Rumors swirling around the next generation of AMD Radeon HD video cards began building late in 2011, suggesting technical advancements that promise better power efficiency and a jump in performance over cards already on the market. Just after Christmas, the high-end AMD Radeon HD 7970 (*Est. $550) and 7950 series (*Est. $450) launched, followed quickly by several other lines at multiple price points. Did the reality live up to the hype? For the most part, experts say yes.
One of the bigger advancements in the new lineup is a major reduction in power consumption. Despite regularly being heralded as the fastest single-GPU card around, the Radeon HD 7970 and its counterparts are shown in test after test to be much quieter and cooler than comparable last-gen Nvidia and AMD cards thanks to new energy-efficient technology. Normally, that would mean reduced graphical capabilities, but AnandTech.com's Ryan Smith says the Radeon HD 7970 video card has "retaken the performance crown for single-GPU cards" from Nvidia -- a statement with which several others concur.
The 925 MHz Radeon HD 7970 surpasses the Nvidia GTX 580 -- the company's flagship single-GPU video card -- by more than 10 fps in some benchmark tests. It's also the only single-GPU card to ever break the 30 fps barrier in AnandTech.com's most strenuous test, which involves playing the incredibly demanding "Metro 33" at Ultra High quality settings at 2,560-by-1,600-pixel resolution. While the AMD card hit a whopping 36 fps, the GTX 580 managed only 27.5 fps. Overclocking the card is easy, experts report, and boosting the GPU to 1055 MHz resulted in a 4 to 8 fps performance gain in TechSpot.com's and AnandTech.com's reviews.
The major downside to the Radeon 7970 is its price, and the implementation that most reviewers say is the best, the XFX R7970 Double Dissipation Black Edition (*Est. $600), costs $50 more. For that price, XFX boosted the clock speed to 1 GHz, increased the memory speed and added a custom dual-fan cooling solution. "The results are nothing short of amazing," Loyd Case writes at Maximum PC. "We're seeing genuine performance milestones here." Those include achieving 50-plus fps rates at maximum settings and 2,560-by-1,600-pixel resolution in graphically demanding titles such as "Far Cry 2" and "Batman: Arkham City." Critics say the card's open-air fan design helps the XFX R7970 DDBE run significantly quieter and cooler than the stock 7970, which is already highly regarded for its silence. XFX also provides a lifetime warranty.
If $600 sounds a little steep, several experts recommend the step-down but still high-end XFX R7950 Double Dissipation Black Edition, which costs $100 less than its big brother. The graphics card is built around the AMD Radeon HD 7950, a slightly lower-performing version of the flagship 7970, but the XFX R7950 DDBE includes a 100 MHz factory overclock that gives it a big performance boost over the stock model. In fact, test after test at Hexus.net, LegitReviews.com, HardwareHeaven.com and TweakTown.com show that the XFX R7950 Double Dissipation Black Edition achieves the exact same frame rates as the stock AMD 7970, easily handling any game at virtually any resolution.
A simple overclocking utility can make things run even faster, and because the XFX R7950 DDBE features a custom cooling solution, it uses anywhere from 40 to 60 fewer watts and runs quieter and cooler than the stock Radeon 7970 despite offering stock 7970-quality graphics. "In terms of performance it is hard to fault the 7950 Black Edition," Stuart Davidson writes at HardwareHeaven.com. As a Double Dissipation video card, it also receives a lifetime warranty from XFX.
Sapphire offers a similarly overclocked video card in its Radeon HD 7950 OC that can also be overclocked further. Its custom cooling solution is more effective than XFX's by a very slight margin, but it lags behind the XFX R7950 Double Dissipation Black Edition by anywhere from 1 to 5 fps in games testing at LegitReviews.com. Sapphire provides only a two-year warranty compared to XFX's lifetime guarantee. Nevertheless, HardOCP.com's Mark Warner sums up the expert consensus by saying, "The Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 OC is well-placed to be a solid entry in the high-end enthusiast gamer's shortlist of video card upgrades."
The AMD Radeon HD 7870 (*Est. $350) and 7850 (*Est. $250) lines are a bit more affordable. No manufacturer implementations have made their way to retail at the time of this report, but reviewers have gotten their hands on stock reference cards from AMD. They sport 2 GB of GDDR5 memory -- vs. the 3 GB found in the Radeon 7900 cards and the 1.28 GB in Nvidia's GTX 570 and 560 Ti 448-Core -- and experts say they bring the same thermal and energy efficiency improvements found in the new upper-end Radeon graphics cards.
Several experts perform benchmark testing and report much-improved graphical performance over similarly priced Nvidia cards. TechPowerUp.com says the 7870 packs a 28 percent performance increase over the last-generation 6870, and the 7850 gets an even larger 40 percent jump in performance. TomsHardware.com says the 7850 posts frame rates similar to the stock Nvidia GTX 570, even though the latter commands a $70 or more premium over the Radeon 7850. "We've never seen a graphics card with so much potential for $250," says reviewer Don Woligroski.
Multiple reviewers call the 7850 the best $250 video card around, but say it should've been priced a bit lower to be more competitive. "With GTX 560 Ti prices starting to drop below $200 after rebate, the 7850 is nearly $50 more expensive than the GTX 560 Ti," Ryan Smith writes at AnandTech.com. However, he's quick to add that the Radeon 7850 uses much less power and holds an average graphical performance lead of about 9 percent over the GTX 560 Ti.
Experts say the $350 Radeon 7870 is conclusively the card to beat in its price class -- at least until Nvidia launches its next-gen Kepler cards. TomsHardware.com's evaluations found it to be neck and neck with the Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 in terms of graphical performance, capable of playing any game at any resolution. Playing "Metro 2033" at high graphics settings and 2,560-by-1,440-pixel resolution caused frames to dip to 23.5 fps, but that still ties for the top score with that setup. The stock 7950 hit the highest frame rate at 24.5 fps.
TweakTown.com got a review sample of the PowerColor PCS+ HD7870 (*Est $350) before anyone else and gives it an Editor's Choice award. The card is overclocked to 1100 MHz, and increased speeds translate into a 2- to 7-fps increase in frame rates in most games. AnandTech.com also scored a test sample and reports that compared to reference 7870 cards, the PCS+ HD7870 is "faster and quieter at the same time, the latter of which is largely a result of PowerColor using an open-air cooler as opposed to a blower." The card's noise levels are the second-lowest ever recorded by TweakTown.com.
Lower-priced AMD Radeon HD 7770 video cards are starting to hit the market at about $170, but most reviewers say the series simply isn't a good purchase. Although the cards offer some additional features and much better thermal and power performance than the last-gen Radeon 6850 cards discussed below, graphically the 7770 cards come in at equal or slightly below the frame rates put up by their predecessor. Considering that better-performing 6850 cards can be had for less, experts recommend passing on the 7770 at least until value falls more in line. "The HD 6850 can't do the 7-series cards' tricks, but it can render 'Metro 2033' frames quicker, and that makes the HD 7770 a tricky one to recommend," write editors at TechRadar.com.
AMD Radeon HD 6000 series cards will likely begin to disappear once the newer Radeon 7000 cards start flooding the market, but both AMD and Nvidia have had manufacturing issues with the silicon used to power their next-gen offerings. For the time being, that means you can still find many Radeon 6000 cards. Since the 7950 and 7970 were the first new Radeon HD video cards released, the availability of last-gen 6950 and 6970 cards has begun to dry up, but mid-range and low-end Radeon 6000 cards are still available in abundance -- often at lower prices than before.
Although most mid-range Radeon 6000 cards have been surpassed by the more powerful and power-efficient 7850 and 7870 cards, those from the Radeon 6850 family continue to offer an attractive price-to-performance ratio. Most notably, the MSI R6850 Cyclone Power Edition/OC (*Est. $165) has been on the market for more than a year but remains current and widely available at online retailers. Experts at HardOCP.com, TweakTown.com and Bit-Tech.net say the card can handle almost any title -- even demanding shooter games like "Far Cry 2" and "Crysis: Warhead" -- at perfectly acceptable 30- to 50-fps rates on most displays. Games might chug on 2,560-by-1,600-pixel screens, but many consumers don't own monitors that large. Performance can be improved by lowering graphics settings or overclocking the card, but only two-card CrossFire setups are supported for improving graphics performance.
Overclocking with MSI's Afterburner tool is simple, critics report, and the card can be boosted to much higher frequencies. "When you consider overclocking potential, the value of this little beast just goes through the roof," Mark Warner says at HardOCP.com. Maintaining low temperatures is crucial to overclocking, and the MSI R6850 Cyclone Power Edition/OC's custom cooling system draws praise for keeping things cool and quiet. "Even with the card running under full load and the fan spinning at 65 percent of its rated speed, it was inaudible over the other system fans," Harry Butler writes at Bit-Tech.net. If you're a gamer on a budget and don't mind getting your hands dirty overclocking, the MSI R6850 Cyclone Power Edition/OC is a solid choice.
Reviewers test several versions of the Sapphire Radeon HD 6850 (*Est. $150) and come away impressed with its price-to-performance ratio. Like the MSI version, the card can struggle a bit when playing intense games or at high resolutions, but it's capable of achieving at least a very playable 30 fps on every game, with even better results on a standard-size monitor. Given its low price and decent graphical chops, the card is suggested as a prime candidate for a dual-card CrossFire setup by TechRadar.com.
TweakTown.com reviews the slightly overclocked Sapphire Radeon HD 6850 Vapor-X OC and reports correspondingly better frame rates with enhanced heat and sound reduction thanks to the Vapor-X cooling system. "For someone interested in a card that is going to play modern games at 1680 x 1050 with medium to high in game detail, this is a really nice option," Shane Baxtor writes.
A third overclocked Radeon 6850 card also reviews well despite being out for nearly a year. The HIS Radeon HD 6850 IceQ X Turbo (*Est. $160) delivers frame rates 1 to 2 fps lower than the Sapphire 6850 in TweakTown.com's tests, but it runs slightly quieter and cooler. However, LegitReviews.com reports that the temperature rises rapidly when overclocked even further. The HIS Radeon IceQ X Turbo earns praise from every reviewer for its small one-slot size and distinctive blue design.