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
  $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


View All Comments

  • Zingam - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    And at the time when it is available in D3D. AMD's implementation won't be compatible... :D That's sounds familiar. So will have to wait for another generation to get the things right. Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    As for your question about FP64, it's worth noting that of the FP64 rates AMD listed for GCN, "0" was not explicitly an option. It's quite possible that anything using GCN will have at a minimum 1/16th FP64. Reply
  • Sind - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    Excellent review thanks Ryan. Looking forward to see what the 7950 performance and pricing will end up. Also to see what nv has up their sleeves. Although I can't shake the feeling amd is holding back. Reply
  • chizow - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    Another great article, I really enjoyed all the state-of-the-industry commentary more than the actual benchmarks and performance numbers.

    One thing I may have missed was any coverage at all of GCN. Usually you guys have all those block diagrams and arrows explaining the changes in architecture. I know you or Anand did a write-up on GCN awhile ago, but I may have missed the link to it in this article. Or maybe put a quick recap in there with a link to the full write-up.

    But with GCN, I guess we can close the book on AMD's past Vec5/VLIW4 archs as compute failures? For years ATI/AMD and their supporters have insisted it was the better compute architecture, and now we're on the 3rd major arch change since unified shaders, while Nvidia has remained remarkably consistent with their simple SP approach. I think the most striking aspect of this consistency is that you can run any CUDA or GPU accelerated apps on GPUs as old as G80, while you even noted you can't even run some of the most popular compute apps on 7970 because of arch-specific customizations.

    I also really enjoyed the ISV and driver/support commentary. It sounds like AMD is finally serious about "getting in the game" or whatever they're branding it nowadays, but I have seen them ramp up their efforts with their logo program. I think one important thing for them to focus on is to get into more *quality* games rather than just focusing on getting their logo program into more games. Still, as long as both Nvidia and AMD are working to further the compatibility of their cards without pushing too many vendor-specific features, I think that's a win overall for gamers.

    A few other minor things:

    1) I believe Nvidia will soon be countering MLAA with a driver-enabled version of their FXAA. While FXAA is available to both AMD and Nvidia if implemented in-game, providing it driver-side will be a pretty big win for Nvidia given how much better performance and quality it offers over AMD's MLAA.

    2) When referring to active DP adapter, shouldn't it be DL-DVI? In your blurb it said SL-DVI. Its interesting they went this route with the outputs, but providing the active adapter was definitely a smart move. Also, is there any reason GPU mfgs don't just add additional TMDS transmitters to overcome the 4x limitation? Or is it just a cost issue?

    3) The HDMI discussion is a bit fuzzy. HDMI 1.4b specs were just finalized, but haven't been released. Any idea whether or not SI or Kepler will support 1.4b? Biggest concern here is for 120Hz 1080p 3D support.

    Again, thoroughly enjoyed reading the article, great job as usual!
  • Ryan Smith - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the kind words.

    Quick answers:

    2) No, it's an active SL-DVI adapter. DL-DVI adapters exist, but are much more expensive and more cumbersome to use because they require an additional power source (usually USB).

    As for why you don't see video cards that support more than 2 TMDS-type displays, it's both an engineering and a cost issue. On the engineering side each TMDS source (and thus each supported TMDS display) requires its own clock generator, whereas DisplayPort only requires 1 common clock generator. On the cost side those clock generators cost money to implement, but using TMDS also requires paying royalties to Silicon Image. The royalty is on the order of cents, but AMD and NVIDIA would still rather not pay it.

    3) SI will support 1080P 120Hz frame packed S3D.
  • ericore - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    Core Next: It appears AMD is playing catchup to Nvidia's Cuda, but to an extent that halves the potential performance metrics; I see no other reason why they could not have achieved at varying 25-50% improvement in FPS. That is going to cost them, not just for marginally better performance 5-25%, but they are price matching GTX 580 which means less sales though I suppose people who buy 500$ + GPUs buy them no matter what. Though in this case, they may wait to see what Nvidia has to offer.

    Other New AMD GPUs: Will be releasing in February and April are based on the current architecture, but with two critical differences; smaller node + low power based silicon VS the norm performance based silicon. We will see very similar performance metrics, but the table completely flips around: we will see them, cheaper, much more power efficient and therefore very quiet GPUs; I am excited though I would hate to buy this and see Nvidia deliver where AMD failed.

    Thanks Anand, always a pleasure reading your articles.
  • Angrybird - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    any hint on 7950? this card should go head to head with gtx580 when it release. good job for AMD, great review for Ryan! Reply
  • ericore - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    I should add with over 4 billion transistors, they've added more than 35% more transistors but only squeeze 5-25% improvement; unacceptable. That is a complete fail in that context relative to advancement in gaming. Too much catchup with Nvidia. Reply
  • Finally - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    ...that saying? It goes like this:
    If you don't show up for a race, you lose by default.
    Your favourite company lost, so their fanboys may become green of envydia :)

    Besides that - I'd never shell out more than 150€ for a petty GPU, so neither company's product would have appealed to me...
  • piroroadkill - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    Wait, catchup? In my eyes, they were already winning. 6950 with dual BIOS, unlock it to 6970.. unbelievable value.. profit??

    Already has a larger framebuffer than the GTX580, so...

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