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

Make sure you get that new BIOS, though.

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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 pulse radeon rx 5600 xt 5 Brad Chacos/IDG

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.

sapphire pulse radeon rx 5600 xt 1 Brad Chacos/IDG

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.

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At a Glance
  • 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.

    Pros

    • 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
    • Very quiet

    Cons

    • Have to manually install critical performance-boosting BIOS
    • No real-time ray tracing capabilities
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