MSI R5870 Lightning Video Card Review

Today we have MSI's latest Lightning series video card, the R5870 Lightning on our test bench. Is it an explosive success, a shocking failure, or none of the above? We checked it out with the help of six of today's hottest games, and we're here to tell you what we found. The results just might surprise you!

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 are going to be examining one of its "Lightning" video cards, featuring high-end components and custom cooling devices. The video card in question today is the MSI R5870 Lightning, featuring an AMD ATI Radeon HD 5870 GPU and 1024MB of GDDR5 memory.

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AMD Radeon HD 5870 GPU

AMD released the Radeon HD 5870 in the early fall of 2009 and packed it with features such as DirectX 11 support and ATI’s Eyefinity multi-monitor gaming technology. The HD 5870 is manufactured on a 40nm process and features 1,600 stream processors, 32 ROPs, and 72 texture units. AMD recommends a GPU clock speed of 850MHz and a memory clock of 4.8GHz. With the exception of the Eyefinity Edition (or "E6") cards, most Radeon HD 5870 based video cards support a maximum of three simultaneous display devices in Eyefinity.

When it launched, the Radeon HD 5870 had no direct competition. NVIDIA was late to the market with its DirectX 11 part, which finally launched in March of 2010, some seven months after AMD’s Radeon HD 5800 series landed. Now, of course, the playing field is a little more even. NVIDIA’s products have been hampered by what some would call excessive heat-generation, power-consumption, and cost, but these GTX 400 series GPUs are still strong performers and certainly offer valid competition.


MSI R5870 Lightning

MSI’s Lighting series are special video cards, and in fact this is MSI’s first AMD-GPU based video card in the Lightning series. MSI also has previous generation NV-GPU based Lightning series video cards, one GeForce GTX 275 we reviewed here. MSI is taking AMD’s fastest single-GPU configuration, the Radeon HD 5870 to new levels with the MSI 5870 Lightning video card. The MSI 5870 Lightning can be found for $480 online currently.

MSI calls the Lightning series a "Military Class Concept," which suggests that these video cards are built to perform and last. They use Hi-c tantalum capacitors, solid state chokes, and gold-plated connectors. To read more about all the high-end components employed on the MSI R5870 Lightning video card, please check out the official press release from MSI here.

The GPU on the MSI R5870 Lightning is clocked at 900MHz, which is only 50MHz faster than what AMD recommends for standard Radeon HD 5870-based video cards, and the memory follows AMD’s reference design of 4.8GHz. It is a little disappointing to see such a hot-rod video card without hot-rod clock speeds out of the box.

Packaging

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The front of the box displays the predictable military imagery, with a stylized F-35 Lightning II fighter jet acting as the video card’s mascot, and boasting the Lightning series motto "Built to be perfect." The sticker on the side of the box lists the enclosed video card’s critical features such as video memory and output connectors. The backside of the box shows a hotlist of features as well as system requirements, and a very small feature list in 28 different languages.

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The box’s front also flips open to reveal some detailed information about the video card’s engineering. Described is the 15-phase PWM (Pulse-Width Modulation) power supply, the afterburner software, the Lightning Power Layer, V-Check points, "Proadlizer", Hi-c Capacitors, and Solid State Chokes. But we’ll get to all of that good stuff shortly.

Bundle

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The bundle is mostly standard, other than the special voltage connectors. There is a quick installation guide, a user’s guide, and a utility CD-ROM containing device drivers and MSI’s video card utility software, Afterburner. For connectors, MSI included a single CrossFireX bridge connector, two 6-pin to 8-pin power adaptors, three voltage check terminal connectors (for the Lightning series), and a DVI to VGA adaptor. Also included is a single 6-foot HDMI cable.

The Video Card

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On the face of this video card, the most prominent feature is the large dual-fan cooling device. There are two 8cm fans in an aluminum shroud, blowing over some very thin bonded aluminum fins with four heat pipes embedded in them.

Due to the inclusion of such a large-scale PWM, this GPU’s PCB is about half of an inch taller than most Radeon HD 5870 video cards. Along the top edge there are three Solid State Chokes visible, as well as two 8-pin power supply connectors and a voltage checking terminal. Along the back edge there are two more voltage checking terminals right behind the power supply connectors. The backside of this video card is pretty standard stuff, with a great deal of surface mount components, several stickers, and a spring bracket to help keep the heat-sink attached.

On the business end, the MSI R5870 Lightning has two DVI-I connectors, an HDMI connector, and a DisplayPort connector. This is a standard load out for a Radeon HD 5870.

Under the Hood

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Removing the heat-sink, we find a large metal heat-spreader attached to some of the PWM circuitry and the GDDR5 memory. Removing that spreader, we find some interesting hardware.

In the third picture above, there are some color-coded parts. In red are the SSCs, or Solid State Chokes. A Solid State Choke is essentially a filter against unwanted interference. It is a coil of copper wire wrapped around an iron core. In traditional designs, chokes appear either as coils wrapped around donut-shaped cores, or as coils wrapped around cylindrical cores. In this design, the entire choke apparatus is embedded within a plastic (or other non-conductive material) package. The advantage to this is that the coils do not vibrate. Many gamers complain that certain video cards (notably most GeForce 8000 series and newer cards) squeal and hum during gameplay. That squeak is caused by the vibration of power chokes, because they are not a sealed design. MSI has used these sealed chokes to ensure that they do not vibrate.

Highlighted in green is the "Proadlizer" chip. The Proadlizer is a device designed by NEC to reduce the amount of capacitors needed to effectively filter noise out of high-speed switching circuits, such as those found in video cards and on mainboards. It is essentially a network of very low-impedance capacitors which function to eliminate noise without causing undue power drain.

Highlighted in light blue are the Hi-c capacitors. "Hi-C" indicates a high conductivity, so the impedance of these capacitors is low, resulting in less power dissipated as heat. The Hi-c caps have a rare metal Tantalum core. Tantalum capacitors are advantageous for video cards because they are lightweight and small, and generate relatively little heat. They are also sometimes used in cell phones. There are other non-tantalum capacitors on this video card, but according to our documentation, all of the capacitors that are involved in supplying power to the GPU are the Hi-c tantalum caps.

Finally, highlighted in purple are the V-Check terminals. These terminals allow the electronically knowledgeable overclocker to attach a multi-meter to monitor GPU and memory voltage, which can be useful when overclocking.

PWM Indicator LEDs

On the backside of the video card, there is a series of twelve LEDs. There are six green and six red LEDs, and they basically indicate how much power is flowing to the video card. The more LEDs are illuminated, the more power the video card is consuming.

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The first image above shows the status of the PWM LEDs when the computer is sitting at the desktop. The first four green LEDs are active. The second image shows the LEDs when playing a fairly lightweight game such as Blur, or when watching an introductory cinematic video. All six green and two red LEDs are engaged. The last image above shows what it looks like when playing a demanding game like Metro 2033 or when running a benchmark such as FurMark. All twelve LEDs are turned on, indicating that all stages of the PWM power supply are engaged.

Details

The following photographs are detail photos, showing various features found on this video card.

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(Twin Frozr II, Heat Pipes, Power Connectors, V-Check one and two, V-Check three)


The Competition

Currently, the MSI R5870 Lightning can be had for about $480 online. So for this review, we will be comparing the MSI R5870 Lightning to the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 480 and of course the less expensive reference design AMD Radeon HD 5870.