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

The New Radeon HD 6000 Family

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. 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.

  • SteelCity1981
    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.
  • TheRockMonsi
    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!!!!!
  • Randomacts
    Its here.....
  • Poisoner
    I think AMD did a great job with these cards. Its just sick at what performance you can get for 200 bucks.
  • Super review. but i think HD6850 is faster than 1gb gtx 460....
  • duk3
    Nice benchmark suite!
    I am looking forward to the 6900 series and 22nm gpus later on for some real performance improvements.
  • takeapieandrun
    Not exactly powerhouses, but I do believe they will be great for market competition.
  • agnickolov
    This is what happens when a company is left with no competition for so long...
  • forces
    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...
  • rottingsheep
    6850 vs 1gb 460. i would pick 460 because it overclocks a lot better