AMD Radeon HD 6870 & HD 6850 Video Card Review

AMD is launching its new mainstream performance lineup, the Radeon HD 6800 series. The 6800 cards will offer much more performance at the $179 to $239 price range. We compare the new Radeon HD 6870 and Radeon HD 6850 with AMD and NVIDIA cards and find out which delivers the best gameplay experience and value.


Performance Summary

When AMD briefed us on this new generation, the preferred performance comparison was supposed to be the AMD Radeon HD 6870 against the 1GB GeForce GTX 460 and the AMD Radeon HD 6850 was supposed to compete with the 768MB GeForce GTX 460. Well, our evaluation has shown that the Radeon HD 6850 and 6870 are even better than what AMD recommended the competition was. It seems AMD was very conservative with its estimates, as we simply received a better gameplay experience that changed the positioning of each video card. That said, AMD does not run in-depth gameplay analysis like you find here, but rather canned benchmarks. So maybe AMD is just not in the know about its own product?

We have shown the AMD Radeon HD 6850 to be the true competition for the 1GB GeForce GTX 460. On a pure performance and gameplay experience comparison the AMD Radeon HD 6850 overall allowed a better gameplay experience. There were a couple of games that resulted in an exception, but even then, the video cards were still close. In Civilization V we did find the GeForce GTX 460 1GB video card to produce higher framerates than the Radeon HD 6850, and in turn allowing a higher gameplay setting. In Battlefield: Bad Company 2 both video cards were playable at the same settings and the performance so close it could not be identified without analysis. In the other games though, the AMD Radeon HD 6850 produced higher framerates and a better gameplay experience. These two video cards are clearly battling it out for performance, and an OC card from either one may tip the balance.

The AMD Radeon HD 6870 is another story, AMD positioned this video card against the GeForce GTX 460 1GB, however, in our testing it blew it away. In fact, the AMD Radeon HD 6870 was faster than the Radeon HD 5850 in every game. The AMD Radeon HD 6870 is not as fast as the Radeon HD 5870, and it was never meant to be. The Radeon HD 6870 comes in-between the 5850 and 5870 in performance, but the kicker is that it is much cheaper, runs cooler, and uses less power doing it.

Efficiency is the Name of the Game

Efficiency is the name of the game right now as far as AMD is concerned. This new generation, the 6800 series and the 6900 series is all about efficiency and getting the most it can out of the 40nm process. We think it is most impressive that the Radeon HD 6870 is using 25% less silicon, less transistors, lower power and temperatures compared to Radeon HD 5850, yet providing slightly faster performance! The stream processors have been cut from 1440 to 1120, yet it is still producing higher framerates? This folks shows that the architecture has been improved and that AMD is able to get more out of this architecture than it did last generation, on the same process.

When we talk about "evolving architecture" this is exactly what we want to see, and AMD has delivered on that. The big new "feature" of the Radeon HD 6800 series is its incredible efficiency. The 6800 series video cards are the fastest power friendly video cards we’ve ever seen and this is the most performance we've ever seen in this power envelope.

Upgrade Paths

Since AMD is now offering the highest performance ever seen at lower price points, the question about upgrade paths has to be asked. Should you sell your current Radeon HD 58xx series video card for a 68xx series video card? We are going to break this down for you.

In regards to the 6870, if you currently own a 5870 then the 6870 is not an upgrade, but if you own a 5850 or below, then the 6870 is an upgrade.

In regards to the 6850, if you currently own a 5850 then the 6850 is not an upgrade, but if you own a 5770 or below, then the 6850 is an upgrade.

The HD 6850 is certainly faster than an HD 5770 when we look into past evaluations and our knowledge of HD 5770 performance. So, 6870 is an upgrade from 5850 and everything before it, and 6850 is an upgrade to 5830 and 5770 and everything before it.

Finally the Radeon HD 5870 does not have an upgrade path from AMD except for dual GPU scenarios. The successor to the 5870 will come when the 6900 series is launched later this year.

Looking at Fermi

In regards to the 6870, if you currently own a GTX 460 1GB then the 6870 is a major upgrade in performance. However, if you own a GeForce GTX 470 the jury is still out on that. With current price drops, the GeForce GTX 470 comes into play in comparison to the Radeon HD 6870. In the past, performance has proven to us that the GTX 470 is faster than a Radeon HD 5850, but until now, it has been out of reach due to price. Now that prices have fallen the GTX 470 competes with the 6870.

We will be performing a 6870 vs. GTX 470 evaluation very soon to find out exactly how this compares. Expect it next week. Quite frankly, NVIDIA caught us off guard with its massive GTX 470 price drops today and we just did not have time to load in the comparison. Actually though, it is probably worth its own article considering how long it has been since we looked at GTX 470 gaming. With this current price drop it has become incredibly attractive. TigerDirect had the Galaxy GTX 470 today for $220, and you guessed it, those sold out quickly.

Surely though, our beloved GTX 460 1GB just got booted into the "Low End" tech pile. It is very possible that we see the GTX 470 fill that spot, but we will have to see where prices truly settle out at.

The Bottom Line

The $179 price point just got a major upgrade, a year ago you could purchase Radeon HD 5770 performance for $179. Today, AMD has just upgraded that price point with performance that reaches near the 5830 level! Any way you slice it, the current Radeon HD 6850 and Radeon HD 6870 offerings are stellar deals. Better performance, lower prices, lower power, lower temps, and just a really good gameplay experience!

All the best values in the world though are worth nothing if you cannot actually purchase the product. AMD has assured us that its new 6800 products would be delivering at very high stocking levels. Boards started shipping from AIB partners last Thursday and if you have been watching the HardOCP news and the HardForum you know these 6800 series cards are already starting to show in etail.

If you are in the market for upgrading from a generation of video card previous to Radeon HD 5000 series or NVIDIA GF100 series, then a Radeon HD 6850 or Radeon HD 6870 is going to offer a large leap in performance for a very attractive price.

The Radeon HD 6870 offers a performance upgrade at $239, providing better than Radeon HD 5850 performance. It isn’t a Radeon HD 5870 killer, but then it isn’t supposed to be, that will come later. The Radeon HD 6870 fills a hole that the Radeon HD 5830 has never truly filled in. The HD 6870 with better performance, and lower prices; the sub-$250 price point just became very interesting.

The Radeon HD 6850 is the best sub-$200 performance we’ve ever seen, and the lowest power envelope we’ve ever seen it at. Considering all these factors, we have to give both video cards a Gold [H] Editor's Choice award.

You can purchase the HD 6870 now at Newegg for $240 and the HD 6850 for $180.

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AMD Radeon HD 6870 & Radeon HD 6850