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AMD Radeon HD 6870 And 6850: Is Barts A Step Forward?

AMD Radeon HD 6870 And 6850: Is Barts A Step Forward?
By , Chris Angelini

When you're up on top, it's pretty hard to imagine getting knocked back down. Perhaps that's why, after a mind-blowing Radeon HD 5000-series launch, AMD seems to have engaged the cruise control for these first two examples of its Radeon HD 6000-series.

Not that we'd blame the company. It enjoyed a solid six months of selling the world's only DirectX 11-capable product stack at a time when DirectX 11 and, more important, DirectX 11 games were actually shipping. Nvidia's response was compelling. But the heat and power consumption associated with a 3 billion transistor GPU counterbalanced some of its brighter performance highlights.

Only when Nvidia started rolling out derivatives did AMD's position seem truly challenged. The GF104-based GeForce GTX 460 offered the price tag and performance to make us reconsider the Radeon HD 5830, and the GF106-based GeForce GTS 450 was at least good enough to lock horns with AMD's Radeon HD 5770, even if prior-generation cards still offered (and continue to offer) better performance for your dollar. Interesting side-note: one of Nvidia's board partners lets us know earlier this week that G92 is officially dead. Supplies of GeForce GTS 250 should start drying up soon, leaving you to pick and choose between the current crop of DirectX 11 cards.

We know both of these companies are engaged in a brutal battle. In fact, that battle made the decisions in today's review very hard to make. First, we hear that we should be comparing the 6000-series boards to factory-overclocked GeForce GTX 460s because "they outnumber the reference-clocked boards." Then it's, "...and prices on the GeForce GTX 470 and 460 are going to be dropping; we just can't tell you to what level yet." AMD knows Nvidia doesn't have a target to aim for yet, so it holds back on pricing details on its new cards. When it can wait no more, that email lands. Less than a day later, Nvidia announces its own official price restructuring. Hooolllyyy...talk about corporate espionage enabled by wannabe journalists who can't keep email to themselves!

And in the midst of all of that jockeying, there are new games launching that may or may not be under the influence of developers who selectively cooperate with one GPU vendor or the other. These are anticipated games. Games we've wanted to test for some time now. But we face the possibility that one hardware architecture might be highly-optimized, while the other company's driver team still hasn't seen the title running. Now there's a recipe for hard-to-explain benchmark results.

What's the point? Today's DirectX 11-class graphics market is more competitive than anything we could have imagined one year ago, when AMD was undisputed king of the hill and Nvidia's GeForce GTX 295 was still the flagship. Naturally, then, when you hear that AMD is launching its Radeon HD 6870 and 6850 cards, you expect the next generation of high-end--a follow-up capable of knocking GeForce GTX 480 off of its perch, perhaps. 

Not today. The potential for such an evolution will have to wait until next month. The Radeon HD 6870 is slower than Radeon HD 5870. Radeon HD 6850 is slower than Radeon HD 5850. It's confusing, we know, but AMD has what it considers a good explanation for the naming scheme.

And while raw performance is down, overall, the purpose behind AMD's Radeon HD 6800-series is purportedly an optimization of the architecture. The "Barts" GPUs realize a re-balancing of the Cypress design that performed so well already. A handful of features are being added, and price points are coming down. The idea here is to engage Nvidia's GeForce GTX 460 1 GB and 768 MB beyond performance.

Before we dig-in to the Radeon HD 6800-series, let's take a closer look at the targeted price points.

What's With That Name?

Now, if you're like us, that Radeon HD 6800-series moniker will strike you as disingenuous. Even after hearing the official party line, we still don't like the fact that the branding requires an explanation from us in order to make sense. What about the folks who don't get the memo? We can only hope that price insinuates performance. Barts is designed to fill the $150 to $250 range, far below today’s Radeon HD 5870. This is more like Radeon HD 5830 and 5850 territory. The high-end Radeon HD 5870 and 5970 will be replaced by the “Cayman” and “Antilles” Radeon HD 6900-series before the end of Q4 2010.

I’m sure we aren’t the first to be surprised by the new naming scheme—to us, it’s a cinch that Barts should file in as the Radeon HD 6700-series. AMD claims that 6800 was chosen because the Radeon HD 5700s will remain in production for some time to cover the sub-$150 market. We honestly don’t think this is a very good justification, as product generations have overlapped time and time again without too much of a problem. The biggest issue for us is that the ill-informed Radeon HD 5870 owner will assume that the Radeon HD 6870 is an upgrade, when in fact the new card wields less performance.

But we're not here to review the card's name. We'll voice our dissent and move on. The Radeon HD 6870 promises Radeon HD 5850-class performance at roughly $240. The Radeon HD 6850 should slide in ahead of the Radeon HD 5830 for $180 or so. Both new cards also do a handful of things the 5000-series couldn't do, including Blu-ray 3D acceleration and playback, stereoscopic 3D gaming, a new level of anti-aliasing, faster tessellation, and a beefed up version of Eyefinity that lets you connect six displays, just as soon as the DisplayPort 1.2 ecosystem fills out sometime in 2011.

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Top Comments
  • 34 Hide
    Poisoner , October 22, 2010 5:47 AM
    I think AMD did a great job with these cards. Its just sick at what performance you can get for 200 bucks.
  • 34 Hide
    cangelini , October 22, 2010 6:02 AM
    forcesnice but... where is Crysis!!!? they can play Crysis i know but how well can they play it? everyone has Crysis and have played Crysis and will play it... , its a nice game to compare perfomance...


    We actually discussed Crysis, but I'm honestly really damn tired of Crysis. When Crysis 2 comes out, I'll be all over it like Rosie O'Donnell on a $5 pie sale at Marie Callender's. For now, we're going to phase that one out, though :) 
  • 33 Hide
    TheRockMonsi , October 22, 2010 5:44 AM
    I like where AMD is going with the 6000 series, not so much with naming, but pretty much everything else about it. Can't wait for the 6900's, those are going to be beasts!!!!!
Other Comments
  • 30 Hide
    SteelCity1981 , October 22, 2010 5:42 AM
    Yeah I agree. I don't get AMD's marketing on the 6000 series. One would think that the 6870 would obv performan better then the 5870 at first glance but instead it yelds less performance then the 5870. That just doesn't make any sense from a consumor standpoint.
  • 33 Hide
    TheRockMonsi , October 22, 2010 5:44 AM
    I like where AMD is going with the 6000 series, not so much with naming, but pretty much everything else about it. Can't wait for the 6900's, those are going to be beasts!!!!!
  • 34 Hide
    Poisoner , October 22, 2010 5:47 AM
    I think AMD did a great job with these cards. Its just sick at what performance you can get for 200 bucks.
  • 21 Hide
    Anonymous , October 22, 2010 5:49 AM
    Super review. but i think HD6850 is faster than 1gb gtx 460....
  • 7 Hide
    duk3 , October 22, 2010 5:52 AM
    Nice benchmark suite!
    I am looking forward to the 6900 series and 22nm gpus later on for some real performance improvements.
  • 14 Hide
    takeapieandrun , October 22, 2010 5:52 AM
    Not exactly powerhouses, but I do believe they will be great for market competition.
  • 21 Hide
    forces , October 22, 2010 5:53 AM
    nice but... where is Crysis!!!? they can play Crysis i know but how well can they play it? everyone has Crysis and have played Crysis and will play it... :( , its a nice game to compare perfomance...
  • 34 Hide
    cangelini , October 22, 2010 6:02 AM
    forcesnice but... where is Crysis!!!? they can play Crysis i know but how well can they play it? everyone has Crysis and have played Crysis and will play it... , its a nice game to compare perfomance...


    We actually discussed Crysis, but I'm honestly really damn tired of Crysis. When Crysis 2 comes out, I'll be all over it like Rosie O'Donnell on a $5 pie sale at Marie Callender's. For now, we're going to phase that one out, though :) 
  • 6 Hide
    SteelCity1981 , October 22, 2010 6:03 AM
    So I guess AMD has no plans to replace the Radeon 5700 series on down then according to the chart in the first page for a while to come.
  • 22 Hide
    L0tus , October 22, 2010 6:04 AM
    Sorry but I'm disappointed. Decent cards but VERY misleading names. I don't like being misled.
  • 8 Hide
    dragonsqrrl , October 22, 2010 6:04 AM
    Well, I think we can finally agree that the so called "illegitimate" Barts/HD68xx rumors have been confirmed. In retrospect, it really is quite interesting what some people were trying to claim, and how confident they were while doing it.

    http://www.tomshardware.com/forum/11395-55-report-launching-radeon-6000

    Great cards, giving some fierce competition to the upper mid range segment.
  • 14 Hide
    shura4ever , October 22, 2010 6:05 AM
    "The MSRP of the Radeon HD 6870 is $40, a bit less than the Radeon HD 5850"
    $40? sell it to me :D 
  • 3 Hide
    winner4455 , October 22, 2010 6:07 AM
    shura4ever"The MSRP of the Radeon HD 6870 is $40, a bit less than the Radeon HD 5850"$40? sell it to me


    Exactly what I was thinking when I read it xD

    It's actually $240 though... D:
  • 7 Hide
    dogman_1234 , October 22, 2010 6:12 AM
    These are great cards...being for price compared to their 400 dollar counterpart.
  • 24 Hide
    buzznut , October 22, 2010 6:13 AM
    very smart to release a card that can compete with the GTX460. Looks like a win for AMD.
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