MSI AMD HD 6970 Graphics Card Review The Champ from Chimpzilla!

Posted Mar 30, 2011
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It grief’s me to say that ATi is no more. The company that gave us the Rage Pro is finally dead, swallowed up by AMD. For reasons that are only apparent to the board, AMD decided that the ATi name was no longer needed. All GPU products are now going to be sold under the AMD moniker.

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With that out of the way let me say that few cards live up to expectations, and more, as does the 6900 series from AMD. I’ll tell you right now; the 6970 flirts with the GTX 580 a card that costs a good US$130 more. On average it performs better than its price rival the GTX 570.

What makes this such a great card? Read on to find out.

Building The Caymans

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DUAL ENGINE

Cayman is a brand new architecture. It is their first major change since the ill-fated 2900 series. AMD have given up their Very Long Instruction Word-5 (VLIW-5) architecture in favor of the smaller VLIW-4.

How does that affect the enthusiast gamer? Think of the new architecture as two powerful engines working in tandem as compared to just a single engine in the previous generation.

ANTI-ALIASING GETS A BOOST

Together with this new level of parallelism comes a new anti-aliasing mode called ‘EQAA, or Enhanced Quality Anti Aliasing, which equates to Nvidia’s CSAA.

POWER TUNE

Power tune is a play ‘safe’ technology from AMD. Nvidia also has something similar going on for some time. In a nut shell Power tune helps keep the cards Thermal Dissipation Profile (TDP) in check to a pre-determined level. Via the Catalyst Control Center (CCC) the user can adjust Power tune to 20% on either side of 0.

Thus the card will be able to exceed its TDP by a maximum of 20%. This can help achieve potentially greater over clocks and system stability.

For our testing however the power tune setting was left to its default value.

DUAL BIOS

Finally we see something that should be a boon for bios based ‘hard’ over clocking. The reference designed cards from AMD’s partners will come with dual bios. This allows the use of one bios for ‘dirty’ settings and tinkering, while keeping the other as the ‘backup’. This is indeed very welcome!

2 GB MEMORY

Another milestone achieved by the 6900 series is that they all ship with 2 GB memory (6950 and higher; there is a 1GB variant of the 6950). The larger frame buffer allows for higher resolutions (especially in multi-monitor Eyefinity settings) and better performance.


IMPROVED TESSELLATION

One area where Nvidia clearly stomped AMD was tessellation performance of the GTX 5 series. It was clearly way better than what AMD had on offer at that time (the 5xxx series).

With the Caymans the tessellation function has improved although it still does not have the compute power that Nvidia’s cards have.

This however is not necessarily a bad thing as in ‘real’ world testing only one game (Civilization 5) significantly benefits from Nvidia’s lead in tessellation.

EYEFINITY

Reference design cards offer dual-link DVI, HDMI 4.1a as well as dual (mini) Display port 1.2 drivers. This allows for several possible configurations in a multi-monitor setup (up to 4 for Eyefinity).

Together with a large frame buffer (2GB) and enhanced connectivity, some uber-high playable resolutions can be achieved.

SIZING UP THE COMPETITION

Nvidia has on offer the GTX 580, 570 and the recently introduced 560 cards. They are meant to compete with the 6970, 6950 and the newly released 6950-1GB cards from AMD. Their characteristics are given in the table below:

CARDS

ALUs

TEXTURE UNITS

ROPs

PRICE

AMD 6970

1536

96

32

Rs. 41500

AMD 6950

1408

88

32

Rs. 28500

Nvidia 580

512

64

48

Rs. 48000

Nvidia 570

480

60

40

Rs. 36000

AMD’s and Nvidia’s design characteristics are different thus their architecture cannot be directly compared.

The above table is for reference between cards from the same manufacturer. Prices are correct as of March 2011.

INTRODUCING THE MSI 6970

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To feel the power inside the Cayman architecture we are going to test the MSI 6970 which is based on AMDs reference design and thus comes with reference clocks and dual bios.

The front of the overly white box graphically displays the ‘after burner’ logo which is MSI’s customized Riva Tuner application. The box also lists the display options as well as the 3DMark 11 code that comes bundled with the box.

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Opening the box reveals the 6970 video card in its protective shroud.

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The video card comes with several handy accessories, including a DVI to VGA converter, a mini display port to display port converter, molex to PCI-e and 6 pin PCI-e to 8 pin PCI-e power converters. It also comes with 2 Xfire bridges, a DVD disk, quick user’s guide and the 3DMark 11 coupon.

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AMD seems to be thinking along the lines ‘bigger is better’. The card is around 11 inches long. All of their recent high end cards have been excessively long. Whether they are trying to hide their own inadequacies (Along the lines of Lord Farquaad) remains a mystery!

The video card looks exactly like the reference design from AMD.

The cooler’s sticker helps to differentiate this as an MSI product. The dual slot cooler uses a vapor chamber design to transfer heat from the card and uses the blower to move the heat to the outside of the case.

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The back of the card is enshrouded in plastic which is essentially a good thing. The only visible area is around the back of the GPU. The clamps for the GPU heatsink can be seen in this area.

As can be seen MSI uses a plastic cover on the PCI-e edge connector, X-Fire connectors as well as the connectivity ports at the back of the card.

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Two X-Fire connectors can be seen at the back of the card. Just in front of the front X-Fire connector is the switch for dual bios.

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The other end of the card features the two (8 pin and 6 pin) power connectors.

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The rear of the card features the cooler’s exhaust as well as the various connectivity options (2x Dual Link DVI, 1x HDMI and 2x Mini display port). A mini display port to display port adapter is included in the box
Those of us stuck in the world of CRTs, a DVI to VGA (D-sub) connector is also bundled with the card.

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The GPU-Z screen shot confirms the specs of the MSI card.

BUNDLED SOFTWARE

The card comes with 3DMark-11, a synthetic benchmark suite as well as MSI’s own over-clocking and stability checking software in the form of Afterburner and Kombuster.

Afterburner is a customized version of the popular Riva Tuner which is no longer in development as free software. Several vendors (including EVGA) bundle custom versions of Riva Tuner with their cards.

It allows core and memory speed over-clocking as well as setting up of customized fan profiles.
Kombuster is a stability testing tool along the lines of Furmark.
Both these applications do add to the value of the card, especially as the free version of Riva Tuner is not in development
The card also comes with a 60 day trial of Norton’s antivirus.

Testing

Processors

Core i7-2600K

Boards

Asus Sabertooth P67

Memory

Corsair DDR3-1333MHz 2×4 GB. Total 8 GB

Video

MSI 6970 -2 GB

Resolutions:

1920 x 1200 (2.3 MP)

1680 x 1050 (1.7 MP)

Hard Disk

Seagate ST31000528AS

Power Supply

Corsair HX620

Cooler

Cooler Master Hyper 212+

OS

Windows 7 x64

GAMES:

SETTINGS:

Alien Vs Predator

DX 11 with 4x AA

Metro 2033

DX 11 (Very HQ) with Analytical AA and 16AF

Crysis

DX 10 (Very HQ) with 4x AA

Stalker CoP

DX 11 (Ultra HQ) with 4x AA

For all games inbuilt benchmarking tools were used. The average score of 3 runs was posted using the latest drivers (beta builds where applicable; drivers latest as of 15th March 2011)
Why are we not testing the popular staple of games that just about everyone is testing? Well we wanted to use as many ‘neutral’ games as possible. This means no HAWX (Nvidia) or Dragon Age II (AMD) and some other games as well.

This helps reduce the bias as much as possible. Though Crysis was at one time labeled an Nvidia game, AMD has had enough of a time to play catch up!
We are also not going to use any synthetic tests. They do not add any *real* value to the video card. No one in his (or her) right mind will buy a card like the 6970 only to run synthetic benchmarks all day!
2.3 MP (in the charts) indicates a resolution of 1920×1200, while 1.7 MP denotes a resolution of 1680×1050.

ALIEN VS PREDATOR

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As has already been mentioned the 6970 is very close to the GTX-580 while the 6950 plays dodge ball with the GTX-570.

METRO 2033

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The contender to the Crysis graphics crown comes not from Crytek but from a Russian developer (4A Games).

The difference this time clearly favors the 580 (as compared to the 6970), but the two junior cards are, again, not that far apart.

CRYSIS

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No benchmarking would be complete without including Crysis, the game that has brought many an elite gaming rigs to their knees!

A very decent showing from the 6970 which beats the GTX-570 handily, while the 6950 again trades blows with the GTX-570. The Crysis champion however is the GTX-580

STALKER –CALL OF PRIPYAT

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GSC has probably done more for progression of graphics tech than many other developers put together.

They keenly adapt new technologies. Call of Pripyat has the DX 11 treatment which brings to the table tessellation technology.

More of the same, the 6970 though behind the GTX-580 gives a beating to the GTX-570.

Over-Clocking (6970)

Catalyst Control Center (CCC) was used to over-clock the core and memory frequencies.

Though the bundled After Burner tool could also have been used, the reason for sticking to CCC was that it offered the same maximum clocks as Afterburner.

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The maximum stable over-clocks achieved are shown above and tabulated below:
CLOCK DEFAULT OVER-CLOCKED % GAIN
Core 880 950 8%
Memory 1375 1450 5.5%

The percentage gains in the games that have already been tested are summarized below:

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The maximum gain is about 12%. This is impressive for modest over-clocking speeds of about 8% (for the core).

Temperatures

To assess temperature we left 3DMark 11 running in a loop for about half hour while monitoring temperatures using GPU-Z. The ambient air temperatures for all tests was 21C

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The AMD cards run cooler than the Nvidia card, but they tend to be louder as well.

Conclusions

As I said at the beginning of the review, these cards are a gem! They cost less than the competition and offer price/ performance benefits which are very significant.

The inclusion of a larger frame buffer (as compared to any reference card in their class) is also a big advantage especially at higher resolutions and high levels of anti-aliasing.

The inclusion of dual bios is certainly interesting and makes bios level tinkering that much easier.

The MSI card is based exactly on the reference design. It over clocks well and performs brilliantly!

PROS:

  • Price/ Performance
  • 2GB Frame Buffer
  • Dual Bios
  • Afterburner & Other bundled software

CONS:

  • Large Size

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