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

    I think this card is a kinda fail. Well, maybe it is a driver issue and they'll up the performance 20-25% in the future but it is still not fast enough for such huge jump - 2 nodes down!!!
    It smell like a graphics Bulldozer for AMD. Good ideas on paper but in practice something doesn't work quite right. Raw performance is all that counts (of course raw performance/$).
    If NVIDIA does better than usual this time. AMD might be in trouble. Well, will wait and see.
    Hopefully they'll be able to release improved CPUs and GPUs soon because this generation does not seem to be very impressive.

    I've expected at least triple performance over the previous generation. Maybe the drivers are not that well optimized yet. After all it is a huge architecture change.

    I don't really care that much about that GPU generation but I'm worried that they won't be able to put something impressively new in the next generation of consoles. I really hope that we are not stuck with obsolete CPU/GPU combination for the next 7-8 years again.

    Anyway: massively parallel computing sounds tasty!
  • B3an - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    You dont seem to understand that all them extra transistors are mostly there for computing. Thats mostly what this was designed for. Not specifically for gaming performance. Computing is where this card will offer massive increases over the previous AMD generation.
    Look at Nvidia's Fermi, that had way more transistors than the previous generation but wasn't that much faster than AMD's cards at the time. Because again all the extra transistors were mainly for computing.

    And come on LOL, expecting over triple the performance?? That has never happened once with any GPU release.
  • SlyNine - Friday, December 23, 2011 - link

    The 9700pro was up to 4x faster then the 4600 in certian situations. So yes it has happened. Reply
  • tzhu07 - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    LOL, triple the performance?

    Do you also have a standard of dating only Victoria's Secret models?
  • eanazag - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    I have a 3870 which I got in early 2007. It still does well for the main games I play: Dawn of War 2 and Starcraft 2 (25 fps has been fine for me here with settings mostly maxed). I have eyeing a new card. I like the power usage and thermals here. I am not spending $500+ though. I am thinking they are using that price to compensate for the mediocre yields they getting on 28nm, but either way the numbers look justified. I will be look for the best card between $150-$250, maybe $300. I am counting on this cards price coming down, but I doubt it will hit under $400-350 next year.

    No matter what this looks like a successful soft launch of a video card. For me, anything smokes what I have in performance but not so much on power usage. I'd really not mind the extra noise as the heat is better than my 3870.

    I'm in the single card strategy camp.

    Monitor is a single 42" 1920x1200 60 Hz.
    Intel Core i5 760 at stock clocks. My first Intel since the P3 days.

    Great article.
  • Death666Angel - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    Can someone explain the different heights in the die-size comparison picture? Does that reflect processing-changes? I'm lost. :D Otherwise, good review. I don't see the HD7970 in Bench, am I blind or is it just missing. Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    The Y axis is the die size. The higher a GPU the bigger it is (relative to the other GPUs from that company). Reply
  • Death666Angel - Friday, December 23, 2011 - link

    Thanks! I thought the actual sizes were the sizes and the y-axis meant something else. Makes sense though how you did it! :-) Reply
  • MonkeyPaw - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    As a former owner of the 3870, mine had the short-lived GDDR4. That old card has a place in my nerd heart, as it played Bioshock wonderfully. Reply
  • Peichen - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    The improvement is simply not as impressive as I was led to believed. Rumor has it that a single 7970 would have the power of a 6990. In fact, if you crunch the numbers, it would be at least 50% faster than 6970 which should put it close to 6990. (63.25% increase in transistors, 40.37% in TFLOP and 50% increase in memory bandwidth.)

    What we got is a Fermi 1st gen with the price to match. Remember, this is not a half-node improvement in manufacturing process, it is a full-node and we waited two years for this.

    In any case, I am just ranting because I am waiting for something to replace my current card before GTA 5 came out. Nvidia's GK104 in Q1 2012 should be interesting. Rumored to be slightly faster than GTX 580 (slower than 7970) but much cheaper. We'll see.

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