EAH6970 Graphics Card Review
Despite being released some 8 months ago, the AMD Radeon HD 6970 is still their fastest single GPU product and today we're looking at the ASUS EAH6970 - a Radeon 6970 reference design but with a factory overclock and other ASUS customisation.
ASUS have done quite an innovative job with their own designs including 3-slot ones with massive cooling and an often overlooked range is the entry level. While its good to have innovative designs with specialised cooling, many customers are very price conscious and a price search of your favourite online store will show ASUS branded cards right amongst the cheapest available products - not bad for a premium brand.
So this review is from a primarily price/performance point of view.
Here are the specifications of this card:
There are a whole host of features such as Voltage Tweak, Super Alloy Power and a Full Aluminium Cover which are all described at the ASUS homepage.
Let's take a look at the current and previous generation of high end GPUs from AMD (all manufactured on a 40nm process).
At the top we have the Radeon HD 6970, AMD’s top single-GPU part. Featuring a complete Cayman GPU, it has 1536 stream processors, 96 texture units, and 32 ROPs. It is clocked at 880MHz for the core clock and 1375MHz (5.5GHz data rate) for its 2GB of GDDR5 RAM. TDP (or the closest thing to it) is 250W, while reflecting the maturity and AMD’s familiarity with the 40nm process typical idle power draw is down from the 5800 series to 20W.
Below that we have the Radeon HD 6950, the traditional lower power card using a slightly cut-down GPU. The 6950 has 1408 stream processors, 88 texture units, and still all 32 ROPs attached to the same 2GB of GDDR5. The core clock is similarly reduced to 800MHz, while the memory clock is 1250MHz (5GHz data rate). TDP is 200W, while idle power is the same as with the 6970 at 20W.
On paper we can see modest increases of clock and memory speeds over the 5870 and a doubling of the onboard memory. With the 7000 series unlikely this year the situation will remain as it is for some time.
Cayman is the biggest change to AMD’s GPU microarchitecture since the original Radeon HD 2900:
At 389mm2 Cayman is the largest AMD GPU since the ill-fated R600, and well off the sub-300mm2 size that the small die strategy dictates. In terms of efficient usage of space though AMD is doing quite well; Cayman has 2.64 billion transistors, 500million more than Cypress. AMD was able to pack 29% more transistors in only 16% more space.
The end result is that Cayman as we know it is a compromise to make it happen on 40nm. AMD got their new VLIW4 architecture, but they had to give up performance and an unknown number of features to get there. On the flip side this will make 28nm all the more interesting, as we’ll get to see many of the features that were supposed to make it for 2010 but never arrived.
Moving on to the ASUS card itself lets start with the box.
Branding is very important for a manufacturer's product positioning, both against the offerings of competitors and to enhance product differentiation. The EAH6970 packaging promises good overclocking and a host of features to distance itself from competitors.
It may seem strange to evaluate packaging (some people throw it away or tear it open) but it says a lot about brand positioning. Imparting as much information as possible about the things that are unique about the product will go a long way towards persuading a consumer to buy while browsing at a large store. Few things depress shoppers more than shelf after shelf of plain OEM boxes.
Usually we like to show a photo of the contents spread out around the card but in this case the sample we received had been doing the rounds for a few months and some of the cables were missing. The inside is very well laid out though, adding to the feeling of having a quality product.
The card is a reference design (albeit with an aluminium shroud) with a fan at the (sealed) back end which forces air out of the back of the case, unlike some multi-fan designs which keep the exhaust air inside the case and rely on case cooling to keep the case temperature down. We prefer this design as GPUs adding to case temperature reduces the efficiency of CPU cooling and can limit overclocking especially in water cooled systems.
The side view shows how the shroud is sealed with only a small gap allowing hot air into the case. Also visible is a plastic cover over the PCI-E connector - something we have not seen before in a graphics card.
A 6-pin and an 8-pin connector are required giving a theoretical 300W maximum power draw. We'll see what the actual draw is later.
Next to the CrossFire connector is a tiny switch to change from BIOS 1 to 2. On the Radeon HD 6990 this switched from normal (375W) mode to full speed of two 6970a (450+W). In this case its really only useful if one stops working after a failed BIOS update attempt.
The back shows both DVI connectors and mini port and HDMI connectors. Ventilation stretches to only half a slot and we would have preferred to sacrifice a DVI port to double the grill area.
The final side view shows a host of information labels and illustrates how well sealed the shroud is.
We have two main test systems at present and recently upgraded our Intel one to an i7-2600K we received from Intel for the Sandy Bridge launch in January. The AMD system has the most powerful processor currently available in the AMD range. All cards are tested at their default speed but in the case of the Radeon HD6990 we are able to get it to run at full 2x 6970 speeds by flicking a switch on the card. Therefore we will show results as HD6990 and HD6990 OC to distinguish between them.
1.5GB is an odd memory configuration to use and only time will tell if 2GB should have been the norm. We used GPU-Z to measure temperatures and gather various bits of information.
Firstly we will start with DX10 testing with DX11 tests to follow.
3DMark Vantage is a full DirectX 10 compliant synthetic benchmark. It tests out all of the DirectX 10 abilities of each card to give the user an idea of where they rank with their graphic card in a collective pool of many users all over the internet.
The testing was done with the default performance setting for all of the cards to give an idea where each one stands in the GPU line up.
The demanding test punishes all comers with the HD5850 at a crawl and the GTX580 putting a good show against the dual-GPU ATI Radeon HD6990. The 6970 and GTX580 are neck and neck.
Setting aside the middle bars (the CPU performance is fairly level as the only variable during testing is the graphics card) it can be seen that the performance of the high end cards scales with their product positioning. The Radeon HD 5850 which has served us so well for over a year is still capable of putting up a good fight but is now end of line and is about the same price as the better performing Radeon HD 6870. The 6970 is slightly behind its more expensive Nvidia rival. Both the GTX580 and the HD6990 manage to reach around the 30000 mark which is no easy thing.
Far Cry 2 is still a firm favourite and was taxing on any system. It's now broken by the HD6990 and is CPU limited at all resolutions. Considering that our i7-2600K Sandy Bridge processor is the most advanced currently available (where art thou Bulldozer?), that is quite an achievement. On the other hand the 6970 performs well all the way up to full HD resolution.
HAWX seems to be easy for most systems to handle with playable rates from all contendors at all resolutions. We'll have to see how that changes when we move to HAWX 2. The 6970 frame rate is in triple digits at all resolutions..
The current darling of horror games provides lots of eye candy and furious action. As with Far Cry 2 performance is very good but only the 6XXX series cards can provide triple digit frame rates at all resolutions. The ASUS EAH6970 manages to beat the ENGTX580 at all resolutions.
We're in the process of changing our benchmarks to more demanding ones and appreciate any feedback suggestions.
Because of the longevity of our standard tests we have introduced a host of new benchmarks. We wanted to add Crysis2 as well but DX11 issues with that title mean we will have to wait until a patch is released.
Aliens VS Predator
As with many of the already released DirectX 11 benchmarks, the Aliens vs. Predator DirectX 11 benchmark leverages DirectX 11 hardware to provide an immersive game play experience through the use of DirectX 11 Tessellation and DirectX 11 Advanced Shadow features. In Aliens vs. Predator, DirectX 11 Geometry Tessellation is applied in an effective manner to enhance and more accurately depict HR Giger’s famous Alien design. Through the use of a variety of adaptive schemes, applying tessellation when and where it is necessary, the perfect blend of performance and visual fidelity is achieved with at most a 4% change in performance.
All cards provide playable framerates with the 6970 being above 60fps at 1920x1080.
Stalker: Call of Pripyat
This is a special version of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat Having a PC tested with this benchmark will enable the gathering of detailed information about its performance on various graphical modes and finds out how well the system is balanced for gaming and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat in particular.
This benchmark is based on one of the ingame locations – Pripyat . The testing process includes four stages, those utilizing various weather and time of the day settings (day, night, rain, bright sun). In order to test the system thoroughly the benchmark is provided with a number of presets and options including different versions of DirectX (9.0, 10.0, 11), screen resolutions, antialiasing etc.
We use the Ultra (highest details) setting and DX11 mode. The only switching we did was between 1680x1050 and 1920x1080 resolutions and to switch the DX11 Hardware Tesselation and Contact Hardening Shadows.
The EAH6970 manages 100+ frames per second except for the more demanding "Sun Shafts" where it is about 60fps at Full HD resolution.
Once we turn on the DX11 eye candy the performance hit is low while providing a huge visual improvement.
While Street Fighter IV features models and backgrounds rendered in 3D, the gameplay remains on a traditional 2D plane, with the camera having freedom to move in 3D at certain times during fights, for dramatic effect. Producer Yoshinori Ono has stated that he wanted to keep the game closer to Street Fighter II. A new system called Focus Attacks (Saving Attack for the Japanese version) has been introduced, as well as Ultra Moves. The traditional six-button control scheme returns, with new features and Special Moves integrated into the input system, mixing classic gameplay with additional innovations.
This game will be fine on any graphics card.
The chronic oversaturation of the mafia in our international media has taught us much. Mafia II is an attempt to chronicle these teachings in game form. Fact number one: mafia men do lots of killing. Fact number two: they like suits. Fact number three: mafiosa don’t call each other mafiosa; they use the term ‘wiseguys’.
Some titles hit a plateau and this is one of them with a Radeon HD 5850 being adequate (roll on Mafia 3).
The primary purpose of Test A is to give an
indication of typical game play performance of the PC running Lost Planet 2.
(i.e. if you can run Mode A smoothly, the game will be playable at a similar
condition). In this test, the character’s motion is randomized to give a
slightly different outcome each time.
The stress of the Lost Planet 2 benchmark is such that 60fps are barely reached with Test A and, while 30fps can be managed by even a mid-range card, that fluidity sought by players of this type of game remains elusive.
We cannot give exact decibel levels due to lack of sufficiently sensitive equipment but can confirm that the ASUS EAH6970 is relatively quiet. Thanks to the fan spinning at lower than normal speeds most of the time it is inaudible at idle performance levels unless we turn off all the fans in our test rig (we use water cooling so the CPU is safe).
Power consumption is a big issue these days with GPUs sometimes consuming 2 or 3 times as much as a CPU. Performance returns never seem to scale anything like power increases and heavy users can find that the cost of increased electricity mounts up over time. The idle loads shown are all perfectly acceptable but under load (running Resident Evil 5 fixed benchmark) the HD6970 jumps to around 300W - about the same as the GTX580. Using FurMark the HD6970 uses 340W. That compares to the 400W of the GTX580.
Temperatures determine how long a component will last and can affect other components in a case. The EAH6970 runs at a good idle temperature but ties with the 6990 under load and is slightly higher than that of the GTX580 running FurMark but this is likely down to the superb 3-slot cooling of the ASUS DCU2 design.
Having the latest graphics card is not just about speed but also other benefits. One of these is hardware acceleration in video playback and this is illustrated with Adobe's Flash player with support for hardware acceleration.
The difference is startling and shows how important this feature can be if widely implemented. Let's hope that people keep pestering the relevant software developers until they all have this level of support by default.
To see the benefits of DX11 that are unique to the DX11 series cards we need to dig further. It’s tricky to test to see how much of a speed difference DX11 makes as there are few reliable DX11 benchmarks but as a showcase of DX11 quality the situation is much better. We used Unigine’s Heaven Benchmark and can only convey the quality to our readers via YouTube.
The improvement in quality is apparent for all to see.
This next video shows the effects of Hardware Tessellation. The technical white paper on this feature is enough to send the most avid technophile to sleep but there's no denying the benefits of the end result.
If you have a DirectX 11 card then you can download the demo for yourself at http://unigine.com/download/
The ASUS EAH6970 performs very well. Doing a quick price search shows a slight premium over competitors (although in many cases it was the cheapest Radeon HD 6970 in stock) but that is made up for with a factory overclock.
We experienced some issues with micro stuttering, something that supposedly only happens (rarely) in dual GPU configurations and it took us a few weeks of exhaustive investigation to conclude it was a hardware fault in a part common to all manufacturers.
Our tests show some games are CPU limited with a Radeon HD6990 and until Bulldozer (or Ivy Bridge) are released the Radeon 6970 and the GTX580 are the only real contendors. Seeing the high power consumption and price of the GTX580, the best buy has the be the Radeon HD 6970 and on a price/performance basis it comes out ahead of the Nvidia GTX580 and is plain faster than a 570 or 560.
For those that need to run their games at 1920x1080 or higher and those needing fluid screen action, we heartily recommend the ASUS EAH6970.
We'd like to thank ASUS UK for the review sample EAH6970
For its low price, solid build quality and relatively quiet operation under heavy workload we are awarding the ASUS EAH6970 our Hardware Review Silver Award.
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