AMD's Radeon HD 6970 & Radeon HD 6950: Paving The Future For AMDby Ryan Smith on December 15, 2010 12:01 AM EST
Often it’s not until the last moment that we have all the information in hand to completely analyze a new video card. The Radeon HD 6970 and Radeon HD 6950 were no different. With AMD not releasing the pricing information to the press until Monday afternoon, we had already finished our performance benchmarks before we even knew the price, so much time was spent speculating and agonizing over what route AMD would go. So let’s jump straight in to our recommendations.
Our concern was that AMD would shoot themselves in the foot by pricing the Radeon HD 6970 in particular at too high a price. If we take a straight average at 1920x1200 and 2560x1600, its performance is more or less equal to the GeForce GTX 570. In practice this means that NVIDIA wins a third of our games, AMD wins a third of our games, and they effectively tie on the rest, so the position of the 6970 relative to the GTX 570 is heavily dependent on just what games out of our benchmark suite you favor. All we can say for sure is that on average the two cards are comparable.
So with that in mind a $370 launch price is neither aggressive nor overpriced. Launching at $20 over the GTX 570 isn’t going to start a price war, but it’s also not so expensive to rule the card out. Of the two the 6970 is going to take the edge on power efficiency, but it’s interesting to see just how much NVIDIA and AMD’s power consumption and performance under gaming has converged. It used to be much more lopsided in AMD’s favor.
Meanwhile the Radeon HD 6950 occupies an interesting spot. Above it is the 570/6970, below it are the soon to be discontinued GTX 470 and Radeon HD 5870. These cards were a bit of a spoiler for the GTX 570, and this is once more the case for the 6950. The 6950 is on average 7-10% faster than the 5870 for around 20% more. I am becoming increasingly convinced that more than 1GB of VRAM is necessary for any new cards over $200, but we’re not quite there yet. When the 5870 is done and gone the 6950 will be a reasonable successor, but for the time being the 5870 at $250 currently is a steal of a deal if you don’t need the extra performance or new features like DP1.2. Conversely the 6950 is itself a bit of a spoiler; the 6970 is only 10-15% faster for $70 more. If you had to have a 6900 card, the 6950 is certainly the better deal. Whether you go with the 5870, the 6950, or the 6970, just keep in mind that the 6900 series is in a much better position for future games due to AMD’s new architecture.
And that brings us to the final matter for today, that new architecture. Compared to the launch of Cypress in 2009 the feature set isn’t radically different like it was when AMD first added DirectX 11 support, but Cayman is radically different in its own way. After being carried by their current VLIW5 architecture for nearly four years, AMD is set to hand off their future to their new VLIW4 architecture. It won’t turn the world upside down for AMD or its customers, but it’s a reasonable step forward for the company by reducing their reliance on ILP in favor of more narrow TLP-heavy loads. For gaming this specifically means their hardware should be a better match for future DX10/DX11 games, and the second graphics engine should give them enough tessellation and rasterizing power for the time being.
Longer term we will have to see how AMD’s computing gamble plays out. Though we’ve largely framed Cayman in terms of gaming, to AMD Cayman is first and foremost a compute GPU, in a manner very similar to another company whose compute GPU is also the fastest gaming GPU on the market. Teething issues aside this worked out rather well for NVIDIA, but will lightning strike twice for AMD? The first Cayman-based video cards are launching today, but the Cayman story is just getting started.