AMD's ATI Radeon HD 5870 Video Card Review

Author:Brent Justice

Editor:Kyle Bennett

Date: Tuesday , September 22, 2009

AMD’s ATI Radeon HD 5800 series debuts today and the new ATI Radeon HD 5870 is now available. We will give you all the gritty details of the HD 5800 Series, and show you just how well the new flagship ATI Radeon HD 5870 accelerates games. Can you say, “I like twice as much performance in the same power envelope.”


AMD’s ATI Radeon HD 4800 series was successful for AMD, despite many people’s worries about AMD’s acquisition of ATI and its new "Sweet Spot" strategy. Suffice it to say, those worries were misplaced, as the Radeon HD 4870 512MB competed well for its price point and was eventually upgraded to 1GB of GDDR5 and pulled ahead of the competition at the same price. The Radeon HD 4870 X2 came along after that, and while it was power hungry, it became a powerhouse in shader performance. Finally, ATI improved upon the initial Radeon HD 4870 GPU further by actually going in and tweaking circuit pathways to improve clock rates, making the Radeon HD 4890 capable of hitting 1GHz+ GPU frequencies. While those cards kept the hardcore enthusiasts happy, the more money conscious enthusiast gamers out there found solace in the Radeon HD 4850 and eventually the newer Radeon HD 4770 which introduced AMD’s first 40nm GPU.

From top-to-bottom AMD had a successful generation of video cards thanks to its ATI Radeon Premium Graphics, providing competitive performance for the price, and an enjoyable gameplay experience across the entire scale. Apparently AMD’s "Sweet Spot" Strategy of scaling GPUs worked well for it in the previous generation, and it is using that philosophy to do it all over again with the new Radeon HD 5800 series.

Finding The Sweet Spot

HardOCP was recently invited to an AMD event in Alameda, CA, aboard the U.S.S. Hornet. AMD chose an aircraft carrier to show off its stuff, and for us to witness the power of the new ATI Radeon HD 5800 series. There were several themes presented about ATI’s new technology. You could often see banners exclaiming "You Won’t Believe Your Eyes" and "The Game Has Changed." AMD’s ATI Radeon Premium Graphics clearly thinks that the new Radeon HD 5800 series is a "Game Changer."

AMD thinks this due to some new technology present in the HD 5800 series. The 5800 series is the first and currently only GPU to support DirectX 11, it is built a mature 40nm processes along with a mature GDDR5 generation, It also supports hardware tessellation as ATI GPUs have in some form or another since the Radeon 8500. We reviewed the 8500 series back in October of 2001 to put that perspective. Remember "TruForm?"

AMD's design goals are quite simple really, and those goals make a lot of sense. AMD wanted to implement DirectX 11 support for the Windows 7 launch. It has already had DX11 driver support for months now, and now it has new hardware ready to go at the launch of DX11 in Windows 7. It also wanted to make sure that previous generation games running DX10/9 would benefit in performance. AMD is committed to an open standard policy, which we will talk more about down the page, and thus it supports OpenCL 1.0 and DirectCompute 11 in hardware. AMD also wanted to innovate, rather than just push out a faster video card, and thus have created Eyefinity technology and improved filtering quality and added a new AA features, all to improve the gameplay experience.

One of AMD’s major design philosophies in creating the Radeon HD 5800 series was to borrow what worked for them with the Radeon HD 4800 series. Namely, this means building a GPU at an affordable closer-to-mainstream price, and designing it so that it scales upwards and downwards in performance and price. AMD have called this its "Sweet Spot" strategy.

The GPU being launched today is the ATI Radeon HD 5870, which is internally codenamed "Cypress." As you can see in the third screenshot the target selling price is just under $400. The same Cypress ASIC is also used to create the ATI Radeon HD 5850. According to AMD you should see about a 20% delta in performance between the 5870 and 5850 GPUs. You can think of the HD 5870 as the "Cypress XT" GPU and HD 5850 as the "Cypress Pro" GPU. "Hemlock" will be two of these HD 5870 GPUs in a single video card package, most likely to be branded the Radeon HD 5870 X2, and come at a much heftier price. "Juniper" is a more mainstream GPU that will culminate the HD 5700 series and is targeted around $200. AMD can scale down the GPU series even more to create a low cost "Redwood" and "Cedar" GPU similar to the Radeon HD 4770 and lower for mobile use. According to this chart, we will see Hemlock and Juniper in Q4 2009 and the ultra low-end parts Q1 2010. AMD's ATI definitely has set the goal internally to dominate the entire spectrum of the market with the 5800 Series, and it has certainly planned for parts from the ultra-low end up to the ultra-high end.

Have Some Standards

In our press decks, we found these slides present and we wanted to post them here because it is actually slightly humorous, yet truthful. AMD and the ATI Radeon HD Premium Graphics team have proclaimed that they are all for open standards. Indeed, there is a war brewing right now between standards, specifically in the realm of physics. As you may or may not know, for PC gaming, there are two major Physics middleware engines, Havok and PhysX. Part of the PhysX engine allows physical effects to be accelerated solely on NVIDIA GPUs. Developers have to specifically program this, and ATI video cards will not use PhysX accelerated Physics. However, PhysX is not the only way to achieve accelerated Physics, but I digress.

AMD has marked off several technologies on this slide that have failed and all are proprietary. It is funny because ATI has had some flops too, such as the aforementioned TruForm. Maybe AMD is learning from its mistakes...when it comes to GPUs anyway. At any rate, this battle will rage on between CUDA/PhysX, OpenCL, DirectCompute 11 etc... and this launch will in no way settle that. We will just have to see where game developers go with the technology. We’ll have more on DX11 and DirectCompute 11 further on this in evaluation.

Next up, all about the Radeon HD 5870 and Radeon HD 5850 video cards.