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Radeon HD 7800s: Great Performance, Price, And Power. But Are They Ready?

AMD Radeon HD 7870 And 7850 Review: Pitcairn Gets Benchmarked
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Before we go any further, consider the aggregate average game performance at 1920x1080:

The Radeon HD 7870 and 7850 offer impressive performance, extremely low power usage, and attractive estimated prices (at least in North America; we're sorry, Europeans) compared to cards offering similar performance. They run coolly and quietly, making them easy to live with, too. That covers the most important questions gamers ask when they hear about new graphics cards. From almost every angle, consider us impressed. Sure, we could complain yet again about the lack of VCE support several months after AMD announce the feature, but that doesn’t affect these cards’ ability to play games.

Unfortunately, our in-depth evaluations in two different labs at opposite ends of the world turned up a handful of unexpected issues, too. Igor Wallsosek in our German office reports back with a lot of Radeon HD 7850-related issues: NewTek’s LightWave crashes with 4x AA or higher, Autodesk’s 3ds Max crashes in DirectX mode, and the card is incapable of running StarCraft II at its stock clocks. It would be tempting to chalk all of that up to a bad sample, but we had problems with our 7850 as well. World of Warcraft was particularly unstable, requiring a restart after every crash. And sometimes our test bed simply wouldn’t boot with the 7850 installed. Then there’s the whole issue of texture quality issues on both of the new 7800s. Oof.

We’ve never seen a graphics card with so much potential for $250. But there are clearly issues to work out of the Radeon HD 7850. In this case, a paper launch might be the best possible thing for AMD, especially if it needs to tweak hardware specs and the driver. Interestingly, AMD claims that none of its partners plan to use the reference board design. If our problems are specific to AMD’s implementation, shipping 7850s could be better behaved. With weeks to go before these cards are available, we’re able to reserve judgement. On the other hand, both of the Radeon HD 7870s in our labs work great, so there’s little stopping us from recommending that card. Priced at $350, it performs a lot like the $470-ish GeForce GTX 580 and the $465 Radeon HD 7950. At this point, it’s hard to see spending extra money on either of those two technically higher-end boards unless you need a firmware selector switch (which the 7950 offers) or a three-/four-way multi-card setup. We can’t issue the Radeon HD 7870 an award, since it’s not available for sale, but consider us impressed. 

There’s just one little caveat. We already know that Nvidia’s next-gen architecture is very near on the horizon. We already have to wait for the Radeon HD 7800s to hit store shelves. Could it be so bad to wait a little while longer to see how Kepler does? As a rule, I feel that waiting for “the next big thing” is a fool’s game when it comes to technology. But with two new architectures on the cusp of going head-to-head, weeks apart, this could an exception to that personal policy.

Update: We’ve been working to diagnose the source of our stability issues with the Radeon HD 7850 card provided to us by AMD. Additionally, the company sent us a second card for testing.

Our efforts reveal compatibility issues with our original Core i7-3000-series test platform. A second configuration, built using a Gigabyte X58A-UD3R motherboard and Core i7-920 CPU, is much more stable with the Radeon HD 7850 installed. In fact, we’re able to overclock both samples in excess of 1 GHz, although we still experience crashes at in World of Warcraft with 4x MSAA at stock clocks. Given additional testing, we’re also seeing instability with the 7870 in WoW with anti-aliasing applied. We have to suspect that there’s a game or driver issue at fault.

To recap, both Radeon HD 7850s are unstable on our Sandy Bridge E-based configuration. Sometimes it takes multiple attempts to boot up. Other times we encounter texturing anomalies. This is puzzling because no other graphics cards demonstrate stability problems on this platform, including the Radeon HD 7870 sample based on an identical reference PCB.

As for our Tom’s Hardware lab in Germany, the sample there suffers intolerance to overclocking on multiple test beds, and needs to be underclocked slightly in order to complete a StarCraft II benchmark. This card also demonstrates instability when using professional workstation apps in OpenGL mode: Lightwave crashes when 4x MSAA is applied, and Maya is generally unreliable under OpenGL.

With this new information in hand, we’re inclined to believe the Radeon HD 7850 problems in the Tom’s Hardware US lab are primarily related to platform compatibility, whereas the Tom’s Hardware DE lab received a problematic sample. Based on this, we’re hopeful that the Radeon HD 7850s that ship to retail won’t exhibit the issues experienced by either Tom’s Hardware office. We’re looking forward to testing its overclocking capabilities in a future piece.

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