AMD Radeon HD 6990 Graphics Card Review: Monster Evolution on the Way

There has been the same undisputed leader in the graphics cards market for almost eighteen months now. As with many good things, they all must come to an end or at least step aside in order to give way to the new generation. Sticking to its ‘premium products are of dual chip design’ dogma, AMD has just released its latest dreadnought – Radeon HD 6990.

by Yaroslav Lyssenko
03/13/2011 | 10:13 PM

Back in the days, in November 2009 to be more precise, the world was taken aback by the performance level demonstrated by AMD Radeon HD 5970 graphics card. The top of the line offering featured a two-chip one-PCB concept and was warmly welcomed by the enthusiast community despite is high price. Although forum dispute regarding its “King of the Hill” status continues to rage on even today, we must underline that in majority of cases reviewed ATI Radeon HD 5970 was the fastest graphics card on the planet. It has always been the fastest single PCIe slot occupant in the graphics department and the point “yes, but it is made of essentially two graphics cards” is irrelevant.

 

The rumors regarding its successor started to circle the Internet in the mid 2010. At some point the information exchange concerning dual chip solutions from AMD and Nvidia seemed like a behind the scenes PR battle. Who was going to blink first: Nvidia with a pair of then outstanding GeForce GTX 460 chips or AMD with revised branding and newly released sixth generation Radeon HD? The cold war never took off and by the time Christmas season hit the shelves talks shifted towards Nvidia’s mainstream dream-offering – GeForce 560 Ti. But, as always in a good blockbuster story, AMD was just about ready to launch a counter offense.

Please welcome the newest and meanest kid on the block - AMD Radeon HD 6990 graphics card. And please, be nice to it. If it is even half as good as its predecessor, it is going to be on top of the game for at least 18 months straight, but before we throw some benchmarks at it, let’s see what it is made of, shall we?

AMD Radeon HD 6990: a Pair of Diamonds or Just Brand New?

We say that we don’t care what it is made of, but in reality people who buy a $300+ piece of hardware actually know quite a bit about it and some want to know even more. Let us check out the general stats for AMD Radeon HD 6990 graphics card and compare it to Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 as well as ATI Radeon HD 5970 offerings.

As it turns out, besides its Antilles brand name, the chip itself can’t boast anything particularly special. The VLIW4 shader architecture is used as previously seen with other Radeon HD 6x00 series based solutions (ATI Radeon HD 6800: Generation Next?). According to AMD, the refined shader arrangement better addresses current and future workloads aimed at GPU part of your system.

The computing power that AMD Radeon HD 6990 capable of is astonishing and is marked at around 5.1 TFLOPs for single precision FP32 calculations and 1.27 TFLOPs for double precision FP64 workloads. If you are into big numbers, then 3072 ALUs is definitely a cool feature for you, although it is still a bit shy of the 3200 shader processes incorporated previously in ATI Radeon HD 5970 flagship product. Couple that with 192 texture units and 4 GB of GDDR5 boasting 5.0 Gbps data throughput and you are going to end up with a true masterpiece.

So, what Radeon HD 6990 really is: a breath-taking revolution or a logical evolution? Well, it may be really hard to judge just yet, as we have only seen the theoretical part. Let's waste no time and see for ourselves, what really lies behind the enormous black and red exterior.

AMD Radeon HD 6990: Build by Enthusiasts for Enthusiasts

Take a closer look at AMD Radeon HD 6990 and you will probably notice that more is actually never enough. The hero of our review has an extra feature on almost every square mm of its surface.

The manufacturer decided to install Dual-BIOS switch for enthusiast community. If the switch is in Position 1, it allows hardware overdrive options such as clock speed increased to 880 MHz and an alarmingly high 1.175 V voltage bump. Please remember, that warranty provided by the manufacturer does not cover damages from overclocking activity. A thing to keep in mind when you are "burning" your $699 performance investment

Position 2 is a standard default position with factory supported voltage set at 1.12 V and 830 MHz clock speed for the GPU part

In order to understand, how this was possible to achieve, we need to dig a little deeper. After undoing quite a few screws and removing an enormous cooling system, we find ourselves staring at five chips. Some maybe confused as to why a dual chip graphics card has five chips installed. Actually, this is AMD engineers’ latest attempt to ensure that despite high performance the power consumption remains on some sane level.

Essentially AMD Radeon HD 6990 is what AMD calls a 450W-capable graphics card. With the help of new-generation digital programmable Volterra regulators AMD addressed the issue of power draw and work temperatures of its VDDC components. Symmetric layout of major components is also important for efficient power transfer and heat output. While they may become a standard for a certain number of manufacturers, premium-class ASICs are employed to screen in high speed and low leakage cases.

A big gun needs big shells to fire and this means not one but two 8-pin power connectors onboard, which should supply enough juice for the rated 375W workload consumption. With such thirst those from the northern states may want to turn off their heaters as this much heat output is definitely going to keep you warm on a cold gaming night.

AMD Radeon HD 6990: Cool'n'Quiet Monster

If you are into old-school American muscle cars then you probably know that V8 power and looks are sometimes second to how it sounds. The same can be applied to graphics cards, except they should be as powerful as a HEMI V8 but as quiet as Toyota Prius.

The days of small square metal plates on top of a graphics chip are long gone. Modern graphics cards have quite ingenious, but, nevertheless, large cooling solutions. You might ask why a given graphics card is so heavy and bulky, but take a look at the CPU cooler and keep in mind that it has to dissipate 50-75 W on average. Now increase the requirement by 6-8 times (and the size accordingly) and you'll end up with a proportional cooling solution for your 350 W graphics card. This is precisely why we are talking about a genius being behind contemporary graphics card cooling solutions.

In their latest Radeon HD 6990 product engineers decided to split the cooling system into four major components. The back of the board is enclosed in a shroud which effectively increases the effective heat dissipating surface area. The second improvement is on the PCB itself and with the help of phase-change TIM it allows up to 8% better thermal performance in comparison to previous thermal management solutions used by AMD. The third and most important part is the cooler itself. A single blower fan combined with dual vapor chamber design in theory operates quietly and provides efficient cooling at the same time. And finally the last piece of the puzzle is the fan casing which is about the same size as the one used on ATI Radeon HD 5970 but is designed to deliver 20% more airflow.

AMD Radeon HD 6990: Six-Eyed Monster

If Fusion is the driving marketing force for CPU or rather APU market, then AMD Eyefinity is a certain graphics card market appeal. AMD is adamant that in the near future a significant amount of users will be required to power between 3 to 6 displays from a single computer.

Standards come and go and it seems that the days of the DVI port are at their end. AMD decided to install four mini-DisplayPorts and only one DVI port as a legacy device support. This doesn't necessarily mean that you won’t be able to connect two or three monitors, which only support DVI interface. Every Radeon HD 6990 is bundled with a pair of miniDP→DVI adapters and one miniDP→HDMI converter.

This is a very interesting technology which allows for a very adaptive display configuration, as you can arrange three, four, five or even six monitors in order to achieve the best gaming experience possible. The feature is fully supported by the AAA titles coming out this year, such as Dragon Age II, Total War: SHOGUN 2, DiRT 3 and Deus Ex: Human Evolution. The only question is: whose car stays outside the garage, as such setup is quite bulky and occupies a lot of space.

Power Consumption, Temperature, Noise and Overclocking

Since we got our hands on a brand new graphics card, we have taken the liberty of checking out Radeon HD 6990 power consumption. So, we performed a series of corresponding tests using our standard platform:

The testbed for measuring electric characteristics of graphics cards uses a card designed by one of our engineers, Oleg Artamonov, and described in his article called PC Power Consumption: How Many Watts Do We Need?. As usual, we used the following benchmarks to load the graphics accelerators:

Except for the maximum load simulation with OCCT, we measured power consumption in each mode for 60 seconds. We limit the run time of OCCT: GPU to 10 seconds to avoid overloading the graphics card's power circuitry. Here are the obtained results:

The initial concerns have been confirmed. AMD Radeon HD 6990 has truly monstrous power appetites. In fact, onboard diagnostics algorithms instantly put our sample in a halt mode as soon as we started OCCT: GPU test. This particular test puts an abnormal amount of load on some power and chip components inside the card so it is only natural that engineers would like to protect their brainchild. For the most part of its work cycle our hero relies on only one of its PCIe 8-pin connectors for the juice. Now let us check the wattage before we draw any conclusions.

If you are a Greenpeace activist, then AMD Radeon HD 6990 is definitely not for you. It manages to lose in every aspect of the test. Idle power consumption is around 50 Watts, which is really only a fraction compared to the 395 Watt in the burn mode. But if you take a look at the competition, you will actually see that Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 needs only 26.5 Watts to process Windows 7 desktop operations. Blu-ray playback is also a scene to forget for Antilles based product as it requires an impressive 110 Watts to run in this mode, while is 40 Watts more than the rival needs. We would like to call this power hunger a serious drawback, but then again you are not going to buy a 911 turbo Porsche just because of its fuel consumption numbers.

AMD engineers and designers have really cracked it this time. Despite almost 400 Watts of heat output, our sample stayed relatively cold throughout the testing. What is even more impressive, it is the fact that thanks to a new evaporation camera radiator design idle temperature is 16°C lower in comparison to the previous attempt with the Radeon HD 5970 graphics card. A round of applause is more than befitting here.

Lots of power coupled with low operating temperatures should result in high level of noise. But every rule has an exception. With the ambient noise of 36 dBA, the noise at a 1 meter distance from our testbed with the AMD flagship offering inside was at respectable 40.2 dBA. This is a good result for a bulky power-hungry dual chip solution. Unfortunately, as soon as we launched our game mode, the noise output by Radeon HD 6990 cooling solution increased to uncomfortable 50.2 dBA. This is by no means a disaster, but the sound is easily identifiable and ever-present. Please remember to wear a headset in your online battles.

As for overclocking, we did not have much luck. Initially our sample allowed for a +60 MHz overclock on the chip, but as a few tests heated up the room and the PCB, the driver became unstable and we decided to drop the overclocking tests till we get our hands on a retail sample. At the moment there is still a lot to play with, especially considering the dual BIOS.

Testbed and Methods

We are going to investigate the gaming performance of our AMD Radeon HD 6990 graphics card using the following universal testbed:

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 AMD Radeon HD 6990 graphics card, we also tested the following solutions:

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 3.2.7. 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

Straight from the word "Go" our hero wastes no time and establishes its dominance across the board. Nvidia's most impressive GeForce GTX 580, despite having a more powerful tessellating unit, has no real chance in any resolution. At the same time, please note that even dual-chip solutions have difficulty coping with 2560x1600 resolution, as 50 fps mark is considered to be low for an video game of this genre.

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Vietnam

If you are not one of the few proud owners of a 30" display, then spending $699 makes little sense for a Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Vietnam fan. Competing solutions provide roughly the same level of comport for a significantly lower price in lower resolutions. Please note that AMD Radeon HD 6990 running in “Enhance” mode is almost 2x faster than the graphics card it is based on - Radeon HD 6970, which can be attributed to excellent driver coding and robust scaling algorithms employed in the CrossFire X protocols.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

An outdated game engine has little to offer in terms of extreme calculations. Because of this, not only Radeon HD 6990 has nowhere to stretch its legs, but even Radeon HD 6970 as well as competing GeForce GTX 580 have no problems keeping up with our hero. If you are not planning on using FSAA-heavy modes in this particular game, the latest AMD dual-chip solution is going to sit idle in your rig for the most part.

Crysis Warhead

With Crysis 2 just around the corner let’s check how well Radeon HD 6990 can cope with what is still regarded by many as the toughest video game on the planet. Remarkably, 2560x1600 resolution is unplayable even for our AMD Radeon HD 6990 monster. Even though none of the competitors come anywhere close to its 40 fps, it still may be considered a failure. You might need to lower your in-game quality settings on a brand new AMD leviathan.

Metro 2033

This game is tested without multisampling antialiasing as it worsens the textures and provokes a performance hit.

While Metro 2033 video game may be less popular than Crysis, it is still able to put a lot of stress on your graphics card. Our hero can proudly sport the number one tag, as it has no direct rivals at the moment. GeForce GTX 580 tries to compete due to high in-game tessellation, but succeeds only in 1600x900 resolution. The elusive 2560x1600 comfort once again seems unattainable for current graphics cards.

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

The Zone is the only home a Stalker knows and GeForce GTX 580 is the only graphics card a true S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fan would ever use. It seems that AMD's CrossFireX technology misfires on this particular title. We would not call 60-70 fps level unplayable, but it is clear that the driver department has to address some lack of performance demonstrated by the dual chip Radeon graphics cards.

Performance in Third-Person 3D Shooters

Just Cause 2

This game’s integrated benchmark does not report the minimal frame rate, so we measure it with the Fraps utility.

The new card competes against the previously unbeatable Radeon HD 5970 in Just Cause 2 benchmark. Only in 2560x1600 our hero manages to underline its dominance with over 25% higher performance not only against Radeon HD 5970 but also against GeForce GTX. Maybe it is time for Nvidia to make its dual chip fantasy come true.

Lost Planet 2

Lost Planet 2 video game is a true GeForce home turf. In general, it is a very hard game to process for a graphics card but AMD Radeon HD 6990 manages to close the gap and then even outperform Nvidia's flagship product. CrossFireX feel quite at home with almost 100% performance increase over Radeon HD 6970.

Performance in RPGs

Dragon Age II

Dragon Age II is one of the most anticipated titles of the year. This is the first opportunity to see how much appetite this latest video game has. Since the engine is based on the same basic build as the one seen before in the Mass Effect 2 we might have expected fps to be in the hundreds.

AMD Radeon HD 6990 might have seemed to be the undisputed leader here but in reality the last generation Radeon HD 5970 is not that far behind. Enhanced mode has its merits as it raises performance level quite a notch. Be assured that even in the 2560x1600 resolution you won't have a scene where extra power might be required.

Fallout: New Vegas Dead Money

RPG genre games are not necessarily about picture quality and photorealistic shadows. It may be that Fallout: New Vegas is not going to load your system as much as Crysis or Metro 2033 but it is still good to know that you are not going to have any difficulties exploring post-apocalyptic Nevada desert. Due to low requirements of the game engine AMD Radeon HD 6990 performs as good as any other participant in our review.

Mass Effect 2

We enforced full-screen antialiasing using graphics driver override capabilities.

AMD Radeon HD 6990 brings home a significant lead over GeForce GTX 580. In case you ever feel that 88 fps is not enough for your galactic odyssey, there is always a BIOS profile option on the side of the graphics card and with a flick of a switch followed by a system restart you can hit over 100 fps in the heaviest resolution.

Performance in Simulators

F1 2010

DirectX 11 feature-rich Formula 1 2010 racing simulator preferred AMD hardware before and does so again. The only concern here is that there is no real benefit of having a Radeon HD 6990 graphics card over Radeon HD 5970 based solution. Both can be considered leaders in this test and both show roughly the same performance. Nvidia does manage to outperform AMD based product in 1600x900 but as demands for computing power grow with resolution size, GeForce GTX 580 starts to struggle.

Performance in Strategies

BattleForge

PC strategy games might have been secondary in the past, but now things have changed significantly. BattleForge video game was one of the first applications to support DirectX 11 API and time after time proved to be a hard nut to crack for contemporary graphics cards. Radeon HD 6990 does a great job at beating its opponents. Keeping in mind that usually strategy games are played at 30 fps, Radeon HD 6990 is a true overkill here.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty

When StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty hit the shelves it turned out that contemporary graphics cards could not really keep up with its demands. For the most part this was due to a significant amount of cut scenes where 30 fps mark was just too for smooth gameplay. AMD Radeon HD 6990 is the first single graphics card that is capable of maintaining an average of 60 fps even in 2560x1600 resolution with FSAA 4x enabled.

Total War: Shogun 2

The next Total War: Shogun 2 strategy game is going to be a certain hit, but until then let’s see how well contemporary hardware can cope with it. Since the game boasts one of the most complex graphics engines not only in the strategy department but as a whole it comes to no surprise that overall framerate is so unimpressive.

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.

Ultra heavy weight Radeon HD 6990 graphics card laughs at 3Dmark Vantage calculations. We can safely assume that a shift in the GPU architecture provided significant performance improvements for AMD devices with around 20% performance increase over the previous generation. Enhance mode comes mere 600 points shy from the physiological 20,000 mark.

The previously seen tendency continues in 3DMark Vantage game tests. While in the popular 1600x900 resolution the gap between Radeon HD 6990 and Radeon HD 5970 is only at 8%, it quickly changes to almost 27% domination in 2560x1600. Unfortunately for Nvidia, its current most powerful GeForce GTX 580 runs only half as fast as the opponent.

Futuremark 3DMark11

Once again our hopes were with Radeon HD 6990 in 3DMark11 benchmark. This particular piece of software is the hardest test yet and our today's hero has much to prove here. At first it may seem that 3000 points is not a lot to be proud of but if you compare that to struggling GeForce GTX 580 with its 1959 points you will have to treat Antilles-based solutions with respect. At least until competition finally beats them.

Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. 2

The controversial Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. 2 combat flight simulator benchmark makes heavy emphasis on tessellation. Once again fine-tuned architecture of GeForce GTX 580 allows it to fight Radeon HD 6990 as an equal. From the numbers it is also evident that AMD's work on its tessellation unit has not gone unnoticed as our hero has no problem outperforming Radeon HD 5970 which is based on the previous GPU architecture.

Unigine Heaven Benchmark

A few weeks ago Ungine has released an updated version of its demo. The newly released Ungine Heaven benchmark is now a version 2.5 and offers a few extra tasks for the GPU to process.

The benchmark may use a lot of tessellation algorithms but surprisingly it is AMD designed solutions that come out victorious here. Both: Radeon HD 6990 and, which is even more surprising considering its weaker tessellation unit, Radeon HD 5970, leave opposition lagging behind. The test is a mere synthetic benchmark, but as its engine is for sale we might actually see some games based on it in the future.

Conclusion

The IT industry is like a two-edge sword. On the one hand, it is very good for the end-users that the technological evolution and innovation move at such an impressive speed. In as little as eighteen months there is a brand new series of products on the shelves boasting performance never seen before. On the other hand, this never-ending race hits average user’s finances over and over again, as they are required to constantly upgrade their hardware with fresh solutions. So where exactly does AMD Radeon HD 6990 graphics card stand? Well first, let’s sum up its performance across the board:

Although for many 1600x900 resolution is the maximum that they can enable on their display, it is not going to give a break to the Radeon HD 6990 graphics card. The total performance threshold is so immense that even in the worst case scenario this graphics card is at least as fast as any competitor.

If you are a fan of Alien vs Predator, Crysis: Warhead or Dragon Age II video games then this is definitely a product with your name on it. As at the moment Nvidia has nothing to offer in terms of raw horsepower against AMD Radeon HD 6990 in the above mentioned titles. Having said that, if you are going to purchase this graphics card to use only in the 1600x900 resolution it is by far an overkill as in majority of cases CPU or other component acted as a bottleneck and the world’s fastest graphics card wasn’t able to fix this.

It is very hard to be the best and AMD's top offering is trying hard. It manages to win in 15 tests out of 19 with a few ties. This isn't really a fight any more as there is virtually no competition for the Antilles-powered graphics card. On average Radeon HD 6990 is around 30% faster than Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 and 21% better than ATI's previous generation Radeon HD 5970.

Now it is official - there isn't a single graphics card out there that can threaten Radeon HD 6990 dominance at the moment. In 2560x1600 resolution our hero is almost twice as fast as the best Nvidia can through at it. The only hope for a rematch is against an SLI configuration, which we are going to discuss in one of our upcoming reviews.

Well, if you are one of the few who became the proud owners of such a graphics card, there is a certain chance that you won't be reading this article for a week or so. Yes, it may cost an average salary in some Eastern European counties and yes, it will become an additional heater in your room but let’s face it: this is the easiest possible way to get the highest fps in 98% of the titles without trading off any of the graphics quality.

AMD did a really good job in keeping its fastest graphics card unreleased till the very last moment. We may laugh at the 'in the world' attribute, but at the moment AMD Radeon HD 6990 is indeed the fastest graphics card in the world. No doubt!

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