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)

AMD HD 7970M dGPU
(1280 cores, 850/4800MHz Core/RAM)
Intel HD 4000 iGPU
(16EUs, 1250MHz)

AMD HD 7970M dGPU
(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)
Discontinued
~$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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  • Aegrum - Friday, June 21, 2013 - link

    Great article - I'm really happy to see some benches from these behemoth systems.

    I will say, though, comparing a $150 APU to a $400 CPU isn't exactly a fair assessment. I'd rather see the GX60 compared to a system in its price range, something with a GTX770m or GTX765m on board, like an MSI GE60 or Sager NP8230.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, June 21, 2013 - link

    See concluding comments on pricing. I know it's not "fair", but however you slice it the MSI GX60 isn't delivering on all fronts as a gaming notebook -- unless games like StarCraft II and Skyrim simply don't matter? Reply
  • Samus - Saturday, June 22, 2013 - link

    AMD driver issues? Shocking. Reply
  • huaxshin - Saturday, June 22, 2013 - link

    Try to be more precise Jarred:
    Its not the notebook that isn`t delivering, its the 4600M APU.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, June 22, 2013 - link

    Let's see...MSI has performance issues on their Dragon laptop. This AMD system is also from MSI. Could there be a correlation? I would say yes. Trinity isn't blazing fast by any means, but in single-threaded performance it's usually no worse than half the speed of single-threaded Core i7. We're seeing cases where it's much less than that, which suggests drivers, platform, and/or laptop are also a factor. My guess is Enduro requires more CPU performance than discrete-only, and it would potentially dirty some of the cache thus making misses more common and thus reducing performance more on some platforms than others. Reply
  • huaxshin - Saturday, June 22, 2013 - link

    Dragon Edition 2 review: Cooling problems > hot temperatures > throttling > CPU performance go down > CPU bottleneck > GPU performance go down > Poor gaming performance

    GX60: Good cooling
    /end
    GX60 saw NO CPU throttling nor high temperatures. Since the high end GPUs require a high end CPU, and A10-4600M score half of the 3610QM in single and 1/4th in Multi Cinebench, you don`t have to be a genious to understand that the APU is just too weak. Heck, even look at the lowest end i5, 3210M and its over 50% better in Multi.

    I have seen what you guys are trying to do. You are trying to blame MSI for it. Like they can control the very poor APU performance. They are the only OEM that pair up the high end GPU with AMD APU. The notebook is pretty cheap, but its a gamble: it can outrun the GTX 660M in some games, while its the other way around in other.
    Reply
  • Dustin Sklavos - Saturday, June 22, 2013 - link

    Are you seriously still here? Reply
  • huaxshin - Saturday, June 22, 2013 - link

    Yes because you two cannot answer critique and I am able to see right through your recent reviews.

    Since the PSU is 180W, the cooling is way overbuilt for the APU since it is the exact same design that house hotter Intel CPUs, I am looking for an answer from one of you two about what caused the 7970M performance in the GX60 to go down when it is not the APU itself.

    Jarred blame MSI, which is laughable, since all MSI does is include support through BIOS, make sure the cooling is efficient and make sure the components get all the power.

    Drivers? AMD make them

    Platform? AMD

    Laptop? Please enlight us what exactly is wrong with the laptop. I think I covered pretty much everything

    Enduro? Perhaps it can count for -some- of the performance decrease. But not 50% decrease or whatever it is. Once again you two cannot look past the fact that the i7 with 7970M and Enduro does far better than 4600M and 7970M with Enduro. That means, the APU is weak...
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, June 22, 2013 - link

    "They are the only OEM that pair [sic] up the high end GPU with AMD APU." Exactly. Why do you think that is? If MSI is selling a laptop which performs far worse than most would expect, that is their problem. If Dell were to make a notebook and stick in an Atom CPU with a high-end GPU, it's not Intel's fault that Dell made a bad design decision.

    It's nice of MSI to try selling a less expensive gaming laptop, but they should know as well as anyone whether the APU is sufficient to handle the task at hand. And yet, they started shipping the GX60 and now there's an updated version. I blame AMD plenty for their drivers, but MSI does not get off scott free for creating the design in the first place, especially if it doesn't work well.

    I am going to see about simulating performance of the 7970M and A10-4600M on the desktop side, using a 7870 and A10-5800K and then underclocking both to the same level as the MSI GX60 is running at. That will remove Enduro from the equation in the process, and I can almost guarantee that performance will be far better than what we're seeing on the GX60. However, that doesn't mean it's only Enduro -- look at the M17x and how the Enduro penalty tapers off at higher resolutions and settings. That's not happening with GX60. And even under gaming loads the CPU cores are at less than 75%, so there's a whole core sitting idle somewhere.

    Is it really just a case of the APU and Enduro using so much CPU computational power than performance falls flat, or is it something else like issues with the firmware and BIOS coming into play? The latest BIOS from MSI for the GX60 improved performance by as much as 10%, so there could be a lot of room left for improvement. Even if the problem is completely with AMD's APU performance, again, go back to point number one: if you sell a system that has a poorly matched CPU and GPU, it is your fault as the system manufacturer, because you put the two together.

    As for you and your fanboy rantings, you're not helping anything here. Your comments on the NVIDIA GTX 780M article were worthless, as you tried to absolve both NVIDIA and MSI from responsibility. Well, NVIDIA isn't to blame for MSI's bad QA, certainly. And if it's just a bad sample from MSI, sent to a review site that gets major traffic? Shame on MSI yet again. I actually have an MSI GE40 that's mostly good and doesn't have any real issues other than an outdated industrial design and a crappy LCD, which means yet again that it misses the mark. Who do I blame next time, the LCD manufacturer for daring to sell a low contrast LCD?
    Reply
  • vlad42 - Sunday, June 23, 2013 - link

    Hey Jarred,

    I was actual going to recommend simulating the A10-4600m and HD 7970m in discrete mode, but I get you beat me to it.

    Also, I would recommend contacting AMD’s driver team and share these results with them. It is quite possible that they are unaware of the performance issues that the HD 7970m has in Enduro mode on sub-1080p resolutions (similar to how they were unaware of the micro stuttering issues with their cards). If you think about it, AMD might simply be assuming that any laptop that would have an HD 7970m would also have at least a 1080p display. Thus, they might only be testing Enduro’s performance at 1080p, which, incidentally, is where you found that the performance difference between Enduro and discrete modes on the Alienware M17x R4 was only about 3%.

    You might even want to suggest fixing the Enduro performance problems because the ultra high resolution laptops/displays that are coming out, such as Samsung’s ATIV Book 9 with 3200x1800 display, will likely cause gamers to run games at ¼ the native resolution of the display (in the case of the ATIV Book 9 that would be 1600x900) due to how hard it is for any desktop gpu to drive these kinds of resolutions. While you are in contact with them (assuming you do contact them of course) you could try to get an update regarding the DX 9 rendering fix.
    Reply

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