MSI R6870 Hawk Video Card Review

MSI has released their fourth version of the Radeon HD 6870 and this one is crammed with features. The MSI R6870 Hawk features a 3rd generation custom cooler, triple voltage tweaking, plus much more. We put this enthusiast’s video card to the test by not only having it compete with a GeForce GTX 560 Ti but also with an overclocked version of itself.

Introduction

Founded 1986, Micro-Star International (MSI) has become a well-known name to computer enthusiast. They produce motherboards, video cards, barebone PCs, rackmount servers, networking equipment, and notebooks. They cross fanboy lines by manufacturing motherboards for AMD and Intel CPUs as well as ATI and NVIDIA based video cards.

Today we are going to be taking a look at MSI’s premium Radeon HD 6870: the R6870 Hawk.

Propeller Blade on Twin Frozr III

Triple Over voltage by Afterburner

Military Class II Components

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AMD Radeon HD 6800 Series

On October 21, 2010 AMD released a new generation of video cards for the mid-level market. The two new video cards, the Radeon HD 6870 and 6850, are based upon an evolved version of the 5800 series. With this architecture, AMD has managed to improve performance while reducing transistor count and die size. All of this together means more performance with less heat and power.

The AMD Radeon HD 6850 is a little less powerful than the Radeon HD 6870 but at a targeted price of $179, it is also $60 less. The Radeon HD 6850 has a compute power of 1.5 (vs. 2.0 on the 6870) TFLOPs with a core clock speed of 775MHz (vs. 900MHz on the 6870) and 960 (vs. 1120 on the 6870) Stream Processors. They both have 32 ROPs and 1GB of GDDR5. The Radeon HD 6870 however has its memory clocked at 4.2GHz vs. 4GHz for the Radeon HD 6850.


MSI R6870 Hawk

MSI currently has four different Radeon HD 6870s in their product line up. At the bottom of the lineup is the MSI R6870 which is a reference HD 6870. The next video card is the MSI R6870 Twin Frozr II and as is evident by the name adds MSI’s Twin Frozr II cooling solution to an otherwise reference HD 6870. Take another setup and MSI has the R6870 Twin Frozr II/OC. Along with the Twin Frozr II cooling solution it has a small 20MHz boost on the GPU and no boost on the memory. MSI’s top HD 6870 is the R6870 Hawk. It has been overhauled and offers a lot of high end features perfect for any enthusiast. However, expect to spend some time tweaking to make the most out of the Hawk since from MSI the GPU only has a boost of 30MHz and disappointingly there is no boost on the memory.

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To start out with the R6870 Hawk features MSI’s new Twin Frozr III cooling solution that MSI says is 21 degrees cooler and 7 dB quitter than a reference cooling solution. MSI has also beefed up the power circuitry and is using and 8+2 phase PWM design. This is possibly needed since MSI is offering a triple overvoltage ability on this video card letting you increase the GPU, the memory, and the VDDCI voltage. Along with "Military Class II" components MSI has also put a rather unique fan switch right on the video card allowing you to change from silent mode to performance mode. MSI has also included voltage measurement points allowing you to test exactly what voltage is going to the GPU, the memory, and the VDDCI. To add to all of that MSI has even thrown on 8 red LEDs on the tail end of the video card so that you’re able to see the power consumption of the video card. All of that adds up to a pretty impressive feature list and can currently be had for $209.99 after mail-in-rebate.

Box Shots

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To spite the front of the box having words like hawk and propeller on it, as is the industry fashion to use pictures that make absolutely no sense, MSI has decided to use a 30 year old stealth jet aircraft as the avatar for this video card. A few of the nicer things we like to see on the front of the box is the big upfront logo about the 3 year warranty, the fact that it is using 1 GB of GDDR5 memory, and that it has two mini DisplayPorts. There is also the "Military Class II" logo, the MSI Afterburner logo, and their propeller blade logo.

Opening up the front cover and we glad to see that MSI has provided A LOT information about all the different features of this video card. All of these things we have already gone over from the slides above however just to quickly run though it: It goes over the triple over voltage, the 8+2 phase PWM design, the Performance/Silent switch, the "Military Class II" components, the V-Check points, and the cooling solution. There is also a window letting you look at the top of the video card, which we always love to see included.

The Video Card Pictures

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The MSI R6870 Hawk is a good looking video card. It has a 2mm thick aluminum heat shroud that is gun metal grey and a black plastic overlay for an accent. It has two 80mm fans using what MSI is calling propeller blades to provide 20% more airflow. The heatsink itself is a monster that spans the entire video card and uses a total of 5 heat pipes. The two outer most heatpipes are both 8mm in diameter and the 3 inner ones are 6mm in diameter. The base of the heatsink is nickel-plated copper and the fins are aluminum. It is also wonderful to see that MSI has included a separate heatsink/heat-spreader combination that covers the memory and power modules. In the final of the six pictures above you can see the Performance/Silent switch and the three V-Check connectors.

The MSI R6870 Hawk is a long 10.75" video card, so make sure your case as enough room for it. The front of the video card has two mini DisplyPorts, one HDMI port, and two DVI ports. The tail end of the video card has the two six-pin auxiliary connectors pointed straight up so as not to take any more space than it already does.

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At first glance the back of the video card looks rather ordinary when it is not powered up. However take a closer look and you will find the labels for the V-Check connectors, the label for the Performance/Silent switch, and the 8 red LEDs.

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To start off with the V-Check connectors are a great idea in theory. However they aren’t practical in their current form. Even when the video card is not plugged into a system they are pain to get on and the connectors hold so securely that when you try to remove them it feels like you are going to rip the female board connector off of the video card.

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The Performance/Silent switch is another good idea in theory yet in practice it is useless. The switch itself works and can easily be switched by the tip of your finger nail or by a small flat headed screw driver. The problem is though you can already do this from inside of Windows by adjusting the PWM fan control in the Afterburner utility, which is much simpler than having to open up your case just to flip a switch.

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That leaves us with the 8 LEDs that show the power consumption of the video card. This too was another big letdown for us. In order for it to work you must install the MSI Active Phase Switching utility. Otherwise all 8 LEDs will always be lit up. We found the utility itself to be quite annoying. There are only two options in the utility. The first is to turn on or off APS. The second is to allow the utility to auto start with windows.

The problem being is that if it auto starts with Windows it doesn’t automatically minimize to the system tray, so you always have to minimize it yourself. The second problem is it always defaults to having APS off. So each time windows starts you have to turn APS on, apply the setting, and then minimize it to the system tray. The final and biggest flaw in the implementation of this is that in order to use APS you shouldn’t use the voltage control options. Which means you can either make use of these power saving features or you can make use of the overclocking features of this video card but not both. If you do try, and we did, the game and/or windows will crash on you.

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In our final picture above you can see what the MSI R6870 Hawk comes with. To be specific it comes with a Quick User’s Guide, a R6800 Hawk series book, a Driver and Manual CD, a DVI to D-Sub adapter, a DVI to HDMI adapter, two 2 4-pin to 6-pin power adapter, three V-Check point cables, and one mini to standard DisplayPort adapter.

Focus

With all the overclocking friendly features that the MSI R6870 Hawk provides we are going to be doing this review a little differently than normal. We are only going to be using two real video cards in this review, the MSI R6870 Hawk and a reference NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560 Ti. The third video card will be a R6870 Hawk that we have overclocked to its peak potential and will be referred to from now on as the MSI R6870 Hawk Overclocked. To account for this we have moved our Overclocking page to right after the Test Setup page. This way you will be able to see what kind of overclocks we achieved with this monster and better judge the performance in the gameplay sections.