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Editorial AMD Ruins New Flagship $1000 HD 7990 Graphics Card With Annoying Coil Whine
On reading the reviews, I can't help but get a sinking feeling again about AMD. They have once again built a product with lots of good features and potential, but then ruined it with a few poor design decisions - enough to write off a potential purchase. It almost feels like the beancounters had the last laugh when AMD were designing and costing this card.
So, other than the CrossFire issues, what's wrong with it? Severe coil whine and a poorer fit and finish than would be expected at this price point, that's what.
The noise problem stems from underdamped resonance affecting the card's onboard power regulation circuitry when it's heavily loaded by the GPU. Extra load or strain is put on the circuitry when the card goes into 3D mode and the GPU clock and voltage, increase as the card revs up to its full potential. This causes an effect called microphony where the components physically vibrate in sympathy to the varying high electric current running through them.
In a poorly designed circuit, the vibrations will be large enough that the coils, forming a central part of the power circuitry, vibrate excessively making a highly irritating noise. On top of that, the noise tends to vary significantly according to the load imposed by the GPU, which various from second to second as it renders a changing 3D scene (usually a game) ramping the annoyance. In a well designed circuit, these vibrations will be under tight control, not allowing them to build up enough to be audible under even the greatest load. One way to address this is to use higher powered components which are never stressed to anywhere near their limits, for example.
On top of this, generating useless noise wastes energy in the power circuit, preventing it from delivering maximum power and efficiency to its load, the GPU in this case. Also, as this is a physical vibration, it will tend to cause the solder joints connecting the coil to the motherboard to crack and fail over time and generally cause other potential damage. This is made significantly worse by the fact that the whole card runs very hot - hot enough to easily burn anyone touching it. It can also cause unwanted electronic feedback effects which also have the potential to destroy the card if they get too severe.
You'd think that a $1000 card would use the best design and components to reduce or eliminate this problem, wouldn't you? Not so with the HD 7990, unfortunately. In fact this problem is so bad that it's caused reviewers of major graphics card review sites to complain bitterly about it and mark it down a few notches. I personally wouldn't even rate it, having a design fault like this, especially as it's so easily fixed.
TechPowerUp had this to say about the problem in the conclusion of its review:
What is a major issue, though, is the extremely annoying coil whine the card emits as soon as it runs a 3D application. The whine is generated by resonating power circuitry coils and is a problem that can be resolved; it's just an engineering challenge. NVIDIA did so for the GTX 690 and GTX Titan; both cards don't have such coil whine issues. On the HD 7990, however, it is very apparent, and I don't understand how AMD missed such a glaring problem. I talked to five other reviewers and they all confirm it, so it's not an isolated issue. What makes the whine even more apparent is that it is constantly changing pitch and volume, drawing your attention to it by effectively overpowering the fans' "whoosh" sound.
So, it's not a one off?! Indeed not, as Hardware Canucks report the same problem in their review:
AMD claims the HD 7990 is one of the quietest cards currently available and if fan noise was the only factor in this equation, it would easily outpace competing solutions in this regard.
Unfortunately, coil whine drove our sample’s acoustical profile into annoying levels. In applications where the HD 7990 displayed high framerates it wailed like a banshee and lower performance situations caused it to exhibit an odd “chugging” noise. This proved to be immensely distracting, regardless of how quiet its fans are.
I've read many of TPU's graphics card reviews and know that they don't deliver criticism like this lightly. If they found it a really bad problem, then it damned well is. I think that 8.3 / 10 score is a bit generous due to this and some of the other issues. With the coil whine, I wouldn't be able to give the card any rating at all, since who in their right mind would want to be driven to distraction by their new premium $1000 card?!
This is such a ridiculously stupid problem that I hope it's just a simple manufacturing fault with the limited run of initial cards that AMD somehow failed to spot, rather than a deeper problem with the basic circuit design. We'll know soon enough, as otherwise sales will crater, forums will be alight with complaints and more articles like this will be written all over the web. I very much hope production versions are fixed before being shipped out.
The other issue with this card is its fit and finish. NVIDIA's GTX Titan and GTX 690 both have premium cooling solutions on them that look the part and perform well, giving the product a very high quality, premium feel. On the other hand, while AMD's cooler is effective and quiet, it doesn't exude a premium feel like one would expect at this price point, helping the enthusiast who has just spent waay too much money on a graphics card feel a bit better about it. TechPowerUp explains:
The HD 7990 cooler itself is well made, but is still, unlike the GTX 690 and Titan, made of plastic, which doesn't give it that ultra-high-quality feel of competing products. I do have to commend AMD for including a backplate with their card, which also protects against physical damage.
Again, the card does have many good design points as the reviews go over in detail, but the bottom line is that we need a strong product to compete with NVIDIA's top end offerings, the GTX Titan and GTX 690, which will give us all better products at cheaper prices. The card, as reviewed, isn't fit for purpose due to the severe coil whine and that's a crying shame.
Sources: TechPowerUp Hardware Canucks and further information about coil whine / noise from Wikipedia.