AMD Radeon HD 6970 and HD 6950 Video Card Review

AMD is launching its new Radeon HD 6970 and HD 6950. These two GPUs round out AMD’s high-end Radeon HD 6000 family of single-GPU video cards. Priced surprisingly low for the performance, these two cards are ready to to deliver solid value in the high end market place. Spending your holiday cash wisely, just got easy.

Introduction

The final pieces to AMD’s Radeon HD 6000 series puzzle are being placed today. AMD is touting immediate retail availability. The new AMD Radeon HD 6970 and AMD Radeon HD 6950 complete AMD’s Radeon HD 6000 single-GPU card family. The AMD Radeon HD 6000 family was introduced on October 21st. At that time, only the Radeon HD 6870 and Radeon HD 6850 were launched. Little was known at the time when the Radeon HD 6900 versions of the video cards would be released. Originally, these were intended to be out toward the end of November, but that never materialized. Now, on December 15th, 2010, AMD is ready to release the two high-end video cards.

If you haven’t already, we suggest reading the introduction of our Radeon HD 6800 series evaluation. In that introduction we explain the change in naming scheme. The Radeon HD 6970 and Radeon HD 6950 differ in architecture to the Radeon HD 6870 and Radeon HD 6850.

The Architecture

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At the heart of the Radeon HD 6900 series video cards is a new VLIW4 architecture. The Radeon HD 6800 series, as well as Radeon HD 5000 series, uses a VLIW5 architecture. AMD has made this move in order to increase efficiency and focus on performance where performance counts, in the streaming processors. Along with this change, AMD has implanted dual-setup engines (graphics engines in the slides). In a way, you can think of this as the first "dual-GPU" GPU. Inherently, GPUs are parallel, and could be considered multi-core processors. The addition to using a dual-setup engine now, instead of just a singular setup engine, increases that parallelism to an even greater extreme.

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In addition to supporting Morphological AA, AMD has implemented a new antialiasing quality setting with the HD 6970 and HD 6950. Enhanced Quality Anti-Aliasing (EQAA) works similar to NVIDIA’s CSAA. EQAA works by separating the color and coverage samples, providing independent control of each. This means you can run at 8X Coverage Samples, and only 4 Color Samples, this would be similar to NVIDIA’s 8X CSAA mode.

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AMD is introducing some interesting power technology into the Radeon HD 6900 series video cards. PowerTune is a software and hardware controlled technology that strives to keep the video cards TDP clamped to a pre-determined level. AMD has implemented some control into the drivers that allow the end user to adjust it. For our testing today, we have left all settings at default. This is a feature we need to further explore, since you can adjust it manually up to a point.

AMD PowerTune technology helps enable higher performance that is optimized to the thermal limits of the GPU by dynamically adjusting the engine clock during runtime based on an internally calculated GPU power assessment. AMD PowerTune technology also helps to improve the mechanism to deal with applications that would otherwise exceed the GPU’s TDP. By dynamically managing the engine clock speeds based on calculations which determine the proximity of the GPU to its TDP limit, AMD PowerTune allows for the GPU to run within its TDP budget at higher nominal clock speeds than otherwise possible.

Specifications

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Radeon HD 6970 Pricing is - $369

The AMD Radeon HD 6970 packs 2.64 Billion transistors and 1,536 streaming processors running at 880MHz core clock speed on the 40nm process. There are 96 texture units, 32 ROPs and 128 Z-Stencil. There is 2GB of GDDR5 running at 5.5GHz on a 256-bit memory bus. This provides 176GB/sec of memory bandwidth. The PowerTune Maximum Limit has been set at 250W for this video card, and AMD claims around 190W board power while gaming. This should provide plenty of room and shouldn’t affect gaming performance.

Radeon HD 6950 Pricing is - $299

The Radeon HD 6950 is also based on the 40nm process with the same 2.64 Billion transistors. There are 1,408 streaming processors running at 800MHz core clock speed. There are 88 texture units, and the same 32 ROPs and 128 Z-Stencil count. There is also 2GB of 5GHz GDDR5 RAM being used which provides 160GB/sec of bandwidth. The PowerTune limit has been set at 200W on this video card, and AMD claims 140W of board power while gaming. Remember, this value is adjustable in the driver control panel up to a certain point. You can increase the Powertune Maximum Limit. For our testing, we used all default driver settings.

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AMD reminds everyone that they have been using Vapor Chamber Cooling for quite a while now on the previous Radeon HD 5000 series. Indeed, they have, and their continued use of Vapor Chamber Cooling helps keeps these video cards running cool and quiet.

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There is a very welcomed Enthusiast feature that has been added to the Radeon HD 6970 and Radeon HD 6950. Both video cards feature dual-BIOS on board. This BIOS can be switched between with a little slider switch on the top of the video card. The reason AMD has implemented this dual-BIOS is so that people flashing their BIOS’s will not brick their video cards...simple as that. One of the settings on the video card is the factory default BIOS which is protected. The other BIOS is open and allows you to flash to it. If you screw up your BIOS flash, all you have to do is switch the video card back to the protected BIOS and re-flash the other BIOS. This is a great safety feature for enthusiasts built right into each video card.

One issue you need to be careful about is the fact that this switch can get flipped while the video cards are in the box in transit. As the cards slide around in the boxes, the switch can flip to the other BIOS. In the case of our evaluation samples, there were two different BIOS versions on these video cards. One was an earlier BIOS version with higher clock speeds used for testing. The other was the final BIOS version with final clock speeds. One of our cards had the switch flipped when we installed it, and it started on the wrong BIOS. We immediately recognized this, verified the issue with AMD, and switched to the correct BIOS to use the correct stock clock speeds for testing. This will probably not be a retail issue, but it is worth mentioning if you are troubleshooting.

Pictures

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The Radeon HD 6970 and Radeon HD 6950 are completely identical in size, shape, form, and all aspects visually. They are both 10.5 inches long. The only difference is that the 6970 requires one 8-pin and one 6-pin connector, while the 6950 requires two 6-pin connectors. The shroud exhausts through the IO plate of the video card. The only intake for air is from the fan's axis. CrossFireX is supported in all its forms with both of these video cards. There is a solid aluminum backplate on the reference video cards covering the PCB. While you can argue the merits of these, we particularly like these because they keep components from getting popped off the PCB during handling...or mishandling rather.

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The reference Radeon HD 6970 and Radeon HD 6950 support dual-link DVI and HDMI 1.4a natively. There is also support for a two miniDP outputs, version 1.2. Eyefinity is fully supported, and with the connections available there is more flexibility than ever to configure some unique setups.