MSI R6970 Lightning: High Speed, Low Drag

MSI tackles the AMD market again with a Lightning card that hopes to surpass the previous R5870 in quality and performance.

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.”

While MSI does not hold a commanding share of the North American market, they are certainly a force to be reckoned with.  When the 3D graphics marketplace came into existence, there was quite a bit of differentiation between cards from competing manufacturers.  Reference drivers were a relative unknown, not to mention the use of a reference PCB design.  Companies such as Orchid, Diamond, and others would spin their own designs and tweak the drivers in house.  It was certainly a time where there was a ton of variability between products, even though they may be based on the same graphics chip.  3dfx and NVIDIA at the time pushed to have more conformity, and therefore more reliability, with their build partners.  Also, the pace of competition between these (at the time) giants really forced the market away from creating unique designs, and just moving onto the reference platform with reference drivers.  This allowed manufacturers to get product onto the market at a far faster rate than in the past.

Differentiation in these lean years was sparse.  “Sticker” versions of cards were the norm, and only now and then would we see specialized drivers or a unique cooling solution from any manufacturer.  Companies such as Canopus attempted their own designs, but the cost of the cards vs. the reference parts at the time quickly caused these manufacturers to fade from the mainstream market.  But even then, these solutions were not very far away from the reference design.  Just a few years back we started to see some solid heatsink and fan designs, as well as some PCB modifications which would in fact differentiate these cards away from the reference designs.  One of my most memorable introductions to this new generation of product was the MSI N285 GTX “Superpipe” OC card.  This was their first generation of twin fan models using the larger 8 mm “Superpipes” in the heatsink design.  I came away very impressed with this particular model, and in fact had used it for quite some time in my main machine due to its performance and near silent operation.

The top flips up to show the card as well as most of the pertinent information about the product.

MSI then followed this up with their Twin Frozr designs which improved upon the original Superpipe.  Gone was the somewhat silly, but endearing “Superpipe” moniker, and traded for the new “Frozr” misspelling.  Twin Frozr helped to finalize and polish the original twin fan push that MSI had moved to for their top end offerings.  Accolades for the Twin Frozr technology were nearly universal from users and press members alike.  The components used were top notch, and I have rarely heard or seen issue with the quality of fans or the PCB build in any of the supporting products.  Products such as the MSI R5770 Hawk set a new bar for the midrange market in terms of price, performance, and the ability to overclock.

MSI then sought to capture the high end of the market with a unique and seemingly unstoppable product.  The first Lightning products were based on the NVIDIA GTX 260 and GTX 275 chips, and they achieved some pretty impressive results when overclocking.  These were still more or less based on the reference PCB designs without major modifications.  MSI wanted to change that so they could potentially squeeze every ounce of performance from upcoming DX11 based cards.  The R5870 Lightning looked to achieve that goal with a ground up redesign.  This custom designed PCB looked to be overkill, and it featured more PWMs than any other two cards combined.  The traces were purportedly designed to allow for amazingly high clockspeeds from both the GPU and the memory.  This was topped off with the biggest Twin Frozr based heatsink anyone had seen yet.  The PCB was of an odd design, and far larger than the reference from AMD.  This all looked to be the ultimate HD 5870 based card around, with potential overclocking ability that would stretch into the 1 GHz+ range.

The card itself is very well protected in a virtual sea of foam…

It failed.  Somewhat miserably in fact.  It was a neat design, the cooling was a bit better than the stock solution, and the choice of components and design was very solid and would likely last a long, long time even when overclocked.  The issue with this card was though it was still much more expensive than a standard HD 5870, it did not exhibit overclocking prowess that was measurably greater than a reference design, and the cooler was not entirely up to the task that MSI set it for.  Most reviews took a dim view of the card, and some were even pretty harsh.  Overall most did not feel that it offered enough over a standard Radeon HD 5870.  After several months, I personally remember the prices of the Lightning go from the $500 mark (about $70 more expensive than a reference board) down to price equity with other HD 5870 offerings.

Not to be deterred, and believing that there was potential in the philosophy they adopted for the Lightning series, MSI went back to the drawing board.  The next Lightning card based on the GTX 480 solved nearly all of the problems that the R5870 exhibited.  And now for this latest generation of graphics chips MSI has released not one, but two Lightning products.  One based on the NVIDIA GTX 580 chip, and the other is today’s latest victim in my testing lab (aka. the small, cramped, back room in my house).

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