Nvidia’s GTX 690 finally has some serious competition
Today the embargo is lifting on the AMD Radeon HD 7990 that was teased back at GDC, so here’s the TLDR version; yes it’s just as fast and a tiny bit quieter than the Nvidia GTX 690, and it includes a mega bad ass eight-AAA-game bundle and costs the same price as its nemesis, making it quite a tempting package for those with the budget for it. Whether or not that will be enough to convince anyone to actually buy it remains to be seen of course, but at least AMD can no longer be knocked for conceding the $1,000 GPU market to Nvidia. It also signifies somewhat of a resurgence for AMD, who first came off the bench late last year and early this year with its totally righteous Never Settle game bundles, then attacked the midrange recently with the surprisingly powerful and quiet Radeon HD 7790 card, and is now going for the jugular with the dual-slot and triple-fan HD 7990. Whether AMD wins or loses that battle is slightly less important than the overall significance of this introduction, as in our minds its designed to not only beat Nvidia’s offering, but also to send a very clear signal to hardcore PC enthusiasts everywhere — AMD is still in the game, and doesn’t intend to give an inch of ground to Nvidia any time soon.
Let’s start with the card’s basic specs: It features dual HD 7970 Tahiti GPUs clocked at 1,000MHz, which is a bit higher than we expected them to be, and higher than the clocks on a stock HD 7970 (925MHz) and the GTX 690 (915Mhz). Each GPU sports 3GB of GDDR5 RAM and has 2,048 Stream Processors, and the two connect to each other and the motherboard via a PCIe Gen 3 PLX bridge chip. The card takes up two slots, is 12 inches long, has a triple-fan cooler with copper heatpipes, and sports a semi-high TDP of 375w. For comparison, the GTX 690’s TDP is 300w. Power is provided by dual eight-pin PCIe connectors, which is the same requirement of the GTX 690, and one less than what was required on the dual-Tahiti PowerColor Devil 13 board. The board supports five displays with its four Mini DisplayPort connectors and single Dual-Link DVI port. The card will cost $999 and includes an eight-game bundle featuring: Bioshock Infinite, Crysis 3, Far Cry 3, Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon, Tomb Raider, Hitman Absolution, Sleeping Dogs, and Deux Ex: Human Revolution. We thought Battlefield 4 would be included as well since the game was demo’d at GDC on the HD 7990, but that deal appears to have fallen through. The card should be available two weeks from the day this is published from all the standard add-in board partners such as Sapphire, HIS, Gigabyte, MSI, etc.
When it comes to performance, the card performs just as well as you would imagine, if you were imagining that AMD would only bring this to market when it was sure it could beat Nvidia’s card. To do otherwise would be a fool’s errand, so naturally the HD 7990 is faster than the GTX 690 in most tests that we ran, but not in all of them (see benchmark chart below). Overall performance with both the GTX 690 is very close though, enough to effectively call it a draw. It's not as fast as the overclocked and water-cooled Asus Ares II, however, but nobody can buy those cards so the point is somewhat moot. When compared to a CrossFireX setup, the results are in favor of the HD 7990, but the CrossFireX results were achieved last month with an older driver, so it's quite possible that two cards would be a tiny bit faster than the HD 7990 if using updated drivers. Even more surprising is the card's lack of noise and heat, as the other dual Tahiti boards we've seen so far have either been water-cooled (Ares II) or so loud and hot as to require earplugs and heat shields (Devil 13), but not the HD 7990. It got up to about 85C in gaming and was a tiny bit audible, but not "loud" at all, which is an amazing development for AMD. We'd say all in all it's probably just a bit quieter than the GTX 690, and gets about as hot.
Best scores are bolded. Our test bed is a 3.33GHz Core i7 3960X Extreme Edition in an Asus P9X79 motherboard with 16GB of DDR3/1600 and a Thermaltake ToughPower 1,050W PSU. The OS is 64-bit Windows Ultimate. All games are run at 2560x1600 with 4X AA except for the 3DMark tests.
Frame Latency and micro-stutter
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about ditching frames per second as a standard for how “smooth” a game runs on given hardware, and instead examining frame latency or frame times instead. The reason why is that sometimes frames per second can be misleading, as we all equate anything over 30fps to be “smooth” when in fact a game can be run at even 50fps and still be somewhat choppy if the frames aren’t being delivered on a consistent schedule. For example, if the GPU alternatively sends frames to the system at 20ms and 100ms or higher throughout a test, it’s possible to still have an average framerate above 30fps, but to have it feel like you’re dropping frames. This is not usually something that you notice when running a single GPU, but it’s more prominent in multi-card setups since both cards are sending individual frames to the system, hopefully in concert with one another. This has been a bee in AMD’s bonnet lately, and when we sat down for the briefing on this card in particular AMD mentioned it, and acknowledged it. They called it “micro stutter,” which is fitting, as it’s an almost imperceptible stutter/lag that you can feel but barely see when playing certain games on specific configurations of GPUs and CPUs.
As far as the HD 7990 goes, here is the situation. Yes this card and the latest drivers we used (13.5 beta 2) suffered from micro stutter, but it was imperceptible in most games with one major exception — Far Cry 3. We’re not sure what it is about Far Cry 3, but it runs like crap on this setup at 2560x1600 with 4xAA. We mean it feels like you are running through molasses the whole time, and when examining the frame time output from FRAPS it is easy to see why, as the latency between frames fluctutates wildly. When examining the frame time charts from other games the delivery times look pretty consistent, with only Crysis 3 showing some anomalies. AMD has told us it is working on a fix for this situation, but the remedy will most likely be a software implementation rather than a hardware fix. We have yet to receive and test a final software fix for this issue, and will sure to update you when we have tested it.
On the one hand, we’re pretty pumped to see the HD 7990 finally arrive, as it’s more than a year late to market, and its absence made a lot of people question AMD’s commitment to the uber high-end PC gaming market. Since AMD has sort of abandoned the high-end CPU market, having them leave the same GPU market would mean nothing but bad things for a lot of consumers, so we're stoked to see them join the fight. The card itself presents a very strong option for buyers looking to drop a large bill on a GPU given the fact that it includes over $500 of Kick Ass games. If the bundle wasn't included, we'd say you could flip a coin over whether or not to get this card or the GTX 690, but the gaming bundle clearly gives AMD a significant advantage against its competitors.
Now that the HD 7990 has launched, we have to wonder whether or not Nvidia will counter AMD's launch with the rumored GTX Titan Ultra, but it sure seems likely the way the two have been going at it lately. This effectively means the GPU cold war that has existed throughout 2012 is now largely over, with the two companies fired up and ready to wage war this summer. All we can say to that is "bring it on!"