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AMD Radeon HD 7970 3GB Graphics Card Review - Tahiti at 28nm

Author: Ryan Shrout
Manufacturer: AMD

Conclusions and Final Thoughts

Performance

The Southern Islands architecture is the first step from AMD into a much larger world (cue The Force references) outlined by the Fusion System Architecture.  For today's purposes though, the Tahiti GPU clearly takes the lead as the fastest gaming option available to consumers.  With 2048 stream processors and 3GB of GDDR5 frame buffer the Radeon HD 7970 is the fastest graphics card you can buy that doesn't depend on multi-GPU technologies.  

In our testing, the HD 7970 simply ran away from the GeForce GTX 580.  In Battlefield 3 the new AMD option was about 13% faster at 1920x1080, the most popular resolution for dedicated PC gamers, and a full 20% faster at the high-end 2560x1600 option.  With the larger frame buffer we can presume then that the performance lead will get larger as we progress into multi-screen gaming options like the 5760x1080 triple-panel configurations.  The Radeon HD 7970 maintains performance leads in other games like DiRT 3 (13% at 2560x1600), Batman: Arkham City (almost 20%), Metro 2033 (about 30%) and Deus Ex: Human Revolution (~43%). 

Skyrim was the one game that really didn't show a big performance gap between the HD 7970 and the GTX 580 (with the slight nod to the GTX 580 actually) though we do know that title is much more CPU-bound than the others in our test suite.  

The Cayman architecture released almost exactly a year ago doesn't keep up with Southern Islands and the Radeon HD 6970 2GB finds itself as much as 59% slower than the HD 7970 3GB. 

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The EVGA GTX 560 Ti 2Win puts an interesting wrinkle in to the discussion - at a lower cost than the MSRP for the Radeon HD 7970 it offers similar levels of performance in many cases.  There are some instances though where the SLI architecture creates some problems at higher resolutions (2560x1600 and multi-panel) like we saw in Battlefield 3 and even Metro 2033.  The 1GB frame buffer per GPU is likely to blame there.  Also, there are simply more potential hiccups to deal with when using ANY multi-GPU solution whether it be on a single card or two cards so we almost always recommend going with a single GPU of similar performance if the option is available.

Another point that our own Josh Walrath wanted us to tell you here is that the likelihood of performance increases as time passes with the architecture is pretty strong.  With it being the first non-VLIW architecture the AMD team has built we may see dramatic driver-based compiler improvements as the Catalyst team becomes more familiar with the new design.  While we can't guarantee anything of course, it would make us feel even better about the investment in a Southern Islands part today.

Power and Efficiency

What might make the Radeon HD 7970 3GB even more impressive is that it does all of this in the exact same power envelope as the Radeon HD 6970 2GB.  Both cards pushed our total system power draw to about 350 watts.  That is less than the GTX 580 and much lower than the EVGA GTX 560 Ti 2Win.  Seeing performance increases as large as we did between Cayman and SI, it seems to indicate that the move from the 40nm process to the 28nm process has in fact gone pretty well and, if TSMC can get inventory running, could mean good things for both NVIDIA and AMD going forward.

Also worth noting is the ZeroCore Power Technology that brings the power consumption of the GPU to under a single watt when the screens are put into sleep mode.  And for users that like to go with multi-GPU setups you will be glad to know that this feature will also turn off (even the fans!) the secondary GPUs when you are simply running in Windows.  This should offer noticeable sound and heat dissipation improvements.  

Features

There aren't really a huge amount of new features for the SI architecture - Eyefinity is still the only single-GPU option for running multiple display gaming configurations and in fact this new GPU may actually offer enough performance to push a 5760x1080 configuration on a single card.  NVIDIA's GTX 500-series still requires you to have an SLI configuration to get Surround to function and then you dive into the world of multi-GPU issues that we have noted in several places in this review.

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The availability of Eyefinity + HD3D is interesting but isn't really an HD 7970 exclusive; the 12.1 drivers offer this on Radeon 6000 series cards as well.  DDMA (discrete digital multi-point audio) could really change the way users interact with different audio/video sources on their PCs but we are going to have to wait and see implementations of it before making a conclusion there.

Texture filtering has been improved, the new Steady Video 2.0 will be available soon and we have already discussed PowerTune and ZeroCore technologies and what advantages they offer. 

Pricing and Availability

The one area where some people might be hit off-guard with this release is the price of the Radeon HD 7970 3GB graphics card - $549 MSRP.  Let's compare that to the other cards we benchmarked today and see how it stacks up.

  • AMD Radeon HD 7970 3GB - $549
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580 1.5GB - $499
  • AMD Radeon HD 6970 2GB - $349
  • EVGA GeForce GTX 560 Ti 2Win 2GB - $529

At $50 more than the GeForce GTX 580, a difference of 10%, the HD 7970's performance actually warrants this price - Tahiti offers performance improvements over the GeForce GTX 580 averaging 23%. 

The Radeon HD 6970 puts up an interesting debate - even though it falls quite a bit behind in terms of relative performance it is $200 less expensive than its new baby brother.  $200 will buy a nice SSD upgrade on your new system, for example.

Finally, the cost of the GTX 560 Ti 2Win from EVGA is right on par with the HD 7970 and both cards offer somewhat similar performance.  Still, as I have reiterated in the past, I will almost always pick a single GPU with the similar performance of a multi-GPU option, all else being equal.

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One sad side note: GPU prices are not coming down in this high-end market.  When the GTX 580 launched in November of 2010, it's MSRP was...$499.  The same price it is selling for today.  When the Radeon HD 6970 2GB launched the following month in December 2010, it sold for $369 - only $20 more than the price of that same card today.  Had NVIDIA had some competition and reason to drop the price on the GTX 580 before today, then the Radeon HD 7970 3GB would likely have been priced much lower than the $549 MSRP that they are going to asking for in early January.  This is a trend we hope we don't see continue.

AMD has told us that we can expect to see the Radeon HD 7970 3GB for sale in the market on January 9th but with the NDA's expiring today, I wouldn't be surprised to see the cards available just after the new year.  

Final Thoughts

If you love fast graphics cards, you are simply going to be infatuated with the new Radeon HD 7970.  For the first time in a couple of generations, AMD will have the fastest single-GPU solution on the market - at least until we see what NVIDIA is going to do later in the year.  The Tahiti GPU offers more than enough horsepower to push past the year-old GTX 580 and take the performance crown and is able to do so using less power than NVIDIA's GeForce option as well.  With performance and efficiency this impressive we can easily see the upcoming Southern Islands based Radeon 7800 and 7700 cards offering just as compelling a solution to the graphics market. 

Obviously we were hoping for a lower price on the Radeon HD 7970 - even if it isn't really justified based on today's market conditions.  Yes yes, I know, you are getting better performance and twice the frame buffer of the GeForce GTX 580 (3GB vs 1.5GB), and for $50 that seems like a pretty reasonable offer for enthusiast gamers that want the best of the best.  

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New fastest GPU on the planet

December 22, 2011 | 12:15 AM - Posted by wargames12

If it's faster that the 580, it kind of makes sense that it costs a bit more. It's pretty disappointing to see the prices of current gen cards stay so high for so long though. Hopefully when we see Nvidia's new card we'll see some price drops all around on the current generation.

December 22, 2011 | 12:40 AM - Posted by Mr_Tea (not verified)

My thoughts exactly. I was hoping to see AMD drive the performance/dollar up with this release. At this rate single GPUs will be launching at $1000 in 2 years :(

December 22, 2011 | 12:47 AM - Posted by wargames12

I want to blame the rich guys who will actually pay the extra 2-300 dollars for the extra 10-20 percent performance, but I can't. I would do the same if I had the extra cash haha.

December 26, 2011 | 10:49 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

That is pretty funny! You obviously don't remember how much the 8800GTX and Ultra cost when they were launched. I paid $950.00 for my first 8800GTX. With the price drop just go Crossfire it keeps getting better and better, as well as cheaper.

January 3, 2014 | 11:21 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Ha, turns out you were right.

December 22, 2011 | 12:57 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

I'm glad that point came across well in my review. I love the performance out of this, but I guess I just expected/wanted AMD to undercut NVIDIA to put pressure on them and start the price wars again.

There is still a chance that NVIDIA cuts the GTX 580 down to $425 or something - they have a lot of room with the GTX 570 priced at $340. If they do that, then AMD will have to drop the 7970 price.

December 22, 2011 | 12:51 AM - Posted by Buyers

Good solid review. I think i was hoping for a little more of a performance increase over the 580. I look forward to seeing eyefinity benchmarks with this card with crossfire setup.

Couple of edits:
Page 3, talking about DDMA:Multi-tasking under image of triple screen gaming with soccer on background tv:"With the Radeon HD 7970 it is not possible to both play a game and..." should that be now, given the way the rest of the sentence and paragraph read?

Metro 2033 @ 1920x1080 line graph X-axis labels are the default Series1/2/3/4 instead of the gpu name labels.

December 22, 2011 | 12:56 AM - Posted by Tim Verry

Yes, it is now possible.

December 22, 2011 | 12:58 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Yeah, thanks for that type - kind of a big difference. :)

And also, yes, we are looking forward to doing both Eyefinity and CrossFire testing very soon!

Let me know if there are particular titles you want to see tested!

December 23, 2011 | 06:01 PM - Posted by Nacelle (not verified)

I'm sure it goes without saying BF3 in Eyefinity is what everyone wants. Not much else brings two 6970's to a crawl.

December 22, 2011 | 12:57 AM - Posted by Slash3 (not verified)

Would it be possible to disable vsync on Skyrim and re-run your tests? There are several methods which successfully disable it, including editing the .cfg file (iPresentInterval=0) or using a utility like Radpro to force vsync disable on the process. As it stands, that particular game's set of benchmarks is totally useless. Nice card, though.

December 22, 2011 | 01:00 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Based on my research and testing, I wasn't able to find a way to do disable Vsync with AMD cards without modding the game, which seems less than ideal.

If you have a link to a solution though directly, I'll gladly try it!

December 22, 2011 | 01:10 AM - Posted by Kennneth (not verified)

Who are you going to believe?

http://nl.hardware.info/reviews/2472/32/amd-radeon-hd-7970-review-dirt-3...

December 22, 2011 | 01:13 AM - Posted by Mr_Tea (not verified)

I saw a slide that showed this card doing separate audio out to each display and intelligently switching if a video was moved to another display. Any truth to that? Testing? That would be pretty awesome. Thanks.

December 22, 2011 | 01:19 AM - Posted by Mr_Tea (not verified)

Whoops, must have skipped that page.

June 13, 2013 | 02:33 AM - Posted by Launa (not verified)

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December 22, 2011 | 01:25 AM - Posted by RashyNuke (not verified)

Ryan what is with porn music...Oh found my 7970 wetspot.

December 22, 2011 | 01:31 AM - Posted by jstnomega (not verified)

given the current state of the art re Vid games, isn't it all still a matter of pushing pixels? if that's the case, then clearly something aint right here - look at the 40nm vs 28nm Pixel Fillrate figures in Ryan's video - barely any gain at all

December 22, 2011 | 01:46 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Pixel fill rate is not really the defining factor right now. It is not how many pixels you can push its what you calculate on those pixels in real-time. Shading power! Oh, and geometry is picking up again in importance.

December 22, 2011 | 02:25 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Great review, its nice to see someone actually moving the technology along, and innovating. Seamlessly it seems, this time.

December 22, 2011 | 10:26 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Agreed. More than than a year with the GTX 6970 and GTX 580 is enough for me.

December 22, 2011 | 03:05 AM - Posted by bjv2370

good review

December 22, 2011 | 04:52 AM - Posted by Irishgamer01

This card is way over priced.
I for one will be sticking to my current setups. For now.
The sweet spot for this level of card is 399.
While performance is better its not enough for me.
I want to see Nvidia's offering. If they hold their current pricing structure, match or better performance, then AMD will be punished big time.

Will give me a certain amount of pleasure, as I hate price milking, just because they can.

December 22, 2011 | 10:27 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Yes, what NVIDIA has to say about GPUs in the next few months will be very important here. Curious to see if Kepler will hold up to its promises.

December 22, 2011 | 06:36 AM - Posted by Metwinge (not verified)

I shall be placing my 2 5870's for one of these as im very impressed by these benchmark scores especially in BF3 as thats the game im playing atm. I have 2 1080p monitors sitting under our tree so i can see these cards taking a bashing with the few high end games i play

Thanks for the excellent review Ryan

December 22, 2011 | 10:27 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Thanks!

And have fun with Eyefinity!

December 22, 2011 | 08:37 AM - Posted by Kevin (not verified)

Great review, but I cant see spending upwards of $600 for it =/

December 22, 2011 | 08:44 AM - Posted by Apostrophe (not verified)

It is a lovely video card - shame the price is a bit high. I do hope Nvidia responds with something equally impressive. 2012 is going to be interesting.

By the way, have you guys considered adding Star Wars: The Old Republic to your battery of tests? It's the biggest MMO to launch in years and I would expect that a large portion of your readers will be interested.

December 22, 2011 | 10:28 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

We did consider it, but didn't have to validate before this article. We still might, depending on how GPU-bound the game is, if it all.

December 22, 2011 | 08:56 AM - Posted by nabokovfan87

Extremely glad the GCN architecture Isn't as terrible as bulldozer ended up. I went to the skyrim page first and was waiting for a huge dissapointment, but yeah.

I am intrigued to see how my box will handle the new card. I have an MSI 4850 512mb and am upgrading to the next card made by the 48xx series team. Sort of amazing to think of the differences in performance is going to be 5-10x better when comparing raw specifications alone.

If anyone is interested I will be doing some benchmarks and testing things out, if PCPER wants to use those for a writeup or discuss it, I would be more then happy to provide it and listen to your thoughts.

CANNOT WAIT!

ALSO: There are a lot of people waiting to upgrade, waiting for the "new stuff" from either to decide on what to do, that is why the pricing is so high right away. Like I said above and I am sure many others will be grabbing the 4950, it is more about upgrading then it is price. These cards last 3-4 years, and the price initially is worth it for the upgrade possibilities and expanded feature set then what is currently available in terms of power usage, temperature, performance, and so on.

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