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ATI Radeon HD 5850 Review  

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The battle between ATI and Nvidia has been a long and bitter one that at one point seemed like Nvidia had emerged victorious only to now find the opposite is closer to the truth. These two giants have the entire consumer GPU market between them (ignoring Intel's onboard graphics option on some motherboards and Intel’s forthcoming Larrabee GPU which we cannot predict the performance of yet) with very different strategies.

Nvidia went for the high end where margins are higher but volumes lower while ATI consolidated their “bread and butter” mainstream market. At the end of the day, ATI was able to offer a better price/performance solution while Nvidia was left struggling with insufficient product differentiation and even had to result to marketing trickery through renaming existing product offerings.

ATIs strategy has been so successful that low end success has allowed them to challenge at the high end and now ATI graphics cards offer the best performance as well as the cheapest entry points. Nvidia have no answer until their much speculated “Fermi” product is released some time this year.



2.15 billion 40nm transistors

TeraScale 2 Unified Processing Architecture

1440 Stream Processing Units

72 Texture Units

128 Z/Stencil ROP Units

32 Color ROP Units

GDDR5 Memory Interface

Up To 128GB/sec of memory bandwidth

PCI Express 2.1 x16 bus interface

DirectX 11 support

Shader Model 5.0

DirectCompute 11

Programmable hardware tessellation unit

Accelerated multi-threading

HDR texture compression

Order-independent transparency

OpenGL 3.2 support

Image quality enhancement technology

Up to 24x multi-sample anti-aliasing

Super-sample anti-aliasing modes

Adaptive anti-aliasing

16x angle independent anisotropic texture filtering

128-bit floating point HDR rendering

ATI Eyefinity

Advanced multi-display technology

Three independent display controllers

Drive three displays simultaneously with independent resolutions, refresh rates, color controls, and video overlays

Display grouping

Combine multiple displays to behave like a single large display

ATI Stream acceleration technology

OpenCL 1.0 compliant

DirectCompute 11

Double precision floating point processing support

Accelerated video encoding, transcoding, and upscaling

Native support for common video encoding instructions

ATI CrossFireX multi-GPU technology

Dual, triple, and quad GPU scaling

Dual-channel bridge interconnect

ATI Avivo HD Video & Display technology

UVD 2 dedicated video playback accelerator

Advanced post-processing and scaling

Dynamic contrast enhancement and color correction

Brighter whites processing (blue stretch)

Independent video gamma control

Dynamic video range control

Support for H.264, VC-1, and MPEG-2

Dual-stream 1080p playback support

DXVA 1.0 & 2.0 support

Integrated dual-link DVI output with HDCP

Max resolution: 2560x1600

Integrated DisplayPort output

Max resolution: 2560x1600

Integrated HDMI 1.3 output with Deep Color, xvYCC wide gamut support, and high bit-rate audio

Max resolution: 1920x1200

Integrated VGA output

Max resolution: 2048x1536

3D stereoscopic display/glasses support

Integrated HD audio controller

Output protected high bit rate 7.1 channel surround sound over HDMI with no additional cables required

Supports AC-3, AAC, Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio formats

ATI PowerPlay power management technology

Dynamic power management with low power idle state

Ultra-low power state support for multi-GPU configurations

Certified drivers for Windows 7, Vista, and XP

Speeds & Feeds

Engine clock speed: 725 MHz

Processing power (single precision): 2.09 TeraFLOPS

Processing power (double precision): 418 GigaFLOPS

Polygon throughput: 725M polygons/sec

Data fetch rate (32-bit): 209 billion fetches/sec

Texel fill rate (bilinear filtered): 52.2 Gigatexels/sec

Pixel fill rate: 23.2 Gigapixels/sec

Anti-aliased pixel fill rate: 92.8 Gigasamples/sec

Memory clock speed: 1 GHz

Memory data rate: 4 Gbps

Memory bandwidth: 128 GB/sec

Maximum board power: 151 Watts

Idle board power: 27 Watts



Unlike the 4800 series, the 5800 series is encased in a sheath that is 9.5” long on the 5850 and 10.5” on the 5870. Two 6-pin PCIe connectors provide power to the card (these must both be used) though no 8-pin connector is required.

This is a dual slot design and has 4 connectors on the plate (1 HDMI, 1 Display Port and 2 DVI) and all this restricts space for vented air from the hefty cooler.


The shroud does not extend to the back as with the 5870 so you can see the PCB and GPU heatsink retention bracket. Like the 5870, the 5850's cooler has a barrel fan that draws air into the shroud, where it is forced through the heatsink and partially exhausted from the system through vents in the card's mounting plate. Two more vents at the back of the card also direct some air that is vented within the system.


Test Setup

Test Configuration

System Hardware


Intel Core i7-870 (2.93 GHz, 8MB Cache

AMD Athlon 2 X4 630 (2.8 GHz, 2MB Cache)


ASUS Maximus III Gene

ASUS M4A79T Deluxe

CPU Cooler

Corsair H50

Corsair H50


Kingston KHX2133C8D3T1K2/4GX 4GB 2133MHz DDR3 Non-ECC
CL8 (Kit of 2) Intel XMP Tall HS CAS 8-8-8-24

Kingston KHX1600C8D3T1K2/4GX 4GB 1600MHz DDR3 T1 Series Non-ECC
CL8 DIMM (Kit of 2) XMP CAS 8-8-8-24


ATI Radeon 5850 HD

ATI Radeon 5850 HD

Hard Drive

Maxtor 300GB SATA-2

Maxtor 300GB SATA-2


SupremeFX X-Fi built-in

Realtek® 1200 8 -Channel High Definition Audio CODEC


Gigabit LAN controller

Realtek® 8112 Gigabit LAN controller


Antec 902 Midi Tower Case

Antec Sonata Elite Ultra Quiet Case


Antec TruPower 750W

Antec TruPower 750W


Operating System

Windows 7 Professional

Windows 7 Professional


ATI Catalyst 9.11

ATI Catalyst 9.11


Intel P55

AMD 790


  • SiSoft Sandra 2009

  • 3DMark Vantage Pro

  • CPU-Z

  • Far Cry 2

  • HAWX

  • Resident Evil 5
  • SiSoft Sandra 2009

  • 3DMark Vantage Pro

  • CPU-Z

  • Far Cry 2

  • HAWX

  • Resident Evil 5


We selected Far Cry 2 (first person shooter), HAWX (air combat) and Resident Evil 5 (horror) for our tests as they are newer titles that are suited to benchmarking and make most systems struggle.

The real purpose of this review is to see DX11 and the benefits that are unique to the ATI 58XX and 57XX series. It’s tricky to test to see how much of a speed difference DX11 makes as there are no real reliable DX11 benchmarks but as a showcase of DX11 quality the situation is much better. We used Unigine’s Heaven Benchmark and can only convey the quality to our readers via YouTube.


The improvement in quality is apparent for all to see.




This next video shows the effects of Hardware Tessellation. The technical white paper on this feature is enough to send the most avid technophile to sleep but there's no denying the benefits of the end result.

If you have a DirectX 11 card then you can download the demo for yourself at


Test Results

First we will look at the dependency of this GPU on the system processor and the importance of having multiple cores to get the best graphics performance.


The results show fairly linear scaling as we go up in cores. It should be noted that synthetic tests such as SiSoft Sandra will scale quite well and are mainly useful as an indication of bottlenecks and to see what programmers can achieve if they overcome the hurdles they face.


The processor multimedia results also scale well although real-life differences will not be as pronounced as this chart indicates.


Interestingly, the memory bandwidth results show that a single core cannot make full use of available capacity and is particularly the case for the AMD Phenom 2 architecture. Dual core or higher is required to overcome this limitation.


Despite this test favouring processors with HyperThreading (i.e. Intel ones) there is a huge difference in performance between the two architectures. While two cores are fine for the i7-870 here, the AMD X4 630 needs at least 3 to put in a reasonable showing. Since graphics performance is similar (same GPU after all) the limitations lie with the processor. This bodes well for the forthcoming Clarkdale dual-core processor but it will be necessary to see this repeated in real-world benchmarks to draw any firm conclusions. The AMD X4 performance scales better though, so when using all 4 cores there is not a huge difference between the Phenom 2 X4 630 and the i7-870 despite the latter being 3 times as expensive.


Far Cry 2 has a very useful built-in benchmarking tool with many configurable parameters.

First thing to note is that this game is playable with 8x AA on any number of cores (fortunately a single-core Phenom 2 does not exist). We will test at varying resolutions later on.


HAWX is a bit of a strange game but provides a consistent benchmarking function. At 1280x1024 with 8x AA on the highest settings we can see that a 2-core i7-870 outperforms a Phenom 2 X4 630 with all 4 cores at maximum. There does however appear to be a bottleneck that could be resolved with more efficient programming.


Two things are noteworthy. There is a bottleneck on the i7-870 performance but its high enough to not be an issue. More importantly it takes the Phenom 2 X4 630 at least 3 cores to match the performance of a single i7-870 core but with all 4 cores active can match the best the i7-870 has to offer.

Now we have compared differing numbers of cores, it’s worth showing the performance of the above games with all 4 cores active but at differing resolutions to show the maximum performance that can be expected from the Radeon HD 5850.


Suddenly, things are not so bad and both processors can run at good speeds at all resolutions. If we had not tested with different numbers of cores we would not be able to tell from the above results that a 2-core Lynnfield runs this game just as well as a 4-core one and that the AMD processor needs at least 3 cores to keep up. The games is playable at all resolutions.


Performance is virtually identical across differing resolutions hiding the issue with a single AMD core. This is a game that will not tax even basic systems let alone a decent platform with a Radeon HD5850.


Here the AMD Phenom 2 X4 630 outperforms the Intel i7-870 slightly at higher resolutions but hides the previous results showing poor performance with 1 and 2 cores. Very playable at all resolutions.



We’ve seen that performance is good at all resolutions on either Intel or AMD platform but also looked deeper to see the benefits that multi-core processors bring to maximise the potential of the Radeon 5850. We can extrapolate here and can state that Crossfire or X2 cards (such as the 5970) will need at least a quad core processor to make the most of them. In the case of the of the Radeon HD 5850 any modern system will be sufficient to avoid CPU bottlenecks.

The purpose of the review has been to avoid endless comparisons against many different cards and the marketplace is so crowded that it's confusing for consumers to differentiate between the old and new offerings (no thanks in part to Nvidia's rebadging of old products with new nomenclature).

The key conclusion is that the Radeon HD5850 offers better price/performance than any competing product and will be a worthy component in a high end system (5870 and 5970 are available for those wishing to go the extra distance). More importantly is the provision of DirectX 11 and the new features which promise to add greater realism and for which there are no competitors at present.

Anyone looking for a graphics card that is cutting edge, plays all the latest games at high settings and is as future proof as its possible to get right now, will find this product to be ideal. We have no hesitation in recommending the Radeon HD 5850 and applaud AMD/ATI for leading the industry with new and innovative features.


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