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Home - Reviews - Graphics Cards - CrossFire in Practice: Radeon HD 4850 CF vs 6850
4850CF_intro2.jpgImageWe’ve gone through all the advantages and disadvantages of SLI and Crossfire modes many times by now. We’ve even had an article on the Hydra chip present on MSI motherboards, which enables AMD and NVIDIA graphics to work in conjunction with more or less tangible results.

Instead of getting straight to the point, let’s have a look at the global market trends in the past period. AMD (ATI) cards from the generations 4000 and 5000 beat the competition from NVIDIA in almost all segments. This was particularly noticeable back when 4000 cards first came out, but continued on into the 5000 generation and NVIDIA’s Termi - pardon me, Fermi - fiasco as well.  True, Fermi has been “ironed out” in the meantime, but the process took more than six months to achieve any tangible results, and even that was done by sticking consumption-controlling chips onto the cards, with the purpose of downclocking the card when the consumption gets too high - a less than elegant solution, despite NVIDIA’s claims that no game can compel the card to such behaviour. After the excessively expensive, hot and noisy Fermi, weaker versions followed, which further sorted out the flaws to a certain extent, especially with GTX460. Finally, about two months ago, a completely new generation of NVIDIA graphics cards was bestowed upon us, the fastest yet again, but now fully redesigned. However, whatever the folks in NVIDIA may say, this isn’t a truly new generation, but the Fermi chip, the way it was supposed to be from the ground up - less heating, lower consumption, less noise - or at least until the aforementioned two chips keep it under control. Once you’ve removed this barrier (which is fairly simple to do software-wise) and started overclocking the card and push it to its limits, you’ll quickly deduce that the consumption easily reaches twice the declared one, while the lower heating is just an illusion, i.e. - Fermi again. True, this is the fastest graphics card in the world, but we still frown upon this way of reaching performance, especially with this price tag. However, all this (and more) is available in a separate article.


These market conditions, paired with the complete absence of proper competition to ATI cards (in the period before GTX480) meant that most systems assembled in that period contained a “red” graphics card. Of course, there were some “green” ones occasionally, but these were bought either by hardcore fanboys or ill-advised users that were taken advantage of by insidious salesmen in order to get rid of the stocked-up NVIDIA cards.

In the meantime, AMD was improving on their reputation, slowly perfecting and advancing their technology. Huge steps were made in the driver department, and the Catalyst drivers’ regular monthly refresh with numerous improvements was welcomed wholeheartedly by users. AMD played cleverly in this field, restraining their graphics cards from showing their full potential right after the initial appearance on the market, instead improving their performance through driver revisions every now and then in a load of games. Although this is a mere marketing trick, where it actually takes several months for freshly bought graphics cards to reach their full potential, buyers were devouring the cards, impressed by the improvements made in the games that were working rather poorly by yesterday, and giving little thought to how the improvements had actually been achieved.

The 4000 series was selling ludicrously, owing to its fantastic price/performance ratio, and speaking of which, today, more than two years since its release, you’ll still have trouble finding a used one, and even if you do, you’ll find that it holds its price well. Radeons 4850 and 4770 were a hit among gamers on a budget. All of this continued into the 5000 series, which brought DirectX 11 in the proper sense of the word, tessellation (although at a significant performance hit), as well as much lower consumption/heating, in both idle and load states. The 5000 series never achieved the glory of the 4000 series, however, since the difference in raw performance was insufficient to consider it a proper heir. Yet the cards were still selling very well, with ATI’s market share numbers constantly on the rise, and the decrepit competition already well-versed in shooting themselves in the feet.

Today, most users overall have a 4000-series graphics card, which is certainly mostly owing to Radeon 4850, followed by models from the following generation, with Radeon 5770 being the favourite of the lot. The rest consists of users who have been zealously convincing themselves that their 8800GTX and GTX260/280 are top-notch graphics cards, as well as a small number of those who’ve been able to afford GTX460 or a similar card from the NVIDIA camp.

This case of affairs created much confusion in the lines of users who’ve already had the graphics card for two or more years, with the latest games slowly starting to become too much for their GPUs to handle, but with no clear upgrade path from there.

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We’ll focus on the majority of the graphics card market for now - the lucky users who have had Radeon 4850 cards, having invested their money cleverly. The 6000 series has already established itself well; Cayman has made a triumphant appearance, and the prices of the 5000-series models have started to decline. However, AMD has had to make things complicated in some regard, and it turns out that the model numbers don’t match those from the previous generation, which means that you basically can’t know whether you’re buying a direct heir to your old graphics card or not, whether the new card will coexist with the old one, what’s better than what etc. In short, a disturbance that we’ve wanted to clarify by proposing a simple solution - buying another sample of the graphics card you already have.

This poses several problems, however. If you don’t have an additional PCI-Express x8 or x16 slot on your motherboard, we’re sorry to inform you that you’re already disqualified. This combo also adds significantly to the strain endured by the PSU - not quite twice the current state, but count with an additional 50%. Further on, forget about DirectX 11 and tessellation; although honestly, this is much less of a drawback than you might think, as AMD has only recently reduced performance penalties for these options, but not yet down to the expected level, so you probably wouldn’t be able to play at these settings anyway. True, we’ve all seen demoes and games, and we all agree that it all looks very neat (just like NVIDIA’s PhysX), but this is still far from realistic and an everyday feat, as only the richest of users can afford to assemble a system that can run these games the way the programmers have imagined them to be run.

But let’s move on to the good sides. The drivers have been polished to a level where you can expect a performance improvement of 70-90%, depending on the game in question. Let’s not forget the price either - you can still find a brand new Radeon 4850 on the shelf here and there for a much lower price than back in the day, not even mentioning the number of users who are selling them used for next to nothing; instead of selling your old GPU, you’ll be buying someone else’s. All this should be more than enough to convince anyone.

Test Setup
Processor Intel Core i5-750 @ 4.0 GHz
Motherboard ASUS Maximus III Extreme (Intel P55)
RAM memory 2x2 GB Kingston HyperX 1,800 MHz
Hard drive Western Digital Caviar Blue 500GB
PSU Cooler Master UCP 900W
Software Windows 7 64-bit, Catalyst 10.10

We were initially trying to avoid direct comparison with the current graphics card models, but the new Radeon 6850 simply imposed itself as the direct competitor to this combo, in both price and alleged performance, so we decided to include it as well. The test battery encompassed one synthetic test and a load of games, in order to portray the actual benefit from this setup in the best way possible. Two resolutions and varying levels of settings are there to show the performance achieved across a broad range of monitors used nowadays.

3DMark Vantage easily displayed the true power of a combined 1600 stream processors and the performance they can achieve, as well as the polished drivers which use the potential of both graphics cards to the maximum. In comparison with the new ATI Radeon 6850, the performance is almost identical. As far as games are concerned, results vary from game to game, so for instance, if Dirt 2 is your game of particular preference, you’ll fare better buying another 4850 than switching it for a 6850. Most games, however, show no preference towards each option, while it’s obvious that gains are substantial compared to using a single 4850.

Consumption is another factor that needs to be taken into account when assembling a Crossfire system, and you can see from the charts that the system doesn’t consume any more power when in idle mode, but that the consumption is definitely higher when both cards are active and under load. Still, even when combined, they don’t match a single 6850 in this department, and even 6850 doesn’t have the reputation of a major power consumer. Still, if you have a dated PSU, it’s likely that you’ll have to buy a modern, stronger one in order to run the system successfully, whether in Crossfire or not.

All things considered, the only thing in favour of buying the new graphics is that you’ll still have a vacant spot on your motherboard for a potential future upgrade, as well as Radeon 6850’s inherent tessellation and DirectX 11 capabilities.

On the other hand, less money will provide you with a more power consumption-conscious system, while providing almost the same performance. It may sound bizarre, but this is actually working well and presents the users with a very efficient solution for a minimum amount of money, maybe even better than purchasing a Radeon 6850.

We’ve also had the opportunity to test two Radeon 6870 and two Radeon 5970 cards in a Crossfire system, of course, in the only environment that this sort of configuration makes sense in, which is three full HD monitors in a combined Eyefinity resolution of 5760x1080 pixels.

The separate reviews for these graphics cards are available on our website, and simply comparing the yielded results shows that Crossfire is an ideal solution for a system upgrade. You definitely need two graphics cards for enjoying your games on three monitors in ludicrous resolutions such as this one, and the performance offered by AMD’s strongest single-GPU graphics cards in pair is an excellent solution that provides a playable framerate even in ultra-demanding titles such as Metro 2033 with tessellation on, albeit without AA and AF.

The thing that still plagues AMD is the state of drivers for Radeon 5970s in Crossfire. This is basically a quad-GPU system, as each 5970 contains two GPUs in Crossfire mode connected via an internal bus and chip. The problem with this system is that it just can’t provide a sufficient FPS rate with the settings that we’ve imposed in this test, and you’d definitely expect much more from a system you gave over 1000€ for. We’re positive that the problem lies in the drivers which have a hard time coping with such a complex system, and that opinion is reinforced by the fact that these configurations are very rare, and consequently of less importance for rectification.

All in all, three full HD monitors and high settings in Metro 2033 and Crysis Warhead are still an overkill even for the strongest that AMD has to offer at the moment, so Eyefinity does seem like a rather vague capability in current technology conditions.

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To Crossfire or not to Crossfire? The answer is fairly simple. The technology has matured long ago, drivers are refreshed on a regular basis, and this continual process seems to be reliable enough for you to be able to trust AMD to keep delivering in the future. Each game that has recently appeared got its own Crossfire profile in a matter of days.

If you’re looking into upgrading your existing system, and you already have a good card from the 4000 or 5000 series, as well as a motherboard that enables this (two PCI-Express x16 slots, or as a last resort, two x8), the best solution is buying another card of the same type and creating a Crossfire setup. The invested/gained ratio will certainly be on your side, and you’ll buy yourself some much needed peace and calm in terms of performance for the coming period. Eyefinity on three monitors remains reserved for enthusiasts with enough money for bleeding edge components and a system to support them. However, even if money is not a problem, such a complex system is always prone to a plethora of potential problems, in either drivers, games or the operating system itself.