Only since buying this card have I heard about the MSI R6970 Lightning and definitely regret not doing my homework!
Out of the box, the 6970 performs pretty well but, as many of you out there can empathise, I do enjoy pushing the boundaries pf my hardware to get the best performance possible!
Standard MSI HD6970 Specs:
Manufacturing Process: 40 nm
Core Clock: 880Mhz
Memory Bit Rate: 256 Bit
Memory Type: GDDR5
Memory Clock: 1375MHz
Interface: PCI-E 2.1 (x16)
Motherboard : ASUS P8P67
CPU : Intel i7 2600k - running at 4600Mhz
Hard Drive: 2xWD Velociraptor SATAII RAID0 (Striped)
Memory: Corsair Vengeance (Blue) - 1866Mhz 9-10-9-27 @ 1.5v
OS: Windows 7 x64 Pro (SP1)
Driver version: 7.14.10.0841 Catalyst 11.6
DirectX Version: DX11
Overclocking utility: MSI Afterburner
Stability / Benchmarking :3D Mark 11
Monitoring Software: GPUZ - Monitors all GPU settings, including GPU clock speed, Memory clock speed, voltages etc... MSI Afterburner OSD - This will display the FPS and core temperatures of the card during the tests, so that in the event of a drastically high temperature, the test can be aborted to avoid damage to the card.
FRAPS - A games benchmarking program and FPS monitor.
Games to test stability and additional benchmark: Battlefield Bad Company II + Dirt 3
The card does look nice, they have payed a lot of attention to detail, there is parallel red piping that runs the length of the card on the top which looks nice when looking through the case window.
The card has a totally covered PCB which I like as it protects all of the circuitry from clumsy installations.
The fan! When idle the card is relatively quiet however when the fan is pushed to 100% it sounds like a jet engine is cranking up in your case - personally I play with a headset on, and can barely hear it over the game sounds but for those of you using speakers, this may be a defining factor when choosing a graphics card. Also I have noticed that when in games, using standard fan speed setting (and overclocked settings) the card can heat up to the point of failure however I believe this to be a driver issue and not specifically card related.
The card supports eyefinity (see my other blog about this) which is definitely a tick in positives!
The card is very long so requires a large case to fit it into!
Custom Fan Configuration
Afterburner provides a custom fan configuration with it's software to enable you to keep your GPU cool under above average stress.
Load up afterburner, and click settings, click on the fan tab and check the box "enable user defined software automatic fan control"
You will now see a chart. The horizontal readings relate to temperature, and the vertical readings are your fan speeds.
By clicking on the line, you can create a new anchor point and move it to the appropriate place. In this picture you can see how I have set my fan speeds up.
Disclaimer: Overclocking has its risks, and if you are not confident in tinkering with any settings that I am going to explain, then I urge you not to do so as you could end up ruining your components. The second that you overclock your GPU, your warranty will be null and void! I will not held responsible for any damages or losses incurred!
How to unlock MSI AfterBurner to enable "unofficial overclocking" levels:
Navigate to your afterburner install folder (usually in program files / program files x86). Find the MSIAfterburner.cfg file and open it up in notepad.
Firstly find the following value:
after the = sign, copy and paste the following.
I confirm that I am aware of unofficial overclocking limitations and fully understand that MSI will not provide me any support on it
remembering to leave a space after the =
Now find the following value:
UnofficialOverclockingMode = 0
Simply change the 0 to a 1
Now run MSI Afterburner and you should have a greater range to play with!
This particular card, in comparison to my previous GTX460 does not overclock as well, however I did have fun pushing it to its limits and will now outline the following sequence of tests that I did to establish these boundaries and how to verify the GPU's stability.
Overclocking and Stability Testing Method
As you can see in the image of afterburner above, there are 3 settings that we can change that will affect performance:
The Core Voltage (mV) - This increases the amount of voltage that is pushed into your GPU core, the more voltage = more heat but also increases the frequency that the processor will be able to reach.
Core Clock (Mhz) - Increases the frequency that the GPU runs at, increasing performance and heat.
Memory Clock (Mhz) - Increases the frequency that the graphics card's memory runs at, increasing the heat to the memory modules, and increasing performance.
It is best to test one of these at a time to see exactly where the limits are for that particular setting, however I decided to push the settings to the original (locked) maximums to see how it performed with the intention of using this as a starting block.
After the initial overclock, I would increase the GPUGPU frequency in it's overclocked state, the memory frequency will now be increased in small stages, again until 3DMark 11 failed to complete a single pass.
I only used a single pass of 3DMark11 at this early stage, as I know it to be good stress testing software. This is not proving stability at this point, simply showing me that 3DMark11 would run (which is a good indicator). To prove stability later on in the testing phase, I will be running a number of different testing programs and also couple of games (listed above).
GPU Frequency Overclocking
In this section, we will, as stated above me raising the GPU Core Clock setting by small increasments in order to find where the GPU's limits are.
Core Clock: 950MHz
Memory Clock: 1450
Core Voltage: 1300
Result: PASS 6088 3DMarks
Pleased with the result, already with above averages for my particular set up according to the chart, I decided to push the Core Clock up gradually to see exactly how much the graphics card could take.
Settings:Core Clock: 965MHz
Memory Clock: 1450MHz
Core Voltage: 1300mV
Result: PASS 6141 3DMarks
Very promising results so far, an increase of 53 3DMarks!
Core Clock: 975MHz
Memory clock: 1450MHz
GPU Voltage: 1300mV
Result: PASS - 6181 3DMarks
Another healthy increase of 40 3DMarks this time round!
Core Clock: 980MHz
Memory clock: 1450MHz
GPU Voltage: 1300mV
Result: PASS - 6214 3DMarks
Still going strong! and now pushing into the 62xx range, very promising indeed, all this with still only 1450Mhz memory clock. As you can see in the chart, this system is pushing well above average compared to similar systems.
Core Clock: 985MHz
Memory clock: 1450MHz
GPU Voltage: 1300mV
Well to be honest, I was expecting this around now, considering the above average scores already. I can conclude at this moment in time that the maximum GPU Core Clock is around the 980Mhz mark (on this specific card), you may have better or worse luck with yours, every card is different!
I will now leave the GPU frequency at 980Mhz along with the GPU Voltage at 1300mV (1.3V) and start pushing the memory frequency up from 1450Mhz!
Memory Frequency Overclocking
In this section, we will, as stated above me raising the GPU Memory Clock setting by small increasments in order to find where the GPU's limits are in relation to the current Core Clock settings.
Core Clock: 980 mhz
Memory Clock: 1455MHz
GPU Voltage: 1300mV
Result: PASS 6258 3DMarks !!!
In the words of Charlie Sheen "WINNING"!
Core Clock: 980 MHz
Memory Clock: 1460MHZ
GPU Voltage: 1300mV
Well it looks like we may have hit our limit ladies and gentlemen!
Without the inclusion of a voltage tweak for the memory, I conclude that this is about as far as the memory can be pushed which is slightly disappointing although not really that surprising.
The Lightning version of the MSI 6970 does include the "triple over volt" feature (as did my GTX460) which would be great to play about with but not to worry.
I will now revert back to the "winning" settings (Test 6) and run a few more tests to ensure that we have a stable overclock.
Best 3DMark 11 - 6258 3DMarks best of 3
Best Unigene Heaven - Score of 1164 best of 3
I will not go into as much detail with the following benchmarks, as it follows the exact same procedure as above. I will say though that during the series of stability test that followed the above set of tests, I found the card to become slightly unstable and freezing on occasion, lowering the clock speed to 975MHz seemed to suit the card more so than the higher setting of 980.
Battlefield Bad Company 2:
In game graphics settings:
Resolution : 1920x1080
Frames per Second:
Minimum : 83 FPS
Maximum: 125 FPS
Average: 93.458 FPS
in game graphics settings:
Frames per Second:
Minimum: 90 FPS
Maximum: 111 FPS
Average: 98.608 FPS
Please note, in the above screenshot, the refresh rate setting only matters when VSYNC is active. VSYNC matches the refresh rate of your visuals with that of your monitor - this reduces the tearing effect that you see in games on occasion when VSYNC is disabled.
For those of you scratching your head at this, the best way I can describe tearing is:
If you can imagine that the image displayed on your screen has one or more horizontal lines drawn diagonally from left to right (varying angles) across the screen. When the picture is moving on your display, it appears that both above and below that line, the images either side slightly shift out of alignment very quickly, and then allign back, going back and forth. It is not a continual visual effect, it is only a problem when the refresh rates of the monitor and the display adapter are at conflicting rates.
Take a look at the image below for a better idea.
Both of the above games were benchmarked using FRAPS. I ran a random level in each game for a period of 3 minutes, running around switching views and generally playing the game. This is the typical in-game performance that you will be experiencing with an overclock of this amount.
Fine Tuning the Voltage
After finding your optimal settings for your card, I suggest that you stard decreasing the GPU voltage until you reach the point of failure, and then just raise it until you alleviate any issues. 1.3V or 1300mV is a safe voltage for this graphics card although you must be aware that running any component above the recommended settings for any period of time will affect the longevity, hence why it is important to find the "perfect" overclocked settings.
I did not do the above step on this occasion due to time constraints however I definitely will do in the near future
Temperature & Noise solutions:
(Thanks to Sacred Bob for informing me that I had left this out of the review).
There are a number of options available to you if you are finding the stock cooler on the GPU either too ineffective or far too noisy.
If you are not adventurous enough or lack the confidence to dismantle your card then your options are somewhat limited, otherwise there are a couple of avenues that you could go down.
i Water Cooling
ii Aftermarket Coolers
No matter which you decide to go for (if any) if you remember to treat the card with respect and try to hold the PCB around the edges when all the circuitry is exposed you reduce the risks of damaging your card.
i) Water Cooling - If you do not already have a water cooling set up in your case, then the initial outlay far exceeds the benefits for you, as not only would you have to buy the water block, which would set you back around £70.00, you would also need the rest of the kit including, water pump, radiator, reservoir, tubing etc which would set you back a tidy sum.
More information on watercooling can be found here:
ii) Aftermarket Coolers - There are a number to choose from, none of which I have had first had experience with, so unfortunately I can not advise on the best option to choose from, however there are a couple that caught my eye.
Firstly the Shaman by Thermalright. Toms Hardware have done a write up on this :
And also the Accelero Xtreme Plus II, which has good reports of low noise and good gains in temperature management which is sold for around the £50.00 mark.
If you already own the MSI HD6970 and are looking for means of cooling / quieting it, then the above choices are going to be helpful to you, however if you are looking to buy this particular card and then adapt it afterwards, I would advise you to look at the MSI 6970 Lightning as it not only comes equipped with the Twin Frozr III - which is a fantastic cooler, it also comes out the box with the triple over voltage capability !
At the time of writing this blog, you can pick up the MSI HD6970 for around £250, and the MSI HD6970 Lightning for around £330.00. I know what I would do if I had the choice.
The MSI ATI HD6970 is a powerful card from stock speeds alone, and when you start to push the boundaries, you can achieve pretty good results.
I will be lowering my GPU speeds for day to day use however, now that I know where the limits are I have eliminated the need to experiment, and I can now just change any settings and just into any game with relative confidence that graphics card will perform well under stress. Of course, things don't always work that way with PC's and when running components at the edge of their ability, you do occasionally get "hiccups".
Would I recommend this card to you?
I have two answers to this question really, yes and no.
If you are the kind of person who will buy a graphics card and run it at stock speeds and not that interested in overclocking then this card should suit you well, however the fact that you are reading this blog suggests otherwise.
The required fan speeds to keep this card under full load at overclocked speeds is truly shocking - I will be looking at water cooling (setup guide to follow) soon however whether I keep this card or put it on eBay and pay the extra for the lightning is another question entirely and almost a certainty!
Thank you for reading this article, once again I hope you have learned something and found it interesting.
If you have any questions or suggestions, please leave them in the comments below and I will very much appreciate the feed back and will reply as soon as possible.