ATI Radeon HD 5970: Uncompromising Monster

As it has been initially planned, AMD has just launched a new member in their ATI Radeon HD 5x00 family. This time it is a solution for those users who need ultimate performance at any price.

by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
11/23/2009 | 10:07 AM

Some time has passed since AMD’s graphics department introduced the fourth generation of Radeon HD graphics cards. AMD has been doing great through all this time. It has been winning back the ground it had lost to Nvidia previously, the attack unfolding on every front. Such a long chain of victories seems to be unprecedented in the world of consumer 3D graphics hardware and it must have been the result of a properly chosen strategy.

 

The point of that strategy should be familiar to you if you are interested in PC games and gaming hardware. While Nvidia focused on developing an expensive and complex G200 core, AMD preferred to look for a reasonable compromise between the manufacturing cost and performance, producing the RV770 processor. The outcome was that Nvidia’s 1.4-billion-transistor chip with a 512-bit memory bus proved to be ahead of its time and economically unprofitable whereas AMD’s Radeon HD 4800 series was a real breakthrough and set a new standard for performance of affordable single-processor gaming graphics cards.

AMD did not forget about enthusiasts who wanted to get maximum performance whatever the price and introduced the ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2. This dual-processor card remained the world’s fastest for a long time until it was beaten by Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 295. The latter card, being a dual-processor solution too, had all the drawbacks of the G200 architecture, though, and even multiplied them by 2. Thus, it was an extremely expensive product with low availability.

The recent arrival of the fifth generation of ATI Radeon HD cards has showed that AMD’s graphics department is still pursuing the same strategy. Following it, they first introduced the RV870 Cypress processor and high-performance single-processor cards based on it: Radeon HD 5870 and HD 5850. The HD 5870 even proved to be competitive to dual-processor solutions of the previous generation (see this review for details). Thus, AMD repeated its technological feat and once again set a new milestone in performance of high-performance, yet affordable, single-processor gaming cards. Then, the entry-level Radeon HD 5700 series was introduced, based on a specially developed RV830 Juniper chip, a simplified version of the Cypress. Although the Radeon HD 5770 could not match the Radeon HD 4890, its price was a mere $159.

And now it is time for ATI to roll out its heavy weapon codenamed Hemlock, the successor to the famous Radeon HD 4870 X2. Will it be able to carry on the glorious tradition of its predecessor and raise the performance bar higher in the premium sector? Judging by what we know about the capabilities of a single RV870, we have nearly no doubt of that, but our rule is to check every theoretical supposition in practice. So, let’s check out the new ATI Radeon HD 5970, too!

ATI Radeon HD 5970: A Real Monster

The new graphics card is monstrous because it virtually doubles the already impressive specs of a single Radeon HD 5870. The choice of the Hemlock’s official model number is somewhat odd since the Radeon HD 5970 uses the same graphics chips as the Radeon HD 5800 series. For example, the Radeon HD 4890 used to have an RV790 processor, which was a greatly revised version of the RV770, but this only affected the third rather than second numeral in its model name. A model name like Radeon HD 5870 X2 would look reasonable enough, but ATI must be willing to finally unify and standardize its product nomenclature by getting rid of the numerous suffixes and additions in product names that used to confuse customers before.

Now, let’s take a look at the Radeon HD 5970’s specs:


Click to enlarge

ATI’s engineers could not repeat the same trick as with the Radeon HD 4870 X2, on which they had installed two RV770 cores and two sets of GDDR5 memory chips without lowering the clock rates. The trick did not work with the Radeon HD 5970. To keep the new card’s heat dissipation within reasonable limits, the GPU and memory clock rates have been reduced from 850 to 725MHz and from 1200 (4800) to 1000 (4000) MHz, respectively. We wouldn’t worry about that if CrossFire technology worked at all times. The reduced GPU frequencies would be made up for by the double amount of computing and texture-mapping resources whereas the graphics memory bandwidth is colossally high even at the reduced clock rate. But we know that every implementation of the multi-GPU concept available today depends on software support on the side of the driver and game engine. So, if a 3D application proves to be incompatible with ATI CrossFire technology, the Radeon HD 5970’s performance may fall below the level of the Radeon HD 5870 whose single processor is clocked at 850MHz and does not need any special software support. Considering that the Radeon HD 5970 comes at a recommended price of $599, this may be quite disappointing.

Anyway, the Radeon HD 5970 is indeed the highest-performance single graphics card on this planet. And it is going to enjoy this status for a long while. The official announcement of Nvidia’s GeForce 300 series is postponed to 2010. Nvidia’s new core codenamed Fermi is far more complex than the RV870 Juniper and dual-processor Fermi-based cards won’t come out soon (if such products will be released at all) while single-processor Fermi-based solutions are going to be inferior to the Radeon HD 5970 in performance. The new card is all about big numbers: 640 unified execution processors, 3200 ALUs, 160 texture-mapping modules and 64 RBEs. Such specs are going to entice even the most skeptically-minded gamer to shell out 6 hundred bucks. As a matter of fact, nothing – except for financial considerations – prevents you from purchasing two such cards and building a truly marvelous CrossFireX subsystem capable of delivering playable frame rates even at a resolution of 7680x1600 pixels!

Developing this graphics card was not easy for ATI’s people. Particularly, they had to renovate the cooling system of the Radeon HD 4870 X2 which had been criticized widely. Running a little ahead, we can say that the task has been solved well. The two RV870 are not just effectively cooled. The new cooler is good at overclocking and AMD puts an emphasis on that. We will discuss this issue later on. Right now, let’s take a closer look at the Radeon HD 5970 itself.

PCB Design

The Radeon HD 5970 seems to resemble the Radeon HD 5870, being a rectangular brick with a red stripe, but a PCB with two RV870 cores, two sets of high-speed GDDR5 memory, a PCI Express switch, and advanced voltage regulators just cannot be compact.

Indeed, the Radeon HD 5970 is 34 centimeters long while the Radeon HD 5870 and Radeon HD 4870 X2 are only 27 centimeters long. This device won’t fit into small system cases and is not actually meant for working in an HTPC or something. Its purpose is to serve in ultra-fast gaming stations which are usually assembled in roomy enclosures like the Chieftec Aegis, Cooler Master Stacker, SilverStone Temjin or Ante P193. The graphics card is rather heavy at 1.2 kilos, so we do not recommend using or moving a system with a Radeon HD 5970 without fastening its mounting plate to your system case. Otherwise, you risk damaging the card and the mainboard’s PCI Express slot.

The cooling system prevented us from seeing anything in the design of the device, so we hurried on to take it off. It was easy: we unfastened two screws on the mounting plate, some screws on the reverse side of the PCB, and removed the X-shaped springs that ensured proper contact between the graphics cores and the cooler’s heat-exchanger. Here is what we saw then:

The new card resembles its predecessor Radeon HD 4870 X2. Well, there are actually not many ways of placing a large PCI Express switch, two high-performance GPUs and memory on a single PCB and then powering everything up.

Judging by the amount of VT1157SF chips from Volterra, the total number of phases in the Radeon HD 5970’s power circuit is 10. The right GPU is powered by a 5-phase regulator while the left GPU (closer to the mounting bracket) is powered by a 3-phase regulator, but both regulators can be reinforced by installing one additional phase, transforming the 3+5 design into a 4+6 one.

The reinforced version may be used on Radeon HD 5970 cards with pre-overclocked frequencies or with a newer version of the RV870 chip (RV890?) with higher frequency potential. The memory chips are powered each from its own regulator which uses VT1157SF chips, too. There are as many as three Volterra VT1165MF controllers on the PCB to govern such a complex power subsystem. These controllers support flexible voltage adjustments by means of software tools.

There are a couple of connectors for additional power supply: a 6-pin PCIe 1.0 and an 8-pin PCIe 2.0 (by the way, both bonding pads allow installing 8-pin connectors). As usual, you can connect a 6-pin cable from your PSU to the card’s 8-pin connector. For the card to work then, you should close the two outermost pins of the connector or use an appropriate adapter that would trick the protection mechanism. This may be necessary, for example, with an Enermax Liberty ELT620AWT power supply which can power up any modern graphics card but is only equipped with 6-pin PCIe 1.0 connectors. We wouldn’t recommend doing this unless really necessary, though.

Hynix’s GDDR5 memory is installed on the PCB. The H5GQ1H24AFR-T2C marking indicates a capacity of 1Gb (32Mb x 32), a voltage of 1.5V and a rated frequency of 1250 (5000) MHz. We have seen such chips on Radeon HD 5770 and 5750 cards. Each GPU has a dedicated 1GB memory bank with 256-bit access consisting of eight chips, half of which are located on the reverse side of the PCB. Thus, the Radeon HD 5970 carries 16 GDDR5 chips with a total capacity of 2 gigabytes. 3D applications can only access 1 gigabyte because from a technical standpoint this graphics card is nothing but a Radeon HD 5870 CrossFireX tandem assembled on a single PCB.

As we have written in the previous section of this review, the memory frequency of the Radeon HD 5970 is lower than that of the Radeon HD 5870. It has been reduced from 1200 (4800) MHz to 1000 (4000) MHz. You should not worry about a lack of memory bandwidth. Due to the peculiarities of modern multi-GPU solutions the total memory bandwidth of the Radeon HD 5970 is as high as 256GBps, which is even higher than that of the GeForce GTX 295 with its two 448-bit memory buses but slower GDDR3 memory. The use of T2C-suffixed chips of GDDR5, rated for a frequency of 1250 (5000) MHz, and the advanced power circuit give us some hope for good overclocking.

The photo above shows a close-up of the Radeon HD 5970’s heart. It has three parts. Besides the two RV870 Cypress graphics cores, the PCI Express switch, marked as AMD8647, is highly important for its functioning. As a matter of fact, it is the same PLX Technology PEX8647 chip that used to be installed on the Radeon HD 4870 X2. It can intelligently switch 48 PCI Express 2.0 lanes and supports direct communication between the two graphics cores, so there is no need to replace such a good and time-tested solution with anything else. Interestingly, the support for an additional communication link between the GPUs known as Sideport which was declared but never activated in the Radeon HD 4870 X2 seems to be missing in the Radeon HD 5970 altogether. The RV870 just does not have the appropriate logic. Theoretically, an additional data channel with a bandwidth of 5GBps might provide some performance benefits but AMD must have carried out some tests and found those benefits not worth the trouble of implementing that channel. Of course, we don’t have any means to check this out by ourselves.

The GPUs were manufactured on the 38th week of 2009, i.e. between September 13 and 19. Both GPUs are full-featured RV870 working in maximum configuration with 1200 ALUs, 80 TMUs and 32 RBEs but their frequency is reduced in comparison with the Radeon HD 5870. The single-processor flagship of the new Radeon family has a core frequency of 850MHz but in the dual-processor card each core is clocked at only 725MHz, which must be necessary to keep the card’s heat dissipation within reasonable limits. Like with the memory frequency, this is no reason to worry. The two RV870, even clocked at a lower frequency, provide such a vast reserve of computing and texture-mapping resources that there is no older-generation solution to match them. Those 640 unified shader processors, 160 texture processors and 64 RBEs are impressive whatever the frequency. It is only if one GPU is idle that the new card is going to be slower than the Radeon HD 5870, but anyway faster than any modern single-processor graphics card.

Like a typical graphics card of the year 2009, the Radeon HD 5970 has two dual-link DVI-I ports with support for resolutions up to 2560x1600 inclusive and has a mini-DisplayPort in between. There is no HDMI connector as it could not be accommodated in the first row of the mounting plate. The second row is occupied by the exhaust hole of the cooling system. A dedicated HDMI connector is redundant, actually. You can easily get HDMI output by means of a DVI-D → HDMI adapter. Like other models in the fifth-generation Radeon HD, the Radeon HD 5970 supports three monitors simultaneously which theoretically allows using resolutions up to 7680x1600. But we guess that even two RV870 cores won’t be fast enough to ensure a comfortable frame rate at in a high display mode.

Like other members of the Radeon 5x00 and Radeon HD 4x00 series, the Radeon HD 5970 supports audio-over-HDMI thanks to a full-featured audio core integrated into the GPU. The audio core can output 8-channel sound in compressed (DTS, AC3) as well as uncompressed (LPCM) format including HD varieties such as DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD.

Besides, the Radeon HD 5970 is equipped with a CrossFireX connector for building a 4-way graphics subsystem out of two such cards for a total of 6400 ALUs, 320 texture processors and 128 RBEs. This graphics subsystem will probably cope with the resolution of 7680x1600 pixels even in today’s most demanding games.

Cooling System

The Radeon HD 5970’s cooling system presents some interest because the previous cooler design that AMD had developed for the Radeon HD 4870 X2 proved to be both noisy and inefficient and got quite a lot of criticism from reviewers and users. This was largely due to the layout of the cooling system with two independent heatsinks, one for each GPU. The cooler had only one fan and the air passed one GPU and then the other. As a result, the farther GPU’s heatsink received the hot air from the closer GPU and was hotter as the consequence. The use of a vapor chamber in one of the heatsinks did not help much. The GPUs of a Radeon HD 4870 X2 would quickly get as hot as 90°C and higher under 3D load. The automatic fan control system tried to cope with that by accelerating the fan from time to time, but this only made the fan unbearably loud while the changes in noise were very irritating.

We were wondering then why ATI had not designed a cooler with a common heatsink that would cool both GPUs. And now the developer has implemented this design in the Radeon HD 5970. Everything seems to be ordinary at first sight:

We can see standard copper soles of heat-exchangers and typical dark-gray thermal grease where the heat-exchangers contact with the GPU dies. There are thermal pads ensuring contact with the memory chips, PCI Express chip and the voltage regulator’s elements. But as soon as we remove the plastic casing, the difference of the new layout from the old one becomes apparent:

Instead of two heatsinks there is only one now. It is larger and has no heat pipes. This does not look efficient but the heatsink is connected to a massive vapor chamber that contacts with both GPUs, distributes the heat uniformly and transfers it to the heatsink consisting of thin aluminum plates.

ATI claims this vapor chamber can dissipate 400 watts of heat, which is far higher than the peak heat dissipation of the Radeon HD 5970. The vapor chamber is pressed into the aluminum base that has contact with the other components that require cooling. The needle-shaped ribbing in the top part of the base improves its efficiency as an auxiliary heatsink.

The cooling system is equipped with an NTK (HK) Limited FD9238H12S fan. The same fan is used in the Radeon HD 5870 and 5850 coolers. Judging by the marking, the fan has an output power of 9.6 watts (0.8A/12V) which means a high level of noise at maximum speed. This cooler with a common vapor chamber for both GPUs and a heatsink with large dissipation area should cool the card effectively at comfortable noise. We are going to check this out in practice in the next section.

Power Consumption, Temperature, Noise, Overclocking

The single-processor Radeon HD 5870 did well in our power consumption tests and delivered excellent results considering its high performance. It is going to be interesting to see how much power the Radeon HD 5970 needs. We perform our power consumption measurements on a special testbed configured like follows:

Our measurement method is somewhat outdated when it comes to modern graphics cards but we have to use Futuremark 3DMark06 as the 3D load for the sake of comparison. It is for this load that we have accumulated a large amount of data on the power consumption of lots of graphics cards. Comparing new results with older ones would be impossible if the measurement method were changed.

Anyway, we are already working on building a new testbed that would fully automate the measurement procedure. We are going to retest all graphics cards we have at our disposal on the new testbed to get enough data for making comparisons with newly released products.

So, following our old method, we used the first SM3.0/HDR test from 3DMark06 to create 3D load. We ran it in a loop at 1600x1200 with forced 4x FSAA and 16x AF. Additionally we loaded the cards by running the OpenGL-based FurMark. The Peak 2D load was created by means of the 2D Transparent Windows test from PCMark05. We’ve got the following results:


Click to enlarge

According to 3DMark06, AMD’s new dual-processor flagship is even more economical than the Nvidia GeForce GTX 295. We are not surprised, actually, after the Radeon HD 5870, and the measured power draw of the Radeon HD 5970 is about the same as we anticipated. As usual, the peak power draw in FurMark is higher but only by 12.4W. Perhaps there is some protection mechanism in the ATI Catalyst driver that must safeguard the device under extremely high, unrealistic loads. Although overclockers and benchmarkers may argue, we do think that the OpenGL FurMark test is an unrealistic load for a graphics card.

It is the 8-pin PCIe 2.0 connector that is loaded the most: up to 120-125 watts. The 6-pin connector is loaded less. The load on the power section of the PCI Express x16 slot is low. Summing it up, the Radeon HD 5970 is not an economical device but you can’t expect that from a premium-class solution. As a matter of fact, this card sets a new record of power efficiency in its price category.

The Radeon HD 5970’s new cooler does well, according to Catalyst Control Center:

We tried to use the latest version of GPU-Z available at the time of our tests (0.3.6), which can monitor a graphics card’s temperature too, but it made our testbed hang up. Anyway, the temperature of 55°C in idle mode and 75°C under load during a long session of Crysis Warhead is an excellent result. GPU-Z version 0.3.7 reported that although the second (by GPU-Z’s reckoning) GPU was indeed 75°C, the first GPU was 86°C hot, notwithstanding the common heat chamber. Anyway, even this result is very good for such an advanced solution like the Radeon HD 5970. It is sad that AMD did not use the single-heatsink solution with a common vapor chamber earlier. Perhaps this would have made the Radeon HD 4870 X2 more popular among demanding gamers some of which, being disappointed with the card’s acoustic characteristics, had preferred to build a discrete CrossFireX subsystem with two Radeon HD 4870 and, later, Radeon 4980.

Next we measured the card’s noise with a noise-level meter Velleman DVM1326. The reference point for our noise measurement tests is 43dBA which is the level of ambient noise in our test lab as measured at a distance of 1 meter from the testbed with a passively cooled graphics card inside. When we installed the tested graphics card, we got the following results:

We can’t say that the Radeon HD 5970 is bad in terms of noisiness. It is virtually silent in 2D mode and you can’t hear it against the noise from the other components of a closed system case. But as soon as we switch to a 3D application, the noise grows louder and you can easily hear the card. Well, we could not really hope for a dual-processor premium-class graphics card with over 4 billion transistors on board to be absolutely silent.

The noise spectrum of the Radeon HD 5970’s cooler is quite agreeable to the ear. In fact, it is the hissing of the air passing through the long heatsink. There is no rattling of the fan that used to irritate many owners of older Radeon HD cards.

Then we also investigated the overclocking potential of our sample of the new card. And at first we managed to increase its clock rates to 800MHz for the GPU and 1180 (4720) MHz for the memory. After that AMD kindly offered us a tool for software control over the GPU and memory voltages within a small range.

Using that tool, we achieved much better results:

We benchmarked our card at these overclocked frequencies, too. By the way, many reviewers tested the new card at the maximum speed of its fan, but this approach is not practical. The high level of noise makes it uncomfortable to be near the computer for everyone save for deaf overclockers. Of course, the default cooler can be replaced with a liquid cooling system. It would allow to achieve better overclocking results without hurting your hearing.

Now that we’ve examined our Radeon HD 5970 in all detail, it is time to test it in real games.

Testbed and Methods

We are going to investigate the performance of Radeon HD 5970 graphics card using the following universal testbed:

The graphics card drivers were configured in the following way:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia GeForce:

The list of benchmarks includes the following gaming titles and synthetic tests:

First-Person 3D Shooters

Third-Person 3D Shooters

RPG

Simulators

Strategies

Semi-synthetic benchmarks

We selected the highest possible level of detail in each game using 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 made a few exceptions for selected games if that was necessary. We are going to specifically dwell on each exception like that later on in our article.

Besides Radeon HD 5970 we have also included the following graphics accelerators to participate in our test session:

We ran our tests in the following resolutions: 1280x1024, 1680x1050, 1920x1200 and 2560x1600. 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.

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 3.0.2. In the latter case we ran the test three times and took the average result of the three for the performance charts.

Performance in First-Person 3D Shooters

Call of Duty: World at War

Starting from version 1.3 the game allows to record and reproduce a demo. Unfortunately, this method does not report the bottom frame rate.

At a resolution of 1280x1024 the Radeon HD 5970 has no room to show its best but at 1680x1050 it is already clear that we’ve got a new absolute champion that beats both the dual-processor solutions of the previous generation and the new-generation single-processor cards. At a resolution of 1920x1200 the Radeon HD 5970 enjoys a 21% and 28% lead over the Radeon HD 5870 and GeForce GTX 295, respectively. It is only at 2560x1600 that Nvidia’s card can get as close as 10%.

It’s just as we have expected. There is a new star in the 3D gaming world, even though there is no double advantage over the Radeon HD 5870.

Crysis Warhead

The Radeon HD 5970 is brilliant in this game as you can play comfortably at 1920x1200 with highest graphics quality settings. Unfortunately, it is impossible even for the Radeon HD 5970 to deliver an acceptable speed at 2560x1600 even at the overclocked frequencies: the frame rate of 20fps is too low for practical gaming. Perhaps a Radeon HD 5970 4-way CrossFireX will be capable of that.

Far Cry 2

Far Cry 2 is a far more easy application and you can turn on the resolution of 2560x1600 on your Radeon HD 5970 without fearing any occasional slowdowns. The performance growth over the Radeon HD 5870 is as high as 51% in that resolution and the overclocked frequencies add 19% more. So, the new graphics card is going to be a perfect choice for users of 30-inch monitors who wouldn’t mind the increased noise produced by the Radeon HD 5970 in 3D mode.

Left 4 Dead 2

The second part of the popular zombie shooter is based on the Source engine, too. And it has appropriate benchmarking options which are more accurate than Fraps but cannot report the bottom speed information.

The Source engine has rather modest system requirements by today’s standards while delivering a high-quality and detailed picture. Therefore, the hardware resources of the Radeon HD 5970 are overkill for Left 4 Dead 2. Yes, the new card can easily yield 150fps at 2560x1600, but no gamer can feel any practical benefit from that. The Radeon HD 5870 makes the game perfectly playable at 100fps but is much quieter at work.

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

We use the highest settings in the new S.T.A.L.K.E.R. but without antialiasing because we want to achieve playable frame rates. We turn on the DirectX 10.1 and DirectX 11 modes for the fourth- and fifth-generation Radeon HD cards, respectively.

The Call of Pripyat engine shows excellent scalability. The Radeon HD 5970 is 33-66% ahead of its single-processor cousin depending on the resolution. At 2560x1600 the gap grows up to an incredible 132%, i.e. more than twofold! Yes, the bottom speed of the new card was not particularly high, but the game – one of the most demanding games of today – seemed to be quite playable subjectively. Bravo to AMD!

Wolfenstein

The game was tested in OpenGL-based multiplayer mode. Unfortunately, the integrated benchmark cannot report the bottom frame rate.

The new game from id Software is far from resource-hungry. The Radeon HD 4890 is the only card that is not exactly brilliant at 2560x1600 whereas the other cards all provide a comfortable frame rate. The Radeon HD 5970 is first at that resolution but inferior to the GeForce GTX 295 at 1920x1200 and even to the GeForce GTX 285 at 1680x1050. Games from id Software have always been predisposed to Nvidia’s GPUs, though.

Performance in Third-Person 3D Shooters

Street Fighter IV

This fighting game (quite a rare genre for the PC platform, by the way) does not call for a serious investment into your gaming hardware. The inexpensive Radeon HD 4890 or even Radeon HD 5770/5750 will ensure comfortable gameplay even at a resolution of 2560x1600 but will cost much cheaper than the Radeon HD 5970. Still, we can note that the latter boasts good scalability, outperforming the Radeon HD 5870 by 55-60%.

Resident Evil 5

Surprisingly, the Radeon HD 5970 is no farther than 16% ahead of the Radeon HD 4870 X2 and its bottom speed is occasionally lower than that of the previous dual-processor solution from AMD. Anyway, the Radeon HD 5970 wins this test, too. Its lead over the other cards is just not as impressive as in the other games.

Performance in RPG

Fallout 3: Mothership Zeta

The latest add-on to Fallout 3 runs on the old engine and the performance of the advanced graphics cards is limited by the CPU at resolutions up to 1920x1200. It is only at 2560x1600 that you can spot a notable difference: the Radeon HD 5970 easily hits the performance ceiling while the other cards in this test session cannot do that.

Performance in Simulators

Need for Speed: Shift

As we noted in our Radeon HD 5870 review, this game in unfriendly to multi-GPU technologies. You can see that the dual-processor Radeon HD 5970 has no advantage over the single-processor Radeon HD 5870. Anyway, it provides a comfortable speed at 2560x1600.

Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X.

We use the in-game benchmarking tools that do not allow to measure the bottom frame rate. We also enable DirectX 10.1 support for ATI’s solutions.

Alas, the Radeon HD 5970 loses to the GeForce GTX 295 at resolutions up to 1920x1200 but catches up with the latter at 2560x1600. When overclocked, the new card is a leader, delivering a comfortable average speed. That’s not bad considering the game’s favoritism of Nvidia’s GPUs.

Performance in Strategy Games

BattleForge

We turn on DirectX 11 support for the Radeon HD 5000 series in this game.

The single-processor Radeon HD 5870 lost to the previous-generation dual-processor solutions but the Radeon HD 5970 easily beats the oldies and shows a good bottom speed at 1920x1200. Overclocking raises the speed to comfortable level at that resolution.

World in Conflict: Soviet Assault

Incredibly, the new Radeon HD 5970 makes the game playable at 2560x1600. None of the previous-generation solutions and not even the single-processor Radeon HD 5870 can do that, even though they might show a good average speed. Yet another impressive win for AMD!

Performance in 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 display resolutions to provide a full picture.

Despite the lack of PhysX support, the Radeon HD 5970 is first in 3DMark Vantage, too. Its overall score of over 14,000 points achieved at the overclocked frequencies is brilliant. Nvidia’s solutions are nowhere near the new leader which can only be challenged by upcoming Fermi-based products. However, the Fermi processor and related graphics cards are yet to be announced by Nvidia.

The individual tests do not tell us anything new except that the Radeon HD 5970 is not much faster than the GeForce GTX 295 in the first test at a resolution of 1280x1024. Things return to their normal course at the higher resolutions and the new card from AMD takes its deserved top place.

Conclusion

It looks like we’ve got a new star in the world of 3D gaming hardware. It is the Radeon HD 5970 graphics card. Its arrival has been highly anticipated and it actually goes the same path as its forerunner Radeon HD 4870 X2. And like the latter, the Radeon HD 5970 brings an unprecedented level of performance to all gamers. At the current moment, there is no other gaming graphics solution that can match the new product from AMD.

The Radeon HD 5970 is alike to the Radeon HD 4870 X2 technically, but uses new-generation RV870 Cypress processors. It does not use the side port technology that has been found useless. Otherwise, it is a classic CrossFireX solution implemented on a single PCB. It supports all modern graphics standards including DirectX 11 but has the typical drawback of earlier CrossFire systems. This drawback is also typical for Nvidia’s SLI technology. We mean that such graphics subsystems can only yield their maximum performance if the multi-GPU technology is explicitly supported by the graphics driver and the game engine. The results of the new card in Need for Speed: Shift are an example.

Now let’s have a look at the performance summary diagrams.

Such advanced graphics cards as the Radeon HD 5970 are not bought for playing at a resolution of 1280x1024, yet we can see it beat every opponent here anyway. The only exceptions are Wolfenstein and Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. The former of these games uses OpenGL in multiplayer mode and the latter traditionally prefers Nvidia’s solutions. We reran these tests and tried different graphics quality settings but to the same effect. The gap is actually a mere 3% in Wolfenstein. And in the second game, the Radeon HD 5970 yields 90fps, which is more than enough for comfortable play even at the highest graphics quality settings. Our attempt to overclock our Radeon HD 5970 using software tools for controlling GPU and graphics memory voltages helped boost the graphics card’s speed by up to 20%, depending on the specific game.

This resolution is far more popular on the PC platform, being in fact the most popular today. The Radeon HD 5970 behaves in the same way. It is still unrivalled in every test save for the above-mentioned two games. The only difference is that the gap from the GeForce GTX 295 is now 15% in Wolfenstein but you should not be worried as the new card delivers a comfortable 95fps. Overclocking is less rewarding at this resolution, increasing the frame rate by up to 13%. It is in the post-apocalyptic S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat that the performance growth of the overclocked card is the biggest.

The resolution of 1920x1200 is the main one for top-end graphics cards because 2560x1600 is only supported by the most expensive monitors and is rather rarely used. The Radeon HD 5970 shows its best here, enjoying an average advantage of 36% and 26% over the Radeon HD 5870 and GeForce GTX 295, respectively. It is still no winner in Wolfenstein and Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. but the gap from the GeForce GTX 295 has shrunk to 5% in the former of these two games. The maximum overclocking gain is 25%, in Crysis Warhead. It is in that game that the Radeon HD 5970 delivers a comfortable performance – something that no other graphics card has been unable to achieve.

The resolution of 2560x1600 is the pinnacle of all gaming and the Radeon HD 5970 leaves all its opponents behind here. It even catches up with the GeForce GTX 295 in Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. Moreover, the maximum gap from the previous-generation solutions ranges from 100% (in comparison with the Radeon HD 4870 X2) to 200% (compared with the GeForce GTX 295). This biggest gap could be observed in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat where the new card delivered a playable frame rate at the highest graphics quality settings. Overclocking is not as rewarding as at 1920x1200: the maximum performance growth was 19% and we saw it in Far Cry 2.

ATI Radeon HD 5970 Summary

Our suppositions proved totally correct: Radeon HD 5970 did prove to be the fastest gaming graphics cards. And could there have been any other outcome if Radeon HD 5870 with only one RV870 core was in most cases not any slower but sometimes even faster than previous generation dual-processor solutions. Radeon HD 5970, however, has two cores like that onboard. True, since AMD graphics division had to lower the GPU and memory frequencies of the newcomer, its scalability turned out far from the theoretical maximum, but even in this case Radeon HD 5970 didn’t leave Nvidia a single chance. And this situation is going to continue at least until gaming Nvidia solutions on Fermi come out, but even then it is not yet clear, which side will eventually win. The single-processor model of this solution will be a priori inferior to Radeon HD 5970 in terms of technical specifications and computational capacity and the dual-processor modification of this new card will definitely turn out extremely complex and unrealistically expensive. In fact, it may be so complex and expensive that it may never see the light of day. So, we have to admit that AMD one more time managed to secure their ultimate leadership in the 3D gaming graphics market and they have every intention to maintain it for a long time.

Among the drawbacks of the new Radeon HD 5970 we should point out only large size and relatively high level of generated noise created by its cooling system in 3D mode. But no one has expected a solution designed to demonstrate uncompromising performance advantage in contemporary games to be compact and quiet. Yes, you do have to pay for having two RV870 GPUs onboard, but in our opinion the sacrifices are pretty reasonable. Among other drawbacks we could also mention high price of the new Radeon HD 5970 card, $599, but solutions of this class have never been cheap. Besides, the history of gaming 3D has known even higher prices: remember Nvidia GeForce 880 Ultra that was selling at more than $800. Any enthusiast with $600 budget who wishes to achieve unprecedented gaming speed will be happy to invest in Radeon HD 5970.

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