The wheel has now come full circle: AMD, once content to leave the high end of the graphics processor market to Nvidia, is lording over its rival with a GPU that’s not only supremely powerful, but reasonably affordable, too.
Then again, affordability lies in the eye of the beholder, and you might not think that $380 for a new video card is the least bit reasonable. But it wasn’t all that long ago that acquiring the unquestioned number-one card would set you back $600—and some people were buying two to achieve even faster performance and higher resolution.
But the 5870 isn’t just scorching fast, it’s also the first—and currently only—GPU that’s capable of playing games based on Microsoft’s DirectX 11, the next-generation programming environment that promises to open new whole new vist—uh, well, let’s just say DirectX 11 should enable game developers to build some fantastic looking new games. But you don’t need to wait for those games to arrive to tap this chip’s power—the good news is that it’s supremely fast with the most demanding games on the market right now.
Features and Design
The chip—codenamed Cypress—at the heart of the Radeon 5870 is manufactured using a 40nm process, the same technology that enabled AMD to build the very fast (for its price point) processor found in the Radeon HD 4770 we reviewed last June. But Cypress is more than twice as large as the GPU used in the 4770 (334 square millimeters, compared to 137 square millimeters), and this enabled AMD’s engineers to pack a staggering 2.15 billion transistors onto the chip. That transistor count, in turn, enabled them to build 1,600 stream processors in a single GPU.
As is common practice among video card manufacturers, XFX doesn’t stray far from AMD’s reference design with its first Cypress implementation. This card (XFX’s model number HD-587A-ZN, so you can differentiate it from the more souped-up SKUs that are sure to follow) runs the GPU at a core clock speed of 850 MHz and its 1GB of GDDR5 memory at 1.2GHz. GDDR5 memory delivers data four times each clock cycle, which gives it considerably more bandwidth than GDDR3 memory (which transfers data only twice per clock cycle). AMD integrated four 64-bit memory controllers into the chip, for an aggregate 256-bit memory interface.
As you might expect, the card is physically large (some PC enclosures will have trouble accommodating its 11-inch length), and it requires a dual-slot cooler. You’ll also need a minimum of a 500-watt power supply with two six-pin power cables to feed this beast (XFX provides four-to-six- pin adapter cables, in case you need them). But for all its power, this card is remarkably quiet, even under heavy loads—you needn’t worry about a noisy cooling fan intruding into stealth moments of your gaming sessions. The mounting bracket on XFX’s card is outfitted with two dual-link DVI outputs, one HDMI output, and one DisplayPort. Using some combination of the three will enable you to drive three 32-inch displays at their native resolution of 2560×1600 simultaneously.
If your PC’s motherboard has two x16 PCI Express slots and supports AMD’s CrossFire technology (that includes a large number of motherboards targeted at the build-your-own crowd, but a much smaller number of factory-built machines) you can run two of these cards in tandem for an even bigger performance boost. (You won’t necessarily see your frame rate double, but the increase should be significant).
Given the massive horsepower this card promises, we didn’t feel bashful about cranking up the resolution with the games we use for testing video cards. We plugged in a 24-inch Gateway FHD2401 LCD and set each game to that display’s native resolution of 1920×1200. But much of the appeal of gaming on a super-fast card like this is turning on features that you wouldn’t dare play around with on lesser hardware.
With Crytek’s Crysis, that meant running the game in DirectX 10 mode with overall quality set to “high” and 4x anti-aliasing turned on—something we’d never tried before simply because the game is such a punisher. But we grinned like fools when the Radeon HD 5870 proved capable of delivering the game with those settings at a playable rate of 29.8 frames per second. Suffice it to say that the game looks absolutely stunning with all of its eye candy enabled.
We next turned our attention to UbiSoft’s Far Cry 2: Once more, we set the game to run at 1920×1200 resolution, with its overall quality setting on “Very High” and 4x anti-aliasing enabled. And here again, XFX’s card exceeded our expectations, delivering this graphically intense first-person shooter at a jaw-dropping 71.8 frames per second.
Our final benchmark test proved to be the easiest for the Radeon HD 5870 to blast through: We set Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare to this same resolution and cranked all its other visual effects—including anisotropic filtering—to the max. The 5870 didn’t break a sweat as it churned out an astonishing 137 frames per second.
We’re still several months away from being able to play the first DirectX 11 game, but if you’re ready to buy a high-end video card right now, we know of nothing better than the Radeon HD 5870. This card effortlessly delivers today’s best games at phenomenal frame rates even at high resolution and with all their visual effects enabled, meaning that if you want the absolute best video card, this is the one to buy. AMD has come up with a GPU that smokes the competition, and XFX has hung what we feel is a very reasonable price tag on their version of it. Bravo to both companies, and color us impressed!
- Wicked fast
- Fabulous price/performance ratio
- Dual-link DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort
- Can drive three displays
- Large card won’t fit in tight cases
- Requires PC to have 500-watt power supply