windows app and requires only a system reboot and nothing more. Once installed, APE automatically overclocks the Toxic X800 Pro's memory from 450MHz to 520MHz, a respectable 70MHz increase. To disable APE and return the card to its normal memory clocks you simply uninstall it and reboot.
Besides APE's performance improvement potential, this little app has also shown me that Sapphire has come to play ball. Coupled with the design of the hardware, it's clear to me that Sapphire has realized how important it is to differentiate themselves from the mass of reference knock-offs out there. They've shown us that not only can they make some seriously wicked looking hardware, they are also willing and fully capable of coming up with unique and ingenious ideas.
¹ Add-In Board manufacturer. Some well known AIBs are Sapphire, ASUS, ABIT, and MSI. There are dozens more.
² Independent Hardware Vendor. ATI and nVidia are IHVs, though there are others such as XGI and S3 out there.