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I have been gaming since I was about 4 back in 1986. I followed Nintendo's every console generation up until the Wii. I became a Playstation enthusiast about the same time I became obsessed with the computer. Now I'm solely a PS3, PC, DS, and vintage gamer. As I get older, I notice that I have less and less time to enjoy video games. The effort is still put forth to play as much as I can, but it feels overwhelming at times with work, school, and writing. To ease this concern, I felt it might help to keep a blog strictly for my gaming habits. I plan to document the games I play, don't play, want to play, have played, and any news I feel pertinent to throw in. All in all, I am hoping this will help me feel more connected to the gaming community and industry as I once felt when I was a bit more...*ahem*...youthful. My name, Skoolz, is my common gamer tag.
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Hi r/gamingpc. I wrote this specifically for the subreddit, spent an hour formatting it in the reddit text editor, tried to submit, and was ultimately slapped in the face by reddit, telling me the post was too long. So here's the same review in blog form after having to, again, reformat the text. This ended up taking me WAY too long.

Sure, you could google and find several handfuls of professional reviews strewn about the interwebs, but it's going to be hard to find some impressions and benchmarks from someone like you. Someone who may not have the absolute greatest system in the world, nor eyefinity screens painting the walls. I am just your average, enthusiastic PC consumer trying to help some people out who may be considering AMD's new flagship video card for their gaming machine. Without further ado, I present the relatively brief (but hopefully informative)...

Radeon HD 7970 Review
Featuring reference clocks and overclocks.

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System:

CPU: AMD Phenom II x6 1090T (6 core); OC'd @ 4.0GHz
GPU: Radeon HD 7970 (Duh)
Memory: 12GB DDR3-1333
PSU: OCZ 700W
HDD: Standard 7200rpm. No SSD here.
Resolution: 1920x1080
^ That's all that really matters right now.

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I bought the Diamond Multimedia brand reference card, so I received only what AMD designed and produced with no additional third-party amenities (e.g. out of the box OC, third party cooler, etc.). What I learned, though, is that you do not really need any.

Aesthetically speaking, there is no denying that AMD makes some pretty cards; however, it is not much different from their previous designs, and about the same length. It comes out to about 11 inches long and fits rather snugly into my mid-tower machine.







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Benchmarks - Reference clock speed (GPU: 925 MHz; Mem: 1375MHz)

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First, I did the traditional benchmark using 3DMark 11 basic (i.e. free) on the standard "Performance" setting. The overall 3DMark score was a little disappointing, but my downfall is probably my borderline aging CPU. However, what we need to really focus on is the Graphics score:



The 7970 achieved a Graphics score of 7342. Out of multiple runs of the benchmark, it hovered consistently around this score. After researching around on the internet, I have come to the conclusion that this is on par with other benchmarks running with the reference clock speed. What does this mean, exactly? Simply, that I am happy with the score.

Next, I tried out Unigine's Heaven Benchmark. I used the Extreme Tessellation setting with 4xAA and 16xAF:




Again, the scores achieved were on par with what I found elsewhere with an average fps of 43.4 and a score of 1093.

Lastly, I used the faithful Furmark to benchmark and test the temperature. I ran the default Burn-In Benchmark at 1920x1080 resolution for 15 minutes.




Unfortunately, I'm due for a case upgrade and my airflow is not the greatest, so the max temperature was higher than what others have been reporting. At 85 degrees Celsius, it's really not too bad for having agitated airflow in the case. Typically, the temperatures have been recorded below 80 at full load. The score was 3903, but I have not compared that to other benchmarks using Furmark, so I have no real comparison to make here.

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Benchmarks - Overclocked (GPU: 1125 MHz; Mem: 1575 MHz)

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So I overclocked my 7970. I just have to say that it was the easiest, most problem free overclock I have ever encountered in the history of anything. AMD has really made it astonishingly intuitive to overclock this card, so much so that I used their Vision Engine Control Center to do all the overclocking. And I will continue to use it until I feel the need to OC beyond what I currently have (VECC limits the overclock to the above specs). The ease in which this card overclocks to 1125/1575 makes me seriously ponder as to why AMD didn't release the card at these values to begin with. The voltage did not have to be adjusted at all to achieve a stable OC.




As you can see, the Graphics score increased from 7342 to 8730. That's a very respectable increase for such a simple to achieve boost.




The increase using Heaven is also impressive. Going from 43.4 to 50.8 fps is an 18% increase!




There was no difference using the Furmark benchmark. Either Furmark does not recognize overclocks, or it has not been optimized to portray accurate results for the newest VGAs. Therefore, I cannot comment whether the temperature reading is correct after the overclock. However, using HWMonitor, I have noticed the temperature to peak around 78 degrees Celsius while playing Battlefield 3.

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Games - My Impressions

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Battlefield 3

The following frames per second measurements were obtained from playing the "Caspian Border" map:

While researching the HD 7970s performance before I made the purchase, I did discover that BF3 is one of its weak points. Now that only means that the performance gained in other games is higher than that in BF3, but it is still an improvement over any other single-GPU card out there. Speculation is that optimizations provided in future drivers will inevitably remove this gap.

I was previously playing BF3 with an HD 5870 (OC'd @ 950/1225) and had to keep my video settings on a hybrid between medium and high with no MSAA. I was achieving 60+ fps indoors, and as low as 40 fps while outside in a large conquest map (64 players) looking from one end of the map to the other. Now, 40 fps should be a playable rate, but there was a slight choppy/stutter feel every time it dipped down that low.

Needless to say, I was very excited to test this game out on MAXIMUM settings with the 7970. So I did. This includes max MSAA, Post-processing, the works. At first, I used the reference clock speed. I was able to maintain a very playable framerate (average around 45-50 fps) that maxed out at 80 fps (not including staring at the ground or wall, which jumped up the fps to over 100), but it did drop as low as 34 fps during the aforementioned scenario (across the map, 64 player conquest). The difference was, though, that I did not get the same slight stutter as I did with the 5870. In fact, it was still relatively smooth and playable, but I could still, ever so slightly, tell that it was no longer running at 50+ fps.

After applying the OC, the minimum fps I ever achieved, still with 64 players and the same maxed out settings, was 42. On top of that, the frequency of getting an fps that low was a lot less than without the OC. The average fps now hovered around 55-65 fps. In other words, my gaming experience ended up making me as giddy as a grown man can become. There has not been a single hiccup. When overclocked, this card plays BF3 like a beast, but be forewarned that the performance will likely decrease to an unpleasant amount should the resolution reach 2560x1600 or eyefinity resolutions.

The Witcher 2

If you've ever played Witcher 2, you understand what I mean when I say "best looking single player game on PC". So I had to put the 7970 to the test. I only played this game with the overclock.

There was a bit of disappointment after I loaded up the game using maxed out settings, including ubersampling. I do not know why I was expecting better, but the game's fps maxed out at 38, but most of the time hovered around the 25 fps mark. Apparently, even the top tier dual GPUs and Xfire/SLi setups cannot handle this game's ubersampling technique very well, so the outcome was on par with the technology. The ubersampling in the game is kind of an irresponsible technique to begin with; it renders each frame multiple times and stacks them on top of each other providing a softer, more lifelike experience, but it is too GPU intensive to deem feasible right now. Turning off ubersambling and keeping everything else at its highest setting was a different story: suddenly, my average fps tripled and I was, again, blown away. Reaching a max fps of 90, and never seeing it drop below 55 was, to say the least, impressive. Also, if you have not had the opportunity to see this game with max settings (ubersampling or not), you are missing out on one of the most beautiful spectacles the PC has to offer.

Modern Warfare 3

There's not a whole lot to go on about when it comes to a game using an aging engine. This card, expectedly, ran the game at blazing speeds completely maxed out, 4xAA included. The fps was so out of control, I needed to turn on vertical sync to alleviate the constant screen tearing. Keep in mind that this game is perfectly playable while almost maxed out on the HD 4870...

L.A. Noire

I only wanted to check this game out because when I had played it previously on PC, there were tremendous lag issues, no matter the prowess of the gaming rig. A recent patch supposedly fixed this issue, but I do not know for sure. So I re-installed the game without updating it to see just how it fared against this new card in its original, raw glory.



Well, the lag issues are gone. You get the typical Rockstar-esque loading hiccups occasionally while driving, but that's going to continue happening until Rockstar makes a game on the PC first, instead of another poorly ported version. All in all, the game plays just like you would expect it to without the horrendous lag issues, at the highest settings. One fact is that Rockstar has limited the fps to 30, even on the PC version. I stayed at a steady 30 fps the entire time, of course. There may now be a tweak that removes that limit, but I did not feel like seeking it out. Fortunately, the slow pace of the game does not necessarily require blazing fps.

Skyrim

I played this with all settings on Ultra, 8xAA, 16xAF using the overclock. Exploring the world in Skyrim can be pretty taxing on any system, especially when you get those 'vantage points' where you get to look across the map or something similar. I made sure to encounter this situation multiple times to see just how this chip handled. Skyrim caps the fps at 60, but I understand there is a fix for this by manipulating a configuration file of some sort; however, I do not see any reason to try such a thing, so I left it alone.

While exploring areas with graphics within close proximity to one another (town, cave, etc.), I never dropped below 60 fps. It was steady, it was smooth, it was beautiful. When I left these areas and climbed a mountain, or went across a river and looked back at the town for instance, the framerate dropped to 35ish. I can safely say, though, that I did not witness any fps under 35, and that's fantastic news. If you must absolutely play this game on 100% max settings, it's very doable with this card. If you're one of those anally-retentive gamers, you'll have to turn down a setting or two to get your desired, constant 60 fps.

I may be alone here, but I find Skyrim's graphics to be very underwhelming compared to the graphical power it needs to run it. If you've played Fallout New Vegas, you know what I mean. The engine itself is subpar, but it does provide the graphical style we've all come to love. I just wanted to put that out there.

Final Impressions

Without the overclock, the card shines more than any single-GPU out there. Any benchmark on the web will show you the same. There were a couple games and settings that I expected an overall better experience with, but the truth remains that games do exist that have 'bonus' settings to appeal to those that spent $2500+ on their gaming rigs.

Luckily, after a quick, painless overclock, the HD 7970 comes very close to providing a multi-GPU experience on any game. None of the most taxing PC games available (those that I included in this review) get to the point of non-playability whether the card is overclocked or not. The biggest plus about this card I found was its overclock capabilities. AMD really outshined themselves (and Nvidia) with how astonishingly simple it is to overclock the 7970 to an overwhelming performance increase. This shows great things for the future of this card, and I cannot, I repeat, CANNOT wait to Xfire this son of a bitch.

Overall, the card is a great indication of the future of PC gaming. There's a lot of potential in this new GPU architecture just waiting to be released with a few driver tweaks. In my opinion, if you are going to upgrade your graphics, why wait? There's a lot of talk about the Nvidia Kepler project coming out this year, but from unanimous speculation, it appears it will not surpass AMD's 7970. I am NOT a fanboy by any means; in fact, I was initially planning to get the GTX 580 for this upgrade. I just happen to have money to upgrade right when AMD provides a new, groundbreaking product. Every time, though, I end up being glad I did, as this newest AMD flagship product has yet to let me down.

See you on the battlefield!
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