It's been 13 months since the release of the ATI Radeon HD5870, a card that stands strong even today, and here we are at the release of the next generation.
Knowing how great the performance of the 5 series is you can imagine the excitement that we felt when we knew that a HD6870 was winging its way to the OC3D offices.
However, before we all started fighting over the rights to be the one to review it, we discovered that ATI have rejigged their naming conventions. This is a HD6870, but it isn't the successor to the HD5870.
Here is the ATI Roadmap for the 6 series of GPUs. As you can see the HD5800 is being split relative to the anticipated price point, so that the HD5770 and HD5830 will become the "Barts" core, HD5850 and HD5870 will become a Cayman core, and the Antilles will take over the top range which will now be the HD69x0. Let's move on to the next picture where that becomes clearer.
We have two cards on test today, a HD6850 and a HD6870. Following the ATI Transition plan we see that in performance terms they should equate to a theoretical HD5840 and HD5860. Of course that will be discovered in our testing.
The biggest change is that at the very high end, previously only containing the HD5970, there will now be three cards of varying performance levels. Given how amazing the performance of a HD5970 is, we really can't wait to get our hands on a HD6990.
This does seem to introduce an unnecessary level of confusion into the naming though. Since the HD3870 it's been very easy to follow the ATI nomenclature, HD3870, HD4870 and HD5870 all being the high-end single GPU.
Now the HD6870 is actually the replacement for the HD5830, and the HD6850 is the replacement for the HD5770.
Obviously it would be very disappointing if this was like an nVidia rebrand in which the underlying architecture was identical but with a different sticker.
Thankfully ATI have at least consolidated some old features and given us one big new one.
Firstly, consolidation. According to ATI the new silicon gives improved performance over the HD5850 whilst using 25% less silicon. At the business end even the models have have on test now support Eyefinity6, rather than having specific models designated as Eyefinity6 compatible.
Now to the new feature.
Since nVidia first brought 3D to the masses with their earlier hardware we've been anticipating a response from ATI. Given that 3D is largely a monitor and glasses solution with some driver trickery there was nothing particular keeping ATI from adding it as a feature to the Catalysts but that never occured.
Now with the latest generation of Radeons they are ready to roll out 3D across their hardware range and it's something we definitely can't wait to sink our teeth into.
3D has been rapidly taken on board by most of the major players with the Film Industry the primary user, but also the PS3 has compatibility along with 3D Blu-Ray and of course gaming following the nVidia technological push.
With ATI finally supporting it, and therefore all desktop PCs capable of displaying 3D content, we are certain it wont be long before it is accepted in the same way High-Definition content is now.
HIS HD6850 Pictures
HIS have always been good at giving us sensible sized packaging instead of the behemoths we get from some companies. Given the amount of units shipped if they can save half the packaging per unit it's making a big environmental difference and they should be lauded for that.
The card itself is fairly indistinct from previous ATI models. Thanks to the focus on lower-energy requirements of the first wave of ATI cards there is no need for a George Foreman grill on the HD6850.
As this is the replacement for the HD5770 we only have four display outputs available to us on this HIS HD6850.
As befits this focus upon efficiency the HIS only has a single 6pin PCIe power input. It's nice to see that ATI haven't succumbed to the temptation that new must equal bigger. At least with these medium range models anyway.
The board itself is similar to the previous generation just with the vertical bank of GDDR5 on the right instead of the left of the GPU itself.
It's always strange that, with shrouds being so enormous, when you remove them they are akin to a small CPU cooler. It's nice to make certain that heat gets exhausted out the rear of the case but curious they don't fill up the space a little more. Of course if the cooler is sufficient then why waste metal needlessly.
HIS HD6870 Pictures
Moving on to the higher specced HIS HD6870 we find the packaging nearly identical. A very sturdy box absolutely no bigger than it has to be. It's also nice that HIS haven't taken advantage of any model number confusion to shout loudly from the packaging in the hopes of attracting a few less savvy purchases. Integrity is always a plus point.
Design wise the HIS 6870 returns to the "fan up one end" that we've all got used to in reference designs. It's never made any sense to me because if you want to keep the GPU cool then on top of it is surely the most efficient design? We don't put our CPU heatsink fans on top of the optical drives do we.
As we've moved up from the replacement for the 5770 to the replacement for the base model in the 58 series we have an increase in power available meaning the HIS HD6870 has the full compliment of display options.
Along with this extra horsepower is an extra PCIe 6pin input to make sure you can keep on rocking regardless of power requirements.
Following the HD6850 design we can see that the HD6870 also moves the power circuitry to the left hand side of the card and the second bank of RAM to the right hand side of the GPU. A cynic would say this is to make sure that third-party 5 series coolers would be incompatible.
With the shroud removed we find the much larger heatsink than we saw on the HD6850. Although if anything it does demonstrate how illogical the reference fan placement is.
As you can see from the technical data the main differences in performance between the two cards are the greatly reduced amount of Stream Processors and Texture Units available on the HD6850. This probably means that even with a hefty overclock we will be architecturally limited as we've seen on previous mid-range cards.
HIS HD6870 and HIS HD6850
ASUS Rampage III Extreme
Intel i7 950 @ 4GHz
6GB Mushkin Redline RAM
Corsair AX1200 PSU
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Overclocking and Temperatures
Overclocking both the HIS HD6870 and HD6850 was extraordinarily simple with them both easily able to max out the sliders in the ATI Overdrive panel and remain perfectly stable.
HIS HD6850 HIS HD6870
Although the obvious question might be "well why didn't you use RivaTuner then?" as you can see below both cards started to hover around the 80°C mark anyway. Once we get to the results on the next two pages the reason for not pushing further will become even clearer.
As each card is marketed as a replacement for a previous model we will be testing against those to see what, if any, improvement has been gained. Both the HD5770 and HD5830 were tested only at stock settings because the benefits of overclocking the 6 series was, as you'll see, minimal at best.
3D Mark Vantage
Our results are nothing if not consistent. The HIS HD6870 clearly beats out the card it replaces, the HD5830, throughout testing and actually gives us results around the HD5850 mark.
The HIS HD6850 comprehensively beats the HD5770 to such a degree it's right with the HD5830. At the more extreme end of the scale it runs out of puff, but for middle-range gaming it appears more than capable.
Unigine is one of the most stressful benchmarks you can run, taking full advantage of the DX11 featureset. Such an improvement is seen from the new range of Radeons that even the HIS HD6850 comes in second place. Good to see.
With an increase in anti-aliasing we see the limitations of the HD6850 architecture as the 5830 slots back into seconds place. We also finally see an improvement from our overclock, albeit tiny.
Wow. If we saw incremental performance increases in our synthetic benchmarks then out in the real world, or in this case on the frozen island, there is no doubt as to the benefits the switch over to the 68 series has made. Both HIS cards take Crysis and turn it from a bit of a judder-fest into something eminently playable even at this resolution.
Once again we also see that our overclock gains a couple of FPS.
Ignoring the understandably variable nature of minimum and maximum frame-rate for a moment, things return very much to how they were before. The HIS HD6850 is a match for the old 5830 and the HD6870 definitely rules the roost. Neither of them have the grunt to really handle Mafia with such monster image quality settings though.
Although Metro definitely isn't a game we've yet found a playable system for, the pressure it puts on a system is such that it emphasises any differences in grunt. The cut-down nature of the architecture in the HD6850 does pay a bit of a price here, and once again the HD6870 definitely shows its dominance.
We definitely have mixed feelings about these cards. Nothing to do with HIS Digital themselves, but rather the decision by ATI to completely mess about with the branding.
It's one thing to fiddle with numbers if you reach the top of the four digit possibilities and don't wish to re-use the brilliance that was the 9700 and 9800 cards, but to make needless changes seems to us only to be confusing for the sake of it.
Surely it's the desire of any company to have their product so ingrained in the psyche of the populous that everyone is aware of it and what it stands for. In the same way that "Hoover" has become as much a verb for vacuuming as it is a electronics company, or "to Google" has become the alternative term for searching (despite both these companies protestations to ensure they can't lose their trademark), the Radeon 3/4/5870 has always meant the top of the line, the cream of the crop, the fastest of the fast.
Even knowing that it's theoretically a 6830 doesn't help. Your brain is so tuned to expecting a certain thing that you're constantly having to remind yourself to ignore the number. Which surely defeats the point? Isn't that breaking what was fixed? Destroying years of hard built brand imaging needlessly.
If ATI were that desperate to give us new branding then why not change it entirely as nVidia did with the 280?
With that off of our chest, although still within reaching distance, how do they perform?
Unquestionably both the HIS HD6850 and HIS HD6870 comfortably beat the cards they are intended to replace. The HD6850 is on a par with the HD5830 and the HD6870 conclusively is at the top of all of our tests.
The most disappointing aspect is the overclocking performance. It's not the actual ability of the cards to overclock, both of them manage to hit the stops in the Catalyst control panel with ease whilst remaining cool and relatively quiet. It's the performance gain you get from doing so. Or rather the performance you don't get.
Mid-range cards are something we've always loved in the same way we all took to the E8400 and similar. Overclocking enabling huge performance increases for zero cost.
Both the HD6850 and HD6870 enabling overclocking for zero cost, but with zero performance too.
So are they worth a purchase? The HD6850 is expected to retail around £150 and the HD6870 about £200.
The HIS HD6850 is hard to recommend as there is no clear selling point. It's only really a budget gamer and if you're not gaming then there are dozens of cards which will run your desktop and HD movie needs, but if you are looking for a 3D compatable HTPC card then this could be right up your street!
The HD6870 is different. Sure you wont buy one if you're hoping to clock the hell out of it and achieve free performance, but for sensible gaming at sensible resolutions it's good enough. It's designed to replace the HD5830, performs like a poor HD5850 but in actuality could be the replacement for the HD5770 in terms of a value, high performing, Crossfire option. We've seen a few places claim the HD6870 has HD5870 performance. It doesn't.
We'd always prefer to see the high-end models released and then the cheaper options appear later. As it is, these are a good start.
Thanks to HIS Digital for providing the HD6850 and HD6870 for todays review. Discuss in our forums.