AMD Radeon 6970 & 6950 Review - Conclusions

Submitted by skipclarke on 16 December, 2010 - 22:11

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AMD has done a good job with the Radeon 6900 family. Like its predecessors, it continues to make incremental steps on the performance at aggressive price points. The Radeon HD 6950 in particular defines a new segment, and creates a killer price/performance ratio. The Radeon HD 6900 family truly shines in games relying on DX11 and featuring tessellation. Both cards provide more than enough performance for DX9 and DX10 titles, particularly in widescreen.

The Radeon HD 6900 family makes large strides in DX11 titles and Eyefinity performance. The trade-off of increased clocks, but reduced shaders probably balances out in the end. The addition of a second graphics engine (on a refined architecture), improved tessellation and 2GB being standard are the primary drivers of this improvement.

The run for more power will only take you so far. And while we all want more power, it eventually becomes a proposition of diminishing returns. At that point it takes "out of the box" thinking to differentiate your product and keep gaming "exciting".

On the PC side, that has brought us things like the march of DirectX features, Eyefinity and multi-monitor gaming and Stereo 3D gaming. It's also brought us the push for better price/performance and the reduction of heat and noise. On the console side, graphics prowess seems to basically be maxed out on the Xbox360 and the PS3 (really, how much more life-like can things get?), and we've seen the move to motion controls and 3D gaming.

Beyond the Performance Race

Improved performance is always expected and aggressive price points are always welcome (especially in the 2010 economy). However, I think there's more to the GPU market than the pursuit of a killer price/performance ratio. I am really intrigued by the new, differentiating features AMD is bringing to the table with the Radeon 6900 family and the 10.12 driver.

Items such as the Dual BIOS will certainly appeal to the tweaker, enthusiast and power user (and possibly Mac users). While features such as PowerTune will appeal to those looking to manage their power usage, and/or manage the heat and noise in their immediate environment.

The new EQAA allows for greater image quality, and control over image quality. Getting better image quality with roughly the same performance is certainly a coup - especially considering that increasing the AA multiplier usually results in a noticeable performance hit.

Coupling EQAA with PowerTune could provide an interesting option in managing performance and image quality: Move from "normal" 4xAA to 2xEQAA and turn down the TDP threshold in PowerTune to maintain performance and quality while reducing heat, noise and power consumption.

While not related directly to the Radeon HD 6900 hardware, the implementation of 5x1-Portrait support in the Cayman driver is a welcome surprise (and long overdue). Given AMD's recent campaign for Stereoscopic 3D gaming, I'd be interested to see if 5x1-P to be matched with HD3D. You would need DP 1.2 panels (which won't be available until the summer), but that would be cool indeed.

Final Thoughts

The Radeon HD 6970 and 6950 are another stellar release from AMD, and continue the performance and price/performance trends of the 6800 family. They out-perform the 5800 and 6800 cards quite admirably - especially in DX11 games and Eyefinity (and when you're not hitting a CPU ceiling).

The burning question is: do you need to upgrade to a 6900 card? The short answer: it depends. If you're running DX9/DX10 games, you may see very little improvement - especially on a single widescreen (due to CPU limits). If you're playing DX11 games, or want to take advantage of DX11 technology, then you can safely assume you will get noticeable improvements - in both performance and image quality.

If you are a current Eyefinity user, the 6900 family will give you sizable improvements. If you are planning to jump into Eyefinity, I would say purchase what you can afford. Games like Team Fortress 2, WOW or HAWX require far less power than modern titles. Even Far Cry 2 now passes 30fps in Eyefinity on a single 6800 or 6900.

My recommendation (especially for a new Eyefinity user) is to balance your purchase dollars between GPU and display panel. Shifting some funds from GPU to get better display panels is a wise move (especially if you are going to use a portrait mode). IPS panels eliminate the color shift that is present on the left and right monitors in a 3x1-Landscape setup, and that is distracting in a 3x1-P or 5x1-P setup.

The life cycle on a monitor is much longer than a GPU. You will probably be looking to upgrade your GPU much before you look to upgrade panels. Going from an HD 6970 to an HD 6870 can save you about $130. That extra $40 per monitor can make a big difference in quality. It also means upgrading to CFX in the future would be cheaper as well. That investment will also improve your satisfaction with your total investment and your Eyefinity experience.

The Radeon HD 6900 is an outstanding family of cards, and I highly recommend them - especially to existing Eyefinity users who have already invested in their panels. But as AMD is choosing a more measured course of price/performance vs. raw performance, I believe that is proper course to take for the consumer as well. Balancing your investment across the ecosystem will be dividends in the long run - especially considering the stellar performance offer by both the 6800 and 6900 families.