AMD Radeon HD 7850 £190
5th Mar 2012 | 09:43
Pint-sized pixel-pusher with performance to burn
The Pitcairn little lad has arrived in the shape of the AMD Radeon HD 7850 and it could well be a pint-sized powerhouse.
The HD 7850 pretty much finalises AMD's current plans for the Southern Islands line up, bar the crazy-expensive dual-GPU New Zealand card which is likely waiting on Nvidia's new cards.
We may see some other odd little revisions once Nvidia's Kepler cards start trickling out, just to fill some gaps, but this is going to be the last standard card for a while.
The AMD Radeon HD 7850 is also the card that's arguably got the most chance of being successful out of this family. At the price it looks likely to retail at, the sub-£200 mark, it could well be the highest-selling of AMD's enthusiast-class cards.
Like the AMD Radeon HD 7870 that we've already seen, the HD 7850 is though going to face a lot of stiff competition at this price-point.
Can it make a name for itself in the face of the opposition?
At stock speeds you can see the AMD HD 7850 is still competitive with the cards around, though a little off the pace in gaming terms against the Nvidia cards.
Once you start overclocking however the difference is much less marked. Indeed the AMD Radeon HD 7850 starts to have more in common with the much pricier Nvidia GTX 570.
DirectX 11 tessellation performance
OpenGL tessellation performance
DirectX 11 gaming performance
Despite losing over 200 stream processors in the cull from the HD 7870's Pitcairn XT GPU architecture, there isn't otherwise a lot lost in the transition to the Pitcairn Pro of the HD 7850.
You still get the now traditional Southern Island goodness in the shape of AMD ZeroCore Power technology, PCI Express 3.0 and a brand new 28nm production process.
You also get the full 2GB GDDR5 framebuffer as well, which AMD is now classing as "entry point for enthusiast-class graphics," as Evan Groenke, Product Manager at AMD said in a recent briefing. "1.28GB just isn't enough."
Why mention 1.28GB?
Well, that's the framebuffer size of the Nvidia-shaped competition. The Nvidia GeForce GTX 570, in lieu of any new cards from the green goblins on the near horizon, is one of the main targets for the HD 7800 series graphics cards.
For the AMD Radeon HD 7850 though the nearest card is really the GTX 560 Ti 448 core edition, again with 1,280MB GDDR5.
In straight performance terms the limited edition Nvidia GTX 560 Ti is a bit of a beast and just about has the edge over this new GCN-powered AMD card.
There are a few cases where the HD 7850 takes the lead and that's thanks to the dual geometry engines making mincemeat of any tessellation road blocks games might throw up.
In both Heaven and Metro 2033 at 2560x1600 the AMD HD 7850 is the faster card. In the Metro 2033 benchmark, twice as fast.
Then you start waving around the magic overclocking wand and suddenly the GTX 560 Ti isn't the competition anymore, it's the Nvidia GTX 570.
We quickly hit the artificial limits of the AMD Overdrive overclocking app, the GPU and memory sliders topping out at 1,050MHz and 1,450MHz respectively. At those speeds the AMD Radeon HD 7850 offers around the same sort of performance figures as the £50 more expensive Nvidia card.
That's some impressive pixel-pusher grunt from a sub-£200 card, even if you do have to push it to the edge to make it really perform.
That said we reckon there's probably a bit further you can push the Pitcairn Pro GPU, good news for those factory overclocked cards that are sure to follow.
Interestingly the reference card we've been testing will look completely different when the add-in board (AIB) manufacturers are done with it.
The fact AMD has filled out these lower-caste cards with all the same features as their higher-end brethren is refreshing, as is the fact that we'll get all the HD 7850 goodness in such small footprints as 7.8-inches.
Again, it's the same Graphics Core Next story – the overclocking headroom is immense. The OC path is the only way to get the most out of these cards.
Sadly that's also part of the problem. At stock speeds both the HD 7870 and this AMD HD 7850 are rather uninspiring, and it takes ramping up clockspeeds yourself to get the real performance out of them.
That's a bit of a shame as most people probably wont take the risk with their new hardware.
These pint-sized cards pack some impressive punch for sub-£200 GPUs, but only if you take the risk overclocking them.