While AMD and NVIDIA are consistently revising their GPU architectures, for the most part the changes they make are just that: revisions. It’s only once in a great while that a GPU architecture is thrown out entirely, which makes the arrival of a new architecture a monumental occasion in the GPU industry. The last time we saw this happen was in 2006/2007, when unified shaders and DirectX 10 lead to AMD and NVIDIA developing brand new architectures for their GPUs. Since then there have been some important revisions such as AMD’s VLIW4 architecture and NVIDIA’s Fermi architecture, but so far nothing has quite compared to 2006/2007, until now.

At AMD’s Fusion Developer Summit 2011 AMD announced Graphics Core Next, their next-generation GPU architecture. GCN would be AMD’s Fermi moment, where AMD got serious about GPU computing and finally built an architecture that would serve as both a graphics workhorse and a computing workhorse. With the ever increasing costs of high-end GPU development it’s not enough to merely develop graphics GPUs, GPU developers must expand into GPU computing in order to capture the market share they need to live well into the future.

At the same time, by canceling their 32nm process TSMC has directed a lot of hype about future GPU development onto the 28nm process, where the next generation of GPUs would be developed. In an industry accustomed to rapid change and even more rapid improvement never before have GPU developers and their buyers had to wait a full 2 years for a new fabrication process to come online.

All of this has lead to a perfect storm of anticipation for what has become the Radeon HD 7970: not only is it the first video card based on a 28nm GPU, but it’s the first member of the Southern Islands and by extension the first video card to implement GCN. As a result the Radeon HD 7970 has a tough job to fill, as a gaming card it not only needs to deliver the next-generation performance gamers expect, but as the first GCN part it needs to prove that AMD’s GCN architecture is going to make them a competitor in the GPU computing space. Can the 7970 do all of these things and live up to the anticipation? Let’s find out…

AMD GPU Specification Comparison
  AMD Radeon HD 7970 AMD Radeon HD 6970 AMD Radeon HD 6870 AMD Radeon HD 5870
Stream Processors 2048 1536 1120 1600
Texture Units 128 96 56 80
ROPs 32 32 32 32
Core Clock 925MHz 880MHz 900MHz 850MHz
Memory Clock 1.375GHz (5.5GHz effective) GDDR5 1.375GHz (5.5GHz effective) GDDR5 1.05GHz (4.2GHz effective) GDDR5 1.2GHz (4.8GHz effective) GDDR5
Memory Bus Width 384-bit 256-bit 256-bit 256-bit
Frame Buffer 3GB 2GB 1GB 1GB
FP64 1/4 1/4 N/A 1/5
Transistor Count 4.31B 2.64B 1.7B 2.15B
Manufacturing Process TSMC 28nm TSMC 40nm TSMC 40nm TSMC 40nm
Price Point $549 $350 $160 -

The Radeon HD 7970 is a card of many firsts. It’s the first video card using a 28nm GPU. It’s the first card supporting Direct3D 11.1. It’s the first member of AMD’s new Southern Islands Family. And it’s the first video card implementing AMD’s Graphics Core Next architecture. All of these attributes combine to make the 7970 quite a different video card from any AMD video card before it.

Cutting right to the chase, the 7970 will serve as AMD’s flagship video card for the Southern Islands family. Based on a complete AMD Tahiti GPU, it has 2048 stream processors organized according to AMD’s new SIMD-based GCN architecture. With so many stream processors coupled with a 384bit GDDR5 memory bus, it’s no surprise that Tahiti is has the highest transistor count of any GPU yet: 4.31B transistors. Fabricated on TSMC’s new 28nm High-K process, this gives it a die size of 365mm2, making it only slightly smaller than AMD’s 40nm Cayman GPU at 389mm2.

Looking at specifications specific to the 7970, AMD will be clocking it at 925MHz, giving it 3.79TFLOPs of theoretical computing performance compared to 2.7TFLOPs under the much different VLIW4 architecture of the 6970. Meanwhile the wider 384bit GDDR5 memory bus for 7970 will be clocked at 1.375GHz (5.5GHz data rate), giving it 264GB/sec of memory bandwidth, a significant jump over the 176GB/sec of the 6970.

These functional units are joined by a number of other elements, including 8 ROP partitions that can process 32 ROPs per clock, 128 texture units divided up among 32 Compute Units (CUs), and a fixed function pipeline that contains a pair of AMD’s 9th generation geometry engines. Of course all of this hardware would normally take quite a bit of power to run, but thankfully power usage is kept in check by the advancements offered by TSMC’s 28nm process. AMD hasn’t provided us with an official typical board power, but we estimate it’s around 220W, with an absolute 250W PowerTune limit. Meanwhile idle power usage is looking particularly good, as thanks to AMD's further work on power savings their typical power consumption under idle is only 15W. And with AMD's new ZeroCore Power technology (more on that in a bit), idle power usage drops to an asbolutely miniscule 3W.

Overall for those of you looking for a quick summary of performance, the 7970 is quite powerful, but it may not be as powerful as you were expecting. Depending on the game being tested it’s anywhere between 5% and 35% faster than NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 580, averaging 15% to 25% depending on the specific resolution in use. Furthermore thanks to TSMC’s 28nm process power usage is upwards of 50W lower than the GTX 580, but it’s still higher than the 6970 it replaces. As far as performance jumps go from new fabrication processes, this isn’t as big a leap as we’ve seen in the past.

In a significant departure from the launch of the Radeon HD 5870 and 4870, AMD will not be pricing the 7970 nearly as aggressively as those cards with its launch. The MSRP for the 7970 will be $550, a premium price befitting a premium card, but a price based almost exclusively on the competition (e.g. the GTX 580) rather than one that takes advantage of cheaper manufacturing costs to aggressively undercuts the competition. In time AMD needs to bring down the price of the card, but for the time being they will be charging a price premium reflecting the card’s status as the single-GPU king.

For those of you trying to decide whether to get a 7970, you will have some time to decide. This is a soft launch; AMD will not make the 7970 available until January 9th (the day before the Consumer Electronics Show), nearly 3 weeks from now. We don’t have any idea what the launch quantities will be like, but from what we hear TSMC’s 28nm process has finally reached reasonable yields, so AMD should be in a better position than the 5870 launch. The price premium on the card will also help taper demand side some, though even at $550 this won’t rule out the first batch of cards selling out.

Beyond January 9th, AMD as an entire family of Southern Islands video cards still to launch. AMD will reveal more about those in due time, but as with the Evergreen and Northern Islands families AMD has a plan to introduce a number of video cards over the next year. So 7970 is just the beginning.

Winter 2011 GPU Pricing Comparison
AMD Price NVIDIA
  $750 GeForce GTX 590
Radeon HD 6990 $700  
Radeon HD 7970 $549  
  $500 GeForce GTX 580
Radeon HD 6970 $350 GeForce GTX 570
Radeon HD 6950 2GB $250  
  $240 GeForce GTX 560 Ti
Radeon HD 6870 $160  

 

A Quick Refresher: Graphics Core Next
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  • CeriseCogburn - Thursday, March 08, 2012 - link

    HardOCP shows long in game fps per second charts that show dips and bottom outs are more than one momentary lapse and often are extended time periods of lowest frame rate runs, so I have to respectfully disagree.
    Perhaps the fault is fraps can show you a single instance of lowest frame rate number, and hence it's the analysis that utterly fails - given the time constraints that were made obvious, it is also clear that the extra work it would take for an easily reasoned and reasonable result that is actually of worthy accuracy is not in the cards here.
    Reply
  • thunderising - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    Okay. This card has left me thrilled, but wanting for more. Why?

    Well, for example, every reviewer has hit the CCC Core and Memory Max Limits, which turns into a healthy 10-12% performance boost, all for 10W.

    What, legit reviews got it to 1165MHz core and 6550Mhz memory for a 21-24% increase in performance. Now that's HUGE!

    I think AMD could have gone for something like this with the final clocks, to squeeze out every last bit of performance from this amazing card:

    Core - 1050 MHz
    Memory - 1500 MHz (6000MHz QDR)

    This was not only easily achievable, but would have placed this card at a 8-10% increase in performance all for a mere <10W rise in Load Power.

    Hoping for AIBs like Sapphire to show their magic! HD7970 Toxic, MmmmmmM...

    Otherwise, fantastic card I say.
    Reply
  • Death666Angel - Friday, December 23, 2011 - link

    Maybe they'll do a 4870/4890 thing again? Launch the HD7970 and HD7970X2 and then launch a HD7990 with higher clocks later to counter nVidia.... Who knows. :-) Reply
  • Mishera - Sunday, December 25, 2011 - link

    They've been doing it for quite some time now. Their plan has been to release a chip balancing die size, performance, and cost. Then later to compete on high end release a dual-chip card. Anand wrote on this a while ago with the rv770 story (http://www.anandtech.com/show/2679).

    Even looking at the picture of chip sizes, the 7970 is still a reasonable size. And this really was a brilliant move as though Nvidia has half the marketshare and does make a lot of money from their cards, their design philosophy has been hurting them a lot from a business standpoint.

    On a side note, Amd really made a great choice by choosing to wait until now to push for general computing. Though that probably means more people to support development and drivers, which means more hiring which is the opposite way Amd has been going. It will be interesting to see how this dichotomy will develop in the future. But right now kudos to Amd.
    Reply
  • CeriseCogburn - Thursday, March 08, 2012 - link

    Does that mean amd is abandoning gamers as we heard the scream whilst Nvidia was doing thus ?
    I don't quite get it - now what nvidia did that hurt them, is praise worthy since amd did it, finally.
    Forgive me as I scoff at the immense dichotomy...
    "Perfect ripeness at the perfect time" - sorry not buying it....
    Reply
  • privatosan - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    PRT is a nice feature, but there is an failure in the article:

    'For AMD’s technology each tile will be 64KB, which for an uncompressed 32bit texture would be enough room for a 4K x 4K chunk.'

    The tile would be 128 x 128 texels; 4K x 4K would be quite big for a tile.
    Reply
  • futrtrubl - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    I was going to comment on that too. A 4k x 4k x 32bit (4byte) texture chunk would be around 67MB uncompressed. For a 32bit texture you could only fit a 128x128 array in a 64KB chunk. An 8bit/pixel texture could be 4k*4k Reply
  • Stonedofmoo - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the review. A request though...
    To the hardware sites doing these reviews, many of us in this day and age run dual monitor or more. It always frustrates in me in these reviews that we get a long write up on the power saving techniques the new cards use, and never any mention of it helps those of us running more than one display.

    For those not in the know, if you run more than one display on all the current generations the cards do NOT downclock the GPU and memory nearly as much as they do on single montor configurations. This burns quite a lot more power and obviously kicks out more heat. No site ever mentions this which is odd considering so many of us have more than one display these days.

    I would happily buy the card that finally overcomes this and actually finds a way of knocking back the clocks with multi-monitor setups. Is the new Radeon 7xxx series that card?
    Reply
  • Galcobar - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    It's in the article, on the page entitled "Meet the Radeon 7970."

    Ryan also replied to a similar comment by quoting the paragraph addressing multi-monitor setups and power consumption at the top of page of the comments.

    That's two mentions, and the answer to your question.
    Reply
  • chiddy - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    Ryan,

    Thanks for the great review. My only gripe - and I've been noticing this for a while - is the complete non-mention of drivers or driver releases for Linux/Unix and/or their problems.

    For example, Catalyst drivers exhibit graphical corruption when using the latest version (Version 3) of Gnome Desktop Environment since its release before April. This is a major bug which required most users of AMD/ATI GPUs to either switch desktop environments, switch to Nvidia or Intel GPUs, or use the open source drivers which lack many features. A partial fix appeared in Catalyst 11.9 making Gnome3 usable but there are still elements of screen corruption on occassion. (Details in the "non-official" AMD run bugzilla http://ati.cchtml.com/show_bug.cgi?id=99 ).

    AMD have numerous other issues with Linux Catalyst drivers including buggy openGL implementation, etc.

    Essentially, as a hardware review, a quick once over with non-Microsoft OSs would help alot, especially for products which are marketed as supporting such platforms.

    Regards,
    Reply

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