Radeon HD 7870 Graphics Card
So far this year AMD has launched the high end Radeon HD 7970 (Tahiti XT) and Radeon HD 7950 (Tahiti Pro) followed by the mainstream performance segment Radeon HD 7770 and Radeon HD 7750 (both Cape Verde) cards. This left us with a noticeable gap in terms of both price and performance which AMD is now filling with Pitcairn otherwise known as the Radeon HD 7870 and Radeon HD 7850. We received a Radeon HD 7870 from AMD which we have been busy testing and can now bring this review to our readers..
The first thing we should do is see where this card fits in with those that have gone before it.
At first glance it seems unfair to compare the previous 6900 series cards with the new 7800 series but, as we'll see later, it is a very apt comparison. The number of ROPs has stayed the same with fewer Texture Units and Stream Processors than previous brethren. There is a 20% power reduction largely down to the 28nm die shrink with transistor count and memory speed remaining about the same. 2GB is now firmly established as the required memory capacity for all "serious" GPUs. As with the 7770, the 7870 is running at 1GHz and is labelled as a Gigahertz Edition. For this particular card, core speed is going to be quite important as the benchmarks will show.
Here are the main features of this card:
PCI-E 3 is to replace the aging PCI-E 2 standard (first implemented in the Radeon HD 3870) although most tests have shown only a minor (1-2%) benefit going from PCI-E x8 to x16 so a doubling of bandwidth seems unnecessary. The reality is all about computing power and the vast internal bandwidth which is great for games is not so useful for modelling climate change or massive parallel processing where a lot of information is transferred to and from system memory. We'll see applications such as AES encryption make good use of this.
Power management is a big thing for AMD and they always strive to have a lower idle power consumption with each generation. The 6970 and 6950 boasted 18W idle dissipation and AMD have gone further by claiming less than 3W in certain states. They do this by shutting down most of the GPU when it is not in use and springing to life instantly when needed.
We'll cover the other features later in this article.
There is about half the transistor count (inline with previous AMD ways of defining each lower series. Clock speed for the 7870 is 1GHz and AMD will be using this "Gigahertz Edition" term a lot in their marketing. It's not an overclock but rather a setting of a higher bar for reference designs - expect to see products from add-in board manufacturers clock much higher.
One of the new features is the ability to have discrete sound channels for each video source and can be useful in video conferencing to tie up voices to video as well as in multi monitor setups.
We've already seen advances in Display Port for the 6000 series and now new HDMI standards are being embraced. This will allow for Stereo 3D effects by allowing two 60Hz signals, effectively doubling the HDMI bandwidth as well as supporting 4K by 2K displays and "deep colour" (48 bits per pixel).
One of the clever things to come from Intel's Sandy Bridge launch was QuickSync, their hardware H.264 encoder and surprised many with just how much a simple on chip GPU could do. AMD have come up with the Video Codec Engine (VCE). They go further than QuickSync by enabling a Hybrid Mode to utilise the massive parallel computing capabilities of the GPU and encode even faster. We don't currently have access to any software supporting this feature so will have to wait until a future date to test it.
Lastly, AMD have introduced Steady Video. We first touched upon this in our Llano review a few months ago and with version 2 has been improved and support added for interlaced content. The Quad Sum of Absolute Difference (QSAD) replaces the previous SAD and specialised instructions in GCN allow for over half a Trillion such operations per second.
GCN brings a radical shift in design::
The basic GPU building block is the GCN Compute Unit of which there are 32. Each of these Compute Units consists of 4 Texture Units and 4 SIMD Units. There are 2 Asybchronous Command Engines and 2 Geometry Engines.
Looking beyond the front end and shader cores, we’ve seen a very interesting reorganization of the rest of the GPU as opposed to Cayman. Keeping in mind that AMD’s diagrams are logical diagrams rather than physical diagrams, the fact that the ROPs on Tahiti are not located near the L2 cache and memory controllers in the diagram is not an error. The ROPs have in fact been partially decoupled from the L2 cache and memory controllers, which is also why there are 8 ROP partitions but only 6 memory controllers. Traditionally the ROPs, L2 cache, and memory controllers have all been tightly integrated as ROP operations are extremely bandwidth intensive, making this a very good design for AMD to use.
Here we can see the difference between GCN and VLIW. The former is much easier to program and allows for greater flexibility. There are a number of fundamental changes such as decoupling ROPs and only time will bring to light GCNs true potential.
Moving on to the card itself:.
About the same size as our aging 5850 this card should fit into any case. It requires two 6-pin connectors (like the 5850) and has a dual BIOS switch.
The exhaust grille now runs the full length of one slot, improving cooling but also reducing the space available for connectors. The result is that one DVI port is sacrificed but AMD say that an HDMI to DVI adaptor will be included with all cards. As can be seen, the 7870 is a two slot solution. Eyefinity is well supported on this range.
Pricing has been set at $350 for the Radeon HD 7870 and at $250 for the Radeon HD 7750 (a tad higher than the 6670). In the UK this translates into £250 and £180 respectively (inclusive of VAT - UK sales tax). This nicely fills the price gap between Tahiti and Cape Verdi.
We have two main test systems at present and recently upgraded our Intel one to an i7-2600K we received from Intel for the Sandy Bridge launch in January. The AMD system has the most powerful processor currently available in the AMD range. All cards are tested at their default speed but in the case of the Radeon HD6990 we are able to get it to run at full 2x 6970 speeds by flicking a switch on the card. Therefore we will show results as HD6990 and HD6990 OC to distinguish between them.
Firstly we will start with DX10 testing with DX11 tests to follow.
3DMark Vantage is a full DirectX 10 compliant synthetic benchmark. It tests out all of the DirectX 10 abilities of each card to give the user an idea of where they rank with their graphic card in a collective pool of many users all over the internet.
The testing was done with the default performance setting for all of the cards to give an idea where each one stands in the GPU line up.
Ignoring the green bars (which should all be fairly similar) we see that the Radeon HD 7870 is faster than the GTX580 and nipping on the heels of the Radeon HD 7950 and twice as fast as the HD 7770. This was unexpected but a lot is probably down to that Gigahertz core speed.
Setting aside the middle bars (the CPU performance is fairly level as the only variable during testing is the graphics card) it can be seen that the performance of the high end cards scales with their product positioning. The Radeon HD 5850 which has served us so well for over a year is still capable of putting up a good fight but is now end of line and is about the same price as the better performing Radeon HD 6870. The HD 6970 is beaten by the newcomer despite being one category lower.
Far Cry 2 is still a firm favourite and was taxing on any system. It's now broken by the HD6990 and is CPU limited at all resolutions. The HD 7870 puts in another amazing performance.
HAWX seems to be easy for most systems to handle with playable rates from all contendors at all resolutions. We'll have to see how that changes when we move to HAWX 2. The 7870 keeps up with its faster cousins.
The current darling of horror games provides lots of eye candy and furious action. As with Far Cry 2 performance is very good but only the top end series of cards can provide triple digit frame rates at all resolutions. The 7870 ties with the 7970 and 7950 hands down at all resolutions and even the 7700 series cards manage over 60fps at all resolutions.
We're in the process of changing our benchmarks to more demanding ones and appreciate any feedback suggestions.
Because of the longevity of our standard tests we have introduced a host of new benchmarks. We wanted to add Crysis2 as well but DX11 issues with that title mean we will have to wait until a patch is released.
Aliens VS Predator
As with many of the already released DirectX 11 benchmarks, the Aliens vs. Predator DirectX 11 benchmark leverages DirectX 11 hardware to provide an immersive game play experience through the use of DirectX 11 Tessellation and DirectX 11 Advanced Shadow features. In Aliens vs. Predator, DirectX 11 Geometry Tessellation is applied in an effective manner to enhance and more accurately depict HR Giger’s famous Alien design. Through the use of a variety of adaptive schemes, applying tessellation when and where it is necessary, the perfect blend of performance and visual fidelity is achieved with at most a 4% change in performance.
All cards provide playable framerates with the 7870 being above 60fps at 1920x1080, comfortably beating the GTX580. The 7770 manages over 30fps at 1920x1080 with the 7750 nudging ahead of the 6670.
Stalker: Call of Pripyat
This is a special version of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat Having a PC tested with this benchmark will enable the gathering of detailed information about its performance on various graphical modes and finds out how well the system is balanced for gaming and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat in particular.
This benchmark is based on one of the ingame locations – Pripyat . The testing process includes four stages, those utilizing various weather and time of the day settings (day, night, rain, bright sun). In order to test the system thoroughly the benchmark is provided with a number of presets and options including different versions of DirectX (9.0, 10.0, 11), screen resolutions, antialiasing etc.
We use the Ultra (highest details) setting and DX11 mode. The only switching we did was between 1680x1050 and 1920x1080 resolutions and to switch the DX11 Hardware Tesselation and Contact Hardening Shadows.
The Radeon HD 7970 is the best performer here and the Cape Verde cards are very much playable at all resolutions.
Once we turn on the DX11 eye candy the performance hit is low while providing a huge visual improvement. The 7870 beats even the dual GPU Radeon HD 6990 at some resolutions.
While Street Fighter IV features models and backgrounds rendered in 3D, the gameplay remains on a traditional 2D plane, with the camera having freedom to move in 3D at certain times during fights, for dramatic effect. Producer Yoshinori Ono has stated that he wanted to keep the game closer to Street Fighter II. A new system called Focus Attacks (Saving Attack for the Japanese version) has been introduced, as well as Ultra Moves. The traditional six-button control scheme returns, with new features and Special Moves integrated into the input system, mixing classic gameplay with additional innovations.
This game will be fine on any graphics card but the 7970 provides some ridiculously high frame rates. Pitcairn keeps right up with te 7950 and ahead of the 6970. The 7770 and 7750 manage over 60fps at 1920x1080.
The chronic oversaturation of the mafia in our international media has taught us much. Mafia II is an attempt to chronicle these teachings in game form. Fact number one: mafia men do lots of killing. Fact number two: they like suits. Fact number three: mafiosa don’t call each other mafiosa; they use the term ‘wiseguys’.
Some titles hit a plateau and this is one of them with a Radeon HD 5850 being adequate (roll on Mafia 3). The 7870 maintains its grip on the 6970..
The primary purpose of Test A is to give an
indication of typical game play performance of the PC running Lost Planet 2.
(i.e. if you can run Mode A smoothly, the game will be playable at a similar
condition). In this test, the character’s motion is randomized to give a
slightly different outcome each time.
The Radeon HD 7970 leaves everything else in the dust and is the only card able to provide over 60fps in both tests. This is a very demanding test and both Cape Verde cards are playable at high resolutions. Why pay for a Radeon HD 7970 when an HD 7870 will do just as well for substantially less
We cannot give exact decibel levels due to lack of sufficiently sensitive equipment but can confirm that the card was very quiet - certainly an improvement over the cooling on the 7970 and 7950.
Power consumption is a big issue these days with GPUs sometimes consuming 2 or 3 times as much as a CPU. Performance returns never seem to scale anything like power increases and heavy users can find that the cost of increased electricity mounts up over time. The idle loads shown are all perfectly acceptable but under load (running Resident Evil 5 fixed benchmark) the HD6970 jumps to around 300W - about the same as the GTX580. Using FurMark the HD6970 uses 340W. That compares to the 400W of the GTX580. The 7970 consumes less power than the 6970. What is really impressive is that the Cape Verde cards are consuming power in the Turks and Caicos range (6670 etc.) but delivering power to rival some cards in the 6800 series range.
Temperatures determine how long a component will last and can affect other components in a case. Remarkably, the 7870 produces lower temperatures than not only the 6970 but also those of the 3-slot design of the GTX580 DCU2 - a real testament to AMDs improved cooling. The only caveat we have is that the cooler on the 7970 is slightly louder than that on the 6970 it replaces. Temperatures for the Cape Verde cards were exactly the same despite the higher TDP of the 7770. We assume the difference was cancelled out by the heftier cooler on the 7770. Pitcairn
Having the latest graphics card is not just about speed but also other benefits. One of these is hardware acceleration in video playback and this is illustrated with Adobe's Flash player with support for hardware acceleration.
The difference is startling and shows how important this feature can be if widely implemented. Let's hope that people keep pestering the relevant software developers until they all have this level of support by default.
To see the benefits of DX11 that are unique to the DX11 series cards we need to dig further. It’s tricky to test to see how much of a speed difference DX11 makes as there are few reliable DX11 benchmarks but as a showcase of DX11 quality the situation is much better. We used Unigine’s Heaven Benchmark and can only convey the quality to our readers via YouTube.
The improvement in quality is apparent for all to see.
This next video shows the effects of Hardware Tessellation. The technical white paper on this feature is enough to send the most avid technophile to sleep but there's no denying the benefits of the end result.
If you have a DirectX 11 card then you can download the demo for yourself at http://unigine.com/download/
We knew AMD had something up their sleeve and we finally get to see their best price/performance card so far. Costing substantially less than a Radeon HD 7950, the HD 7870 manages to either beat or keep pace with its bigger sibling on most occasions. It also easily beats the HD 6970 making it the sensible choice for those that don't have the cash for Tahiti but want performance on that level. Some people have said AMD shot themselves in the foot by making this card too good but we disagree - the benchmarks for the Radeon HD7950 were done at stock reference speed (800MHz) whereas the usual manufacturers have designed theirs to run at 1000+ MHz in many cases.
Some would rather performance be pushed up rather than energy saved but the reality of todays computing is that few games demand a top end graphics card (Skyrim is an exception that requires both a high end GPU and a top end CPU) so the pressure is off AMD to push forward the boundaries of performance but they have instead opted to reduce power.
The simple fact is that the Radeon HD 7870 can handle any modern game thrown at it (1080p resolution) and represents tremendous value for money. We give it our Gold Award.
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