X
CNET logo Why You Can Trust CNET

Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement

ATI Radeon HD 3850 review: ATI Radeon HD 3850

ATI's new 256MB Radeon HD 3850 is a midrange graphics card worth its silicon. This card is the best-performing 3D card in its price class. It will let you play most current 3D games at reasonable resolutions and detail settings, and offers a truly viable midrange gaming experience

img-1204
Rich Brown
img-1204

Rich Brown

Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness

Rich is the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, KY. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D-printing to Z-Wave smart locks.

See full bio
6 min read

Finally, a midrange graphics card worth its silicon. ATI's new 256MB Radeon HD 3850 graphics card is the best-performing 3D card in its price class. For £125, it will let you play most current 3D games at reasonable resolutions and detail settings, bowling over Nvidia's GeForce 8600 GTS cards on every game.

440x330_1.jpg
8.3

ATI Radeon HD 3850

The Good

Fastest 3D card under £150; solid home-theatre capabilities; supports multiple card configurations with up to four cards in the same PC.

The Bad

CrossFire performance remains sketchy depending on the game; despite DirectX 10 support, actually switching those features on remains too challenging; newer, potentially faster Nvidia cards in the same price range are supposedly just around the corner.

The Bottom Line

Despite the usual caveats of an ever-fluctuating 3D market, for the moment, at least, ATI's new Radeon HD 3850 graphics card delivers the best value for money in PC graphics hardware. Until now we haven't had an acceptable sub-£150 option for PC gaming this year. Thanks to AMD, now we do

You should keep your expectations in check. You won't be playing Crysis in DirectX 10-mode with ATI's new card. Also keep in mind that Nvidia claims a 256MB version of its speedy GeForce 8800 GT will hit the market before Christmas is over. But if you or someone you're shopping for is a PC gamer in need of a graphics upgrade, and you need to stay within a budget, right now the Radeon HD 3850 offers a truly viable midrange gaming experience.

Design
If you find the name '3850' confusing since ATI's highest-end card is currently the Radeon HD 2900 XT, you're not alone. Be assured, though, that the Radeon HD 3850 is indeed supposed to be slower and less expensive than the older, higher-end model.

The reason for the change to '3000' indicates a new generation of GPU that uses a new, more efficient chip design, going to 55 nanometres from 65 nanometres.. You know it's not as fast as the older 2900, because it's a 3800 model. And ATI also says it has eliminated suffixes like 'XT' and 'Pro', in favour of using the numbers to tell you that the 3850 is slower than the Radeon HD 3870 that came out at the same time.

Features
But in addition to tweaking the naming scheme, ATI has also added a few new features to both the 3850 and the 3870. Unfortunately, neither amounts to more than a marketing bullet point, at least in practical terms.

In addition to supporting all current games, the Radeon 3850 now includes hardware support for DirectX 10.1. This means that these cards will be able to play any games that take advantage of the next iteration of Microsoft's DirectX programming interface.

If you're groaning at yet another Windows graphics update, don't worry. We wouldn't expect any game to require even DirectX 10.0 hardware for at least three or four years. Further, DirectX 10 has yet to convince anyone that its few added bells and whistles are worth the massive performance drop you take to even high-end cards. That tells you first that the midrange Radeon 3850 likely wouldn't be able to give you a very smooth frame rate in DirectX 10 or 10.1, and second that you're not missing out on much visually by sticking with DirectX 9 settings.

The Radeon HD 3850's other new feature is its support for PCI Express 2.0. You can still use the card on current PCI Express motherboards, but when the PCI-E 2.0 motherboards hit, you'd gain added graphics data bandwidth. Of course, no game can currently flood the first generation PCI-E pipeline, and if it did, we wouldn't expect a £125 card to be able to keep up with all that data.

For a single Radeon HD 3850, then, PCI Express 2.0 support probably doesn't make a difference. But with AMD's new 700-series motherboards, you'll be able to use up to four of these cards in one PC, a new multi-GPU technology dubbed CrossFireX.

With that much processing power, you might be able to handle a larger flood of graphical data, thereby justifying the next-gen interface support in a midrange 3D card. Of course, you'd still need the game to provide that much data at once, and we don't know of any right now that will.


Performance
Along with those new features, the Radeon HD 3850 also retains all of the highlights of the Radeon 2900's core technology, which makes sense, as the core design of the 3850 is a derivation of that of the higher-end chips'. Mostly that refers to its suitability as a home-theatre card.

3DMark06
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1280x1024

ATI Radeon HD 3850 (CrossFire)
13,366

Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT
11,294

ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT
10,823

ATI Radeon HD 3870
10,465

ATI Radeon HD 3850
9,397

Nvidia GeForce 8600 GTS
6,112


Bioshock
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
2,048 x 1,536 (high quality)

ATI Radeon HD 3850 (CrossFire)
64

ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT
50

ATI Radeon HD 3870
45

Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT
41

ATI Radeon HD 3850
36

Nvidia GeForce 8600 GTS
16


Company of Heroes
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,920 x 1,440 (ultra quality, 4xaa)

ATI Radeon HD 3850 (CrossFire)
85

Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT
80

ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT
60

ATI Radeon HD 3870
57

ATI Radeon HD 3850
40

Nvidia GeForce 8600 GTS
22


World in Conflict
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,920 x 1,440 (very high quality, 4xaa 4xaf)

Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT
28

ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT
20

ATI Radeon HD 3870
20

ATI Radeon HD 3850
12

Nvidia GeForce 8600 GTS
8

ATI Radeon HD 3850 (CrossFire)
6


Crysis
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,600 x 1,200 (high quality)

Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT
29

ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT
24

ATI Radeon HD 3870
24

ATI Radeon HD 3850
18

ATI Radeon HD 3850 (CrossFire)
13

Nvidia GeForce 8600 GTS
9


Like the Radeon 2000 cards, the Radeon 3850 is HDCP compliant, which means it can display protected HD DVD and Blu-ray content at resolutions up to 2,560x1,600 pixels from your PC, if you have such an optical drive and a supporting monitor or TV.


It also comes with an integrated audio chip, which means via ATI's specialized DVI-to-HDMI adapter, you can pump both video and audio over an HDMI cable to an HDTV. That greatly simplifies home theater PC installations, and is a real boon to all of the newer Radeons with that feature.

We suspect that if you're interested in this card, though, it's primarily for the purposes of PC gaming. 

We ran all of tests in Windows XP, so they're all DirectX 9, and at very aggressive detail and resolution settings that basically highlight where the Radeon 3850 chokes. And based on how the Radeon 3850 struggled on Crysis, you can see why it wouldn't make sense to try it with the very high DirectX 10 quality, as it's barely playable in DirectX 9.

But the good news is that based on the other tests, you can expect that the Radeon 3850 will deliver solid performance on resolutions up to and possibly even including 1,920x1,440 pixels, which includes the native resolution of all wide-screen LCD but those massive 30-inchers.

Chances are, if you can afford one of those, you're probably looking for a more expensive video card, as well. We should also add that Radeon 3850 consistently outperformed Nvidia's GeForce 8600 GTS.

What's maybe a little troubling on the performance charts, though, are the Radeon's CrossFire scores. On World in Conflict and Crysis, the CrossFire frame rates tanked, showing that at least in those games, ATI's dual card-support is basically broken. We imagine that the steady march of driver software updates will improve CrossFire's outlook, but for now, if you're planning to buy two of these cards in the hope of dialing up those Crysis settings, we'd suggest you hold off until ATI works out the kinks.

Like most modern graphics cards, the Radeon HD 3850 requires a direct connection to your PC's power supply to run. All you need is a free six-pin power line and you'll be set. This model comes in 256MB of 900MHz DDR3 RAM with a 667MHz core GPU clock. The faster Radeon 3870 comes with 512MB of DDR3 running at 1.2GHz, and with a 775MHz core clock.

As they're modern graphics cards, each uses the unified processing pipeline, which means that shaders, geometry and all other calculations flow through the same path, which can adjust dynamically depending on the workload for each process.

Like the Radeon HD 2900, each of the new 3000-series cards has 320 stream processors, but they also have fewer transistors, 660 million to the 2900's 700 million. That explains why the 2900 remains the faster card for now. With its new 55nm manufacturing process in place, however, we wouldn't expect ATI's higher-end lineup to sit still for long, either.

Test bed configuration:

Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.93GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6800; 2GB 1,066MHz DDR2 SDRAM; Intel 975X BadAxe II motherboard; ATI Radeon HD 3850, 3870, and 3850 CrossFire driver; Catalyst beta 8.43.1; Radeon HD 2900 XT driver: Catalyst 7.10; Nvidia driver; Forceware beta 169.09

Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday


Shopping laptop image
Get the best price on everything
Shop your favorite products and we’ll find the best deal with a single click. Designed to make shopping easier.
Add CNET Shopping