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MSI R7970 Lightning Review: AMD's HD 7970 Gets the Treatment

Author: Josh Walrath
Manufacturer: MSI

Impressions of the MSI R7970 Lightning

My experience with this board was a mixed bag. At first I was pretty impressed by the overall design and build of the board. The cooling solution looked terrific and I appreciated the new yellow and black color scheme that will look quite striking in a windowed case. The anti-dust technology kicks in right off the bat, and a user can sit and watch as those fans quickly stop and start spinning the other way after 30 seconds. When the screen is blank, the core goes into a zero power mode, and the fans stop turning altogether

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Our first view of the GPU Reactor, of which we can see the nice plastic cover.

Neat stuff. Too bad the card was not initially stable at stock speeds. Try as I might, I was unable to get the card to run a game or benchmark without hard locking. I increased the Power Tune to 20%, increased the voltage to the GPU, checked all of my settings, and nothing would work to get stable. I then decided to go for broke and flipped the BIOS to the LN2 setting. That actually worked, but with some caveats.

The LN2 setting unlocks the BIOS and removes all of the safeties that are built into a card. A user can increase voltage significantly on all parts. This is indeed meant for those who ARE going to use LN2 and do not care if they fry their card at the end of the experience. This setting also looks to retard some of the timings to main memory and some internal to the GPU itself. This is most likely to give the extreme overclockers a bit more leeway in achieving fast speeds. The LN2 function also downclocks the core to 925 MHz and the memory to 1375, which is base stock speeds for a HD 7970. I was able to easily overclock this card to its supposed “stock” settings at 1070 core and 1400 memory.

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Taking off the cover reveals the PCB board with the eight tantalum capacitors feading the back of the GPU.

At the end of testing I was provided with a new “normal” BIOS for the card, and upon flashing the board worked as it was supposed to. I noticed that at those stock speeds, it was several percent faster than the same clocks with the LN2 settings. When testing this product, I used the LN2 settings (as the new BIOS arrived too late to allow me to retest it all and hit my publishing deadline). When looking at these results, realize that performance with the Normal BIOS setting will be improved upon over what is seen here.

In this instance, I received what I believe to be a sub-par card. This happens from time to time, and it is the first time I have experienced it with an MSI card. My overclocking experience was not as impressive as I was hoping. Other reviews that have popped up so far have shown overclocks in the 1170 to 1250 range, depending on voltage settings used. In speaking to a couple other reviewers, they also have had no troubles with their cards. I guess I just got unlucky this round. I did give the card one more chance, and I uninstalled it from the test machine, reseated the GPU Reactor, and re-installed the card. After I had done this, my experience was a much more positive one.

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Taking a step back we see the entire card in good detail.  I do appreciate the entire backplate, but it can be problematic for individuals who buy these for CrossFire and do not have adequate spacing between cards.

That being said, the performance of this card at 1070/1400 in normal mode is really good. It runs everything at the highest resolution without much of a problem. The only title that really made it sweat was of course Metro 2033. Even then, it stayed around the 40 fps range, which is far higher than any other card I have ever tested.

If there was one disappointment that I am having a hard time getting over is the lack of a dual link DVI output. There are still not many Display Port monitors out there, and I was lucky enough to have one that handled DP with the Dell 3008WFP (of course with that monitor I have to deal with the horrible display lag, but then again I only use it for testing and not actually gaming competitively with). We must consider that this card is aimed more at the multi-monitor crowd with its six active outputs. The majority of people running in such scenarios are more likely to have 3 x 1080P monitors rather than 3 x 1600P units. Three 1080P parts can be had for less than the cost of a single 2560x1600 or 2560x1440 monitor.

 

March 28, 2012 | 05:40 AM - Posted by kris livengood (not verified)

wow, didn't even test it agains another 7970 really guys, time to get on the ball.

March 28, 2012 | 06:49 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

If you're looking at this card and the premium it carries, its likely you're buying it for the overclocking headroom, not the base specs.

What I would have thought was more important is this vs a 680. I can understand not putting it in though. Its unlikely there was one available for review at the time this was being put together.

March 28, 2012 | 06:50 AM - Posted by Josh Walrath

Gotta work with what I have. The performance of a standard HD 7970 is not exactly a secret, so I decided to test it against the two previous Lightning cards to really detail what a user gets when upgrading to this particular overclocked monster. In hindsight I guess it would have probably behooved me to lower the clocks on this card to standard settings and gone from there. I will certainly keep that in mind next time I test an overclocked product like this. Also, Ryan is in Kentucky with the standard HD 7970s, and I live in Wyoming. Swapping parts between the two areas is a bit troublesome.

March 28, 2012 | 08:00 AM - Posted by kris livengood (not verified)

So do you think it really is worth the mark up in price?

March 28, 2012 | 09:08 AM - Posted by Josh Walrath

For the $50 increase in price over a stock? Yes, absolutely. But you must remember that this is a brand new product, and the GTX 680 is still not out in force. Once that happens, then I am sure the dynamics of the pricing of these cards will change drastically. I am judging this card by what is available today. So yes, at $599 it is a good card. Two months from now, when there are many different examples of not just HD 7970 cards, but also GTX 680... it might not look like such a nice product at that price. I am pretty sure though that prices will drop pretty dramatically during that time to keep it competitive with other offerings.

March 28, 2012 | 11:45 AM - Posted by kris livengood (not verified)

were you able to take the heatsink off and find out if it is on a reference pcb?

March 28, 2012 | 12:19 PM - Posted by Josh Walrath

It most certainly is not a reference PCB. A reference board has a 5+1 power phase setup (iirc), while this one is 17 total phases. If you look at the pictures of the boards from behind, you can see that the PCB is smaller at the front of the card (display outputs), then gets taller after the CrossFire connectors. It is also longer than the reference design. This is a much larger PCB to accomodate the more power phases, as well as give the necessary room to optimize trace pathways to the different components.

March 28, 2012 | 09:03 AM - Posted by SoneeOO7

Who cares I just bought a GTX680 Son!

March 28, 2012 | 09:19 AM - Posted by Josh Walrath

A good buy! I just hope we get to see more available GTX 680 products soon!!!

March 31, 2012 | 09:46 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

BUT although the 680 outperforms on a SINGLE monitor application, it would take 2 680's to do an eyefinity setup.

Advantage AMD

April 2, 2012 | 08:32 AM - Posted by Josh Walrath

Nope, the new GTX 680 can output to 4 monitors in total with one card. It will only do 3 monitors in NVIDIA Surround with the 4th being an "accessory monitor" when using 3D applications. So, users no longer require 2 NVIDIA video cards in SLI for more than 2 monitors.

March 28, 2012 | 09:15 AM - Posted by Nilbog

Great article, thanks! I am positive that there will be a 680 version, they would be foolish not to make one.Look forward to reading about it too

I also have to agree, the 50$ premium for better quality parts on the card is well worth it.
I bought a R6970 Lightning just for the quality parts.

March 28, 2012 | 01:56 PM - Posted by Josh Walrath

Obviously I haven't been given a timeline for the eventual GTX 680 Lightning card, but I would expect it to be around 3 months away due to the shortage of chips and the design time for the product as a whole.

March 28, 2012 | 02:09 PM - Posted by Nilbog

You don't think they got some chips already?
Or are you expecting it will be on the market by then?

March 28, 2012 | 02:30 PM - Posted by Josh Walrath

GTX 680 chips are scarce. TSMC shut down the 28 nm line in mid-February, and I am unsure if they have started it back up again. NVIDIA got a couple of complete chip shipments from them, but I think that until manufacturing starts up again, supply is going to be super tight. So tight that guys like Asus, MSI, and others will not have the amount of product on hand to create a second line of non-reference cards.

March 28, 2012 | 06:37 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

"GTX 680 chips are scarce. TSMC shut down the 28 nm line in mid-February, and I am unsure if they have started it back up again."

I doubt the GTX 680 could of been released worldwide, albeit in short supply, if it was.

March 28, 2012 | 09:45 PM - Posted by Josh Walrath

Well, the long and short of it is... NVIDIA set a date for release assuming that TSMC would be able to continue to process wafers at a certain rate until that date. TSMC dropped all production after NVIDIA had set the release date. NVIDIA had enough product out to release the card and have some decent numbers in retail, but after that it would be touch and go. I have heard that the beginning of April will have more cards available than at launch, but the big question is availability after that. I guess time will tell, but from what I am hearing availability might be scarce for a while.

May 28, 2013 | 06:34 PM - Posted by Arthur (not verified)

It's really very complex in this busy life to listen news on Television, thus I just use world wide web for that reason, and obtain the most up-to-date information.

my blog post: here are the findings

March 28, 2012 | 12:27 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks, I wanted someone to face off BF: Bad Company 2 and Battlefield 3 so I could compare then side by side.

March 28, 2012 | 02:22 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

lololololo my gtx 570 scores a 7135 in 3dmark11 ATI is heading downnnnnnn hilllllllllllllllllllll

March 29, 2012 | 08:10 AM - Posted by Finger (not verified)

Are u mentally impaired? His test bed consisted of an AMD Phenom CPU.
Ofcourse the overall score is going to take a major hit on all cards tested.

March 28, 2012 | 05:01 PM - Posted by nabokovfan87

Just got my 7970 Lightning in, BAAARELY fits in my antec 1200 with 3 hdd's (Had to move those).

It's a thing of beauty this is. Kind of sucks Josh had such a horrible experience.

Is there any way to tell if the retail ones that I and others will receive have the updated bios?

March 28, 2012 | 09:47 PM - Posted by Josh Walrath

I'll have to check and see. But if your card is working without issue, there is no real reason to flash the BIOS. VBIOS are typically much simpler than a motherboard BIOS.

March 29, 2012 | 04:40 PM - Posted by nabokovfan87

Last question,

You said you had some OC issues, what was the ASIC quality of your lightning card?

To find it, you go to GPU-Z, click on the upper left corner, and near the bottom it will have ASIC quality.

I know MSI has said in the past they don't bin their cards, but it would appear they may for the lightning. Mine was 82.5% or right around there. The lower the number, the better the OC possibility.

Thanks again man.

So far, benchmarks are:

Alan Wake 12.9 -> 81 AVG FPS by the upgrade
RUSE went from 30 up to 160.

Insanity, I'll try to OC it tonight, see how I do. Only the 2nd thing I have owned to OC it.

March 29, 2012 | 08:58 PM - Posted by Josh Walrath

62.7%.

Bios is 015.013.000.011.000000 (113-AD40900-X01)

March 30, 2012 | 04:44 AM - Posted by nabokovfan87

82.4%
Bios: 015.013.000.011.000000 (113-AD40900-X01)

So yeah, same bios. Here is a portion of ASIC and OC results.

http://www.overclock.net/t/1196856/official-amd-radeon-hd-7950-7970-owne...

EDIT: After reading through the thread a bit again, there appears to be some sort of drop off between OC and ASIC Quality.

The lower number means higher voltage, higher potential for OC, but when you get to a point (say below 75 or above 95) there is a dropoff between OC and voltage heavily.

It will take some more looking into, but that is what I have seen for a bit now.

March 30, 2012 | 07:45 AM - Posted by Josh Walrath

Remember those special Phenom IIs that were aimed at the LN2 crowd and only like 1000 of them were made? This seems to be along the same line of thought. Leakier, hotter running chips that take super cooling really well. On air cooling, not an impressive overclock... on LN2, the sky is the limit. So yeah, I would imagine my sample might do well under LN2.

March 30, 2012 | 12:01 PM - Posted by nabokovfan87

It's wierd. I was looking at it tismorning. Stuff at around 65%, with 1175 and 1250 voltages. Got up to around 1250-1300, some on air, some on WC, but everything was drastically varied.

It just seems odd that these things with the same "quality" don't have the same characteristics. But then again, when you have 40+% leakage, it is a lot of heat in such a small area. I know for me I have to re-wire my case and move the HDD up to the top to free up the bottom two 1200 intakes for the GPU. Working on that this weekend, but yeah.

Thanks the insight man. I'll throw up something and try to OC for sure.

March 29, 2012 | 04:58 PM - Posted by nabokovfan87

I was thinking about the bios thing. I can combare the bios HEX to mine and get the version based on that. Can you post or add a GPU-Z screenshot of the MSI 7970 Lightning?

Appreciate it.

March 31, 2012 | 12:58 AM - Posted by nabokovfan87

Right now I'm at 1180 Core Clock and 1440 on the memory.

If I could add voltage to the memory then I would be able to up that as well, but right now It's locked? I read a post that said to mess with the powertune settings to 20%, but the memory voltage didn't change. Perhaps I need to switch to the LN2 bios selection?

EDIT: Had to back things off a bit, way too much voltage I'm guessing, but ended with 1175/1435.

http://67.205.124.70/c/3/10dcc710-3441-468b-8f64-749fedcc0d3f.png

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