Sunday, 3 July 2011

AMD Radeon HD6970 - The Dark Horse

We’ve seen various graphics cards from NVIDIA’s stable go under the hammer recently, but it’s time to give the Red Side some attention, too. The AMD Radeon HD6970 is AMD’s fastest single GPU solution at the moment, taking over the mantle from last generation’s HD5870. Confusing naming convention changes aside, let’s see just how good this card is.
Is long. Very long.
Is long. Very long.

The HD6970 is designed like a beast. The first thing you’ll notice when you lay eyes on the card is its massive size. Well, it’s a normal two-slot card, but the 6970 is long. It’s a full-sized card, which is something you rarely see these days. Even the GTX580, which on first glance is the more powerful card, wasn’t this long. The 6970, on the other hand, doesn’t fit in mid-sized cabinets. This was a mild disappointment, because this pretty much alienates half the market AMD could have had with this card.
Gangway, train coming through!
Gangway, train coming through!

Size aside, the 6970 is a great looking card. It’s a bit iffy functionality wise, though. The single fan at the fag end of the card, much like the cards of the previous generation, might not be too effective at cancelling out the heat this card generates – even if the 6xxx series are more power-efficient than their predecessors. The fact that the card is nearly entirely closed off doesn’t help either – there are tiny vents at the top of the card and on the side panel, but the rest of the card doesn’t look too ventilated.

The connectivity options are fantastic, though. There are two DVI ports for Eyefinity, one full-sized HDMI 1.4a port and two mini-DisplayPorts 1.2, which is an offering far superior to any of NVIDIA's, really.

Anyway, even though I’m a bit worried about the design, what really matters are the specs and the performance. Time to take a look.

The 40nm Cayman chipset that powers the HD6970 has 32 ROPs, a mammoth 1536 shader units. The core and memory clocks are 880MHz and 1375MHz respectively, with the memory clock being particularly notable because of the 2GB GDDR5 memory that’s on this thing. That’s a lot of memory bandwidth folks and even if the memory bus is only 256-bit,  the amount of calculations this card can pull off are insane. Check out the specs below.
Spec Sheets
Spec sheet

Test Setup
Here’s the rig we used to test the AMD Radeon HD6970:
Intel Core i7 2600K at 3.4GHz
Gigabyte GA-P67A-UD3R
4GB DDR3 – Corsair Dominator GT
300GB Western Digital Velociraptor
AMD Catalyst version 11.2

It’s a bit hard to place the 6970’s performance, actually. At first glance, the card doesn’t seem to have been made aggressively enough. It suggests AMD were looking more at the GTX480 and GTX470 when creating it, rather than the GTX570 and the GTX580. As a result, the AMD Radeon HD6970’s performance is somewhat on par with the GTX570’s, and a fair bit away from the GTX580’s.

On the other hand, the vastly superior Shader count and double the memory means the HD6970 manages to hold its own even when the quality gets scaled up – and places itself exactly halfway between the GTX570 and the GTX580 when the load gets ramped up.

Heat, Noise and Power Consumption
The fear that arose in me as soon as I looked at the design came to be realized, because the HD6970 gets rather hot. Put your hands over any of the vents when the card is under full load, and you’ll see what I mean. The temperatures are still very acceptable though, but AMD should be looking to go even more downwards temperature-wise, and not stagnate at this level of heat suppression.

For a flagship single-GPU card, the 6970 is amazingly quiet. You can’t even hear it on idle, and even under considerable load it doesn’t get too noisy. It’s only when you put it under stress testing, and the temperatures cross 90 degrees does the fan really rev up and make some noise, but you’ve got to keep in mind those are just stress tests and those situations are not likely to recreate themselves in the real world.

The card slots in between the 570 and 580 when it comes to power consumption, which is not bad at all. However, I expected more from Cayman after looking at the 6800s. Even so, the continued downward trend in power consumption is extremely encouraging. If I can utter the phrase, “Gone are the days when graphics cards used to be hot, noisy, power hungry beasts” even once, I’ll die a happy man.

The AMD Radeon HD6970 is a disappointment when you look at the initial performance numbers. The card runs as hot as the GTX580, consumes as much power as the GTX570 and performs on the same level, which really shouldn’t be what the flagship card aspires to be.

There are words written between the lines though, words that are meant to be read. Even if people call the initial L4D numbers or the results on benchmarks run with AA off disappointing, those people sure aren’t going to buy an AMD Radeon HD6970 and run games with no anti-aliasing. The card’s performance drops get smaller and smaller the more you go up the quality ladder as compared to the other cards, which can be attributed to the shader count and the increased memory. This is the very definition of future proofing. If games are going to get more intensive as days go by, the 6970 – which might look inferior as a flagship card now – will stack up better against those games than say, the GTX570, for example.

Most importantly, AMD has brought it in the value department yet again. The MSI variant of this card is available for Rs. 21, 250, which is a pretty good price for this card. However, there are reports of the HD6950’s capability to be unlocked into the 6970, something we’ll investigate next time around.

1 comment:

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