Factory overclocked graphics cards seem too good to be true. You get increased performance plus the manufacturer’s warranty. XFX’s Radeon HD 5870 XXX was the first factory-OC’d version of that GPU we reviewed (May 2010); that card pushed core clocks to 875MHz and memory to 1,300MHz (5,200MHz effective.) Now MSI is jumping into the game, and unlike XFX, builds a custom cooler onto its 1GB R5870 Lightning.
If you have any doubts about the amount of customization MSI put into the R5870, one look at it tells you it’s not your typical reference card. The custom cooler uses two fans instead of one, and the heatsink is a massive chunk of metal that runs the length of the card and features numerous heat pipes. The PCB is also anything but stock, and extends about 3/4 of an inch taller than other Radeon HD 5870 cards. Stock Radeon HD 5870 cards run off an 8-pin and 6-pin power connector. The R5870 features support for two 8-pin connectors for “extreme overclocking.”
A custom PCB and dual-fan cooler combined with MSI's Afterburner overclocking tool make the R5870 a unique part.
Out of the box, the card is clocked higher than XFX’s card. But interestingly, while MSI pushes the core clock to 900MHz, it leaves the memory clock at the stock 1,200MHz (4,800MHz effective). The company also ships its Afterburner overclocking tool with the card, which offers a little more control over clock speeds and core voltage than the default Overdrive tool that AMD supplies in its Catalyst Control Panel.
In practice, however, we weren’t able to juice core clock speeds much beyond 900MHz—and memory clocks proved even more finicky. Perhaps we just got a card with a GPU and memory that couldn’t handle much higher settings. And yes, we did run two 8-pin connectors to the card for “extreme overclocking.” Or maybe the card just needed a little more burn-in.
Still, despite our failure to overclock the card further, the 900MHz core clock that the card ships with is a boon in itself, right? Maybe not. We compared the MSI R5870 with the XFX Radeon HD 5870 XXX and an Asus GeForce ENGTX480. If you’re going to cry foul because the Asus card is priced above $500, we disagree. While most stock Radeon HD 5870 cards are priced about $400, MSI is asking you to plunk down $480. That’s already $60 more than the XFX Radeon HD 5870 XXX and roughly $30 shy of Asus’s Nvidia-based card. For $30 more, the Asus ENGTX480 crushes both cards in almost all benchmarks (Crysis and STALKER are dead heats). The XFX card costs $100 less than the Nvidia card, but what defense does the MSI R5870 have?
And what of MSI’s custom dual-fan cooling solution? The dual fans were completely enclosed in our test chassis. At idle, the noise levels seemed slightly lower than the reference cooling design on the XFX card. At full throttle, though, both cards seemed equally noisy. And, not surprisingly, the power-hungry Asus ENGTX480 was louder than both.
The bottom line is that MSI’s R5870 Lightning is a flawed, if interesting, effort to ship a Radeon HD 5870 card designed to be overclocked. We just wish we’d had more success at actually overclocking it. Given the price, it’s hard to justify this card over the XFX card—or even over paying a little more for the GTX 480.
MSI R5870 Lightning
Factory overclocked with warranty support; custom cooling solution.
Pricier than the competition; limited success in actually overclocking.
MSI R5870 Lightning
XFX Radeon HD 5870 XXX
Unigine Heaven 2.0 (fps)
Battle Forge (fps)
Dirt 2 (fps)
Far Cry 2 / Long (fps)
Far Cry 2 / Action (fps)
Tom Clancy's HAWX (fps)
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat (fps)
Best scores are bolded. Our test bed is a 3.33GHz Core i7-975 Extreme Edition in an Asus P6X58D Premium motherboard with 6GB of DDR3/1333 and an 850TX Corsair PSU. The OS is 64-bit Windows 7 Ultimate. All games are run at 1920x1200 with 4x AA.