ATI Radeon HD 5870: DirectX 11, Eyefinity, And Serious Speed

Originally, I titled this piece ATI Radeon HD 5870: Learning From Nvidia's Mistakes. That was an unfair way to kick things off, I decided. But I still want to explain my justification for that idea. When Nvidia launched the GeForce GTX 260 and GTX 280 boards more than a year ago, the company knew it had the fastest board on the market and wasn’t afraid to charge a premium for it; $650, to be exact.

How utterly devastating, then, when the Radeon HD 4870 launched a couple of weeks later, besting the $400 GeForce GTX 260 with a $300 price point. It’s not that ATI had snatched away the performance crown—Nvidia still had the fastest card around. But enthusiasts (especially those who actually bought one of the GeForce GTX 200-series boards) were certainly left feeling gouged when the cards immediately fell to more competitive prices. Good way to earn extra margin on a big GPU. Bad way to encourage brand loyalty.

Without spoiling too much of today’s story, ATI seems to have learned a thing or two from the green faux pas. It’s launching a flagship just under $400 (Ed.: as of November 30th, Radon HD 5870s, when in stock, sell for $410) and a second-in-command board based on the same design at $259 (Ed.: as of November 30th, the least-expensive Radeon HD 5850s sell for $310). That’s still a lot of money, but the two cards are being positioned as GeForce GTX 295 and GeForce GTX 285 killers. Could these boards really knock down Nvidia’s fastest pair at even lower prices?

One card, three monitors, truly useful.One card, three monitors, truly useful.

They Began By Scaring Me

ATI’s Radeon HD 5870 briefing, held in the belly of the decommissioned U.S.S. Hornet aircraft carrier, mixed mainstream press and the more enthusiast-oriented tech folks. So, when the presentation began and the company started talking about buying graphics based on a fuzzy-wuzzy user experience, I started to worry that we’d next hear how 3D gaming was fast enough already. The message was that end-users don't care about megahertz, shader units, or cache repositories; they want smooth gaming, easy transcoding (but call it something cozier, please), and flawless Blu-ray playback. Hopefully that's not entirely true for the enthusiasts here to learn about Cypress, ATI's 2+ billion transistor, 40nm GPU. I'd like the think the engine powering Radeon HD 5870 is actually full of stuff you'll want to know more about.

Fortunately, after a group hug and a round of Kumbaya, ATI switched gears and dove into a much more technical round of info-sharing on its Evergreen-series GPUs: everything from the chip's design to the dual-GPU Hemlock, mainstream Juniper, and entry-level Redwood and Cedar, slated for a launch in 2010.

We also took away plenty of information about DirectX 11, Windows 7, stream computing, ATI’s Eyefinity technology, power consumption, video playback, and of course, performance. There’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s start with a look at the Cypress GPU sitting at the heart of today’s two newcomers.