Performance Retrospective: AMD’s Radeon HD 7970M

Dustin recently posted our first review of a notebook equipped with NVIDIA’s latest mobile tour de force, the GeForce GTX 780M. With a theoretical computational performance increase of 30% relative to GTX 680M and 39% more memory bandwidth, the GTX 780M should be stomping all over the competition from AMD. What’s more, the Radeon HD 8970M doesn’t really help matters, as the only change from the 7970M is a Boost clock that’s 50MHz (6%) higher. Except, either due to our particular MSI GT70 sample being a lemon and having CPU throttling issues (or it may be a design problem that affects all of MSI’s current GTX 780M notebooks—we’re not entirely sure), the 7970M really isn’t that far off the GTX 780M performance. But there’s more to the story than just pure performance.

I’ve had an MSI GX60 notebook for a while now, along with an Alienware M17x R4. Both are equipped with AMD’s previously top-performance HD 7970M, and as I just mentioned the 8970M doesn’t look to radically alter the amount  of performance you’ll get out of AMD’s mobile GPUs. Both of the notebooks come with Enduro Technology enabled, allowing you to switch between the integrated graphics and discrete graphics on the fly. If all goes as planned, not only do you get seamless switching between GPUs, but you don’t lose any performance. There’s only one problem with Enduro to date, really; in a word: drivers.

My first look at the latest Enduro drivers came nine months ago with the Clevo P170EM—and it’s worth noting that at the time 7970M had already been selling for several months. We’re now talking about hardware that has been on the market for over a year, which ought to be more than enough time to get all the kinks worked out. Since the initial “Enduro 5.5” release in September 2012, we have seen quite a few driver updates. Some have fared better than others, and I’ve tried my best to test them all. I’m not going to try to dig through all of the old driver results here, as most were tested with our now-deprecated gaming suite. The latest updates from AMD (13.3 Beta3, 13.5 Beta3, and now 13.6 Beta) have mostly felt the same, with a few performance tweaks aimed at recent releases.

With our gaming suite now fully updated, I felt it was time to pull out the 7970M and specifically look at a couple items. First, there’s naturally the question of how 7970M/8970M compare to NVIDIA’s 680M/780M hardware—using the M17x R4 with a GTX 680M and MSI’s GT70 Dragon for the 780M. Second, we want to see how performance changes when looking at a 7970M paired with an A10 Trinity APU and an i7 Ivy Bridge CPU. Thanks to the M17x R4, we also wanted to see how much—if at all—Enduro is affecting performance in games. Finally, just to put the HD 7970M with A10 APU performance in perspective, I’m including performance results from AMD’s Trinity using the integrated HD 7660G as a reference point. The 7970M offers up something like four times the performance potential of the 7660G, so in cases where we see significantly less performance scaling from the dGPU we’re likely running into CPU related bottlenecks.

Incidentally, I’m only looking at gaming results here—the MSI GX60 arrived with a flaky Win7 install, and I eventually updated it to Win8 but in the process lost the ability to control LCD brightness and a few other items, so battery testing is out. Then there’s the storage subsystems, with the GX60 using RAID 0 64GB SSDs for the OS and a 750GB HDD for mass storage while the Alienware M17x shipped with only a 750GB HDD, making PCMark discussions largely meaningless. There have also been a few other minor concerns, with the short summary being that it’s not really fair to try to compare performance across a wide suite of benchmarks. Besides, most of what we’re interested in with this sort of hardware is gaming/graphics performance.

If you want to see additional scores, you can look at Mobile Bench, or let me know what other tests you would like to see and I can try to accommodate such requests. With that out of the way, here’s the quick summary of the two “new” test systems—the other systems included in the charts are the already mentioned MSI GT70 Dragon and the M17x R4 with GTX 680M. Also, in case you missed reading the MSI GT70 Dragon review, the performance was far lower than expected due to CPU throttling issues. We will see about updating the information with a future review, but for now let's just say going into this that the GTX 780M is being held back by our test laptop. Pay attention to how that thermally handicapped system stacks up against some of the other notebook here, though, as it will give a good idea of when games/settings are hitting the CPU cores harder than others.

Test Notebook Specifications
Notebook MSI GX60 Alienware M17x R4
Processor AMD A10-4600M
(Quad-core 2.3-3.2GHz, 2MB L2, 28nm, 35W)
Intel Core i7-3720QM
(Quad-core 3.6-3.6GHz, 6MB L3, 22nm, 45W)
Chipset A60M HM77
Memory 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600 (11-11-11-28) 6GB (1x4GB + 1x2GB) DDR3-1600 (11-11-11-28)
Graphics AMD HD 7660G iGPU
(384 cores, 686MHz)

(1280 cores, 850/4800MHz Core/RAM)
Intel HD 4000 iGPU
(16EUs, 1250MHz)

(1280 cores, 850/4800MHz Core/RAM)
Storage 2x64GB SSDs in RAID 0 (C:)
750GB WDC WD7500BPKT-22PK4 HDD (D:)
750GB WDC WD7500BPKT-75PK4T0 HDD (C:)
Optical Drive Blu-ray Combo (TSSTCorp SN-406AB) DVDRW (PLDS DL-8A4SH)
Battery/Power 8-cell, 12.6V, 86Wh
180W Max AC Adapter
9-cell, 12.6V, 93Wh
240W Max AC Adapter
Operating System Windows 8 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Price Discontinued; $1300 MSRP
~$1100 Online (without SSD RAID)
~$2025 Online (i7-3740QM)

You’ll note that the Alienware M17x R4 is no longer available from Dell, but you can still find a few resellers that carry it. The GX60 we received is also being phased out, to be replaced by a new GX60 with a Richland A10-5750M APU and HD 8970M dGPU. The M17x also came with 6GB RAM, but it’s still able to run in dual-channel mode (at a very slight performance penalty). Since we’re not testing anything that hits the storage or memory all that hard—and all games are installed to the 750GB HDD on each laptop—we’re mostly going to be looking at CPU and GPU performance as it applies to games.

We’ll have three results for the HD 7970M to look at in the graphs: HD 7970M in Enduro mode with the A10-4600M, Enduro mode with the i7-3720QM, and in discrete-only mode on the i7-3720QM. The latter option requires a reboot to enable/disable Enduro, and we also saw a few anomalies with Enduro rendering on the Alienware system. It’s possible that this is a problem specific to the M17x R4, and the problem didn’t manifest in Skyrim with earlier drivers, but as of the latest 13.5 and 13.6 beta drivers I experienced severe flickering in both Skyrim and StarCraft II on the M17x. Disabling Enduro cleared up the problem, but I created a video of the problems if you’re interested.

And with that out of the way, let’s hit the benchmarks.

Value/Medium 1366x768 Gaming Performance
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  • kogunniyi - Saturday, June 22, 2013 - link

    The question of liability is not that simple.

    I assume that most people who buy the GX60 expect a CPU bottleneck within certain limits. Imagine that the A10-4600m cuts performance in half for every application. If the 7970m is performing at 10% of its potential, the APU is probably not the only problem. Even Enduro does not account for such a performance hit. Most people would define "getting money's worth" as taking the 50% hit in every game. In the case given, they are not getting their money's worth, and the locked-down overclocking does not help.

    On the other hand, MSI does not advertise a certain performance. You could argue that the benchmarks it posted for the GX60 are misleading, but that's marketing fluff and should not be taken seriously. Because MSI does not promise anything, it isn't legally responsible, but it can be held ethically accountable: the very act of offering the APU + 7970m suggests that it is a stable and consistent platform. I assume that Jarred simply wants to tell readers that the MSI GX60 may not perform up to standard.
  • kallogan - Friday, June 21, 2013 - link

    7970M is da best considering its lower price. I didn't think the A10 would be such a bottleneck even at 1080p.
  • Wreckage - Friday, June 21, 2013 - link

    Waste of money. Lower price because of lower quality.
  • Xinn3r - Saturday, June 22, 2013 - link

    You can't get away with low quality just by lowering your price
  • Meaker10 - Friday, June 21, 2013 - link

    2.7ghz is the maximum turbo speed for more than 2 threads on the 4600M APU. 3.2ghz is mostly for single thread only.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, June 21, 2013 - link

    True. I guess I was expecting some of the games to not hit the second thread hard enough to trigger that limit. Let me edit text a bit....
  • Meaker10 - Friday, June 21, 2013 - link

    Engineering cpus are unlocked, if amd had allowed overclocking on platforms like the msi and could be run around 3.5ghz performance would be far more acceptable imo.
  • Khenglish - Saturday, June 22, 2013 - link

    Yeah I agree. I don't understand why the top end APU is completely locked. AMD is going for performance/cost, and allowing overclocking would have helped that. 2.7ghz is OK for intel, but for AMD's lower IPC it's a problem. They don't even let you overclock trinity's GPU on laptops.

    As for the argument that it's to make sure people don't kill their hardware, on the APU laptop I played around with it was possible to disable thermal throttling, thermal shutdown (only possible due to BIOS bug, but still), and the cpu fan though PCI config space options... but overclocking was locked down tight!
  • Roland00Address - Saturday, June 22, 2013 - link

    Furthermore you if you are using more than 2 threads you are using both cores and cmt simultaneously, thus you will use the cmt tax and only get 80% performance.
  • Bob Todd - Friday, June 21, 2013 - link

    While the end result for the Enduro drivers on older systems is exactly the weak sauce I expected, I have to say I'm disappointed in how they handled it from a product management perspective. They should have only included systems they absolutely knew they would support (IVB/Trinity), and actually been realistic about previous gen platforms and said something like "We are evaluating the potential for SB/Llano support and we'll have an answer for you in 6 months" (or whatever a realistic timeline would have been). Instead they basically strung along their customers of the older platforms for months with 'a future driver will support your system' pipe dream. Middle finger to you for that one PMs or marketing folks. Who I feel even worse for than Sandy Bridge/(rebadged) 7XXX owners are folks in the same boat with Llano. Those are customers who invested in an ALL AMD solution and these jokers can't even invest in a solution for them? That's bush league AMD.

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