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MSI R7970 Lightning

Five Radeon HD 7970 3 GB Cards, Overclocked And Benchmarked
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MSI’s family of Lightning-branded graphics cards is notorious for going over-the-top, and its R7970 is no exception.

Measuring 11.75” x 5.5” x 1.5”, this is the second-longest card in our comparison. It’s the heaviest, for sure, at 2 lb 7 oz. And at $549.99 on Newegg, it's also the most expensive.

What sort of hardware does this board deliver in exchange for its higher price tag? 

Boasting a 1070 MHz core and a 1400 MHz memory frequency, MSI’s Lightning comes armed with the highest core overclock on a Radeon HD 7970 available in North America. Sapphire’s 7970 OC sports faster memory running at 1450 MHz. And as we mentioned, HIS’ Turbo X has a higher 1120 MHz core. Because it's not being sold in the U.S., though, we're not counting it here.

Power is delivered to the R7970 Lighting via its PCI Express slot and two eight-pin auxiliary connectors (rather than the reference six-pin and eight-pin plug). Featuring a 17-phase voltage regulator, the card has more than two times the phases employed by AMD's own design. MSI claims its card is built to the MIL-STD-810G specification, the United States military standard for the Department of Defence. The marketing term for this is Military Class III. And while it sounds gimmicky, the standard is legitimate.

MSI includes a small add-in board it calls the GPU Reactor that sits right behind the GPU. This component is designed to provide additional power capacity and minimize power noise, and it can be accessed by removing the blue illuminated MSI dome on the back of the card. Serious overclockers might also be interested in the V-check points on the top edge of the PCB that enable convenient GPU and memory voltage readings on the fly.

MSI’s Radeon HD 7970 is the only one in this round-up equipped with a backplate heat sink. Without question, this contributes to the card's heft, although the Lightning remains lighter than other enthusiast-class cards we’ve seen (like Asus' Ares), and it doesn't give us any reason to worry.

The Twin Frozr IV cooler relies on two large 95 mm axial-flow fans and five heat pipes (two 8 mm and three 6 mm) to cool the card. As you’ll see in the thermal benchmarks, it does an effective job of keeping temperatures low.

The 7970 Lightning is the only card in our round-up that doesn’t expose the same display outputs as AMD's reference board. It’s certainly encouraging to see a manufacturer facilitate six display outputs from a dual-slot I/O panel. But our enthusiasm is seriously curbed by the realization that the two DVI outputs are single-link-only. Resolutions over 1920x1200 (such as 2560x1600) are not supported and require an active mini-DisplayPort-to-DVI adapter that’s not included. Similarly, 120 Hz refresh rates also require a DVI adapter. That means that anyone planning to take advantage of AMD's HD3D initiative are forced to pay more unless they take the DisplayPort route.

At the end of the day, three-way output utilizing DVI outputs at resolutions in excess of 1920x1200 and HD3D beyond that same resolution requires an active mini-DisplayPort-to-DVI adapter that costs extra.

MSI's package includes a CrossFire bridge, a DVI-to-HDMI adapter, a mini-DisplayPort-to-DisplayPort adapter, two six-to-eight-pin- power adapters, three V-check cables, a software installation CD, a user guide, and a certificate of authenticity/stability. As we've already said, our most prevalent concern is, yet again, the lack of an active mini-DisplayPort-to-DVI adapter.

Overclocking MSI's R7970 Lightning

MSI’s Afterburner utility remains the best enthusiast overclocking tool available, even incorporating support for AMD's PowerTune technology. So, we didn't have to look elsewhere in our quest to modify this board's settings.

The Lightning’s BIOS switch purportedly unlocks overclock protection, active-phase switching, and higher overclocking limits in the Catalyst Control Center. But, in the case of our test sample, the 1300 MHz core and 1600 MHz memory limit in Overdrive didn’t change, regardless of the BIOS switch position. Neither did the 1930 MHz core or 2520 MHz limit in Afterburner.

Regardless of BIOS switch setting, the highest stable overclock we achieved was 1175 MHz on the core and 1800 MHz for the memory at a voltage of 1.25 V.

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Top Comments
  • 12 Hide
    aznshinobi , May 2, 2012 5:40 AM
    I need a new pair of pants. Definitely graphics card eye candy. Specially the Sapphire one IMO. Do I hear giveaway THG?
Other Comments
  • 12 Hide
    aznshinobi , May 2, 2012 5:40 AM
    I need a new pair of pants. Definitely graphics card eye candy. Specially the Sapphire one IMO. Do I hear giveaway THG?
  • 3 Hide
    schnitter , May 2, 2012 6:08 AM
    I need to replace my 5870 HD I bought over 3 years ago. I can still play any game on HIGH at 1080p, but I want ULTRA on BF3 and Max Payne 3.

    Lets hope the 680 GTX becomes available to see what price these AMD cards end up at. I like AMD and how they don't rebrand their cards like nVidia, but $20 cheaper than 680 GTX is not cheap enough to sway me that way.
  • -1 Hide
    hellfire24 , May 2, 2012 6:14 AM
    why a reference card(visiontek 7970) with non reference competitors?
    i am impressed with HIS IceQ X2 Turbo X but still MSi lightning is my favorite.they have beefier VRMs,great cooling and are overclocking beasts.

  • 3 Hide
    confish21 , May 2, 2012 6:22 AM
    Nice write up! Really helps when trying to peg down a card. Will be revisiting alot!
  • 7 Hide
    Anonymous , May 2, 2012 6:26 AM
    The gigabyte card pcb was BLUE, not BLACK :( 
  • 4 Hide
    nekromobo , May 2, 2012 6:38 AM
    visiontek for "Particularly at its modest $279 price."

    $379 or $479??
  • 4 Hide
    blazorthon , May 2, 2012 6:47 AM
    nekromobovisiontek for "Particularly at its modest $279 price." $379 or $479??


    $479.99 (USD) is more or less the cheapest price point for any Radeon 7970.
  • 3 Hide
    weatherdude , May 2, 2012 7:48 AM
    Cool review. It'd be nice if SI units were included in the weights and lengths though. Guess I'll have to do a little math. It's very nice to know that the non-reference coolers are much quieter (excluding Gigabyte's) than the original design.

    Let's see some typos:

    In the 'Test System Setup And Benchmarks' page in the Operating System row it is written as Microsoft Windows 7 x6. I assume it's supposed to be x64.

    In the first paragraph of the 'Sapphire HD 7970 OC' page the card is described as "HD 7970 PC".
  • 2 Hide
    Reynod , May 2, 2012 8:41 AM
    Good review Don.

    I agree with your first and second choices ... well thought out.

    :) 
  • 3 Hide
    cangelini , May 2, 2012 9:58 AM
    Fixed the typos; thanks weatherdude and nekromobo.
  • 7 Hide
    supall , May 2, 2012 10:15 AM
    I'm surprised the Asus DirectCUII didn't make it on here. Still, the MSI Lightning seems to be the best of the bunch in terms of performance, wattage, cooling, and noise, but at $50 more than the other cards, it's not very appealing.
  • 7 Hide
    EzioAs , May 2, 2012 11:32 AM
    Nice review.

    I hope you guys do another one like this later on the Radeon 7870 since imo, that is the best 7000 series card in terms of price to performance. It's just a shame that there are no new nvidia cards to push the price of the 7800 series lower. Please include the MSI 7870 hawk and the asus direct cu card as well if you do make the review :) 
  • -1 Hide
    shoot you , May 2, 2012 12:10 PM
    I have to admit the 7970 really has quite a big OC headroom. I mean compared to the GTX 680 it really can catch up. hahahaha
  • 0 Hide
    rdc85 , May 2, 2012 12:15 PM
    I'm wondering why HIS do not sells IceQ X2 Turbo in NA......

    Is the shiping + tax will drove the price to high, or the market is too small and HIS brand not strong enough in NA?
  • 1 Hide
    redemptionse , May 2, 2012 12:20 PM
    The 12.4 Catalysts raise the overdrive OC limits and have been available for over a week now, why weren't they used?
  • 2 Hide
    halls , May 2, 2012 12:51 PM
    The first Gigabyte card certainly doesn't look like it has a black PCB...are my eyes messed up?
  • -2 Hide
    meat81 , May 2, 2012 1:04 PM
    schnitter I like AMD and how they don't rebrand their cards like nVidia, but $20 cheaper than 680 GTX is not cheap enough to sway me that way.


    is that the only thing you like about AMD? Sad.
  • 4 Hide
    jaquith , May 2, 2012 1:05 PM
    Nice Article & Thanks!

    From lead-in
    Quote:
    "GeForce GTX 680 cards are nowhere to be found, and the Radeon HD 7970 recently dropped to a much more attractive price."


    It would have been nice to toss-in a some GTX 680 benchmarks for comparison sake. Just reuse some of Chris's benchmarks -> http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/geforce-gtx-680-review-benchmark,3161.html or run your own.

    Otherwise this is only a reference vs non-reverence HD 7970 article. You 'should' have been able to OC theses cards all the same and the difference should be within margin of error. No doubt effective cooling & Noise is a critical part, but I'm a little confused here -- I assume both Temps & Noise data is based on Factory (OC if applicable) settings which is fine BUT what about your OC Temps & Noise data?? To me this is critically important, what's the use in OC benchmarks if you need Jet rated earmuffs and temps that (exaggerating) to melt lead? Duh, I misread the data.

    The HIS IceQ X2 Turbo (Turbo X) & MSI R7970 Lightning are the standouts with noise and temps with OC. Since I know how both noise & temps can change in a snap of a finger, both are fine. -- Thanks for that data!
  • 5 Hide
    cknobman , May 2, 2012 1:30 PM
    Love the review.

    Would have been cool to see one or two charts with all the cards overclocked vs a ref 680 just to see if highly overclocked 7970's can just about even the performance delta.
  • 7 Hide
    cleeve , May 2, 2012 1:55 PM
    hellfire24why a reference card(visiontek 7970) with non reference competitors?


    Two reasons:

    - It's the sample Visiontek submitted
    - Aside from that, it's great to see the lower-priced reference model represented
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