Flagship products are fun to talk about, but they're not particularly practical for more than a handful of us. The vast majority of PC gamers gravitate toward the $200 sweet spot for GPUs. So instead of trotting out a $600 part to premier its new lineup of GPUs, AMD is rolling out a pair of more accessible GPUs--the Radeon HD 6870 and HD 6850.
Radeon HD 6870
1120 stream processors
1GB GDDR5 RAM
Radeon HD 6850
960 stream processors
The new 6000 series parts are basically architecturally refined 5000 series parts with a few new tricks. These new GPUs are more power efficient, have second-generation DirectX 11 optimizations, accelerate Blu-ray 3D, and feature new antialiasing and ansiotropic filtering techniques to improve image quality.
Morphological antialiasing, new to the Radeon HD 6000 series, provides full-scene antialiasing via a post-processing technique. Traditional AA modes are applied when the scene is being rendered, morphological AA is done after the frame has been generated. The new AA mode is compatible with any DirectX 9/10/11 game. Drivers for the new modes were delivered too late for us to perform a thorough testing of this feature.
Architecture improvements allowed AMD to reduce silicon size while keeping performance high and power consumption low. The Radeon HD 6870 consumes 150W at peak power, and the Radeon HD 6850 consumes 127W. Both GPUs idle at 19W. Compared to the parts they are replacing, both GPUs have fewer stream processors but feature much higher clock rates. By comparison, the Radeon HD 5850 has 1440 stream processors, while the HD 6870 has 1120.
The pricing and nomenclature of these new parts cause a bit of confusion when they are compared to AMD's current-generation GPUs. The Radeon HD 6870 actually replaces the Radeon HD 5850, and the HD 6850 boots out the Radeon HD 5830. The $300-plus Radeon HD 5870 will continue to rule the AMD roost for a bit longer. AMD will discontinue manufacturing Radeon HD 5800 and 5900 series parts going forward from the third quarter of 2010, but it will keep HD 5700-based parts in the product mix.
When lining up the potential competitors, nothing fits perfectly, but a few bucks here and there gets us close enough.
$170 - GeForce GTX 460 768MB
$180 - Radeon HD 6850
$190 - GeForce GTX 460
$200 - GeForce GTX 460 OC
$240 - Radeon HD 6870
We leaned on the GeForce GTX 460 1GB at two speeds. We didn't have the slightly cheaper 768MB version of the GeForce GTX 460 on hand for testing.
It's clear that the new Radeon HD 6000 series completely replaces the older 5000 series parts. Its performance is superior in every test across the board. When compared to the competition, the Radeon HD 6870 trades blow with the overclocked GTX 460. The Radeon HD 6850 trails the slightly more expensive stock GeForce GTX 460 1GB.
With the future of such lucrative GPU spots in flux, both AMD and Nvidia sent out flurries of e-mail adjusting prices, firing accusations, and in general muddying the waters. Nvidia's reduced pricing on the GeForce GTX 460 1GB makes it a difficult part to beat. For $220, you can find 800MHz GeForce GTX 460s, which makes for quite a compelling argument if a $200 725MHz version gives the Radeon HD 6870 such a good run. Nvidia also dropped the price of the GeForce GTX 470 down to the $260 range, which should offer the allure of slightly better performance for slightly more money. The Radeon HD 6850 competes well with the more expensive stock GeForce GTX 460 1GB, which means it's definitely competitive with the 768MB version of the GTX 460.
The battle for these important GPU price ranges isn't over yet. Both HD 6000 series parts have had to deal with heavily discounted and heavily overclocked parts on launch day. AMD has already mentioned that its partners are in the process of unveiling overclocked 6000 series GPUs as well. Pricing, as we know, is never final.
Determining a victor here is moot because even minor price movements and overclocked speeds would toss them under the bus just as fast as we can proclaim them. One thing is for certain, though: The Radeon HD 6870 and Radeon HD 6850 provide enough competition to force Nvidia to slash prices overnight, which honestly makes the consumer the real winner here.
Test System: Core i7 980x @4.2GHz, Asus Rampage III Extreme, 6GB OCZ DDR3, Seagate 750GB 7200.11, Windows 7 64-bit. Video card drivers - Catalyst beta, Forceware 260.89.