Things are looking good for AMD, NVIDIA is challenged to step up its game

NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA) was hoping to get its GeForce 600 series out sometime in early 2012.  Many were waiting for this counter-strike to Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.'s (AMDRadeon HD 79xx series launch.

I. Radeon HD 7950 Lands in a Fortunate Situation

The latest rumor shows NVIDIA skipping the 600 series and releasing a flagship GeForce 780 sometime later this year.  Whereas the Radeon HD 79xx cards are around 30-50 percent faster than their predecessors in real-world gaming benchmarks, leaked slides from NVIDIA indicate it's hoping to drop a performance bomb, doubling the productivity of the GeForce GTX 580.  In other words good things may come to those who wait -- or so NVIDIA says.

But for those who want a GPU now, AMD has your fix.  After releasing its first Southern Islands GPU a month back (the Radeon HD 7970), AMD shipped actual product three weeks ago.  Now it's fleshing out the Tahiti family (AMD's codename for Radeon HD 79xx GPUs) with the launch of the Radeon HD 7950.

Radeon HD 7950
AMD dropped the Radeon HD 7950 today, the second Tahiti card. [Image Source: AMD]

The Radeon HD 7950 is $100 USD cheaper than its Tahiti brethren.  It is also quieter and cooler.  It's less powerful than the Radeon HD 7970, but it still has enough juice to beat the GeForce GTX 580 convincingly in all but a handful of scenarios.  Prices for the GeForce GTX 580 are currently $50 higher than the Radeon HD 7950, so all this makes for very favorable market conditions for AMD.

II. The Specifications

With that general perspective in mind, let's peak at the specifications:

General1 2
(Click to enlarge)
General table
(1 "Real world" Power, Noise, and Temperature levels taken courtesy of AnandTech)
(2 Both GPUs are produceon processes by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Comp., Ltd. (TPE:2330).)


Overall, the new card's hardware isn't a revolution (other than the new architecture), but it is an evolution over its predecessor, the Radeon HD 7950.

III. Conclusions

The Radeon HD 7950 is hardly an unexpected step, but it brings AMD's new compute-friend "Graphics Core Next" (GCN) architecture at a cheaper -- well, slightly cheaper price.

The general consensus was that this is narrowly the world's second most powerful single-card GPU solution.  Let's check why.

On the GeForce GTX 580 v. Radeon HD 7950 Matchup

In games, the card won't beat NVIDIA's current generation in every title, but it will in most, and its wins are much more sizeable.  AnandTech sums this up, writing:

While the 7970 sails past the GTX GTX 580—and AMD has priced it based on that—the 7950 and the GTX 580 are trading blows on a game-by-game basis, similar to what we saw last year in comparing the GTX 500 series and the Radeon HD 6900 series. But when the 7950 wins it wins big, while the same cannot be said of the GTX 580; the only real weakness for the 7950 right now is Battlefield 3, and while that’s an important game it’s but one of several.

Similarly Hot Hardware summarizes:

Versus its main competition, the new Radeon HD 7950 performed well. In the vast majority of tests, the Radeon HD 7950 outperformed a reference GeForce GTX 580 and it blew the doors off the Radeon HD 6970. In comparison to a factory overclocked, 3GB GeForce GTX 580, however, the Radeon HD 7950 traded victories. Of course, the higher-end Radeon HD 7970 cemented its position as the current fastest single-GPU based graphics card around.

And Hardware Secrets writes:

The new Radeon HD 7950 proved to be a good contender to the GeForce GTX 580, with the advantage of being cheaper. The only game where the GeForce GTX 580 was significantly faster than the Radeon HD 7950 was FarCry 2, with the video card from NVIDIA being between14% and 19% faster. The GeForce GTX 580 was also between 5% and 6% faster on Deus Ex: Human Revolution. On Battlefield 3, both video cards achieved the same performance level. They also achieved the same performance level on DiRT3 at 1920x1200, but at 2560x1600 the Radeon HD 7950 was 5% faster. On StarCraft II, the Radeon HD 7950 was 12% faster at 1920x1200, but at 2560x1600 both achieved the same performance level.

Mo Money, Mo Problems

The reviews were also relatively unanimous in their admonishment of AMD for pricing the card so high.  The general tone was begrudging, in that they acknowledged that AMD currently enjoyed the top spot and had a bit better price than NVIDIA's offering, but on the other hand felt that the lack of aggressive pricing hurt AMD with new NVIDIA offerings on the horizon.

Writes AnandTech's Ryan Smith:

Meanwhile the $450 price tag is unfortunately not very aggressive on AMD’s part, but with their lead in rolling out their new lineup this is to be expected. Given its performance the 7950 only needs to be as cheap as the cheapest GTX 580 and that’s exactly what AMD has done. There will ultimately be a massive price shakeup at the high-end due to 28nm, but this looks like it won’t happen until AMD has some competition at 28nm or 7900 sales slow down significantly.

Hot Hardware echoes:

With that said, we wished AMD was more aggressive with Radeon HD 7900 series pricing. The Radeon HD 6970 and 6950 debuted at $369 and $299, respectively. The Radeon HD 7970 and 7950 arrive at $549 and $449. In light of competing offerings, the 7900 series is technically priced “right”, but we would have loved to see AMD come out of the gate with more aggressive pricing to make the cards more attainable for more enthusiasts and to put more pricing pressure on its main rival, NVIDIA.

Of the reviews Hardware Secrets offers an interesting counter-argument, making the case that, yes, the card is expensive, but that it offers more bang for your buck than the Radeon HD 7950.  They write:

As you can see, although the battle between the GeForce GTX 580 and the Radeon HD 7950 will depend on the game and resolution you run, the Radeon HD 7950 has a better price/performance ratio than its big sister, the Radeon HD 7970. To prove this point, consider that the Radeon HD 7970 was between 6% and 20% faster than the Radeon HD 7950 on the games we ran, but it is 22% more expensive.

Therefore, the Radeon HD 7950 is a good option if you are looking for a high-end video card and have USD 450 to spend on one.

Our Take

Interestingly these reviews don't make much mention to the coming GeForce 600 (or 700?) series, though that's likely due to nondisclosure agreements.  Presumably NVIDIA will show its hand sometime in the near future.

For now the situations is somewhat unfortunate for the consumer in that they don't really get much more value than they did 6 months ago, due to the lack of competition.  AMD is selling well, but it realizes it has the top two cards on the market, so it is selling them at premium prices.  

On the flip side of the coin, this is a rare occasion where buyer's remorse is lessened.  If you bought a GeForce GTX 580 a few months back, you really aren't missing much.

It's hard to recommend anything but AMD's Radeon HD 7970/7950 cards for those in the market for a premium GPU.  Die-hard NVIDIA fans will obviously postpone their purchases in hopes of NVIDIA's 28 nm answer to the Radeon HD 7xxx series (or even buy a GeForce GTX 580, as it still performs decently).  But for non-fans pondering a current buy, it is hard to recommend a card that might ship in the April-June window at the earliest (NVIDIA's next-gen solution) versus a card that is here today.

For those who do pony up the cash for a Radeon HD 7950, according to AnandTech the Sapphire HD 7950 Overclock Edition proved significantly superior to the XFX R7950 Black Edition Double Dissipation, with much cooler running temps and slightly better performance.

Sources: Anandtech, HotHardware, HardwareSecrets, TweakTown [GeForce rumor]

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