On Wednesday we looked at the latest in the AMD line-up of graphics cards and there seems to have been a little confusion about how we felt they performed. Certainly they didn't perform as well as we expected, but that doesn't mean that they performed badly at all.
It's the down-side of Radeon cards being so good in recent years that expectations have been raised to such levels that a card giving 23000 P-Score in 3D Mark Vantage can be considered disappointing. A large part of our disappointment came from the excellent GTX570 performance and the reality that we can't review things as if they exist in a vacuum. Undoubtedly the HD6970 is a great card, but when you look at the marketplace as a whole it is, as we said a couple of days ago, perfectly fine.
One thing all cards have shown in recent times though is that when paired up the performance is quite incredible. Improvements in motherboard bandwidth and driver optimisations have led to the old 50 percent performance being somewhat old-fashioned and the scaling has improved vastly.
With that in mind we just had to pair a couple of these latest AMD cards together to see how they perform and thanks to our friends at PowerColor we were able to do so a lot sooner than we thought we might be able to.
The real thing we are looking forward to is that these should form the basis of the upcoming HD6990 twin-GPU card so it enables us to not only get a glimpse of the now, but a small taster of the future.
As this is a reference design card the technical specifications are identical to those we saw previously. 880MHz core speed and 2GB of GDDR5 ensure that the card has plenty of grunt to handle anything you can throw at it.
|Graphics Engine||RADEON HD6970|
|Video Memory||2GB GDDR5|
|Memory Clock||1375MHz (5.5Gbps)|
|Bus Standard||PCIE 2.1|
|Standard Display Connectors||DL-DVI-I/SL-DVI-D/HDMI/2* mini DisplayPort|
|ATI Stream Technology||Support|
|ATI Eyefinity Technology||Support|
|VGA Output||Via Adapter|
|DVI Output||DL-DVI-I/ SL-DVI-D|
The PowerColor packaging is distinctive if nothing else. A huge fantasy style warrior with a serious two-handed sword. A nice metaphor for our two-card review.
The PowerColor follows the standard reference design but for the rather impressive sticker that apes the box design.
We don't want to go on about it, but firstly it's the only difference between this card and the ones we looked at a couple of days ago and secondly it's one of the most impressive bits of artwork we've seen in a long time. Reminiscent of a Stephen Jackson book or an old 80s text adventure.
Nothing quite like a pair of cards to really make the pulse race that little bit quicker.
The twin-BIOS switch we saw on the HIS Digital cards appears here too, showing it's a feature of the new AMD cards specifically rather than a addition of that particular manufacturer.
The inputs and outputs are the same as we've seen before with a PCIe 8pin and 6pin providing the power necessary for the HD6970. Outputs are covered by twin mini-DisplayPort, HDMI and two DVI-Ds.
PowerColor HD6970 CrossfireX
ASUS Rampage III Extreme
Intel i7 950 @ 4GHz
6GB Mushkin Redline RAM
Corsair AX1200 PSU
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Thanks to the extra day between the two reviews we're able to run our tests using the official Catalyst 10.12 drivers so hopefully this will show if the genuine drivers provide any performance improvement over the betas.
For our testing we're going down a slightly different path than normal. Usually we do our best to match cards that we expect will have similar performance, along with ones that would be at a similar price.
The HD6970, as I said on Wednesday, is priced to compete with the nVidia GTX570 so it would make sense to compare to a SLI GTX570 setup. The problem is that so many cards have been released recently, and so many manufacturers are keen to move them around as swiftly as possible, that we've never had two at the same time to test and certainly haven't got one to hand now.
So what does it mean? Well for our synthetic testing we'll be including the HD6870 Crossfire setup, but we can tell you now that it really doesn't cut the mustard and so wasn't included in our gaming benchmarks for time reasons. The main bulk of our tests will be against the GTX480 in SLI, which just about matches up on price. The GTX580 in a single card to see how well a cheaper solution performs, and then the GTX580 in SLI to see how our PowerColor HD6970s perform against the fastest setup on the planet.
Despite all that the real key to the testing is to get a feel for the performance we might see from the potentially forthcoming HD6990 which is going to be a twin-GPU card based upon these new HD69 GPUs. Considering the HD5970 still holds its head up high then its sequel should be good for a long while and today's testing should give us a clue of future events.
In keeping with the reference nature of the cards we achieved an identical 70 MHz overclock. A lot of the overclocking capabilities of the HD6970s seem to be limited by the new TDP method of clocking with the Catalyst Control Centre. It will be interesting to see if any Partner companies come up with an alternative solution to enable higher speeds to be obtained.
3D Mark Vantage
Obviously the star is the GTX580 SLI setup and we'd expect nothing less. That's not really what we're looking at though. When compared to the GTX480 SLI we find the HD6970XF is just behind in performance which relies hugely on raw grunt, but as the image-quality gets higher it edges ahead, and then smashes, the nVidia offering. The HD6870 is very disappointing in comparison and the only surprise is how little benefit the overclock on our HD6970XF gives.
3D Mark 11
Firstly please notice the change of comparisons. 3D Mark 11 is so new we haven't got a huge selection sample to work with. However the thing of importance to note is how great the scaling is. Not quite 100% but we're not so foolish to expect that, it's pretty damn close. Probably about 80% effective. Don't be fooled by the scores being lower than Vantage either, this is smooth.
When we looked at the single HD6970 we found the improvements AMD have made to the tessellation performance were such that it completely dominated our Unigine benchmark and the results continue here. Even the mighty £900 GTX580 SLI rig crumbles under the performance of the HD6970XF.
If you needed any further proof of the improvements that have been made then just look at the HD6870XF performance. We're not sure if AMD have admitted defeat with it or genuinely think that it's a contender, but the HD6970 annihilates it so completely it's almost unfair.
With 8 Anti-Aliasing samples the HD6970XF just keeps eating Unigine Heaven for breakfast, rocking a magnificent 110 frames-per-second. As it's now producing more than double the frame-rate of the HD6870 we're going to drop that from our gaming tests as it's obviously a white elephant.
Alien vs Predator
It's become a common theme that results in synthetic gaming benchmarks don't follow through in real-life testing and so it proves here. Although much less than we'd imagine. Despite the GTX580SLI being ahead, as we'd have bet our house it will be, the HD6970XF isn't disgraced at all being only 10 meaningless frames behind the nVidia behemoth, and 20 ahead of the fiscally comparable GTX480 SLI setup.
Moving on to Crysis Warhead we firstly have to point out that for our SLI/Crossfire testing we move from our usual 0xAA Gamer setup into maximum territory with full anti-aliasing and Enthusiast levels of detail. Settings that reduce almost anything to a slide-show prove no match for the HD6970XF as it nearly makes 60FPS when at stock and with our overclock it breaks past the magical 60FPS barrier.
We've been fairly surprised by the great performance of the PowerColor HD6970s when Crossfire'd, but all our testing has shown most of their performance comes from improved pipelines and similar rather than any claw-hammer levels of pixel pumping. Not so in FarCry 2, a game which up to now has totally been dominated by fast cards instead of clever ones. The HD6970XF setup keeps pace with the vastly pricier nVidia setup. Impressive.
Now the middle of our page of surprises comes another. Is it that the single GTX580 goes as well as the SLI setup? Is it that HD6970XF is poor but still good? We can't decide. Any of the cards on test will spank the game hard, but we can't work out why HAWX 2, a game that doesn't stress a toaster, would perform so poorly here.
Finishing up as we always do with the very stern Metro 2033. A game that makes full use of DirectX 11 features and so should run well on the HD6970XF, but also enjoys some serious PhysX and so prefers the nVidia hardware generally. Everything has come full-circle though with the GTX580SLI comfortably ahead, but our final surprise is the big margin by which the PowerColor HD6970XF setup on review today manages to totally beast the GTX480SLI setup.
This job is an odd one sometimes.
Those who dream of it think it's all about playing with big boys toys and having a blast. When you explain to them that we don't get time to play at all because every review has to be done precisely enough to ensure all the results are valid and there is only so many times you can watch 3D Mark loop or run through the same bit of Crysis Warhead before you'd kill to play Freecell.
Everyone else wonders how we manage to stay motivated when you're looking at the next in an endless line of identical reference cards and trying to find something new to say.
To answer them both together, it's reviews like the PowerColor HD6970 Crossfire that do both. We'd spent so long waiting for the big-guns of the AMD line-up to appear that when it did and was 'alright' it was tough to eradicate the general ennui we felt. So you can forgive us if we approached the Crossfire review with a sense of trepidation.
However, to finalise the above thoughts, when something performs so well it's exactly the battery recharge that keeps up coming back for more day after day and the PowerColor HD6970XF is exactly that.
The performance is nothing short of stunning for a setup that's only just north of £550. It wouldn't have been long ago that £1200 worth of GPU hardware would just about have been enough to get these kind of frame-rates, especially out of Crysis Warhead, yet here we are with two cards that are taking on, and keeping up with, the very best in the world.
The few tests that the considerably pricier GTX580SLI setup comes out on top are ones where the HD6970XF is already pushing out huge numbers and the difference is pretty meaningless.
Over 70FPS in Metro 2033, over 60 in Crysis Warhead when everything is utterly maxed out, the best scores we've ever seen in Unigine and great scaling performance as we saw in 3D Mark 11, there really isn't much this setup doesn't do well.
It's especially impressive when you realise that it's a Core i7-950 cheaper than the nVidia setup with very little 'real world' difference. Certainly nothing that you'd notice with vSync on.
One thing has become clear this week and that is that we should all pretend the HD6870 never happened and rejoice in the great performance of the latest sub-£300 card from AMD.
Raw polygon munching performance coupled to reasonable heat and noise is enough to see the PowerColor HD6970 Crossfire get the OC3D Silver Award for the cards and our Performance award for being exceptionally fast on a sensible dual-GPU budget.
Thanks to PowerColor for providing the cards for today's review. Discuss in our forums.