Just before Christmas AMD hit us with one of the timeless moves in video card marketing, the paper launch. It unveiled the RADEON 7970 and its revamped ‘Graphics Card Next’ architecture without a retail graphics card in sight, much to the annoyance of those hungering for high end performance. Today is the real launch of the card, coming hand in hand with retail availability, and curiously the first products we are seeing in the labs are custom designs, rather than the usual ‘reference card with a sticker’ offerings that we get for early review.
Our first real RADEON HD 7970 comes from XFX, a company that has been curiously quiet over the past year (it didn’t even show off cards at Computex 2011). The wait was worth it though, not only does this RADEON HD 7970 Black Edition Double Dissipation card come pre-overclocked but it has the prettiest design that we have seen in some time. Even the component-ignorant members of the editorial room commented on the ‘Double Dissipation’ heatsink, whose shiny highlights and metallic stylings make it look more like a set of old school decks rather than a new generation video card.
But looks mean very little without performance to back them up, and performance is something that this card packs in spades. This is thanks to the new 28nm AMD GPU, which has been cranked up to 1GHz from its base clock of 925MHz. Alongside this is the standard 3GB of GDDR5 memory.
This translates to some truly astonishing single GPU performance numbers. We tested the card on an ASUS Rampage IV Extreme motherboard, Intel Core i7-3960X CPU with 8GB of G.Skill DDR3 in order to minimise bottlenecks, and the results were incredibly impressive. We saw 3DMark11 scores of P8093 and X2571 – in the same system with an ASUS GeForce GTX 580 Direct CU II the scores were P7094 and X2212.
Moving on to the now aging, but still taxing, Crysis tests the XFX 7970 delivered 72.05fps in our Very High detail benchmark, again beating out the GTX 580 which scored 68.99 (to be fair, Crysis appears to have hit the point where its CPU-limited nature makes it a poor judge of new generation GPUs).
Curious at how the new architecture positions AMD in the tessellation stakes we fired up Unigine Heaven Pro and ran our standard tests at both normal and extreme tessellation settings. NVIDIA historically has an advantage in these benchmarks because of its heavy focus on tessellation units in its Fermi architecture. We were pleasantly surprised to see the 7970 competing with the GTX 580 – in the normal test the 7970 scored 36.3 fps versus the GTX 580’s 35.4fps and in the extreme detail run the 7970 delivered 29.6fps to the GTX 580’s even 29 fps.
Given the 7970’s performance advantages in our other benchmarks the GTX 580 can still be considered a better tessellator on a clock for clock basis, however it shows that AMD’s new architecture is more than comfortable with heavier tessellation loads, and in reality there should be no appreciable difference when running tessellated games.
This really is an astonishing piece of graphics hardware, and the fastest single card solution on the market. It smacks the still excellent GeForce GTX 580 around in the benchmarks, but you won’t notice any performance difference in the real world unless you're running ridiculously high resolutions and/or Eyefinity. In our experience with it so far we haven’t found any circumstance with a single 2560 x 1440 screen where the card stumbles – no matter what game we threw at it the card delivered.
Therein lies the rub. We can happily say that the RADEON HD 7970 is the fastest GPU on the planet, and this XFX Black Edition Double Dissipation version is the fastest 7970 we have seen (not to mention VERY pretty). But unless you're running an Eyefinity setup it's overkill when compared with previous generation hardware. With a pricetag of $799 the XFX card is also over $200 more expensive than a GeForce GTX 580, which delivers just as good single screen performance. One thing is for sure, the middle to lower end of the RADEON 7000 range is going to be freaking amazing.