The Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 is a powerful graphics card with a superb sub-£200 price tag.

Not so very long ago, the launch of a new graphics chip family was a truly exciting event in the IT world. A flood of press conferences would be quickly followed up by a set of feverish reviews picking apart every new technological transformation. These days things have rather calmed down, and it's been some years since we've seen a truly remarkable addition to the graphics chip market. And so, with much muffled fanfare, say welcome to ATI's new Radeon 6870 chip - the first in the tropically themed Barts family.

Sapphire Radeon HD 6870: Design and specs

And what's new and revolutionary about the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870? Well, as you may have guessed, not an awful lot. To be fair, the upcoming 6900 series is the launch that promises rather more dramatic developments, and the Radeon HD 6870 is, instead, a rather more efficient summation of everything that's gone before.

In many respects, this chip follows the 5870 design fairly closely. Like the 5870, the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 is manufactured using the 40nm process. The chip, however, has been slimmed down considerably, consisting of around 1.7 billion transistors rather than the 2.15 billion of the heavyweight 5870.

Given the fact that there's a decent amount of graphics speed promised from this chip, the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 is fairly discreet in power draw, without the excessive fan and cooling noises of its rivals. The power consumption is very acceptable too, with an official TDP of 151W (idle 19W).

Like the 5870, the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 comes with a full 256bit memory interface, and it also apes that chip (and also the 1GB version of nVidia's GTX 460) with its 32 raster operations. The 1120 stream processors don't match the number put up by the 5870, but they do dwarf the 336 of the GTX 460 series.

For most gaming purposes, 1120 is an ample figure indeed. The Barts technology also has superior tessellation features compared with the 5870, while the Eyefinity multiple-screen facility has been improved. Alongside the single HDMI and two DVI ports, you now get a brace of Mini DisplayPort connectors as well, and the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870's DisplayPort 1.2 adherence means that the card can now support multiple monitors from a single port, and can work with 120Hz 3D monitors.

Combine the latter with new HD3D facilities, and the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 could provide competition for nVidia's 3D Vision technology. You'll need a screen that supports HDMI 1.4, and there aren't currently many compatible monitors available. However, we suspect this will change in the coming months, and this should provide another alternative for those seeking a 3D experience.

This early Sapphire version of the 6870 plays it safe and sticks with the factory settings. That amounts to a core clock speed of 900MHz, and a memory clock of 1,050MHz (4.2GHz when taking into account the GDDR5 memory). These figures are at least 100MHz higher than the equivalents in even the overclocked GTX 460 cards, and the core clock beats the standard speed of even the 5870.

In general, though, it's in this area where you still benefit from paying the extra for the 5870, and the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870's memory bandwidth of 134.4GBps is a decent distance away from the 153.6GBps of the 5870. It is, though, considerably higher than the 115.2GBps of the Zotac GeForce GTX 460 in our chart, although you can find overclocked versions of the 1GB 460 that come within 5-6GBps of the 6870's figure.

The Sapphire Radeon HD 6870's fill rate of 50.4GTps is very decent, destroying the 37.8GTps of the 1GB 460, but rather trailing behind the 5870's 68GTps. However, if the 6870 can achieve these figures on relatively modest clock rates, it bodes well for the performance of the upcoming 6900 series, given that these cards are likely to be kitted out with considerably boosted clock rates.

Even with slightly lower specifications, though, the 6870 gives an excellent account of itself in games testing, always slightly ahead of the GTX 460 (which costs just £5 less) and sometimes beating the 5850 as well.

Indeed, on occasions it gets to within a frame or two of the 5870, particularly in Crysis, where the generally low frame rates allow it to poll 28.9 and 23.8fps (at 1680x1050 and 1900x1200 resolutions respectively) to the 30.2 and 24.9fps of the 5870. It actually beats the 5850 here, and cruises ahead of the 1GB GTX 460 (on 27.4 and 22.1fps respectively).

In DX11 Stalker, the 6870's scores of 37.9 and 32.0fps are some way apart from the 460's figures of 35.2 and 28.6, and also comfortably beat the 5850's figures of 36.3 and 29.6.

In HAWX, the 6870's figures of 146 and 111fps are again far clear of the GTX 460 (140 and 106) and Radeon 5850 (136 and 103), and not too far off the 5870's figures of 155 and 121fps.

Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 games test results (fps)

HAWX (1,280x800/1,680x1,050/1,920x1,200): 183/146/111

Heaven DX11 (1,280x800/1,680x1,050/1,920x1,200): 40.2/28.9/24.7

Crysis (1,280x720/1,680x1,050/1,900x1,200): 43.9/28.9/23.8

Battleforge (1,280x800/1,680x1,050/1,920x1,200): 52.1/33.8/26.5

Stalker: Call of Pripyat (1,680x1,050/1,920x1,200): 37.9/32.0

Next page: Our expert verdict >>

See also:

Games Advisor: download games, PC games reviews and news

How to optimise your graphics card for gaming

Sapphire Radeon HD 6870: Specs

  • ATI Radeon HD 6870
  • 1GB GDDR5
  • 900MHz 1050MHz core clock
  • 4200MHz DDR effective memory clock
  • 400MHz RAMDAC
  • 256-bit memory interface
  • 1120 stream processors
  • 56 texture units
  • 32 ROP units
  • PCI-E interface
  • 2 x 6pin power connectors
  • DirectX 11.0
  • 2 x DVI, HDMI, 2 x Mini-DisplayPort
  • 2-year warranty
  • ATI Radeon HD 6870
  • 1GB GDDR5
  • 900MHz 1050MHz core clock
  • 4200MHz DDR effective memory clock
  • 400MHz RAMDAC
  • 256-bit memory interface
  • 1120 stream processors
  • 56 texture units
  • 32 ROP units
  • PCI-E interface
  • 2 x 6pin power connectors
  • DirectX 11.0
  • 2 x DVI, HDMI, 2 x Mini-DisplayPort
  • 2-year warranty

OUR VERDICT

We’ve been raving about the nVidia GTX 460 for the last couple of months, but the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 now takes over in the £151-plus graphics card category. This fantastic card costs less than £200, but is even able to rival the significantly more expensive 5850. We can expect the upcoming 6900 series to take performance up a notch again. However, for those shopping around at the £200 price point today, the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 is a stunning buy.

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