Summary: Not everyone's got $400 to spend on a shiny new Radeon 5870 card, which is why it can be argued that ATI's Radeon 5850 is the more relevant GPU for a lot of gamers and hardware enthusiasts. Based on the same DX11 RV870 architecture as the 5870, the 5850 delivers next-generation performance in a smaller, more efficient package, and most importantly it's priced for less than $300. ATI pitches it as their answer to the GeForce GTX 285...See how it compares in this article!
With approximately 2.15 billion transistors, it’s the most complex chip ever created to grace the inside of your PC. It also holds the title of the fastest GPU money can buy today. This is a distinction previously held by NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 285.
But not everyone can afford to shell out $379 for the Radeon HD 5870. This is a premium of 26% over the launch price of the Radeon 4870 last year. Of course, given the Radeon 5870’s larger die and superior performance, we think ATI’s new asking price for the 5870 is fair and reasonable, but given the state of today’s economy where hardware prices have fallen dramatically, consumers are now out to get the most bang from their buck.
Therefore ATI has also concocted the Radeon HD 5850. Built on the same RV870 architecture as the 5870, the 5850 gives you 90% of the shading and texturing units as the 5870 for $120 less.
Now because it runs at slower clock speeds also, that doesn’t mean it delivers 90% of the 5870’s performance, but it is built to give you most of the performance in a smaller, more case-friendly package that also consumes less power and generates very little noise. ATI pitches it as the perfect card for the performance-minded gamer on a budget who may have been contemplating a GeForce GTX 285 purchase.
Here are the raw specs on ATI’s Radeon 5850:
Radeon 5850 Specifications
GDDR5 interface with 128.0 GB/sec of memory bandwidth
PCI Express 2.1 x16 bus interface
DirectX 11 support
OpenGL 3.2 support
Image quality enhancement technology
ATI Eyefinity multi-display technology
ATI Stream acceleration technology
ATI CrossFireX™ multi-GPU technology
ATI Avivo HD Video & Display technology
Integrated HD audio controller
Speeds and feeds
For the Radeon 5850 ATI takes the same RV870 chip used in the Radeon 5870 and disables two SIMD units, dropping the total number of active SIMD units to 18. If you recall, each SIMD unit contains 80 stream processors and 1 texture unit (4 effective), so ultimately ATI disables 160 stream processors and 2 texture units (8 effective) for the Radeon 5850.
The following chart sums up how the Radeon 5850 stacks up against the Radeon 4870, 5870 and NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 285:
At first glance the Radeon 5850 looks very similar to the Radeon 5870, but ATI’s made some changes to the board that should make it more accommodating to end users.
Most notably is the size of the board itself. Like previous high-end graphics cards from ATI, the Radeon 5850 measures 9.5” in length. This makes it nearly 1.5” shorter than the Radeon 5870, and about 1” shorter than the GeForce GTX 285 from NVIDIA. This should make life easier for those of you with smaller cases: the Radeon 5870 is so long it could interfere with the power/data cables of your hard drive(s) in some system cases.
With its shorter PCB, ATI places the two power connectors on the end of the board, similar to the Radeon 4870 and Radeon 4890.
The cooling system itself is pretty similar to the Radeon 5870. Like the 5870, the Radeon 5850 employs a quad-heatpipe cooling design. The heatpipes are made from copper to increase their effectiveness, just like the Radeon 5870. Three of the heatpipes are used to draw heat off the GPU, while the fourth rests over the voltage regulators. Speaking of the VRMs, ATI employs newer regulators that send temperature info to the GPU, so it can monitor temps of the regulators and adjust clocks to prevent overheating.
A dual-slot aluminum heatsink (with copper base plate) is used to draw heat off the GPU. Obviously the heatsink used isn’t as large as the unit found on the 5870, but with fewer shaders cranking along at slower clocks, it doesn’t have to be as large either.
The fan itself is the same part used on the Radeon 5870. The new fan ATI employs on their 5800 series cards is outfitted with quieter bearings; audibly the fan’s tone is lower, making it easier on the ears than previous ATI designs. It also spins at just 1200 RPMs at idle versus the 1600 RPMs used on the Radeon 4890 fan.
The end result is a card that runs eerily quiet. Even when two cards are combined for CrossFire, noise output remains respectable; right around 54 decibels in our testing.
Despite its increase in transistors and faster clocks, the 5800 series are able to run cooler and quieter than their predecessors thanks in part to the smaller 40-nm manufacturing process, but also thanks to new low power modes that reduce clock speeds and voltages more aggressively than ever. At idle the 5850 runs at just 157MHz core/300MHz memory and consumes just 27W of power.
One neat trick ATI GPUs have supported for the past two generations is the ability to mix and match graphics cards from the same family together. This tradition continues with RV870, as we were successfully able to combine our Radeon 5850 board with the 5870 for 2-Way CrossFire.
DiRT 2 and availability
Like the 5870, Radeon 5850 boards will be bundled with vouchers to download DiRT 2 once it arrives in November. We’ve also been told that cards will be hitting retailers shelves beginning today.
3D Performance Testbed
Intel Core i7-975 Extreme Edition @3.33GHz
Power Consumption Testbed
Intel Core i5-750
Call of Duty: World at War
Fallout 3 DirectX 9
For the most part, the GeForce GTX 285 is able to hang with the Radeon 5850.
CoD: WaW – DirectX 9
Like Fallout 3, the GeForce GTX 285 is able to keep up with the Radeon 5850 in CoD: World at War. The CoD 4 game engine that World at War is based on has traditionally favored GeForce cards, so it honestly doesn’t come as to much of a surprise to see the GTX 285 performing so evenly with the Radeon 5850. In fact, the GTX 285 outruns the Radeon 5850 by 5% at 2560x1600.
Crysis – DirectX 10
Unlike the previous 2 games we tested, Crysis is still one of the most graphically-intensive games out there. We’ve cranked the settings up to the game’s high settings with 4xAA, and as you can see, the Radeon 5850’s 1600-shader architecture really shines in this game. At 1600x1200, the 5850 ran 15% faster than the GeForce GTX 285, and that lead opens up to 20% by 2560x1600.
Crysis – DirectX 10
Under Crysis’ Very High graphics settings, the GPU is pushed even further, and the Radeon 5850 responds by expanding its lead over the GeForce GTX 285. At 16x12 the Radeon 5850 is running 18% faster than the GeForce GTX 285, and that edge increases to 21% by 2560x1600 (although admittedly neither card is nowhere near playable levels here). The CrossFire setups scale nicely as well.
Far Cry 2 – DirectX 10
While it isn’t quite as graphically demanding as Crysis or STALKER: Clear Sky, Far Cry 2 does push the graphics cards better than most games out there, especially with the graphics settings cranked up to Ultra High. The Radeon 5850 starts out with a 9% lead over the GTX 285 at 1600x1200, but as the screen resolution increases, the GTX 285 manages to close within 3% of the 5850 by 2560x1600. Obviously the 5850’s at a memory bandwidth disadvantage compared to the GTX 285, and that could be playing a role in the GTX 285’s strong showing in this game at 2560x1600 even though we’re just running 4xAA.
STALKER Clear Sky – DirectX 10
The Radeon 5850 managed to outgun the GeForce GTX 285 in STALKER Clear Sky by 8% at 1600x1200, and that lead opens up to 16% at 2560x1600.
Left 4 Dead – DirectX9
Considering that Left 4 Dead is based on the absolutely ancient Source engine, we were a bit surprised to see the Radeon 5850 perform so well in comparison to the GTX 285 in this test. This sequence comes from the game’s very last level though, which is a madhouse with zombies coming from all directions. The GeForce GTX 285 trails the Radeon 5850 by 12% at 1600x1200, and this lead opens up to 14% by 2560x1600.
Resident Evil – DirectX 10
The GeForce GTX 285 is largely able to hang close with the Radeon 5850 in Resident Evil 5, which is based on Capcom’s MT Framework game engine (the same engine used for Lost Planet, Devil May Cry 4, Street Fighter 4). At 1600x1200, the 285 trails the Radeon 5850 by just over 1%, close enough to call it a draw. As we increase the screen resolution the Radeon 5850 is able to pull away, but even at 2560x1600 the margin separating both cards is just 6%.
Batman:AA – DirectX 9
We test Batman: Arkham Asylum with and without AA as GeForce boards currently have the advantage of an in-game AA option with Batman, whereas ATI cards are forced to rely on the control panel to enable AA. This gives the GeForce boards an advantage. To quote ATI:
Even without AA though the GeForce GTX 285 manages to run even with the Radeon 5850. We rely on FRAPS runs for our testing with this title, so considering the margin of error we’re calling this one a definite draw.
That obviously doesn’t bode well for the 5850 once AA is turned on, as you’ll see on the next page.
Batman:AA – DirectX 9
The results aren’t pretty for the Radeon 5850 once AA is forced via control panel. Not only does the GeForce GTX 285 outrun the 5850, so does the GTX 275 and GTX 280 at lower resolutions. By 2560x1600 though the 5850 does manage to close within 12% of the GTX 285’s performance.
HAWX – DirectX 10
Thanks to DirectX 10.1, ATI’s hardware is able to deliver excellent performance in HAWX. Just for a frame of reference, forcing DX10 lowered the Radeon 4890’s frame rate to just 48fps at 1920x1200.
Wolfenstein – OpenGL
ATI’s lackluster OpenGL performance rears its head in Wolfenstein. Clearly this is one issue that ATI still hasn’t managed to resolve.
Left 4 Dead
Resident Evil 5
Call of Duty: World at War
While Overdrive officially tops out at speeds of 775MHz core/1125MHz memory for the Radeon 5850 (speeds we were easily able to hit with both 5850 cards), we used AMD’s GPU Clock Tool to crank the speeds up even further. We managed to hit speeds of 815MHz core/1350MHz memory with card #1, while card #2 maxed out even higher, clocking in at 878MHz core/1400MHz memory.
If you’re a fan of NVIDIA’s hardware, you’re probably feeling better than you'd expected right now. After all, on paper ATI's Radeon 5850 outclasses the GTX 285 in shading horsepower and fill rate, yet our bone stock GeForce GTX 285 was able to keep up with the Radeon 5850 in a lot of titles, and even outran the next-generation Radeon board in games like Batman and Call of Duty. In Fallout 3 and Resident Evil 5 the two boards are pretty close, with the Radeon 5850 ultimately delivering better performance. The GeForce GTX 285 is able to close within 3% of the 5850’s performance at 2560x1600 in Far Cry 2 also.
These are all cases where a factory OC’ed GTX 285 board from ASUS, Gigabyte, EVGA, or XFX could close the gap even further, if not take the lead in performance outright.
Clearly ATI’s got the lead in technology though, and we’re not just talking about DirectX 11 either. You can see this reflected in DirectX 10 games that really push the hardware like Crysis and STALKER: Clear Sky. Here the Radeon 5850 is able to gain leads of 15-20% over the GeForce GTX 285 under some cases.
The cynics will probably maintain that RV870’s 256-bit memory interface is holding it back, but again, we really don’t think that’s the case. They argue that with double the shaders, double the texture units, double the hardware-based resolve for anti-aliasing, and both pixel and texture fill-rate are over 2X greater than RV770, RV870’s memory subsystem is the only performance metric that doesn’t improve by a factor of 2X, creating an obvious bottleneck on paper. Memory bandwidth is only improved by 33%.
We don’t agree though based on a few different factors. Number one is RV870’s 8xAA performance scaling. As we showed you last week and again today, the card generally doesn’t take an enormous performance hit when running 8xAA. In games like Resident Evil 5, Fallout 3, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and Call of Duty: World at War, the performance hit was less than 5% at 1920x1200 for 5870. And in all the games we tested the performance hit of running 8xAA was less than 10%.
With such a slim performance hit at a fairly high resolution like 1920x1200, clearly this isn’t a card that’s starving for more memory bandwidth.
Earlier this week, we also dabbled with 5870 overclocking, OC’ing the 5870 GPU and memory by a fixed amount of 9% respectively. In practically every case the 5870 card scaled best when the GPU/shaders were OC’ed rather than memory: performance typically improved by 4-5% in most apps when the GPU was running at 930MHz, while OC’ing the memory to 1320MHz only improved performance by 2-3% in the same games.
If the card was truly being bottlenecked by its memory interface, it should’ve shown more significant gains when we OC’ed the memory.
The other reason why we’re pretty certain the driver is holding the 5870’s performance potential back is history: when was the last time you saw a next-generation architecture deliver 100% of its performance on launch day?
The answer to that question would of course be never. It takes time for the driver teams to squeeze all the performance out of the hardware. In fact, it isn’t unheard of for performance improvements to be found a year after a next-gen GPU launch.
Again, as we’ve stated from the outset, RV870’s clearly being held back by its drivers. We’re not seeing the full performance potential of the hardware today, and we may not know how well RV870 scales for many more months.
ATI’s clearly got the best overall GPU on the planet right now though. Sure, ATI’s OpenGL performance still needs more work, but honestly this isn’t as big of an issue as it was 5 years ago. If you’re in the market for a $300 graphics card, the Radeon 5850 delivers the best combination of price, features, and performance in this price segment and we’d recommend it over the GeForce GTX 285, which currently sells for about $325 and up. Until NVIDIA’s able to answer with DirectX 11 hardware of their own, this is going to be a tough comparison for NVIDIA, but rumor has it that we could see something as soon as December. For NVIDIA’s sake, they’re going to need it, but in the meantime, they need GeForce GTX 285 price cuts even more desperately.
With Radeon 5850 boards hitting shelves now, it’s the card to get in our opinion.
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