MSI HD5870 Lightning Review Page: 1

MSI HD5870 Lightning Review

Introduction

The MSI Lightning series has long been one of the better manufacturer special edition graphics cards. Starting on Nvidia based architecture MSI have now brought the combination of the Twin Frozr cooler and pre-overclocked GPU across to the already great Radeon 5870.

We recently looked at the MSI Hawk, which was the 5770 version of this combination and today we're going to be looking at the MSI HD5870 Lightning.

Is it everything we hope for?

Technical Specifications

Graphics EngineATI Radeon HD5870
Bus StandardPCI Express x16 2.1
Memory TypeGDDR5
Memory Size1024 MB
Memory Interface256bit
Core Clock Speed900 MHz
Memory Clock Speed4800 MHz
DVI Output2
D-SUB Output2 (optional via DVI to D-Sub)
HDMI Output1
DisplayPort1
HDCP SupportYes
Dual-Link DVIYes
HDMI SupportYes
Maximum Display Resolution3x 2560x1600
RAMDAC400
DirectX SupportVersion 11
OpenGL SupportVersion 3.2
Crossfire SupportYes
Card Dimensions 277x126x36mm
Features

ATI Eyefinity
ATI Stream
40nm Process
GDDR5 Technology
2nd Generation TeraScale Engine
Windows 7 Support
Enhanced Anisotropic Filtering
Accelerated Video Transcoding
HDMI 1.3
Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio
ATI PowerPlay Technology
ATI Avivo Technology Enhanced UVD 2

 

Quite an impressive list with a healthy overclock on the core up to 900MHz the MSI Lightning should give us good "out the box" performance.



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MSI HD5870  Lightning Review

A Closer Look

Having put a F117a Nighthawk on the front of the Hawk box, we have a F22 Raptor on the front of the R5870 Lightning. It certainly is a eye-catching box dressed in superb red lightning streaks.

Lifting the front flap we find all the information about the special features of the R5870 Lightning including the Hi-C CAPs and "buzz free" chokes. Anyone who has suffered from a squealing card knows how much we hope that is true.

MSI HD5870 Lightning Review     MSI HD5870 Lightning Review  

At a glance it appears to be the fairly standard Twin Frozr design, but a closer look reveals a few trick features.

Firstly all of the display outputs are gold plated. Although this can generally be considered to be a bling factor as much as a provable benefit, nonetheless it's always something we like to see.

MSI HD5870 Lightning Review     MSI HD5870 Lightning Review  

The Twin Frozr itself is a beautiful piece of engineering, with a highly polished heatsink, four very large heatpipes, and two serious fans.

MSI have also wisely not shrouded the cooler too much so heat dissipation should be at the maximum but sadly, once again for a non-reference cooler, the hot air is radiated into the case rather than exhausted out the rear. 

MSI HD5870 Lightning Review     MSI HD5870 Lightning Review  

Although we're using it as our image at the top of the page, we think the artistry of this cooler is worth a big image all to itself. Very attractive indeed.

Finally, and somewhat curiously, the MSI R5870 Lightning has an extra bit of PCB above the normal size. It makes the power sockets easier to get to without gouging your thumb on the cooler shroud, but it's something to be aware of if your case is on the thin side.

MSI HD5870 Lightning Review     MSI HD5870 Lightning Review



MSI HD5870 Lightning Review Page: 3

MSI HD5870   Lightning Review

Test Setup, Overclocking and Temperatures

Test Setup

For todays testing we are going to put the R5870 Lightning through its paces against a reference design HD5870, and a pair of crossfire HD5770s which we recently tested and found to be very close in performance to the 5870.

Motherboard : ASUS Rampage II Extreme
CPU : Intel i7 920 @ 3.6GHz
RAM : 6GB Corsair Platinum @1333mhz
PSU : OCZ 1000w Gold PSU
HDD : 1TB Samsung Spinpoint F1
Monitor : Samsung 2433 24" @ 1920x1200
OS : Windows 7 Ultimate 64
GPU : MSI HD5870 Lightning with Catalyst 10.3 drivers
           Reference design 5870 @ stock and 5770 in crossfire for comparisons

Overclocking

With such a high grade level of components within the Lightning hopes were high for a great overclocking result. Not only does it have great power-phase and "military grade" components, but the twin 8-pin power is specifically mentioned as something that would assist overclocking results.

Sure enough with a small tweak to the GPU voltage we managed to get a perfectly stable 1034MHz on the Core, and 1351MHz on the GDDR5.

We used the combination of the MSI Afterburner to tweak the voltage and clocks, whilst MSIs Kombustor, based upon Furmark, was used for temperature and stability tests.

Temperatures

The Twin Frozr showed its worth under stock settings with the GPU Core kept under 60°C even under the tortuous Kombustor test.

Our additional voltage and large overclock saw this rise to just past 70°C, but still within acceptable levels considering how heavily Kombustor loads the GPU. Noise was perfectly pleasant at 50% fan and the much advertised squeal-free chokes pretty much did their job. Although not absolutely squeak free the R5870 Lightning is a huge improvement upon the reference design.



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MSI HD5870   Lightning Review

3D Mark Vantage

Despite being a program that is bias towards PhysX capable cards, it's a measure of the power available with the ATI Radeon series that they still pump out huge numbers.

The Lightning just eeks ahead of the reference design at stock speeds, but the benefit of an overclock is clear for anyone to see. Of note however is that despite a 70-odd extra MHz core speed advantage when overclocked, it still gives a lesser score than our Editors Choice XFX 5870 XXX we recently reviewed.

Crysis Warhead

Again the graph is rewardingly linear with the 5770xf at the bottom, although of course we have to remember the price differential, the reference 5870 and R5870 Lightning near enough to each other and in overclocked mode having quite an advantage.

5 frames per second might not seem like many, but in Crysis Warhead that's a hill of extra power.

Modern Warfare 2

Modern Warfare 2 is spanked by all the cards in our tests, and because it's so easy on the hardware the differences at the top end are exaggerated. Once again the Lightning shows that the extra 50MHz it has at stock helps it overcome a reference 5870.



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MSI HD5870   Lightning Review

Dirt 2

Although the graphs are becoming fairly easy to predict, with the cards performing in a "top to bottom = best to worst" style, it's actually nice to see that the Lightning performs equally well regardless of the situation.

When overclocked it easily beats the 60FPS mark that we all strive for, and so you can be confident that all tracks and situations will remain smooth. Whereas the reference 5870 just giving 1 frame over the 60FPS line might have frame drops when it gets very busy.

Need For Speed Shift

Finally Need For Speed Shift not only has sumptuous graphics but is playable on all of our test cards. The R5870 Lightning overclock pulls out a clear lead though, giving an average frame-rate as high as the maximum obtained on the other three tests.



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MSI HD5870   Lightning Review

Conclusion

If you are one of those people who only reads reviews of certain products, or dismisses these tweaked models as expensive versions of the reference design, you could be forgiven for wondering why we even bother to test them. After all, we know the Radeon HD5870 is the weapon of choice so why pay the extra for one that's only 50MHz quicker in stock trim?

Of course those of us with experience know exactly why we test them. Sometimes you find an absolute gem and sometimes something you go in expecting to be brilliant proves to be quite underpowered.

Neither of these apply to the MSI R5870 Lightning, but it's not as cut and dried as it might seem.

Performance wise the Lightning is unquestionably better than a stock reference card. Largely thanks to the 50MHz extra core speed, but also the 15-Phase PWM and 2x8-pin PCI-E Power aiding smooth, consistent, power delivery plays a part.

The Twin Frozr cooler also has to be praised for not only looking the part, but being the combination we all love of cool and quiet. Even when we added an extra 0.1v and 130MHz overclock it handled the heat with ease. Despite it being a more open design than we'd have hoped for the little lip at the top rear of the card does assist in exhausting some of the heat out of the rear rather than dumping it all into the case.

So why the hesitation to laud it to the heavens? Firstly the performance, although excellent, isn't as good as our recently reviewed XFX 5870 XXX. Now these were reviewed on different systems and so we are unwilling to be as disappointed as perhaps we ought about the performance of the Lightning.

However, even if they would perform identically on any given day we then have to consider the thorn in the side of all special-edition graphics cards, price. The R5870 Lightning is currently listed at £387.75 on Scan.co.uk. A full £40 higher than the XFX which is overclocked but reference cooled, £70 more expensive than a standard MSI HD5870 and, should a non-reference cooler be your desire, £40 more than the Sapphire Vapor-X.

Of course your extra money does buy high-end capacitors and non-squeal chokes as well as the Twin Frozr cooler, but it doesn't lead to a much higher overclock and nor is the cooler that much more impressive than the excellent reference design.

If it retails about £50 less, we'll happily recommend it. As it stands it's just far too expensive for what you get.

Pros
- High-Grade parts throughout
- 900MHz "out the box"
- Looks fabulous

Mediocre
- Even overclocked it doesn't give class-leading performance.

Bad
- That price. Eye-watering.

Thanks to MSI for providing the Lightning for todays review. Discuss in our forums.