There are many great rivalries. Celtics and Lakers. Britney and Christina. Camaro and Mustang. GeForce and Radeon. As usual, the automotive analogy is the most applicable to the enthusiast-class PC hardware we have for you today: XFX’s Radeon HD 6950 1GB and Zotac’s GeForce GTX 560 Ti AMP. Each is a mid-range muscle card targeting the performance crowd. The graphics engines in both have been turbo-charged beyond stock settings to offer a little more horsepower when you put your foot down. You’ll pay about the same for each of ’em, too.
While some folks might be inclined to choose between the two based on a near-fanatical religious devotion to AMD or Nvidia, true enthusiasts tend to be more pragmatic. We want to know which card delivers the best in-game frame rates, lowest power consumption, and quietest noise levels. We’re curious about overclocking, and we want to know if XFX or Zotac throws in any extras to sweeten the pot.
To answer these important questions, we’ve arranged an epic throwdown between the XFX Radeon HD 6950 1GB and Zotac GeForce GTX 560 Ti AMP! Edition. Read on as the mid-range rivalry between AMD and Nvidia—and board partners XFX and Zotac—manifests in this latest generation.
Before digging in, we should note that this is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis of the GPU silicon that powers these two cards. If you’re curious about the underlying architecture behind the Cayman GPU in the Radeon HD 6950, hit up our initial review of the 6900 series. Our review of the GeForce GTX 560 Ti has all the gory details on that card’s GF114 graphics chip. Today, we’re going to focus on what these particular XFX and Zotac models bring to the table.
|Card||XFX Radeon HD 6950 1GB OC||Zotac GeForce GTX 560 Ti AMP|
|Memory bus width||256-bit||256-bit|
|Memory size||1GB GDDR5||1GB GDDR5|
2 Mini DisplayPort
1 Mini HDMI*
|Warranty length||Two years*||Two years*|
The key similarity here is price. Both cards cost around $270, making them direct rivals just north of the typical mid-range graphics sweet spot. They’re also at parity on the memory front. Each card has 1GB of GDDR5 RAM tied to a 256-bit memory bus. That’s where the similarities end, though.
Obviously, these two beauties are based on very different GPUs. The Nvidia’s GF114 graphics chip was built specifically for mid-range cards like the GeForce GTX 560 Ti, and the lights are on in all of the chip’s functional units. With the Radeon HD 6950, AMD uses the same Cayman GPU that anchors pricier 6970s. Two of the GPU’s SIMD blocks are disabled in the 6950, cutting the chip’s effective shader count from 1536 to 1408. This de-tuned silicon can be found in both 1GB and 2GB flavors of the 6950; the 1GB variant was introduced primarily to compete with the 560 Ti, setting up today’s clash.
XFX and Zotac make versions of the GeForce GTX 560 Ti and Radeon HD 6950 that stick to the base clock speeds defined by Nvidia and AMD. The particular models we’re looking at today pack a little more oomph under the hood, however. XFX boosts the Radeon’s core and memory clocks to 830 and 1300MHz—a modest bump from stock clocks of 800 and 1250MHz. The GeForce has been pushed even harder. Zotac sets the GPU clock speed at 950MHz and the memory 1100MHz, up from default speeds of 822 and 1000MHz.
Comparing clock speeds between cards that use entirely different GPUs isn’t terribly helpful without associated performance data, which we’ll get to in a moment. For now, let’s focus our attention on another point of differentiation: display outputs. The Radeon is loaded, offering dual DVI outputs alongside a full-size HDMI jack and a couple of Mini DisplayPort, er, ports. Zotac offers fewer outputs and shuns DisplayPort entirely, instead coughing up a pair of DVI ports and a Mini HDMI connector.
Graphics card makers can differ quite a bit when it comes to warranty coverage, but XFX and Zotac are closer than one might expect. Both cards come with two-year warranties by default. Register with the respective companies within 30 days of purchase, and your coverage will be upgraded to a lifetime warranty. With XFX, that warranty is a “double lifetime” deal that covers the card through its first resale, adding a little extra value for second-hand buyers. You can’t pass on the GeForce’s lifetime warranty if you sell the card.
XFX warms up the Radeon HD 6950 1GB
It seems like every time we review a new Nvidia graphics card, nitrous-infused variants with substantially higher clock speeds are available from the start. We end up testing those cards because they’re representative of what users can buy, but the practice doesn’t sit well with AMD fanboys who haven’t come to terms with the fact that most Radeons run at stock speeds. Even the ones that are “factory overclocked” typically stay close to home. Case in point: XFX’s Radeon HD 6950 1GB.
This Radeon’s GPU and memory clocks have been raised by 3.75% and 4%, respectively, so we’re not looking at much of an upgrade over stock speeds. That could mean the card has plenty of headroom to exploit—something we’ll explore in our overclocking tests a little later in this review.
Such a modest increase in clock speeds doesn’t earn the Radeon a wicked-cool suffix like Xtreme, OC, or Winning! Indeed, the only mark identifying the card’s minor clock bump is the HD-695X-ZDDC model number. Otherwise, this 6950 looks identical to a stock-clocked XFX model that costs $30 less.
Rather than using AMD’s reference cooler for the 6950, XFX swaps in a custom dual-slot design wrapped in a stealthy black skin. The exterior’s matte surface has a menacing edge, and the drilled-out holes at the rear of the card give it a nice gun-barrel look. That venting should also provide a path for airflow when the card is packed tightly next to another in a CrossFire tag team.
Speaking of packing things tightly, we should note that XFX’s decision to flex its pipes outside the cooling shroud adds 0.4″ to the height of the card. The Radeon measures 4.8″ from the base of its PCIe slot to the top of the tallest pipe, which may create clearance problems in low-profile Mini-ITX and home-theater PC enclosures. The extra height is unlikely to be an issue in typical tower enclosures, and the card’s 9.5″ length should be easy to accommodate.
Next to the metal skin and copper pipes, the Radeon’s smoked plastic fan blades look a little low-rent. There is twice the number of fans as on the GeForce, though. The 80-mm units have 11 blades each, so they should be able to move a lot of air while spinning at relatively low (and quiet) speeds.
Some of the airflow generated the Radeon’s fans will be directed outside one’s system via a small vent in the card’s back plate. The almost-floating XFX logo is nice touch.
That very nice array of display outputs grants the ability to power five monitors with a single card. You can set up an Eyefinity array for gaming or enjoy a mass of desktop real-estate spread across multi-screen setup befitting of the Batcave. Even if you’re not a multi-monitor madman, the ability to drive five digital displays with a single graphics card is pretty impressive.
Zotac turbo-charges the GeForce GTX 560 Ti
Of the two cards we’re looking at today, the Radeon has the bigger engine. Cypress is a larger GPU than the GF114 behind the GeForce, after all. To stay competitive, Zotac employs much more aggressive tuning with its hot-clocked GeForce GTX 560 Ti. The card’s 950MHz core clock is a whopping 16% faster than stock, and the memory clock has been increased by 100MHz—a 10% jump.
To keep consumers from confusing this card with a modestly juiced Zotac model with an 850MHz core, the faster variant has been tagged the AMP! Edition. Apparently, an all-caps suffix wasn’t enough to convey the extremeness of what’s going on here, so Zotac added an exclamation mark. I suppose we should be thankful it didn’t resort to blink tags.
Incidentally, that 850MHz model will set you back only $240. For an extra $30, Zotac offers a much bigger step up in clock speeds than XFX.
Despite substantially faster clocks, the AMP! Edition has the same single-fan cooler as the 850MHz card. Heck, Zotac even sells a stock-clocked version of the GeForce GTX 560 Ti with an identical-looking cooler. The single fan makes me a little wary, but I quite like the look of the cooler overall. Matte black makes another appearance, and this time the fan matches the shroud. There’s also a healthy splash of color thanks to metal grills painted a rich shade of yellowy orange.
The cooler’s lone fan is the same diameter as what’s used in the XFX card, although it has fewer blades. Each of the Zotac’s blades is larger, so there probably isn’t much of a difference in airflow… apart from the fact that the Radeon has a second fan. Like the XFX card, the Zotac’s underlying heatsink features three copper heatpipes that link the GPU to a finger-grating array of cooling fins.
Because its heatpipes don’t protrude from the shroud, the Zotac card is a little squatter than the XFX at 4.4″ from the bottom of the PCI Express connector to the top of the cooler. The GeForce is only 9″ long, making it half an inch shorter than the XFX in that dimension.
Like the Radeon, the GeForce is equipped with dual 6-pin PCI Express power connectors. There’s also a nice open space above the power jacks to facilitate airflow when cards are packed side by side.
With only three display outputs, the GeForce has enough back-plate real-estate for a generous exhaust vent, as well. There’s more missing than a couple of DisplayPort outs, though. While a single Radeon HD 6950 is capable of powering a multi-screen Eyefinity array, Nvidia’s comparable surround technology requires a second graphics card running in SLI. If you don’t mind wearing dorky glasses and splurging on 120Hz LCDs, that SLI setup will support 3D Vision Surround.
We’ve long taken shots at Apple for using obscure “mini” connectors types for standard expansion ports and then charging a fortune for an adapter you’ll invariably need. Zotac gets a pass for using a Mini HDMI on the AMP! Edition because it throws in the necessary adapter for free.
There are more goodies in the box, including PCIe power adapters for older PSUs and a VGA adapter for ancient CRTs and budget LCDs. None of extra plugs is all that exciting, but it’s nice to see them included, especially since similar adapters aren’t provided with the Radeon.
The AMP! Edition’s accessory bundle has an ace up its sleeve in the form of a download code for Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. Game bundles were all the rage a while back, but they rarely included recent and critically acclaimed titles. Brotherhood hit the PC at the end of March, so it’s still a new release. The game has also racked up a MetaCritic score of 88 with an impressive 8.5 user rating. If you’re interested in playing Brotherhood, the download code could add a lot of value to the AMP! Edition. The game typically sells for $40-50 online.
Our testing methods
Although we’ve busted out a healthy collection of games to test these two cards, we won’t be straying outside the head-to-head matchup. If you’re curious about how the performance of the Radeon HD 6950 1GB and GeForce GTX 560 Ti compares to a much broader range of competitors, hit up our GeForce GTX 560 Ti review for single-card results and our GeForce GTX 590 review for multi-card configs.
In the graphs on the following pages, we’ve marked the XFX Radeon HD 6950 1GB with an OC to denote its higher-than-stock clock speeds. The Zotac card is referred to as the AMP for simplicity’s sake.
We run most of our tests at least three times and report the median of the results. For our gaming tests, we used the latest Catalyst 11.4 preview drivers from AMD and Nvidia’s freshly released ForceWare 270.61 drivers. Noise, power, and temperature testing was conducted with the older Catalyst 11.3 and ForceWare 266.66 drivers. We configured our Radeon’s Catalyst Control Panel like so, leaving optional AMD optimizations for tessellation and texture filtering disabled. The following system was used for testing.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-2600K 3.4GHz|
|Motherboard||Asus P8P67 PRO|
|Platform hub||Intel P67 Express|
|Platform drivers||INF update 184.108.40.2065
|Memory size||8GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz|
|Audio||Realtek ALC892 with 2.58 drivers|
XFX Radeon HD 6950 1GB OC with Catalyst 11.4 preview drivers
Zotac GeForce 560 Ti AMP with ForceWare 270.61 drivers
|Hard drive||Corsair Force F120 120GB|
|Power supply||PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750W|
|OS||Windows 7 Ultimate x64|
Thanks to XFX and Zotac for providing the graphics cards, Asus for the test system’s motherboard, Intel for the CPU, OCZ for the PSU, and Corsair for the memory and SSD.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- Lost Planet 2
- Civilization V
- Metro 2033
- Bulletstorm Demo
- Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
- Shift 2 Unleashed
- Fraps 3.0.3
- GPU-Z 0.5.3
Some further notes on our methods:
- Many of our performance tests are scripted and repeatable, but for Bulletstorm, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, and Shift 2 Unleashed, we used the Fraps utility to record frame rates while playing a 60-second sequence from the game. Although capturing frame rates while playing isn’t precisely repeatable, we tried to make each run as similar as possible to all of the others. We raised our sample size, testing each Fraps sequence five times per video card, in order to counteract any variability. We’ve included second-by-second frame rate results from Fraps for those games, and in that case, you’re seeing the results from a single, representative pass through the test sequence.
We measured total system power consumption at the wall socket using a Watt’s Up Pro digital power meter. The monitor was plugged into a separate outlet, so its power draw was not part of our measurement. The cards were plugged into a motherboard on an open test bench.
The idle measurements were taken at the Windows desktop with the Aero theme enabled. The cards were tested under load running Bulletstorm at a 1920×1080 resolution with 4X AA and 16X anisotropic filtering.
We measured noise levels on our test system, sitting on an open test bench, using a TES-52 digital sound level meter. The meter was held approximately 8″ from the test system at a height even with the top of the video card.
You can think of these noise level measurements much like our system power consumption tests, because the entire systems’ noise levels were measured. Of course, noise levels will vary greatly in the real world along with the acoustic properties of the PC enclosure used, whether the enclosure provides adequate cooling to avoid a card’s highest fan speeds, placement of the enclosure in the room, and a whole range of other variables. These results should give a reasonably good picture of comparative fan noise, though.
- We used GPU-Z to log GPU temperatures during our load testing on all cards.
The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1920×1080 in 32-bit color at a 60Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.
Most of the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
Lost Planet 2
Thank you, developers of Lost Planet 2, for including an in-game benchmark that shows off all sorts of DirectX 11 effects, including a heavily tessellated monster. The Benchmarking Sweatshop doesn’t have a fancy 30″ monitor, so testing was conducted at the common 24″ resolution of 1920×1080. To make things difficult for the cards, we maximized in-game detail levels and cranking up the antialiasing.
Score one for the GeForce. Fermi-based GPUs have traditionally fared well in this test, so the AMP’s strong showing is no surprise. The Radeon at least manages over 30 FPS, though. Since this benchmark has a larger tessellation component than typical games, we won’t dwell too much on the results.
Civilization V‘s Leader benchmark isn’t representative of actual gameplay, but it includes a number of fancy graphics effects that are very much a part of the game. As with Lost Planet 2, we were able to push in-game detail settings to their highest levels. We even enabled 8X antialiasing.
This one’s a dead heat. Both cards manage very high frame rates even with the highest settings possible.
Of course, the Leader benchmark isn’t as indicative of real-world gameplay as another Civ test that shows a late-game view loaded with structures and units.
In this test, the GeForce comes out ahead by a substantial margin. Frame rates are much lower overall, but both cards should be able to play Civilization V comfortably at this resolution.
One of the most demanding PC games around, Metro 2033 forced us to back off a little and disable PhysX and depth-of-field effects. We also dialed back the antialiasing to 4X, which still looks fantastic.
The Radeon leads the GeForce in Metro 2033. In addition to having an average frame rate six FPS higher than the Zotac card, the XFX’s low frame rate is also higher. Given the slow pace of the game, though, I’m not sure you’d need to back off on any of the graphical settings to run this game smoothly on the AMP! Edition.
The first of three games we tested using Fraps, the Bulletstorm demo’s short Echo level is perfect for benchmarking. It’s a heck of a lot of fun, too. We tested gameplay in 60-second bursts with all the details turned up, including 8X antialiasing.
Again, the XFX 6950 1GB comes out ahead of the Zotac GTX 560 Ti. The GeForce is still perfectly playable using these settings, but the Radeon delivers higher average and low frame rates. The Radeon’s frame rates are more consistent overall, too.
Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
We couldn’t resist testing the freebie that comes bundled with the Zotac card, so we fired up Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood for a taste of parkour-infused medieval assassination. As with Bulletstorm, we recorded five 60-second gameplay sessions with maximum in-game details and 8X antialiasing.
The Assassin’s Creed franchise has roots in the console world, so it’s not surprising to see a couple of cutting-edge graphics cards pump out such high frame rates. Either card is plenty for this game, but the Radeon scores another victory over the GeForce.
Shift 2 Unleashed
With a unique helmet cam and solid driving dynamics, Shift 2 Unleashed is arguably the best racing sim available on the PC. We used Fraps to see how well our two hot rods handled a few laps of the Suzuka circuit with all the eye candy turned up.
Both deliver smooth and consistent frame rates with the detail settings maxed. Neither card distances itself from the other, though.
At idle, there’s only a one-watt difference between the two cards. Crank things up with a few minutes of Bulletstorm, however, and the AMP! Edition draws almost 40W more than the XFX card. Super-charging the GeForce’s engine is certainly good for extra horsepower, but there’s a definite impact on fuel economy when you’re really using the thing.
Despite consuming a lot more power under load, the Zotac card is only marginally louder than the XFX with its dual-slot cooler. The one-decibel difference in idle noise levels is difficult to detect when sitting a couple of feet away. All of our noise-level readings were recorded with the decibel meter just eight inches from the test rig.
Zotac manages to keep the AMP! Edition so quiet by letting the GPU hit higher temperatures than the Radeon before ramping up the cooler’s fan speed. The extra power consumed by the GeForce under load has to go somewhere, and I’m actually surprised there isn’t a bigger difference in GPU temperatures.
Just because these two cards have higher-than-stock clock speeds set at the factory doesn’t mean we can’t get our hands dirty with some real overclocking. With the Radeon, our options are limited because XFX doesn’t ship the card with any tweaking software. Fortunately, AMD provides a few clock, fan, and power controls via its Catalyst drivers.
Kudos to AMD for stepping up and offering this functionality. Here again, though, we see AMD’s fairly conservative approach to pushing Radeon clock speeds. The drivers only allow the 6950’s core clock to be increased to 840MHz, a measly 10MHz higher than the XFX model’s existing default. Things don’t get much better on the memory front, where the card’s 1300MHz clock speed can only be jacked an additional 25MHz.
These limitations persist outside of the Catalyst control panel, too. MSI’s Afterburner utility works with a range of different graphics cards and is compatible with the XFX Radeon. Unfortunately, the app’s core and memory sliders for the card top out at 840 and 1325MHz, respectively.
To XFX’s credit, the card runs perfectly at 840/1325MHz. I’m gonna take away half of AMD’s kudo for being so stingy with the clock ceilings, though.
Zotac does offer a tweaking tool with the AMP! Edition, and the FireStorm app provides a measure of clock control in addition to a slider that governs the cooling fan. As with all too many applications created by Taiwanese hardware makers, FireStorm’s user interface could use some work. You have to set the shader clock at double the GPU clock manually or the settings won’t stick, which is rather annoying since Zotac could’ve just linked the two sliders together. At least there’s plenty of range for the GPU and memory clocks.
We used Civilization V to test stability when overclocking. Initially, the AMP! Edition ran the game fine with a 990MHz core and 1225MHz memory. However, it wouldn’t complete a full Civ run without resetting the clocks back to 950/1100MHz. We thought MSI’s Afterburner app might be able to provide a voltage boost, but the app’s GPU voltage slider doesn’t work with the Zotac card. After some fiddling, we eventually settled on a 980MHz core.
Even though we squeezed more MHz out of the GeForce, the resulting increase in Civilization V frame rates only amounted to an extra FPS for both cards. There’s certainly more headroom to exploit in the AMP! Edition, but pushing the clocks won’t improve in-game frame rates dramatically.
The XFX Radeon HD 6950 1GB and Zotac GeForce GTX 560 Ti 1GB approach the upper reaches of the mid-range graphics market a little differently. XFX attacks from above with a de-tuned version of AMD’s high-end Cypress GPU, while Zotac takes a shot from below with a hopped-up spin on the mid-range GeForce GTX 560 Ti. The Radeon has superior silicon, but the GeForce GPU has been subjected to much more aggresive clock boosting.
Although the paths they take are different, XFX and Zotac both arrive at roughly the same $270 asking price. Technically, the GeForce is $2 cheaper than the Radeon. The XFX currently offers a $30 mail-in rebate, though. We prefer immediate savings to waiting for a check in the mail, so we’ll call this one a wash, at least on price.
On the performance front, the Radeon has a slight edge. The AMP! Edition is faster in a few scenarios, but the Radeon offers higher frame rates in more games. Interestingly, there’s little difference in noise levels between the two cards. There is, however, quite a discrepancy between their power consumption under load. The nearly 40W gap is surely responsible for the GeForce’s higher GPU temperatures, and it highlights a potential pitfall associated with venturing far beyond default clock speeds.
Zotac is to be commended for making such a power-hungry card run so quietly. The company also deserves praise for offering an attractive game bundle. Even if you’re not interested in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, you can flip the download voucher on Ebay and make a few bucks.
As a gamer who quite likes Assassin’s Creed, I’m tempted to recommend the AMP! Edition due to the value provided by the overall package. This is a sweet card, and Zotac has combined it with a tasty assortment of extras. However, the PC enthusiast in me can’t get past the fact that XFX’s Radeon HD 6950 1GB is faster overall, a little bit quieter, and much more power-efficient under load. Take away the extraneous extras, and it’s the better graphics card.