Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5600 XT review: Punching above its class

Make sure you get that new BIOS, though.

Credit: Brad Chacos/IDG

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.

radeon rx 5600 xt specs AMD

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.

radeon rx 5600 xt specs AMD

Reference specs for the RX 5600 XT.

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.

sapphire pulse radeon rx 5600 xt 6 Brad Chacos/IDG

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’ll come equipped with the slower BIOS. 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 me. “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. It should be available day one and takes mere minutes to install using the ATI Flash tool. Sapphire’s documentation should walk you through the process.

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.”

Meet the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5600 XT

Sapphire may be most famous for its killer enthusiast-class Nitro+ graphics cards, but the company’s value-oriented Pulse line has carved out a nice niche for itself, too. As we’ve already seen in the Radeon RX 5500 XT and 5700 variants, Pulse-series graphics cards provide some welcome extra features for a mere $10 upcharge.

sapphire pulse radeon rx 5600 xt 8 Brad Chacos/IDG

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.

sapphire pulse radeon rx 5600 xt 9 Brad Chacos/IDG

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.

Check out our Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5700 review for a full walkthrough of the feature, and our Pulse RX 500 XT review to see our experiences using Trixx Boost at 1080p, the resolution that the Radeon RX 5600 XT was designed for.

Next page: Our test system, performance benchmarks begin

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Brad Chacos

Brad Chacos

PC World (US online)
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