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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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167 Comments

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  • MeanBruce - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    TechPowerUp.com shows the 6850 as 95percent or almost double the performance of the 4850 and 100percent more efficient than the 4850@1920x1200. I also am upgrading an old 4850, as far as the 6950 check their charts when they come up later today. Reply
  • mapesdhs - Monday, December 20, 2010 - link


    Today I will have completed by benchmark pages comparing 4890, 8800GT and
    GTX 460 1GB (800 and 850 core speeds), in both single and CF/SLI, for a range
    of tests. You should be able to extrapolate between known 4850/4890 differences,
    the data I've accumulated, and known GTX 460 vs. 68xx/69xx differences (baring
    in mind I'm testing with 460s with much higher core clocks than the 675 reference
    speed used in this article). Email me at mapesdhs@yahoo.com and I'll send you
    the URL once the data is up. I'm testing with 3DMark06, Unigine (Heaven, Tropics
    and Sanctuary), X3TC, Stalker COP, Cinebench, Viewperf and PT Boats. Later
    I'll also test with Vantage, 3DMark11 and AvP.

    Ian.
    Reply
  • ZoSo - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    Helluva 'Bang for the Buck' that's for sure! Currently I'm running a 5850, but I have been toying with the idea of SLI or CF. For a $300 difference, CF is the way to go at this point.
    I'm in no rush, I'm going to wait at least a month or two before I pull any triggers ;)
    Reply
  • RaistlinZ - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    I'm a bit underwhelmed from a performance standpoint. I see nothing that will make me want to upgrade from my trusty 5870.

    I would like to see a 2x6950 vs 2x570 comparison though.
    Reply
  • fausto412 - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    exactly my feelings.

    it's like thinking Miss Universe is about to screw you and then you find out it's her mom....who's probably still hot...but def not miss universe
    Reply
  • Paladin1211 - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    CF scaling is truly amazing now, I'm glad that nVidia has something to catch up in terms of driver. Meanwhile, the ATI wrong refresh rate is not fixed, it stucks at 60hz where the monitor can do 75hz. "Refresh force", "refresh lock", "ATI refresh fix", disable /enable EDID, manually set monitor attributes in CCC, EDID hack... nothing works. Even the "HUGE" 10.12 driver can't get my friend's old Samsung SyncMaster 920NW to work at its native 1440x900@75hz, both in XP 32bit and win 7 64bit. My next monitor will be an 120hz for sure, and I don't want to risk and ruin my investment, AMD. Reply
  • mapesdhs - Monday, December 20, 2010 - link


    I'm not sure if this will help fix the refresh issue (I do the following to fix max res
    limits), but try downloading the drivers for the monitor but modify the data file
    before installing them. Check to ensure it has the correct genuine max res and/or
    max refresh.

    I've been using various models of CRT which have the same Sony tube that can
    do 2048 x 1536, but every single vendor that sells models based on this tube has
    drivers that limited the max res to 1800x1440 by default, so I edit the file to enable
    2048 x 1536 and then it works fine, eg. HP P1130.

    Bit daft that drivers for a monitor do not by default allow one to exploit the monitor
    to its maximum potential.

    Anyway, good luck!!

    Ian.
    Reply
  • techworm - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    future DX11 games will stress GPU and video RAM incrementally and it is then that 6970 will shine so it's obvious that 6970 is a better and more future proof purchase than GTX570 that will be frame buffer limited in near future games Reply
  • Nickel020 - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    In the table about whether PowerTune affects an application or not there's a yes for 3DMark, and in the text you mention two applications saw throttling (with 3DMark it would be three). Is this an error?

    Also, you should maybe include that you're measuring the whole system power in the PowerTune tables, it might be confusing for people who don't read your reviews very often to see that the power draw you measured is way higher than the PowerTune level.

    Reading the rest now :)
    Reply
  • stangflyer - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    Sold my 5970 waiting for 6990. With my 5970 playing games at 5040x1050 I would always have a 4th extended monitor hooked up to a tritton uve-150 usb to vga adapter. This would let me game while having the fourth monitor display my teamspeak, afterburner, and various other things.
    Question is this!! Can i use the new 6950/6970 and use triple monitor and also use a 4th screen extended at the same time? I have 3 matching dell native display port monitors and a fourth with vga/dvi. Can I use the 2 dp's and the 2 dvi's on the 6970 at the same time? I have been looking for this answer for hours and can't find it! Thanks for the help.
    Reply

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