ATI Radeon HD 5850 review

Less is more with AMD's second-ranking 3D graphics chipset

ATI Radeon HD 5850
Great performance, image quality and API support at an almost tempting price

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Question: Is the Radeon HD 5850 the fastest graphics card you can buy? Answer: No. But it is the most cost effective high-performance card out there.

More importantly, so quick is the 5850 we doubt whether you would notice the difference between it and any of the uber-money boards most of the time. That includes the Nvidia GeForce GTX 480 and AMD's own dual-GPU monstrosity, the Radeon HD 5890.

We liked

Bang for buck, the 5850 crushes all comers. For proof, try this for size. For every frame per second you enjoy in Just Cause 2, the 5850 costs you £4.24. By the same metric, the 5870 costs you £4.92, while the GeForce GTX 470 and 480 clock in at £6.18 and £6.26. It's no contest.

As for the crucial comparison with the Radeon HD 5870, it's worth going into a little more detail. At worst the 5850's performance falls 20 per cent behind and often comes much closer. Well within the 37 per cent target set by the 5870's price premium, in other words.

We disliked

Critiquing this card is kind of crazy. However, we do have one major reservation even if it's one that applies to all AMD DX11 cards rather than specifically to the 5850. AMD's take on the new DX11 tessellator has us worried.

Early benchmarks, admittedly mostly synthetic, suggest the 5850 and 5870's single tessellator could be a performance bottleneck in future. Nvidia, by contrast, has given its Fermi-based cards no fewer than 16 tessellators running in parallel. Granted, the comparison isn't like for like. But it still seems that Nvidia has the edge.


The troublesome topic of tessellation aside, the Radeon HD 5850 is a fantastic graphics chipset. In fact, all round it's very probably the best currently available. After all, it delivers a game-playing experience that's often indistinguishable from boards costing twice as much.

That's just as well, because the 5850's £225 starting price is right at the limit of what we think is reasonable for any graphics card. Unless you have a 30-inch panel and a penchant for playing Crysis, for goodness sake don't pay more.

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