The introduction of a new architecture always carries with it a fair amount of hope and in many cases, a healthy dose of apprehension as well. On one hand, if all the right pieces fall into place a company could be well positioned for the future but if things don’t turn out quite as planned, being tied at the hip to a failed design could have far reaching repercussions. While AMD’s missed opportunity with Bulldozer will go down in history as a disappointment that could stick around for a long time, their Southern Islands family is off to one hell of a roaring start. Not only did the Tahiti XT exceed almost every one of our expectations, with the right amount of massaging this architecture still has plenty of room for future growth.
The list of improvements AMD built into the Graphics Core Next architecture is impressive to say the least, especially on the compute front. Gone is the slightly antiquated VLIW instruction set and in its place is a highly parallelized design that (in some cases) allows for mind blowing performance when compared against previous generations of Radeon cards. This bodes particularly well for any HPC-oriented products based off of the Southern Islands family even though most home users just won’t benefit from high level GPGPU capabilities.
Most of you reading this are interested in gaming performance and let’s be perfectly clear: the HD 7970 3GB represents a giant leap forward for AMD GPU performance. It left the HD 6970 in the dust and handily beat NVIDIA’s GTX 580 in nearly every single game. By looking at the results in individual cases, it’s apparent that AMD’s new flagship card excels in Shogun 2, Deus Ex and The Witcher 2 but it still retains a significant advantage over the GTX 580 in Battlefield 3 and Crysis 2, two areas where driver optimizations could improve performance further. The GTX 580 3GB makes things interesting at extreme detail settings but the result is still a rather convincing win for the HD 7970.
The HD 7970's framerates at 1920 x 1200 may be class leading but it almost begs for an ultra high resolution 27” or 30” monitor in order to really shine. Indeed, when detail settings are cranked and MSAA is increased to higher levels, the 3GB of GDDR5 is able to stretch its legs and the card pulls well ahead of almost every other reference spec single GPU product on the market. At times the HD 7970 even came close to GTX 590 performance levels. So Tahiti XT does have what it takes to pull well ahead of the current competition but the real question here is whether this is enough to stay in the lead throughout 2012.
With gamers and enthusiasts becoming all too aware of the ballooning power requirements and thermal output from modern graphics cards, it was high time something changed. AMD’s approach to finding a solution took several different paths but when combined they really are revolutionary. The new 2D idle power states along with ZeroCore Power will make the HD 7970 all that much easier to live with, particularly for anyone who wants a multi card setup. However, the real star of the show from a gaming standpoint is the efficiency brought to the table by the 28nm manufacturing process. In our testing the HD 7970 consumed less power under load and idle than its predecessor -granted, this could have been due to a low leakage core- which is an incredible accomplishment.
Efficiency may be a huge selling point these days but this GPU tends to stumble in one key area: acoustics. AMD claims to have reworked many of their heatsink’s design elements but we’d still classify the HD 7970 as an overly loud card. The core temperatures may have been great and overclocking came quite easily but without end user input, the fan ramps up far too quickly and makes an absolute racket. We would have much rather seen thermals go into the low 80s than experience decibel levels in the mid 50s.
Let’s be honest here, the HD 7970’s price will likely come as a shock to many but it accomplishes the one thing that AMD’s last generation failed to do: convincingly beat the incumbent NVIDIA flagship in most gaming scenarios. We’re all used to seeing Radeon branded products undercutting the competition but this time AMD has a bona fide top tier card and it’s priced accordingly. That shouldn’t take anything away from the fact that $549 is certainly a hefty amount to pay and retailers may take further advantage of limited supply. Nonetheless, once the initial surprise wears off it becomes clear that the HD 7970’s cost is in line with its relative performance against the current crop of modern GPUs.
For the time being AMD’s HD 7970 sits in a preeminent position within the GPU market and we’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for a high end graphics card. Its combination of extreme performance at every resolution, advanced features and a relatively low power signature make it one of the best products released in the last two years. There are however some nagging questions which mostly revolve around availability and final cost. Aside from the fact that AMD has another paper launch on their hands, supply of 28nm GPUs will be tight for the foreseeable future so we don’t have high expectations for the HD 7970’s initial availability once it actually hits the retail channel. And yet if the planets align and products are ready to buy at a fair price, AMD could very well have an insurmountable lead by the time the competition launches their answering salvo.
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