Legend Upgrade: PowerColor PCS+ HD6770 1GB GDDR5 Vortex II (DiRT 3 Edition) Review

Despite serious changes in the graphics card market, 2011 may be called a year of “cold launches”. It looks like both, AMD and Nvidia, decided to spend their marketing budgets only on expensive products. Therefore, many interesting new graphics cards in the mainstream segment were announced without much excitement surrounding them. Today we will try to make up for lack of attention to one of them – the AMD Radeon HD 6770.

by Yaroslav Lyssenko
09/19/2011 | 10:40 AM

When AMD unveiled its Radeon HD 5770 graphics card back in 2009, few could have guessed what a bright future awaited it. That card was not meant to be a flagship product because AMD had already released the successful Radeon HD 5870 for that purpose. The Radeon HD 5770 was targeted at the mass market and accomplished its goals very well.

 

It turned out to be a visiting card of the then-new DirectX 11 API and proved AMD's technical superiority in the area of discrete graphics solutions. Modestly priced and compact, the Radeon HD 5770 managed to beat every one of its opponents and offered better capabilities than the Radeon HD 4870, the flagship of the previous generation.

The whole year of 2010 passed with our waiting for a worthy rival to come out as both AMD and Nvidia unveiled their new mainstream products. AMD came up with a rather odd Radeon HD 5830 which was massive, power-hungry and expensive but roughly as fast as the older Radeon HD 5770.

Nvidia’s response in the way of the GeForce GTX 460 768MB was quite competitive and popular, even though the card was somewhat more expensive than its AMD opponent. The 400 series was swiftly replaced with the 500 one, though. Positioned as a successor to the GeForce GTS 450, the next mainstream card GeForce GTX 550 Ti encountered the good old Radeon HD 5770 again. With its low power consumption, affordable pricing and compact dimensions, the GeForce GTX 550 Ti could adequately represent Nvidia’s brand in the mainstream market sector.

This move called for a countermove on AMD's part. Indeed, it's been a long time since we last saw a new mainstream solution from AMD.

AMD Radeon HD 6770: Positioning and Specifications

There’s no point in changing your concept if you’re a restaurant chef and have a few popular dishes on your menu but this strategy doesn’t normally work on the GPU market where stable profits can only be ensured by ongoing innovation. Well, let’s take a look at the specifications of the AMD Radeon HD 6770 card, the newest mainstream offer from AMD.

It looks like we’ve got a ghost from the past here. AMD seems to have resorted to what could be called the G92 Defense in the chess world. A few years ago Nvidia played it to the indignation of reviewers and users alike. Now it’s time for AMD fans to express their grudge against their favorite brand.

The Radeon HD 6770 is in fact a rebranded Radeon HD 5770 from the year of 2009. The GPU still has 800 stream processors clocked at 850 MHz, 40 texture-mapping units, and 16 raster back-ends. The card is equipped with 1024 megabytes of graphics memory with a 128-bit bus. The clock rate of the GDDR5 chips is 1200 (4800) MHz, i.e. the same as with the Radeon HD 5770. So, we can’t find any source of extra performance in the new product’s specs.

 
Radeon HD 5770 (left) and Radeon HD 6770 (right)

Well, it wouldn’t be correct to view the Radeon HD 6770 as a clone of its predecessor. Thanks to updated BIOS, the RV840 Juniper chip now supports 3D Blu-ray playback, even though it has the same video processor (UVD 2.2). It can handle the higher decoding load by means of an additional PowerPlay profile with somewhat higher clock rates.

The new card’s HDMI interface has been upgraded to version 1.4a, enabling 3D-over-HDMI. These two features are going to be appreciated by home theater users.

Despite the lack of notable innovations, AMD’s decision to rebrand its older product can be justified. Developing a new GPU is quite a costly process, so using an old but still viable solution is reasonable. The Radeon HD 5770 being still popular among end users, it makes sense to rename it according to AMD’s current product nomenclature which goes from Radeon HD 6990 down to Radeon HD 6450. It would be hard to convince an inexperienced user to buy a good graphics card if the latter were the only product with a smaller series number. On the other hand, is the AMD Radeon HD 6770 really competitive against the newer products after two years of being on the market?

Closer Look at PowerColor PCS+ HD6770 Vortex II

Package, Accessories and Product Specifications

The updated mainstream solution from AMD is represented in this review by PowerColor's PCS+ HD6770 Vortex II card.

 

It comes in a compact box with a picture of a car on its face side. The car resembles a Dodge Challenger but has a massive fan instead of the cabin, suggesting that the product combines high performance with efficient cooling.

Besides the car mutant, the black box is embellished with a lot of info stickers. The one in the top right corner tells us that the card is equipped with 1 gigabyte of GDDR5 memory and three interfaces (dual-link DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort). In the bottom part of the box you can learn that the card supports Eyefinity technology and can work with up to three monitors simultaneously. The small DiRT 3 logo means a special edition of the card which includes a key for a full version of the popular racing sim.

There are two terms that need our attention here: PCS+ and VERTEX II. The former is like the AMG badge on a Mercedes Benz and denotes a product with higher-than-usual manufacturing quality and increased performance. VORTEX II is a reference to the card’s nonstandard cooling system.

After the informative and eye-catching packaging, we were somewhat disappointed to find just a bare minimum of accessories inside the box:

Well, scanty accessories are quite typical of today’s graphics cards. There are but few makers who include free extras with their products. Still, we can note that you get a new AAA-class game for free with this card, which is good.

An experienced graphics card maker, PowerColor is perfectly aware that a free game is not enough to attract a user. Therefore this card comes from the PCS+ series which features pre-overclocked frequencies.

The standard clock rate of the Juniper chip is 850 MHz whereas the PowerColor PCS+ HD6770 Vertex clocks its GPU at 900 MHz. The graphics memory is also pre-overclocked to 1225 (4900) MHz. This isn't much, though, especially in terms of memory frequency which is a crucial factor for products of this class. Well, we'll check out the card's performance shortly. Let's now take a look at its cooling system.

PCB Design and Cooling System

Today’s graphics cards need massive cooling systems. The reference Radeon HD 6770 cooler is quite efficient and quiet, but original cooling solutions are more attractive in users’ eyes.

So, PowerColor's Radeon HD 6770 comes with the Vortex II cooler which consists of a copper base, two heat pipes and an aluminum heatsink. The latter is rather massive and covers almost the entire PCB. A 92mm fan is set to blow at the heatsink. The fan is located as far from the PCB as possible (within the dual-slot form-factor) in order to get more of fresh air.

You can even pull the fan out by an extra centimeter if you've got free expansion slots next to the graphics card. This improves the intake of cold air and reduces the size of the dead spot right below the fan.

Aerodynamic properties are as important for graphics card coolers as for aircraft or cars. Turbulence, dead zones, accumulated dust are but some of the factors that can negatively affect the efficiency of an air-based cooler. The simple and elegant solution by PowerColor engineers should help to get rid of the low-pressure zone right behind the fan impeller. Thanks to the small holes at the base of the impeller blades the air flow is improved by 13%.

This innovative cooler has one downside, though. It does not cool the memory chips. This is rather odd for a graphics card which is targeted at overclockers and enthusiasts.

The PCB is painted PowerColor’s traditional red. There is quite a lot of empty space on it because the 128-bit memory bus simplifies the PCB design. PowerColor claims to employ high-quality components, though.

There are eight W1032888G-50-F memory chips from Elpida on the PCB. Each has a capacity of 1 gigabit (32 Mb x 32) for a total of 1024 megabytes. The 50-F suffix denotes a rated frequency of 1250 (5000) MHz, but the card's actual memory frequency in 3D mode is 1225 (4900) MHz, which is 25 (100) MHz higher than that of the reference card.

We didn’t expect new connectivity options from the PowerColor card since even the original Radeon HD 5770 offered enough of them. Like a regular Radeon HD 6770, the PCS+ HD6770 Vortex II has four connectors in its mounting bracket: two DVI-I ports, a full-size DisplayPort and one HDMI.

The card allows building dual-GPU tandems based on CrossFireX technology.

Temperature, Noise, Overclockability

You can learn how much power RV840-based products need from our Radeon HD 5770 review, but pre-overclocked graphics cards differ from reference samples in this respect. Moreover, AMD has updated the PowerPlay firmware and changed clock rates of some of the operation modes.

PowerColor's cooling system did very well despite the high ambient temperature during the test (30°C). The GPU of the reference card was as hot as 80°Cwhereas the PowerColor kept its GPU rather cold, within 54°C, notwithstanding the pre-overclocked frequency. We’ve only had a better result in this test with an MSI card which has a nonstandard cooler, too.

As for the noise factor, the PCS+ HD6770 Vortex II isn’t far from comfortable, yet audible in both 3D and 2D modes. Its sound is not irritating, but we have to admit PowerColor’s mistake here. When the card is idle, its driver sets the fan speed at 40% of the maximum, which means a noise level of 48.2 dB right next to the card. At the same time, the fan never accelerated above 50% of the maximum speed during our tests. So, the standard cooling system is 2 dB better and more comfortable subjectively.

The PowerColor card is equipped with a high-performance cooler but its high performance comes at the expense of noise. Let’s see how this affects the card’s overclockability.

Our PowerColor PCS+ HD6770 Vortex II could only be accelerated to a GPU clock rate of 950 MHz. We couldn't conquer the 1GHz peak and the card wasn't stable at the highest frequency we could set with the exclusive Overdrive tool. The memory subsystem did better and worked normally after a 9% increase in clock rate. So, the resulting frequencies were 950 MHz for the GPU and 1315 MHz for the memory chips. Not much of overclocking, you might say, but you should keep it in mind that the Radeon HD 6770 is actually meant to be clocked at 850 MHz!

Testbed and Methods

We are going to investigate the gaming performance of PowerColor PCS+ HD6770 Vortex II using the following universal testbed:

We used the following ATI Catalyst and Nvidia GeForce drivers:

The ATI Catalyst and Nvidia GeForce graphics card drivers were configured in the following way:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia GeForce:

Below is the list of games and test applications we used during this test session:

First-Person 3D Shooters

Third-Person 3D Shooters

RPG

Simulators

Strategies

Semi-synthetic and synthetic benchmarks

We selected the highest possible level of detail in each game. If the application supported tessellation, we enabled it for the test session.

For settings adjustment, we used standard tools provided by the game itself from the gaming menu. The games configuration files weren’t modified in any way, because the ordinary user doesn’t have to know how to do it. We ran our tests in the following resolutions: 1600x900, 1920x1080 and 2560x1600. Unless stated otherwise, everywhere, where it was possible we added MSAA 4x antialiasing to the standard anisotropic filtering 16x. We enabled antialiasing from the game’s menu. If this was not possible, we forced them using the appropriate driver settings of ATI Catalyst and Nvidia GeForce drivers.

Besides PowerColor PCS+ HD6770 1GB GDDR5 Vortex II (DIRT3 EDITION), we also tested the following products:

Performance was measured with the games’ own tools and the original demos were recorded if possible. We measured not only the average speed, but also the minimum speed of the cards where possible. Otherwise, the performance was measured manually with Fraps utility version 3.4.6. In the latter case we ran the test three times and took the average of the three for the performance charts.

Performance in First-Person 3D Shooters

Aliens vs. Predator

It’s like nothing has changed over the past two years. The rebranded card outperforms each of its opponents and even challenges the more advanced Radeon HD 6850. The PowerColor delivers 30 fps at the lowest of the tested resolutions, being only inferior to the more expensive HD 6850 and GeForce GTX 560 Ti. The same goes for the popular Full-HD resolution except that the GeForce GTX 550 Ti gets very close there. Unfortunately, even overclocked, the PowerColor PCS+ HD6770 Vertex II cannot deliver a playable speed at 2560x1600 with FSAA due to its narrow memory bus.

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Vietnam

The PowerColor falls behind the GeForce GTX 560 Ti but otherwise feels quite at ease in this game. It can’t deliver 60 fps but its main opponent GeForce GTX 550 Ti can’t do that, either. Overclocking makes the PowerColor equal to the Radeon HD 6850. Although you have to disable FSAA to ensure a comfortable frame rate at any of the tested solutions, the RV840-based products are surprisingly good compared to their opponents even in 2011.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

The PowerColor PCS+ HD6770 Vortex II exceeds the requirements of the game engine. You can set any resolution, leave the game options at their maximums, and even enable FSAA, and still enjoy a playable frame rate with the PowerColor card. The GeForce GTX 550 Ti and GTS 450 go neck and neck with each other and are both slightly inferior to the Radeon HD 6770. The RV840 developer team really has something to be proud about.

Crysis 2

Crysis 2 is rather indifferent to GPU and memory overclocking irrespective of the graphics card architecture. You'll have to disable some graphics options in order to play it comfortably on a PowerColor PCS+ HD6770 Vortex II. On the other hand, the PowerColor is quite competitive and can perfectly satisfy an undemanding user.

Duke Nukem Forever

Duke Nukem Forever is the ideal platform for showcasing the benefits of factory overclocking. The increased memory bandwidth and GPU frequency help the PowerColor card get very close to the Radeon HD 6850. The GeForce GTX 550 Ti is just as fast, though.

Metro 2033

This game is tested with the tessellation option turned on.

Our overclocking brings some benefits at 1600x900, but the PowerColor slows down at the higher resolutions. It cannot overtake the Radeon HD 6850 but leaves the GeForce GTX 550 Ti and GTS 460 behind. The frame rate is about 30 fps, which is not high for a fastidious gamer, yet the Radeon HD 6770 is the fastest card in its class here.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat

This game runs with enabled tessellation.

Working at its default frequencies, the PowerColor card is inferior to Nvidia's solutions, but overtakes the GeForce GTX 550 Ti after we overclock it. Unfortunately, graphics cards of that class cannot make this game playable at 2560x1600.

Performance in Third-Person 3D Shooters

Just Cause 2

The third-person shooter Just Cause 2 shows how tough the competition among mainstream graphics cards is. The Radeon HD 5770/6770, GeForce GTX 550 Ti and PowerColor PCS+ HD6770 Vortex II are all very close in performance, but the PowerColor card's 17 fps at the maximum resolution is far from acceptable.

Lost Planet 2

The pre-overclocked frequencies of the PowerColor card cannot help it deliver playable speed in Lost Planet 2. This is largely due to the weak performance of the RV840’s tessellation unit. The Radeon HD 6850 cannot ensure a playable frame rate, either, whereas the GeForce GTX 550 Ti indicates that AMD should work to improve their graphics architecture.

Performance in RPG

Dragon Age II

This RPG is really more like a third-person shooter, so the frame rate delivered by the Radeon HD 5770/6770 at the reference clock rates is not really playable. The pre-overclocked PowerColor raises the performance bar to 23 fps but you may have slowdowns in the heat of a battle with multiple adversaries. There is no point in subjecting the PowerColor to further overclocking since you won't get much of a speed boost. Lowering the game's graphics quality settings is the only way to play comfortably.

Mass Effect 2

The performance of the Radeon HD 5770/6770 is as low as that of the GeForce GTS 450, yet the frame rate is at a playable level. When overclocked additionally, the PowerColor overtakes the GeForce GTX 550 Ti.

Performance in Simulators

DiRT 3

The PowerColor PCS+ HD6770 Vortex II has no rivals in its class whereas the GeForce GTX 550 Ti falls far behind. There is no point in overclocking the PowerColor further since it delivers a playable frame rate at every resolution.

Performance in Strategies

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty

You may think about upgrading your computer for the upcoming second part of the StarCraft II saga. However, you don’t have to worry if you’ve got a Radeon HD 5770 as it can deliver high performance here. The PowerColor PCS+ HD6770 Vortex II is 20% faster than the GeForce GTX 550 Ti in this test, yet cannot make the game playable at 2560x1600 even with our overclocking.

Total War: Shogun 2

The PowerColor PCS+ HD6770 Vortex II takes an in-between position in the diagram. It is slower than the Radeon HD 6850 but faster than the other products from its class. AMD's decision to rebrand the Radeon HD 5770 looks more and more justifiable to us.

Performance in Synthetic and Semi-Synthetic Benchmarks

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage

We minimize the CPU’s influence by using the Extreme profile (1920x1200, 4x FSAA and anisotropic filtering). We also publish the results of the individual tests across all resolutions.

3DMark Vantage suggests that the PowerColor PCS+ HD6770 Vortex II is the fastest representative of its product class. The aged architecture of the new card doesn’t reflect in its score as it beats the younger GeForce GTX 550 Ti. The extra overclocking helps the PowerColor score over 6000 points and almost overtake the Radeon HD 6850 which is more advanced architecturally.

Futuremark 3DMark11

We use the Extreme profile here. As opposed to 3DMark Vantage, this profile uses a resolution of 1920x1080 pixels.

3DMark 11 produces unexpected results. Nvidia proves to be unable to compete with the Radeon HD 6770 right now. The PowerColor was close to 1000 points when additionally overclocked, and we are sure some lucky sample of the card can beat that mark. AMD’s 2-year-old solution triumphs again!

Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. 2 Preview Benchmark

This benchmark makes wide use of tessellation to render the surface of the earth. The number of polygons per one frame can be as high as 1.5 million!

This synthetic benchmark reveals the downsides of the old architecture, even though the RV840-based solution delivers a high enough frame rate. The factory overclocking adds a few more frames per second to the PowerColor’s speed.

Unigine Heaven 2.5 Benchmark

We use Normal tessellation in this test.

Notwithstanding the superiority of the Fermi architecture in tessellation performance, the PowerColor card is competitive in this test. Unigine Heaven 2.5 draws very complex scenes, and the first game with Unigine technologies is already coming up. So, it is good that the PowerColor PCS+ HD6770 Vortex II is somewhat faster than the GeForce GTX 550 Ti at every resolution.

Conclusion

Winning a customer is often the result of proper marketing and promotion rather than innovation. So, one of the problems every developer faces is whether to invest into something new or market an older technology with highlighted benefits.

A few years ago Nvidia tried to present an old dish with a new flavor but the attempt was criticized by both reviewers and users. Notwithstanding that, AMD tried the same trick in the spring of 2011 by releasing a batch of Radeon HD 6770 cards which were in fact rebranded Radeon HD 5770s. The launch of the “new” product went quietly and didn’t provoke much excitement. But how does the 2-year-old GPU feel among newer opponents?

Our tests suggest that high resolutions and FSAA are largely beyond the RV840’s capabilities but RV840-based products remain competitive. Even the reference Radeon HD 6770 is as fast as the younger GeForce GTX 550 Ti based on the new Fermi technology.

Of course, the Radeon HD 6770 can’t become a bestseller of the mainstream market now and it doesn’t really aspire to be a leader, priced at $129. However, when overclocked, it can challenge the more advanced Radeon HD 6850.

It can also be a good choice for a multimedia computer. Thanks to the new PowerPlay modes and enhanced Unified Video Decoder it supports 3D imaging technologies.

PowerColor PCS+ HD6770 1GB GDDR5 Vortex II (DiRT 3 Edition) Summary

The PowerColor PCS+ HD6770 1GB GDDR5 Vortex II (DiRT 3 Edition) is surely worth the money they ask for it. This card can serve you well for the next few years. Its downsides (128-bit memory bus and low tessellation performance) are inconspicuous even in latest games whereas its advantages are obvious: very attractive price, efficient cooling, a free game in the box, factory overclocking, etc.

AMD's approach to releasing new products may be criticized, but take a look at the test results first!

Highs:

Lows: