ATI Radeon HD 5970 2GB: The World's Fastest Graphics Card

Know what really sucks? Developing a piece of hardware that everyone wants, and then not being able to make enough of it to go around. Of course, what happens next is a result of supply and demand. Suddenly your $249 Radeon HD 5850s cost $300 (Nov. 30: now $310)—when they’re in stock.

Wouldn’t it follow, then, that a card with two of those über-valuable ASICs would do little to address supply issues of ATI’s Radeon HD 5800-series cards? According to the company, the exact reason it held off on launching its potent Hemlock board related to availability. Now, it says, there are enough Cypress GPUs to support sales of this…monster.

Clearly, Size Matters

Meet the Radeon HD 5970. Apparently, Radeon HD 5870 X2 too-conspicuously conveyed the dual-GPU nature of this card—an attribute that has not necessarily been celebrated in the past by those wary of scaling or stuttering issues.

Nevertheless, this is ATI’s dual-GPU, single-PCB follow-up to the Radeon HD 5870 (and answer to Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 295—a card that, up until today, was the fastest discrete graphics board you could buy). Gone are all auspices of value. This thing is set to sell for $600. Almost ironically, though, the 5970 might end up being the way to go for anyone who was previously considering a pair of Radeon HD 5850s in CrossFire, which would add up to $600 today anyway.

ATI’s approach here looks a lot like what Nvidia did with its GeForce GTX 295 earlier this year.

1) Take two top-end GPUs. In Nvidia’s case, it was the GT200 with 240 stream processors. In ATI’s, it’s the 1,600-shader Cypress found in its Radeon HD 5870.
2) Drop clock rates a bit in order to keep power and thermals under control.
3) ???
4) Profit

It goes 5970, 5870, and 5850It goes 5970, 5870, and 5850

The most significant difference is that, while Nvidia hacked and slashed the back-end of its GPU to match what you’d get from a pair of GeForce GTX 275s, cutting ROPs and 64-bits of the originally-512-bit memory interface, ATI’s Radeon HD 5970 sports a pair of uncut Cypress chips. Only the clocks are dropped (to Radeon HD 5850 levels), and for a fairly sensible reason that we'll get into shortly, too.

What results is a massive, single-PCB card that stretches a foot long—an inch more than the already-lengthy Radeon HD 5870 and an inch and a half longer than ATI’s Radeon HD 4870 X2. This will unquestionably be a sticking point for enthusiasts with cramped enclosures. Enthusiasts are a resourceful bunch, though.

More Sweet Spot Action

Hemlock represents the third of four projected launches based on the Evergreen family, first discussed in early September. The first, of course, was Cypress—the Radeon HD 5870 and Radeon HD 5850. The second was Juniper—the Radeon HD 5770 and 5750. The next launch, after today’s, is expected in the first quarter of 2010 and will consist of the entry-level Cedar and Redwood components.

At least on paper, AMD’s Sweet Spot strategy is going off without a hitch.

In reality, the same availability issues that plagued the Radeon HD 4770 shortly after launch are taking their toll on Radeon HD 5870 and Radeon HD 5850 supply (the 5770 and 5750s seem to be a little more widely available). Blame, of course, is being directed at TSMC’s 40nm manufacturing node and its resulting yields.

Of course, that’s a shame since supply affects pricing. But ATI tells us that only the 5850 is being hit by a $50 price jump. The 5870 remains at its $399 price point (though you’ll see some vendors selling the card for more). Moreover, the Radeon HD 5970’s $599 MSRP is being set with already-known supply issues priced in—expect it to remain around that $600 level.

Update: as of November 30, prices on Diamond's Radeon HD 5970 sit at $600; most other 5970s range from $625 to $679.

Now, let’s dig into more depth on what you’re getting for $600—$100 more than Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 295.