After a Radeon HD 5870 launch that saw ATI’s fastest single-GPU board generally outperform Nvidia’s fastest single-GPU board, a Radeon HD 5850 debut that saw the Cypress GPU turned into a more accessible solution, and a simultaneous Radeon HD 5770/5750 introduction adding even more reason for mainstream buyers to upgrade, the company has to be feeling pretty good about the past two months.
And it's not just that these cards are faster, either. They support three display outputs; that's invaluable for a guy like me who depends on a trio of LCDs for productivity. They usher in DirectX 11 compatibility alongside Windows 7. And the previously-launched models are able to bitstream HD audio formats over HDMI.
I don’t remember the last time I covered the same company’s embargoed launches four times (totaling five distinct products) in fewer than two months. In that short span, ATI has completely preempted Nvidia in enabling DirectX 11 support from the $100 to $600 segments. The initiative now lies almost exclusively with ATI; Nvidia has to play catch-up across its entire discrete desktop portfolio.
But what about the Radeon HD 5970, specifically? Yes, ATI’s new flagship is the fastest discrete card in the world. Like the GeForce GTX 295 before it (and other token enthusiast components, like the Core i7-975 Extreme Edition), the barrier to entry is significant. At $600, I’ll only use the word value in this conclusion one time—and that’s to describe what this card is not.
Instead, let’s talk about who can actually put this beast to use. How about the enthusiast with a roomy chassis, an overclocked Core i7 processor able to let it breathe, and a triple-monitor configuration? It’s certainly possible to bog a pair of Cypress GPUs down with 2560x1600; however, this thing was really meant to drive a big, beautiful array of monitors on a high-end gaming machine.
Now we can discuss money. I’ve tested a lot of hardware in the past two months, and pegging prices is hard enough when availability is good (which it currently isn’t). Nevertheless, given ATI’s recent Radeon HD 5850 price increase, buying one super-overclockable Radeon HD 5970 is smarter than buying two 5850s since they have fewer shader processors each. Since the Radeon HD 5970 is currently the only card with Eyefinity/CrossFire support (beta though it might be), it’s also a smarter buy than $800 worth of Radeon HD 5870s. A driver update for the other cards is coming too, but we couldn't get an ETA out of ATI on when it might land.
What about ATI versus Nvidia? The Radeon HD 5970 is faster than the GeForce GTX 295, but it’s also $100 more expensive. Take a look at the benchmarks, judge whether the extra performance/DirectX 11/Eyefinity outweigh $100 savings/PhysX/GeForce 3D Vision, and make your decision accordingly. Just think twice before buying a pair of GeForce GTX 285s. At $370 a piece, the Radeon HD 5970 is faster, cheaper, and arguably more feature-complete than the SLI-based configuration.