I'm new to the hardcore, spend-hours-discussing-components crowd, but is it a common practice for companies to release 'locked' components? I mean, I see so much information about unlocking CPUs to have more cores, unlocking GPUs to perform better, and so on... how do companies manage to sell the 'higher end' components when they're identical except for artificial restrictions the companies put on? I mean, AMD has to realize that people are buying 6950s and getting a 6970 (after unlocking), which hurts sales of the 6970 proper... am I missing something here?
An unlocked 6950 no longer has a warranty. Some people have bricked their 6950 by unlocking it and now they are out the cost of the card.
Do all unlocking operations on components (GPUs and CPUs) have the risk of bricking? I mean, it seems a pretty common recommendation (even here on Tom's) for people to buy such and such a component and unlock it for a low-budget solution.
First off most components are "locked", only certain AMD CPUs and the HD 6950 can have additional hardware unlocked. Other components can be overclocked, however if you haven't been paying attention to Sandy Bridge and the Phenom Black Edition processors you can tell that Intel and AMD are trying to commercialize overclocking by herding people to buy higher priced "overclocking edition" hardware. Intel has been especially aggressive with this overclocking commercialization effort.
Overall I'm sure Intel and AMD don't like the idea of overclocking and unlocking because it cannibalizes sale of the higher end components, but at the same time they would face riots by the enthusiast community if they completely killed off overclocking. That is the reason why they are moving to the model of locking down CPU so you can't overclock without buying an unlocked processor.
The benefit of buying a higher end component rather than overclocking and unlocking is that with a higher end component you are guaranteed that extra performance and have a warranty, while there is no guarantee that a overclock or unlock will be successful and any overclock or unlock will void warranties.
Now about the 6950 in particular. The HD 6950 and the HD 6970 are the exact same piece of silicon, and in order to differentiate the two of them AMD uses the video card's BIOS to disable some of the cores and lower the clock speed. So by using the BIOS of a HD 6970 in a 6950 you can convert the latter into the former. What AMD is likely to do soon is to start releasing 6950s that have been physically locked down by fusing off some of the cores to prevent any software level BIOS hack from being able to use the additional cores.
clarkjd hit the nail on the head. There's a certain market that will take the risks on lower than high-end products and clock them higher, flash a BIOS or perform some modification to make them perform at a greater capacity in turn forgoeing a warranty on the product. This is pure profit to the manufacturer because they don't have to invest resources in backing their product or warranty claims and so on.
In AMD's case with the 6950, they are selling the heck out of these things for reasons other than they are a good mid-range video card. Most people buy this card because they feel it's a fair deal. An additional group of consumers will buy this card knowing they could possibly reach 6970 performance for $100 less. What that means to AMD - high sales volume at a price they've already determined.
Most people who want 6970 performance are going to buy the 6970, though there is a market of those willing to risk certain things who will go for the 6950 that otherwise may have chosen a competitor's product (560 ti) in the same price range.