There's a lot going on with AMD's new Radeon HD 7970 graphics card.
A new graphics architecture, a new 28-nanometer chip manufacturing process, and a new emphasis on GPU computing. The most important thing is that the new card, code-named Tahiti, is the new 3D gaming king.
AMD announced the card this morning as a result of various leaks appearing around the Web over the last few weeks, but the new card won't be available for purchase until AMD makes its launch official on January 9. When you find it in stores, it will start at $550.
For the price, you will get a 3D card that is faster than Nvidia's current market-leading GeForce GTX 580, at least according to the enthusiast tech review sites who've already tested the Radeon HD 7970. Anandtech, HotHardware, PC Perspective, and others have put AMD's new card through its paces, and I encourage you to check them all out for a deep-dive into performance.
The other new aspects of the Radeon HD 7970 core architecture, called Southern Islands, range from the highly technical to easier-to-grasp improvements to the core feature set.
On the technical side, Southern Islands architecture (the core GPU design behind all future Radeon 7000-series cards) is the first to use a 28-nanometer manufacturing process. As with CPUs, as the process shrinks, you can achieve greater transistor density (read: performance) on a given piece of silicon before it overheats. Essentially, the Radeon 7000 cards are faster than their 32-nanometer Radeon 6000 equivalents, without consuming significantly more power, or generating more heat.
Another technical note is that AMD has taken a new approach to GPU computing with the Southern Islands design. GPU computing is the generic term for using your graphics card to assist in the processing of non-3D workloads, like video rendering, photo editing, and other tasks.
Nvidia CUDA is the best known manifestation of GPU computing, and AMD has also supported GPU computing in previous cards. The new chip design features what AMD calls Graphics Core Next, or GCN. Anandtech has a great write-up on the specifics of GCN if you're curious, but in general, the early reviews found that AMD's new approach shows promise, if perhaps not yet an unequivocal defeat to Nvidia's CUDA strategy.
Features-wise, the Radeon HD 7970 brings a handful of extras that should please gamers and others, particularly those with multiple monitors and an interest in 3D display.
You can run three displays from the HD 7970, as with previous AMD cards, but this is the first standalone card that also supports 3D display output from multiple monitors. When a long in-development hub device comes out (AMD says this summer), you will also be able to run six displays from a single HD 7970.
Another interesting feature is what AMD calls discrete digital multipoint audio, or DDMA. With the introduction of the HDMI port, which transmits video and audio from a single cable, AMD also brought audio processing to its graphics cards (Nvidia followed suit thereafter). DDMA takes that a step further, letting you send out multiple discrete audio signals from a single PC.
The benefits of DDMA include the ability to use a single PC to transmit multiple audio streams across a network (for multiroom home media serving, for example). Through a partnership with video conferencing software maker Oovoo, you can also use DDMA in a multimonitor video conference scenario to assign an individual's video and audio output to a single monitor.
Expect AMD to make a bigger splash with the Radeon HD 7970 at CES, and that it will flesh out the line with mainstream and budget variations at lower price points. You can also expect that Nvidia isn't standing idly by.