Once Again The Card They Beg You To Overclock

One of the 5970’s unique attributes was that while at default clocks and voltages it was designed to meet a 300W TDP, it was designed for much more. AMD’s design called for it to be able to handle 400W, the amount of power needed to operate the card as if it were a true dual-GPU 5870. In practice this fell a bit short due to VRM temperatures, but for most games this was a workable solution.

In AMD’s case it has paid off well enough that with the 6990 they are returning with the same philosophy, differing only in implementation details.  AMD’s engineers have gone and built a card that can run its GPU at 6970-like GPU clocks (880MHz), you just have to do some overclocking to get there. And while AMD’s legal department will tell you that no overclock is guaranteed and that doing so voids any warranty, the design and the binning of GPUs virtually ensures every card can hit 6970 core clocks.

AMD refers to the 6990 as a 450W card. At default clocks it has a rated TDP of 375W but the cooler itself is designed to take 450W, which is why AMD went with so many design changes such as the dual-exhaust system and the exotic thermal compound. The result is that the card can generally keep itself cool at 6970 speeds, and in fact does a better job of this than the 5970 did at 5870 speeds. The catch here is that you will need sufficient cooling to deal with the heat the card dumps in to the case, 225W+ to be precise. Thus while the 6990 is already a card with specialized cooling requirements, the 6990 when overclocked is even more so. With FurMark our numbers point to our card drawing more than 500W, so 6990 overclocking is not for the faint of heart.

With the 5970 AMD enabled overclocking by producing a quick & dirty utility to bump the card’s voltage up to 5870 voltages, which then could be used with Overdrive to achieve the desired clocks. This certainly worked but it wasn’t smooth and it wasn’t consistent - not every vendor used AMD’s utility (particularly if they had their own in-house overclocking utility), and if you did use AMD’s utility then you had to set the voltage and do overclocking on every boot. AMD is not about to include voltage controls in the Catalyst Overdrive controls, so they’ve gone for a better way.


The 5970's ATI Overvolt Tool

Do you recall the BIOS selection switch on the 6900 series cards? On those cards, it was to allow users to safely flash new BIOSes to their cards while having a fallback BIOS to work from. The 6990 takes this concept and repurposes it to fit the 6990’s unique overclocking needs. The switch is still there, but instead of identical BIOSes the switch controls which performance BIOS is used. Position 2, the default position, is a write-protected BIOS that runs the 6990 at its default core clock of 830MHz and default core voltage of 1.12v. Position 1 is a write-enabled BIOS that runs the 6990 at the same core speeds and voltages as the 6970: 880MHz core clock and 1.175v core voltage; meanwhile memory clocks remain unchanged at sub-6970 speeds of 5GHz. AMD calls it the AUSUM switch (Antilles Unlocking Switch for Uber Mode); ignore the name, focus on the fact that the switch is what controls the core voltage on the 6990.


6950/6970 BIOS Switch

From a usability standpoint, the benefit of using the BIOS switch for this is that it’s much more consistent across vendors and it doesn’t require any software interaction. Just flip the switch and you’re done. However we would still count on seeing some vendors taking things a step further and offering fine-tuned voltage control for the card.

Along with the increase in the core clock and the voltage, AMD’s documentation also lists the PowerTune limit as being increased for uber mode. AMD tells us that the limit here is 450W (540W with +20% PT), however in our testing we were unable to hit that limit. Every test up to and including FurMark ran unthrottled, and we peg power consumption there at over 500W. If indeed there isn’t a PowerTune limit this is good news for extreme overclockers, but it means if you use uber mode PowerTune won’t be there to save your bacon if you push too hard.

Radeon HD 6990 BIOS Switch
Position Core Clock/Voltage PowerTune Limit Write-Protected
1 880Mhz/1.175v None No
2 (Default) 830MHz/1.12v 375W Yes

As far as additional overclocking is concerned we did not push our sample beyond uber clockspeeds. In uber mode we were already hitting GPU temperatures of 94C in Furmark, which is as high as we’re willing to go. Better cooling of course would allow easier overclocking, and with a an overdrive limit of 1.2GHz in uber mode, the card should vanish in a puff of smoke well before Overdrive becomes a limit.


Radeon HD 6990 Overdrive Limits

Of course all of this talk of overclocking cannot be held without saying something about power consumption. With 2 8pin PCIe power sockets the 6990 is already drawing the full 150W per 8pin line the PCIe specification calls for; uber mode exceeds this, potentially by quite a bit. AMD has engineered the 6990 to pull most excess power from the PCIe power sockets and not the slot itself (since the slot is the weakest link), so a notably overbuilt power supply would be necessary. AMD hasn’t provided any official guidance here, but a well-built power supply offering 20A (240W) per 8pin line with an independent rail for each line would seem to be the minimum to get away with uber mode.

Ultimately however, as we’ll see the 6990OC doesn’t have nearly as large a performance bump to it as the 5970OC did. Thanks to the much higher default clocks, the 6990OC’s core clock is only 6% faster and the memory clock is the same, versus 17% faster on the core clock and 20% faster on the memory clock for the 5970. As a result you get much better performance out of the box, but unlike the 5970 flipping the magic switch doesn’t significantly increase the card’s performance this time around. So unlike the 5970 if you want to significantly improve performance over stock, you’ll have to do some equally significant custom overclocking on the 6990.

Finally, in a close examination of a minor detail, unlike on the 6950/6970 it’s clear that AMD doesn’t intend for this switch to be easily accessible. The switch on the 6990 is slightly recessed, not by enough to make it hard to hit but enough that you’ll never accidentally hit it. Flipping the switch would need to be a conscientious action, which makes sense given the fact that doing so would void the card’s warranty.

Update: After publication of this article there's been some slight confusion on the matter of the AWSUM switch and the warranty. AMD's official guidance is that overclocking the card voids the warranty, which means that AWSUM/uber mode is warranty breaking. Technically speaking just flipping the switch doesn't break the warranty - it's operating the card that does - but retail cards will come with a sticker over the switch warning users of the potential danger of overclocking and that it violates the warranty. So breaking the sticker to flip the switch will for all practical purposes violate the warranty. Specific policies may differ by partner, however.

Meet The 6990, Cont PCI-Express Compliance: Does It Even Matter?
POST A COMMENT

130 Comments

View All Comments

  • iamezza - Tuesday, March 08, 2011 - link

    This could make for an extremely valuable article for gamers on a budget. When does lack of PCIe bandwidth become an issue for running SLI/crossfire?

    Testing 580SLI at 2 x 8 and 2 x 16 modes would be a good place to start....
    Reply
  • therealnickdanger - Tuesday, March 08, 2011 - link

    It will be curious to see what impact the bandwidth will have... then again, even with the restriction, the current Sandy Bridge systems still dominate the previous chips.

    In reality, 16/16 or 8/8 really doesn't have much impact. The difference even at 2560x1600 with all the fixins in even the most demanding games is <1%. Unless AT's new test system will feature six displays and 4K+ resolutions, I'm not sure SNB-E is worth waiting so long for (yes, that could be perceived as a challenge!)

    In any case, I'm looking forward to it! Thanks for the article!
    Reply
  • shaggart5446 - Tuesday, March 08, 2011 - link

    i hope u said the same thing when ur friend nvidia release their 590 card i also do hope u say the exact words that the 590 dont make any sence since a pair of 560 or 570 can give u the same performance as the 590 i cant wait to see ur article on the 590 ill be waiting for anand tfor this because we all know that the 590 are going to be down clock Reply
  • ClownPuncher - Tuesday, March 08, 2011 - link

    With cards designed specifically with multi monitor gaming in mind, you may want to include those resolutions. Buying this card for 1920x1200 would make zero sense. Reply
  • 7Enigma - Wednesday, March 09, 2011 - link

    I think it was good to have both. The number of people buying this card will likely have 30" displays, but I'm sure some (competetive FPS for example) will want extremely fluid display even in busy scenes, as well as the person that doesn't yet have the cash to upgrade to a big screen but plans to in the near future.

    I would also argue that there are likely vastly more people playing on large single-screen displays than eyefinity folks so this does make more sense. And honestly when some of the games are averaging in the sub 80-100 fps range, those minimum framerates approach questionable playability depending on type of game.

    So basically as crazy as it is to say this, the graphical power isn't quite there yet to use Eyefinity at high detail settings in more recent and demanding games.
    Reply
  • Nentor - Tuesday, March 08, 2011 - link

    "With but a trio of exceptions, the 6990 doesn’t make sense compared to a pair of cards in Crossfire."

    This product is not meant to make any sense from a financial, performance or even practical standpoint.

    It IS the fastest videocard and that is that.

    I was watching a video last night on youtube of a chainsaw powered by a Buick's V8 engine (hG5sTLY0-V8). It goes through a tree trunk in a blink of an eye, but it had to be lifted by TWO men.

    Sure is cool though.
    Reply
  • Squuiid - Sunday, March 13, 2011 - link

    It makes complete sense if you want SLI in a small form factor, mATX and such. (as do I).
    PCIe slots are at a premium, and so is space on a mATX board/case.

    However, I think I'm going to wait and see what the 590 looks like...
    Reply
  • Fhistleb - Tuesday, March 08, 2011 - link

    I didn't even think that was possible. Though with what this is pushing out its a little expected I suppose. Reply
  • stangflyer - Tuesday, March 08, 2011 - link

    I would like to see the 6990 and 5970 comparison in crysis and metro at eyefinity and single monitor res but with the 5970 at default clocks and close to 5870 clocks. When I am playing these games I have my 5970 at 850 core and 1150 memory and it runs all day without any throttling.

    The 5970 is handicapped at the default speeds as everyone can run at or real close to 5870 speeds. The core is easy at 850 but you may need to back down memory to 1150 or 1175.

    Would love to see the true difference in the 5970 and 6990 this way.

    The framebuffer will be the big difference at eyefinity res. with any aa applied.
    Reply
  • stangflyer - Tuesday, March 08, 2011 - link

    One thing I do like about the dual gpu amd cards is that I play a few games that use physx.. (I have a 5970) I have a 250gts in the second pcie slot. both my slots are 2x16. This way I have a powerfull gpu and physx! I play my games at 5040x1050 and a single card just don't cut it. I did use nvidia surround for 2 months but like my eyefinity setup better. To go crossfire and then have physx you need a motherboard that doesn't knock your pcie slot down to 8x with 3 cards which are few and expensive and also a case that has space for that 3rd card like a coolermaster haf 932X. I have a haf 932 (not X) and I could not go 3 cards unless the 3rd card is single slot.

    On a side note as to why I am sticking with my 5970 till the 28nm show up is that I like the way the cooler is set up. With the fan on the end I have my 250gts below it with about a 3/8 inch below it. BUT the 250gts is only about 7.5-8 inches long and does not cover the fan at all because the fan is at the end. I have a 120mm fan at the bottom of my haf 932 case that blows straight up into the 5970 fan.

    If I used a 6990 the 250gts would cover the 6990 fan.

    My choices would be then to sell the 250gts and get a single slot card. (450gts probably)

    I think I am just going to stay with what I have for now.

    Maybe! LOL!
    Reply

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now