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

  • B3an - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    Anyone with half a brain should have worked out that being as this was going to be AMD's Fermi that it would not of had a massive increase for gaming, simply because many of those extra transistors are there for computing purposes. NOT for gaming. Just as with Fermi.

    The performance of this card is pretty much exactly as i expected.
  • Peichen - Friday, December 23, 2011 - link

    AMD has been saying for ages that GPU computing is useless and CPU is the only way to go. I guess they just have a better PR department than Nvidia.

    BTW, before suggesting I have suffered brain trauma, remember that Nvidia delivered on Fermi 2 and GK100 will be twice as powerful as GF110
  • CeriseCogburn - Thursday, March 08, 2012 - link

    Well it was nice to see the amd fans with half a heart admit amd has accomplished something huge by abandoned gaming, as they couldn't get enough of screaming it against nvidia... even as the 580 smoked up the top line stretch so many times...
    It's so entertaining...
  • CeriseCogburn - Thursday, March 08, 2012 - link

    AMD is the dumb company. Their dumb gpu shaders. Their x86 copying of intel. Now after a few years they've done enough stealing and corporate espionage to "clone" Nvidia architecture and come out with this 7k compute.
    If they're lucky Nvidia will continue doing all software groundbreaking and carry the massive load by a factor of ten or forty to one working with game developers, porting open gl and open cl to workable programs and as amd fans have demanded giving them PhysX ported out to open source "for free", at which point it will suddenly be something no gamer should live without.
    "Years behind" is the real story that should be told about amd and it's graphics - and it's cpu's as well.
    Instead we are fed worthless half truths and lies... a "tesselator" in the HD2900 (while pathetic dx11 perf is still the amd norm)... the ddr5 "groundbreaker" ( never mentioned was the sorry bit width that made cheap 128 and 256 the reason for ddr5 needs)...
    When you don't see the promised improvement, the radeonites see a red rocket shooting to the outer depths of the galaxy and beyond...
    Just get ready to pay some more taxes for the amd bailout coming.
  • durinbug - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    I was intrigued by the comment about driver command lists, somehow I missed all of that when it happened. I went searching and finally found this forum post from Ryan:

    It would be nice to link to that from the mention of DCL for those of us not familiar with it...
  • digitalzombie - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    I know I'm a minority, but I use Linux to crunch data and GPU would help a lot...

    I was wondering if you guys can try to use these cards on Debian/Ubuntu or Fedora? And maybe report if 3d acceleration actually works? My current amd card have bad driver for Linux, shearing and glitches, which sucks when I try to number crunch and map stuff out graphically in 3d. Hell I try compiling the driver's source code and it doesn't work.

    Thank you!
  • WaltC - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    Somebody pinch me and tell me I didn't just read a review of a brand-new, high-end ATi card that apparently *forgot* Eyefinity is a feature the stock nVidia 580--the card the author singles out for direct comparison with the 7970--doesn't offer in any form. Please tell me it's my eyesight that is failing, because I missed the benchmark bar charts detailing the performance of the Eyefinity 6-monitor support in the 7970 (but I do recall seeing esoteric bar-chart benchmarks for *PCIe 3.0* performance comparisons, however. I tend to think that multi-monitor support, or the lack of it, is far more an important distinction than PCIe 3.0 support benchmarks at present.)

    Oh, wait--nVidia's stock 580 doesn't do nVidia's "NV Surround triple display" and so there was no point in mentioning that "trivial fact" anywhere in the article? Why compare two cards so closely but fail to mention a major feature one of them supports that the other doesn't? Eh? Is it the author's opinion that multi-monitor gaming is not worth having on either gpu platform? If so, it would be nice to know that by way of the author's admission. Personally, I think that knowing whether a product will support multi monitors and *playable* resolutions up to 5760x1200 ROOB is *somewhat* important in a product review. (sarcasm/massive understatement)

    Aside from that glaring oversight, I thought this review was just fair, honestly--and if the author had been less interested in apologizing for nVidia--we might even have seen a better one. Reading his hastily written apologies was kind of funny and amusing, though. But leaving out Eyefinity performance comparisons by pretending the feature isn't relative to the 7970, or that it isn't a feature worth commenting on relative to nVidia's stock 580? Very odd. The author also states: "The purpose of MST hubs was so that users could use several monitors with a regular Radeon card, rather than needing an exotic all-DisplayPort “Eyefinity edition” card as they need now," as if this is an industry-standard component that only ATi customers are "asking for," when it sure seems like nVidia customers could benefit from MST even more at present.

    I seem to recall reading the following statement more than once in this review but please pardon me if it was only stated once: "... but it’s NVIDIA that makes all the money." Sorry but even a dunce can see that nVidia doesn't now and never has "made all the money." Heh...;) If nVidia "made all the money," and AMD hadn't made any money at all (which would have to be the case if nVidia "made all the money") then we wouldn't see a 7970 at all, would we? It's possible, and likely, that the author meant "nVidia made more money," which is an independent declaration I'm not inclined to check, either way. But it's for certain that in saying "nVidia made all the money" the author was--obviously--wrong.

    The 7970 is all the more impressive considering how much longer nVidia's had to shape up and polish its 580-ish driver sets. But I gather that simple observation was also too far fetched for the author to have seriously considered as pertinent. The 7970 is impressive, AFAIC, but this review is somewhat disappointing. Looks like it was thrown together in a big hurry.
  • Finally - Friday, December 23, 2011 - link

    On AT you have to compensate for their over-steering while reading. Reply
  • Death666Angel - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    "Intel implemented Quick Sync as a CPU company, but does that mean hardware H.264 encoders are a CPU feature?" << Why is that even a question. I cannot use the feature unless I am using the iGPU or use the dGPU with Lucid Virtu. As such, it is not a feature of the CPU in my book. Reply
  • Roald - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    I don't agree with the conclusion. I think it's much more of a perspective thing. Comming from the 6970 to the 7970 it's not a great win in the gaming deparment. However the same can be said from the change from 4870 to 5870 to 6970. The only real benefit the 5870 had over the 4870 was DX11 support, which didn't mean so much for the games at the time.

    Now there is a new architechture that not only manages to increase FPS in current games, it also has growing potential and manages to excell in the compute field aswell at the same time.

    The conclusion made in the Crysis warhead part of this review should therefore also have been highlighted as finals words.

    Meanwhile it’s interesting to note just how much progress we’ve made since the DX10 generation though; at 1920 the 7970 is 130% faster than the GTX 285 and 170% faster than the Radeon HD 4870. Existing users who skip a generation are a huge market for AMD and NVIDIA, and with this kind of performance they’re in a good position to finally convince those users to make the jump to DX11.

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