XFX R7970 Black Edition Review

Author: Chris Ledenican
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Tuesday, February 21st, 2012
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Hardware/s/XFX_R7970_BE/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

In today’s graphics card market, the AMD Radeon HD 7970 comfortably sits at the top of the hierarchy thanks to CGN architecture, 384-bit memory interface and 925MHz clock speed. However, since the reference HD 7970 core can scale well beyond 1000MHz, most AMD board partners offer an overclocked SKU that performs better out-of-the-box. The XFX R7970 Black Edition we have in the hot seat today just happens to be one of these overclocked models, as it comes with increased core and memory frequencies which help improve both the graphics and compute power in comparison to a standard HD 7970.

In addition to the improved performance, XFX has also enhanced the overall design of the board via high quality components and by utilizing an extremely efficient thermal solution. While these features are not directly related to the amount of pixels the R7970 can render per second, they do improve the overall lifespan of the graphics card, reduce the acoustics, lower the thermal levels and increase the total power efficiency. So, instead of pushing a graphics card that simply delivers predominately increased gaming horsepower, XFX has designed a better all-around product.

The current MSRP for the XFX R7970 overclocked Black Edition graphics cards sits at $599, so the custom design doesn’t come cheap. Still, if it can offer a better out-of-the-box experience, it could be worth the extra scratch.

Specifications
Bus Type
PCI-E 3.0
GPU Clock
1000MHz
Memory Bus
384-bit
Memory Type
GDDR5
Memory Size
3072 MB
Memory Speed
5700 MHz
Thermal Solution
Double Dissipation/HydroCell thermal solution
Outputs dual m ini-DisplayPorts, HDMI, DVI
Features
Directx 11.1 support, DirectCompute 11, Open CL, Eyefinity Technology 2.1, Shader Model 5.0, OpenGL 3.2, Windows 7, Mini-DisplayPort 1.2, HDMI 1.4a
Warranty
Lifetime (Limited)

The XFX R7970 BE is packaged in a predominantly black box that lists all the key features throughout the surrounding panels. On the front panel, XFX has included a large Black Edition logo, the model number of the graphics card, as well as the exclusive technologies used to improve the thermal performance and efficiency. At the bottom right there is also a small box that lists the memory interface and PCIe bus type.

Looking around the box we see that XFX has utilized every panel, with the sides listing the key features of the graphics card. On one panel the key features are presented in the form of a list, while the other panel includes images and descriptions of the included features such as multi-monitor support, GPU edging, and XFX's 5-star support. The back panel lists some of the same features, but is dedicated to the "X" factor technologies including XPertise, XFormance, XFactor and XPerience.

All the "X" series marketing lingo listed above are all part of the XPERTISE collection of features and technologies. This is XFX's way of showing their commitment to providing the best gaming graphics, and to ensure that gamers get the best gaming performance.

Inside the box, XFX has included a nice bundle that consists of a HDMI to DVI convertor, drivers disc, manual, installation guide, CrossFireX bridge, Black Edition case badge and a Do Not Disturb door hanger that lists the product info on the reverse side. This is a nice bundle, and is more than enough to get the graphics card installed; with the convertor cable, setting up Eyefinty should also be a breeze.

Internally the XFX R7970 BE is built on the 28nm Tahiti XT core, which has a die size of 365mm² and an impressive 4.3 billion internal transistors. As part of the Black Edition series, the R7970 BE sports higher clock speeds for both the core and memory. Starting with the core, XFX has increased the frequency by 7.5%, which gives this card a total GPU clock speed of 1GHz. Of course the core also packs in 2048 streaming processors, 32 ROPS and 128 texture units, which at 1GHz give the card compute power of over 3.79 TFLOPs peak single precision FP and 947 GFLOPs of double precision. Additionally, it comes with a massive 3GB of GDDR5 memory rated at 1425MHz (5.7Gbps QDR) and runs on a 384-bit memory bus.

As part of the 7000 series, the XFX R7970 BE comes equipped with PowerTune technology and Zero Core Power. PowerTune is basically a power management system that maximizes the performance of the board via dynamic power adjustment. It does this by increasing the GPU clock speed in real time when the GPU detects power headroom, and throttling the clocks when a certain power limit is exceeded. This allows the board to adjust the clock speeds on a microsecond level. The maximum PowerTune rating for the HD 7970 is around 220W at load, but even with a power envelope lower than the HD 6970, AMD has included a  8+6 pin power configuration for up to 300W of power. This gives the board plenty of headroom which should come in handy during overclocking, and also ensures the board is fully stable during peak power consumption.

At the default 925MHz clock speed the HD 7970 will consume around 220W of power during gaming. Since the R7970 BE is an overclocked SKU, it will require slightly more power than the standard models. However, since we aren't looking at a 15% to 20% factory overclocked core, the difference in the overall power consumption should be less than 10%. Even though this model will require more power, there is still a huge power reserve available to the board which will come in handy when overclocking.

Not all of the graphics cards we have examined from XFX come with the dual BIOS switch, so we are extremely pleased to see it available on the R7970 BE. For anyone not familiar with the toggle switch, it is an enthusiast grade feature that selects from a "protected" and "unprotected" setting. When the switch is set in the "unprotected" position, the BIOS can be flashed and new settings will be internally stored within it. This basically means the graphics card can boot either the default or custom BIOS depending on the position of the switch. It is best to think of this feature as insurance for the card; if you flash the BIOS and the card runs into an issue, the BIOS can be reverted to the default settings simply by toggling the switch back to the default position.

So far all the Tahiti based graphics cards we have tested utilize the standard video output layout, and the R7970 BE is no exception. From left to right the board includes two Mini-DP connectors, a single HDMI 1.4a connector and a Dual-Link DVI connector. Like the rest of the series, the R7970 does not have a stacked DVI design. This increases the efficiency of the airflow and reduces the turbulence, but limits Eyefinity support. However, since the R7970 comes with a HDMI to DVI converter, losing the port is essentially a moot issue. Additionally, MST Hubs should become available this year which will allow six monitors to be support via the two DisplayPorts. Each HD 7970 will also ship with an HDMI to DVI dongle and mini-DP to DVI dongle that allows the card to support up to three DVI connections out of the box.

The two on-board Mini-DP ports use the 1.2 standard, enabling support for up to three monitors per port (via MST Hub) as well as AMD HD3D technology. The middle HDMI 1.4a connector also supports 3GHz speeds with frame packing. Essentially this allows the connection to run the frames faster, thus creating a smoother gaming experience. The HDMI and DP ports can also be teamed together to support HD3D Surround which, which is a feature new to Eyefinity 2.0.

The heatsink featured on the XFX R7970 BE is part of the "XFX XPERTISE 1.0" design used in conjunction with the Black Edition series. It's basically a three part solution that consists of HydroCell technology, Double Dissipation fans, and an aluminum fin array. To better understand the technologies in use, we are going to breakdown the heatsink so we can get a closer look at it part by part. It should be noted that XFX has taken a strong stand against their heatsinks being disassembled, given how the warranty stickers cover the retention screws, and the closed design of the heatsink itself. So, if you plan to disassemble the heatsink, know that it will void the warranty.

Starting with the base of the heatsink, we can see the design looks similar to the reference heatsink used by AMD. Starting at the top, there is a large integrated heatspreader with thermal pads placed throughout it. The thermal pads make contact with the memory modules and VRM on the board. This ensures all the vital components are being cooled, and not just the core. Next up is the base of the heatsink which has a convex surface area that makes contact with the IHS of the graphics processor to maximum the heat transfer.

Additionally, near the base of the heatsink is 4-pin PWM fan connector. The connector powers both fans and allows the fans to dynamically switch the RPM level in real-time, which lowers the acoustics when the system is idle while ensuring there will be ample airflow whenever the system is under load.

The entire thermal solution falls under the "XFactor" part of the XPertise design. The feature that covers the most technologies in the XFactor design is the Duratec components. The Duratec technology consists of professional grade components including all solid capacitors, ferrite core chokes, a 2oz copper layout throughout the PCB and dust-free IP-5X fans. These features improve the thermal efficiency of the graphics card, but perhaps more importantly increase the durability of the graphics card and ensure both the fans and components will last for years.

The rear bracket of the PCB is also part of the XFactor design. Unlike a traditional graphics card that has small vertical vents throughout the bracket, the R7970 has a large XFX logo. This opens up the bracket and improves the overall ventilation. According to XFX, this simple alteration for the rear bracket can reduce the temperatures by up to 20% by increasing airflow by up to 200%.

All the airflow traveling thorughout the heatsink is generated by two 80mm fans The fans are part of the the Double Dissipation technology which offers up to three times more airflow in comparison to standard fans. Essentially this means the fans can produce more airflow at a lower decibel level, allowing them to kick out higher CFM while remaining quiet. The IP-5X fans block dust from entering the bearing to further increase the lifespan of the fans.

The heart of the thermal solution is the HydroCell heatsink, which uses an advanced vapor chamber design and the Ghost thermal technology. Breaking it down by technology, the Ghost thermal feature allows air to pass through the heatsink directly to the PCB and core components, thus cooling more than just the GPU. The HydroCell technology on the other hand is a chamber based on the same principles as heat-pipe technology. This means a liquid coolant is stored inside a large chamber which is vaporized at the base, and the resulting vapor transfers the heat from the core to the upper array where it is then condensed at the cold surface and finally recycled through the chamber. The recirculation process is controlled by a wick system, ensuring the cycle is working to efficiently cool the core.

Here we have the R7970 stripped down to the PCB level. As you can see, the board utilizes a robust power management system at the back-end that includes a 6-phase power design, all solid Japanese capacitors, and a CHL8228G voltage controller from the CHiL Semiconductor Corporation. The CHL8228G is a dual-loop digital multi-phase controller that can drive up to 8 phase units, and features Input Voltage Management to allow up to 3 input voltages to be monitored. This will ensure the card is adequately powered, and improves the overall power efficiency. Additionally, the HD 7970 has dual power connectors, which along with the PCIe power slot provides the board with up to 300W of power. This leaves roughly 80W of untouched power that can be tapped into when overclocking.

 

Overclocking:

When it came to overclocking we had high expectations for the HD 7970. First off, the 28nm node should allow us to push the chip farther than the Cypress GPU, and since AMD also gave the card plenty of additional power headroom, we expected to easily hit over a gigabyte in clock speed. To our surprise, we easily scaled the GPU core upward to 1125MHz, which is the threshold available in the Catalyst Control Center. Getting to this speed required no additional voltage on our part, but more impressively we didn't observe a single crash or pixel error while scaling to 1125MHz. In total this is just shy of an 11.1% overclock, which is quite good considering the GPU clock already had a default clock speed of 1000MHz.

The memory was also able to scale quite well and once again in our testing we pushed the GDDR5 memory to the limits imposed by the BIOS. By default, the memory frequency is set at 1425MHz (5.7Gbps effectively), and in our labs we were able to increase the frequency by 200MHz, giving us a final clock speed of 1575MHz which is a quad-data rate of 6.3Gbps. Again this is a decent margin of overclocking, and we are expecting the overclocked performance to dominate all the other single GPU graphics

Hardware Configuration:

Drivers:

Benchmarks DX11:

Test Settings:

Usage:

Specifications:

(Note: All models might not be included in this review. The table below is to be used for comparison purposes)
AMD Specifications
Model
XFX R7970 Black Edition OC
AMD Radeon HD 7950 AMD Radeon HD 5870 AMD Radeon HD 6950 AMD Radeon HD 6970
Processing Cores
2048 1792 1600 1408 1536
Core Clock
1000MHz 800MHz 850MHz 800MHz 880MHz
Memory Clock
1425MHz 1250MHz 1200MHz 1250MHz 1375MHz
Memory Interface
384-bit 384-bit 256-bit 256-bit 256-bit
Memory Type
3GB GDDR5 3GB GDDR5 1GB GDDR5 2GB GDDR5 2GB GDDR5
Fabrication Process
28nm 28nm 40nm 40nm 40nm
NVIDIA Specifications
Model
Nvidia GTX 460 Nvidia GTX 470 Nvidia GTX 480 Nvidia GTX 570 Nvidia GTX 580
Processing Cores
336 448 480 480 512
Core Clock
675MHz 607MHz 700MHz 742MHz 782MHz
Memory Clock
1100MHz 837MHz 924MHz 1250MHz 1002MHz
Memory Interface
256-bit 128-bit 320-bit 320-bit 384-bit
Memory Type
1GB GDDR5 1.25GB GDDR5 1.5GB GDDR5 1.25GB GDDR5 1.5GB GDDR5
Fabrication Process
40nm 40nm 40nm 40nm 40nm

Futuremark's latest 3DMark 2011 is designed for testing DirectX 11 hardware running on Windows 7 and Windows Vista. The benchmark includes six all new benchmark tests that make extensive use of all the new DirectX 11 features including tessellation, compute shaders and multi-threading.

In 3DMark 11, the XFX R7970 BE performed around 5% faster than the reference model at all three settings. That's not too shabby for a modestly overclocked core, so it will be interesting to see if the in-game benchmarks show the same results.

Unigine Heaven became very popular very fast, because it was one of the first major DirectX 11 benchmarks. It makes great use of tessellation to create a visually stunning heaven.

The difference between the R7970 and the reference model was actually wider in this benchmark, as the R7970 on average scored 7.6% better performance across the three resolutions.

Aliens vs Predator is a DX11 Benchmark that runs though a scene straight out of the classic 80’s movie, Aliens. Since it uses DX11, it can often be more than a graphics card can handle.

The R7970 managed to score high marks in Aliens vs Predator. At the 1680x1050, 1920x1200 and 2560x1600 resolution settings, the R7970 was faster than the reference model by 7.8%, 8.7%, and 11.6%, respectively.

Batman: Arkham City is the sequel to the smash hit, Batman: Arkham Asylum. The game was created with the Unreal 3 Engine, and includes areas with extreme tessellation, high res textures and dynamic lighting. Batman, also includes native support for PhysX and is also optimized for Nvidia 3DVision technology.

Not all games are going to effectively utilize the higher clock frequency, and Batman is a good example of this. Looking at the two lower resolutions, the HD7970 BE's net frame rate increase was only around 2.5%. However, once we increased the resolution to 2560x1600 the performance was 9% better than the reference model, which was most likely due to the higher memory bandwidth.

Battlefield 3 is designed to deliver unmatched visual quality by including large scale environments, massive destruction and dynamic shadows. Additionally, BF 3 also includes character animation via ANT technology, which is also being utilized in the EA Sports franchise. All of this is definitely going to push any system its threshold, and is the reason so many gamers around the world are currently asking if their current system is up to the task.

Unlike the other games we benchmark, the performance of Battlefield 3 is tested during online game play. We ensure our results are accurate by running through each resolution four times before averaging the results.

Unlike in Batman, the HD7970 BE here was able to push more pixels with the higher clock frequencies across the board. Breaking it down by resolution, the R7970 was 7.6% faster at 1050p, 6.8% faster at 1080p and 8.5% faster when gaming at 2560x1600.

Crysis 2 is a first-person shooter developed by Crytek and is built on the CryEngine 3 engine. While the game was lacking in graphical fidelity upon its release, Crytek has since added feature such as D11 and high quality textures. This improved the in-game visuals substantially, which in turn pushes even high-end hardware to the max.

The massive performance increase between the reference model and the R7970 in Crysis 2 is obviously not just the work of the overclocked frequencies alone. When we first tested this game, AMD was having a hard time optimizing the drivers so the performance was lower than where it should have been. WIth the latest Catalyst 12.2 drivers, the performance increased by around 25%, and even if 7% to 10% of that was due to the clocks, it still means the remaining 15% to 18% was thanks to the improved drivers.

DiRT 3 is the third installment in the DiRT series and like it's predecessor incorporates DX11 features such as tessellation, accelerated high definition ambient occlusion and Full Floating point high dynamic range lighting. This makes it a perfect game to test the latest DX11 hardware.

The XFX R7970 BE continues to show impressive performance in comparison to the 925MHz core clock models, and just destroys all other single GPU graphics cards we pitted it against. In this benchmark, the R7970 was nearly 10% faster than the reference HD 7970, and an impressive 22% faster than the GTX 580.

Metro 2033 puts you right in the middle of post apocalyptic Moscow, battling Mutants, rivals and ratio-active fallout. The game is very graphics intensive and utilizes DX11 technology, making it a good measure of how the latest generation of graphics cards perform under the latest standard.

Metro 2033 craves memory bandwidth, and the HD 7900 series delivers on that front. However, given that the R7970 only has a small memory bandwidth increase compared to the reference model, we were a bit surprised how the performance in Metro 2033 was around 8% higher.

Total War: Shogun 2 is a game that creates a unique gameplay experience by combining both real-time and turn-based strategy. The game is set in 16th-century feudal Japan and gives the player control of a warlord battling various rival factions. Total War: Shogun 2 is the first in the series to feature DX11 technologies to enhance the look of the game, but with massive on-screen battles it can stress even the highest-end graphics cards.

Excellent performance was demonstrated across the three resolutions, and when we factor in the performance difference between this benchmark and the others (excluding only Crysis 2), the total performance difference between the R7970 and a standard HD 7970 is right around 7%.

Temperature:

To measure core GPU temperatures, we run three in-game benchmarks and record the idle and load temperature according to the min and max temperature readings recorded by MSI Afterburner. The games we test are Crysis 2, Lost Planet 2 and Metro 2033. We run these benchmarks for 15 minutes each. This way we can give the included thermal solution and GPU time to reach equilibrium.

The thermal solution used on the R7970 Black Edition graphics card simply destroyed the results of any graphics card using the reference AMD heatsink design. With dual fans and a vapor chamber design, the XFX heatsink was able to cool the core 8% better than the reference design. The two most impressive aspects though were just how low the core temp was during idle (just 31°C) and that the fans were extremely quiet even during load.

Power Consumption:

To measure power usage, a Kill A Watt P4400 power meter was used. Note that the numbers represent the power drain for the entire benchmarking system, not just the video cards themselves. For the 'idle' readings we measured the power drain from the desktop, with no applications running; for the 'load' situation, we took the sustained peak power drain readings after running the system through the same in-game benchmarks we used for the temperature testing. This way we are recording real-world power usage, as opposed to pushing a product to it's thermal threshold.

Since the R7970 is an overclocked SKU it will naturally need to use more power. In our labs, the R7970 at 1000MHz consumed 6.3% more power than the reference model. Overall this isn't too bad as the permanence increase is higher than the increase of power consumption.

From the onset of our testing it was clear the XFX R7970 BE was going to easily best the reference model in all of our benchmarks, and subsequently become the fastest single GPU graphics card we have tested. This is of course due to the overclocked core and memory, which have an out-of-the-box boost of 7.5% and 3.5% respectively. At these speeds, the XFX R7970 was able to perform an around 8% to 10% faster than the reference model in most benchmarks, meaning this SKU essentially offers around 7.5% better performance at a 10% markup.

However, not all the value in a custom designed graphics card is found in its gaming prowess. In fact, much of the reason why gamers prefer a custom design is due to the upgrades to thermal and acoustic performance, and in our labs the XFX R7970 scored well on both fronts. During long durations of gaming, the XFX model proved to be 8% more efficient than the reference design, but with greatly lower acoustic levels. So, even while the R7970 is clocked higher and uses slightly more power than the reference models it was still able to yield better thermal results, which allowed the fans to run at a lower RPM even during gaming.

Stepping back from the XFX model for a second and looking at the Tahiti XT GPU on its own, we can see that the drivers have finally started to improve. Our launch reviews of the HD 7970 and the HD 7950 were done with Beta drivers sent to us through AMD. These drivers did well for the most part, but in games such as Crysis 2 and Skyrim, the performance was simply not where it should be. The latest Catalyst 12.2 drivers appear to have resolved some of these performance issues, and the results in this review have improved over what we saw just a month ago. The drivers are still in their infancy, but we are pleased to see they are improving with each new release.

To sum it up, the XFX HD 7970 is an exceptional graphics card that boosts better gaming performance, thermal efficiency and acoustics than the reference design. Of course this means it also demands a higher premium and at $599 it definitely doesn't come cheap. Still, if you can afford it, the XFX R7970 BE will be a worthwhile investment that will push more pixels than any other single GPU solution available to-date.

»Neoseeker.com

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