Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 Review

Author: Chris Ledenican
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Monday, October 25th, 2010
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Hardware/s/Sapphire_HD_6870/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

The competition in the mid-range graphics market has really started to heat up, and this means lower prices and better performance for all PC gamers. It was just a few months back that Nvidia dropped the GTX460 into the market and aimed it exclusively at gamers looking for the best price to performance ratio. From that point on the GTX 460 was widely accepted as one of the best mid-range graphics cards available. It didn't take long for AMD to respond, and over the weekend they introduced us to the Radeon HD 6850 and HD 6870 graphics cards. Like the GTX 460, both of these cards were designed to be competitive in the mid-range market.

Along with the exceptional price to performance ratio, the HD 6850 and HD 6870 include new technologies that enhance the overall value of the series. These consist of support for HD3D, improvements to AMD's advanced parallel processing, and a new Anti-Aliasing technology to improve the overall performance. Also, Even though AMD was not able to move the Northern Islands architecture over to a 32nm process they did managed to reduce the die size by an impressive 25%, and still include enough Stream Processors, ROPs and Texture units to rival the high-end Cypress core.

In this review we are going to be looking at a HD 6870 from Sapphire that currently has an MSRP of $239.99 USD.

Specifications
Output 1 x Dual-Link DVI
1 x HDMI 1.4a
2 x Mini-DisplayPort
1 x Single-Link DVI-D
GPU 900 MHz Core Clock
40 nm Chip
1120 x Stream Processors
Memory 1024 MB Size
256 -bit GDDR5
4200 MHz Effective
Software Driver CD
SAPPHIRE TriXX Utility
Accessory CrossFire™ Bridge Interconnect Cable
D-Sub Adapter
Mini-DP to DP Cable
6 PIN to 4 PIN Power Cable
HDMI 1.4a high speed 1.8 meter cable(Full Retail SKU only)

The Sapphire HD 6870 comes packaged in a high gloss box that lists many of the 6800 series features on the front: support for DX11, AMD Eyefinity, PCIe 2.1, full 1080p HD video, Windows 7, Displayport 1.2, HDMI 1.4, 7.1 HD Surround sound, and the use of GDDR5 memory. The back panel of the box also lists many of the same features, but there is a explanation accompanied with the listing of the technology on the back.

As for accessories, Sapphire has really delivered and included just about everything the end-user could need like driver CD, installation guide, CrossFire bridge, dual 6-pin power adapters, Mini-DP to DP adapter, DVI to VGA adapter and a 1.8 meter HDMI 1.4a cable.

The Sapphire HD 6870 uses the reference design, so for the most part the card is similar to those from AMD. However, the Sapphire model has a glossy sticker on the heatsink cover that adds to the overall look of the product. The Sapphire logo also graces center of the heatsink's cooling fan. The measurements for the HD 6870 are roughly 10.5" from the tip of the rear bracket to the end of the PCB. Factoring the internal length of the PCB with the fan cover only, and the card is closer to 9.65".

Since this is not a overclocked version of the HD 6870 it uses the reference specifications, with the power requirements at 19W idle and 151W when under full load. Dual 6-pin power connectors supply the proper amount of power to the card. Each 6-pin connector can provide up to 75W of power to the 6870, as can the PCIe lane.

The rear I/O panel of the Sapphire HD 6870 features two Mini-DP connectors that use the new 1.2 standard. This allows them to support HD audio and 3D video, and each port is capable of supporting up to three independent monitors. The new HMDI 1.4a port is the latest version of HDMI with added support for AMD's HD3D technology and support multi-channel 7.1 audio. Two DVI ports round off the connection options. One of the ports uses the Dual-Link connection type that supports resolutions up to 2560x1600 @60Hz, while the other is Single-Link and can support monitor resolutions at or below 1920x1200 pixels.

One of the largest complaints of the new HD 6800 series cards is the lack of 3 and 4-way CrossFire support. Despite this, the 6800 series graphics cards have proven to scale very well in standard CrossFire. Remember this is a mid-range product as it stands, and CrossFire support beyond dual cards will return once the high-end graphics cards featuring the Cayman series GPU are released.

The cooling solution on the Radeon HD 6800 series graphics card is similar to that found on the 5800 series, with a few small exceptions. The bottom layer of the cooler has a large black metal base that makes contact with the VRM, memory chips and GPU on the HD 6870. The GPU cooler has a large copper base that relies on thermal paste to transfer heat, while the memory and VRM use sticky thermal pads to make contact with the cooler. The thermal pads can be reused multiple times, so it is not necessary to replace these after the heatsink cover has been removed. The thermal paste on the base of the GPU heatsink however must be reapplied each time the heatsink itself is removed from the card for whatever reason.

The upper layer of the cooler consists of the fan and heatsink. The heatsink uses a three heatpipe design to transfer heat from the core into the finned array. This allows heat to be separated and dissapated. With the blower fan placed directly behind the heatsink, the hot air is blown out the back of the card, which removes it from the case. Like with previous AMD cards, the cooling fan can get quite loud when the fan speed is set to high.

The HD 6870 uses the new Barts GPU, which like the previous generation AMD graphics cards is built on a 40nm die. However, the new architecture does come with some improvements, most noticeable of these being the 25% smaller die that still packs most of what was found in the AMD Cypress core. This gives the HD 6870 1120 stream processors, 56 texture units and 32 ROPs. Improving on the performance of the HD 5700 series, the HD 6870 comes with 1GB of GDDR5 memory that comes clicked at 1050MHz, a 256-bit memory bus. The GPU clock itself is set to 900MHz, which in previous tests has proven to be quite high given the limited overclocking headroom on reference HD 6870s.

AMD has included some new technologies on the Barts GPU. These consist of Advanced Parallel Processing, HD3D and Morphological AA. Advanced Parallel processing is essentially a new name for ATI Stream technology. This is the process of adding acceleration on both a hardware and software level with parallel processing between both the GPU and CPU. There are many applications that support this technology, and these stand to benefit from greatly enhanced speed. With the new HD 6800 series AMD has updated this technology to include support for DirectCompute 11, and OpenCL; they've even added a UVD3 engine on the Barts die itself. This will give the core improved support for tessellation, and improved Divx and Blu-Ray 3D encoding. This is all part of the new EyeSpeed technology. AMD is making a big push with this technology and have teamed up with a host of partners to ensure EyeSpeed is widely supported.

Another new feature is AMD's HD3D technology. 3D computing is not new to the market, and Nvidia has in fact employed 3D support in their own products for some time now. AMD's approach to the technology is new, however. Whereas Nvidia uses a close sourced method to deliver Stereoscopic 3D, AMD is using an open-source method that allows many manufactures to create their own means of support. This means that there will not be a set, specific standard between compatible 3D displays, glasses and software.

Morphological Anti-Aliasing is an AA method that uses a post process filtering technique with Accelerated DirectCompute. This approach can deliver full screen Anti-Aliasing, faster super sampling and is compatible with DX9 through DX11.

 

Overclocking:

The Radeon HD 6870 from Sapphire is so far the best overclocking HD 6870 to enter our labs. When we were reviewing the reference cards that came to us directly from AMD, the 6870 was only capable of remaining stable at speeds of 970/1140MHz, not an overly impressive overclock considering the default GPU clock is already set to 900MHz. The Sapphire HD 6870 on the other hand was capable of reaching a GPU clock speed in excess of 1000MHz. The highest clock I found to be stable was 1010MHz, but there was one game (Batman Arkham Asylum) that still crashed at that clock speed setting. In the end I was forced to reduce the speed to 1000MHz. It was nice to reach 1000MHz, but this is still only a 100MHz overclock. The memory on the Sapphire card also yielded better results than the reference card, maxing out at 1200MHz (4800MHz effective).

Hardware Configuration:

Software:

All the ATI cards released prior to the 6800 series will be tested AMD's Catalyst 10.8 drivers, while the NVIDIA graphics cards will be tested using their 260.89 drivers. Both the HD 6870 and HD 6870, however, will be tested with AMD's latest 10.10 drivers release.

Benchmarks DX11:

Benchmarks DX10:

All benchmarks were performed at resolutions of 1280x1024, 1680x1050, 1920x1200 and 2560x1600. Vsync is disabled in the control panel and AA is set to x4 with AF set to x16. The only benchmark performed with lower AA and AF is Street Fighter IV, which showed better scaling when AA and AF were set to 0.

Usage:

MSI's Kombuster will be used to gauge the power requirement and temperature of the graphics cards. The program applies a very heavy load to the GPU and as such will push the card beyond that of a game or benchmark. For the minimum temperature and power consumption the system will be left in an idle state for 15 minutes and for load Kombuster will be left on for 15 minutes.

Comparison Specifications:

 
AMD Radeon HD 6870
AMD Radeon HD 6850
ATI  Radeon
HD 5750
ATI Radeon HD 5770
ATI Radeon HD 5830
ATI Radeon HD 5870
NVIDIA GTX 480
EVGA GTX 460 FTW
Processing Cores
1120
960
720
800
1120
1600
480
336
Core Clock
900MHz
775MHz
700MHz
850MHz
800MHz
850MHz
700MHz
850MHz
Memory Clock
1050MHz
1000MHz
1150MHz
1200MHz
1150MHz
1200MHz
924MHz
1000MHz
Memory Interface
256-bit
256-bit
128-bit
128-bit
256-bit
256-bit
384-bit
256-bit
Memory Type
1GB GDDR5
1GB GDDR5
1GB GDDR5
1GB GDDR5
1GB GDDR5
1GB GDDR5
1.5GB GDDR5
1GB GDDR5
Fabrication Process
40nm
40nm
40nm
40nm
40nm
40nm
40nm
40nm

3DMark Vantage is the stunning sequel to 3DMark 06. Futuremark's benchmarking programs have always been at the center of every bragging match. The best way to show that you've got the greatest gaming rig, is to show that you've got the highest 3DMark score. Vantage does just that. It puts your system through a series of strenuous tests, and provides you with a score to brag about!

At stock settings the Sapphire HD 6870 matches the reference AMD 6870 with almost identical performance totals. After overclocking though the Sapphire card makes a substantial performance leap and ends up ahead of the EVGA GTX 460 FTW.

Unigine Heaven became very popular very fast, because it was one of the first major DirectX 11 benchmarks. It makes great use of tesselation to create a visually stunning...heaven.

Unigine 2.1 is just a benchmark and does not necessarily reflect actual in-game performance. However, it is a good source to gauge how a graphics card will handle DX11 tessellation and in this benchmark the 6870 is a clear winner. Not only does it come out ahead of the GTX 460 FTW, but it also outperforms the GTX 470. Once overclocked, it rivals the GTX 480 in terms of performance.

Aliens vs Predators is a DX11 Benchmark that runs though a scene straight out of the classic 80’s movie, Aliens. Since it uses DX11, it can often be more than a graphics card can handle.

Aliens vs Predator is another DX11 title that showcases the HD 6870's superb tessellation performance. In this benchmark, the HD 6870 performed roughly at the same level as the GTX 480 at stock settings. After overclocking, the 6870 gained additional FPS and was best only by the HD 5870 and 6850/6870 in CrossFire.

Metro 2033 puts you right in the middle of post apocalyptic Moscow, battling Mutants, rivals and ratio-active fallout. The game is very graphics intensive and utilizes DX11 technology, making it a good measure of how the latest generation of graphics cards performs under the new standard.

Metro 2033 is another title that utilizes DX11, but the HD 6870 does not perform as well here when compared to the Nvidia DX11-ready offerings. Once overclocked, the Sapphire HD 6870's performance was greatly improved, but still not enough to surpass the GTX 470 or GTX 480.

Street Fighter 4 doesn’t necessarily push a graphics card to the limits, but it is a good benchmark to gauge the overall performance. This test is run at default settings to show the best scaling possible.

At stock speeds, the HD 6870 is outperformed by most other graphics cards in the chart. However, after the 1000/1200MHz overclock is applied the HD 6870 reaches performance that is very close to the GTX 470. What is impressive though is that the overclocked HD 6870 was slightly better than the more expensive HD 5870.

Batman: Arkham Aslyum mixes extraordinary visuals with great gameplay, in order to make an excellent benchmark. It's not a stressful as Crysis, but it can still push cards to their limits.

Batman Arkham Asylum plays considerably nicer with Nvidia's graphics cards, but the HD 6870 still has some very good performance overall. Once overclocked, the HD 6870 rivaled the HD 5870.

Crysis Warhead is one of the most graphically intensive games on the mainstream market. It's graphically breathtaking, and can bring any system crashing to it's knees.

Crysis Warhead is an aging title, but it is still one of the more demanding games around. This makes it ideal to test the performance of any new graphics product and the HD 6870 does quite well. At stock speeds the HD 6870 performs very closely to the HD 5870, and is closer still to the GTX 480 once overclocked.

Crysis Warhead is one of the most graphically intensive games on the mainstream market. It's graphically breathtaking, and can bring any system crashing to it's knees.

At stock speeds the HD 6870 has a lower frame rate than the GTX 470, but after overclocking it is able to beat out the GTX 480 in the higher resolutions.

Darkest of Days puts the player in historic battles to ensure the survival of key figures from the past. It is a very interesting concept and the use of real life conflicts keeps the title engaging. The in-game options does not allow PhysX to be disabled, so it can often favor NVIDIA graphics cards over those from ATI.

Due to the use of PhysX, Darkest of Days can often perform better on Nvidia's graphics cards.  That didn't stop the HD 6870 from outperforming the GTX 460 and GTX 470.

Resident Evil V is the newest installment of the Resident Evil series. The game comes with a built in benchmark that features a bunch of zombies walking around the center of a village. Believe it or not this seemingly simple benchmark can push video cards way out of their comfort zone!

The HD 6870 rivals the HD 5870 at stock speeds, and beats it outright once overclocked. Results like these are very impressive considering the price difference between the two graphics cards.

Just Cause 2 places you in Panau, Southeast Asia as Agent Rico Rodriguez. The game is a third-person shooter that pits you against countless enemies with the opportunity for plenty of environment destruction. With explosions and gun fire galore, this game is perfect for testing out the latest hardware.

In Just Cause 2 the HD 6870 pushes past the HD 5870 at stock and even manages to achieve higher frame rates than the GTX 480 at 2560x1600 resolution.

Temperature:

To measure core GPU temperature, MSI's Kombustor was used. The idle temperature was taken after leaving nothing running for up to 15 minutes. The load temperature was taken 15 minutes after starting Kombuster for Multi-Core graphics cards.

The new Barts GPU is still manufactured on a 40nm die and because of this, it has similar temperatures to Cypress architecture GPUs. This is one aspect of the card I would have like to seen improved, because the blower style fan is very loud when at high rotation. Still, the HD 6870 is very quiet when the fan is spinning under the 30% range, so like the HD 4000 and HD 5000 series there is a happy medium between sound and temperatures if the fan speed is manually set in the Catalyst Control Center.

Power Usage:

To measure power usage, a Kill A Watt P4400 power meter was used. Note that the above numbers represent the power drain for the entire benchmarking system, not just the video cards themselves. For the 'idle' readings we measured the power drain from the desktop, with no applications running; for the 'load' situation, we took the sustained peak power drain readings at the end of a 30 minute Kombustor run.

The power usages of the Barts GPU is improved over the previous generation cores, and in our lab it uses less power than the lowest end Cypress core (HD5830). It also uses less power than the overclocked GTX 460, at least prior to overclocking the HD 6870.

 

Conclusion:

The AMD Radeon HD 6870 is an impressive card for under $250 dollars and the Sapphire model is a very well executed use of the new architecture. In nearly all tests this model was able to achieve higher frame rates than the 1GB GTX 460, and in some games it even managed to nip at the heels of the GTX 480. This is in part due to the high clock speed of the HD 6870, but it is also because of the improved tessellation performance of the 6800 series. This makes the choice to move over from an older series graphics card to the HD 6870 a very easy one, as the price-to-performance ratio is amazing.

One area where the HD 6870 falters is overclocking. With a reference clock already at 900MHz, AMD left little room for additional tweaking. The reference HD 6870 was only capable of a 70MHz core clock boost which did improve performance, but ultimately the gains were not as noticeable as other graphics cards on the market. The Sapphire card overclocked extremely well and was able to reach a max clock speed of 1010MHz. There was one game however that would crash with these settings, so the final settings saw the GPU clock at 1000MHz, and the memory at 1200MHz (4800MHz effective). This is better than the reference model, but it is still just a 100MHz overclock.

Another area where the Sapphire card stands over other models is the generous amount of included accessories. With this graphics card Sapphire includes all the standard goodies, but they have also thrown in a 1.8 meter HDMI 1.4a cable, dual 6-pin power adapters and a Mini-DP to DP converter. This gives the card extra value as all the accessories that are included could save you time and money.

With both Nvidia and AMD offering graphics cards with such a high degree of perform for a mainstream price the consumer comes out the ultimate winner. For anywhere between $150 to $250 dollars the end-user can choose a graphics card that will play any current game title, including those that utilze DX11. This makes it a great time to be a PC game.

In all this is an exceptional offering from Sapphire and one that comes highly recommended.

»Neoseeker.com

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