There are only a handful of metrics by which 2009 didn’t end as a successful year for AMD. With the launch of the Radeon HD 5800 series in September of that year AMD got a significant and unusually long-standing jump on the competition. By being the first company to transition a high-end GPU to TSMC’s 40nm process they were able to bring about the next generation of faster and cheaper video cards, quickly delivering better performance at better prices than their 55nm predecessors and competitors alike. At the same time they were the first company to produce a GPU for the new DirectX 11 standard, giving them access to a number of new features, a degree of future proofness, and good will with developers eager to get their hands on DX11 hardware.

Ultimately AMD held the high-end market for over 6 months until NVIDIA was able to counter back with the Fermi based GTX 400 series. Though it’s not unprecedented for a company to rule the high-end market for many months at a time, it’s normally in the face of slower but similar cards from the competition – to stand alone is far more rare. This is not to say that it was easy for AMD, as TSMC’s 40nm production woes kept AMD from fully capitalizing on their advantages until 2010. But even with 40nm GPUs in short supply, it was clearly a good year for AMD.

Now in the twilight of the year 2010, the landscape has once again shifted. NVIDIA did deliver the GTX 400 series, and then they delivered the GTX 500 series, once more displacing AMD from the high-end market as NVIDIA’s build’em big strategy is apt to do. In October we saw AMD reassert themselves in the mid-range market with the Radeon HD 6800 series, delivering performance close to the 5800 series for lower prices and at a greater power efficiency, and provoking a price war that quickly lead to NVIDIA dropping GTX 460 prices. With the delivery of the 6800 series, the stage has been set for AMD’s return to the high-end market with the launch of the Radeon HD 6900 series.

Launching today are the Radeon HD 6970 and Radeon HD 6950, utilizing AMD’s new Cayman GPU. Born from the ashes of TSMC’s canceled 32nm node, Cayman is the biggest change to AMD’s GPU microarchitecture since the original Radeon HD 2900. Just because AMD doesn’t have a new node to work with this year doesn’t mean they haven’t been hard at work, and as we’ll see Cayman and the 6900 series will brings that hard work to the table. So without further ado, let’s dive in to the Radeon HD 6900 series.

  AMD Radeon HD 6970 AMD Radeon HD 6950 AMD Radeon HD 6870 AMD Radeon HD 6850 AMD Radeon HD 5870
Stream Processors 1536 1408 1120 960 1600
Texture Units 96 88 56 48 80
ROPs 32 32 32 32 32
Core Clock 880MHz 800MHz 900MHz 775MHz 850MHz
Memory Clock 1.375GHz (5.5GHz effective) GDDR5 1.25GHz (5.0GHz effective) GDDR5 1.05GHz (4.2GHz effective) GDDR5 1GHz (4GHz effective) GDDR5 1.2GHz (4.8GHz effective) GDDR5
Memory Bus Width 256-bit 256-bit 256-bit 256-bit 256-bit
Frame Buffer 2GB 2GB 1GB 1GB 1GB
FP64 1/4 1/4 N/A N/A 1/5
Transistor Count 2.64B 2.64B 1.7B 1.7B 2.15B
Manufacturing Process TSMC 40nm TSMC 40nm TSMC 40nm TSMC 40nm TSMC 40nm
Price Point $369 $299 $239 $179 ~$249

Following AMD’s unfortunate renaming of its product stack with the Radeon HD 6800 series, the Radeon HD 6900 series is thus far a 3 part, 2 chip lineup. Today we are looking at the Cayman based 6970 and 6950, composing the top of AMD’s single-GPU product line. Above that is Antilles, the codename for AMD’s dual-Cayman Radeon HD 6990. Originally scheduled to launch late this year, the roughly month-long delay of Cayman has pushed that back; we’ll now be seeing the 3rd member of the 6900 series next year. So today the story is all about Cayman and the single-GPU cards it powers.

At the top we have the Radeon HD 6970, AMD’s top single-GPU part. Featuring a complete Cayman GPU, it has 1536 stream processors, 96 texture units, and 32 ROPs. It is clocked at 880MHz for the core clock and 1375MHz (5.5GHz data rate) for its 2GB of GDDR5 RAM. TDP (or the closest thing to it) is 250W, while reflecting the maturity and AMD’s familiarity with the 40nm process typical idle power draw is down from the 5800 series to 20W.

Below that we have the Radeon HD 6950, the traditional lower power card using a slightly cut-down GPU. The 6950 has 1408 stream processors, 88 texture units, and still all 32 ROPs attached to the same 2GB of GDDR5. The core clock is similarly reduced to 800MHz, while the memory clock is 1250MHz (5GHz data rate). TDP is 200W, while idle power is the same as with the 6970 at 20W.

From the specifications alone it’s quickly apparent that something new is happening with Cayman, as at 1536 SPs it has fewer SPs than the 1600 SP Cypress/5870 it replaces. We have a great deal to talk about here, but we’ll stick to a high-level overview for our introduction. In the biggest change to AMD’s core GPU architecture since the launch of their first DX10/unified shader Radeon HD 2900 in 2007, AMD is moving away from the Very Long Instruction Word-5 (VLIW5) architecture we have come to know them for, in favor of a slightly less wide VLIW4 architecture. In a nutshell AMD’s SIMDs are narrower but there are more of them, as AMD looks to find a new balance in their core architecture. Although it’s not a new core architecture outright, the change from VLIW5 to VLIW4 brings a number of ramifications that we will be looking at. And this is just one of the many facets of AMD’s new architecture.

Getting right to the matter of performance, the 6970 performs very close to the GTX 570/480 on average, while the 6950 is in a class of its own, occupying the small hole between the 5870/470 and the 6970/570. With that level of performance the pricing for today’s launch is rather straightforward: the 6970 will be launching slightly above the 570 at $379, while the 6950 will be launching at the $299 sweet spot. Further down the line AMD’s partners will be launching 1GB versions of these cards, which will be bringing prices down as a tradeoff for potential memory bottlenecks.

Today’s launch is going to be hard launch, with both the 6970 and the 6950 available. AMD is being slightly more cryptic than usual about just what the launch quantities are; our official guidance is “available in quantity” and “tens of thousands” of cards. On the one hand we aren’t expecting anything nearly as constrained as the 5800 series launch, and at the same time AMD is not filling us with confidence that it will be widely available like the 6800 either. If at the end of this article you decide you want a 6900 card, your best bet is to grab one sooner than later.


AMD's Current Product Stack

With the launch of the 6900 series, the 5800 series is facing its imminent retirement. There are still a number of cards on the market and they’re priced to move, but AMD is looking at cleaning out its Cypress inventory over the next couple of months, so officially the 5800 series is no longer part of AMD’s current product stack. Meanwhile AMD’s dual-GPU 5970 remains an outlier, as its job is not quite done until the 6990 arrives – until then it’s still officially AMD’s highest-end card and their closest competitor to the GTX 580.

Meanwhile NVIDIA’s product stack and pricing stands as-is.

Winter 2010 Video Card MSRPs
NVIDIA Price AMD
$500  
  $470 Radeon HD 5970
$410  
  $369 Radeon HD 6970
$350  
  $299 Radeon HD 6950
 
$250 Radeon HD 5870
$240 Radeon HD 6870
$180-$190 Radeon HD 6850
Refresher: The 6800 Series’ New Features
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  • versesuvius - Friday, December 17, 2010 - link

    Ananke,

    I am not very knowledgeable about this, but I don't think a modern GPU can fit inside a CPU for now. A better idea would be a console on a card. The motherboards on the consoles are not much bigger than the large graphic cards of today. A console card for $100 would be great. I am sure that there is no technical obstacles that the average electronic wizard cannot overcome, doing that.

    Sure, there is a use for everything. I can imagine that every single human being on earth can find a use for a Ferrari, but the point is that even those who do have it, do not use it as often as their other car, (Toyota, VW or whatever). In fact, there is rarely a Ferrari that has more than 20,000 km on it, and even that is put on it by successive owners, not one. The average total an ordinary person can stand a Ferrari is 5000 KM. (Disclaimer: I do not have one. I only read something to that effect somewhere). Having said that, I do have a sense of the "need for speed". I can remember sitting in front of the university's 80286 waiting for the FE program to spit out the results, one node at a time, click, click, ... . You have millions of polygons, we can have billions of mesh nodes, and that even does not even begin to model a running faucet. How's that for the need for speed. I do appreciate the current speeds. However, the CPU deal was and is a straight one. The graphic card deals, today, are not. To be clear, the "and" in "High End"s and "Fool"s is an inclusive one. "Someone will pay for it", was also initiated in the eighties of the last century. By the way, the big question "can it play crysis", will no longer be. Crysis 2 is coming to the consoles.
    Reply
  • Quidam67 - Friday, December 17, 2010 - link

    "But can it play Crysis" should be in the Urban dictionary as a satirical reference on graphics code that combines two potent attributes: 1) is way ahead of its time in terms of what current hardware can support 2) is so badly written and optimised that even hardware that should be able to run it still can't.

    In 1000 years time when Organic Graphics cards that you can plug into your head still can't run it smoothly @2560*1600 60fps they will realise the joke was on us and that the code itself was written to run more and more needless loops in order to overwhelm any amount of compute-resource thrown at it.
    Reply
  • Iketh - Friday, December 24, 2010 - link

    LOL Reply
  • marc1000 - Friday, December 17, 2010 - link

    I swear I've read ALL the comments to see if anyone already pointed it... but no one did.

    I feel a bit disappointed with this launch too (I have a 5770 and wanted to get 6950 but was wanting a bigger increase %-wise). But one thing interesting it the number of Stream Processors in the new gpus. By the "pure processor" count this number decreased from 1600 SPs on 5870 to 1536 SPs on 6970. But the size of the VLIW processors changed too. It was 5 SPs on 5870 and now is 4 SPs.

    So we have:
    hd5870 = 1600 SPs / 5 = 320 "processors"
    hd6970 = 1536 SPs / 4 = 384 "processors"

    if we take that 384 and multiply by 5, we would have 1920 SPs on the new generation (on par with many rumors). this is 20% more shaders. and considering AMD is saying that the new VLIW4 is 10% faster than VLIW5 we should have more than 20% increase in all situations. but this is only true in the minority of tests (like crysis at 2560x1660 where it is 24%, but in the same game at 1680x1050 the increase is only 16%). and at the same time the minimun FPS got better, yet in another games the difference is smaller.

    but then again, I was expecting a little more. I believe the 6950 will be a worthy upgrade to me, but the expectations were so high that too much people ended a little disappointed... myself included.
    Reply
  • Sunburn74 - Tuesday, December 28, 2010 - link

    Well... at least they delivered on time and didn't make you wait 6 more months to simply deliver an equivalent, if not considerably worse, product. Reply
  • Mr Perfect - Friday, December 17, 2010 - link

    Yes, the minimums are appreciated when they're included.

    It would be even better if the framerates was displayed as a line graph instead of a bar graph. That way readers could tell if an average consisted of a lot of high peaks and low valleys, or really was a nice smooth experience all the way through. Some other review sites use linegraphs and while I visit Anandtech for it's timeliness, professionalism, industry insight and community involvement, I go to the other sites for the actual performance numbers.
    Reply
  • Quidam67 - Friday, December 17, 2010 - link

    There is further rationale for splitting the article. Lets say someone is googling "HD 6970 architecture" perhaps they will pick up this review, or perhaps they won't, but either way, if they see that it is actually a review on the cards, they might be inclined to bypass it in favour of a more focused piece.

    And again, there is no reason why the Architecture Article can't provide a hyperlink to the review, if the reader then decides they want to see how that architecture translates into performance on the current generation of cards supporting it.

    I really hope AT are reading this and giving it some consideration. As you say, they are a great sight and no one is disputing that, but it's not a religion, so you should be allowed to question it without being accused of blasphemy :O)
    Reply
  • dustcrusher - Friday, December 17, 2010 - link

    It really comes down to how important the mainstream market is. If they are a large enough segment of the market, one company using a simple, easy-to-grasp naming convention would likely grab some market share. Make it easy to buy your product and at least some people will be more likely to do so.

    If not, then it's fun to talk about but not terribly important. Tech-savvy folk will buy whatever meets their needs price/performance-wise after doing research, even if a card is named the Transylvania 6-9000 or the Wankermeister GTFO. Eager to please tech-naive folk are going to buy the largest model number they can get with the money they have, because "larger model numbers = bigger/better equipment" is a long-established consumer shorthand.

    I have a half-baked idea for a model numbering system that's based around the key specs of the card- it's a 5 digit system where the first digit is the hardware platform ID (like what we have now, mostly) and the other four would represent combinations of other specs (one digit could be the lowest memory clock speed and bus width would be 1, the next lowest memory clock speed and lowest bus width would be 2, etc).

    No idea if this could actually be implemented- there are probably too many variables with GPU/memory clock speeds, among other things.
    Reply
  • Shinobi_III - Saturday, December 18, 2010 - link

    If you ever saw Nvidia 4xAA in action, you know it's not as smooth as the radeon implementation (especially in motion) and z-buffer miscalculations has always been a nvidia feature.

    Go up a hill in Fallout New Vegas and look at Vegas in the horizon, with Nvidia cards it always looks like a disco due to meshes overlapping. Now do the same on Radeon.
    Reply
  • TheUsual - Saturday, December 18, 2010 - link

    Right now, Newegg has a 6870 for $200 after rebate. Two of these makes for an awesome value at $400. The top tier of cards doesn't give a corresponding increase in performance for the extra cost. Two 6950s costs 50% more but does not give you 50% more FPS. Two GTX 460 1GBs is also a great bang for the buck at $300.

    Neither of these lets you do triple SLI/XFIRE however. That would be what would be paying extra for.

    My hope is that the price will drop on the 6950 by around February. By then the GTX 560 should be out and might drive prices down some. The benchmarks could change some with Sandy Bridge too, if they are currently CPU bound.
    Reply

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