XFX R7970 Black Edition Video Card Review

We have the new XFX R7970 Black Edition video card to evaluate, which is XFX's current flagship Radeon HD 7970 based video card. With a custom PCB, custom hardware components and custom cooling fan, will it take us to new heights in overclocking, or leave us wishing we had just purchased a "reference" card?

Introduction

A business division of PINE Technology Holdings Limited, XFX specializes in the development of high-performance PC hardware with a focus on gaming products. XFX showcases a wide variety of video cards powered by AMD Radeon GPUs from the HD 4000 series up to the new HD 7000 series.

According to the website:

XFX is dedicated to delivering the highest performing and highest quality professional grade video gaming hardware and accessories in the world. Products you want to own, products you’re proud to own.

The XFX video card we are evaluating is the flagship of the Radeon HD 7970 series from XFX: The XFX R7970 Black Edition.

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AMD Radeon HD 7970

AMD announced its new Radeon HD 7970, code-named "Tahiti", on December 22nd, 2011. Minimal product availability was made on January 9th, 2012. Tahiti represents a departure from previous architectures for AMD. It calls the new architecture "Graphics Core Next," or GCN. The Radeon HD 6000 series used AMD's VLIW 4 and 5 architectures. GCN features a smaller die at 28nm, compared to the 40nm process used for the previous generation.

Aside from the die shrink, GCN offers a number of features over previous generation GPUs. One particularly noteworthy feature is "ZeroCore Power." This feature disables unused GPUs (or portions of them) during long idle periods to save power and increase efficiency. This can save energy not only in terms of power consumed by the video card, but it can also lead to decreased heat generation, which can save money in terms of cooling costs.

The Radeon HD 7970 GPU itself is comprised of 4.32 billion transistors packed into 2048 stream processors with a clock speed of 925MHz. There are 128 texture units, 128 Z/stencil units, and 32 ROPs. That is a 33% increase in stream processors and texture units compared to the Radeon HD 6970, but the same number of ROP. Even so, optimizations and clock speed increases should result in more efficient rasterization.

The Radeon HD 7970 is designed to be paired with 3GB of GDDR5 memory on a 384-bit bus, running at 1375MHz for a 5.5Gbps data rate and a maximum theoretical bandwidth of 264GB per second. In spite of its increased capacity and its performance improvements, the Radeon HD 7970 shares the same 250W maximum board power rating as the HD 6970.


XFX R7970 Black Edition

XFX's R7970 Black Edition is a special custom made video card. One look at the video card itself, or the specifications, reveals a number of deviations from AMD's reference design. The most obvious change is the "double dissipation" cooling device. The R7970 Black Edition features a black and silver custom cooling device with two fans. It's big and impressive, but most importantly, it works well and doesn't make a lot of noise. To help explain the rest of the video card's features, XFX sent along information with some nice graphics to illustrate the finer points of this video card's departure from the reference design.

All of these custom features will cost you a high price tag of $599 MSRP for the XFX R7970 Black Edition. This is $50 higher than the base MSRP of a stock, reference Radeon HD 7970 at $549. With a price tag this high we will hold this video card to high standards and see if that money is worth it. It simply must deliver at this price point.

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The XFX R7970 Black Edition features an AMD Radeon HD 7970 GPU overclocked by 75MHz to 1.0GHz. The default clock on a Radeon HD 7970 is 925MHz, so this is a nice gentle overclock out-of-the-box. The XFX R7970 has 3GB of GDDR5 memory on a 384-bit bus clocked at 5.7GHz, which is 200MHz faster than AMD's recommended memory speed specification of 5.5GHz. It is welcomed to see the memory also overclocked, which often times is overlooked on factory overclocked video cards we come across.

The video card features a PCI-Express 3.0 bus, 2 mini-DP output ports, one DVI-D port, and a single HDMI port.

XFX refers to the airflow design of this cooling device as "Ghost Thermal Technology". The idea is simple, the cooling device does not trap heat on the card, but allows air from the fans to pass through the heat sink and all around the PCB and core components. XFX states that this affords better cooling performance with less fan noise.

The vapor chamber inside the cooling device is known as "HydroCell". This design is similar to other vapor chamber designs, in that the sealed chamber on top of the GPU is contains pure water, which absorbs heat and eventually evaporates. The vapor then moves toward the comparatively cooler top end of the vapor chamber, where it is able to dissipate its stored heat energy into the metal casing and heat-sink. As it discharges its heat, it condenses and is guided back toward the heat-source (which is the GPU).

The fan configuration of the cooler is referred to as "Double Dissipation". There are two fans, offering "up to 3x more air flow" with a potential noise reduction of 13dB and a potential temperature reduction of 7 degrees Celsius. The open design of the cooler allows air to flow over not only the heat-sink and vapor chamber, but also over the PCB and its various components.

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The XFX R7970 Black Edition features XFX's "Duratec Professional Grade" component selection. This technology set features ferrite core chokes for noise and power loss reduction, solid state capacitors to improve longevity of the board, and a PCB with 2oz. of copper conductor runs for heat reduction and improved energy efficiency.

XFX uses its own IP-5X fans on this video card. These fans have two seals to keep dust out of the fan core to protect the bearings. This should result in a longer usable life span for the cooling fans.

XFX claims that the special logo-bearing PCI bracket offers twice the airflow of "standard" brackets and 20% lower temperatures. To us, it just looks like a logo. Unfortunately, we don't have a "standard" bracket to attach to the video card in order to investigate these claims.

"GPU Edging" refers to the Black Edition GPU selection process XFX uses. XFX uses its "GPU Edging" process to identify the top 1% of overclockable GPUs which go into the Black Edition video cards. XFX also claims that its Duratec components allow the Black Edition GPUs to run at a faster clock rate without using more power. XFX claims the same 250W thermal profile for the black edition as AMD specifies for the reference design.

Fan ramping refers to the ability of XFX's cooling fans to step up speed in response to rising temperatures in smaller, smoother increments. Rather than having 3 discrete temperature zones with corresponding fan speed configurations, the XFX fans respond more closely, and should in turn reduce noise creation.

There you have it. On top of the GPU, this video card has some interesting technology and high-quality components, and a nicely designed and very effective cooling device.

XFX R7970 Black Edition Pictures

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The outer box is standard fare for XFX. It's a small box, and the front features high-tech looking designs and brief descriptions of some of its standard and advanced features. The back and sides go into more detail regarding the video card's features and system requirements.

The soft bundle includes a warranty card, a hardware installation guide, a driver CD with driver installation guide, and some advertisements for other XFX products. The accessory bundle includes a DVI to HDMI adaptor, a CrossFire bridge connector, an XFX Black Edition badge, and an XFX "do not disturb" door hanger.

One thing we feel is conspicuously lacking in this bundle is an advanced custom overclocking utility. We are seeing more and more video card partners investing the resources into building in-house utilities, and given the advanced design of this video card, we really expected to see that here. AMD's Overdrive utility is functional, but it sometimes limits overclocking capacity as its sliders don't go very far. While we certainly don't need a custom overclocking utility to use and enjoy this video card, it's still something we like to see.

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The XFX R7970 Black Edition is standard size for high-end graphics cards. It measures 11" long, 4" tall, and 1.5" thick. It is a dual-slot design featuring a sharp looking black and silver aluminum heat-sink shroud. There are two 9cm fans blowing on an open cooling device, as described in the slides above.

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The top edge of the video card is home to the 6-pin and 8-pin auxiliary power connectors. There is also a very nice red aluminum trim piece advertising the "Ghost Thermal Technology", as well as an XFX R7970 logo. For ports, there is a single DVI-D connector, an HDMI connector, and two mini-DisplayPort connectors. The back of the video card features many surface mounted components and several stickers and labels.

In summary, we have a Radeon HD 7970 based video card from XFX with a nice-looking custom designed cooling device and some high quality electronic components. It has a 75MHz overclock on the GPU, and it is equipped memory running 200MHz faster than AMD's reference design. XFX claims that it should remain cool and quiet, and should use the same amount of power as AMD's reference HD 7970.