New GPU Testbed – Sandy Bridge-E, X79, New Games

For this review we decided it was high time we replaced the somewhat dated Nehalem-based infrastructure (even though honestly, it was fast enough) with something a bit more current.  Obviously that meant going with the new Intel Sandy Bridge-E processor and X79 motherboard – by combining support for 40 PCI Express lanes and 3-4 full size GPU slots it makes for the perfect GPU base.

From this point on, our reviews will based around the following system:

  • Intel Core i7-3960X CPU
  • ASUS P9X79 Pro motherboard
  • Corsair DDR3-1600 4 x 4GB Vengeance memory
  • 600GB Western Digital VelociRaptor HDD
  • 1200 watt Corsair Professional Series power supply
  • Windows 7 SP1 x64

The ASUS P9X79 Pro

The Intel Core i7-3960X gives us the fastest consumer-level CPU on the market to help eliminate the possibility of any processor-based bottlenecks in our testing (whenever possible).  There are still going to be some games that could use more speed (Skyrim comes to mind) but for our purposes this is as good as you get without getting into any kind of overclocked settings.  The ASUS P9X79 Pro motherboard has enough space for three dual-slot graphics cards when the time comes for testing 3-Way SLI and CrossFire and 8 DIMM slots should we want to go up from our current setup of 16GB of Corsair Vengeance memory.  

I chose to stick with the 600GB VelociRaptor hard drive rather than an SSD as our total installation size with Windows 7 SP1 x64 and 6+ games was already hitting the 115GB range.  Finally the 1200 watt power supply from Corsair offers up more than enough juice for three power hungry graphics cards while running quietly enough to not throw off our noise testing drastically.

Speaking of noise, for this article we are re-introducing our sound level testing thanks to the Extech 407738 Sound Level Meter capable of monitor decibel ratings as low as 20db.  This allows me to accurately tell you the noise levels generated by the graphics cards that make in-house at PC Perspective.

Along with the new hardware configuration comes a host of new games.  For this review we will be using the following benchmarks and games for performance evaluation:

  • Battlefield 3
  • Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
  • DiRT 3
  • Batman: Arkham City
  • Metro 2033
  • Deus Ex: Human Revolution
  • 3DMark11
  • Unigine Heaven v2.5

This collection of games is both current and takes into account several different genres as well – first person role playing, third person action, racing, first person shooting, etc.  3DMark11 and Unigine Heaven give us a way to see how the cards stack up in a more synthetic environment while the real-world gameplay testing provided by the six games completes the performance picture.

For our GPU comparisons we have an interesting assortment of cards.  Of course we will be putting the new AMD Radeon HD 7970 3GB through the entire test configuration but we need numbers to put beside it to see some context.  The NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580 1.5GB card is currently the top-end single-GPU option on the market so that has to be included along with AMD’s own Radeon HD 6970 2GB – it’s previous top-of-the-line single-GPU card.  

For the fourth card though I threw in a bit of a wrinkle.  Rather than use the HD 6990 or the GTX 590, both of which are much more expensive and nearly impossible to find, I decided to use the EVGA GeForce GTX 560 Ti 2Win.  This card is a dual-GPU option that we reviewed just a short while ago that combines a pair of GTX 560 Ti GPUs on a single PCB.  Because it is priced so similarly to the Radeon HD 7970 and the GTX 580, it is a perfect fit to address the role of "party pooper" and see if these custom solutions can stick it to the reference designs from either company.

  • 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

The comparisons you should be paying particular attention to:

  • HD 7970 vs GTX 580 – The battle for the top end single-GPU graphics card begins and ends here.  Does the HD 7970 finally do what AMD’s HD 6970 could not?
  • HD 7970 vs HD 6970 – With a $200 price premium AMD’s new card better offer quite a bit over the Cayman-based design.
  • HD 7970 vs GTX 560 Ti 2Win – The prices are pretty similar but how do they compare in performance and how does the 1GB frame buffer per GPU on the 2Win card really affect performance at high resolutions?

Now, with that out of the way, let’s get on with the results and see how the brand new AMD Radeon HD 7970 3GB card performs!

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