AMD Radeon HD 6950: Fair performance

AMD‘s (Nasdaq: AMD) Radeon HD 6950 ($300, as of 12/14/2010) sits at the lower end of AMD’s new 6900 series lineup. While it doesn’t blow away the competition, the combination of excellent performance, plenty of features, and an aggressive price make the 6950 a very strong value.

The 6900 series marks the debut of their “Cayman” GPU, offering significant architectural changes stemming from the Radeon HD 5800 series, and their recently launched Radeon HD 6800 series.

This marks a departure from AMD’s traditional approach to their higher-end graphics cards — namely, releasing a card containing two of their existing GPUs, as seen with the Radeon HD 5970. Enhancements abound, with a pair of “front end” graphics engines designed to improve performance in geometry-intensive applications, as well as a re-tooled shader architecture, and PowerTune technology, that aims to throttle the card’s performance if it starts to exceed its thermal boundaries.

For the full deep-dive on the new architecture and its ramifications, be sure to check out Jason Cross’ extensive overview.

The $300 Radeon HD 6950 doesn’t directly compete with Nvidia‘s higher-end offerings, though the $350 GeForce GTX 570 which was released last week serves as a good starting point. For comparison’s sake we’ve also included its sibling, the $370 Radeon HD 6970, and Nvidia’s $500 GeForce GTX 580.

Performance: Synthetic benchmarks

Synthetic benchmarks aren’t necessarily indicative of real-world performance, but they’re an industry standard, and offer some idea of a graphics card’s performance in a series of forward-looking tests (click on a chart to see a larger version).

First up is Futuremark’s 3DMark Vantage, an older DirectX 10 based benchmark suite.

As expected, the 6950 sits at the rear of the pack. The 6970 maintains a 15 per cent lead over the 6950 at both the High and Extreme benchmark settings, which isn’t too bad, considering that the 6950 is about 19 per cent cheaper.

The GTX 570 is 16 per cent more expensive than the 6950, but offers up to a 24 per cent performance boost in our tests.

The situation improves once we move to the recently released 3DMark 11. Here, the margins narrow considerably.

On the Extreme setting the GTX 570 is a scant seven per cent faster than the 6950. AMD’s Cayman GPU offers enhanced geometry processing performance, which lends the 6950 a bit more muscle when tackling 3DMark 11’s tests.

All told, the 6950 about 12 per cent slower than the 6970, making it rather speedy for a $300 card.

Performance: Games

The Radeon HD 6950’s performance in our real-world gaming scenarios was impressive. Nvidia’s cards (generally) maintain the lead, but its price-to-performance ratio starts to shine relatively early in.

In Codemasters’ Foromula 1 racer F1 2010, the Radeon HD 6950 actual manages to pull ahead of the GTX 570 once the resolution is cranked up to 2560-by-1600 pixels, and comes within range of the GTX 580.

At the more common 1920-by-1200 resolution, the 6950 still manages to be within a few frames of both the 6970 and the GTX 570.

Keep in mind that all four cards output playable frame rates at the highest settings, on this demanding racing game.

The cards fell in line rather neatly on Just Cause 2’s intense “Concrete Jungle” benchmark. But while the Radeon HD 6950 remains in last place, it’s never more than 10% slower than the 6970.

Once you turn the game’s settings up to a 2560-by-1600 pixel resolution and turn on anti-aliasing, the 6950’s frame rates teeter on the edge of discomfort.

That being said, you’ll be able to play today’s most demanding games without too much worry about toning down the eye candy.

Value and efficiency

Power utilization becomes rather demanding on the enthusiast end of the GPU market. To weigh the overall efficiency of these cards, we took the average frames per second of all of our game tests, and divided by their power use under load.

Nvidia’s wares are generally rather power hungry, and while the revamped Fermi architecture made impressive strides towards taming their appetites, AMD’s offerings remain the more power efficient of the pack — particularly at the higher resolutions.

When we assess the price-to-performance of these four cards, the GeForce GTX 570 takes the lead at the 1920-by-1200 resolution. But at the highest resolutions, the $300 Radeon HD 6950 offers value that’s simply tough to beat.

Nvidia may have AMD beat on raw performance, but 6950 also offers a number of enhanced usability features.

AMD’s 6900 series offer a greater range of display options, serving up a pair of mini DisplayPort 1.2 connectors, a pair of DVI connectors, and an HDMI 1.4a connector. AMD’s Eyefinity technology allows up to three displays to be powered off of a single card — you’ll need a pair of Nvidia cards to match that. And then there’s the overall power efficiency, if you’re keeping a close eye on your energy bill.

AMD’s Radeon HD 6950 sits dead last in our benchmarks and testing, but it just might be our favorite card of the bunch. It manages to stay fairly competitive with graphics cards that are more expensive, while offering a versatile array of display support and power efficiency. The GeForce GTX 570 will only set you back and extra $50, but keep the Radeon HD 6950’s benefits in mind before you buy.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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