MSI R6970 Lightning Video Card Review

MSI's Latest Lightning series, the R6970 Lightning is here, based on an AMD Radeon HD 6970 with 2GB of GDDR5. It is only moderately overclocked out of the box, but its hardware quality may just knock the ball out of the park. Come with us as we test it against the stock Radeon HD 6970 and the GeForce GTX 570.

Introduction

Microstar International (MSI) is a Taiwan-based computer hardware manufacturer founded in 1986. Primarily a designer and manufacturer of PC motherboards, MSI has expanded its business into barebones PCs, servers and workstations, communications devices, consumer electronics, Notebooks, Netbooks, graphics cards, and other various electronic products. Its company motto, "Quality Products Create Faithful Customer," belies its underlying corporate strategy of designing and manufacturing quality devices for various markets and letting its high-quality reputation earn it the trust and respect of electronics consumers worldwide.

Today, we’re taking a close look at MSI’s R6970 Lightning video card. It features an overclocked AMD Radeon HD 6970 GPU fitted with a custom aftermarket cooling device and 2GB of GDDR5 memory.

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AMD Radeon HD 6970

AMD launched the Radeon HD 6970 on December 14, 2010, alongside the Radeon HD 6950. The Radeon HD 6900 series of GPUs sports AMD's VLIW4 architecture, which is different from the 6800 series' VLIW5 architecture. It features a greater degree of parallelism in its processing engine, owing do its dual-setup engines. VLIW4 was implemented in order to increase both efficiency and performance in its streaming processors.

The Radeon HD 6970 is comprised of 2.64 billion transistors, providing 1536 streaming processors, 96 texture units, 32 color rasterizers, and 128 Z/Stencil ROPs. It boasts an impressive 2.7 TFLOPS of computer power on the GPU, texture fill rate of 84.5 Gigatexels per second, and a pixel fill rate of 28.2 Gigatexels per second. The HD 6970 has 2048MB of GDDR5 memory clocked at 1375MHz (or 5.5GHz DDR) on a 256-bit bus. Its memory bus boasts a maximum theoretical throughput of 176 Gbps.

The Radeon HD 6970 is designed with a maximum power rating of 250 Watts. It is supposed to draw an average of 190 Watts during gaming and 20 Watts when idling. It has one 8-pin power connector and one 6-pin power connector. There are five output ports, including two DVI ports, two mini-DisplayPort connectors, and one HDMI connector.

Along with the Radeon HD 6900 series of GPUs, AMD introduced a new anti-aliasing technology, known as "Enhanced Quality Anti-Aliasing" (EQAA). It is similar to NVIDIA's CSAA technology in that it separates color and coverage samples and provides independent control over each parameter.


MSI R6970 Lightning

As the product name indicates, the MSI R6970 Lightning is a part of MSI's Lightning series of high-end video cards. It features a moderately overclocked AMD Radeon HD 6970 GPU paired with 2GB of GDDR5. The GPU comes out of the box clocked at 940MHz, which is 60MHz higher than AMD's recommended specification. The R6970 Lightning's memory follows AMD's recommendation and runs at 1.375GHz, or 5.5GHz DDR. It is available right now for $386.99 USD plus shipping.

As a part of MSI's Lightning family, the R6970 Lightning is not your grandpa's Radeon HD 6970. It has a nice custom cooling device, and a custom PCB with some advanced features and high-end components. It features an 18-phase PWM, allowing more power to flow to the GPU and finer control over how much power the GPU receives. It boasts MSI's "Military Class II" feature set, which includes solid ferrite chokes to improve power regulation efficiency and reduce noise, Hi-C tantalum Capacitors to also improve power regulation efficiency and increase the serviceable lifetime of the video card, and solid Capacitors for the memory power circuits to extend the video card's life cycle.

It also features NEC's Proadlizer 4 IC. The Proadlizer is essentially a high-speed switching capacitor array. It was designed to decouple high-speed digital processors from their switching power supplies while reducing impedance (and therefore interference) in high-speed switching applications. Decoupling capacitors have been used for a long time to reduce noise in digital circuits, but as the impedance of a capacitor decreases as frequency increases, its effectiveness as a noise filter suffers in high-speed switching applications. The Proadlizer has a flat impedance curve, so it is more effective at reducing noise in high-frequency switching circuits. The short version is that the Proadlizer should allow the GPU to operate at higher speeds without encountering as many errors, thereby possibly increasing overclocking performance and potential.

In addition to all of that, there are three "V-check" points on the video card which allow the user to check voltages of the GPU, Memory, and PLL with a multi-meter. There are three small white connectors on the PCB which mate up with three red and black terminal dongles which mate to standard multi-meter probes. The V-check points are used to verify voltage settings.

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The MSI R6970 Lightning comes in a very large red and black box. The front of the box prominently features an image of what is presumably supposed to be a Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter jet, but actually looks more like an F-22 Raptor. The front of the box features the model name in metallic silver lettering and a few icons describing the video card inside. There is a gold badge indicating the MSI warrantees this video card for 3 years.

The inside top flap describes the "Military Class II" features set in detail, including information about that the 18-phase PWM, the Proadlizer, and the capacitors and chokes. The inside bottom flap describes the cooler and has a clear plastic window through which the video card is visible.

The back of the box shows the normal fare: a large feature list in English, system requirements, brief specifications, and a short feature list translated into many different languages.

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The soft bundle with this video card includes a quick user's installation guide, an owner's manual, and a driver and utility CD-ROM disc. The accessory bundle includes a DVI to VGA adaptor, three v-check terminal dongles, a mini-HDMI to HDMI adaptor dongle, two 6-pin to 8-pin power adaptors, and one CrossFireX link cable.

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The video card itself is covered almost entirely with a dark silver and black cooler shroud, which covers an array of heat-sinks. The heat-sinks feature many very-thin aluminum fins bonded to a copper hotplate that sits on the GPU itself. Heat energy emanates from the GPU, through the copper plates, then through the 4 heat-pipes, and out to the edges of the heat-sink. The fans then displace that heat from the heat-sink and remove it from the video card. The goo inside the heat-pipes then cools off, runs back down to the GPU, and the cycle goes on and on. There are two 80mm fans on this cooler, ensuring that there is plenty of airflow to dissipate whatever heat the GPU generates.

The cooler covers most of the front face of the video card, but does not completely enshroud the PCB. Thus, air is not forcibly removed from the case by the video card fans. It is therefore important that this video card be installed into a case with adequate circulation and ventilation.

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The back of the video card is home to a number of interesting features. Most of it is covered by normal-looking surface-mount components, but there are a few things to look for. The four NEC/Tokin Proadlizer chips are on the back, labeled "NEC/TOKIN 0D108". There are also four very small, covered DIP switches. They are labeled "Mem V-Switch", "GPU V-Switch", "PWM Clock Tuner", and "OCP Unlocker". Along the top edge there is another switch. This one controls the fan's operational profile. The options are "Silence" and "Performance". In Silence mode, the fan will not ramp up to annoyingly loud speeds. In Performance mode, the fan will go as fast as it needs to go.

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Along the top edge of the PCB, near the PCI bracket, there are two CrossFireX connectors, indicating that this video card supports triple-GPU CrossFireX configurations. Toward the back end of the video card, we find the two 8-pin power connectors. On the business end of the video card, there are two dual-link DVI-I connectors, an HDMI port, and two mini-DisplayPort connectors.


Competition and Comparisons

The MSI R6970 Lightning is priced high among other video cards based on the AMD Radeon HD 6970 GPU. It goes for $386.99, which is higher than every other HD 6970 that Newegg stocks. Its GPU clock speed is higher than all but one other offering, but its stock-clocked memory is slightly slower out-of-the-box than several other models. A reference specification MSI Radeon HD 6970 can currently be purchased for $314.99 after a $25 mail-in rebate. Given its much higher price and not-much higher clock speed, we feel it is worth investigating whether or not that extra money buys you any extra performance, so a reference AMD Radeon HD 6970 will be included in this evaluation.

In addition to the reference HD 6970, we will also be including a reference NVIDIA GeForce GTX 570 for comparison here. By an interesting coincidence, a reference GTX 570 from Galaxy also costs $314.99 (after a $40 MIR), the same as a reference HD 6970 from MSI. With this comparison, we hope to determine if the MSI R6970 Lightning can outperform NVIDIA's competing offering.

We know from past evaluations that the GTX 580 generally outperforms the Radeon HD 6970, so we won't be repeating that information here. At any rate, a GTX 580 will run about $100 more than the MSI R6970 Lightning, which puts it in a different class altogether.


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