AMD’s Radeon HD 6870 & 6850: Renewing Competition in the Mid-Range Marketby Ryan Smith on October 21, 2010 10:08 PM EST
Going in to our first meeting with AMD, we weren’t quite sure what to expect with the Radeon HD 6800 series. After all, how do you follow up on the blockbuster that was Cypress and the Radeon HD 5800 series?
The answer is that you don’t, at least not right away. With AMD’s choice of names in mind, Barts and the 6800 series isn’t the true successor to Cypress; but it is the next generation of Radeon for another market. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a great product line though – in fact that’s far from it.
The 6800 series hits the one market segment that AMD couldn’t reach with either the 5800 series or the 5700 series: the $200 market. As we said back in July when we crowned the GTX 460 the $200 king, the most successful chips are those chips that are designed from the get-go for the market they’re being sold in. The GTX 460 succeeded where the Cypress could not, as the penalty for using a harvested Cypress chip for that market was too severe and AMD had little else to work with.
Now 3 months later AMD has their appropriate answer to the $200 market in the form of Barts and the Radeon HD 6800 series. The Barts GPU is small enough to cheaply produce for that market, and with AMD’s rebalanced design it’s capable of trailing the 5800 series by only 7%, making Cypress-like performance available for prices lower than before. It’s the missing link that AMD has needed to be competitive with the GTX 460.
As a result, even with NVIDIA’s latest round of price drops AMD has managed to dethrone the $200 king, and in the process is reshaping the competitive market only recently established by the GTX 460. With AMD and NVIDIA’s price stratification there are very few head-to-head matchups, but there are a few different situations that bear looking at.
At the top end we have the Mexican standoff between the recently price-reduced GTX 470, the newly released Radeon HD 6870, and the overclocked GTX 460 as represented by the EVGA GTX 460 1GB FTW. At $260 the GTX 470 is several percent faster than the 6870, and at only $20 more NVIDIA has done a good job pricing the card. If performance is your sole concern, than the GTX 470 is hard to beat at those prices – though we suspect NVIDIA isn’t happy about selling GF100 cards at such a low price.
Meanwhile if you care about a balance of performance and power/heat/noise, then it’s the 6870 versus the EVGA GTX 460; and the EVGA card wins in an unfair fight. As an overclocked card in a launch card article we’re not going to give it a nod, but we’re not going to ignore it; it’s 5% faster than the reference 6870 while at the same time it’s cooler and quieter (thanks in large part to the fact that it’s an open-air design). At least as long as it’s on the market (we have our doubts about how many suitable GPUs NVIDIA can produce), it’s hard to pass up even when faced with the 6870.
Without the EVGA card in the picture though, the 6870 is clearly sitting at a sweet spot in terms of price, performance, and noise. It’s faster than the 5850 while drawing only as much power and yet it’s still slightly quieter. Meanwhile it completely clobbers the reference clocked GTX 460 1GB in gaming performance, although with NVIDIA’s new prices and the $30 premium we would hope that this is the case. If nothing else the 6870 wins by default – NVIDIA doesn’t have a real product to put against it.
As for the Radeon HD 6850 however, things are much more lopsided in AMD’s favor. It’s give and take depending on the benchmark, but ultimately it’s just as fast as the GTX 460 1GB on average, even though it’s officially $20 cheaper. And at the same time it draws less power and produces less noise than the GTX 460 1GB. In fact unless the GTX 460 1GB was cheaper than the 6850, we really can’t come up with a reason to buy it. For all the advantage of an overclock when going up against the 6870, the stock clocked card has nothing on the 6850. Even the GTX 460 768MB, while $10-$20 cheaper than the 6850, still has to contend with the fact that the 6850 is almost 10% faster and only marginally louder.
In fact our only real concern is that while the reference 6850 is a great card, the XFX card is less so – XFX heavily prioritized temperatures over noise, and while this pays off with a load temperate even better than the GTX 460, it comes at the price of noise levels exceeding even the 6870. Shortly before publication we got a note from XFX that they’re going to work on releasing a BIOS with a less aggressive fan, which hopefully should resolve the issue. In the meantime we suggest checking back here next week, as we’ll have several custom 6850s arriving next week that we’ll be reviewing as part of a 6850 roundup.
Wrapping things up, we believe this will probably go down as being the most competitive card launch of the year. AMD and NVIDIA reposition themselves against each other with every launch, but by first launching the Radeon HD 6000 series against NVIDIA’s mid-to-high range GTX 460, AMD has gone head-first in to one of NVIDIA’s most prized markets, and NVIDIA is pushing right back. If you would have told us 3 months ago that we would have been able to get GTX 460 1GB performance for $180 only a couple months later, we likely would have called you mad, and yet here we are. The competitive market is alive and then some.
Ultimately this probably won’t go down in history as one of AMD’s strongest launches – there’s only so much you can do without a die shrink – but it’s still a welcome addition to the Radeon family. With a new generation of Radeon cards taking their foothold, we now can turn our eyes towards the future, and to see what AMD will be bringing us with the Radeon HD 6900 series and the Cayman GPU.