It's not often we see a huge shift between various manufacturers. The battle between nVidia and ATI has been a long running one with punch and counter punch made between the two heavyweights.
ATI just about took the lead with the Radeon 9800 Pro, which was quickly beaten out by the incredible GTX8800 Ultra. ATI battled hard with pricing undercutting the nVidia replies from then on, although they were usually just a shade slower as was the case between the GTX285 and HD4870.
This all changed when the HD5870 was released which comprehensively outperformed everything nVidia had to offer. The problems of the GTX480 are well documented but recently everything has been turned upside down. Firstly nVidia released the GTX580 which, besides a reasonably high price, is probably the perfect graphics card. AMD responded with the HD6870 which not only was the first time they've used a x870 number for something other than their high-end card, but also was quite a lot slower than the HD5870.
Last week we looked at the GTX570 from nVidia, their more "for the masses" card and found it to be all things to all men. Today we're looking at the new top-of-the-range cards from AMD, the HD6950 and HD6970 courtesy of HIS Digital.
As you can see the difference between the two cards is fairly slight with the 6970 having the expected increase in clock speed and processing units. However when you look at the difference in raw processing power of the two cards it's clear that the HD6970 has a massive advantage. 20% extra FLOPS for a small boost in stream processors and clock speed is mightily impressive and should make a significant difference in the end results.
The positioning of the new cards is especially strange. Given the re-numbering of them by AMD we have expected to see the HD6970 right at the top-end of their line. However, they still show the HD5970 up there. This is more of a GTX575 and GTX550 in comparison terms. We'll have to see if that stands true in the final reckoning.
The HIS HD6950 and HD6970
HIS packaging has always been an exercise in minimalism requiring no more cardboard than it strictly necessary to house the card safely.
Being both reference designs with almost identical artwork we'll cover them both in one go. The HD6970 and HD6950 are both supplied with the shroud style cooler we're all so very used to by now. It never ceases to amaze us how both manufacturers use this design and it's the first thing to be changed on special edition cards. Either the manu's know something that nobody else does, or they deliberately make their coolers under-perform.
The HD6970 requires that bit more power than the HD6950 and so has a 8pin PCIe power to go along with the 6pin rather than the twin 6pin PCIe power than we see on the HD6950.
Up by the bracket end of the cards we have the Crossfire fingers next to a dual-BIOS switch. The dual-BIOS has a locked manufacturer setting and one that the user can adjust. That way you've always got a working one should the flash fail or similar problems arise.
Under The Skin
With the cooler removed you'll forgive us if we say it looks like almost any other graphics card you've ever seen. That isn't a bad thing but demonstrates how "right" the design now is of a GPU surrounded by the GDDR5 with the power phases on the other end of the card.
The cooler has lots of room around the fan to help keep the power circuitry cool. We also have the normal thermal pads to keep the RAM cool but the GPU block itself deserves much closer inspection.
We don't know if these reference designs are out-sourced to the same company or not but the chunk of aluminium on a copper base looks similar to that on the GTX570.
It's a true vapour-chamber arrangement too. None of your empty heat-pipes here. This should definitely help keep the card cool. We can also see a close-up of the tiny twin-BIOS switch that should ease the concerns of anyone who hasn't flashed the BIOS on their GPU before.
HIS HD6970 and HIS HD6950
ASUS Rampage III Extreme
Intel i7 950 @ 4GHz
6GB Mushkin Redline RAM
Corsair AX1200 PSU
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Because of the "newness" of the cards we're running on the beta Catalyst drivers supplied with the cards. Apparently the 10.12 should be out by the time you read this but as we can't test in the future and don't like to delay our reviews on the off-chance there might be a frame or two improvement in drivers forthcoming, we've used what we had to hand.
For comparative purposes we're putting the best of ATI up against the best of nVidia, the GTX580, the comparison AMD make, the GTX570 and against the last card AMD would have been aware of when designing the HD69 series, the nVidia GTX480. Have Team Red rested on their laurels or really pushed the silicon boat out?
Overclocking and Temperatures
Starting with the HD6950 we can see it's already pretty much at its limits giving up a measly 50MHz overclock. This is a problem we saw in the initial releases of the 6870 and 6850. It's almost like AMD has become allergic to overclockable graphics cards.
The HD6970 didn't fare much better giving us 70MHz extra over its stock speeds. Slightly more worrying is the temperatures under load reaching a pretty toasty 88°C. The problem isn't so much that the card is reaching that temperature. It's more that the drivers, with automatic fan control, didn't raise the speed of the fan above 38%.
We don't know about you but we'd much rather an automatic fan control try and keep the card cool rather than waiting until the GPU is in its death-throws before daring to raise the spin speed at all. In some ways we can see why AMD have done it though as even at this slow speed the card is louder than the nVidia efforts. It's not loud as such, just loud-er.
3D Mark Vantage
Starting off with 3D Mark Vantage, we know how the PhysX capabilities of the nVidia cards can help to increase the final score by a few points, but even still it's not a stunning start for the new HD69s. The HD6970 is about on a par with a GTX480 but the newest nVidia cards leave it in the dust. Given that the HD6970 is priced similarly to the GTX570 that's the real competition and it's not even close. The HD6950 is scaled back from the 6970 almost perfectly, and ends up performing similarly to a HD5870.
3D Mark 11
The latest in the Futuremark line is far kinder to the new AMD cards with the HD6970 just edging ahead of its competing GTX570 and even the HD6950 once again is perfectly linear in the performance reduction from the HD6970.
One of the major upgrades AMD have talked about is their improvements in tessellation speed and no place is this demonstrated better than in Unigine Heaven. A benchmark as harsh as it is beautiful it relies heavily upon tessellation to make scene after scene a treat for the eyes.
This work in the Tessellation department pays huge dividends here with the HD6950 as good as any of the nVidia offerings and the HD6970 taking the title by 7 or so frames.
If the extra stress of anti-aliasing takes a toll on the performance of cards then it only seems to extend the lead of the HD6970 over the rest of the pack. With the HD6950 as good as an overclocked GTX580 for half the price then one thing is clear. If Unigine is what you love, or if it truly is the engine of choice for the future, then the new Radeons are the card you should put in your rig right now.
Alien vs Predator
On to the gloriously lit Alien vs Predator and the HD6950, considering it's £60 cheaper than anything else on test, performs admirably. The HD6970 just splits the GTX570 which is good considering that price-wise it's aimed right at it on price-terms and just above it according to AMDs market positioning table.
Eventually we've reached a point in Crysis where the graphics cards are no longer the limiting factor, but rather it's the game engine itself. Both AMD efforts give almost identical results, along with the GTX580. The GTX570 manages to get ahead mainly due to driver improvements between the time we reviewed the GTX580 and it, but otherwise all is very closely matched.
Far Cry 2
Far Cry 2 is, as we've said before, a great test of raw number crunching as it doesn't rely on tessellation or any other of the latest DirectX trickery to improve eye-candy.
Without the benefits that these enhancements bring to the table the HD69s fall a long way behind even the stock GTX570. The overclock on the HD6970 brings no improvements and the HD6950 just about gains a frame. Not impressive.
One game that does take a big advantage from the improvements available in the latest DirectX API is Metro 2033. This allows the AMD cards to redeem themselves against the GTX570 and keep neck and neck with it. Clearly the GTX580 is king in the DirectX11 power stakes, but with £140 price premium we'd expect it to be.
It wasn't that long ago that everything seemed so simple. Both nVidia and AMD/ATI used a consistent naming convention, consistent pricing and had consistent goals. Whether that goal was to be the best it could be for the money, or just the best it could be, it was clear that the top two cards from each were the best they could do.
This also made it easy for the average consumer. Sure we might know that the HD6 series isn't really a direct replacement for the HD5 series, and isn't a direct competitor to anything nVidia offer, but we're surrounded by this every day. Try explaining to the "man on the street" that the AMD performance line roughly goes HD6850, HD6870, HD5870, HD6950, HD6970 and at the top is the HD5970.
It just makes absolutely NO sense. I'm not sure what the Sunnyvale Braintrust was thinking, but when you lay it out in black and white it's very illogical.
According to AMDs roadmap the HD6870 was equivalent to a theoretical HD5890. Now in Q4 the 5 series, apart from the HD5970, is completely eliminated from the equation as the HD6870 clearly didn't stack up well at all against its similarly named brethren and we have the HD6950 which does just about meet the performance of the HD5870 and so is the first sensible upgrade if tessellation features are important to you.
The fact that a small discussion about new models has meant quoting SIX different graphics cards, FIVE of which are new and 'current' models, hopefully demonstrates clearly enough that what might work in a Powerpoint presentation doesn't translate with any clarity to the consumer.
Finally, before we get away from the insanity of the AMD business model, a small word has to be made about the performance of the HD6950. We know that it is in no company's interest to make the best they can from everything, but the manufactured slowing of the HD6950 is so perfect and synthetic as to leave a nasty taste in our mouth. Rather than nod our heads at them making the best they could for the price, they've clearly just determined a price and then cut the product down to suit.
Phew. So with that out of the way, how do they perform? The HD6950 isn't bad at all. The £220 price-tag should make it attractive enough to anyone who has yet to join the DirectX 11 generation which is the sole intention of AMD with this product release. So job done.
If you want a little more for your money though you definitely should save the extra £60 needed for the HD6970. It's better enough than it's lesser-numbered sibling to justify its increased price-tag and AMD have pitched it directly at the brilliant GTX570. Although their "product positioning" slide implies it's ahead, it clearly isn't. The GTX570 has it equalled or beaten in every test but Unigine. Sure Unigine looks awesome but it's just a benchmark. Nothing actually uses it and the tessellation performance isn't translated into gaming results.
It might seem like we're just kicking the HD69 cards. That isn't the case at all. The HD6850 gives great performance for a few beers over a couple of hundred and the HD6970 does its job of providing a good performance card in the sub-£300 bracket. Both are fairly cool, and fairly quiet and the tessellation improvements AMD have brought really do make a difference over the previous cards.
It's just the combination between the needlessly confusing naming, even more confusing decision to place two new products in exactly the same market segment and, there is no denying it, disappointing performance of the cards has just left us underwhelmed.
We've often said that CUDA and PhysX have so little benefit that to choose an nVidia card over the better performing and cheaper ATI offering was silly. Now you can have a higher performaning, quieter, CUDA and PhysX enabled card that already has the tessellation for the same price as the AMD offering. Why would you buy anything else? If the AMD cards were either substantially cheaper, or gave better frame-rates, then they might be worthy of consideration. As it is they're perfectly fine but you'd have to be a dyed-in-the-wool Radeon fan to consider either as the best choice at their relative market position.
We can't remember the last time we came away from a top-end Radeon review and had to admit both disappointment and find no better adjective in our lexicon than "alright" but that's the impression we get. The HD6950 and HD6970 are alright. Perfectly good. Fine enough.
Only you can decide if 'good enough', is good enough for you to spend your money on. For us we'll still take a GTX570 thank you.
Thanks to HIS Digital for providing the cards for todays testing. Discuss in our forums.