As gamers, we find video cards to be one of the most interesting aspects of computer hardware: as the hardware limitations are expanded, new programming approaches can be applied to utilize the new hardware. This cycle, of course, tends to have a lag-time on the software operability end due to the slow assimilation by gamers of new hardware, but it's intriguing nonetheless. It's easiest to separate NVIDIA and AMD out for this listing --
The calendar for this year promises the official launch of the Radeon HD 7970 on January 9th with the 7950 trailing for early February. The hardware for the 79XX series is quite impressive, as we've seen so far:
And that's just the AMD 7950 specs -- 3GB of GDDR5 will certainly give the card the upper-hand for anti-aliasing and texturing (and definitely for multi-monitor setups), but memory isn't everything - the memory bit-interface, which is effectively our bandwidth allowance to actually utilize all of this memory efficiently, is quite impressive as well. Although current-gen NVIDIA GTX 580 models do have a 384-bit memory interface, these are very high-end GPUs that are priced in the $400-$500 range and are a completely different architecture, so it's not a linear comparison. AMD's current highest-end gaming GPUs are maxed at 256-bit interfaces, so this is indeed a sizable improvement.
The 7950 aims to take its position as our new 'mid-range' video card, being priced just below the 7970, which we've heard will be targeted for a $550 launch price. We have compared the specs for AMD's 7970 vs. the 6970 and 6990 below:
|Specs||AMD 6970||AMD 6990||AMD 7970|
Contrary to AMD - and this is abnormal for nVidia - the GTX series has been fairly quiet over the last few months. It's been a while since nVidia's Tony Tamasi told us that GPU performance would increase by 1000%, but from what little we know about the forthcoming "GTX 600" series, which will be based on the new 28nm Kepler architecture, they're going to be a serious competitor for AMD's models. Kepler will natively support PCI-e 3.0 (which has the capacity for twice the data transfer of PCI-e 2.0), and although we don't have any hard specs yet, we do know that the first cards of the series are slated for a Q1 or Q2 release.
Solid State Hardware:
Our recent SSD article focused on why all gamers should inevitably buy SSDs, but we didn't get much chance to explain the future of solid state devices - that's what we're doing here.
OCZ's next announced foray into solid state drives will utilize the highly-affordable TLC NAND architecture (triple-level-cell NAND) in its 2012 consumer SSDs. Previously used predominantly in enterprise systems, TLC NAND devices have been predicted to decrease overall drive cost by upwards of 30 percent when compared with existing MLC consumer drives. What does this mean? Well, it's tough to put an exact price-per-gig on SSDs with the variability of speeds and other factors, but in short, you can expect to see around $1/GB for some of the nicer models, potentially cheaper with the 'non-performance' brand SSDs.
As we've discussed numerous times before, the tumultuous spindle drive market makes for a fantastic opportunity to jump into SSDs.
Processing Advances (CPUs):
If there's one thing we've learned from Intel's i7-3960x CPU, it's that the Sandy Bridge-E series has a lot to say about the future of x79 chipset motherboards and the rapidly expanding CPU market. 2012 looks like a huge year for CPUs, from the way we see it.
Many of you have already heard us talking about the Ivy Bridge CPU in some of our PC builds, but we haven't yet had the chance (obviously) to use one in one of our recommended gaming setups. That might change soon.
Intel's new line of CPUs will be running on 22nm microarchitecture (present CPUs run at around 32nm), which further compresses the transistors and physical travel distance on the chip. The 'extreme editions' of the new Ivy Bridge models will operate on LGA2011 socket types (commonly present in high-end X79 motherboards) -- that said, most Sandy Bridge owners can breathe a sigh of relief: the Ivy Bridge processors will be, for the most part, compatible with LGA1155 sockets. Just keep an eye on those specs when you buy. We'll clarify this point in future articles as we're provided with more hard-set specs.
Ivy Bridge CPUs are due for April 2012 and will effectively be the next iteration of the i7 / i5 series. We'll avoid getting too technical here as this article is primarily meant for calendar purposes. Keep an eye out on our home page for more technical information.
We give great amounts of attention to AMD when pricing out affordable, often sub-$150 CPUs for our budget gaming builds and those of you that ask for help on the forums. Although the i5-2500k is still the CPU of choice for mid-range (often $700+) systems, AMD has a strong foothold in the cost efficiency market at the mid-end.
The Bulldozer series was intended to give Sandy Bridge a serious, direct competitor - but things didn't work out, and the Bulldozer line fizzled out as rapidly as it was hyped up. Luckily, the next rev of Bulldozer CPUs (operating on Vishera/Volan), codenamed Piledriver, as posted here, attempts to pick up the pieces where Bulldozer shattered: with optimized cores and better overall controller implementation, quad-core Vishera CPUs are expected to emerge into the market some time around Q4 of 2012. It looks like Intel will have the advantage of time on its side, as with the last round of combat, but perhaps AMD will have learned from its mistakes and will release a properly functioning chip this time around.
USB 3.0 vs. Thunderbolt
Back in the early days of USB 3.0's SuperSpeed transport technology, we were all blown away by its maximum bandwidth cap compared against its predecessors (for the record, SuperSpeed is about 10x faster than USB 2.0). For the most part, though, USB 3.0 has otherwise been very slow to adopt in an otherwise hyper-reactive market. Of course, the interface itself is irrelevant if the devices it's attached to are unable to utilize that speed, but with the continual improvements to the SSD market (which has been just as slow as USB 3.0, for the most part), we suspect massive leaps in the distribution of SuperSpeed technology.
Intel, however, has a new transfer interface to play with: Thunderbolt. Intel co-developed USB originally and fully developed its new 'Thunderbolt' interface, but the group prefers to see the two transfer standards as 'complementary' and not competitive. Here's the low-down:
Thunderbolt, an entirely new port, will be adapted to several Windows-based machines by the first half of 2012 (with full Windows 8 driver support), according to Intel. The new PC interconnect is known to have about twice the transfer capability of USB 3.0 (which is already 4.8Gb/s).
CES is rapidly approaching (as is PAX East, which we attend in full force), so you can expect plenty more updates to the main page of our site as we correct for delays or early/late launches. If you have questions, insight, or comments, please post below! Don't forget to visit our hardware forums for more in-depth discussion.
-Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.