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Radeon HD 7970: Fast, Forward-Looking, But Not Fully Baked

AMD Radeon HD 7970: Promising Performance, Paper-Launched
By , Igor Wallossek

Enthusiasts who’re only interested in gaming might argue that investing staggering amounts of time and money in a complete GPU redesign to better facilitate general-purpose computing tasks is a bold gamble, and we’d certainly agree, especially after witnessing the recent outcome of AMD’s processor division presenting a redesign of its own. Right now, the primary purpose of a high-end graphics card is indisputably to serve up uncontested game performance. Although we’ve watched AMD push its heterogeneous compute initiative for a while now, it’s still a work in progress. And though we’ve tasted the sweet possibilities of GPU-accelerated video transcoding, password cracking, and Wi-Fi brute-forcing, the real-world applications of compute on the desktop are still disappointingly limited. We continue leaning on our CPUs for a majority of tasks. We hold out hope that this stuff will start catching on in a more serious way, though. The HPC space knows what parallelism can do, after all.

Fortunately, the Radeon HD 7970 doesn’t rely on its compute potential to turn heads. It pushes game performance in a big way, too. With months to go before Nvidia can retaliate with its upcoming Kepler architecture, AMD is able to claim it sells samples the fastest single-GPU graphics card—no small achievement for the company more known for its value proposition as of late.

Beyond its frame rates, the Radeon HD 7970 (and, we have to assume, the other 7000-series boards that will follow it), includes a number of interesting features. Some of them, like ZeroCore are truly worthy of praise. Especially in multi-GPU configurations, improved power management should help keep thermals and acoustics in check.

Unfortunately, we aren’t able to speak to the value of several others, or even confirm that they work. AMD rushed this launch to an extent that I don’t think we’ve ever seen before. First, it preempted the introduction of Windows 8, which will realize the Radeon HD 7000-series’ DirectX 11.1 support. Then, it pulled in its debut so far that its software partners—the ones responsible for enabling important stuff like the Video Codec Engine—couldn’t react fast enough to facilitate testing. AMD even jumped the gun on its own driver team. We have to tell you about important features coming in future builds because they’re simply not ready yet. At the very same time, AMD doesn’t have enough Radeon HD 7970 boards on hand to allow for testing Tahiti in CrossFire.

With so many balls up the air, it’s certainly hard to recommend that you take any action right now, and that’s why we’re calling this a preview. We haven’t done extensive-enough testing to feel comfortable making a recommendation one way or the other, even if this card were for sale. How about buying an older high-end card? It’s hard to get excited about the Radeon HD 6970 or GeForce GTX 580 knowing that more 7000-series cards are right behind this one, likely priced to compete. As such, we’re now in a slightly awkward position, waiting for the market to look a little less like murky soup and a little more like firm, tasty Jell-O.

Are there any downright negative points to mention? Its $550 price tag is acceptable compared to the GeForce GTX 580, though we’d like to see it a little lower. If supply is poor after January 9th, when AMD expects the 7970 to start selling, however, there’s a very good chance that street prices will actually end up higher. There’s not much competition for this card, and therefore no catalyst to push prices any lower. It might not be as fast, but the Radeon HD 7970 is definitely more desirable than expensive, quirky, and hard-to-find dual-GPU flagships like the Radeon HD 6990 and GeForce GTX 590. Aside from pricing, we also have to complain about the loud noise created by the reference cooler on our test sample. If you can wait until there’s more selection, you might be well served by purchasing a Radeon HD 7970 from a manufacturer that offers a quieter non-reference cooler, or until we can get our hands on another card to double-check our findings.

As for GPU compute, we don’t deny that there’s some real potential there. We saw some impressive results in the tests we did run, although they were mingled with mediocre ones. It seems clear that AMD’s software framework needs further optimization, and that ISVs need more time to figure out what code is truly able to benefit from the parallelization of a GPU. Only then will we see the same sort of pick-up already in progress in the environments where products like Tesla currently live.

Time will tell if AMD’s commitment to GPU-based compute will pay off. In the short-term, though, its Radeon HD 7970 is a desirable graphics card for gamers looking for great single-GPU performance. It'll take Nvidia’s answer to the Radeon HD 7000 series, based on its next-generation Kepler architecture and expected in the first half of 2012, to contend with this powerhouse. Before you're able to buy it in January, however, we'll have a more in-depth follow-up for your decision-making pleasure.

Display all 9 comments.
  • -3 Hide
    dizzy_davidh , 22 December 2011 12:19
    Why not compare this card against the nVidia 590 rather than the 580?

    There have been several reviews\tests\price & value for money comparisons now at TomsHardware where the best that AMD has to offer has been compared\benchmarked against nVidia products that aren't their best offerings (it could be perceived that TomsHardware is bias in it's reviews as a result!).
  • -1 Hide
    dizzy_davidh , 22 December 2011 12:41
    dizzy_davidhWhy not compare this card against the nVidia 590 rather than...


    I should have read the whole article before commenting. I assumed wrongly that as you hadn't broken down the spec of the 590 on the first page along with the other cards being used in the test, that it wasn't being included.

    That being said, I still have serious doubts over the validity of your benchmarks as I personally average well over 110fps in Battlefield3 with a 4x AA configuration @1080p and ultra video settings so how you managed to get so much lower in your results is beyond me.

    As for my configuration it is all stock setup with no tweaks or overclocking and is comparable to your test setup except for the processor being a non-clocked Intel Core i7 965 @3.20Ghz (Nehalem) Extreme Edition and not the overclocked to 4Ghz Intel Core i5-2500K (Sandy Bridge) used in your testing.

    Perhaps the processor is making a difference (standard extreme i7 bests an overclocked i5 perhaps) but by such a large amount (roughly 29% better in my case) over the results you saw in a similar test is very odd to say the least.

    Perhaps your tweaking is flawed or possibley even causing detrimental effects to your results.
  • 3 Hide
    doive1231 , 22 December 2011 14:09
    The pain of the Bulldozer fiasco must still hurt at AMD but nobody's going to be complaining about this launch (except perhaps your wallet).
  • 0 Hide
    9_breaker , 22 December 2011 16:30
    i cant believe it compares to the 590 and 6990 .
  • 1 Hide
    FinneousPJ , 22 December 2011 18:10
    Impressive preview results, wow!
  • 1 Hide
    dillyflump , 23 December 2011 01:31
    These are going to be some sweet performing cards. Hard to believe this single card has almost as much grunt as the dual gpu 6990 or 590GTX, imagine running a pair or even quadfire. I think anything more than two of these running and even the latest intel cpu's will bottleneck these cards.
  • 0 Hide
    9_breaker , 29 December 2011 22:27
    hardwear heaven has a crossfire review
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , 17 January 2012 16:55
    In my subjective opinion, a little unfair on the noise issue. Graphing a visual difference in 1 decibel, or 0.5 decibel is kinda stretching it. The quietest card in that list is the 580 with 42 idle / 43.5 bf3 load, whereas the 7970 is 42.5 idle (0.5 decibel difference) / 46.5 (3 decibel difference). With such small differences it could be stated that all cards are relatively noisy, except we are comparing a new production card with Stock Cooler with an Aftermarket Cooler. To have such small differences graphed out so significantly, is perhaps just unnecessary squeezing.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , 21 March 2012 13:55
    bitmining performance for 7970 is 550mh/s (Diablominer, cgminer)
    Reviewer used outdated miner. :D 
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