Conclusions and Final Thoughts


The Southern Islands architecture is the first step from AMD into a much larger world (cue The Force references) outlined by the Fusion System Architecture.  For today’s purposes though, the Tahiti GPU clearly takes the lead as the fastest gaming option available to consumers.  With 2048 stream processors and 3GB of GDDR5 frame buffer the Radeon HD 7970 is the fastest graphics card you can buy that doesn’t depend on multi-GPU technologies.  

In our testing, the HD 7970 simply ran away from the GeForce GTX 580.  In Battlefield 3 the new AMD option was about 13% faster at 1920×1080, the most popular resolution for dedicated PC gamers, and a full 20% faster at the high-end 2560×1600 option.  With the larger frame buffer we can presume then that the performance lead will get larger as we progress into multi-screen gaming options like the 5760×1080 triple-panel configurations.  The Radeon HD 7970 maintains performance leads in other games like DiRT 3 (13% at 2560×1600), Batman: Arkham City (almost 20%), Metro 2033 (about 30%) and Deus Ex: Human Revolution (~43%). 

Skyrim was the one game that really didn’t show a big performance gap between the HD 7970 and the GTX 580 (with the slight nod to the GTX 580 actually) though we do know that title is much more CPU-bound than the others in our test suite.  

The Cayman architecture released almost exactly a year ago doesn’t keep up with Southern Islands and the Radeon HD 6970 2GB finds itself as much as 59% slower than the HD 7970 3GB. 

The EVGA GTX 560 Ti 2Win puts an interesting wrinkle in to the discussion – at a lower cost than the MSRP for the Radeon HD 7970 it offers similar levels of performance in many cases.  There are some instances though where the SLI architecture creates some problems at higher resolutions (2560×1600 and multi-panel) like we saw in Battlefield 3 and even Metro 2033.  The 1GB frame buffer per GPU is likely to blame there.  Also, there are simply more potential hiccups to deal with when using ANY multi-GPU solution whether it be on a single card or two cards so we almost always recommend going with a single GPU of similar performance if the option is available.

Another point that our own Josh Walrath wanted us to tell you here is that the likelihood of performance increases as time passes with the architecture is pretty strong.  With it being the first non-VLIW architecture the AMD team has built we may see dramatic driver-based compiler improvements as the Catalyst team becomes more familiar with the new design.  While we can’t guarantee anything of course, it would make us feel even better about the investment in a Southern Islands part today.

Power and Efficiency

What might make the Radeon HD 7970 3GB even more impressive is that it does all of this in the exact same power envelope as the Radeon HD 6970 2GB.  Both cards pushed our total system power draw to about 350 watts.  That is less than the GTX 580 and much lower than the EVGA GTX 560 Ti 2Win.  Seeing performance increases as large as we did between Cayman and SI, it seems to indicate that the move from the 40nm process to the 28nm process has in fact gone pretty well and, if TSMC can get inventory running, could mean good things for both NVIDIA and AMD going forward.

Also worth noting is the ZeroCore Power Technology that brings the power consumption of the GPU to under a single watt when the screens are put into sleep mode.  And for users that like to go with multi-GPU setups you will be glad to know that this feature will also turn off (even the fans!) the secondary GPUs when you are simply running in Windows.  This should offer noticeable sound and heat dissipation improvements.  


There aren’t really a huge amount of new features for the SI architecture – Eyefinity is still the only single-GPU option for running multiple display gaming configurations and in fact this new GPU may actually offer enough performance to push a 5760×1080 configuration on a single card.  NVIDIA’s GTX 500-series still requires you to have an SLI configuration to get Surround to function and then you dive into the world of multi-GPU issues that we have noted in several places in this review.

The availability of Eyefinity + HD3D is interesting but isn’t really an HD 7970 exclusive; the 12.1 drivers offer this on Radeon 6000 series cards as well.  DDMA (discrete digital multi-point audio) could really change the way users interact with different audio/video sources on their PCs but we are going to have to wait and see implementations of it before making a conclusion there.

Texture filtering has been improved, the new Steady Video 2.0 will be available soon and we have already discussed PowerTune and ZeroCore technologies and what advantages they offer. 

Pricing and Availability

The one area where some people might be hit off-guard with this release is the price of the Radeon HD 7970 3GB graphics card – $549 MSRP.  Let’s compare that to the other cards we benchmarked today and see how it stacks up.

  • AMD Radeon HD 7970 3GB – $549
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580 1.5GB – $499
  • AMD Radeon HD 6970 2GB – $349
  • EVGA GeForce GTX 560 Ti 2Win 2GB – $529

At $50 more than the GeForce GTX 580, a difference of 10%, the HD 7970’s performance actually warrants this price – Tahiti offers performance improvements over the GeForce GTX 580 averaging 23%. 

The Radeon HD 6970 puts up an interesting debate – even though it falls quite a bit behind in terms of relative performance it is $200 less expensive than its new baby brother.  $200 will buy a nice SSD upgrade on your new system, for example.

Finally, the cost of the GTX 560 Ti 2Win from EVGA is right on par with the HD 7970 and both cards offer somewhat similar performance.  Still, as I have reiterated in the past, I will almost always pick a single GPU with the similar performance of a multi-GPU option, all else being equal.

One sad side note: GPU prices are not coming down in this high-end market.  When the GTX 580 launched in November of 2010, it’s MSRP was…$499.  The same price it is selling for today.  When the Radeon HD 6970 2GB launched the following month in December 2010, it sold for $369 – only $20 more than the price of that same card today.  Had NVIDIA had some competition and reason to drop the price on the GTX 580 before today, then the Radeon HD 7970 3GB would likely have been priced much lower than the $549 MSRP that they are going to asking for in early January.  This is a trend we hope we don’t see continue.

AMD has told us that we can expect to see the Radeon HD 7970 3GB for sale in the market on January 9th but with the NDA’s expiring today, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the cards available just after the new year.  

Final Thoughts

If you love fast graphics cards, you are simply going to be infatuated with the new Radeon HD 7970.  For the first time in a couple of generations, AMD will have the fastest single-GPU solution on the market – at least until we see what NVIDIA is going to do later in the year.  The Tahiti GPU offers more than enough horsepower to push past the year-old GTX 580 and take the performance crown and is able to do so using less power than NVIDIA’s GeForce option as well.  With performance and efficiency this impressive we can easily see the upcoming Southern Islands based Radeon 7800 and 7700 cards offering just as compelling a solution to the graphics market. 

Obviously we were hoping for a lower price on the Radeon HD 7970 – even if it isn’t really justified based on today’s market conditions.  Yes yes, I know, you are getting better performance and twice the frame buffer of the GeForce GTX 580 (3GB vs 1.5GB), and for $50 that seems like a pretty reasonable offer for enthusiast gamers that want the best of the best.  

New fastest GPU on the planet

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