HIS Digital have been pushing out the IceQ cooler on their Radeon cards for a while now, and every time we've seen one we've always been impressed by how well the cooler itself works, as well as the unique looks brought about by that transparent case.
So often we see coolers that are either generic black numbers, or high end all fan affairs, that it's pleasant surprise to find something that roughly follows the reference design, but twists it into a look that you don't get anywhere else.
The HD6950 is priced quite carefully to fit in between the nVidia GTX560Ti and the GTX570. When we tested the vanilla version upon release we found it good, but not stunning. However we all know that if there is one thing the Radeon cards have always been good at is scaling when you pair a couple of them up. Which is what we're going to be doing today.
Of course two of these quickly moves it into the custom GTX580 price range, so does the performance match up?
With the core clocked at the default 800MHz the really big eye-opening number is the 5GHz GDDR5. Memory speeds on Radeon cards are always impressive and the HIS is no exception.
|Core Clock||800 MHz|
|Memory Clock||5000 MHz|
|Memory Size||2048 MB|
|Memory Interface||256 bit|
|Interface||PCI Express x16 (PCI Express 2.1)|
|Card Dimension||13.8 x 4.6 x 28.7 cm (HxWxD)|
When we see so many boxes that are covered with giant fantasy figures or extreme artwork designed to catch the eye, it's refreshing to see something so minimalist from HIS.
The IceQ HD6950 itself perfectly replicates how you'd imagine a card taken fresh out of the freezer would look. Of course looking frosty when you're called the IceQ could be considered a given, but how often have we seen things that don't replicate what they're called (the Sapphire White motherboards for instance).
Power is drawn from two 6pin PCIe connectors, and at the business end there is a wealth of output options, with two Mini-DisplayPorts, two DVI and a HDMI.
A beefy amount of heatpipes ensure that the card remains cool, although the decision to retain the waterwheel style fan is a little odd. Don't they make a lovely pair.
The heatpipes are the direct contact type, ensuring that the heatsink has the maximum ability to soak up the heat from the Cayman GPU.
Although the colour of the PCB is a minor concern when considering whether to purchase a particular brand of card, it's good to see the HIS HD6950 IceQ has a blue PCB to match the general 'cool' theme. A red one would have been very jarring indeed.
The HIS Digital HD6950 IceQ is being tested on our usual bench setup of the 4GHz i7-950 and Gigabyte Assassin. As always we're using the very latest drivers, which are the brand-spanking new Catalyst 11.11.
2x HIS Digital HD6950
Intel Core-i7 950 @ 4GHz
Gigabyte G1 Assassin
6GB Mushkin Redline
Windows 7 Ultimate x64
Although throughout our testing we'll be looking at a single card and Crossfire, we thought we'd differentiate slightly by starting with the recently released Battlefield 3 and a game that absolutely flies, with Dirt 3.
With the more modern engine running behind Battlefield 3 it initially looks like the extra card only gives us a 50% increase, which it does, but we have to remember that this has its roots in consoles, and so it might just be a case of bad optimisation on the part of the developers, Digital Illusions. Yes the same Digital Illusions who brought us the epic Pinball games on the Amiga, for the older people in the audience.
Codemasters Dirt3 definitely runs smoothly on almost anything, but perhaps most impressively is how well it scales across multiple GPUs. Whilst not strictly 100% better it's certainly near as dammit. 106FPS on one card, 198FPS on two.
3D Mark 11
The single card befits its pricing as being better than its competitor from nVidia the GTX560Ti, but not quite as good as the GTX570. When paired up though it really flies, being better than a GTX590 and not far behind the HD6990. Impressive performance when you consider this is about £440 rather than the £600+ of those dual-GPU cards.
3D Mark Vantage
The Vantage result is great in the High test, being just shy of the HD6990 in Crossfire and ahead of the GTX570 for the single model. The P-Score is exactly where we'd expect on a single card, but the Crossfire doesn't give the boost we'd expect, certainly when compared to how well the High score does.
Unigine definitely makes the most of the Crossfire capabilities with two cards. Overall the results are far from impressive, but adding the extra card gives around 90% extra performance, which is worthy of note.
When we were heavily testing Crysis Warhead, before hardware overtook the capabilities of the engine, we used to get some very quirky results. Since graphics cards are now capable of performing well our results have been more consistent. Quite why the average frame-rate is identical both with one card and two in the Gamer settings is a bit beyond us.
With all the detail ramped up the HIS makes a much better fist of things, especially in Crossfire, beating out even the GTX590.
The sequel to Warhead, Crysis 2, is very much a schizophrenic affair. In DirectX 9 it's able to produce playable frame-rates on anything, but with the 1.9 patch and Hi-Res texture pack it can bring even beefy systems to their knees.
The single HD6950 gets very close to the magical 60FPS result and in Crossfire it gives us the highest average frame-rate we've yet tested.
With everything to the stops the HIS HD6950 starts to struggle. The single card score is almost unplayable, and adding another card just about makes it playable, but it doesn't get remotely close to the results we saw in the DirectX 9 testing.
Far Cry 2
Far Cry 2 has always enjoyed good results on the Radeon cards and the HIS HD6950 is no exception. Freed from the power and speed limitations that are imposed upon a dual-GPU single-card, in Crossfire it handily beats the HD6990 and GTX590, and is only headed by a GTX580SLI setup, which costs twice the price.
Given the poor single card performance of Metro2033 as a whole we weren't expecting great things, but nonetheless the HIS HD6950 IceQ is poor as a single card and not amazing in Crossfire, certainly when compared to cards it has been beating in other tests.
The single card performance is excellent in Mafia 2, far ahead of our expectations. The Crossfire average frame rate is about where we'd have guessed, but the brilliance of the single card score makes it look weaker than it is.
The Witcher 2
Finally the truly tortuous Witcher 2. With a single card and such extreme settings it's clearly a struggle for smooth playability on any single card, but the HIS does as well as anything in a similar price-range. With the second card deployed things change vastly as the HD6950 gets within 5 FPS of the mighty Mars 2.
These kind of conclusions are always the hardest to write. Our results are so back and forth that it becomes nearly impossible, but we'll give it a fair go.
Single card performance is either amazing, such as in Mafia 2, or absolutely dire, Metro 2033. Crossfire is equally capable of sitting at the opposite ends of the performance spectrum. In The Witcher 2 it's only a few frames behind the behemoth of the Mars 2, but in Metro 2033 again it's still not very good.
Probably the most extreme example of this is Crysis 2. In the vanilla, out of the box, version both the single HIS HD6950 IceQ and Crossfire give great performance and playability. Yet when the detail level is ramped up for our DirectX 11 testing it doesn't matter whether it's single or Crossfire, the results are pretty shabby.
It would be easy to conclude from this that it suffers the standard architectural limitation problem, so as the stress on the card increases the performance drops off. But that clearly isn't the case because The Witcher 2 is about as tough as it gets, yet the HIS performs very well. Crysis Warhead in Gamer is fairly untaxing, but in Crossfire mode it barely gives an improvement at all.
All this makes giving a score rather difficult. It's alternately excellent and below average, yet with no obvious reason as to why the performance would vary so wildly. Usually we can point at how heavy the shader demands are, or how much anti-aliasing is applied. With the HIS HD6950 IceQ it's almost a case of tossing a coin with each new test.
We're very aware that the wildly differing results could be due to the old problem of dodgy ATI drivers rearing its head again. However as you have to use those drivers, then you can't look at one without the other. We can't say "the card is potentially great, just avoid the Catalyst drivers", because you haven't got a choice in the matter.
So is it worth recommending? The cooler is up to the usual high standards, being both cool and quiet. There is also no denying that it looks nice, and with the inclusion of Dirt3 in the box you're getting a good deal at around £230 each. However given the hugely varying results we'd recommend plumping for the more consistent GTX560Ti, or if you've got £450 ish to spend then the GTX580 is still where the smart money is spent.
The HIS HD6950 IceQ is like the girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead. If you want it for a particular title, then it can be very good, but when it's bad...
Thanks to HIS Digital for supplying the HD6950 IceQ for review. Discuss in our forums.