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Technology Primer - ATI Radeon HD 6000-series

Written on October 22, 2010 by William George


ATI has just launched their next-generation graphics card line, starting the process that will see the venerable Radeon HD 5000 cards replaced by 6000 models over the coming months. The first such cards, released today, are the 6850 and 6870 - known also by their codename 'Barts'.

Radeon HD 6850 & 6870 Details

Performance-wise these cards are very similar to the previous generation units with similar model number (5850 and 5870). The big difference is that these new cards put off less heat and come in at a lower price point, plus they sport some very nice new features. For example, the HDMI support on these cards is revision 1.4a - that brings higher resolutions and refresh rates, similar to dual-link DVI, and can enable other technologies like 3D Blu-ray movies to be used. These cards also support ATI's Eyefinity technology, as did their predecessors, which allows multiple monitors to run off a single card for either greater immersion in games or increased productivity.

The lower heat output from these cards, compared to the previous generation, means the cards can in theory run quieter. We've observed that with the samples we've been testing here over the past week, so we can vouch for the reference cooler design from ATI as being a good option in that regard. It is likely that various graphics card manufacturers will install customized cooling solutions as well, but here at Puget Systems we'll be on the lookout for the quietest and most reliable options rather than heatsinks and fans that simply look cool.

Lastly, the fact that ATI is aiming these new cards at lower price points means they will compete with different nVidia cards than the models they are replacing. That has already put some pressure on nVidia to lower prices, so it will be interesting to see what changes they make to their already strong lineup of GeForce 400-series cards in order to adapt and match the price-to-performance ratio of these new models.

Performance Tests

For those interested in performance numbers, we sent a couple of our production techs home with the sample cards to do real-world testing on these cards. Both techs we selected were already running ATI 5000-series cards, so we can see how these new models stack up against them, plus we gave them GeForce GTX 460 768MB samples to test as well.

Tester #1, John, had been using a Radeon 5770. He took home a 6850 to play with, which should be at about the same price-point as the 5770 but in theory offers better performance. Here are his results, measured in frames-per-second (FPS):

Benchmark TestRadeon HD 5770 1GBRadeon HD 6850 1GBGeForce GTX 460 768MB
Dirt 2, DX11 @ 1920x1080, High settings,
2x MSAA, Average FPS
Dirt 2, DX11 @ 1920x1080, High settings,
2x MSAA, Minimum FPS
Dirt 2, DX11 @ 1920x1080, Ultra settings,
8x MSAA, Average FPS
Dirt 2, DX11 @ 1920x1080, Ultra settings,
8x MSAA, Minimum FPS
Just Cause 2 @ 1920x1080, Max detail, 8x AA, Dark Tower-37.8231.04
Just Cause 2 @ 1920x1080, Max detail, 8x AA, Desert Sunrise-47.0744.35
Just Cause 2 @ 1920x1080, Max detail, 8x AA, Concrete Jungle-28.4826.04

From John's benchmark results it can be seen that the 6850 definitely performs better than the 5770, so if the market doesn't cause the price to soar over ATI's recommendation then it will be a great value. The difference was big enough - about a 30% increase - that he didn't bother including the 5770 in the second round of testing, but the GTX 460 comparisons here prove a little more interesting. The GTX 460 is nVidia's card with the closest MSRP to the new ATI card, and performance between the two is very close. It looks like nVidia leads slightly with lower anti-aliasing settings, but when those are cranked up the 6850 takes the lead. Even then, though, both cards perform very close to each other - so either would make an excellent purchase.

Tester #2's name is Ruben, and he started off with a more powerful computer and video card: the ATI Radeon HD 5870 Eyefinity Edition with 2GB of RAM. For testing, we gave him the new HD 6870 1GB - which based purely on specifications should perform around the same level, but cost less; lets see if that holds true:

Benchmark TestRadeon HD 5870 2GBRadeon HD 6870 1GBGeForce GTX 460 768MB
Dirt 2 Demo, DX9 @ 1920x1080, Ultra settings,
8x MSAA, Average FPS
Dirt 2 Demo, DX9 @ 1920x1080, Ultra settings,
8x MSAA, Minimum FPS
Just Cause 2 @ 1920x1080, Max details, 8x MSAA, Concrete Jungle36.2433.4726.08
Unigine Heaven @ 1920x1080, Max settings, Peak FPS40.234.729.5
Unigine Heaven @ 1920x1080, Max settings, Average FPS15.814.710.9
Unigine Heaven @ 1920x1080, Max settings, Minimum FPS6.67.62.2

Based on these numbers it looks like the 6870 does indeed come close to the performance of the 5870, but the older card still has an edge in most tests - maybe in part due to this particular sample card having more onboard RAM. Since the 6870 is expected to come out at a much lower price, though, the new card should be a very good value. You can also see that it beats the GTX 460, though in terms of price/performance ratio the more affordable nVidia card holds its own.


Adding features and cutting prices are both great moves in terms of advancing computer technology, so here at Puget Systems we've been anticipating this launch for some time. Increased competition is also great, as it spurs all involved to even better products!