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AMD Radeon HD 7970: Promising Performance, Paper-Launched

Radeon HD 7970: Fast, Forward-Looking, But Not Fully Baked

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.