Last month we compared half a decade's worth of DirectX 11-capable GeForce cards in the latest and greatest PC games to see where Nvidia has made the biggest performance leaps and which GPUs have aged the best.

We had never compared so many GPU generations under the same conditions and the results were fascinating. So naturally folks using AMD Radeons were also curious to see how their single-GPU flagship parts have held up.

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Equipped with five years of Radeon technology and the latest Catalyst driver, we set to benchmark major AMD architectures released between late 2009 and October 2014: Evergreen (HD 5870), Northern Islands (HD 6970), Southern Islands (HD 7970) and the company's most recent GPU architecture, Sea Islands (R9 290X).

The HD 7000 series was a big deal for AMD as it saw the move from 40nm to a 28nm fabrication process. Moreover, it was the company's first truly new architecture in five years since the HD 2000 series.

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Known as 'Graphics Core Next' (GCN), the HD 7000 range featured a RISC SIMD architecture that required considerably more transistors than before but offered advantages for GPU computation and also lead to better efficiency. Most of the GPUs in the HD 7000 series were based on the GCN 1.0 architecture, though the HD 7790 featured an improved GCN 1.1 logic, which added AMD TrueAudio and a revised version of AMD's Powertune technology.

GCN 1.2 launched along AMD's Radeon R9 285, featuring improved tessellation performance, lossless delta color compression to reduce memory bandwidth usage, an updated and more efficient instruction set, a high quality scaler for video, and a new multimedia engine for video encoding and decoding.

AMD's upcoming Radeon 300 series code-named 'Pirate Islands' is expected to be based on similar GCN 1.2 architecture.

Radeon HD 5870 HD 6970 HD 7970 HD 7970 GHz R9 290X
Codename Cypress XT Cayman XT Tahiti XT Tahiti XT2 Hawaii XT
Fab (nm) 40 40 28 28 28
Transistors (Billion) 2.15 2.64 4.31 4.31 6.2
Die size (mm2) 334 389 352 352 438
SPU 1600 1536 2048 2048 2816
TAU 80 96 128 128 176
ROP 32 32 32 32 64
Memory (MB) 1024 2048 3072 3072 4096
Bus width (bit) 256 384 256 384 512
Bandwidth (GB/s) 153.6 176.0 264 288 320
Release date Sept-09 Dec -10 Jan-12 June-12 Oct-13
Price at release $380 $370 $550 $500 $550

The Radeon HD 5870 and HD 6970 were clearly the single-GPU flagships for their series, while the 7970 was replaced after only five months with an overclocked version known as the 7970 GHz Edition, which went on to be the single-GPU flagship for 16 months.

The 7970 GHz was released out of necessity as it allowed AMD to retain the performance crown over Nvidia's GTX 680 — if only barely. This was AMD's answer to avoid immediate price cuts, a move often forced on graphics chip makers after the competition undercuts them in price vs. performance offered. Still, we didn't like the 7970 GHz Edition when it landed as it was more expensive than the standard 7970 and only offered a modest factory overclock. We've included both the 7970 and the 7970 GHz Edition since both were Radeon HD 7000 flagships at a given point.

Let's explore how Radeon GPUs have scaled from one generation to the next over the past few years...

Testing Methodology

Although we collected frame time data in our testing, we haven't included it in this article because it's less relevant for single GPU reviews. Frame time data will still be included in our CrossFireX and SLI reviews.

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For this article we tested at 1366x768, 1920x1080 and 2560x1600 resolutions. We have yet to incorporate 4K benchmarks because none of the current single GPU graphics offerings today provide true playable performance at this resolution.

System Specs

  • Intel Core i7-4790K (3.60GHz)
  • x2 4GB Crucial DDR3-2400 (CAS 11-13-13-28)
  • Asrock Z97 Extreme6 (Intel Z97)
  • OCZ ZX Series (1250W)
  • Samsung SSD 850 Pro 512GB (SATA 6Gb/s)
  • Gigabyte Radeon HD R9 290X (4096MB)
  • AMD Radeon HD 7970 GHz (3072MB)
  • AMD Radeon HD 7970 (3072MB)
  • HIS Radeon HD 6970 (2048MB)
  • AMD Radeon HD 5870 (1024MB)
  • Microsoft Windows 8.1 Pro 64-bit
  • AMD Catalyst Omega 14.12

Benchmarks: Crysis 3, BioShock, Metro Redux, Tomb Raider

The Radeon HD 5870 averaged just 22fps at 1080p while the HD 6970 was a little over 40% faster at 31fps. The HD 7970's average frame rate of 38fps was 23% faster than the 6970 and the jump from the 7970 to the 7970 GHz Edition only yielded an 8% increase for 41fps, but the R9 290X managed to top the GHz Edition by 41%, which was the same gap between the 5870 and the 6970.

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The results at 2560x1600 were considerably different as the 6970 was only 31% faster than the 5870, the 7970 was a significant 41% faster than the 6970, while the R9 290X was still around 40% faster than the 7970 GHz Edition.

At 1080p in BioShock the HD 6970 was just 26% faster than the 5870 while the 7970 was a whopping 69% faster than the 6970. The 7970 GHz Edition provided an extra 10% more performance over the standard card and the R9 290X was just 25% faster than the 7970 GHz Edition with an average of 111fps.

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Again, increasing the resolution to 2560x1600 changed the margins a lot. While the 6970 vs. 5870 comparison remains much the same, the 7970 was now 78% faster than the 6970, yet despite that the R9 290X was now 35% faster than the 7970 GHz Edition.

Metro Redux provided some interesting results. At 1080p the HD 6970 was 47% faster than the 5870. What’s more interesting was how the 7970 was 91% faster than its predecessor (the 6970). Unsurprisingly, the 7970 GHz Edition was 10% faster than the standard 7970 while the R9 290X enjoyed a 37% performance advantage over the GHz Edition with 63fps.

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Jumping to 2560x1600 mixes up the results. The HD 6970 was now 60% faster than the 5870, while the 7970 was now just 69% faster than the 6970. The R9 290X results are much the same, though it was now 41% faster than the 7970 GHz Edition.

The HD 6970 was 33% faster than the 5870 at 1080p in Tomb Raider with an average of just 28fps. The HD 7970 averaged 55fps, a whopping 96% faster than the 6970, the 7970 GHz Edition was 7% faster than the standard card, and the R9 290X was 27% faster than the GHz Edition.

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The 2560x1600 results were much the same when comparing the 7970 graphics cards and the R9 290X. However the Radeon HD 6970 was now 58% faster than the 5870 and the 7970 has dropped to just 74% faster than the 6970.

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Steven Walton is a writer at TechSpot. TechSpot is a computer technology publication serving PC enthusiasts, gamers and IT pros since 1998.