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Just a couple of weeks ago we took the cover off of AMD's Llano processor for the first time in the form of the Sabine platform: Llano's mobile derivative. In that article we wrote in great detail about the architecture and how it performed on the stage of the notebook market - it looked very good when compared to the Intel Sandy Bridge machines we had on-hand. Battery life is one of the most important aspects of evaluating a mobile configuration with performance and features taking a back seat the majority of the time. In the world of the desktop though, that isn't necessarily the case.
Desktop computers, even those meant for a low-cost and mainstream market, don't find power consumption as crucial and instead focus on the features and performance of your platform almost exclusively. There are areas where power and heat are more scrutinized such as the home theater PC market and small form-factor machines but in general you need to be sure to hit a homerun with performance per dollar in this field. Coming into this article we had some serious concerns about Llano and its ability to properly address this specifically.
How did our weeks with the latest AMD Fusion APU turn out? There is a ton of information that needed to be addressed including a look at the graphics performance in comparison to Sandy Bridge, how the quad-core "Stars" x86 CPU portion stands up to modern options, how the new memory controller affects graphics performance, Dual Graphics, power consumption and even a whole new overclocking methodology. Keep reading and you'll get all the answers you are looking for.
We spent a LOT of time in our previous Llano piece discussing the technical details of the new Llano Fusion CPU/GPU architecture and the fundamentals are essentially identical from the mobile part to the new desktop releases. Because of that, much of the information here is going to be a repeat with some minor changes in the forms of power envelopes, etc.
The platform diagram above gives us an overview of what components will make up a system built on the Llano Fusion APU design. The APU itself is made up 2 or 4 x86 CPU cores that come from the Stars family released with the Phenom / Phenom II processors. They do introduce a new Turbo Core feature that we will discuss later that is somewhat analogous to what Intel has done with its processors with Turbo Boost.
Introducing the AMD FSA
At AMD’s Fusion 11 conference, we were treated to a nice overview of AMD’s next generation graphics architecture. With the recent change in their lineup going from the previous VLIW-5 setup (powered their graphics chips from the Radeon HD 2900 through the latest “Barts” chip running the HD 6800 series) to the new VLIW-4 (HD 6900), many were not expecting much from AMD in terms of new and unique designs. The upcoming “Southern Isles” were thought to be based on the current VLIW-4 architecture, and would feature more performance and a few new features due to the die shrink to 28 nm. It turns out that speculation is wrong.
In late Q4 of this year we should see the first iteration of this new architecture that was detailed today by Eric Demers. The overview detailed some features that will not make it into this upcoming product, but eventually it will all be added in over the next three years or so. Historically speaking, AMD has placed graphics first, with GPGPU/compute as the secondary functionality of their GPUs. While we have had compute abilities since the HD 1800/1900 series of products, AMD has not been as aggressive with compute as has its primary competition. From the G80 GPUs and beyond, NVIDIA has pushed compute harder and farther than AMD has. With its mature CUDA development tools and the compute heavy Fermi architecture, NVIDIA has been a driving force in this particular market. Now that AMD has released two APU based products (Llano and Brazos), they are starting to really push OpenCL, Direct Compute, and the recently announced C++ AMP.
Continue reading for all the details on AMD's Graphics Core Next!
HAWK Through the Ages
Have I mentioned that MSI is putting out some pretty nice video cards as of late? Last year I was able to take a look at their R5770 HAWK, and this year so far I have taken a look at their HD 6950 OC Twin Frozr II and the superb R6970 Lightning. All of these cards have impressed me to a great degree. MSI has really excelled in their pursuit of designing unique cards which often stand out from the crowd, without breaking the budget. Or even being all that more expensive than their reference design brothers.
MSI now has two ranges of enthusiast cards that are not based on reference designs. At the high end we have the Lightning products which cater to the high performance/LN2 crowd. These currently include the R6970 Lightning, the N580 GTX Lightning, and the newly introduced N580 GTX Lightning Extreme (3 GB of frame buffer!). The second tier of custom designed enthusiast parts is the HAWK series. These are often much more affordable than the Lightning, but they carry over a lot of the design philosophies of the higher end parts. These are aimed at the sweet spot, but will carry a slightly higher price tag than the reference products. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as for the extra money a user will get extra features and performance.
AMD and Virtual Vsync for Lucid Virtu
Lucid has grown from a small startup that we thought might have a chance to survive in the world of AMD and NVIDIA to a major player in the computing space. Its latest and most successful software architecture was released into the wild with the Z68 chipset as Lucid Virtu - software that enabled users to take advantage of both the performance of a discrete graphics card and the intriguing features of the integrated graphics of Intel's Sandy Bridge CPU.
While at Computex 2011 in Taiwan we met with the President of Lucid, Offir Remez, who was excited to discuss a few key new additions to the Virtu suite with the new version titled "Virtu Universal". The new addition is support for AMD platforms including current 890-based integrated graphics options as well the upcoming AMD Llano (and more) APU CPU/GPU combinations. It is hard to see a reason for Virtu on current AMD platforms like the 890 series as there are no compelling features on the integrated graphics on that front but with the pending release of Llano you can be sure that AMD is going to integrate some of its own interesting GP-GPU features that will compete with the QuickSync technology of Sandy Bridge among other things. To see Lucid offer support for AMD this early is a good sign for day-of availability on the platform later this year.
The second pillar of Lucid's announcement with Virtu Universal was the addition of support for the mobile space, directly competing with NVIDIA and AMD's own hardware-specific switchable graphics solutions. By far the most successful this far has been NVIDIA's Optimus which has filtered its way down basically into all major OEMs and in most of the major notebook releases that include both integrated and discrete graphics solutions. The benefit that Lucid offers is that it will work with BOTH Intel and AMD platforms simplifying the product stack quite a bit.
Read on for more information and some videos of Virtual Vsync in action!
The FirePro Products get Cayman
(Thanks to Steve Grever for providing insight on the product placement and attending the Professional Graphics Editor's Day in Austin, TX for us!)
On May 11, AMD invited a handful of technology journalists and hardware reviewers to Northern Islands FirePro Tech Day to unveil a pair of new professional graphics cards – the V5900 and V7900. We were under an NDA to discuss the new GPUs at that time, but now that the gag order has been lifted, we can finally give our readers an in-depth look at these mid-range and high-end graphics card offerings sporting custom features like Eyefinity, Geometry Boost and Power Tune technologies.
Sandeep Gupte, AMD’s product management director, introduced the new graphics cards during the one-day event and stated they will “deliver productivity and performance to professionals regardless of where they are working.” This is an interesting statement, but AMD is committed to providing graphics solutions beyond professional workstations to include mobile workstations, tablets and thin clients to increase productivity and performance across various form factors and operating systems.
Last year’s FirePro lineup helped AMD increase their unit share by six points in the professional graphics market. This share increase puts them at about 16 percent overall, which was also supported by sales with Tier 1 OEMs like HP and Dell. This percentage of market share has improved over the single-digit shares AMD experienced in this market back in 2007.
Hit that "Read More" link below for the full story!
MSI R6970 Lightning: High Speed, Low Drag
MSI has been on a tear as of late with their video card offerings. The Twin Frozr II and III series have all received positive reviews, people seem to be buying their products, and the company has taken some interesting turns in how they handle overall design and differentiation in a very crowded graphics marketplace. This did not happen overnight, and MSI has been a driving force in how the video card business has developed.
Perhaps a company’s reputation is best summed up by what the competition has to say about them. I remember well back in 1999 when Tyan was first considering going into the video card business. Apparently they were going to release a NVIDIA TnT-2 based card to the marketplace, and attempt to work their way upwards with more offerings. This particular project was nixed by management. A few years later Tyan attempted the graphics business again, but this time with some ATI Radeon 9000 series of cards. Their biggest seller was their 9200 cards, but they also offered their Tachyone 9700 Pro. In talking with Tyan about where they were, the marketing guy simply looked at me and said, “You know, if we had pursued graphics back in 1999 we might be in the same position that MSI is in now.”
A Card Unlike Any Other
In all honesty, there aren't many graphics cards that really get our attention these days. There are GPUs that do that - releases like the Radeon HD 6990 and the GeForce GTX 590 get our juices flowing to see what new performance and features they can offer. But in terms of individual vendor-specific designs, there are very few that make us "perk up" much more than just seeing another reference card come across the test bed.
The ASUS ARES dual-5870 card was probably the last one do to that - and for $1200 is better have! EVGA is ready with another card though that definitely made us interested, and for a much more reasonable price of $419 or so.
The EVGA GeForce GTX 460 2WIN is a custom built card that combines a pair of GTX 460 1GB GPUs on a single PCB to create a new level of performance and pricing that we found was unmatched in the market today. And even better, the features improved as well by utilizing the power of both GPUs in an SLI configuration.
Read on and see why the GTX 460 2WIN might be my new favorite graphics card!
Introduction and the new Turks GPU
It seems that the graphics card wars have really heated up recently. With the release of the Radeon HD 6990 4GB and the GeForce GTX 590 3GB card it might seem that EVERYONE was spending $600 on their next GPU purchase. Obviously that isn't the case and the world of the sub-$100 card, while way less sexy, is just as important.
This week AMD has announced a slew of new options to address this market including the Radeon HD 6670, HD 6570 and even the HD 6450. Topping out at $99, the Radeon HD 6670 offers good performance, strong HTPC features and low power consumption. NVIDIA's competition is still reasonable though as we compare how the now price-dropped GeForce GTS 450 sits into the stack.
Barts sees a lower price
The Radeon HD 6790 1GB is a new $150 graphics cards based on the same Barts architecture found in the Radeon HD 6800-series of cards. Obviously there are fewer shader processors and lower clock speeds, though the 256-bit memory bus remains for better memory throughput. The goal is obvious: unseat the GTX 550 Ti (and the GTX 460) from NVIDIA as the best option for this price segment. Does it succeed?
The hits just keep coming. In a time of the year that is traditionally a bit slower (after CES but before Computex) the world of the graphics card continues to evolve and iterate at a blindly pace. Since January we have seen the release of the GeForce GTX 560 Ti and the Radeon HD 6950 1GB cards, the Radeon HD 6990 4GB dual-GPU behemoth, the GeForce GTX 550 Ti budget card and even NVIDIA's new GeForce GTX 590 dual-GPU card. It has been a busy time for our GPU testing labs and the result is a GPU market that is both stronger and more confusing than ever.
Today AMD is releasing another competitor to the ~$150 graphics card market with the Radeon HD 6790 1GB based on the Barts architecture we first tested with the HD 6800-series in October 2010. When NVIDIA released the GTX 550 Ti in this same price field, AMD was dependent on the higher priced HD 6850 and the previous generation HD 5770 to hold its ground, both of which did so quite well. The GTX 550 Ti was over priced at launch and is only now starting to see the correction needed to make it a viable selection.
AMD had different plans though and the Radeon HD 6790 will enter into the $150 space as the performance and pricing leader if neither of NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 550 Ti or GTX 460 768MB can make a stand.
Radeon HD 6790 Specs and Reference Design
The new Radeon HD 6790 will sit in the current product stack from AMD just below the HD 6850 and above the currently available HD 5770 offerings. For those that might have already done their research, yes there is indeed a Radeon HD 6770 being sold by AMD but it is only offered to OEMs for now while end users are left without it.
1024 CUDA cores on a card
The "Top Secret" GTX 590 turns out to be both better and worse than the Radeon HD 6990 4GB depending on some vary particular use cases. In realm of $700 graphics cards, this is definitely something you want to pay attention to. But I am getting ahead of myself; let's first dive into the design on the GTX 590 and see what's under the hood.The High-End Battle Commences
Just a couple of weeks ago AMD released the Radeon HD 6990 4GB card, the first high-end dual-GPU graphics card we have seen released in quite a while it seems. Before that, the Radeon HD 5970 had been sitting on the throne as the fastest single card for even longer - the GeForce GTX 295 was NVIDIA's last attempt at the crown. Even before we got our hands on the HD 6990 though, we were told by various NVIDIA personnel to "wait what we have in store." Well, we have done so and today we are here to review and discuss NVIDIA's entry into the dual-GPU realm for 2011, the GeForce GTX 590 3GB.
Note: If you would like to check out our video comparison between the GeForce GTX 590 and the Radeon HD 6990 before moving on, please do!
From the HD 5770 HAWK to Now
MSI hits the scene with their own version of the AMD HD 6950. This features the Twin Frozr II cooling solution and has a price point slightly above where most reference HD 6950s sit. When combined with MSI's Afterburner software, this card becomes an interesting tool in a gamer's arsenal. We find out how it runs when combined with the Catalyst 11.4 Preview Driver, which delivers some significant improvements in performance for the Cayman family of chips.Last year I reviewed the MSI HD 5770 HAWK video card, and I came away impressed by the engineering that MSI brought to the table. The card was quiet, it was efficient, it didn’t build up any significant levels of heat, and it was pretty affordable as compared to a bone stock HD 5770 based on the reference design. The board could also overclock. It was a budget enthusiast board that wouldn’t empty the pocket, but still give a lot of DX11 bang for the buck.
Then on the other hand we had the MSI HD 5870 Lightning. This was a card that had a lot of promise. This particular card had a custom PCB design with high end power circuitry, quality components, and the TwinFrozr fan design. All of this came to naught. The board would not overclock any further than the reference HD 5870 that we had seen for some months before, and in fact the board appeared to pull a little bit more power at the same speeds as a reference board. This was almost the exact polar opposite of the HD 5770 HAWK.
The product I am looking at today is an interesting hybrid from MSI. MSI has taken the stock HD 6950 reference PCB, populated it with slightly higher rated components (though not up to their “Military Class” standards), and put on the Twin Frozr II cooling solution. This is more in line with the reference version of the HD 6950, but the addition of better cooling and advanced fan profiles gives it a boost above the reference, without going into the stratified air of producing another “Lightning” type of product. This has allowed MSI to get a differentiated product out in fairly short order, and still give consumers something extra to potentially make their buying decision on.
What all that extra power gets you
Just a couple of weeks back AMD released the new Radeon HD 6990 4GB graphics card to world and it was easily crowned the king of the GPU world. With performance that beat out AMD's own Radeon HD 5970 and walked past the single GPU based GeForce GTX 580 1.5GB from NVIDIA, the HD 6990 offered the most performance in the smallest space you could buy - and for a hefty $699 MSRP.The Leftovers
Just a couple of weeks back AMD released the new Radeon HD 6990 4GB graphics card to world and it was easily crowned the king of the GPU world. With performance that beat out AMD's own Radeon HD 5970 and walked past the single GPU based GeForce GTX 580 1.5GB from NVIDIA, the HD 6990 offered the most performance in the smallest space you could buy - and for a hefty $699 MSRP. (Note that they are selling for more than that as of today...)
One of the interesting features of the card was a unique hardware switch on the top of the card that is used to switch between standard clock rates of 830 MHz and a 375 watt power rating and a higher voltage, higher clock rate along with the ability to breach the 375 watt limit set by the PCI Express standard.
Along with the move from 830 MHz core clock to a 880 MHz core clock (which by itself wouldn't really be notable), the HD 6990 cards move from a voltage of 1.175v stock to a slightly improved 1.2v for additional overclocking headroom. In conjunction with this, the PowerTune implementation (which uses hardware to limit maximum power consumption levels) gets tweaked to allow for more power consumption. This is good news for overclockers again.
Here is my quote from the original HD 6990 story:
Unfortunately, because of some time constraints, we didn't get to play around with this overclocked setting originally but today, we rectify that situation.
In our story today you will see a collection of benchmarks, all run at the 2560x1600 resolution that actually stresses the HD 6990, comparing the default 830/1200 speeds to the automatically overclocked settings of 880/1250 that result from flipping that overclocking switch. Though I realize that not many users have 30-in displays with 2560x1600 screens, the higher pixel count should also represent performance scaling and changes on multi-display Eyefinity configurations.
After those tests, you will see our experiences with additional overclocking attempts through AMD's Overdrive software in the Catalyst Control Center.
Our testing configuration was the same as all of our recent GPU articles:
- Testing Configuration
- ASUS P6X58D Premium Motherboard
- Intel Core i7-965 @ 3.33 GHz Processor
- 3 x 2GB Corsair DDR3-1333 MHz Memory
- Western Digital VelociRaptor 600GB HDD
- Corsair Professional Series 1200w PSU
Another Fermi debuts
It is the inevitable march of technology - we see a new GPU released at the high-end of the price spectrum and some subset of it will find its way to the low-end. The slow drizzle of cards in this series started with the 580 and 570, based on the same Fermi architecture as the GTX 400 cards (with some improvements in efficiency), continued with the GTX 560 Ti in January and with the GTX 550 Ti that we are seeing today.Introduction
It is the inevitable march of technology - we see a new GPU released at the high-end of the price spectrum and some subset of it will find its way to the low-end. It could be merely days apart, or it could be months, as we see here with the GTX 580 release coming way back in November of 2010. The slow drizzle of cards in this series started with the 580 and 570, based on the same Fermi architecture as the GTX 400 cards (with some improvements in efficiency), continued with the GTX 560 Ti in January and with the GTX 550 Ti that we are seeing today.
But does this new low cost option from NVIDIA stack up well against competition from AMD or from their own previous designs? Let's first find out the basic specifications of the GPU and dive into the benchmarks.
The GeForce GTX 550 Ti GPU
The GeForce GTX 550 Ti (previously dubbed GF116) continues with the trend NVIDIA has perfected of taking large GPUs and shrinking them down to fit into different price segments, in this case the ~$150 mark. While the GTX 580 is a beast of silicon with 512 shader cores and a 384-bit memory bus to keep it fed, the GTX 560 Ti was shrunk to 384 cores and a more manageable 256-bit memory bus.
The 116 watt power consumption of the GTX 550 Ti comes in at 10 watts higher than what the reference GTS 450 cards were rated at.
Antilles Architecture and Design
The AMD Radeon HD 6990 4GB card has been known by the media and even gamers since the first announcements from the Cayman launch last year but finally today we are able to discuss the technology behind it and the gaming performance it will provide users willing to shell out the $700 it will take to acquire. Stop in and see if your mortgage is worth this graphics card!
Graphics card that are this well endowed don't come along very often; the last was the Radeon HD 5970 from AMD back in November of 2009. In a world where power efficiency is touted as a key feature it has become almost a stigma to have an add-in card in your system that might pull 350-400 watts of power. Considering we were just writing about a complete AMD Fusion platform that used 34 watts IN TOTAL under load, it is an easy task to put killer gaming products like the HD 6990 in an unfair and unreasonable light.
But we aren't those people. Do most people need a $700, 400 watt graphics card? Nope. Do they want it though? Yup. And we are here to show it to you.
A new take on the dual-GPU design
Both AMD and NVIDIA have written this story before: take one of your top level GPUs and double them up on a single PCB or card design to plug into a single PCI Express slot and get maximum performance. CrossFire (or SLI) in a single slot - lots to like about that.
The current GPU lineup paints an interesting picture with the Fermi-based GTX 500 series from NVIDIA and the oddly segregated AMD HD 6800 and HD 6900 series of cards. Cayman, the redesigned architecture AMD released as the HD 6970 and HD 6950, brings a lot of changes to the Evergreen design used in previous cards. It has done fairly well in the market though it didn't improve the landscape for AMD discrete graphics as much as many had thought it would and NVIDIA's graphics chips have remained very relevant.
With the rumors swirling about a new dual-GPU option from AMD there was some discussion on whether it would be an HD 6800 / Evergreen based design or an HD 6900 / Cayman contraption. Let's just get that mystery out of the way:
The memory architecture runs a bit slower as well at 5.0 Gbps (versus the 5.5 Gbps on the HD 6970) but we are still getting a full 2GB per GPU for a grand-spanking-total of 4GB on this single card. Load power on the board is rated at "<375 watts" and just barely makes the budget for PCI Express based solutions with the provided dual 8-pin power connectors.
The eternal debate
Without a doubt, one of the most frequent questions we get here at PC Perspective, on the PC Perspective Podcast or even This Week in Computer Hardware, is "do I need to upgrade my graphics card yet?" The problem is this question has very different answers based on your use cases, what games you like to play or are planning on playing in the future, what other hardware is in your system, etc and thus can be a very complicated situation.
The Galaxy GeForce GTX 560 Ti GC
The GeForce GTX 560 Ti GPU was released to the world earlier this week and we have a handful of retail options in the lab to poke with the testing stick and see what turns up. With a card from Galaxy, MSI and Palit, we see how much performance gain you'll see with their stock overclocks as well as how high we can push the GPU with the improved coolers.
GeForce GTX 560 Ti GPU
NVIDIA has been preparing the new GeForce GTX 560 Ti 1GB card for quite a while now. I'm not sure I can say the same about the Radeon HD 6950 1GB card, but the results are the same. Two new graphics cards in the ~$250 range go head-to-head with each other for dominance in this lucrative price point and how they compare to other cards in that same segment.
A quick brief on WHDI
The Galaxy GeForce GTX 460 WHDI is the world's first graphics cards built around the Wireless Home Digital Interface standard and promises to bring uncompressed wireless video technology to the world of your PC and the power of the GTX 460 graphics chip. Does it work as promised and can WHDI really change the way you think about your HTPC?
Mobility Goes Mainstream
NVIDIA is in the console world, courtesy of Sony's failure to predict how 3D graphics have evolved combined with the limitations of the Cell processor and archticture. NVIDIA was able to slip in with a console optimized GeForce 7900 GPU, and the PS3 was given the ability to compete with Microsoft and the XBox 360. Here we are six years later and NVIDIA is approaching the overall performance and capabilities of that console GPU in a mobile, low power form.
Single slot cooler
Galaxy might still be a lesser known graphics card vendor in the US but they are still pushing the envelope as far as or further than anyone else today. The GeForce GTX 460 1GB Razor card is the first and only air cooled single slot option on the market with this gaming power. Is it worth the added cost though? That depends on your configuration and our review!