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MSI R6970 Lightning: High Speed, Low Drag
MSI has been on a tear as of late with their video card offerings. The Twin Frozr II and III series have all received positive reviews, people seem to be buying their products, and the company has taken some interesting turns in how they handle overall design and differentiation in a very crowded graphics marketplace. This did not happen overnight, and MSI has been a driving force in how the video card business has developed.
Perhaps a company’s reputation is best summed up by what the competition has to say about them. I remember well back in 1999 when Tyan was first considering going into the video card business. Apparently they were going to release a NVIDIA TnT-2 based card to the marketplace, and attempt to work their way upwards with more offerings. This particular project was nixed by management. A few years later Tyan attempted the graphics business again, but this time with some ATI Radeon 9000 series of cards. Their biggest seller was their 9200 cards, but they also offered their Tachyone 9700 Pro. In talking with Tyan about where they were, the marketing guy simply looked at me and said, “You know, if we had pursued graphics back in 1999 we might be in the same position that MSI is in now.”
A Card Unlike Any Other
In all honesty, there aren't many graphics cards that really get our attention these days. There are GPUs that do that - releases like the Radeon HD 6990 and the GeForce GTX 590 get our juices flowing to see what new performance and features they can offer. But in terms of individual vendor-specific designs, there are very few that make us "perk up" much more than just seeing another reference card come across the test bed.
The ASUS ARES dual-5870 card was probably the last one do to that - and for $1200 is better have! EVGA is ready with another card though that definitely made us interested, and for a much more reasonable price of $419 or so.
The EVGA GeForce GTX 460 2WIN is a custom built card that combines a pair of GTX 460 1GB GPUs on a single PCB to create a new level of performance and pricing that we found was unmatched in the market today. And even better, the features improved as well by utilizing the power of both GPUs in an SLI configuration.
Read on and see why the GTX 460 2WIN might be my new favorite graphics card!
Introduction and the new Turks GPU
It seems that the graphics card wars have really heated up recently. With the release of the Radeon HD 6990 4GB and the GeForce GTX 590 3GB card it might seem that EVERYONE was spending $600 on their next GPU purchase. Obviously that isn't the case and the world of the sub-$100 card, while way less sexy, is just as important.
This week AMD has announced a slew of new options to address this market including the Radeon HD 6670, HD 6570 and even the HD 6450. Topping out at $99, the Radeon HD 6670 offers good performance, strong HTPC features and low power consumption. NVIDIA's competition is still reasonable though as we compare how the now price-dropped GeForce GTS 450 sits into the stack.
Barts sees a lower price
The Radeon HD 6790 1GB is a new $150 graphics cards based on the same Barts architecture found in the Radeon HD 6800-series of cards. Obviously there are fewer shader processors and lower clock speeds, though the 256-bit memory bus remains for better memory throughput. The goal is obvious: unseat the GTX 550 Ti (and the GTX 460) from NVIDIA as the best option for this price segment. Does it succeed?
The hits just keep coming. In a time of the year that is traditionally a bit slower (after CES but before Computex) the world of the graphics card continues to evolve and iterate at a blindly pace. Since January we have seen the release of the GeForce GTX 560 Ti and the Radeon HD 6950 1GB cards, the Radeon HD 6990 4GB dual-GPU behemoth, the GeForce GTX 550 Ti budget card and even NVIDIA's new GeForce GTX 590 dual-GPU card. It has been a busy time for our GPU testing labs and the result is a GPU market that is both stronger and more confusing than ever.
Today AMD is releasing another competitor to the ~$150 graphics card market with the Radeon HD 6790 1GB based on the Barts architecture we first tested with the HD 6800-series in October 2010. When NVIDIA released the GTX 550 Ti in this same price field, AMD was dependent on the higher priced HD 6850 and the previous generation HD 5770 to hold its ground, both of which did so quite well. The GTX 550 Ti was over priced at launch and is only now starting to see the correction needed to make it a viable selection.
AMD had different plans though and the Radeon HD 6790 will enter into the $150 space as the performance and pricing leader if neither of NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 550 Ti or GTX 460 768MB can make a stand.
Radeon HD 6790 Specs and Reference Design
The new Radeon HD 6790 will sit in the current product stack from AMD just below the HD 6850 and above the currently available HD 5770 offerings. For those that might have already done their research, yes there is indeed a Radeon HD 6770 being sold by AMD but it is only offered to OEMs for now while end users are left without it.
1024 CUDA cores on a card
The "Top Secret" GTX 590 turns out to be both better and worse than the Radeon HD 6990 4GB depending on some vary particular use cases. In realm of $700 graphics cards, this is definitely something you want to pay attention to. But I am getting ahead of myself; let's first dive into the design on the GTX 590 and see what's under the hood.The High-End Battle Commences
Just a couple of weeks ago AMD released the Radeon HD 6990 4GB card, the first high-end dual-GPU graphics card we have seen released in quite a while it seems. Before that, the Radeon HD 5970 had been sitting on the throne as the fastest single card for even longer - the GeForce GTX 295 was NVIDIA's last attempt at the crown. Even before we got our hands on the HD 6990 though, we were told by various NVIDIA personnel to "wait what we have in store." Well, we have done so and today we are here to review and discuss NVIDIA's entry into the dual-GPU realm for 2011, the GeForce GTX 590 3GB.
Note: If you would like to check out our video comparison between the GeForce GTX 590 and the Radeon HD 6990 before moving on, please do!
From the HD 5770 HAWK to Now
MSI hits the scene with their own version of the AMD HD 6950. This features the Twin Frozr II cooling solution and has a price point slightly above where most reference HD 6950s sit. When combined with MSI's Afterburner software, this card becomes an interesting tool in a gamer's arsenal. We find out how it runs when combined with the Catalyst 11.4 Preview Driver, which delivers some significant improvements in performance for the Cayman family of chips.Last year I reviewed the MSI HD 5770 HAWK video card, and I came away impressed by the engineering that MSI brought to the table. The card was quiet, it was efficient, it didn’t build up any significant levels of heat, and it was pretty affordable as compared to a bone stock HD 5770 based on the reference design. The board could also overclock. It was a budget enthusiast board that wouldn’t empty the pocket, but still give a lot of DX11 bang for the buck.
Then on the other hand we had the MSI HD 5870 Lightning. This was a card that had a lot of promise. This particular card had a custom PCB design with high end power circuitry, quality components, and the TwinFrozr fan design. All of this came to naught. The board would not overclock any further than the reference HD 5870 that we had seen for some months before, and in fact the board appeared to pull a little bit more power at the same speeds as a reference board. This was almost the exact polar opposite of the HD 5770 HAWK.
The product I am looking at today is an interesting hybrid from MSI. MSI has taken the stock HD 6950 reference PCB, populated it with slightly higher rated components (though not up to their “Military Class” standards), and put on the Twin Frozr II cooling solution. This is more in line with the reference version of the HD 6950, but the addition of better cooling and advanced fan profiles gives it a boost above the reference, without going into the stratified air of producing another “Lightning” type of product. This has allowed MSI to get a differentiated product out in fairly short order, and still give consumers something extra to potentially make their buying decision on.
What all that extra power gets you
Just a couple of weeks back AMD released the new Radeon HD 6990 4GB graphics card to world and it was easily crowned the king of the GPU world. With performance that beat out AMD's own Radeon HD 5970 and walked past the single GPU based GeForce GTX 580 1.5GB from NVIDIA, the HD 6990 offered the most performance in the smallest space you could buy - and for a hefty $699 MSRP.The Leftovers
Just a couple of weeks back AMD released the new Radeon HD 6990 4GB graphics card to world and it was easily crowned the king of the GPU world. With performance that beat out AMD's own Radeon HD 5970 and walked past the single GPU based GeForce GTX 580 1.5GB from NVIDIA, the HD 6990 offered the most performance in the smallest space you could buy - and for a hefty $699 MSRP. (Note that they are selling for more than that as of today...)
One of the interesting features of the card was a unique hardware switch on the top of the card that is used to switch between standard clock rates of 830 MHz and a 375 watt power rating and a higher voltage, higher clock rate along with the ability to breach the 375 watt limit set by the PCI Express standard.
Along with the move from 830 MHz core clock to a 880 MHz core clock (which by itself wouldn't really be notable), the HD 6990 cards move from a voltage of 1.175v stock to a slightly improved 1.2v for additional overclocking headroom. In conjunction with this, the PowerTune implementation (which uses hardware to limit maximum power consumption levels) gets tweaked to allow for more power consumption. This is good news for overclockers again.
Here is my quote from the original HD 6990 story:
Unfortunately, because of some time constraints, we didn't get to play around with this overclocked setting originally but today, we rectify that situation.
In our story today you will see a collection of benchmarks, all run at the 2560x1600 resolution that actually stresses the HD 6990, comparing the default 830/1200 speeds to the automatically overclocked settings of 880/1250 that result from flipping that overclocking switch. Though I realize that not many users have 30-in displays with 2560x1600 screens, the higher pixel count should also represent performance scaling and changes on multi-display Eyefinity configurations.
After those tests, you will see our experiences with additional overclocking attempts through AMD's Overdrive software in the Catalyst Control Center.
Our testing configuration was the same as all of our recent GPU articles:
- Testing Configuration
- ASUS P6X58D Premium Motherboard
- Intel Core i7-965 @ 3.33 GHz Processor
- 3 x 2GB Corsair DDR3-1333 MHz Memory
- Western Digital VelociRaptor 600GB HDD
- Corsair Professional Series 1200w PSU
Another Fermi debuts
It is the inevitable march of technology - we see a new GPU released at the high-end of the price spectrum and some subset of it will find its way to the low-end. The slow drizzle of cards in this series started with the 580 and 570, based on the same Fermi architecture as the GTX 400 cards (with some improvements in efficiency), continued with the GTX 560 Ti in January and with the GTX 550 Ti that we are seeing today.Introduction
It is the inevitable march of technology - we see a new GPU released at the high-end of the price spectrum and some subset of it will find its way to the low-end. It could be merely days apart, or it could be months, as we see here with the GTX 580 release coming way back in November of 2010. The slow drizzle of cards in this series started with the 580 and 570, based on the same Fermi architecture as the GTX 400 cards (with some improvements in efficiency), continued with the GTX 560 Ti in January and with the GTX 550 Ti that we are seeing today.
But does this new low cost option from NVIDIA stack up well against competition from AMD or from their own previous designs? Let's first find out the basic specifications of the GPU and dive into the benchmarks.
The GeForce GTX 550 Ti GPU
The GeForce GTX 550 Ti (previously dubbed GF116) continues with the trend NVIDIA has perfected of taking large GPUs and shrinking them down to fit into different price segments, in this case the ~$150 mark. While the GTX 580 is a beast of silicon with 512 shader cores and a 384-bit memory bus to keep it fed, the GTX 560 Ti was shrunk to 384 cores and a more manageable 256-bit memory bus.
The 116 watt power consumption of the GTX 550 Ti comes in at 10 watts higher than what the reference GTS 450 cards were rated at.
Antilles Architecture and Design
The AMD Radeon HD 6990 4GB card has been known by the media and even gamers since the first announcements from the Cayman launch last year but finally today we are able to discuss the technology behind it and the gaming performance it will provide users willing to shell out the $700 it will take to acquire. Stop in and see if your mortgage is worth this graphics card!
Graphics card that are this well endowed don't come along very often; the last was the Radeon HD 5970 from AMD back in November of 2009. In a world where power efficiency is touted as a key feature it has become almost a stigma to have an add-in card in your system that might pull 350-400 watts of power. Considering we were just writing about a complete AMD Fusion platform that used 34 watts IN TOTAL under load, it is an easy task to put killer gaming products like the HD 6990 in an unfair and unreasonable light.
But we aren't those people. Do most people need a $700, 400 watt graphics card? Nope. Do they want it though? Yup. And we are here to show it to you.
A new take on the dual-GPU design
Both AMD and NVIDIA have written this story before: take one of your top level GPUs and double them up on a single PCB or card design to plug into a single PCI Express slot and get maximum performance. CrossFire (or SLI) in a single slot - lots to like about that.
The current GPU lineup paints an interesting picture with the Fermi-based GTX 500 series from NVIDIA and the oddly segregated AMD HD 6800 and HD 6900 series of cards. Cayman, the redesigned architecture AMD released as the HD 6970 and HD 6950, brings a lot of changes to the Evergreen design used in previous cards. It has done fairly well in the market though it didn't improve the landscape for AMD discrete graphics as much as many had thought it would and NVIDIA's graphics chips have remained very relevant.
With the rumors swirling about a new dual-GPU option from AMD there was some discussion on whether it would be an HD 6800 / Evergreen based design or an HD 6900 / Cayman contraption. Let's just get that mystery out of the way:
The memory architecture runs a bit slower as well at 5.0 Gbps (versus the 5.5 Gbps on the HD 6970) but we are still getting a full 2GB per GPU for a grand-spanking-total of 4GB on this single card. Load power on the board is rated at "<375 watts" and just barely makes the budget for PCI Express based solutions with the provided dual 8-pin power connectors.
The eternal debate
Without a doubt, one of the most frequent questions we get here at PC Perspective, on the PC Perspective Podcast or even This Week in Computer Hardware, is "do I need to upgrade my graphics card yet?" The problem is this question has very different answers based on your use cases, what games you like to play or are planning on playing in the future, what other hardware is in your system, etc and thus can be a very complicated situation.
The Galaxy GeForce GTX 560 Ti GC
The GeForce GTX 560 Ti GPU was released to the world earlier this week and we have a handful of retail options in the lab to poke with the testing stick and see what turns up. With a card from Galaxy, MSI and Palit, we see how much performance gain you'll see with their stock overclocks as well as how high we can push the GPU with the improved coolers.
GeForce GTX 560 Ti GPU
NVIDIA has been preparing the new GeForce GTX 560 Ti 1GB card for quite a while now. I'm not sure I can say the same about the Radeon HD 6950 1GB card, but the results are the same. Two new graphics cards in the ~$250 range go head-to-head with each other for dominance in this lucrative price point and how they compare to other cards in that same segment.
A quick brief on WHDI
The Galaxy GeForce GTX 460 WHDI is the world's first graphics cards built around the Wireless Home Digital Interface standard and promises to bring uncompressed wireless video technology to the world of your PC and the power of the GTX 460 graphics chip. Does it work as promised and can WHDI really change the way you think about your HTPC?
Mobility Goes Mainstream
NVIDIA is in the console world, courtesy of Sony's failure to predict how 3D graphics have evolved combined with the limitations of the Cell processor and archticture. NVIDIA was able to slip in with a console optimized GeForce 7900 GPU, and the PS3 was given the ability to compete with Microsoft and the XBox 360. Here we are six years later and NVIDIA is approaching the overall performance and capabilities of that console GPU in a mobile, low power form.
Single slot cooler
Galaxy might still be a lesser known graphics card vendor in the US but they are still pushing the envelope as far as or further than anyone else today. The GeForce GTX 460 1GB Razor card is the first and only air cooled single slot option on the market with this gaming power. Is it worth the added cost though? That depends on your configuration and our review!
2010 was a tremendous year in terms of graphics. We saw both leading companies flesh out all of their DX11 offerings, and there were some distinct surprises and disappointments from both companies. 2011 looks to be a different beast, but as we head into the new year let us take a look where the two giants stand in terms of desktop graphics.
The New Cayman Architecture
The new Cayman architecture from AMD is the first big change to the GPU in some time introducing a new VLIW4 design as well as improved tessellation and AA performance. But can the HD 6970 and HD 6950 stand up to the power of the GF110-based GTX 580 and GTX 570 cards and how does PowerTune technology get into the mix?
A much needed update
AMD's Catalyst Control Center was in a desperate need of an update and today AMD is in the final stages of releasing one. We have a quick preview of the new Catalyst Control Center 2 with some mostly aesthetic changes and a few functional ones that should make frequency CCC users happy.
Another GF110 Part
The new NVIDIA GeForce GTX 570 1.25GB graphics card brings very similar specifications to the GTX 480 with slightly improved clocks and a lower price that should please gamers looking for a holiday upgrade. But how does it compare to the best from AMD's single GPU offerings or even the high-end GeForce GTX 580?
GF110 is a new GPU
NVIDIA is back with another new GPU, the GF110 aka the GeForce GTX 580. NVIDIA released the GTX 460 to target the $200 price point and now they are back to elevate their high-end game yet again with the full 512 CUDA core option we were always promised. How much better is it than the GTX 480 and what about that oddly placed dual-GPU Radeon HD 5970?