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MSI HD 7970 Lightning 3GB Review

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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When it was first released, the HD 7970 3GB was able to soundly beat the incumbent GTX 580 and quickly sat atop the GPU market in a place of preeminence. But just as it was starting to become widely available and board partners began rolling out their custom versions, NVIDIA shocked everyone by introducing a card that not only beat the HD 7970 but undercut its price as well.

The current situation doesn’t look all that good for AMD’s loyal partners since even in light of NVIDIA’s price / performance dominance there has been a general refusal to lower prices. As you can imagine, any company that had released higher end version of the Tahiti architecture is paying dearly due to lost sales and a lack of inventory movement. However, there are several cards out there which have been sheltered from the volatility since they cater to certain market niches. The MSI HD 7970 3GB Lightning is one such card since it is firmly targeted towards well heeled enthusiast buyers.

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MSI’s Lightning series is well known for its genre leading clock speeds and wide ranging feature set so we were expecting it to have some envious specifications. It didn’t disappoint on that front but there are a few oddities sprinkled throughout this card and one of them is the memory speed. Unfortunately, MSI has decided to implement an almost insultingly low memory overclock which isn’t too much of a surprise since other board partners have chosen this route as well. Maybe it’s because they figured the HD 7970 has enough bandwidth for their needs but a larger increase on this front is sorely missed considering the Lightning’s astronomical price of $600.

Unlike the memory situation, the core clocks of this card have received a thorough massaging, being increased from the stock frequency of 925MHz to a lofty 1070MHz. From our standpoint, this could be enough for some noticeable in-game framerate changes and will likely pay dividends when compared against NVIDIA’s GTX 680.

While the HD 7970 Lightning’s three year warranty may be simply par for the course among AMD’s faithful, their RAM services have received a thorough overhaul with locations in Canada and the USA. This means quicker shipping and turnaround times for those of us north of the border.

HD 7970 cards haven’t had an easy time of it lately but MSI is hoping you’ll pay a bit of attention to their new Lightning. It is supposed to be a huge step forward for graphics card design in terms of component longevity, overclocking headroom, cooling and numerous other aspects. But the question remains: it is really worth $100 more than a GTX 680 or are you better off waiting for AMD’s inevitable price cuts?

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SKYMTL

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A Closer Look at the MSI HD 7970 Lightning

A Closer Look at the MSI HD 7970 Lightning


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MSI’s Lightning cards have always been a class apart not only terms of features but also their sheer size. This one is no exception since it nearly 12” long and a massive 5” wide due to an expanded PCB. The width shouldn’t be an issue for most end users since enclosures typically have more than enough breathing room between the motherboard and their side panel. Length however could be an issue since some smaller ATX cases don’t have 12” to spare.


As one might expect, MSI has decked this card out with their highest performing heatsink. The Twin Frozr IV uses a pair of 100mm PWM fans featuring Dust Removal technology to keep their bearings in top shape and specialized blades that are supposed to boost airflow by up to 20%. Due to this massive amount of air movement, the heatsink below comes equipped with five 8mm heatpipes that quickly whisk heat away from the core, to be dispersed within the aluminum fin array.


The main cooling assembly has been combined with what MSI terms a “Form in One” unit that consists of front and rear mounted secondary heatsinks. The job of these is to efficiently cool down the memory, PCB and VRM components under situations of heavy load or high frequency overclocking.

There’s also a GPU BIOS switch hiding under the shroud which can be moved over into its secondary position to disable the OCP, increase the Power Tune limit in MSI’s Afterburner tool and increase the overclocking range.

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Flipping the Lightning over reveals the aforementioned Form in One black anodized aluminum heatsink along with a patented feature called the GPU Reactor.


While its name may elicit some snicker from certain enthusiast circles, the GPU Reactor does have its uses. According to MSI, attaching this add-on PCB to the area directly behind the GPU core is supposed to provide additional power capacity in order to ensure maximum stability when overclocking. To achieve this, the Reactor leverages the Lightning’s advanced VRM grid in order to selectively boost current to the core when need while virtually eliminating voltage fluctuations. This certainly is an interesting concept and judging by the impressive clock speeds these cards have been achieving when placed into the right hands, the GPU Reactor seems to be doing its job. However, if you plan on overclocking within the limits of air cooling, we highly doubt you will see any benefits from this inclusion.

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With connectors sprouting up all over this card, it was good to see that MSI had at least included dual 8-pin power inputs but unlike other designs, the way these are handled is quite unique. Instead of haphazardly dictating where the incoming power is directed, the Lightning dedicates a single 8-pin exclusively for powering the GPU core while the other is used for memory current.

Not only does this setup ensure that power for the primary components is pulled through the PCI-E bus but it also lowers ripple which in turn should help with long term stability.

As is par for the course with high end MSI cards, the Lightning has a trio of voltage monitoring ports. With the included break out wires, you can use a multimeter to measure GPU, memory and VDDCI readings.

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When in use, the Lightning puts on a bit of a light show with numerous blue LEDs on the PCB’s underside. The long bank of lights indicates the number of power phases being used while the GPU Reactor stays illuminated provided the extra PCB has been installed.

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We don’t usually concentrate all that much upon a card’s output connectors since nearly all of them tend to stick with the reference design. MSI on the other hand took the path less travelled and ended up with a seriously mixed bag of results.

The four included mini DisplayPort 1.2 connectors and dual DVI outputs guarantee the Lightning is compatible with up to six simultaneous displays….but not so fast. First and foremost, only a single passive mDP to full DP adaptor is included so this card doesn’t natively support six displays without an additional layout of money.

MSI’s nickel and diming with adaptors isn’t even the most egregious error here either. The two single link DVI connectors take that prize by a long shot. To anyone with a 1920 x 1200 or lower resolution monitor, this won’t be a big deal but if you are like us and have a high quality 2560 x 1600, 2440 x 1440 or 120Hz display without DisplayPort, be prepared to pony up an additional hundred bucks or so for an Active DisplayPort to Dual Link DVI adaptor. Without it, your ultra expensive monitor will be rendered useless by the Lightning.
 

SKYMTL

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Under the Lightning’s Heatsink

Under the Lightning’s Heatsink


HD7970-LIGHTNING-18.jpg

We’ve already mentioned that MSI’s HD 7970 Lightning is one of the largest cards on the market in terms of PCB area and it is quite obvious that most of that extra space has been put to good use. It uses a massive 14-phase digital PWM for the GPU core which is a several orders of magnitude more than the 5-phase setup a reference HD 7970 receives. The memory meanwhile receives its own 2-phase power distribution network while the VDDCI receives a single phase.

Even though many chalk additional phases up to nothing more than a marketing gimmick and some companies boost this number without increasing current capacity, MSI went a different route. Instead of leveling out at the usual 200 amps of the reference design, the Lightning tops out at an impressive 425 amps.

HD7970-LIGHTNING-24.jpg

Following in the footsteps and improving upon Gigabyte’s copper infused PCB concept, MSI has instituted what they call a “Lightning Power Layer” into their PCB. Essentially, this segregates the power distribution grids for each component within separate copper PCB layers. Supposedly, this should increase long term stability by leveling out current ripple and allow for more efficient PCB cooling.

As you may have noticed by now, the Lightning design is geared towards high end overclockers or enthusiasts who just want the best possible components on their $600 purchase. Naturally, MSI has achieved those goals through the use of highly engineered items which we don’t normally see on most graphics cards. We go over some of them below:

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All of the components listed above have similar goals: increase card longevity, optimize overclocking results and lower heat production. Unfortunately, we can’t conclusively test any of these claims here and now but the Lightning has proven itself again and again in the extreme overclocking arena, which does say something about its capabilities and also its component selection.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Messages
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Test System & Setup / Benchmark Sequences

Main Test System

Processor: Intel i7 3930K @ 4.5GHz
Memory: Corsair Vengeance 32GB @ 1866MHz
Motherboard: ASUS P9X79 WS
Cooling: Corsair H80
SSD: 2x Corsair Performance Pro 256GB
Power Supply: Corsair AX1200
Monitor: Samsung 305T / 3x Acer 235Hz
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate N x64 SP1


Acoustical Test System

Processor: Intel 2500K @ stock
Memory: G.Skill Ripjaws 8GB 1600MHz
Motherboard: Gigabyte EX58-UD5
Cooling: Thermalright TRUE Passive
SSD: Corsair Performance Pro 256GB
Power Supply: Seasonic X-Series Gold 800W


Drivers:
NVIDIA 300.99 Beta for GTX 680
AMD 12.2 WHQL
NVIDIA 295.73 WHQL

Application Benchmark Information:
Note: In all instances, in-game sequences were used. The videos of the benchmark sequences have been uploaded below.


Batman: Arkham City

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Battlefield 3

<object width="640" height="480"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/i6ncTGlBoAw?version=3&hl=en_US"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/i6ncTGlBoAw?version=3&hl=en_US" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="640" height="480" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true"></embed></object>​


Crysis 2

<object width="560" height="315"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/Bc7_IAKmAsQ?version=3&hl=en_US"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/Bc7_IAKmAsQ?version=3&hl=en_US" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="560" height="315" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true"></embed></object>​


Deus Ex Human Revolution

<object width="560" height="315"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/GixMX3nK9l8?version=3&hl=en_US"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/GixMX3nK9l8?version=3&hl=en_US" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="560" height="315" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true"></embed></object>​


Dirt 3

<object width="560" height="315"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/g5FaVwmLzUw?version=3&hl=en_US"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/g5FaVwmLzUw?version=3&hl=en_US" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="560" height="315" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true"></embed></object>​


Metro 2033

<object width="480" height="360"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/8aZA5f8l-9E?version=3&hl=en_US"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/8aZA5f8l-9E?version=3&hl=en_US" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="480" height="360" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true"></embed></object>​


Shogun 2: Total War

<object width="560" height="315"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/oDp29bJPCBQ?version=3&hl=en_US"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/oDp29bJPCBQ?version=3&hl=en_US" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="560" height="315" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true"></embed></object>​


Skyrim

<object width="640" height="480"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/HQGfH5sjDEk?version=3&hl=en_US&rel=0"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/HQGfH5sjDEk?version=3&hl=en_US&rel=0" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="640" height="480" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true"></embed></object>​


Wargame: European Escalation

<object width="640" height="480"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/ztXmjZnWdmk?version=3&hl=en_US&rel=0"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/ztXmjZnWdmk?version=3&hl=en_US&rel=0" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="640" height="480" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true"></embed></object>​


Witcher 2 v2.0

<object width="560" height="315"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/tyCIuFtlSJU?version=3&hl=en_US"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/tyCIuFtlSJU?version=3&hl=en_US" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="560" height="315" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true"></embed></object>​


*Notes:

- All games tested have been patched to their latest version

- The OS has had all the latest hotfixes and updates installed

- All scores you see are the averages after 3 benchmark runs

All IQ settings were adjusted in-game and all GPU control panels were set to use application settings
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
3DMark 11 (DX11)

3DMark 11 (DX11)


3DMark 11 is the latest in a long line of synthetic benchmarking programs from the Futuremark Corporation. This is their first foray into the DX11 rendering field and the result is a program that incorporates all of the latest techniques into a stunning display of imagery. Tessellation, depth of field, HDR, OpenCL physics and many others are on display here. In the benchmarks below we have included the results (at default settings) for both the Performance and Extreme presets.


Performance Preset

HD7970-LIGHTNING-30.jpg


Extreme Preset

HD7970-LIGHTNING-31.jpg
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Batman: Arkham City (DX11)

Batman: Arkham City (DX11)


Batman: Arkham City is a great looking game when all of its detail levels are maxed out but it also takes a fearsome toll on your system. In this benchmark we use a simple walkthrough that displays several in game elements. The built-in benchmark was avoided like the plague simply because the results it generates do not accurately reflect in-game performance.

1920 x 1200

HD7970-LIGHTNING-32.jpg


HD7970-LIGHTNING-33.jpg


2560 x 1600

HD7970-LIGHTNING-34.jpg


HD7970-LIGHTNING-35.jpg
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Battlefield 3 (DX11)

Battlefield 3 (DX11)


For this benchmark, we used a sequence from the Rock and Hard Place mission. The results may seem lower than normal and this is due to the fact that after playing through the game multiple times, this one are was found to be the most demanding on the GPU. As with all of the tests, we try to find a worst case scenario in order to ensure a given card can properly play through the whole game instead of just a “typical” section.

1920 x 1200

HD7970-LIGHTNING-38.jpg


HD7970-LIGHTNING-39.jpg


2560 x 1600

HD7970-LIGHTNING-40.jpg


HD7970-LIGHTNING-41.jpg
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Crysis 2 (DX11)

Crysis 2 (DX11)


Crysis 2 with the DX11 and Texture Package installed not only looks great but it is a strain on any GPU. For this benchmark, we used a classic runthrough which includes far views, explosions, combat and close-in knifing; basically every hallmark of gameplay.

1920 x 1200

HD7970-LIGHTNING-43.jpg


2560 x 1600

HD7970-LIGHTNING-44.jpg
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DX11)

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DX11)


Deus Ex: Human Revolution may not be the hardest game for today’s high end gaming rigs to render. While the game mostly takes place indoors, it is the few outdoor areas that put additional strain on graphics cards. So for this test, we use one of the more involved outdoor sections: the Sharif Manufacturing Loading Docks.

1920 x 1200

HD7970-LIGHTNING-48.jpg


HD7970-LIGHTNING-49.jpg


2560 x 1600

HD7970-LIGHTNING-50.jpg


HD7970-LIGHTNING-51.jpg
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Dirt 3 (DX11)

Dirt 3 (DX11)


Dirt 3 isn’t all that much different from its predecessor but the developers have added a few more visual touches but boost image quality. In this case, we used the Michigan Rally track since it features some of the hardest to render features of the game: expansive vistas, water, dirt effects, trees and many other items.

1920 x 1200

HD7970-LIGHTNING-53.jpg


HD7970-LIGHTNING-54.jpg


2560 x 1600

HD7970-LIGHTNING-55.jpg


HD7970-LIGHTNING-56.jpg
 
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