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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  • mac2j - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    Um - if you have the money for a 580 ... pick up another $80-100 and get 2 x 6950 - you'll get nearly the best possible performance on the market at a similar cost.

    Also I agree that Nvidia will push the 580 price down as much as possible... the problem is that if you believe all of the admittedly "unofficial" breakdowns ... it costs Nvidia 1.5-2x as much to make a 580 as it costs AMD to make a 6970.

    So its hard to be sure how far Nvidia can push down the price on the 580 before it ceases to become profitable - my guess is they'll focus on making a 565 type card which has almost 570 performance but for a manufacturing cost closer to what a 460 runs them.
    Reply
  • fausto412 - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    yeah. AMD let us down on this here product. We see what gtx580 is and what 6970 is...i would say if you planning to spend 500...the gtx580 is worth it. Reply
  • truepurple - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    "support for color correction in linear space"

    What does that mean?
    Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    There are two common ways to represent color, linear and gamma.

    Linear: Used for rendering an image. More generally linear has a simple, fixed relationship between X and Y, such that if you drew the relationship it would be a straight line. A linear system is easy to work with because of the simple relationship.

    Gamma: Used for final display purposes. It's a non-linear colorspace that was originally used because CRTs are inherently non-linear devices. If you drew out the relationship, it would be a curved line. The 5000 series is unable to apply color correction in linear space and has to apply it in gamma space, which for the purposes of color correction is not as accurate.
    Reply
  • IceDread - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    Yet again we do not get to see hd 5970 in crossfire despite it being a single card! Is this an nvidia site?

    Anyway, for those of you who do want to see those results, here is a link to a professional Swedish site!

    http://www.sweclockers.com/recension/13175-amd-rad...

    Maybe there is some google translation available or so if you want to understand more than the charts shows.
    Reply
  • medi01 - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    Wow, 5970 in crossfire consumes less than 580 in SLI.
    http://www.sweclockers.com/recension/13175-amd-rad...
    Reply
  • ggathagan - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    Absolutely!!!
    There's no way on God's green earth that Anandtech doesn't currently have a pair of 5970's on hand, so that MUST be the reason.
    I'll go talk to Anand and Ryan right now!!!!
    Oh, wait, they're on a conference call with Huang Jen-Hsun.....

    I'd like to note that I do not believe Anadtech ever did a test of two 5970's, so it's somewhat difficult to supply non-existent into any review.
    Ryan did a single card test in November 2009.That is the only review I've found of any 5970's on the site.
    Reply
  • vectorm12 - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    I was not aware of the fact that the 32nm process had been canned completely and was still expecting the 6970 to blow the 580 out of the water.

    Although we can't possibly know and are unlikely to ever find out what cayman at 32nm would have performed like I suspect AMD had to give up a good chunk of performance to fit it on the 389mm^2 40nm die.

    This really makes my choice easy as I'll pickup another cheap 5870 and run my system in CF.
    I think I'll be able to live with the performance until the refreshed cayman/next gen GPUs are ready for prime time.

    Ryan: I'd really like to see what ighashgpu can do with the new 6970 cards though. Although you produce a few GPGPU charts I feel like none of them really represent the real "number-crunching" performance of the 6970/6950.

    Ivan has already posted his analysis in his blog and it seems like the change from LWIV5 to LWIV4 made a negligible impact at the most. However I'd really love to see ighashgpu included in future GPU tests to test new GPUs and architectures.

    Thanks for the site and keep up the work guys!
    Reply
  • slagar - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    Gaming seems to be in the process of bursting its own bubble. Graphics of games isn't keeping up with the hardware (unless you cound gaming on 6 monitors) because most developers are still targeting consoles with much older technology.
    Consoles won't upgrade for a few more years, and even then, I'm wondering how far we are from "the final console generation". Visual improvements in graphics are becoming quite incremental, so it's harder to "wow" consumers into buying your product, and the costs for developers is increasing, so it's becoming harder for developers to meet these standards. Tools will always improve and make things easier and more streamlined over time I suppose, but still... it's going to be an interesting decade ahead of us :)
    Reply
  • darckhart - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    that's not entirely true. the hardware now allows not only insanely high resolutions, but it also lets those of us with more stringent IQ requirements (large custom texture mods, SSAA modes, etc) to run at acceptable framerates at high res in intense action spots. Reply

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