AMD's Radeon HD 5870: Bringing About the Next Generation Of GPUsby Ryan Smith on September 23, 2009 9:00 AM EST
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The easiest kind of product for us to write about is the kind that’s clearly superior to its competition. The hardest kind to write about is the kind that’s stuck in the middle. For the 5870, we have the latter case.
Let’s be clear here: the 5870 is the single fastest single-GPU card we have tested, by a wide margin. Looking at its performance in today’s games, as a $379 card it makes the GTX 285 at its current prices ($300+) completely irrelevant. The price difference isn’t enough to make up for the performance difference, and NVIDIA also has to contend with the 5850, which should perform near the GTX 285 but at a price of $259. As is often the case with a new generation of cards, we’re going to see a shakeup here in the market as NVIDIA in particular needs to adjust to these new cards.
The catch however is that what we don’t have is a level of clear domination when it comes to single-card solutions. AMD was shooting to beat the GTX 295 with the 5870, but in our benchmarks that’s not happening. The 295 and the 5870 are close, perhaps close enough that NVIDIA will need to reconsider their position, but it’s not enough to outright dethrone the GTX 295. NVIDIA still has the faster single-card solution, although the $100 price premium is well in excess of the <10% performance premium.
Meanwhile AMD is retiring the 4870X2, which ended up beating the 5870 enough that we would consider it a competitor to the 5870. However, you can’t consider it if you can’t buy it.
Then we have the multi-GPU space, where things are rather clear. Having the fastest single-GPU card makes the 5870 in Crossfire the fastest dual-GPU solution by far. Unfortunately we didn’t have a chance to benchmark a GTX 295 Quad SLI setup, but given the notoriously finicky nature of Quad SLI and Quad Crossfire, we’re comfortable calling the 5870 CF the better multi-GPU solution.
And that brings us to our next conundrum: if dual-GPU setups can overshoot the 5870, does that make them better? At equal performance levels, we would take a single-GPU setup any day of the week; there are no profiles to deal with or the sometimes inconsistent scaling in performance (see: Dawn of War II). Even with a slight lead in performance, we would pick the 5870 over the 4870X2 or GTX 295 so long as the latter were not significantly cheaper. As it stands the 5870 is the greater value, even if it's not the fastest card.
Moving away from performance, we have feature differentiation. AMD has a clear advantage here with DirectX11, as the 5870 is going to be a very future-proof card. The 8800GTX is a good parallel here – it took 3 years for it to really be outclassed in terms of features, and the performance is still respectable today. DX11 is going to give the 5870 the same level of longevity when it comes to being up-to-date on features, although we’ll see if its performance lasts for quite as long. When games using DX11 arrive, it’s going to bring about a nice change in quality (particularly with tessellation). However it’s going to be a bit of a wait to get there.
On that tangent, we have Eyefinity. Unlike DX11 Eyefinity is something we can take advantage of today, but also unlike DX11 it’s not necessarily an improvement. As Anand discussed when attempting to use it, when it works it’s absolutely great, but at the moment it has some real teething issues. And it’s expensive – even 3 cheap TV-quality monitors is an investment for most people of hundreds of dollars on top of everything else. It’s very much like a certain NVIDIA feature in terms of cost, goals, and its hit-or-miss nature. Eyefinity is something we’re going to want to keep an eye on to see what AMD does with it in the future, because they’re on the right track. It’s just not something that’s going to tickle the fancy of very many people today.
Wrapping things up, for those of you who were expecting the 5870 to shake things up, the 5870 is certainly going to do that. For those of you looking for the above and a repeat of the RV770/GT200 launch where prices will go into a free fall, you’re going to come away disappointed. That task will fall upon the 5850, and we’re looking forward to reviewing it as soon as we can.
At the end of the day, with its impressive performance and next-generation feature set, the Radeon HD 5870 kicks off the DirectX 11 generation with a bang and manages to take home the single-GPU performance crown in the process. It’s without a doubt the high-end card to get.