I may have the athletic ability of a below-average footstool and my history with women may be considerably less than impressive — but I’d like to believe that one of my defining characteristics as a man is my ability to admit when I’ve made a mistake or a semi-mistake. And I feel I need to do that with regard to what I wrote yesterday about AMD issuing BIOS updates to its Radeon HD 7950 video cards.
Just so there’s no misunderstanding here, I remain unconvinced about the wisdom of sending out BIOS updates for basic performance issues rather than squashing game-changing bugs or fixing major compatibility problems. To my mind, it’s one thing when a motherboard manufacturer releases a new BIOS for a specific piece of hardware and anyone, anywhere, who has that particular model can flash it and get whatever the new benefits are. That manufacturer is in control, and can thus ensure a generally equal playing field on which all those who meet certain requirements can basically be assured their hardware will work. This is much harder to guarantee when third-party manufacturers and potentially dozens of different products are involved. As both an observer and a consumer of these kinds of products, I want the absolute minimum of market muddle at any given point. What can I say? I’m a “law and order” kind of guy.
But after that piece I wrote yesterday was published, Dave Erskine and Devon Nekechuk of AMD contacted me to tell their side of the story and make their own case for the update. As a result, I felt I needed to give their views the public airing I didn’t (but should have) initially, and also weigh in on another aspect I didn’t give the attention it deserved.
First, I neglected to mention that the BIOS update also introduced a new feature to the 7950: PowerTune with Boost. Introduced on the 7970 GHz Edition card $444.81 at Walmart.com a couple of months ago, this is AMD’s GPU version of its own Turbo Core technology (or, if you prefer, Intel’s Turbo Boost or Nvidia’s GPU Boost), which dynamically increases clock speed if there’s the power and temperature to do so. I decided against mentioning this because it struck me as not directly relevant to the confusion question. But it’s a significant change I should have at least name-checked.
Moving on, Erskine and Nekechuk wanted to address some of my qualms about the BIOS itself. “Yes, we did make the BIOS available to press with a specific purpose,” they told me, “so they would be able to try out the BIOS and the performance it brought, and also the new [PowerTune with Boost] feature. But at the same time, it’s something we don’t express only for the press to take advantage of.”
“The BIOS that I prepared… was a BIOS that was built with our reference board in mind,” they continued. “The reason that I can’t guarantee that it will work on the boards on the market is that [I can’t guarantee] the boards that our third-party [partners] have produced will be able to take the settings. For example, the way we program our digital regulators. Or if they’ve added another connector to our display configuration.”
The crux of the matter is that everyone should eventually have access to a BIOS — just not necessarily this one. And that does make sense. Erskine and Nekechuk expressed their confidence that, as the manufacturers release new BIOSes for their hardware, they will indeed filter through to the myriad online sites and forums that deal in them. This, they concluded, will naturally take care of the existing boards, and new ones naturally won’t have the problem. But Nekechuk stressed that the underlying hardware is not in question. “From an AMD perspective,” he concluded, “I can guarantee that every GPU I’ve shipped can hit the speeds with the BIOS I sent. It’s purely board compatibility I can’t guarantee.”
As to my concern about whether users will be able to find these, the AMD guys were quite clear that they’re not worried about it — and they had an excellent reason. “We fully expect that for the class of gamer that uses a 7970 or 7950, they’re very savvy gamers. They’re guys that build their own systems or upgrade on a fairly regular basis and have the capability to flash a BIOS regularly and probably read the forums to know the BIOSes are available. It’s probably better for them to wait for the BIOS if it’s not a reference-based design.”
That, I’m sorry to say, is the crucial part of the equation that didn’t occur to me. It should have. If there’s a single overarching theme in what I write around here, it’s that, whether it means building systems or tracking down ESRB ratings on the Mass Effect 3 box or pretty much anything else, people should take control of technology themselves and not wait others to do it for them. And this is exactly what AMD was expecting its target audience to do. The company is completely right to feel that way in this circumstance, and I was completely wrong to not recognize it as a realistic possibility. (What can I say? It was early and I hadn’t shaved with Occam’s razor yet.)
But because I didn’t, I inadvertently maligned AMD and the enthusiast community, both of which I sincerely and unabashedly respect and admire. To both of them I can only say I’m sorry and hope they’ll accept my apology and the firmest assurance I can provide that it won’t happen again.
The second aspect of all this is going to be even more important to some of you: Just how good is the BIOS update, after all? What I wrote yesterday gave some people the impression that I wasn’t going to give the updated 7950 a proper airing because I was angry about the way it was handled. That actually wasn’t true — it wasn’t that I didn’t have the desire to do it, it was that I didn’t think I had the time to do it, given various professional and personal responsibilities that would interfere. But after discussing things with some people around here and shuffling some things around, I was able to make the time for it that I should have in the first place. After what had happened, I felt I owed AMD at least that much.
And, well, I’m glad I did. Here’s a look at what I discovered, using the new BIOS and the AMD-recommended beta version of the Catalyst 12.7 driver on the 7950 card the second time around. (All the tests were performed at the stated resolutions with maxed-out detail settings on the same system, using an Intel Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition processor, an Asus P9X79 Deluxe motherboard $374.99 at TigerDirect.com, and 8GB of 1600MHz DDR3 RAM.)
The new BIOS, which ups the base clock speed of the 7950 from 800MHz to 850MHz and gives the GPU the ability to boost as high as 925MHz, does make a difference, almost across the board. It’s not always a significant one, in fairness, but it’s definitely enough to make the 7950 more attractive and competitive when compared with closely matched Nvidia releases already on the market and — who knows? — maybe those yet to come at some indeterminate future point. One thing I don’t love is the increased power usage. It was to be expected given the faster clock speed, but this is obviously one area in which AMD has some serious ground to cover and that no simple BIOS update is likely to be able to traverse for them.
Aside from that, however, if you have a 7950, this BIOS is one you’ll want to track down and install. I’d love to be able to give you a concrete idea of when you can expect to find it for your particular card, but I can’t. And I guess that’s okay. If the guys at AMD are right (and I have no reason to believe they aren’t), you don’t need my help for that!