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MSI Radeon HD 7970 Lightning 3GB Video Card Overclocked Review

AMD's Radeon HD 7970 gets the Lightning treatment from MSI and we take the time to overclock this bad boy to see what it can do.
@TweakTown
Published Thu, Mar 29 2012 10:16 AM CDT   |   Updated Fri, Sep 18 2020 10:50 PM CDT
Rating: 96%Manufacturer: MSI

Introduction and Package

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The Lightning series of video cards from MSI are just one of those series that I look forward to probably a little bit more than most other series on the market. MSI are consistent with the series and we have never been disappointed with any model that gets the Lightning treatment.

The latest video card to get the Lightning treatment is the AMD Radeon HD 7970 and as always we hope it brings us some serious overclocking potential like previous Lightning models have. The HD 7970, though, is a good jumping point for MSI as the model itself has proved to perform quite well when it's come to overclocking. With the general MSI tweaks, though, we expect some serious clocks.

As always, though, our focus with the Lightning card isn't going to be its out of the box clocks. Instead we want to know what kind of OC we can achieve with it via MSI Afterburner. With that discovered we then want to see just what kind of performance we're able to get from the card compared to not only a stocked HD 7970, but also an overclocked one.

Of course, as always, there are a few things we need to do before we get into the real fun stuff. First we'll start off by checking out the packaging to see what MSI are offering us. Once we've done that we'll move onto the video card itself and see some of the special features that are on offer before we get into the specification side of things where we also take the time to overclock the card.

From there we'll move into our testbed setup and look at the other cards we'll be comparing the overclocked MSI HD 7970 Lightning against before we of course get into the performance side of things before wrapping everything up. As just mentioned, though, the first thing we want to do is check out the package.

Package

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In typical Lightning fashion MSI have put together a really nice box that opens up and not only gives us a bit of a peak at the card, but also shows of some of the main features that the Lightning based card brings to the table.

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As for the bundle it's pretty strong. We've got the typical paperwork line up including the Military Class III certificate and driver CD. Along with that we've got a MiniDP to DP connector, CrossFire bridge, DVI to HDMI, two 6-pin to 8-pin power connectors and three voltage check point cables help round out the bundle.

The Card and Specifications

The Card

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Moving onto the card itself we've got that typical oversized cooler that is present to the generally typical oversized PCB that is used. We've got a yellow and black color scheme going on and you can see we've got two massive fans sitting above the heatsink here. Of course for the cooler we've got the massive TwinFrozr IV unit installed which just looks like an absolute beast.

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Moving around the card we start off towards the back where we've got a dual 8-pin PCI Express power setup which differs slightly to the typical 6-pin and 8-pin PCI Express power setup that we normally see on a reference Radeon HD 7970. This is always one of the first things we spot when it comes to the MSI Lightning cards. This card also obviously focuses very heavily on high quality power with Military Class III playing a big rule with its features such as CopperMOS, Hi-C capacitors, golden solid state chokes and dark solid capacitors.

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As we stay across the top of the card but move towards the middle of the card you can see our voltage check points. These are used in conjunction with the provided cables to track the voltage of certain areas on the card. Outside of LN2 overclockers, you're probably not going to have much use for these. Of course, the most hardcore users appreciate them in a big way.

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Edging closer to the front we've got two CrossFire connectors which give us the ability to install up to four of these cards in CrossFireX. Also present, although hard to see, is the typical dual BIOS switch that we're used to seeing. If you switch over to the other BIOS you've got one that will accommodate those LN2 overclockers again.

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While we tend to not look at the back we can see this sweet little cover that MSI has installed along with the awesome looking backplate. Under the little cover, though, is another PCB called the "GPU Reactor". This is designed to provide higher power levels to the GPU and offer fewer ripples which in turn make for more stable power which in turn then allows for hopefully a higher overclock.

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Finally we finish up with the I/O side of things and the first thing we notice is the four Mini DisplayPort connectors on the left hand side of the card. As someone who uses three Dell U2711 monitors all via DP, I love this kind of configuration. It means that all my Dell monitors can run via DisplayPort instead of having two run by DisplayPort and the other by DVI.

On the topic of DVI, we've got two DVI connectors. Something worth noting, though, is that the four MiniDP connectors mean that the DVI connectors are Single-Link only. That means if you have a Dual-Link DVI monitor that only offers Dual-Link DVI, you're going to need an Active DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI connector. This is something worth remembering.

Specifications

As always the Lightning card from MSI comes overclocked out of the box. They've pushed the default core clock of 925MHz to a real strong 1070MHz while the 3GB of GDDR has gone from 5500MHz QDR to 5600MHz QDR. While there's not much change on the memory front, there's a nice jump when it comes to the core.

You don't buy a Lightning card to run it at its out of the box clocks, though. You can, but the best thing about the Lightning series it there ability to overclock and as we do with any Lightning video card, overclocking is exactly what we're going to do.

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With the help of MSI Afterburner you can see we managed to push our core up to 1225MHz which is a massive 300MHz from the reference clock. As for the memory, that's also had a really nice performance increase as it gets pushed to a really strong 6300MHz QDR. As always, this is a really nice overclock and should yield some really strong performance.

Benchmarks - Test System Setup

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We would like to thank the following companies for supplying and supporting us with our test system hardware and equipment: Intel, ASUS and Corsair.

The two main cards we're going to be comparing our massively overclocked MSI HD 7970 Lightning against is the reference clocked HD 7970, but also the manually overclocked reference design HD 7970 so we can see just what the MSI card is able to offer us.

Alongside those two cards we've got the HD 7950 and HD 6990 to help round of the AMD side of things. As for the NVIDIA side of things we've got the GTX 580 and brand new GTX 680. We've also got our manually overclocked GTX 680 which saw some really strong performance improvements.

We won't get into any detail on the clocks we're using today on the other cards because it's mentioned in our graphs.

So with that all said and done I think we can get into the performance side of things and see just what kind of performance boost our overclocked MSI Lightning video card brings to the table.

Let's get started!

The FPS Numbers Explained

When we benchmark our video cards and look at the graphs, we aim to get to a certain level of FPS which we consider playable. While many may argue that the human eye can't see over 24 FPS or 30 FPS, any true gamer will tell you that as we climb higher in Frames Per Seconds (FPS), the overall gameplay feels smoother. There are three numbers we're looking out for when it comes to our benchmarks.

30 FPS - It's the minimum number we aim for when it comes to games. If you're not dropping below 30 FPS during games, you're going to have a nice and smooth gaming experience. The ideal situation is that even in a heavy fire fight, the minimum stays above 30 FPS making sure that you can continue to aim easily or turn the corner with no dramas.

60 FPS - It's the average we look for when we don't have a minimum coming at us. If we're getting an average of 60 FPS, we should have a minimum of 30 FPS or better and as mentioned above, it means we've got some smooth game play happening.

120 FPS - The new number that we've been hunting down over recent months. If you're the owner of a 120 Hz monitor, to get the most out of it you want to get around the 120 FPS mark. Moving from 60 FPS / 60 Hz to 120 FPS / 120 Hz brings with it a certain fluidity that can't really be explained, but instead has to be experienced. Of course, if you're buying a 120 Hz monitor to take advantage of 3D, an average of 120 FPS in our benchmark means that in 3D you will have an average of 60 FPS, which again means you should expect some smooth gameplay.

Benchmarks - 3DMark 11

3DMark 11

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.1

Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com

Product Homepage: http://www.3dmark.com/3dmark11/

Buy It Here

3DMark 11 is the latest version of the world's most popular benchmark. Designed to measure your PC's gaming performance 3DMark 11 makes extensive use of all the new features in DirectX 11 including tessellation, compute shaders and multi-threading. Trusted by gamers worldwide to give accurate and unbiased results, 3DMark 11 is the best way to consistently and reliably test DirectX 11 under game-like loads.

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Straight away we can see really strong performance gains from our MSI HD 7970 here with numbers that sit almost in line with the dual GPU HD 6990. Compared to the GTX 680 we can see it has no issue dealing with the card at stock, but overclocked it's a little behind.

What's interesting, though, is when you move to the higher resolution Xtreme preset, the two cards are only eight points apart.

Benchmarks - Unigine Heaven Benchmark

Unigine Heaven Benchmark

Version and / or Patch Used: 2.5

Developer Homepage: http://www.unigine.com

Product Homepage: http://unigine.com/press-releases/091022-heaven_benchmark//

New benchmark grants the power to unleash the DirectX 11 potential in the gift wrapping of impressively towering graphics capabilities. It reveals the enchanting magic of floating islands with a tiny village hidden in the cloudy skies. With the interactive mode emerging experience of exploring the intricate world is ensured within reach. Through its advanced renderer, Unigine is one of the first to set precedence in showcasing the art assets with tessellation, bringing compelling visual finesse, utilizing the technology to the full extend and exhibiting the possibilities of enriching 3D gaming.

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We see strong gains when moving to Heaven and you can see the MSI offering gives us a nice boost in performance over the reference clocked card and the overclocked one.

We can see at the highest resolution performance is nearly identical to the dual GPU HD 6990 as well. We can see the new GTX 680 does very well here as we know that Tessellation heavy benchmarks have always favored the green team.

Benchmarks - Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. 2

Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X.2

Version and / or Patch Used: Benchmark Demo

Timedemo or Level Used: Built-in Test

Developer Homepage: http://www.ubi.com/UK/default.aspx

Product Homepage: http://www.hawxgame.com/

Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. 2 is an arcade-style flight action game developed by Ubisoft Romania and published by Ubisoft. The game is the sequel to Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X., released in 2009.

The game begins with Colonel David Crenshaw participating in a routine patrol mission in the Middle East. After halting an insurgent attack, a volley of missiles is fired at the Air Force base that Crenshaw was stationed at, with one of the missiles disabling Crenshaw's aircraft, resulting Crenshaw being in enemy captivity. A joint strike force composed of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and a Ghost Recon squad executes an operation to rescue Crenshaw. In Scotland, Royal Navy Pilot Colin Munro encounters an unidentified passenger aircraft that explodes from an on-board bomb when undergoing training exercise. In Russia, an air force squadron led by Colonel Denisov and Captain Dmitri Sokov engages separatist aircraft but is ordered to retreat from the region after numerous Russian military installations have been attacked.

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Looking at H.A.W.X. 2 we can see some great performance out of the MSI HD 7970 Lightning with numbers sitting around the GTX 680 mark with the HD 7970 coming out best at the highest resolution.

Considering the fact that this game tends to favor NVIDIA offerings more than AMD, this is some strong performance indeed.

Benchmarks - Mafia II

Mafia II

Version and / or Patch Used: Latest Steam Update

Timedemo or Level Used: Built in Benchmark

Developer Homepage: http://www.2kczech.com/

Product Homepage: http://www.mafia2game.com/

Buy It Here

Mafia II is a third-person action-adventure video game, the sequel to Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven. It is developed by 2K Czech, previously known as Illusion Softworks, and is published by 2K Games. The game is set from 1943 to 1951 in Empire Bay (the name is a reference to New York's state nickname "The Empire State"), a fictional city based on San Francisco and New York City, with influences from Chicago and Detroit. The game features a completely open-ended game map of 10 square miles. No restrictions are included from the start of the game. There are around 50 vehicles in the game, as well as licensed music from the era.

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Mafia II performance is strong and we can see that at the highest resolution the MSI HD 7970 has no issue taking on the other video cards here with an extra 13 FPS being seen over the overclocked GTX 680.

Benchmarks - Lost Planet 2

Lost Planet 2

Version and / or Patch Used: Benchmark Demo

Timedemo or Level Used: Built in Benchmark - Test A Scene 1

Developer Homepage: http://www.capcom.com/

Product Homepage: http://www.lostplanet2game.com/

Lost Planet 2 is a third-person shooter video game developed and published by Capcom. The game is the sequel to Lost Planet: Extreme Condition which is also made by Capcom, taking place ten years after the events of the first game, on the same fictional planet. The story takes place back on E.D.N. III 10 years after the events of the first game. The snow has melted to reveal jungles and more tropical areas that have taken the place of more frozen regions. The plot begins with Mercenaries fighting against Jungle Pirates. After destroying a mine, the Mercenaries continue on to evacuate the area, in which a Category-G Akrid appears and attacks them. After being rescued, they find out their evacuation point (Where the Category-G appeared) was a set-up and no pick up team awaited them. The last words imply possible DLC additions to the game, "There's nothing to be gained by wiping out snow pirates... unless you had some kind of grudge."

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Lost Planet 2 continues with some strong gains and you can see at the highest resolution the difference between the MSI offering, the HD 6990 and overclocked GTX 680 is only a single FPS.

Benchmarks - Aliens vs. Predator

Aliens vs. Predator

Version and / or Patch Used: Standalone Benchmark

Timedemo or Level Used: Built in Benchmark

Developer Homepage: http://www.rebellion.co.uk/

Product Homepage: http://www.sega.com/games/aliens-vs-predator/

Aliens vs. Predator is a science fiction first-person shooter video game, developed by Rebellion Developments, the team behind the 1999 original PC game, and published by Sega for Microsoft Windows, the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360. The game is based on the Alien vs. Predator franchise, a combination of the characters and creatures of the Alien franchise and the Predator franchise. There are three campaigns in the game, one for each race/faction (the Predators, the Aliens and the Colonial Marines), that, while separate in terms of individual plot and gameplay, form one overarching storyline.

Following the storyline of the campaign modes comes the multiplayer aspect of the game. In this Multiplayer section of the game, players face off in various different gametypes in various different ways.

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Alien vs. Predator is a bit of a funny benchmark as we see the NVIDIA GTX 680 doesn't do that well in it. You can see the MSI Lightning has absolutely no issue out performing the other cards here in most cases.

At 2560 x 1600, though, it's ahead of everything else and offers us a very strong 78 FPS.

Benchmarks - Just Cause 2

Just Cause 2

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0.0.2

Timedemo or Level Used: Dark Tower

Developer Homepage: http://www.eidos.com/

Product Homepage: http://www.justcause.com/

Just Cause 2 employs the Avalanche Engine 2.0, an updated version of the engine used in Just Cause. The game is set on the other side of the world from the original Just Cause, on the fictional island of Panau in Southeast Asia. Panau has varied terrain, from desert to alpine to rainforest. Rico Rodriguez returns as the protagonist, aiming to overthrow the evil dictator Pandak "Baby" Panay and confront his former mentor, Tom Sheldon.

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We continue to see the strong performance gains as we move over to Just Cause 2. We also see that the HD 7970 shines most at the highest resolution and at 2560 x 1500 we can see the HD 7970 Lightning is having no issue.

Benchmarks - Metro 2033

Metro 2033

Version and / or Patch Used: Latest Steam Update

Timedemo or Level Used: Built in Benchmark

Developer Homepage: http://www.4a-games.com/

Product Homepage: http://www.thqnordic.com/

Metro 2033 is an action-oriented video game with a combination of survival horror and first-person shooter elements. The game is based on the novel Metro 2033 by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. It was developed by 4A Games in Ukraine and released in March 2010 for Microsoft Windows and Xbox 360.[3] In March 2006, 4A Games announced a partnership with Glukhovsky to collaborate on the game.[4] The game was announced at the 2009 Games Convention in Leipzig;[5] a first trailer came along with the announcement.[6] A sequel was announced, currently titled Metro: Last Light.

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Metro 2033 again sees the MSI HD 7970 Lightning offer some awesome performance at 2560 x 1600. More importantly; it's playable!

Benchmarks - Dirt 3

Dirt 3

Version and / or Patch Used: Latest Steam Update

Timedemo or Level Used: Built in Benchmark

Developer Homepage: http://www.codemasters.com/

Product Homepage: http://www.dirt3game.com/

DiRT 3 boasts more cars, more locations, more routes and more events than any other game in the series, including over 50 rally cars representing the very best from five decades of the sport. With more than double the track content of 2009's hit, DiRT 3 will see players start at the top as a professional driver, with a top-flight career in competitive off-road racing complimented by the opportunity to express themselves in Gymkhana-style showpiece driving events.

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Across the board we see nice gains in performance with the best being seen at the highest resolution. You can see the overclocked GTX 680 does manage to win out here, but at the highest resolution AMD perform very strong here.

Benchmarks - Far Cry 2

Far Cry 2

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.01

Timedemo or Level Used: Ranch Long

Developer Homepage: http://www.ubi.com/

Product Homepage: http://www.farcry2.com/

Buy It Here

The Dunia Engine was built specifically for Far Cry 2 by the award-winning Ubisoft Montreal development team. It delivers the most realistic destructible environments, amazing special effects such as dynamic fire propagation and storm effects, real-time night-and-day cycle, dynamic music system, non-scripted enemy A.I. and so much more.

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Looking at Far Cry 2 performance we see nice gains and just overall strong performance, as you'd expect.

Benchmarks - High Quality AA and AF

High Quality AA and AF

While we test all our games with maximum in-game settings, turning on Anti-Aliasing (AA) and Antistrophic Filtering (AF) helps take the intensity of our testing to another level.

Here we see video cards go from playable FPS to an unplayable FPS and the real power houses continue to help break that 60 FPS mark we always aim for to provide a smooth gaming experience.

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Not only do we see some really nice performance gains, but with AA and AF on, we see playable numbers across the board which is the most important thing to look at here.

Temperature Test

The temperature of the core is pulled from MSI Afterburner with the max reading used after a completed run off 3DMark Vantage and the Performance preset.

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On the temperature side of thing the MSI HD 7970 Lightning does very well at idle. Under load, though, we can see the card warms up. That comes as no surprise, though, as we pump so much extra voltage through the card for all that wicked performance.

Sound Test

Pulling out the TES 1350A Sound Level Meter we find ourselves quickly yelling into the top of it to see how loud we can be.

After five minutes of that we get a bit more serious and place the device two CM away from the fan on the card to find the maximum noise level of the card when idle (2D mode) and in load (3D mode).

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On the noise side of things we also see under these extremely high clocks the fan speed ramps right up. It's worth noting, though, that due to the 10cm fans that MSI use, the noise is nowhere near as piercing as a video card that uses smaller fans.

76dB on a card that has 10cm fans is a lot easier on the ears than 76dB on a card with 7cm fans.

Power Consumption Test

Using our PROVA Power Analyzer WM-01 or "Power Thingy" as it has become quickly known as to our readers, we are now able to find out what kind of power is being used by our test system and the associated graphics cards installed. Keep in mind; it tests the complete system (minus LCD monitor, which is plugged directly into AC wall socket).

There are a few important notes to remember though; while our maximum power is taken in 3DMark06 at the same exact point, we have seen in particular tests the power being drawn as much as 10% more. We test at the exact same stage every time; therefore tests should be very consistent and accurate.

The other thing to remember is that our test system is bare minimum - only a SSD hard drive is used with a single CD ROM and minimal cooling fans.

So while the system might draw 400 watts in our test system, placing it into your own PC with a number of other items, the draw is going to be higher.

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Finally we finish off with power draw and again it comes as no surprise that we see power draw jump up a lot.

Saying that, it's not that high and any good branded 700+ watt power supply is going to handle this kind of setup without an issue.

Final Thoughts

MSI's Radeon HD 7970 Lightning video card when overclocked performs extremely well and you can see thanks to that wider memory bus on offer from AMD alongside the extra memory when compared to the GTX 680, it shines extremely well at 2560 x 1600.

More importantly, not only does it offer really strong FPS at this resolution and strong gains, but it offers playable FPS. Seeing a strong performance gain is one thing at this resolution, seeing those gains when the numbers are playable, though, are so much more important.

The MSI HD 7970 Lightning is just packed with features, too. The bundle is strong, the cooler is awesome, the performance is great, the out of the box overclock is strong and the overclocking potential is fantastic due to a lot of the work MSI put into its Military Class III power features. If you're looking at something that you can have some real fun with then the Lightning video card we've got here today is exactly what you should be looking at.

The new GTX 680 is going to be the toughest competitor to the new HD 7970 Lightning which carries a $599 price tag. At the highest resolution, though, the HD 7970 continues to do extremely well and if you're gaming on a 27" or 30" 2560 based screen then the AMD offering is probably going to be more appealing. Especially since FPS become so much more valuable at this resolution.

The MSI HD 7970 Lightning is going to be one of the fastest HD 7970 video cards on the market for a while as they offer a complete custom setup that stands out from the pack. If you don't want to deal with the higher noise levels, you can always clock it down a little and use less voltage.

What you end up with is not only a video card that performs really well and looks great, but a video card that is just really fun. With MSI Afterburner you get more features to play with that in turn help you achieve even higher overclocks. Of course if you want to just benchmark under 3DMark 11 and compete with other air cooled people, you can achieve even higher clocks. For us, though, we aim for clocks that are 100% stable across all of our benchmarks.

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Shawn takes care of all of our video card reviews. From 2009, Shawn is also taking care of our memory reviews, and from May 2011, Shawn also takes care of our CPU, chipset and motherboard reviews. As of December 2011, Shawn is based out of Taipei, Taiwan.

We openly invite the companies who provide us with review samples / who are mentioned or discussed to express their opinion. If any company representative wishes to respond, we will publish the response here. Please contact us if you wish to respond.

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