AMD Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition Video Card Review

Product: AMD Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition
Company: AMD
Author: James Prior
Editor: Charles Oliver
Date: June 21st, 2012

Summary & Conclusions

The AMD Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition puts the red team back on top or at parity depending on the settings you use, in terms of performance. This is reflected in the price, dead even with the GeForce GTX 680. If you're in the market for a new ultra-enthusiast graphics card, you've got two top notch choices. The difference is going to come down which secondary attributes are more important to you. Both side offer 3D, but NVIDIA's is more robust and accessible; however, if you're buying new now, buy the 3D monitor and glasses that work with everything. Both sides offer multi-display but AMD's appears more complete, 4 displays out of the box and the (long, over-long, awaited) promise of six from a single card. AMD has better multi-GPU options, allowing slightly different chips and clocks to operate in AFR mode. NVIDIA has official adaptive vsync, albeit sometimes flawed and actual games with GPU accelerated PhysX, whereas AMD has pushed for GPU physics that works on all platforms but no games using their weapon of choice, OpenCL Bullet. Both vendors have configurable per-game profiles built into the management software.

Both companies have lots of IQ options with FXAA, MLAA, TrAA, SSAA, CSAA, EQAA with varying levels of official support and effectiveness, leaving it at the personal preference level. AMD has better HQV benchmark scores and more video post-processing options, including the AMD platform only Steady Video. Why Steady Video is AMD CPU+GPU/APU platforms only isn't clear, you really ought to get every feature when you buy a $500 video card; you can buy a whole notebook with that feature for less. NVIDIA has multi-display audio, which AMD trumps with their positional audio capabilities. AMD GCN architecture GPUs also feature the Video Codec Engine (VCE) which is starting to be used for accelerating H.264 encoding and enhancement.

The Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition is the big dog for compute, with 4TFLOPs of Single Precision performance and the first GPU card over 1TFLOP of Double Precision, winning the compute perf/w stakes but not necessarily the gaming perf/w ones. On the power and noise front, NVIDIA's reference designs for the GeForce GTX 680 have the edge but not many at this price point will disregard the AIB partner custom designs with factory overclocks, custom coolers and included tweak software. AMD offers ZeroCore Power which ostensibly saves power in display blank and multi-GPU configurations where the cards aren't being used, but the software seems to be a little off-again-on-again for the feature to work; and the whole Ultra Low Power State feature needs to be disabled to get overclocking (even via CCC) to work.

The tuning of PowerTune and new Boost mode is welcome, although it feels like it doesn't go far enough. AMD wanted to ensure all 7970 GHz Edition models had consistent performance, each the same base and Boost clock and so were a little conservative in their specifications. While this leaves headroom for partners to do their own binning and set their own boost clocks, voltages and PowerTune limits, it still feels like there's power being left on the table. The difference between actual consumed power and max board power is important; one is real world usage and the other worst case scenario. For planning purposes, worst case numbers are needed to ensure long term stability and reliability of systems, but that also means inherent overdesign – power, space, money, time; all invested in a scenario that doesn't happen except for outlier cases. Naturally, that untapped potential is of interest to enthusiast gamers who want to wring every last drop of performance from their premium purchase.

This is the other area where AMD has misstepped; partners should be prepped and ready with latest versions of software needed to tweak the Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition to the limit, from the get-go. This isn't the new card, this is the mid-cycle speed bump and everything should be keyed up to leverage that to the maximum. For a company aiming to take back the performance crown and the mindshare that accompanies that, it's disappointing that something central to the key market of the product is going to be lagging, even if just a couple weeks. The launch of the 7970 GHz Edition is soft, with availability from ASUS, Gigabyte, HIS, MSI, Sapphire, TUL and XFX starting in the last week of June and ramping from there. On the subject of production, AMD's Matt Skynner was clear with his statement that 'AMD has no capacity constraints and no yield concerns'.

Overall, a quite impressive refresh with a decent bump in performance over the first gen HD 7970. The naming scheme is a little confusing but consistent with the rest of the product line (GHz Editions, all the way down), although a 7975 might have been more appropriate. If you were considering treating yourself to a new high end GPU, there are plenty of reasons to put this on your shortlist, and AMD just took away nearly all of the reasons to put it number two. As drivers and supplementary software evolve, the position can only improve, leaving little chance for buyer's remorse this summer. A five-star card, worthy of your hard-earned gaming dollars - but wait to see the partner models and their custom coolers, PowerTune limits and Boost clocks before buying.