Sapphire HD 7970 3GB Review

ccokeman - 2011-11-11 16:37:53 in Video Cards
Category: Video Cards
Reviewed by: ccokeman   
Reviewed on: January 9, 2012
Price: $549

Introduction:

Back right before Christmas AMD took the wraps off their latest GPU architecture code named Southern Islands. This architecture rang in the drop to a 28nm process with what AMD calls a revolutionary architecture to drive computing power to +1.4x the previous generation. Along the way we also get a move to PCIe 3 support, 3GB of high speed GDDR5 memory, DX 11.1 compliance, Power Tune and Zero Core power technologies and Eyefinity 2.0 that brings its own new feature sets. AMD's GCN or Graphics Core Next Tahiti core is a step away from the VLIW design to a non VLIW SIMD engine for higher computing performance. This new core comes with a large increase in the transistor count to 4.31 Billion, an increase in the streaming processor count to 2048 with 32 raster units, 128 texture units and finally a move to a 384bit wide memory bus that drives compute performance and memory bandwidth scaling upwards. All this together on paper looks pretty significant and should drive gaming performance to new levels.

Closer Look:

The Sapphire Radeon HD 7970 comes packed much like many of Sapphires offerings with a fair amount of information highlighted including the 28nm manufacturing process technology, Eyefintiy, AMD APP, Displayport, PCIe 3 and the dual bios feature, included HDMI cable and 3GB of onboard GDDR5 memory. The front panel has Ruby dressed for some Black ops instead of flaunting her sexuality. The back panel has many of the capabilities and specifications listed including a brief description of the new GCN architecture, GDDR5 memory, Eyefinity 2.0, and HDMI 1.4a audio support.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opening the package we find the Sapphire HD 7970 securely packed in a formed cardboard tray with a separate box for the included accessories. Sapphire is committed to using recyclable materials for the packaging.

 

 

The accessory bundle is one thing that can drive the purchase of a card based on how complete the bundle is. Sapphire has included just about all the items one could need to hook this card up in many different scenarios including an Eyefinity multi monitor solution. The included accessories include power adapters to supplement the power connectivity of the power supply, a high speed HDMI cable, Crossfire bridge connection, DVI to VGA adapter, Mini Display Port to HDMI dongle, Mini Display Port to SL-DVI Active dongle, HDMI to SL-DVI Adapter, driver disk and manual.

 

 

Many have already seen the reference cards but let's see what Sapphire has in store for this offering and how it performs.

Closer Look:

As graphics cards become more powerful they seem to have a way of expanding their footprint. Not so with the HD 7970 as it maintains the same 10.5 inch footprint but is a little slimmer thanks to some styling tweaks designed to improve airflow into the card. The Sapphire HD 7970 is a reference card with the stock vapor chamber cooling solution under the lid that will still occupy two slots. This first offering is based off AMD's Southern Islands "Tahiti" core designed for the enthusiast sector with Pitcairn and Cape Verde to follow to fill the product stack full of 28nm parts. From the front side you can see the latest AMD styling in Red and Black with Sapphires logo prominently placed. The new fan assembly is said to move more air and improve on acoustics. The back side of the card is devoid of any memory IC's or back plate cooling save for the socket heat sink retention bracket across the back of the core. Laying an HD 6970 side by side shows how the shroud has changed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Connectivity on the HD 7970 has been paired down to improve cooling and reduce the noise generated by the squirrel cage fan. This leaves a single DL DVI, 2 Mini DisplayPort 1.2 connections and an HDMI port that supports the HDMI 1.4a standard. By using an MST hub or daisy chaining Displayport monitors you can get up to six displays in an Eyefinity setup out of the pair of Mini DP ports. With Eyefinity 2.0 these connections also support independent audio streams for each video stream so you can have the video along with the audio. The back end of the card sees a significant change from the Northern Islands builds with a rounded shape to allow higher airflow when cards are placed in a CrossfireX configuration. AMD has redesigned the fan to again reduce the noise from the fan. In this case it's an improvement but it still does not remove the noise entirely when the fan speed is turned up. However with the implementation of ZeroCore Power technology, you do get a break when running Crossfire as the fan on any secondary card powers down until the 3D horsepower is needed.

 

 

On the Sapphire HD 7970 CrossfireX is supported up to four cards by way of the dual Crossfire bridge connections. By using more than one card image quality settings can be increased without the associated performance penalties and would prove helpful in larger resolutions and especially in Eyefinity mode. Behind the Crossfire Bridge connections is a small switch seen first on the Northern Islands Cayman based HD 6970. This dual BIOS switch has one side as a protected BIOS while the second position allows for custom BIOS flashes without fear of bricking the card. A bad flash can be remedied with the flick of a switch. The power connections for this card include both an 8 pin and 6 pin connection. By looking at the solder traces on the back of the PCB it looks like a dual 8 pin could have been implemented but was not used with a maximum board power requirement of 250 watts.

 

 

Under the redesigned shroud is a large vapor chamber based cooling solution permanently attached to the aluminum plate used to help manage the thermal load generated by the rest of the board components including the power circuits and memory.

 

 

The basis for the HD 7970 is AMD's all new Tahiti 28nm architecture. Not only is there a process shrink but an increase in transistors to 4.31 billion, the stream processor count jumps to 2048, texture units to 128 while the ROP's stay at 32. GDDR5 memory is used with an increase in capacity to 3GB on a 384bit bus. This drives up compute performance to 3.79 TFLOPs and memory bandwidth up to 264 GB/s. The new architecture gets higher clock speeds on the GCN core with a boost to a conservative 925Mhz while the 3GB of GDDR5 runs at 1375Mhz. 12 Hynix GDDR5 modules with part number H5GQ2H24MFR-R0C are used to make up the 3GB frame buffer and are rated to run at 1500Mhz. Software based voltage control should be easy to come by with the use of the CHIL voltage controller.

 

 

The new GCN architecture has been thoroughly discussed on a multitude of places since the early paper launch back in December so I will move on to the testing and overclocking sections of the review to show what this card is capable of.

Specifications:

Output
1 x Dual-Link DVI
1 x HDMI 1.4a
2 x Mini-DisplayPort
DisplayPort 1.2
GPU
925 MHz Core Clock
28 nm Chip
2048 x Stream Processors
Memory
3072 MB Size
384 -bit GDDR5
5500 MHz Effective
Dimension
275(L)x115(W)x36(H) mm Size.
Software
Driver CD
SAPPHIRE TriXX Utility
Accessory
CrossFire™ Bridge Interconnect Cable
8 PIN to 4 PIN Power Cable
Mini Display Port to HDMI dongle
Mini DP to SL-DVI Passive dongle
6 PIN to 4 PIN Power Cable
HDMI to SL-DVI Adapter
HDMI 1.4a high speed 1.8 meter cable(Full Retail SKU only)
Mini Display Port to SL-DVI Active dongle

 

Features:

 

 


All information courtesy of Sapphire Technology @ http://www.sapphiretech.com/presentation/product/?cid=1&gid=3&sgid=1157&pid=1461&psn=&lid=1&leg=0

Testing:

Testing of the Sapphire Radeon HD 7970 will consist of running it and comparison cards through the OverclockersClub.com suite of games and synthetic benchmarks. This will test the performance against many popular competitors. Comparisons will be made to cards of equal and greater capabilities to show where they fall on the performance ladder. The games used are some of today's newest and most popular titles to give you an idea of how the cards perform relative to each other.

The system specifications will remain the same throughout the testing. No adjustment will be made to the respective control panels during the testing, with the exception of the 3DMark Vantage testing, where PhysX will be disabled in the NVIDIA control panel if applicable. I will test the cards at stock speeds, then overclocked in order to see the effects of any increases in clock speed. The cards are placed in order from highest to lowest performing in the graphs to show where the cards fall by comparison. The drivers used are the 11.12 Catalyst drivers for AMD-based cards and the 290.53 for NVIDIA-based cards.

 

Comparison Video Cards:

 

Overclocking:

After seeing the paper launch reviews and how just about everyone got over the 1000Mhz mark on the core there looked to be some promise for big clock speeds from AMD with this new Southern Islands Tahiti core. 1000Mhz is just the staring point it seems as this card was able to max out the limits in the Catalyst Control center and was looking for even more speed than it had available. Reaching 1125Mhz on the core with just a move of a slider required no extra voltage including the power tune voltage that is available in the CCC. Maxing out the memory clocks was just as uneventful with the CCC limit of 1575Mhz in place. These clock speeds show that there is at least 200Mhz of headroom on both the GPU cores and on the GDDR5 memory. Pretty significant upswings on both counts. Without extra voltage needs the temperatures of the GPU stayed consistent. By manually adjusting the fan speed to 100% the load temperature peaked at only 57C when overclocked. I have to say I am looking forward to either BIOS or software utilities to get rid of the limits in the CCC to see where this card will go. Cranking up the fan speed on AMD cards in the past has helped temperatures at the expense of noise. AMD has improved the noise and cooling this go round with a new fan designs and opening up the mounting bracket by removing the secondary DVI port to allow more airflow through the chassis. More cooling and lower noise help, but the old squirrel cage still has a way to go when really ramped up. 200Mhz 21% on the core and just under 15% worth of memory clock speed all for the taking looks like a bright future for this round of the Video card wars.

 

 

Maximum Clock Speeds:

Testing for the maximum clock speed consists of looping Crysis Warhead and Unigine 2.5 for 30 minutes each to see where the clock speeds will fail when pushed. If the clock speed adjustment fails, then the clock speeds and tests are rerun until they pass the full hour of testing.

 

 

  1. Metro 2033
  2. Batman Arkham City
  3. Battlefield 3
  4. HAWX 2
  5. Unigine Heaven Benchmark 2.5
  6. Dirt 3
  7. Mafia II
  8. 3DMark 11
  1. Temperature
  2. Power Consumption

Testing:

Part first-person shooter, part survival horror, Metro 2033 is based on the novel of the same name, written by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. You play as Artyom in a post-apocalyptic Moscow, where you'll spend most of your time traversing the metro system, with occasional trips to the surface. Despite the dark atmosphere and bleak future for mankind, the visuals are anything but bleak. Powered by the 4A Engine, with support for DirectX 11, NVIDIA PhysX and NVIDIA 3D Vision, the tunnels are extremely varied — in your travels, you'll come across human outposts, bandit settlements, and even half-eaten corpses. Ensuring you feel all the tension, there is no map and no health meter. Get lost without enough gas mask filters and adrenaline shots and you may soon wind up as one of those half-eaten corpses — chewed up by some horrifying manner of irradiated beast that hides in the shadows just waiting for some hapless soul to wander by.

 

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Higher = Better

 

In the Metro 2033 testing, the Sapphire HD 7970 starts off with a strong performance in both resolutions both stock and overclocked.

Testing:

Batman Arkham City is the sequel to Batman Arkham Asylum released in 2009. This action adventure game based on DC Comics Batman super hero was developed by Rocksteady Studios and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. Batman Arkham City uses the Unreal 3 engine.

 

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Higher = Better

 

In the Batman Arkham City testing the Sapphire HD 7970 seems to over achieve on just about all counts with the settings used showing the strength of this new card from AMD and its partners.

Testing:

Battlefield 3 "is a first-person shooter video game developed by EA Digital Illusions CE and published by Electronic Arts." Battlefield 3 uses the Frostbyte 2 game engine and is the direct successor to Battlefield 2. Released in North America on October 25, 2011 the game supports DirectX 10 and 11.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Higher = Better

 

When compared to the previous generation Cayman based HD 6970 the Tahiti based HD 7970 shows substantial performance gains in this game.

Testing:

H.A.W.X. 2 is an arcade-style flight game and is the sequel to H.A.W.X.. The Game is published by Ubisoft and was released in late 2010.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Higher = Better

 

When compared to the previous generation Cayman based HD 6970 the Tahiti based HD 7970 shows substantial performance gains in this game.

Testing:

Unigine Heaven Benchmark 2.5 is a DirectX 11 GPU benchmark based on the Unigine engine. This was the first DX 11 benchmark out to allow testing of DX 11 features. What sets the Heaven Benchmark apart is the addition of hardware tessellation, available in three modes — Moderate, Normal and Extreme. Although tessellation requires a video card with DirectX 11 support and Windows Vista/7, the Heaven Benchmark also supports DirectX 9, DirectX 10, DirectX 11 and OpenGL 4.0. Visually, it features beautiful floating islands that contain a tiny village and extremely detailed architecture.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Higher = Better

 

In both resolutions stock and overclocked the Sapphire HD 7970 puts out the images at a faster pace.

Testing:

Dirt 3 is the third iteration of this series. Published and Developed by Codemasters this game uses the EGO 2.0 game engine and was released in the US on PC in May of 2011.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Higher = Better

 

In this AMD branded game the HD 7970 is up and down against the GTX 580. The big overclock on the GTX 580 helps in this game more than the overclock on the HD 7970.

Testing:

Mafia II is a third-person shooter that puts you into the shoes of a poor, Sicilian immigrant, Vito Scarletta. Vito has just returned home from serving overseas in the liberation of fascist Italy — to avoid serving his jail sentence — to find his family in debt. The debt must be repaid by the end of the week, and his childhood friend, Joe Barbaro, conveniently happens to have questionable connections that he assures will help Vito clear the debt by that time. As such, Vito is sucked into a world of quick cash. Released in North America for PC in August of 2010, the game was developed by 2K Czech published by 2K and uses the Illusion 1.3 game engine.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Higher = Better

 

The Sapphire HD 7970 continues to scale well and offer up excellent performance both at stock and overclocked speeds.

Testing:

3DMark 11 is the next installment for Futuremark in the 3DMark series with Vantage as its predecessor. The name implies that this benchmark is for Microsoft DirectX 11 and with an unintended coincidence, the name matches the upcoming date in number (which was the naming scheme to some prior versions of 3DMark nonetheless). 3DMark 11 is designed solely for DirectX 11 so Windows Vista or 7 are required along with a DirectX 11 graphics card in order to run this test. The Basic Edition has unlimited free tests on performance mode whereas Vantage is only allowed for a single test run. The advanced edition costs $19.95 and unlocks nearly all of the features of the benchmark and the professional edition runs $995.00 and is mainly suited for corporate use. The new benchmark contains six tests, four of which are aimed only at graphical testing, one to test for physics handling and one to combine graphics and physics testing together. The open source Bullet Physics library is used for physics simulations and although not as mainstream as Havok or PhysX, it still seems to be a popular choice.

With the new benchmark comes two new demos that can be watched, both based on the tests but unlike the tests, these contain basic audio. The first demo is titled "Deep Sea" and have a few vessels exploring what looks to be a sunken U-Boat. The second demo is titled "High Temple" and is similar to South American tribal ruins with statues and the occasional vehicle around. The demos are simple in that they have no story, they are really just a demonstration of what the testing will be like. The vehicles have the logos of the sponsors MSI and Antec on their sides with the sponsorships helping to make the basic edition free. The four graphics tests are slight variants of the demos. I will use the three benchmark test preset levels to test the performance of each card. The presets are used as they are comparable to what can be run with the free version so that results can be compared across more than just a custom set of test parameters.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Higher = Better

 

In the 3DMark11 testing, the Sapphire HD 7970 delivers a higher level of performance than the GTX 580 in both stock and overclocked configurations.

Testing:

Eyefinity & Surround:

This page will show how each card in the testing can run at a resolution of 5760x1080 in either Surround or Eyefinity mode. Higher and lower end cards are being pushed to deliver on this type of display solution for gamers as well as in office productivity. The reality is that a high end GPU is required for gaming at this resolution with moderate AA and AF settings. I will be using the same settings used in the standard GPU testing to run each card with a single large surface display. For the display I will be using three ASUS VG236 120Hz 3D capable monitors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Higher = Better

 

The HD 7970 is the only single GPU video card capable of reaching over 30 FPS in these game tests using the same setting used for the balance of the testing. Unigine's Heaven benchmark is the exception to the rule as even the dual GPU cards struggle to reach 30 FPS.

Testing:

Temperature testing will be accomplished by loading the video card to 100% using Unigine's Heaven Benchmark Version 2.5 with MSI's Afterburner overclocking utility for temperature monitoring. I will be using a resolution of 1920x1200 using 8xAA. I will use a 5-run sequence to run the test, ensuring that the maximum thermal threshold is reached. The fan speed will be left in the control of the driver package and video card's BIOS for the stock load test, with the fan moved to 100% to see the best possible cooling scenario for the overclocked load test. The idle test will be a 20-minute cooldown with the fan speeds left on automatic in the stock speed testing and bumped up to 100% when running the overclocked idle and load testing.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

  

Lower = Better

The temperatures delivered by the Sapphire HD 7970 show that the work AMD did on the fan and opening up the opening on the mounting bracket pay dividends when compared to the last gen HD 6970. There was an 8 degree delta between the two cards. When overclocked the the delta between the Sapphire HD 7970 and the HD 6970 remains a constant.

Testing:

Power Consumption of the system will be measured in both idle states and loaded states and will take into account the peak voltage of the system with each video card installed. I will use Unigine's Heaven Benchmark version 2.5 to put a load onto the GPU using the settings below. A 15 minute load test will be used to heat up the GPU with the highest measured temperature used as the result. The idle results will be measured after 15 minutes of inactivity on the system. With dual GPU setups the two core temperatures will be averaged.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

Lower = Better

 

The idle test results both at stock and overclocked speeds show that the power management and Zero Core power reduces power at idle. Under load with no increase in CPU core voltage there was no increase in power consumed.

Conclusion:

When you get down to it in the end what we all want from a new release is to see it out perform not only the prior generation parts it replaces but the competitors best part in its class. The Sapphire HD 7970 does that in spades as the saying goes. It delivers performance well above that of the Northern Islands Cayman based HD 6970 as well as Nvidia's GTX 580 in just about every game tested (HAWX 2 not withstanding). This is what you want as a successor to a good product and AMD and its partners have delivered. Not only is the gaming performance at stock speeds impressive, but the overclocking headroom makes it that much more appealing from a performance perspective. And it should get better from here. I was easily able to increase both the GPU core clock and memory clock speeds to the limits of AMD's Catalyst Control Center at 1125MHz on the core and 1575MHz on the GDDR5 memory, both increases of 200Mhz without any effort at all. By doing so the performance in games scaled upward significantly in most cases. This added performance drives the ability to use just a single card to run an Eyefinity gaming setup at resolutions up to 5760 x 1080 with the eye candy turned on. A wider field of view makes for a more immersive gaming experience. With the HD 7970 it's possible not probable. A new wrinkle with the new architecture is Eyefinity 2.0 that offers a host of improvements including individual media streams for each output, new 5x1 monitor configurations, 16kx16k configurations, bezel correction, and new task bar positioning.

Cooling performance is another area that AMD improved its standing. In both the stock and overclocked temperature testing the HD 7970 bested the HD 6970 by as little as 4 degrees Celsius at stock idle speeds and as much as an 8C delta in the rest of the testing. The new fan design has thinner blades coupled with a more free flowing exhaust port on the mounting bracket that drives more airflow through the card. This they did while improving the noise generated by the card as it is no longer a pitchy whiny beast when the fan speed is ramped up for max cooling. That not to say its not loud but it is not as annoying as the fan on the 6970 so this would be progress. Baby stepping as they say. Power consumption under load ended up higher than the HD 6970 at stock speeds yet the effects of AMDs ZeroCore power technology help drop the consumption in a 2d and idle states as well as dropping power to secondary cards in Crossfire configurations to reduce noise.

So the cost of admission into the ownership club starts at $550 dollars and may provide some sticker shock to those looking for a new card. While the cost is high the performance gains over the previous generation are significant with the HD 6970 still holding value. If you search you can get two HD 6970's for about $50 more than the cost of the HD 7970 and get HD 6990+ performance albeit at the cost of more noise and power consumption. Not to mention no benefits of the new architecture. For your money you get the fastest single GPU card on the market that offers tangible great improvements across the board and should easily play any game out today! AMD and its partners have laid down the gauntlet! Again!

 

Pros:

 

Cons: