Graphics, Hardware

30 Days With: PowerColor Radeon HD 5870

Editor’s Note
In line with our "Tech on The Go" and "Short Attention Span Reviews", we are also introducing a "30-day with…" review. We’ll also introduce "180 Days with" and "365 Days with" types, all featuring hardware we use on everyday basis, to see did the product justified the investment or not.

Meet the retail 5870: PowerColor AX5870 1GBD5-MDH
We acquired a plain-vanilla, no frills model from PowerColor. If you’re an HDTV buzz, there is a version with Konnet’s FidelityHD 150 cable. If you’re a gamer, PowerColor offers two game-bundling versions – a 5870 with S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Prypat or a version with Colin McRae’s DiRT 2. We just wanted the model for the lowest price possible, as we already have DiRT 2 and Call of Prypat. In a way, this is quite a positive way to get the ideal flavor of the product – either go for bundled versions or plain vanilla one. But back to our model – due to not bundling any games, the suggested retail price is a bit lower than other models – due to shortage that should hopefully resolve by the end of the year.

PowerColor HD 5870 box - not oversized, just the right proportionsThe good thing about the packaging was that it wasn’t as oversized as some vendors like. We performed our usual Drop’n’Kick test with and the box didn’t even suffered a dent. Upon opening the box, we saw that the reason for that is the way how inner cardboard shell interacts with the outer shell. PowerColor did a very neat job with the box as it will safely protect the valuable content inside.

When it comes to environmental impact, packaging is cardboard in and out, so recycling should not be an issue. However, you may want to hold on to packaging. There is a lot of talk about recycling and getting rid of packaging but what many won’t tell you that might automatically void warranty. In fact, some companies are betting on you doing just that.

The packaging contains all the usual ingredients: the board itself, DVI-to-Analog D-Sub adapters, one Crossfire bridge cable, and CD media with the drivers and a simplistic manual. Given the price of the product, we were disappointed to see that only one Crossfire cable was included. It would be positive that in the future we see more than one cable, so that there is a degree of freedom when it comes to separating the boards. We expected that a single card will heat up, and that the two would mean one mean thermal "footlong" sandwich.

PowerColor Radeon 5870 specs
Here’s a quick rundown of interesting specifications for this product:
Cypress GPU chip packs 1600 shader cores divider into 320 fully fledged cores and 1280 "Asset Light" ones [Vec5D – 1 FP32 + 4 MADD units]. The GPU is clocked at 853 MHz, while 1GB of Samsung GDDR5 memory physical?y ticks at 1.2 GHz in Quad Data Rate mode [technically, we should call GDDR5 – GQDR i.e. Quad Data Rate], meaning you’ll mostly hear talks about 4.8 GHz, 4.8 GT/s [billion transfers per second] or 4.8 Gbps [data rate per pin/ball]. The board requires two 6-pin power connectors to work, so you’ll be fine with a 550W power supply, depending on the rest of your components.

PowerColor Radeon HD 5870 vs. Ferrari F2003-GA in 1:18 scale. Yes, 5870 is longer
PowerColor Radeon HD 5870 vs. Ferrari F2003-GA in 1:18 scale. Yes, the 5870 is longer

The board itself will take two slots, but the biggest surprise is the weight. Few months ago, I held the prototype of Radeon 5870, known under codename Marvin and the board was significantly lighter than the final retail PowerColor-branded board at hand. ATI did some modifications in below the Batmobile-looking hood and the board now weighs in almost a kilogram. When installing in a case, make sure you screw both screws in, especially in aluminum cases – then again, this is a standard for all heavy boards and this card can be considered "on diet" when compared to dual-GPU boards such as GeForce GTX 295 or Radeon HD 5970. Still, this board packs in more weight than 4870X2, the previous top-end product from AMD. Having mentioned the 4870X2, do bear in mind that this card is even longer than dual-GPU 4870X2: 27cm for the PCB and additional 1.5cm for the Batmobile grill. Thus, if your case has tiny ATX 11" clearance, this board won’t fit in. But in our tested cases, there was more than enough room [both Cooler Master Cosmos S and SilverStone Raven fit 5970 too].

The back connectors: 1x DisplayPort, 1x HDMI, 2x DVI. You can only use three displays at the same time.
The back connectors: 1x DisplayPort, 1x HDMI, 2x DVI. You can only use three displays at the same time.

Looking at the back of the board, we see four independent display connectors; two times DVI-D and a single HDMI and DisplayPort. The debut of ATI’s Eyefinity technology limited the heat exhaust from the standard full-length of the second slot bracket to about 40% of conventional size. In order to address this, AMD resorted to a split solution between the backside heat exhaust and an internal one, located on top of the card. According to Dave Baumann, one of AMD’s technical gurus, "5870 uses a split cooling exhaust. 70% of hot air leaves the case, while roughly 30% remains inside the case. In internal testing, rear exhaust was good enough for cooling the whole board, but we added the internal exhaust to pass worst case scenario QA."

This statement may sound like a PR stunt, but we will all have to wait until February 2010 to see the arrival of Radeon HD 5870 Eyefinity6 Edition, board equipped with six mini-DisplayPorts and full-sized heat exhaust. We’ll make appropriate thermal testing at that time.

Given that PowerColor used AMD reference manufactured board [usually, AMD manufacturers all of its boards in PC Partner factories until the company releases design kits to AIBs], the only modification of AMD’s reference design lies solely in a sticker on the heatsink and an interesting "R-looking Pc" sticker on the fan itself. To us, sign "Pc" more looked like an "R" letter. Then ag
ain, this is one "race-ready" board.

The most important part of any product is exactly how easy or hard is to set it up. In case of this Radeon 5870 board, we tried the card in several environments: testbed [vertical position], Cooler Master Comos S [ATX case, horizontal], SilverStone SG01-Evolution [micro-ATX case, horizontal] and our favorite, SilverStone Raven RV01 case [vertical position]. In each and every case we had no issues with making the 5870 fit inside and there was enough spacing. ATI’s choice to go for dual 6-pin power connectors has two sides – from one, it will fit nicely even with a 550W power supply with dual 6-pin PEG rails, but overclockers only have 37W of extra juice to play with [5870 is declared at 188W]. We used the following system:

  • Intel Core i7 965 @3.33 GHz [provided by Intel]
  • Asetek Low Cost Liquid Cooling [provided by Asetek]
  • ASUS P6T7 SuperComputer [provided by ASUS USA]
  • DFI X58-T3H6 JR mATX
  • 12GB Kingston DDR3-1600 [provided by Kingston]
  • 2x 600GB Seagate Cheetah 15.7K in RAID0 [provided by Seagate]
  • Sony BD-100A Blu-ray burner
  • Cooler Master Real Power Pro 1000W [provided by Cooler Master Balkan]

In all cases, we used the following peripherals:

  • Logitech G19 Keyboard [provided by Logitech Adria]
  • Logitech G500 mouse
  • Dell 2408WFP
  • Panasonic Viera 46" 100Hz Plasma TV

On the next page, we explain our experience with the PowerColor Radeon HD 5870, all the pluses and minuses to see is this product worthy of your investment. Experience
PowerColor HD 5870 on top of a 300mm wafer containing one 55nm chip from ATI. Can you guess which one?
PowerColor HD 5870 on top of a 300mm wafer containing one 55nm chip from ATI. Can you guess which one?
Also, this picture gives you a good look at the top exhaust on both the red and black part of the heatsink .

Following the installation of the board in our test configuration, we were greeted by a loud sound of fan spinning up, lasting for a few seconds. The sound was on the level of 4870X2, but that was a dual-GPU card and we certainly didn’t want to hear that sound while playing games. But interestingly though, we only heard that fan spinning at 100% while running BOINC/Milkyway@home in the Cooler Master Cosmos S and SilverStone SG01-Evolution case. Regardless to what we’ve threw at 5870; fan never reached 100% on our open testbed and inside SilverStone’s Raven RV01 case. In fact, 5870 was one of more pleasant boards to work with, since the fan didn’t spin past the 60% regardless of what we threw at it.

Booting into windows for the first time saw fan continuing to spin at 100%, disappearing after we installed latest Catalyst drives. There isn’t anything special to report about – we opened Catalyst Control Center, set Anti-Aliasing to 8X and Anisotropic Filtering to 16x and then fired up around 20 games installed on the hard drive. CCC allows Anti-Aliasing up to 12x "normally", after which you can use various filters to enhance the filtering quality: narrow-box, wide-box and Edge Detect are the offered options. Out of this extreme settings, we mostly preferred using "Edge Detect" as it offered a good trade-off between performance and image quality. For non-graphic demanding titles such as World of Warcraft, you can lose your head and use 12x Custom Filter AA [24xAA] and still achieve 60 fps Vsync for non-tearing experience.

Gaming Performance
As you have read already, I own a Dell 2408WFP, thus all the games are played in 1920×1200, unless I am using 46" Panasonic Viera 100Hz plasma TV. In that case, 1920×1080 is used. For a high end card such as 5870, we expect that these resolutions "learn to fly" in every title imaginable. We tried the following titles:

  • Driving: DiRT 2, GTR: Evolution, Need For Speed: SHIFT, RACE 07, Race Driver: GRID
  • First Person Shooter: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Crysis, And Crysis: Warhead, Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2, Shattered Horizon, Unreal Tournament III
  • Action: Batman: Arkham Asylum, BattleForge, BioShock, Mass Effect
  • MMORPG: Aion, World of Warcraft

Probably the most expected game to play was Colin McRae’s DiRT 2. If there wasn’t for BattleForge and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Prypat, this would be the first DirectX 11 game on the market. We ran the game at 1920×1200 with 8xAA and 16xAF and checked the highest framerate. In a session lasting for several hours, we passed several races in both DirectX 9 and DirectX 11 mode.

The difference between DX9 and DX11 lies in utilizing Ambient Occlusion [DirectCompute], High Dynamic Range [HDR] completely based on floating point, post processing and of course, hardware-accelerated Tessellation. This naturally resulted in framerate taking a hit in the tune of around 25-35%. However, playing the game with all the bells and whistles with an average framerate of 54 fps in DirectX 11 mode certainly brought a smile to my face. No more new features in the game slowing down to a crawl [Far Cry, HDR set at 7 and GeForce 6800GT are the first thing that comes to my mind].

Next up, we tried RACE 07 and GTR Evolution. Even though they’re based on an old engine, they’re still brilliant racing simulations, unlike the arcade-style DiRT 2. Both games ran flawlessly even with 12x AA, and you can turn Vsync and enjoy a playback that refuses to dip below 60 frames per second, even for a moment. Lastly, we checked GRID and Need for Speed: Shift. While GRID only reminded us what was the best racing game to come out in 2008, Need For Speed: Shift was a painful reminder that AMD still lags behind nVidia in terms of developer support. The game was badly stuttering regardless of the options we used. Luckily, we were provided with a 1.2 beta patch [the patch is now public] that rose performance to highly playable experience. NFS: SHIFT is an arcade title as much as DiRT 2 is, so it comes as an excellent frustration-relief. However, EA is no Codemasters – personally, I felt that SHIFT is too limited when it comes to selection of tracks, while Codemasters showed us the way with DiRT 2 and GRID. Still, even after applying the 1.2 patch, we would rather play the game on GTX 285 [smoother gameplay].

Heading into the world of shooters, we were intrigued by Call of Duty Series – PowerColor 5870 enhanced our gaming experience with our default settings and didn’t show one glitch. That was one smooth ride, even though the number of killed enemies begs to differ. Given the unfortunate fact that you can pass whole Modern Warfare 2 campaign in roughly five h
ours, we turned framerate recording on, and went on to pass the whole game. We did pause benchmarking while the levels were loading, but this experiment ended with success – for the whole Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, this 5870 marked the lowest framerate of 18.7 fps, high was 107.8 and average was 74.5 fps. Long story short: for single player campaign turn on Vertical Synchronization and enjoy near-perfect movie-like 60 fps.

Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 are simply? even though Silent Hill and Resident Evil offer quite a good scare and level of playability, Valve is king of gameplay in the world of survival horror: L4D2 is simply awesome and Radeon 5870 enabled us to play with 12xAA and 16xAF with Vsync turned on for smooth gameplay. In our default 1920×1200 at 8xAA/16xAF, Average frame rate was in the high 110s, so in4xAA/16xAF, you could turn Vsync on if you had a 120Hz screen. Going to 12xAA dipped the framerate to 94 frames a second. Even in scenes with gazillion zombies, the board refused to choke and we can say that 5870 significantly enhances the zombie-killing experience.

The game we have the most fun with recently is no other than Shattered Horizon. This small project by Futuremark Games Studio is nothing else but sheer fun and if you’re a 3D aficionado, you should not miss it.  PowerColor’s’ 5870 ran the game with flying colors, and the only time we experienced a visible drop in framerate was when ISS mission would load for the first time, and we would be hurled towards the former ISS at a very high speed. When you die and respawn flying to the ISS, the framerate would drop to 20-30. But overall, we had a memorable gaming experience, and died one too many times at the hand of "FM" players.

Shattered Horizon was also the title when we summed up Eyefinity vs. 46" or even bigger TV. If you want to have a comparable experience, you would have to heavily invest in three 30" displays and while the resolution would be higher, we’re just not certain would it be worth it. I’ve tried ATI Eyefinity even on six 30" Dell displays and while the experience is magnificent, for everyday gaming I would still opt to invest 1000-2000 bucks into a really good plasma or LCD TV. Given that some 52" LCD TV’s go for as low as $999 and they are compatible with Blu-ray 3D, we would have to wager that in this test, a massive display was just a better option – we could run 12x AA in most titles and it looked awesome on a screen of that magnitude.  

We did noticed that performance in games that aren’t AMD’s focus suffered. Two games with abysmal framerates were Need for Speed: SHIFT and Batman: Arkham Asylum [only when Anti-aliasing was enabled]. While Batmangate addressed the issue with nVidia’s antics, but Need for Speed seriously aggravated yours truly. Framerate ran in 40s to low 20s with occasional stuttering – unacceptable for a high-end product. Luckily for AMD, the success of the game resulted in EA releasing a 1.02 patch that significantly improved the situation and if you buy 5870 today, you will enjoy in experience comparable to GTX295, rather than a GeForce 9600GT.

Since Batman is still essentially broken when it comes to Anti-aliasing and AMD hardware – if this is the only game you want to play over holidays, you should go with the green side. But seriously, if that’s the only game you want to play over the holidays, perhaps you’re playing a wrong character – Joker would suit you better. 😉

Truth to be told, we’re quite positive that only two gaming titles showed performance issues and with only one of them going unfixed – shows great progress from ATI. Back at the time of Radeon 9700 launch, there were numerous issues with various hit games; Radeon X1800 had issues too. Radeon 2900XT had a set of issues all on its own, but with Radeon 3000 and 4000 series, AMD did fair better. With Radeon 5000 series, AMD encountered performance issues with Batman: Arkham Asylum and that’s about that. Now that the company no longer needs to bleed millions and millions of dollars to lawyers, perhaps Richard Huddy and the DevRel team can finally get some of those resources redirected and start supporting developers much better than they were allowed to in the past.

Video Performance
This was that one segment we were really interested in. Ever since HDMI started to appear on discrete graphics cards, we were promised superior image quality and what nots. Reality check with this 5870 reveals that ATI indeed does support HDMI 1.3 and is able to provide a billion colors [10-bit output] to our reference 10-bit panel. Picture quality was superb and there was almost no need to go and tweak up Catalyst Control Center [or ffdshow, in case you’re watching MKV files].

We watched multiple movies and TV shows in SD, 720p and 1080p resolution. Even watching movies over YouTube HD or provide memorable experience and the colors are not as ordinary as regular 8-bit panels and 8-bit output graphics cards were.

We weren’t certain where to put the video transcoding feature – video or GPGPU experience, so that part is explained at the end of video experience and just prior to GPGPU. With Windows 7, Microsoft bundled GPU-accelerated transcoder of video files. While it is true that the transcoder doesn’t support specific file types without modification, we evaluated multiple video files, combining our own DVD rips with various combined content – video trailers were transcoding from QuickTime to a native format for the Windows Media Player compatible device. Unfortunately, our Blackberry 9000 Bold wasn’t recognized as a WMP-compatible device, so video transcoding feature did not activate and there isn’t exactly a way to activate it manually. Given the output provided by AMD’s own transcoder didn’t exactly yield pixel-perfect results, we took CyberLink’s MediaShow Espresso and it worked like a charm. In a nutshell, if you own an iPod/iPhone, Zune HD or similar iTunes/WMP-compatible device, you should have zero issues in getting GPGPU acceleration, at least in supported formats.

GPGPU Experience
A lot was said about AMD and their GPGPU commitment. After AMD came clean and admitted that 2000, 3000 and 4000 series aren’t up to par with nVidia’s GPGPU offerings, we were very reserved about AMD’s openness towards GPGPU and OpenCL. After all, we heard "2000/3000 have some limitations, 4000 series is good" stories, but this board presents a new page for AMD in GPGPU. Evergreen architecture finally addressed lacking features on previous generation parts, i.e. data sharing and data store among different shader cores. The inclusion of 8KB of L1 cache and 8KB of shared data cache in each of the 20 clusters [Every 5000 series chip is based upon a cluster consisted out of 16 Vec5D units]. But the number of units is not the number that will influence your GPGPU experience.

The key factor here is efficiency. Radeon HD 4870 i.e. RV770 GPU featured a maximum computing power of 1.25 TFLOPS [all units 100% load at all times] but in reality, it only produced around 300-700 GFLOPS, depending on the task ahead. By running BSN*s proprietary code, theoretical 2.72 TFLOPS of computing power turned into 1.27 TFLOPS in a real world test. If you feel disappointed by this result, bear in mind that in identical test, ATI Radeon HD 4870 scores 300 GFLOPS.

In layman’s terms, real world results speak volumes – our 5870 was four times as fast as the old 4870 and that is massive! Given that AMD doubled the amount of cores, quadrupled computing power is nothing else
but a testament of performance brought forth by AMD. And given that the 4K by 4K matrix that we tested the board with is roughly comparable with this article, that means that if Chinese deployed 2560 5870 boards instead of 4870X2s, they would still have doubled the computing power for their Tianhe supercomputer, and they would get 2PFLOPS and saved millions of Yuans due to lower power consumption – PowerColor HD 5870 consumed 174 Watts in our testing, while ATI’s reference 4870X2 ate well 257W in our testing.

Looking into GPGPU from everyday perspective, two things come to mind – distributed computing and video transcoding. The majority of people that know me know that there are several big passions in my life, with one of them being Distributed Computing, especially Folding@home project. When AMD announced its Evergreen family, I hoped that the amount of processing cores would finally get a decent boost and enable ATI to fight with nVidia.

Unfortunately, this just wasn’t meant to happen with 2nd generation of GPU-accelerated F@H core. The only way to get Folding@home working [at the time of writing, December 18, 2009] is to run the code using the "-forcegpu ati_r700" flag, forcing the 5870 board to work in 4800 Series mode. Performance is not exactly stellar – lowest score was 1857 PPD [Points Per Day], while the highest was 3240 ppd. If you compare that to 8000+ achieved by overclocked GeForce GTX 285 cards, it is pretty clear who the performance leader is. Long story short, if you’re in Folding@home community and want to run a GPU version – for as long as Cauldron doesn’t complete its work on next-gen version of Folding@home, you’re outta luck.

Then again, BOINC applications such as Milkyway@home don’t mind the compatibility flag and run the card in full speed; 5870 just eats up every card out there, including the non-modified 5970 [multi-GPU compatibility issues]. The performance in Milkyway@home is just mouthwatering.
As everybody else in AMD’s world, PowerColor originally valued this product at $399.99, only to drop it down to $375.99. However, due to well-known shortage, a lot of retailers jacked up prices to $399.00, and checking the prices today revealed a $404.99. Unlike HD 5970, street price grew by only $30 from AMD’s launch MSRP [Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price]. Given that the prices of high-end hardware dropped from the $499 bracket to $399, current availability can only get better from now. We spoke with PowerColor and got the information that is equal to everybody else – Radeon 5700 Series is massively available, while 5800 Series should improve on week-by-week basis.

Our opinion has been the same since the dawn of DirectX 9. When a company debuts a high-end product for the new generation of DirectX, you should go ahead and purchase it even if you usually buy a mainstream product only, and do a bi-annual refresh cycle. Owners of Radeon 9700 had a good ride for a few years, if you purchased nVidia GeForce 8800GTX you still have a mainstream card – especially given the fact nVidia rebranded the 55nm die-shrink to 9800GTX and GTS 250 [even GTX 280M for the notebook part]. Thus, purchasing a high-end hardware the moment new API appears on the market is a sound thing to do, regardless of that API taking off or not. When it comes to PowerColor’s take on the Radeon 5870, we were quite happy with the product. Unlike the 5970, this board fits in every case, even micro-ATX ones [tested in SilverStone SG-01 Evolution case]. Given its performance and expected longevity, we give this product a BSN* Prosumer/Enthusiast Editor’s Choice award.

BSN Prosumer/Enthusiast Editor's Choice