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AMD’s sweet spot strategy, implemented under Rick Bergman, was a very successful way for the company’s graphics team to compete aggressively with regard to performance and power consumption. However, it relied on an effectively-executed dual-GPU solution in order to capture the high-end market. Of course, that approach presented its own challenges—from issues with CrossFire scaling to the quick implementation of multi-GPU game profiles to, more recently, hot, loud cards like the Radeon HD 6990.
Transitioning to 28 nm manufacturing will likely help AMD design this generation’s dual-GPU card—and we can only hope acoustics receive plenty of attention.
More immediately, though, AMD’s single-GPU Radeon HD 7950 holds its own admirably in the high-end space, trading blows with Nvidia’s year-old GeForce GTX 580 in most of the games we tested, cruising right past the GF110-based board in some titles and giving up ground in others.
That the 7950 matches pace with Nvidia's GeForce GTX 580 doesn't impress us much, given the competing card's age. However, AMD does several other things very much right with the Radeon HD 7950. Compute performance, for example, appears to be significantly improved compared to the company’s prior-generation product (and indeed its competition). Innovations in power consumption translate to guilt-free multi-card configurations as second (and reportedly third and fourth) GPUs spin down when they’re idle. CrossFire scaling also looks to be commendable right out of the gate. Those are all attributes that help AMD's second-fastest single-chip solution stand above its most obvious nemesis in Nvidia's portfolio.
Is everything perfect on the beaches of Tahiti? Decidedly not. We weren’t able to get hardware-accelerated encoding working in one of the leading transcode apps, and despite having access to a preview build of an unnamed piece of software with VCE support, AMD’s latest drivers still don’t expose support (more than a month after the Radeon HD 7970 launched, even). Plus, even in the face of downright-chilly load temps, the Radeon HD 7950’s blower generates more noise than the dual-GPU GeForce GTX 590 running through loops of Metro 2033.
Ultimately, enthusiasm for the Radeon HD 7950 is going to be determined by the price at which AMD sells it (Ed.: which we now know should be somewhere around $450) and the amount of supply seen between now and whenever Nvidia is able to answer back. AMD is peddling one single-GPU card that’s faster than Nvidia’s best effort and another that’s comparable. If you want more performance, from an individual card, at least, you'll have to buy a Radeon HD 6990 or GeForce GTX 590. And gosh, I still don’t care for either of those two options.
The cheapest GeForce GTX 580 goes for about $470, while Radeon HD 7970s have crept up $10 to $560. I’d totally be willing to pay a $10 or $20 premium over the 580 for AMD’s new Radeon HD 7950, if only because of the compute potential and power consumption advantage. But I’d also want accelerated encoding to work, and I’d like to see the potential speed-up with VCE factored in.
Let’s see if AMD can get this card’s full suite of capabilities up and running before it has more compelling competition. At an anticipated price tag of $450, it's a cheaper, cooler, and more power-friendly alternative to GeForce GTX 580. In games, there's really no contest in a decision between the two.