Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 6500 XT review: Affordable, quiet, and smart
At a glance
- $199 price point
- Good 1080p gaming performance at Medium/High settings
- Very power efficient and cool
- Whisper quiet
- Trixx Boost software feature speeds up performance
- Modern features like ray tracing and AMD Smart Access Memory
- 4GB memory buffer can’t be used for Ethereum mining, hopefully reducing cryptocurrency demand
- Will $199 price point stick on the streets?
- Limited PCIe lanes reduce performance on older PCIe 3.0 systems
- Unorthodox memory configuration and limited PCIe lanes limit performance potential
- Only one HDMI and DisplayPort
- Little performance improvement over prior-gen GPUs
The Sapphire Pulse delivers a whisper-quiet spin on AMD’s affordable Radeon RX 6500 XT, with the company’s Trixx Boost software giving performance a helping hand. It’s a good option for newcomers to PC gaming as long as you operate within limits imposed by the unusual technical configuration of AMD’s GPU.
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AMD’s Radeon RX 6500 XT is a humble graphics card built to bring 1080p gaming to the masses at a time when the masses haven’t had an affordable GPU option for years. Sapphire’s popular “Pulse” brand relentlessly focuses on delivering solid gaming experiences without cost-adding frills you may not want.
On paper, it sounds like a peanut butter and jelly-type situation. But does the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 6500 XT, which retails for AMD’s $199 suggested price, hold up in practice? Yep. This is a good low-cost graphics card for new PC builders, bolstered by some smart software tricks that can help you squeeze even more performance out of your hardware ahead of the hotly anticipated release of AMD’s Radeon Super Resolution feature. Let’s dig in.
Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 6500 XT specs and features
The Sapphire Pulse is built using AMD’s new Radeon RX 6500 XT GPU, the first consumer graphics card built using TSMC’s 6nm process. It’s very energy efficient and focused on delivering good 1080p gaming performance at Medium to High visual settings, which the card delivers in spades. Here’s a high-level look at the Radeon RX 6500 XT’s reference specifications, which the Sapphire Pulse sticks to:
We won’t dive too deeply into those raw specs, as we already did so in our initial comprehensive Radeon RX 6500 XT review, as well as in our more digestible 5 things you need to know about the Radeon RX 6500 XT explainer. We need to talk about them briefly, however, as creating an affordable graphics card in the midst of a GPU crunch required some unusual compromises—some implemented specifically to dodge the attention of cryptocurrency miners who have been snatching up graphics cards left and right.
The Radeon RX 6500 XT packs a scant 4GB of GDDR6 memory over a minute 64-bit bus unheard of in modern gaming GPUs, though those memory chips are clocked at a blazing-fast 18Gbps and come augmented by AMD’s radical Infinity Cache technology. The card also, sadly, supports only four PCIe lanes rather than the usual 16, which can lead to slightly lower performance in older systems that still run PCIe 3.0, rather than the faster PCIe 4.0 technology found in the latest PCs.
Those decisions mean that while the Radeon RX 6500 XT excels at what it’s designed for—ultra-fast e-sports, and triple-A gaming at Mid to High settings at 1080p resolution—if you crank the eye candy to Ultra or jack up the resolution to 1440p, you could run into larger performance issues (like slow frame rates or lag spikes). Start at 1080p Medium graphics presets in your favorite games and nudge up knobs from there if you’re able. If you stick with what the Radeon RX 6500 XT was built for, you’ll be happy with it.
[ Further reading: What the Internet got wrong about the Radeon RX 6500 XT ]
Sapphire’s stellar Trixx Boost feature, found in the company’s Trixx software utility, can help with that. Trixx Boost has helped Sapphire GPUs earn high marks in our reviews for several years now—it earned the “best innovation” award on our Full Nerd podcast’s yearly best-of episode all the way back in 2019.
It’s a clever feature that speeds up frame rates using a combination of slight image downsampling and AMD’s wonderful Radeon Image Sharpening technology. It’s like a less complex version of the idea behind Nvidia’s DLSS and AMD’s Fidelity FX Super Resolution features: Render at a lower resolution to improve frame rates, then clean up the resulting image artifacts with the help of smart software. Better yet, while Nvidia’s DLSS and AMD’s FSR only function in games that support it, Trixx Boost works with any DirectX 9, DX11, DX12, or Vulkan game. That covers all but the most niche PC games being played today.
Using Trixx Boost involves adjusting percentage sliders to create a custom resolution, then selecting that resolution in games. Our Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 6600 XT review already wades into a thorough evaluation of Trixx Boost at 1080p resolution, so check that out if you want more detail or a tutorial on setting it up. Here’s the key part of what you need to know, though:
Trixx Boost defaults to a custom resolution at 85 percent of your native screen output. That works wonderfully well when you’re playing at more pixel-packed 1440p and 4K resolutions when paired with RIS, but subjectively, I found it too aggressive at 1080p. The lower resolution means that cutting it back even more results in shimmering and occasionally janky edges that are really perceptible in motion at 85 percent. (This isn’t just a Trixx Boost issue; both DLSS and FSR also have troubles maintaining image quality at 1080p resolution, but not at higher fidelity.)
I found it much more pleasant to bump the slide up to 90 percent of the screen resolution for 1080p gameplay… It still isn’t quite perfect; you may still see slight visual artifacts in some scenes, such as faint shimmering on narrow stairs in motion, or faint blurriness in static menu screens depending on their setup. But those distractions proved few and far between at 90-percent scaling in my opinion, and the extra performance provided by Trixx Boost made the occasional graininess worthwhile. If you disagree, you can always stop using it.
If you create a custom 90 percent resolution with Trixx Boost, you’ll typically see about a 10 percent performance boost in games, though that can vary depending on the title. But Trixx Boost proves especially useful given the Radeon RX 6500 XT’s unusual technical configuration. With just 4GB of memory, a 64-bit bus, and four PCIe lanes, this GPU’s performance can tank if you push visual quality too hard and exceed the memory capacity. Your resolution plays a large role in memory usage. Using Trixx Boost’s custom resolutions can back you further away from the cliff, which in turn can perhaps let you bump up the visual settings higher in games—going from Medium to High presets, or bumping up the textures, for example. It’ll vary greatly by the game but it’s worth playing around with.
More than three years after it debuted, I’m still shocked that no other graphics card maker has stolen a page from Sapphire’s playbook and implemented a Trixx Boost-like feature of their own, though its usefulness may wane when AMD’s own Radeon Super Resolution arrives. For now, it’s a killer feather in the Pulse Radeon RX 6500 XT’s cap.
Sapphire Pulse design
The Radeon RX 6500 XT iteration sticks to Sapphire’s familiar Pulse design, which is to say it’s attractive, effective, and lacks cost-adding frills, such as a dual-BIOS switch or RGB lighting.
It doesn’t look like a budget card aside from its compact two-slot design, though. The Pulse comes blacked out with red accents, an aesthetic I personally dig, and Sapphire even slapped a metal backplate on the Pulse Radeon RX 6500 XT so it’ll look nice through your case’s window panel. The Dual-X cooling system plops a pair of fans atop a modest heatsink, complete with intelligent fan control and a crucial idle fan-stop feature that halts the spinning blades when you’re outside of games or other GPU-stressing tasks. This is a very quiet graphics card even at full tilt however—noticeably more so than the XFX Qick 210 card we tested for our initial Radeon RX 6500 XT review. (That card ran a bit colder, in return. More on cooling later.)
You won’t find much else on the card aside from a single 6-pin power connector, a single HDMI 2.1 port, and a single DisplayPort, though the bare-bones display outputs are due to AMD’s GPU design decisions, rather than a stripping-down on Sapphire’s part. The basic setup should work well in the sort of budget gaming rig the Radeon RX 6500 XT is intended for, however. Speaking of display outputs, it’s worth noting that AMD also cut AV1 support from this GPU, along with H.264 and H.265/HEVC encoding (decoding is there), which makes the Pulse less appealing for home theater PCs and people hoping to stream or record their gaming adventures.
But hey, the $199 price sure is right and the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 6500 XT can still game just fine, right? Let’s get to the benchmarks.
Our test system
We test graphics cards on an AMD Ryzen 5000-series test rig to be able to benchmark the effect of PCIe 4.0 support on modern GPUs, as well as the performance-boosting AMD Smart Access Memory and Nvidia Resizable BAR features (which are both based on the same underlying PCIe standard). Currently, we’re testing it on an open bench with AMD’s Wraith Max air cooler. Most of the hardware was provided by the manufacturers, but we purchased the storage ourselves.
- AMD Ryzen 5900X, stock settings
- AMD Wraith Max cooler
- MSI Godlike X570 motherboard
- 32GB G.Skill Trident Z Neo DDR4 3800 memory
- EVGA 1200W SuperNova P2 power supply
- 1TB SK Hynix Gold S31 SSD
We’re doing things a little differently today due to the budget nature of this card, and its unusual configuration. Normally, we test games at the highest possible graphics presets and with temporal anti-aliasing enabled to push them to their limits. But the Radeon RX 6500 XT is built for medium to high gaming at 1080p, on a budget. So we skipped our usual methods and instead decided to test AMD’s newest offering against prior-gen GPUs in a similar $200 price bracket, plus or minus $50 in either direction, with each game’s Medium graphics preset.
The charts below pit the Sapphire Pulse and the XFX Qick 210—both $199 Radeon RX 6500 XT GPUs—against AMD’s last-gen Radeon RX 5500 XT, which launched at $180 in 2019 (and cost $30 too much at the time), as well as the Asus ROG Strix Radeon RX 580 8GB, an enthusiast-class version of the excellent GPU that released in 2017 for $250. We’ve matched that on Nvidia’s side with the Asus ROG Strix GeForce GTX 1650 Super, which launched for $170 in 2019, and Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1060 6GB Founders Edition GPU, a $250 graphics card in 2016. We chose these cards because they’re the sorts of used options the Radeon RX 6500 XT will compete against in today’s wacky GPU marketplace. Only AMD’s new card supports real-time ray tracing.
We’ve also included performance results for the XFX Radeon RX 6500 XT Qick 210 running in both PCIe 3.0 and PCIe 4.0 modes, given the four limited PCIe lanes of AMD’s GPU, so that you can see what sort of performance to expect if you drop these graphics cards into an older system as an upgrade. Spoiler: It’s mostly a negligible downgrade at the Medium settings this card is intended for. The Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 6500 XT would deliver similar performance in a PCIe 3.0 system, though once again, Trixx Boost can help you work around this GPU’s limitations and speed things up.
We test a variety of games spanning various engines, genres, vendor sponsorships (Nvidia, AMD, and Intel), and graphics APIs (DirectX 11, DX12, and Vulkan). Each game is tested with VSync, frame rate caps, real-time ray tracing or DLSS effects, and FreeSync/G-Sync disabled, along with any other vendor-specific technologies like FidelityFX tools or Nvidia Reflex. We also disable AMD’s Smart Access Memory and Nvidia’s rival PCIe Resizable BAR feature, since they’re highly dependent on how the rest of your system is configured. We run each benchmark at least three times and list the average result for each test.
Gaming performance benchmarks
Watch Dogs: Legion
Watch Dogs: Legion is one of the first games to debut on next-gen consoles. Ubisoft upgraded its Disrupt engine to include cutting-edge features like real-time ray tracing and Nvidia’s DLSS. We disable those effects for this testing, but Legion remains a strenuous game even on high-end hardware with its optional high-resolution texture pack installed.
Horizon Zero Dawn
Yep, PlayStation exclusives are coming to the PC now. Horizon Zero Dawn runs on Guerrilla Games’ Decima engine, the same engine that powers Death Stranding.
Gears Tactics puts it own brutal, fast-paced spin on the XCOM-like genre. This Unreal Engine 4-powered game was built from the ground up for DirectX 12, and we love being able to work a tactics-style game into our benchmarking suite. Better yet, the game comes with a plethora of graphics options for PC snobs. More games should devote such loving care to explaining what flipping all these visual knobs mean.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood is more fun when you can play cooperatively with a buddy, but it’s a fearless experiment—and an absolute technical showcase. Running on the Vulkan API, Youngblood achieves blistering frame rates, and it supports all sorts of cutting-edge technologies like ray tracing, DLSS 2.0, HDR, GPU culling, asynchronous computing, and Nvidia’s Content Adaptive Shading. The game includes a built-in benchmark with two different scenes; we tested Riverside.
One of the best games of 2019, Metro Exodus remains 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, Hairworks, and DLSS disabled.
Borderlands is back! Gearbox’s game defaults to DX12, so we do as well. It gives us a glimpse at the ultra-popular Unreal Engine 4’s performance in a traditional shooter. This game tends to favor modern AMD hardware.
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. We test using the Vulkan renderer, which is faster than DX12.
Total War: Troy
The latest game in the popular Total War saga, Troy was given away free for its first 24 hours on the Epic Games Store, moving over 7.5 million copies before it went on proper sale. Total War: Troy is built using a modified version of the Total War: Warhammer 2 engine, and this DX11 title looks stunning for a turn-based strategy game. We test the more intensive battle benchmark.
F1 2020 is a gem to test, supplying a wide array of both graphical and benchmarking options, making it a much more reliable (and fun) option than the Forza series. It’s built on the latest version of Codemasters’ buttery-smooth Ego game engine, complete with support for DX12 and Nvidia’s DLSS technology. We test two laps on the Australia course, with clear skies on and DLSS off.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Shadow of the Tomb Raider concludes the reboot trilogy, and it’s still utterly gorgeous several years after its debut. 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 and DLSS features.
Rainbow Six Siege
Rainbow Six Siege still dominates the Steam charts years after its launch, and Ubisoft supports it with frequent updates and events. The developers have poured a ton of work into the game’s AnvilNext engine over the years, eventually rolling out a Vulkan version of the game that we use to test. By default, the game lowers the render scaling to increase frame rates, but we set it to 100 percent to benchmark native rendering performance on graphics cards. Even still, frame rates soar.
Power draw, thermals, and noise
We test power draw by looping the F1 2020 benchmark at 4K for about 20 minutes after we’ve benchmarked everything else and noting the highest reading on our Watts Up Pro meter, which measures the power consumption of our entire test system. The initial part of the race, where all competing cars are onscreen simultaneously, tends to be the most demanding portion.
This isn’t a worst-case test; this is a GPU-bound game running at a GPU-bound resolution to gauge performance when the graphics card is sweating hard. If you’re playing a game that also hammers the CPU, you could see higher overall system power draws. Consider yourself warned.
Entry-level graphics cards always have modest power demands—all of the tested units only need a single 6- or 8-pin power connector—but the tremendous power efficiency of AMD’s RDNA 2 architecture shines though here, especially when you consider that the Radeon RX 6500 XT holds a solid performance lead in raw frame rates in this game as well. Good stuff.
We test thermals by leaving GPU-Z open during the F1 2020 power draw test, noting the highest maximum temperature at the end.
Keeping these modest GPUs cool isn’t an issue for any of these designs, though some definitely outperform others. Let’s zero in on the battle between the two custom Radeon RX 6500 XT models for a second though. By that chart, the XFX Qick 210 appears to have a clear cooling advantage, and in terms of raw degrees Celsius, it certainly does. But the Sapphire Pulse’s 65 degree running heat is damned cool itself, and by running its fans at lower speeds, the Pulse stays whisper-quiet during gameplay, which is great on an experiential level. Both are good coolers, but I prefer the practical silence of the Sapphire Pulse.
Should you buy the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 6500 XT?
The Radeon RX 6500 XT is a weirdly built GPU for wacky times. Its unorthodox technical configuration means that if you try to push the card harder than it’s intended, performance can plummet. But at 1080p resolution, you can play e-sports games at ultra-fast frame rates, or triple-A games with Medium or High settings at 60fps or higher. We dove much, much deeper into the various must-knows and caveats in the conclusion of our initial Radeon RX 6500 XT review, and recapped them in more digestible form in our guide to 5 things you need to know about the Radeon RX 6500 XT.
Having that sort of gaming experience available in an affordable graphics card once again—prior to this we hadn’t seen a budget GPU launch since 2019, and those cards are going for $200 to $400 used on Ebay these days—is very welcome indeed. The Radeon RX 6500 XT isn’t a compelling performance upgrade for anyone who bought even a modest graphics card over the last five years, but new PC gamers on a budget don’t have to turn to cloud gaming or consoles anymore if they can get their hands on this. Availability will be key, but AMD designed this GPU to be churned out for the masses. Fingers crossed. You’ll want to get this entry-level graphics card for as close to $200 or $250 as possible for it to make the most sense.
Fortunately, the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 6500 XT sticks to AMD’s suggested $199 price tag, just like the XFX Qick 210 we reviewed earlier. Both are solid low-cost offerings with surprisingly well-built physical designs. You can’t go wrong with either card, and realistically, in today’s market you should gobble up whichever one you stumble across in stock. But the Sapphire Pulse’s whisper-quiet noise levels and ability to squeeze a bit more eye candy and/or performance out of games with the help of Sapphire’s fantastic Trixx Boost software gives it the slight edge in our eyes (though the release of AMD’s universal Radeon Super Resolution feature could make Trixx less essential in time).
If you can find it in stock at or near its $199 MSRP and need a new GPU, snatch up the Sapphire Pulse. Just be aware of the Radeon RX 6500 XT’s various performance and display limitations—work within them and you’ll be happy with it. Keeps those graphics presets off Ultra, kids.
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