Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5600 XT review: Punching above its class
Make sure you get that new BIOS, though.
By Brad Chacos
PCWorldJan 22, 2020 6:15 am PST
Image: Brad Chacos/IDG
At a Glance
Excellent 1080p gaming performance
Fast GDDR6 VRAM, PCIe 4.0 support
Faster BIOS unlocks much better performance
Sapphire Pulse has great features for the price
Trixx Boost software uses smart downscaling for FPS gains
Have to manually install critical performance-boosting BIOS
No real-time ray tracing capabilities
The AMD Radeon RX 5600 XT delivers outstanding 1080p gaming, knocking out the GeForce GTX 1660 Ti thanks to a last-minute BIOS upgrade. The need to install that upgrade manually and price cuts from rival Nvidia cards takes off some of its shine, though.
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With the launch of the $279 Radeon RX 5600 XT, AMD’s finishing off the mainstream push for its cutting-edge “Navi” architecture by aiming for PC gaming’s sweet spot, the no-compromises 1080p arena currently dominated by Nvidia’s trio of GeForce GTX 1660 graphics cards. It more than gets the job done—especially if you get the right overclocked model, equipped with a supercharged BIOS.
Yes, the Radeon RX 5600 XT can be much faster than AMD originally claimed, but you need to jump through some hoops to achieve those speeds if you’re an early buyer, adding a regrettable layer of confusion.
In the default configuration announced at CES 2020, the card does a solid job of matching up with Nvidia’s identically priced $279 GeForce GTX 1660 Ti. It’s good! But mere days before the card’s launch, AMD sent us a new BIOS for the custom $289 Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5600 XT on our test bench. This BIOS pushed the power limits to new levels, which allowed Sapphire to crank up the overclock on the GPU and the already blazing-fast GDDR6 memory.
Talk about an upgrade! With those unlocked capabilities, the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5600 XT shifted from a solid GTX 1660 Ti alternative to a full-on rival for the $350 GeForce RTX 2060—and AMD’s own $350 Radeon RX 5700. AMD says select other models will receive the turbocharged BIOS as well.
“Jebaited,” round two, or a response to some GeForce RTX 2060 models dropping to $300 in the days ahead of the Radeon RX 5600 XT’s launch? Giddy-up either way.
AMD Radeon RX 5600 XT: Specs, features, price
Let’s kick things off by looking at the Radeon RX 5600 XT’s announced configuration, which remains AMD’s recommended reference design specs.
Here’s how we described the design in our original coverage:
“The Radeon RX 5600 XT is essentially a down-clocked version of the $350 Radeon RX 5700 with a reduced memory configuration. Its 36 compute units pack the same 2,304 stream processor count, but clocked much lower, at 1375 game and 1560 boost clocks. By comparison, the reference Radeon RX 5700 hit 1,625MHz game clocks (the typical clock speeds you can expect to see while gaming).
And while the pricier RX 5700-series kept their GPUs fed with 8GB of GDDR6 RAM over a 256-bit memory bus, the new Radeon RX 5600 XT sticks to 6GB of 12Mbps GDDR6 memory over a 192-bit bus. Don’t scoff, though: Moving to faster GDDR6 memory gives the Radeon RX 5600 XT an overall memory bandwidth of 288GBps, while the older Radeon RX 590’s GDDR5 RAM only hit 256GBps overall bandwidth despite using a wider 256-bit bus and a larger 8GB capacity.”
The Radeon RX 5600 XT will also support the modern features common to all “Navi” GPUs, such as PCIe 4.0 support, vastly increased power efficiency, and the latest display and media engines. AMD’s new card also supports all the fancy features enabled by Radeon Software Adrenalin 2020 Edition, such as Radeon Boost, Radeon Image Sharpening, and Radeon Anti-Lag. They’re all good stuff.
There will be no reference edition of the RX 5600 XT. Instead, all the cards on store shelves from January 21 onward will be custom designs by AMD’s board partners. Expect most to stick to a single 8-pin supplementary power connection.
Out of the box, the Sapphire Pulse supplied for review stuck to AMD’s 150-watt maximum power allotment, which allowed the company to push the game clock up to 1,560MHz—already a nearly 200MHz boost over the reference spec. That allowed it to match up well against a heavily overclocked Asus ROG Strix version of the GeForce GTX 1660 Ti, as you’ll see in our benchmarks.
Then AMD sent us the new BIOS.
Radeon RX 5600 XT unlocked and unleashed
While the Radeon RX 5600 XT features a different memory configuration, remember that it’s rocking the same core GPU configuration as its bigger sibling, the Radeon RX 5700, but with lowered power and clock limits. The new BIOS closes the gap.
The faster BIOS for the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5600 XT ups the total board power from 150W to 160W. That let Sapphire crank the card’s Game Clock to 1,615MHz and boost GDDR6 memory speeds from 12Mbps to 14Mbps. It’s a substantial upgrade, and one that’s shocking to see enabled, as with it, the $289 Sapphire Pulse RX 5600 XT comes damned close to the $350 Radeon RX 5700’s performance in several games.
Now for the bad news. This seems to be a last-minute addition. It came late in the testing cycle, and if you buy one of the first wave of cards on store shelves, it might come equipped with the slower BIOS. Sapphire tells me that most cards in North America will ship with the new BIOS installed, but in case yours doesn’t, you’ll be able to snag the new BIOS for free immediately: “Sapphire will be providing the new VBIOS, detailed instructions, and the utility to its website for users to make the change themselves come January 21,” an AMD representative told PCWorld. “Moving forward, all new production units will feature the new VBIOS.”
If you buy the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5600 XT on day one, check its stats in GPU-Z or another hardware-checking tool. The slower original BIOS will show a 1355 GPU clock and 1,620MHz boost clock, while the upgraded BIOS shows a 1420 GPU clock and 1,750MHz boost clock. If you have the slower version, be sure to visit Sapphire’s product page for the card to pick up the faster firmware. Sapphire’s documentation should walk you through the process. UPDATE: This Sapphire video shows how to update your VBIOS, step by step.
It’s frustrating having to upgrade your BIOS out of the box for best performance, and you have to know that you should go looking for the BIOS to get it, but the upgraded firmware makes a massive difference.
It sounds like the Pulse won’t be the only card receiving the upgrade, either. When we asked whether this BIOS would be unique to Sapphire, we were told the following:
“Based on ongoing testing with AMD board partners, we have raised the GPU core and memory frequencies for overclocked Radeon RX 5600 XT SKUs to take advantage of increased thermal and electrical headroom built into partner’s custom designs. The updated VBIOS has been made available to our board partners for inclusion in select OC SKUs at launch. AMD is dedicated to disrupting the market with industry-leading compute products, and the new VBIOS makes the Radeon RX 5600 XT an even more powerful contender for high-performance 1080p gaming. Previously announced product specs are unchanged, as they remain AMD’s recommended reference design specs.”
The $289 Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5600 XT is no exception. Like its cousins, the card offers a cool, quiet dual-axial cooler design, accented by an illuminated Sapphire logo and a fetching metal backplate. Backplates are rare in graphics cards that stick close to MSRP pricing.
Even more rare? A dual-BIOS switch—but the Sapphire Pulse has one of those, too. The default “Performance” BIOS uses the configuration described above, but a secondary “Silent” BIOS focuses on improved acoustics and temperatures by sacrificing some performance. It runs at 135W, with slower GPU and memory speeds. Expect performance closer to reference levels with it enabled.
The card also includes an idle fan stop feature, so it’s silent when you’re not actively gaming.
Sapphire outfitted the Pulse with a single 8-pin power connector, a trio of DisplayPorts, and a single HDMI connection. You’ll need an adapter (or better yet, a new monitor) if you need a DVI or VGA connection. Like all modern Radeon GPUs, the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5600 XT works automatically with FreeSync-compatible displays to enable buttery-smooth, tearing-free gaming with no hassle.
The greatest trick up Sapphire’s sleeve in the Navi era is its outstanding Trixx Boost feature, activated via the company’s optional Trixx software. Trixx Boost pairs a slightly downscaled resolution tweak with AMD’s superb Radeon Image Sharpening technology to achieve faster performance with little too no visual downgrade, depending on how aggressively you opt to downscale the image. We didn’t have time to test the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5500 XT with Trixx Boost enabled—testing both the original and new BIOS took a lot of time—but we highly recommend giving it a whirl. Sapphire’s technology won “Best innovation” in our Full Nerd Podcast’s 2019 awards for a reason.
Next page: Our test system, performance benchmarks begin
Our test system
Our dedicated graphics card test system is packed with some of the fastest complementary components available to put any potential performance bottlenecks squarely on the GPU. Most of the hardware was provided by the manufacturers, but we purchased the cooler and storage ourselves.
64GB HyperX Predator RGB DDR4/2933 ($420 on Amazon)
EVGA 1200W SuperNova P2 power supply ($230 on Amazon)
Corsair Crystal 570X RGB case, with front and top panels removed and an extra rear fan installed for improved airflow ($130 on Amazon)
2x 500GB Samsung 860 EVO SSDs ($78 each on Amazon)
We’re comparing the $290 Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5600 XT against its key Nvidia rivals: The $200 GeForce GTX 1660, $230 GTX 1660 Super, $280 GTX 1660 Ti, and $350 GeForce RTX 2060 Founders Edition (though Nvidia dropped the 2060 Founders Edition price to $300 just ahead of AMD’s launch). Like the Radeon RX 5600 XT, Nvidia’s GTX 16-series GPUs lack reference versions, so we’re using overclocked customs models for these tests. We’re also comparing AMD’s GPU against its Navi-based siblings, the $180 Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5500 XT and $350 Radeon RX 5700 reference edition.
This review marks the introduction of several new games to our testing suite, though some titles from last year’s lineup remain. 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 CLSS effects, and FreeSync/G-Sync disabled, and we’ve 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.
We tested the Sapphire Radeon RX 5600 XT using its default Performance BIOS, rather than its secondary Silent BIOS that increases efficiency and lowers fan speeds at the cost of performance. We’ve included performance results for the lower-clocked Performance BIOS that will be installed on some launch stock for the Sapphire Pulse, as well as (much better) results for the upgraded BIOS that will be available for users to download on day one, and come standard going forward.
AMD says the Radeon RX 5600 XT targets ultimate 1080p performance, but it’s also good enough for some 1440p gaming, so we’ve included those results as well.
Gaming performance benchmarks
One of the best games of 2019, Metro Exodus is 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. We test in DirectX 12 mode, with ray tracing and DLSS disabled.
Borderlands is back! Gearbox’s game defaults to DX12, so we do as well, which gives us a glimpse at the ultra-popular Unreal Engine 4’s performance—though this game’s implementation leans heavily in AMD’s favor.
The Division 2 is one of the best looter-shooters ever created. The luscious visuals generated by Ubisoft’s Snowdrop engine make it even easier to get lost in post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. The built-in benchmark cycles through four “zones” to test an array of environments, and we test with the DirectX 12 renderer enabled.
Next page: Gaming benchmarks continue
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.
Last year we used the DX12 renderer, as it offered improved performance. In 2020, we’ve switched to the Vulkan renderer with async compute enabled, as it’s now your fastest option, and Vulkan games are rare indeed.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Shadow of the Tomb Raider concludes the reboot trilogy, and it’s utterly gorgeous. 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 features.
Ghost Recon Breakpoint
It may run in DX11, but like its predecessor, Ghost Recon Breakpoint and its AnvilNext 2.0 engine absolutely melts GPUs—so much so that we test this game on Very High rather than Ultra settings.
Total War: Three Kingdoms
Most of the games in our suite are shooters or adventure games, but we’ve included Total War: Three Kingdoms to give us a glimpse at RTS performance. It’s another DX11 game, running on an improved version of the same engine found in Creative Assembly’s previous Total War entries.
Grand Theft Auto V isn’t really a visual barn-burner, but it still tops the Steam charts day in and day out. We test it with all options turned to Very High, all Advanced Graphics options except extended shadows enabled, and FXAA. GTA V runs on the RAGE engine and has received substantial updates since its initial launch.
Next page: Gaming benchmarks, thermals, and power
The latest in a long line of successful racing games, F1 2019 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 for the first time. We test two laps on the Australia course, with clear skies.
Power draw, thermals, and noise
We test power draw by looping the F1 2019 benchmark for about 20 minutes after we’ve benchmarked everything else and noting the highest reading on our Watts Up Pro meter. The initial part of the race, where all competing cars are onscreen simultaneously, tends to be the most demanding portion.
AMD’s move to 7nm, GDDR6, and the new RDNA architecture paid off. While Radeon GPUs have been hot and power-hungry compared to their GeForce rivals for several years running, the Radeon RX 5600 XT’s “Navi” GPU rivals Nvidia’s vaunted power efficiency. Note, however, that the upgraded BIOS’s performance boost requires a power boost to hit the higher frame rates.
We test thermals by leaving GPU-Z open during the F1 2019 power draw test, noting the highest maximum temperature at the end.
Sapphire’s Pulse might be affordable, but the cooler does its job even in Performance mode, topping out at 72 degrees Celsius under load. That’s higher than most of the results here, but still very chilly in the real world. It’s pretty damned quiet, too. As with the power draw test, the lower-powered BIOS achieves better results—as you’d expect—but the tradeoff’s worthwhile for the performance.
Next page: Should you buy the AMD Radeon RX 5600 XT?
Should you buy the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5600 XT?
The Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5600 XT is a great graphics card well worth considering! Make sure you grab the upgraded BIOS if you’re buying it on day one, though Sapphire representatives told me that most North American stock should come with the new BIOS preinstalled.
In the original BIOS configuration, with lower clock speeds and power usage, the $279 Radeon RX 5600 XT is mostly a bit faster than an overclocked version of the similarly priced GeForce GTX 1660 Ti—a solid alternative, but no home run. The upgraded BIOS changes that. Now, Sapphire’s Pulse is slightly faster than the $350 GeForce RTX 2060 in many games, and in the same ballpark when it’s not. But that also closes the gap in AMD’s own product lineup, as Sapphire’s overclocked Pulse RX 5600 XT gets very close to the $350 Radeon RX 5700’s performance. In several games, it effectively matches the pricier sibling, while remaining cool and quiet.
Sapphire charges a $10 price premium for the Pulse RX 5600 XT. Even at $289, it’s a stunning value for no-compromises 1080p gaming at high refresh rates, offering some nice extra touches (like a backplate and a dual-BIOS switch) and performance that hangs with cards that cost $60 more. Using Sapphire’s excellent Trixx Boost software can push its performance even further. The Pulse comes highly recommended, especially since we’re not certain what other Radeon RX 5600 XT graphics cards will receive the supercharged BIOS.
Yes, needing to upgrade your new graphics card’s BIOS is annoying, and something we’re seeing a bit too often in the Navi era. It needs to stop. Everyday gamers don’t feel comfortable tinkering with their BIOS, and it shouldn’t be required for the best day-one performance. Worse, you’ll have to know that you need to go looking for that BIOS to begin with—AMD’s Radeon software doesn’t tell you about it. That said, the issue will disappear once additional stock hits store shelves with the later BIOS preinstalled, and it’s very worthwhile to perform the task in the meantime. The upgraded BIOS effectively renders the GTX 1660 Ti obsolete and bumps the Radeon RX 5600 XT up a performance tier.
Again, here’s a Sapphire video walking you through the VBIOS upgrade process for this card:
Nvidia isn’t blind to the threat, though. Ahead of the Radeon RX 5600 XT’s launch, it dropped the price of its own GeForce RTX 2060 Founders Edition from $350 to $300, and a handful of custom cards matched the price with sales. At CES 2020, EVGA announced the GeForce RTX 2060 KO, a custom version with a $300 starting price. (We’ll be reviewing it soon.)
The GeForce RTX 2060 doesn’t handle real-time ray tracing all that well, but AMD’s current Radeon GPUs can’t ray trace whatsoever, so if you’re interested in the newfangled lighting technology, the prospect of $300 RTX 2060s severely muddles the Radeon RX 5600 XT’s value proposition. Nvidia and AMD both pull pricing tricks around rival launches all the time, though, so it remains to be seen whether the $300 price point for the GeForce RTX 2060 sticks, as it wasn’t an official price cut. Nvidia’s price drop on its Founders Edition puts heavy pressure on other manufacturers to match, however, especially with the EVGA KO hitting the same cost.
You also don’t need to muck with BIOS updates out of the box with the GeForce graphics cards.
Take your pick between the Radeon RX 5600 XT and GeForce RTX 2060, assuming Nvidia’s card stays at $300. If RTX 2060 costs drift back toward $350, the Radeon RX 5600 XT with its supercharged BIOS is a much better value.
These aren’t the only options, though. If you have a 60Hz 1080p monitor or don’t mind dialing graphics settings down from the maximum, the $230 GeForce GTX 1660 Super is worth considering instead. And if you plan on playing games at 1440p resolution, consider stepping up to the Radeon RX 5700. The Sapphire Pulse hangs in the same performance ballpark, but the Radeon RX 5700’s bigger 8GB memory capacity makes it better for gaming at the higher resolution. Some games in our test suite (looking at you, Breakpoint) already exceed the 6GB memory barrier with graphics settings cranked at 1440p.
Bottom line: The Radeon RX 5600 XT, with its upgraded BIOS, is the best no-compromises 1080p graphics card you can buy, easily besting Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1660 trio and rivaling the performance of pricier 1440p gaming options. The Sapphire Pulse includes effective cooling with nice hardware and software features for its mere $10 premium. And because it’s uncertain which Radeon RX 5600 XT models will receive the performance-boosting BIOS, we recommended seeking out this specific Sapphire card. Add a half-star to our rating if you get one that doesn’t need a manual BIOS upgrade.
AMD Radeon RX 5600 XT models without the upgraded BIOS should perform slightly faster than the GTX 1660 Ti. That’s solid, but not especially inspiring. That new BIOS is what you want.
So was AMD jebaiting again, or simply reacting to Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 2060 price reductions? It doesn’t really matter. Just get that new BIOS in place pronto, and give Trixx Boost a whirl while you’re at it.
Editor’s note: This article originally published on 1/21/20, but we updated it on 1/22/20 to embed Sapphire’s walkthrough video of the VBIOS upgrade process, and add a note stating that most North American stock of the Sapphire Pulse should include the upgraded VBIOS on day one.