Back in April and May, I wrote about Nvidia’s incessant attempts to outdo itself in the high-end single-GPU video card market. The recently releasedGeForce GTX 670, I argued then, surpassed the influence of the even more powerful GTX 680, its lower price and comparable performance effectively disintegrating what hope AMD had left of dominating the market this generation. After all, if the GTX 670 was more powerful in every game than the Radeon HD 7950 and could trounce the still-better 7970 in a fair number of benchmarks, what all could AMD do?
Last week, the company unveiled its answer: the Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition. With a list price of $499, in the same range as the GTX 680, it does manage to be faster than its Nvidia counterpart. I developed some qualms about the 7970 GHz Edition while testing it — namely its noise level when under load (annoying) and its power usage (high compared with Nvidia’s more energy-efficient cards) — but it proved itself to be, in several ways, the new best there is.
Then I was struck with a question: So what?
I try to maintain a positive attitude about the products I cover, and fight off cynicism about them and the industry as much as I can. But this release tested even my limits. Occurring six months since the original 7970′s release, and barely two months since Nvidia stole the headlines, the launch struck me as little more than AMD’s naked attempt to recapture the crown Nvidia earned with back-to-back-to-back releases (the GTX 680, GTX 690, and the GTX 670) earlier this spring. Sure, the card accomplished the goal AMD had set for it. But was it necessary?
AMD can spin this any way it wants, but it has yet to convince me that this was an organic effort. AMD hasn’t been shy about releasing GHz Edition video cards earlier in the 7000 series, but it did so primarily to deliver an additional performance bump to cards that wouldn’t have as many stream processors as the higher-end models. So why do this now, and risk angering the 7970 early adopters who thought their purchase would stay current for at least a year? And of the perilously few other major changes, the two biggest — an uptick in the memory data rate, to 6Gbps (thanks to the aid of faster 1500MHz memory modules), and the addition of a Boost feature to its Power Tune capability that can dynamically push the clock speed even higher when the headroom exists for it — are functionally identical to what Nvidia introduced in its 600 series.
Don’t get me wrong: I like the 7970 GHz Edition, and think its changes are smart ones. I’m just not sure I see the real-world point of rendering a dead horse in this kind of situation. Rather than expend time, effort, and resources to reclaim a title it will likely only hold onto for a few months — until it releases its own 8000-series cards — AMD could have devoted them to making the next card better. To refining and expanding its feature set and technologies, so that it will be even further ahead of Nvidia technology-wise than the GTX 680 was ahead of the 7970 a couple of months ago. To showing that it cares about putting out compelling products in the long run, not just playing a continual, exhausting game of one-upmanship. Or even to broadening its line of budget offerings, to help better address the lingering question of what (if anything) low-end discrete cards mean in a world whose PCs are powered by Intel’s Ivy Bridge and AMD Fusion chips.
What we got instead is a card that’s faster for faster’s sake, at least as far as my testing has shown. There just aren’t a ton of major performance jumps here. The GHz Edition was usually five or six frames per second (fps) superior to the regular 7970, regardless of the game or resolution being used. In a number of cases, this translated to a noticeable, even useful advantage over the GTX 680: In Aliens vs. Predator at 1920×1200, the 7970 GHz Edition could get above the 60fps threshold, but the GTX 680 couldn’t; in the newly released DiRT Showdown (admittedly an AMD-branded title), the GTX 680 barely squeaked above 30fps at 1920×1200, whereas the 7970 GHz Edition was edging up on 50fps (and even at 2560×1600, the AMD card was still above 30fps).
Sometimes, however, it just didn’t matter that much. I’ll ask again: If a GTX 680 earns 63.27fps on Just Cause 2 and the 7970 GHz 68.96, how much does it matter? Or is a 35fps rating in Metro 2033 (again at 1920×1200) really that much of an achievement for the new 7970 if the GTX 680 is at 28fps and some change (especially if its lead drops even lower — less than 3fps — at 2560×1600)?
Should AMD be satisfied with these gains when the GTX 680 still is substantially better on games like Lost Planet 2 (73.5 versus 62.2 at 1920×1200) and Total War: Shogun 2 (42.28fps versus 33.49fps) — another AMD-branded game? And is touting its demonstrably better compute prowess (1062 for the GHz Edition versus, seriously, 281 for the GTX 680 in the demanding Luxmark x64 v2.0 Room test) going to sway many gamers’ credit cards?
I have a reputation around the office (and, well, everywhere else) of being unnecessarily fussy about a lot of things. But I’m finding it increasingly difficult to get too worked up about Nvidia and AMD’s constant jockeying for one more frame here or one more frame there. I want both companies to deliver real, significant changes, and I want them to be more concerned with pushing the technology forward than in nudging it with an outstretched foot. In 2009, AMD launched a new era of multimonitor gaming with Eyefinity. And in its 600 series Nvidia made a major stride with power usage. These are examples of the kind of sweeping, relevant, useful changes we need to see more often.
Ultimately, they need to stick, and even cross platforms. I’m not convinced AMD has learned that this time around. To concoct the 7970 GHz Edition’s winning formula, AMD had to push power draw quite a bit. In my test system, it sucked up 348 watts under full load — compared with 301 for the GTX 680. That’s an enormous difference, and not one that’s reflected in the 7970 GHz Edition’s performance. Making matters worse, the 7970 GHz Edition is not a quiet card. It may not carry the aircraft carrier quantity of decibels of AMD’s dual-GPU behemoth from last year, the 6990, but when it gets working your ears get offended — Nvidia manages to do almost as much work a lot, lot quieter. Why didn’t AMD spend its time fixing these things instead?
Oh well. The wonderful thing about competition in the video card market, or anywhere else, is the continual give and take that (hopefully) ensure all of this will matter in the long run. AMD will undoubtedly address shortcomings like these with its 8000-series cards, Nvidia will answer with its own 700 series, and on and on and on. Who comes out on top in any given month is meaningless because both improve incrementally over time — this only provides more options to those who just want top-notch graphics for their games.
That’s the kind of competition that matters most. The GHz Edition’s advancements? Small potatoes. Congratulations to AMD for having the best card now. But that honor will only really mean something if the company keeps pushing itself to do more and do better in ways that extend beyond the excitement of the king-of-the-hill game of the moment. I have no doubt AMD can do this — but I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of it this time.