Radeon HD 6970 And 6950 Review: Is Cayman A Gator Or A Crock?


The fact that, by AMD’s own admission, its new single-GPU flagship goes up against Nvidia’s second-fastest board is probably not what AMD’s loyal fan base wanted to see. And it again puzzles me to see such unrepresentative naming in play here. Think I’m off my rocker? That anyone reading Tom’s Hardware should simply “know better” and not worry what these cards are called? Just try telling me this slide from AMD's press deck doesn’t look completely off:

Had Nvidia launched GeForce GTX 580 with a slide like this showing GeForce GTX 480 up top, the world would have come to an end, I’m sure. Nevertheless, now we’re waiting for a Radeon HD 6990, which AMD tells us to expect some time in Q1. That’ll be Antilles, a dual-Cayman board that we’d expect to perform something like a pair of Radeon HD 6950s in CrossFire, so long as AMD doesn’t have to make any clock rate concessions due to excessive power demands. We're hoping that the advent of PowerTune prevents such a backwards step.

Should that come to pass, we’d be looking at a board that beats out Radeon HD 5970. There’s no telling what pricing on that will look like, but if AMD arms it with 4 GB of expensive GDDR5 memory, it’s going to be expensive. If the company doesn’t, instead matching each GPU up to 1 GB of GDDR5, it’ll suffer in the high-resolution, high-detail workloads a flagship product should dominate. I guess we answered our own question there, didn't we? Expensive flagship, incoming.

The Here And Now

That’s a story that’ll unfold in the next three months. More immediately, we have the Radeon HD 6970 and 6950, competing against the GeForce GTX 570 and GeForce GTX 470, respectively. Official pricing from AMD is pegged at $369 for the 6970 and $299 for the 6950. That’s actually slightly less expensive than I was expecting to pay for the high-end board, and a little more than I would have wanted to see the lower-end board selling.

Let’s start with the Radeon HD 6950. While it’s true that Cayman seems to be a more forward-looking DirectX 11 architecture than Cypress, and the ability to use four independent display outputs is good (as is Blu-ray 3D support), it’s still hard to ignore the fact that vendors are clearing out inventory of the Radeon HD 5870, available for as little as $260 after rebates. At the same time, GeForce GTX 470s are going for $250. The 470 doesn’t stand up as well to high resolutions, but it’s still a decent deal if you’re gaming at 1920x1080. The Radeon HD 5870 is going to disappear soon, and we're not sure how much longer the 470 will retain its position in Nvidia's lineup, given the recent emphasis on GF110. After all, it doesn't make a ton of sense to keep making new GF100s with attention shifting to the newer GPU. Until they’re gone, look to them as decent deals. Picking up last year’s graphics technology, which in this case is still very modern, is a great way to save some money.

As for the Radeon HD 6970, it should be selling for $20 more than a GTX 570. Based on its display outputs alone, that makes AMD’s card worth the Andrew Jackson to me, personally. Otherwise, the two cards trade blows, with the GTX 570 faring better at 1680x1050 as AMD’s Radeon HD 6970 retains more of its performance at 2560x1600.

Don’t lose track of the fact that you can find a pair of Radeon HD 6850s for the same $370 you’d spend on a 6970, though. Those 6800s have the same set of display outputs, UVD 3, and morphological anti-aliasing support—and they’re notably faster. If you can accommodate two cards, that is one way to go. The other is a pair of GeForce GTX 460s, which are faster in some apps and slower in others, but sell for around $190, bringing the bottom line to $380.

Considering 6900s In CrossFire

But wait, there’s more. What about the Radeon HD 6900s in CrossFire? After all, AMD claims to have made some notable improvements to its scaling.

You’re only going to buy two high-end graphics cards if you’re running at the top resolutions with visual details maxed out. That’s where the 2 GB frame buffers featured on both 6900-series cards come in handy. In many cases, two $300 Radeon HD 6950s outperform a pair of $350 GeForce GTX 570s, saving you $100 total for better frame rates. It’s hard to use the word value when you’re talking about $600 worth of graphics cards, but in this ultra-high-end space, two 6950s trump GTX 570s in bang for the buck.

Take a look back at the scaling figures. In the past, SLI would have dominated. However, we have to take AMD's word that it improved CrossFire-based performance in its driver. Comparing to the Radeon HD 6870 isn’t really fair—that board’s smaller frame buffer makes it unsuitable for 2560x1600 with anti-aliasing enabled. With that said, though, AMD plans to roll those optimizations into its other cards as well, so there should be a speed bump in store for folks running CrossFire on older cards.

Chris Angelini
Chris Angelini is an Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware US. He edits hardware reviews and covers high-profile CPU and GPU launches.
  • terror112
    WOW not impressed.
  • Annisman
    Thanks for the review Angelini, these new naming schemes are hurting my head, sometimes the only way to tell (at a quick glance) which AMD card matches up to what Nvidia card, is by comparing the prices, which I think is bad for the average consumer.
  • rohitbaran
    These cards are to GTX 500 series what 4000 series was to GTX 200. Not the fastest at their time but offer killer performance and feature set for the price. I too expected 6900 to be close to GTX 580, but it didn't turn out that way. Still, it is the card I have waited for to upgrade. Right in my budget.
  • tacoslave
    imagine when this hits 32nm?
  • notty22
    AMD's top card is about a draw with the gtx 570.
    Pricing is in line.
    Gives AMD only hold outs buying options, Nvidia already offered
    Merry Christmas
  • microterf
    Why drop the 580 when it comes to the multi-gpu scaling??
  • IzzyCraft
    Sorry all i read was this
    "This helps catch AMD up to Nvidia. However, Intel has something waiting in the wings that’ll take both graphics companies by surprise. In a couple of weeks, we'll be able to tell you more." and now i'm fixated to weather or not intel's gpu's can actually commit to proper playback.
  • andrewcutter
    but from what i read at hardocp, though it is priced alongside the 570, 6970 was benched against the 580 and they were trading blows... So toms has it at par with 570 but hard has it on par with 580.. now im confused because if it can give 580 perfomance or almost 580 performance at 570 price and power then this one is a winner. Sim a 6950 was trading blows with 570 there. So i am very confused
  • sgt bombulous
    This is hilarious... How long ago was it that there were ATI fanboys blabbering "The 6970 is gonna be 80% faster than the GTX 580!!!". And then reality hit...
  • manitoublack
    I'd have to say wait until the christmas new years dust settles