AMD Radeon HD 6970 review

AMD has got its top-end graphics card out before Christmas, but was it worth the wait?

AMD Radeon HD 6970
Can AMD go back to the top of the single-GPU performance stakes

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AMD radeon hd 6970

So the AMD Radeon HD 6970 is new, it's got loads of graphics memory and some tweaked GPU design, so how does it perform?

In gaming terms we'd say it performs almost exactly like the beefed-up Cypress GPU it's replacing, but with a few fairly notable exceptions.

The key improvements in the Radeon HD 6970 over the Radeon HD 5870 all occur, unsurprisingly, at the DirectX 11 level.

As we mentioned before, that's most evident in particularly tessellation-heavy benchmarks, such as Heaven, and also the system-taxing Metro 2033. With its tessellated character models, Metro 2033 can bring a gaming rig to its knees, and the HD 5870 could barely run the benchmark at 1680 x 1050, let alone at 2560 x 1600.

Although, the AMD HD 6970 gives decent performance scores at both settings and, importantly for AMD, is four times as fast as Nvidia's GeForce GTX 570 in Metro 2033 at the top resolution.

And this is really key to the HD 6970's success or lack thereof – how does it stack up against its Nvidia-coloured competition?

As well as the Metro 2033 score, the Aliens vs Predator benchmark too makes good reading for the AMD faithful. It may only be by a few frames per second, but the fact that it's again faster than the competing GTX 570 is important.

Unfortunately for AMD, that's largely where the good news ends. It's very close across the rest of our benchmarking suite, but the Nvidia GeForce GTX 570 has the lead in all but those two DirectX 11 titles.

Even in Heaven the GTX 570 has the lead, albeit by a very, very narrow margin.

So the AMD HD 6970 is trading blows with the GTX 570, which in itself is a very good card. Unfortunately it's also a cheaper card, which to all intents and purposes scuppers the HD 6970 at birth.

The other issue here though is the GTX 570 is only a very slight redesign of the GTX 480's GPU, offering very close performance scores. The Radeon HD 6970 then is only just about keeping pace with Nvidia's top card of the last generation.

Hardly something to really go shouting from the rooftops in this competitive graphics card market.

The £400+ GTX 580 though is still by far the faster card, and holds on to its 'fastest single-GPU' title. There's little point comparing the HD 6970 with Nvidia's fastest though as this AMD offering is aimed at a very different market segment.

In this era of improved multi-GPU performance though the top-end AMD GPU is also facing off against the cheaper SLI pairing of twin GTX 460 1GB cards. And unless you're only looking at the Metro 2033 benchmark at 2560 x 1600, the HD 6970 loses out across the board.

The usual power/motherboard caveats apply here, but if you've got a compatible mobo and a hefty-enough PSU then it's still tough to look past this SLI setup.

The other fly in the Radeon HD 6970's ointment is the other Cayman-powered card released alongside it; the Radeon HD 6950. Unlike the Radeon HD 6870 and HD 6850 there is little tangible difference in the performance of these two cards.

Across our benchmarking suite you're looking at a maximum differential of 8fps, and that's on DiRT 2 where we're getting 85fps and 77fps respectively. At that speed you're hardly likely to really notice an 8fps drop off.

With the HD 6950 so much cheaper than its big brother that's where the sensible money's going out of the two. In performance terms, too, it sits somewhere between the GTX 470 and the GTX 570, making it much more of the value proposition.

If there were only AMD GPUs populating the world then we would be heralding the HD 6970's numbers as bringing the sort of single-GPU performance we'd never before seen. As it is we did that in March when the GTX 480 was released…

We liked

The speed boost over the previous generation's HD 5870 is impressive and shows the improvements of the AMD architecture, specifically at DirectX 11 gaming benchmarks.

We disliked

The big problem again for AMD is the fact that Nvidia has already brought out a faster single-GPU card that beats it hands down in the GTX 580. There's also the GTX 570 as another spoiler card, which has forced AMD to bring the HD 6970 out at a cheaper price than it wanted and still has a few FPS over it in performance terms.