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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 in 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.

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Top Comments
  • 42 Hide
    danraies , December 22, 2011 3:49 AM
    cangeliniStart treating your SO super-nice and ask for one for Valentine's Day!


    If I ever find someone that will buy me a $500 graphics card for Valentine's Day I'll be proposing on the spot.
  • 30 Hide
    thepieguy , December 22, 2011 3:32 AM
    If Santa is real, there will be one of these under my Christmas tree in a few more days.
  • 25 Hide
    cangelini , December 22, 2011 4:01 AM
    ZombeeSlayer143WOW!!! I love the conslusion; all of it, which basically is interpretted as "I'm biased towards Nvidia," and trys [desperately] to say don't buy this card! Has the nerve to mention Kepler as an alternative; right, Kepler, as in 1 year away. The GTX580 just got "Radeon-ed" in it's rear. I'm not biased towards either manufacturer, just love to see and give credit to a team of people with passion, vision, and hardwork come together and put their company back on the map, as is shown here today with AMD's launch of the 7970. It's AMD's version of "Tebow Time!!"


    Not at all, actually. It offers great gaming performance, and for everything else...we have to wait, because it's not fully baked yet. They say fools rush in. This thing launched today. We were given less than a week with it. It won't be available to even *buy* for another three weeks. Are you telling me you're ready to crown a paper winner, and you're not biased? Please...
Other Comments
  • 30 Hide
    thepieguy , December 22, 2011 3:32 AM
    If Santa is real, there will be one of these under my Christmas tree in a few more days.
  • 12 Hide
    mi1ez , December 22, 2011 3:40 AM
    Damn, that's a good looking GPU!
  • 11 Hide
    cangelini , December 22, 2011 3:40 AM
    a4mulaFrom a gaming standpoint I fail to see where this card finds a home. For 1920x1080 pretty much any card will work, meanwhile at Eyefinity resolutions it's obvious that a single gpu still isn't viable. Perhaps this will be something that people would consider over 2x 6950, but that isn't exactly an ideal setup either. While much of the article was over my head from a technical standpoint, I hope the 7 series addresses microstuttering in crossfire. If so than perhaps 2x 7950 (Assuming a 449$) becomes a viable alternative to 3x 6950 2GB. I was really hoping we'd see the 7970 in at 449, with the 7950 in at 349. Right now I'm failing to see the value in this card.


    I'll be trolling Newegg for the next couple weeks on the off-chance they pop up before the 9th. A couple in CrossFire could be pretty phenomenal, but it remains to be seen if they maintain the 6900-series scalability.
  • 7 Hide
    cangelini , December 22, 2011 3:41 AM
    thepieguyIf Santa is real, there will be one of these under my Christmas tree in a few more days.


    Hate to break it to you, but there won't be, unless you celebrate Christmas in mid-January.

    Start treating your SO super-nice and ask for one for Valentine's Day!
  • 16 Hide
    Darkerson , December 22, 2011 3:48 AM
    Well I know what I want at tax time :D 
  • 42 Hide
    danraies , December 22, 2011 3:49 AM
    cangeliniStart treating your SO super-nice and ask for one for Valentine's Day!


    If I ever find someone that will buy me a $500 graphics card for Valentine's Day I'll be proposing on the spot.
  • -3 Hide
    Zombeeslayer143 , December 22, 2011 3:56 AM
    No hard feelings to the author...thanks for the review nonethless..
  • 25 Hide
    cangelini , December 22, 2011 4:01 AM
    ZombeeSlayer143WOW!!! I love the conslusion; all of it, which basically is interpretted as "I'm biased towards Nvidia," and trys [desperately] to say don't buy this card! Has the nerve to mention Kepler as an alternative; right, Kepler, as in 1 year away. The GTX580 just got "Radeon-ed" in it's rear. I'm not biased towards either manufacturer, just love to see and give credit to a team of people with passion, vision, and hardwork come together and put their company back on the map, as is shown here today with AMD's launch of the 7970. It's AMD's version of "Tebow Time!!"


    Not at all, actually. It offers great gaming performance, and for everything else...we have to wait, because it's not fully baked yet. They say fools rush in. This thing launched today. We were given less than a week with it. It won't be available to even *buy* for another three weeks. Are you telling me you're ready to crown a paper winner, and you're not biased? Please...
  • 10 Hide
    Zombeeslayer143 , December 22, 2011 4:04 AM
    cangeliniHate to break it to you, but there won't be, unless you celebrate Christmas in mid-January.Start treating your SO super-nice and ask for one for Valentine's Day!


    Dude!!! I'm will be glued to NewEgg via my PDA and PC...I'm sooooo ooohhhh getting two of these!! If they sell for $549, I still think they provide the best value based on current high-end single GPU solutions (e.g., GTX 580, 6970, etc). Nvidia may want to consider a 20%-30% price reduction on the 580's once the 7970's are out.
  • -8 Hide
    Zombeeslayer143 , December 22, 2011 4:15 AM
    ZombeeSlayer143Dude!!! I'm will be glued to NewEgg via my PDA and PC...I'm sooooo ooohhhh getting two of these!! If they sell for $549, I still think they provide the best value based on current high-end single GPU solutions (e.g., GTX 580, 6970, etc). Nvidia may want to consider a 20%-30% price reduction on the 580's once the 7970's are out.


    You have a valid argument there. However, it's not like we need to wait for Windows 8 to see what this GPU is made of, as was the case with Bulldozer. What you see is what we will get give or take 5%?????? Heck, I don't even care for the overclocking potential. If the performance was capped at what is shown here today, I'm certain everyone will be happy. But, of course thats not the case, which brings me back to your point; it's too early, don't get excited, it's just on paper right? LOL...sure buddy...I'm so glad NewEgg was sold out of the GTX580 Classified's the past few weeks; would have regretted that purchase.
  • 6 Hide
    masterofevil22 , December 22, 2011 4:15 AM
    Ahhh....I'll be on the EGG myself and on E of Bay with my 6950 (unlocked) the day this beast this arrives!!!!!!! :D 

    WOW...Go ATI!!!!
  • 15 Hide
    jdwii , December 22, 2011 4:18 AM
    Well Amd you did it, Wow it's been a while since i was able to say that, I'm so impressed with these results everything you guys used to fail on you fixed at your GPU division. I'm not going to lie i did not think Amd would pay it off but they did. All i can say is Nice and well done. You guys beat Nvidia with a 28nnm gpu. I just wonder what's going on at nvidia and why their behind on the 28nm die, And their is rumors that Nvidia wont get their new card out until 2Q of 2012!!


    To bad these cards wont be out this year they would make a lot of money. Oh well parents usually buy them self stuff after christmas i guess.
  • 23 Hide
    aznshinobi , December 22, 2011 4:23 AM
    OMG DAT OVERCLOCKING!
    I can't wait to get the 7850 or 7870 and OC the crap out of it!
  • 10 Hide
    Zero_ , December 22, 2011 4:28 AM
    Overclocking like a baws! It DOES beat a GTX590!
  • 13 Hide
    bavman , December 22, 2011 4:42 AM
    Damn, I didn't see this coming from AMD. This card is a beast...it takes on multi-gpu cards...price is a little high, but compared to the performance it looks like an amazing value.
  • 19 Hide
    hardcore_gamer , December 22, 2011 4:48 AM
    I'm getting one of these for my <30nm build (28 nm GPU and 22nm CPU). I'm callin it the "MOORE'S AR$E"
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