It was back at the turn of the New Year that we first reviewed the HD7970 and we found it to be a stunning comeback from AMD after the rather poor showing of the 6 series cards. Indeed it still stands up well against the GTX680 and is a good choice for anyone who is looking for premium performance.
In fact one of the most impressive aspects of the reference cards we looked at all those months ago was how well they handled an overclock, remaining cool and quiet under the most demanding of tests.
Since then the bods at ASUS have been beavering away throwing every available bell and whistle at the Tahiti XT GPU core and have finally released their take on the top-end single GPU Radeon, the ASUS HD7970 Matrix Platinum.
A triple-slot monster this has everything but the kitchen sink. Has the lengthy gestation and multiple features proven worth the wait?
As is always the case with GPUs the main specifications don't tell the full story. The HD7970 Matrix Platinum (hereafter the Matrix) has a decent factory overclock of 175MHz on the core and an effective 1.1GHz GDDR5 when compared to a stock reference card. Otherwise the main point of note is the inclusion of 4 native DisplayPort connections. Even the most hardcore gamer probably only has three displays for Eyefinity, so to say this is a niche feature is understating things.
The final big improvement is in the power phase. Rather than the 12 phase the reference card has the Matrix comes with 20 Phase VRM as well as VRM overclocking and Loadline calibration options.
As is always the case with ROG branded products the Matrix comes in the readily identifiable red box. It's strange to see the card placed at an angle below the Velcro flap, but at least it's something different.
The Matrix Platinum itself is gargantuan. With a triple slot cooler and a sturdy backplate it's one of the heaviest cards we've yet tested. Clearly this is a card designed to remain frosty under even the most extreme overclocking scenarios. As well as the side-on logo you can see at the top of our review and we'll look at on the next page, the backplate has a large Matrix logo. Nobody will be left in any doubt as to whose graphics card you have in your system.
As well as the standard Crossfire fingers and two 8pin PCIe power inputs we have the first clues that this is a major departure from the standard PCB. Two inputs for the VGA overvolting if you're running on a ROG Motherboard allow for tweaking without soldering.
At the other end we have the monitoring points to make sure you're not frying your card under extreme conditions. Just below them we have the TweakIt buttons which allow for on the fly voltage adjustment. The 100% button refers to the fan speeds. Press this button and the fans instantly run at their maximum which helps keep temperatures down as well as make you go deaf.
As a large part of this cards purpose is to be easy for the LN2 brigade to use, ASUS have included a heatsink to keep the Nichicon GT capacitors cool. Finally we have the two DVI outputs and the four DisplayPorts. For the more common HDMI connection you'll need an adaptor, which is provided.
ASUS HD7970 Matrix Platinum
Catalyst 12.8 Drivers
Intel Core i7-3960X @ 4.6GHz
ASUS Rampage IV Extreme
Corsair Dominator Platinum
Windows 7 Ultimate x64
Despite all the possible tweaks and tunings available to us the Matrix Platinum was only able to be overclocked by 100MHz before we lost stability. Considering we have loadline calibration and a host of voltage adjustments available to us we have to say that we were very disappointed in such a meagre stable overclock. Of course you could push it as high as you desire if you're only going to run a basic test, but we always demand stability throughout our testing and 1200MHz was the limit. If anything it speaks volumes that ASUS themselves use 3D Mark 03 in their press kit. That's about as demanding as reading the ingredients on a packet of peanuts.
The side lights change colour depending upon the GPU loading which is almost wholly useless. Why have these colours available if we can't manually set them to match our rig? Does anyone really care how hard their GPU is working? Wouldn't you rather be able to have it always matching the colour scheme of your system?
None of the HD7970s we've tested have been insanely hot, and the Matrix is no different. Despite it being a triple slot cooling solution it's actually warmer than the dual-slot Gigabyte Windforce cooler. It's certainly quiet though, but then so is the reference cooler. Of course the 100% fan button changes the noise factor, but you're unlikely to need it as we've got loads of headroom even with a voltage tweaked overclock.
You have to look a little way down the graph to see our earlier HD7970 tests, which are the VTX and PowerColor for stock and overclock respectively. Of course we don't expect the stock reference card to match up to the stock ASUS thanks to that factory overclock, and the PowerColor was overclocked to around the same level as the ASUS is out the box. In overclocked trim we're looking for it to handily best the Gigabyte Windforce HD7970.
3D Mark Vantage
An inauspicious start for the beast from ASUS. The Matrix Platinum doesn't actually benefit from our extra overclock and when you compare it to the PCS. In fact the PCS just shades it in the P score and it's only in the Extreme preset that the Matrix manages to squeak out a lead.
3D Mark 11
The more shader intensive tests of 3D Mark 11 continue the above result, with the Matrix Platinum not making the most of the clock speeds available, only matching the PowerColor and being beaten handily by the Gigabyte Windforce.
Into Alien vs Predator and the Matrix finally edges ahead by the odd frame. The overclock, again, really doesn't give us much of a boost although the Maximum frame rate definitely sees an increase.
Batman Arkham City
Finally we see what the Matrix is capable of, with some excellent scores in Arkham City. Considering that this is frame-capped to 64FPS, consistently being above 60 is high performance indeed and a long way ahead of earlier HD7970 results. Of course this could be driver based as the Matrix is rather late to the party, but the result is undeniable.
Thanks to some issues with EA and their limited install shenanigans we weren't able to benchmark Crysis 2 on the HD7970s before, but even so we know how they faired in general against the other cards in other games. So it's unquestionably a victory for the Matrix in Crysis 2, which is better than any other single GPU card we've had tested, and if you include the GTX590 or HD6990, a few multi-GPU ones too.
Dirt 3 springs a bit of a surprise. Although the stock test is about where we'd expect it to be compared to other HD7970s we've tested, the overclock actually gives us a good performance boost. Sure a HD7850 proves playable, but extra performance is always nice to have.
Far Cry 2
Far Cry 2 continues the good work we saw from Dirt 3, with the Matrix matching the performance of the other HD7970s we've tested, and the overclock giving us a handful of extra frames. It's still just shaded by the much cheaper and lower clocked PowerColor card though.
The performance in Mafia 2 is excellent. It's a way ahead of nearly everything else we've tested. Certainly if you want to return home from World War 2 and setup and empire, this is the card for you.
We do love putting an HD7970 through its paces in Metro 2033. It's one of the few cards in existence that, for inexplicable reasons, actually do better than 30 FPS. The Matrix Platinum is an admirable performer but there is no getting away from the fact that an overclocked reference card in PowerColor trim, and a specialist model in the guise of the Gigabyte Windforce.
Resident Evil 5 - DX9
Again we see the Matrix is a perfectly capable performer, but it's not the best HD7970 we've tested.
Resident Evil 5 - DX10
In DirectX 10 mode things remain as they were in DX9. The overclock gains a few FPS, but nothing we haven't seen from the reference card before.
With no anti-aliasing employed, Unigine Heaven tests the raw ability of the card to churn through polygons and textures. The Matrix keeps up its rather mediocre performance so far by being beaten by both the Gigabyte Windforce and the PowerColor.
With the ante upped to one of the sternest tests we can provide, the gap between an average card and a great one shrinks dramatically. The Asus Matrix is still beaten by the bigger clockspeed of the Gigabyte, but just nudges ahead of the PowerColor.
The Witcher 2
Finishing up as we usually do with the utterly gorgeous and incredibly taxing The Witcher 2. We finally see a result that we'd expect from a card that promised so much, as both the 'out of the box' result at the overclocked one show excellent performance.
There is always a finite amount of joy to be had from finding our offices filled with the latest all-singing, all-dancing piece of hardware. We adore getting to play with new toys (and we all do otherwise you wouldn't be reading this, we wouldn't be writing this, and the local publican would have run out of beer) but there comes a time when you have to take a step backwards and see if what you have in your hands really is the finest garment ever woven or if you're standing like a slightly embarrassed Emperor looking for a top hat to hide his family jewels. With the ASUS HD7970 Matrix Platinum it's fair to say that you'll never trust a tailor again.
The sheer amount of time between the initial release of the Tahiti XT powered cards and the release of the Matrix is partly to blame. When the HD7970 first appeared it was deep into the business end of four hundred notes, and to get the amount of features available on the Matrix for less than a reference model would have been reason to let loose the balloons and take the weekend off. Unfortunately two things are against us doing that today.
Firstly it's not January any more and the Radeon cards have had a severe price cut, leaving the £400 Matrix considerably more expensive than the competition. Secondly, for unfathomable reasons, the card just isn't that fast. We don't mean we don't understand why this card isn't so fast. After all we're all well aware of how much of an effect the silicon lottery can have and not all chips are created equal. It's perfectly possible that the GPU at the heart of this particular Matrix is just not very good. We know that. What we fail to understand is how a card designed for people on the leading edge of overclocking, people who demand the absolute very best and have a cylinder of LN2 to prove their point, that ASUS haven't taken the decision to cherry pick the GPUs.
What is the point of having amazing voltage tweaking options if the GPU tops out at a meagre 1200MHz? It's not even as if the performance of the card is helped by the greatly increased power phases or enormous cooler. The reference PowerColor card we tested had a lower clock and generally matched the Matrix in performance terms, and the Gigabyte Windforce was cooler, overclocked further, and performed better. It's like the logo on the side which changes colour according to the GPU loading. Why produce something capable of the main colours people build systems in, and then use it to demonstrate something people don't care about? If the card is capable of changing them, why not give us control of that colour to match our system. For £400 we want it to blend in to our colour choice, not stand out against it.
Thankfully for ASUS the news isn't all bad, although all of the positives are due to the wonderful underlying Tahiti XT core, rather than anything in particular that the Matrix has to offer. The HD7970 is still a brilliant card, and still a fantastic option for anyone who wants to game at high detail settings and high resolution. But the Matrix itself is disappointing. The cooler is a triple-slot but doesn't give any obvious benefits when compared to any dual-slot solutions. The voltage options and power phases are best in class, but they don't help us reach new heights. It's had all the bells and whistles thrown at it without any consideration placed on ensuring that the GPU at the heart of the card is carefully selected to make the best use of those bells and whistles.
Because the underlying GPU is still excellent, it has to win our Bronze award. Just get a standard model though, as all these frippery is meaningless until ASUS cherry pick the GPUs.
Thanks to ASUS for providing the HD7970 Matrix Platinum for review. Discuss our findings in the OC3D Forums.