MSI R7970 Lightning Video Card Review

MSI is launching its new flagship Radeon HD 7970 based Lightning series video card this week. This highly customized video card takes the Radeon HD 7970 and adds all sorts of features. Will the extra customizations like "GPU Reactor" add up to a stellar overclock? We'll put this video card to the test and find out.

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," believes 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.

Up for evaluation today is the brand new flagship of the MSI Lightning series, the MSI R7970 Lightning video card. This video card takes the Radeon HD 7970 to the extreme. The Lightning series is MSI's premier high-end series for GPUs. As such, it carries a premier price at $599.99, but packs in features and hardware customization that no other video card has.

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AMD Radeon HD 7970

AMD announced its new Radeon HD 7970, code-named "Tahiti", on December 22nd, 2011. Product availability was made on January 9th, 2012. Tahiti represents a departure from previous architectures for AMD. It calls the new architecture "Graphics Core Next," or GCN. The Radeon HD 6000 series used AMD's VLIW 4 and 5 architectures. GCN features a smaller die at 28nm, compared to the 40nm process used for the previous generation.

Aside from the die shrink, GCN offers a number of features over previous generation GPUs. One particularly noteworthy feature is "ZeroCore Power." This feature disables unused GPUs (or portions of them) during long idle periods to save power and increase efficiency. This can save energy not only in terms of power consumed by the video card, but it can also lead to decreased heat generation, which can save money in terms of cooling costs.

The Radeon HD 7970 GPU itself is comprised of 4.32 billion transistors packed into 2048 stream processors with a clock speed of 925MHz. There are 128 texture units, 128 Z/stencil units, and 32 ROPs. That is a 33% increase in stream processors and texture units compared to the Radeon HD 6970, but the same number of ROP. Even so, optimizations and clock speed increases should result in more efficient rasterization.

The Radeon HD 7970 is designed to be paired with 3GB of GDDR5 memory on a 384-bit bus, running at 1375MHz for a 5.5Gbps data rate and a maximum theoretical bandwidth of 264GB per second. In spite of its increased capacity and its performance improvements, the Radeon HD 7970 shares the same 250W maximum board power rating as the HD 6970.


MSI Radeon HD 7970 Lightning

The MSI R7970 Lightning is the first video card from MSI in the Radeon HD 7970 series that features its trademark Twin Frozr IV cooling system. It is built on a custom PCB that is larger than a reference Radeon HD 7970. MSI also loaded this board up with its highest quality Military Class III components which includes gold-plated SSC's for higher heat resistance. The MSI R970 Lightning also has Unlocked Digital Power, which increases the overclocking range and unlocks all protection for overclocking.

The MSI R7970 Lightning video card comes with a factory overclock of 1070MHz on the Core, and 1400MHz on the memory. This factory overclock gives the MSI R7970 Lightning an immediately performance boost Out-of-Box without the user having to manually change anything. The MSRP on the MSI R7970 Lightning is currently $599.99.

This is the first video card that MSI has released its Twin Frozr IV cooling system on thus far. It builds on previous Twin Frozr designs to greatly improve cooling and overclocking potential. A few key features are the 8mm heat pipes, a thin aluminum based fin heat sink with lots of surface area, and dual 10cm propeller blade fans. These allow heat to spread evenly across the video card, and be exhausted by the larger high performance fans. The MSI R7970 also has a dust removal technology built in to it. For the first 30 seconds after turning on your computer, the fans will spin backwards to help rid any dust buildup.

MSI prides themselves on the Lightning series overclocking capabilities which have set several world records. The MSI R7970 Lightning video card features triple overclocking support. This gives us voltage control of the GPU, memory, and the VDDCI. Along with the Military Class III components that this video card has, there is also an additional chip, called GPU Reactor, that connects to the back of the video card. This is the world's first add-on chip that allows the GPU to handle higher currents and voltages for overclocking. The GPU Reactor's biggest goal is to provide the GPU with extra power which will help increase the maximum overclocking stability.

MSI did throw a curveball in to this video card. The rear I/O panel includes a Single-Link DVI-D and Single-Link DVI-I connector, and 4 mini-DisplayPort connectors. The problem with this, is that Single-Link DVI connectors can only carry 1920x1200 resolution. There is no Dual-Link DVI connector or HDMI connector on the MSI R7970 Lightning video card. If you are using a larger monitor or expect a resolution higher that 1920x1200 you will either need to make sure your monitor has a mini-DP or DP adaptor, or you will need to purchase a active DVI adaptor which can cost anywhere from $50 to $200 dollars. The plus side to the design that MSI chose to go with on the I/O panel is that this single video card has Eyefinity 6 Display capability. In other words, you can run 6 displays off the MSI R7970 Lightning!

You can read more about all of the MSI R7970 Lightning's specifications and unique features here.

MSI R7970 Lightning Pictures

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The MSI R7970 Lightning video card came in a red box with a jet plane on the front which has been used as the Lightning's mascot. The box has minimum system requirements printed on it, and what kind of features that come with the video card. There is nowhere on the box that mentions it is a factory overclocked video card, or the Out-of-Box operating frequencies.

Along with the MSI R7970 Lightning video card is an accessory bundle. Included with these are a CrossFireX Bridge, two 6-pin to 8-pin PCI adaptors, a DP to mini-DP adaptor, and 3 smaller wires which plug in to the top three ports on the MSI R7970 Lightning that allow users to actively monitor voltage on the GPU, memory, and VDDCI.

The software bundle came with a Driver CD which has an older version of Catalyst. It also has MSI Afterburner on it, as well as a few other utilities. It also came with a quick users guide, and an information packet on the MSI R7970 Lightning video card. There is also a gold-trimmed Military Class III Certificate of Quality and Stability certificate.

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The MSI R7970 Lightning Video Card has a durable and somewhat thick cover that houses the two 10cm high performance propeller fans. The casing is mostly black with yellow trim. The back of the video card is also covered in a metal plate to help protect rear mounted components. On top of the video card are two 8-pin PCI-e connectors required for operating. There are also 3 other small white connector areas, which is where you can actively monitor voltages of the GPU, memory, and VDDCI. The last picture is a screenshot of the back of the video card where the GPU reactor sits without it installed.

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The first picture here is of the front and back of the GPU reactor. This is the small chip that plugs in to the back of the of GPU. In the second image we have it installed without the hard plastic cover over it. The third image is how the video card comes Out-of-Box with the GPU Reactor already connected and with the plastic cover over it. Another interesting feature that the MSI R7970 has are the LED's on the back of the video card. The MSI labeled plastic GPU cover is always lit up while the computer is turned on. The LED strip on the left side actually changes depending on the usage of the video card. When idling at the desktop only the top two lights are on, but when you open up a game they will begin to flicker and generally stay on through the entire game.

The MSI R7970 Lightning is a fair bit larger than AMD's reference design of the Radeon HD 7970. The reference design measures 11 inches in Length, 1.75 inches wide, and 4.5 inches in Height. The MSI R7970 Lightning measures 12 inches in Length, 1.5 Inches wide, and 5 Inches tall. The width is the base width of the video card, over the GPU Reactor, the plastic cover measures 2.5 inches in circumference and comes off the card by an additional 3/8ths of an inch. This could cause problems if you have a PCIe card like a sound card in the first PCIe slot or if you double up video cards for CrossFireX right next to each other.


Entire MSI R7970 Lightning Media Kit

We wanted to post the entire presentation of information on the MSI R7970 Lightning for you since there is a ton of information available on it. This shows how much thought and customization MSI's engineers put into this video card. It is a massively customized video card.

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