A Lil’ Bit: A Little Faster ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2 – MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC Review

There are a lot of ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2-based graphics cards on the market, but there are just a few of them that come pre-overclocked. Today we are taking a look at MSI's Radeon HD 3870 X2 OC Edition graphics card that can offer higher performance thanks to higher clock-speeds.

by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
04/30/2008 | 11:04 PM

Introducing a new graphics card is never easy. Besides developing a memorable image of the product, the developer wants to make it unique and special. And for the user it is important to realize what features affect the device’s performance and functionality and what features are just a means to attract the customer.

 

In the last years graphics card makers had to promote their products while staying within the limitations imposed by the GPU architects, ATI and Nvidia. Although developing unique PCB designs and cooling systems is costly, the effort may be worthwhile as the end product will draw the spotlight to itself as well as to the brand it carries.

Basing their flagship product on the ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2, people from MicroStar International took the most effective way of making it special – they made it faster. As a result, the company’s marketing department announced an unprecedented level of performance for the series at large and for the flagship in particular.

We’ll see today if the MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC is indeed as fast as its manufacturer, the world’s major hardware supplier, claims it to be.

Package and Accessories

The graphics card comes in a traditionally large box. The box has a plastic handle for carrying such a massive thing around.

We should give credit to MSI’s marketing department for making their products easily distinguishable from others. The package is decorated following the I, Robot theme, with a picture of a stylized girl. The three letters of the company’s name dominate the overall design. The OC sticker confirms that the box contains a special product with increased clock rates.

The packaging is good, with the contents being neatly placed in individual compartments and the card being fixed in a foam-rubber tray to avoid any damage during transportation or storage. The MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC comes with the following accessories:

On one hand, you can see all the adapters, connectors and documentation you may need. But it is strange to find no games or bonus software. What is especially sad, there is no software player for Blu-ray and HD DVD discs. The latest GPUs from both ATI and Nvidia support hardware post-processing and decoding of video content in H.264 and VC-1 formats as the manufacturers do not omit to write on the boxes. Unfortunately, none of them includes the software (which costs $49.99) into the box.

The lack of free games is not much of a problem. Top-end graphics cards are bought by devoted gamers who already have all popular gaming titles.

The disc with drivers contains version 8.41 of MSI’s exclusive driver that is based on ATI Catalyst 8.1. The latest official version of Catalyst is 8.3, and the officially recommended driver for ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2 is version 8.2. You may want to install one of these instead of MSI’s driver.

MSI also offers a few programs:

Although the packaging and accessories of the MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC don’t provoke any questions, we should note that competing products come with richer accessories, especially in the sector of expensive graphics cards.

PCB Design and Specifications

MSI took the newest top-end solution from AMD, ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2, as the basis for the flagship of the R series.

MSI’s card differs but slightly from the reference dual-chip monster. Excepting the picture on the cooler, the R3870X2-T2D1G OC is a copy of the card we discussed in our The Single-Decker Champ: ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2 Graphics Card Review.

The card is based on two RV670 GPUs. The GPU clock rate was increased from 775MHz to 825MHz on the Radeon HD 3870, but MSI didn’t stop at that and lifted the frequency up to 850MHz. In addition to the high clock rate, the new card can boast 640 ALUs grouped into 128 execution units with 5 ALUs in each. It also has 8 texture processors and 8 raster back-ends.

The R3870X2-T2D1G OC uses GDDR3 memory. Each GPU is surrounded with eight Samsung K4J52324QE-BJ1A chips, four on the front side of the PCB and four on the reverse side of it. The chips have a capacity of 512Mb (16Mb x 32), a voltage of 1.9V and a rated frequency of 1000 (2000) MHz. The card has a memory frequency of 900 (1800) MHz, just as on the reference sample, probably to ensure higher stability. The total amount of memory is 1024 megabytes, but 3D applications can only access 512 megabytes.

MSI’s product has the same connectors as the reference Radeon HD 3870 X2: two dual-link DVI-I ports with support for audio-over-HDMI, and a 7-pin mini-DIN port for analog video output in Composite, S-Video and YPbPr formats.

Cooling System

The MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC carries the reference cooler developed by ATI’s engineers. This cooler consists of two independent heatsinks, one for each GPU. The chip that is closer to the fan is cooled with an aluminum heatsink. The more distant chip has a copper heatsink. The aluminum heatsink should reduce the overall weight of the card. Each heatsink has a jut at the spot where it has contact with the GPU die. Traditional dark-gray thermal grease ensures proper thermal contact. The heatsinks are not mechanically connected with the base and are fastened to the PCB directly by means of four screws and a spring-loaded back-plate.

The other elements are cooled with the massive red-painted aluminum base. It also carries a fan and a casing made from red translucent plastic. Part of the base is something like a needle heatsink. Two types of thermal pads are used to ensure thermal contact with the memory chips, PCI Express switch and the load-bearing elements of the power circuit: elastic “sandwiches” with a layer of thermal grease between two pink lozenges, and soft pads. The cooler’s base is fastened to the PCB with 8 screws separately from the heatsinks. The memory chips on the reverse side of the PCB are cooled with an individual aluminum plate.

This cooling system should cope with its job quite well considering the relatively low heat dissipation of the RV670 chip even at 850MHz, yet we’ve got some apprehensions concerning the GPU which is farther from the fan. As for the noise characteristics, you’ll learn them in the next section.

Noise, Temperature, Overclockability

We measured the level of noise produced by the card with a digital sound-level meter Velleman DVM1326 using A-curve weighing. The level of ambient noise in our lab was 36dBA and the level of noise at a distance of 1 meter from the working testbed with a passively cooled graphics card inside was 43dBA. Here are the results:

The card’s cooler uses an unconventional way of controlling the speed of the cooler’s fan. The speed depends not only on the data from the thermode but also on the load on the command processors. As a result, the fan speed is being varied constantly and in a rather wide range under load, and the level of noise changes accordingly. The card is almost silent in 2D mode. It was hard but we tried to find the peak of noise, too. Most of it is produced by the air flowing through the heatsinks, which is perceived as quiet hiss. It is barely audible in a closed system case and is not irritating at all.

The MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC has two graphics cores but the appropriate screen of the Catalyst Control Center displays the temperature of the first core only. It varies from 51 to 56°C in idle mode and grows up to 78°C in 3D applications.

We made an attempt to overclock our R3870X2-T2D1G OC using the standard options of the Catalyst Control Center, but it failed completely. The card wouldn’t be stable in 3D applications even at its default frequencies after 3-4 hours of testing. There were failures and the driver would enter the restore mode. We decided to stop our experiments with the card at that.

Testbed and Methods

To test the gaming performance of MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC we put together the following testbed:

According to our testing methodology, the drivers were set up to provide the highest possible quality of texture filtering and to minimize the effect of software optimizations used by default by both: AMD/ATI and Nvidia. Also, to ensure maximum image quality, we enabled transparent texture filtering - Adaptive Anti-Aliasing/Multi-sampling for ATI Catalyst and Antialiasing – Transparency: Multisampling for Nvidia ForceWare. As a result, our ATI and Nvidia driver settings looked as follows:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia ForceWare:

For our tests we used the following games and synthetic benchmarks:

First-Person 3D Shooters

Third-Person 3D Shooters

RPG

Strategies

Synthetic Benchmarks

We selected the highest possible level of detail in each game using standard tools provided by the game itself from the gaming menu. The games configuration files weren’t modified in any way. The only exception was Enemy Territory: Quake Wars game where we disabled the built-in fps rate limitation locked at 30fps.

Games supporting DirectX 10 were tested in this particular mode. With a few exceptions, the tests were performed in the following resolutions: 1280x1024/960, 1600x1200 and 1920x1200. If the game didn’t support 16:10 display format, we set the last resolution to 1920x1440. We decided to postpone testing in 2560x1600 until we upgrade our testbeds and release the article on ATI CrossFireX and Nvidia Triple SLI.

We used “eye candy” mode everywhere, where it was possible without disabling the HDR/Shader Model 3.0/Shader Model 4.0. Namely, we ran the tests with enabled anisotropic filtering 16x as well as MSAA 4x antialiasing. We enabled them from the game’s menu. If this was not possible, we forced them using the appropriate driver settings of ATI Catalyst and Nvidia ForceWare drivers.

Performance was measured with the games’ own tools and the original demos were recorded if possible. Otherwise, the performance was measured manually with Fraps utility version 2.9.1. We measured not only the average speed, but also the minimum speed of the cards where possible.

Besides MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC we have also included the results for the following graphics accelerators:

We decided to also include the results of Gainward Bliss 8800 GTS 1024MB, which performs similar to Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX. Note though that the price of Gainward soution equipped with 1GB of memory starts at $349, so it is actually a direct competitor to MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC from the pricing standpoint.

Performance in First-Person 3D Shooters

Battlefield 2142

This game doesn’t support display resolutions of 16:10 format, so we use a resolution of 1920x1440 pixels (4:3 format) instead of 1920x1200 for it.

The somewhat dated engine of this game cannot load the tested card’s resources fully. As a result, the two cores clocked at higher frequencies are but slightly better than the reference card. The R3870X2-T2D1G OC copes with the job well at high resolutions, delivering about the same performance as the Gainward Bliss 8800 GTS 1024MB and GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB. The card is slower in terms of minimum speed but this doesn’t affect your playing comfort since the frame rate is never lower than 40fps.

BioShock

BioShock doesn’t support FSAA when running in Windows Vista’s DirectX 10 environment. That’s why we benchmarked the cards without FSAA.

The abundance of shaders has a positive effect on the performance of the MSI card. It certainly finds this test easy, being slightly slower than the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB at 1280x1024 and outperforming it at high resolutions. The card enjoys a 25% lead over the Bliss 8800 GTS 1024MB at 1920x1200.

Call of Juarez

The latest patch has changed not only the appearance but also the program code of the game. Even the lowest resolution is hardly playable if you enable FSAA and anisotropic filtering.

The two GPUs of the MSI card provide an almost twofold performance increase relative to the single-chip solution. The speed of 35fps is not quite comfortable for a first-person shooter, though.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Programmers from ATI/AMD are yet to reveal the potential of CrossFire systems in this game. The technology doesn’t work correctly as you can see with the MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC. Being a pre-overclocked version of the RV670 chip, our card is slower than its predecessor in each tested resolution. Hopefully, this will be corrected in the next version of the Catalyst driver.

Crysis

This game being very hard at its Very High level of detail, we benchmark the cards without full-screen antialiasing in an attempt to achieve a playable frame rate.

The MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC loses to the less advanced solutions based on Nvidia’s chips. The card also has a very low minimum of speed. The two RV670 cores are unable to provide an acceptable average frame rate at the highest image quality settings. The per-overclocked frequencies of the MSI card do not provide a serious performance boost.

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

The frame rate is fixed at 30fps in this game as this is the rate at which the physical model is being updated at the server. Thus, this 30fps speed is the required minimum for playing the game.

ATI’s programmers should work on this game, too. The MSI card is only as fast as the single ATI Radeon HD 3870, which indicates that only one of its cores is functioning although CrossFire mode cannot be disabled on the reference Radeon HD 3870 X2. Purchasing a $449 graphics card that would only work at half its potential doesn’t look right. Perhaps this problem will be corrected in the newer version of the driver.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

The MSI card is in the lead, outperforming the Gainward Bliss 8800 GTS 1024MB by 10% at low resolutions and by 15-17% at high resolutions. However, the factory overclocking is not as beneficial as you might expect. The MSI delivers an average frame rate of nearly 60fps even at 1920x1200. That’s quite a good result for a premium-class product.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl

The game doesn’t support FSAA when you enable the dynamic lighting model, but loses much of its visual appeal with the static model. This is the reason why we benchmarked the cards in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. using anisotropic filtering only.

Having two GPUs, the MSI card feels quite at ease even in the unfavorable S.T.A.L.K.E.R. environment. Competing with the Gainward Bliss 8800 GTS 1024MB, the card leaves its single-chip mate far behind and delivers a considerable performance gain thanks to the pre-overclocked GPUs. The gameplay is quite comfortable even at 1920x1200.

Performance in Third-Person 3D Shooters

Lost Planet: Extreme Condition

Unfortunately, CrossFire technology doesn’t work right in this game, too. Hopefully, this is not a fundamental problem related to the specifics of the game engine with its rendering techniques. If so, it is likely to be solved in the next version of the Catalyst driver.

Tomb Raider: Legend

It’s like in Lost Planet. We hope ATI’s programmers are already working on the driver. Unforutnately, overclocking doesn't help improve the performance because of the incorrectly working driver.

Performance in RPG

Hellgate: London

CrossFire activation problems do not let MSI solution reveal its full potential in this test. Despite numerous shaders in Hellgate: London game, driver related issues do not allow MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC to show decent performance.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

The game loses much of its visual appeal without HDR. Although some gamers argue that point, we think TES IV looks best with enabled FP HDR and test it in this mode.

The game reacted positively to the additional megahertz of GPU frequency on the MSI card. Its advantage is especially conspicuous at 1920x1200. The MSI has a lower minimum of speed than Nvidia’s solutions, but this is not a problem since the frame rate is never lower than 44fps.

The overall picture doesn’t change much in the more demanding open scenes of the game. Although CrossFire doesn’t show its maximum efficiency here, the MSI card delivers comfortable performance. The pre-overclocked frequencies don’t provide a noticeable effect here.

Performance in Strategies

Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts

The new add-on to Company of Heroes is tested in DirectX 10 mode only since it provides the highest quality of the visuals.

ATI has optimized the driver for this game. As a result, the MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC leaves its opponents behind, facing some opposition from the Gainward only.

Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars

The game having a frame rate limiter, you should consider the minimum speed of the cards in the first place.

The frame rate being limited to 30fps, this game cannot tell us what graphics card is better. Every card is equally good in the standard display modes with enabled 4x FSAA. Of course, the factory overclocking is not helpful here.

World in Conflict

Like in many games you’ve seen above, CrossFire mode doesn’t work correctly in World in Conflict. The MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC is far slower than the single ATI Radeon HD 3870.

Performance in Synthetic Benchmarks

Futuremark 3DMark05

This test is outdated in many aspects. The benchmark cannot load the MSI card’s resources to the full. That’s why the R3870X2-T2D1G OC has such a small advantage over the other cards at 1024x768 without FSAA.

The first test doesn’t show that the MSI card is much better than its opponents because its speed depends on the card’s texture-processing ability and all the tested graphics cards have 32 TMUs.

It’s in the second test that the MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC beats its opponents. Being a dual-GPU solution with a highest shader-processing performance, the MSI leaves no chance to the other cards.

The third test shows both pros and cons of the latest generation of CrossFire systems. The test needs both high shader-processing performance and high texturing speed. Comparing the numbers in individual tests with the overall scores, it’s clear that the MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC feels best at high resolutions. It is also fast when not limited by its texture processors’ speed.

Futuremark 3DMark06

The latest version of 3DMark reveals the entire potential of modern graphics cards. MSI’s effort was not misplaced: the R3870X2-T2D1G OC is considerably faster than its opponents right from the start.

The SM3.0/HDR tests are the playground for ATI’s solutions. The MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC is unrivalled here. On the other hand, the factory overclocking doesn’t add much speed to the MSI card in the SM2.0 tests.

The first two tests are generally similar to the respective tests from 3DMark05. Losing in the first of them, the MSI card shows the strength of its 640 shader processors in the second test.

The MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC is also unrivalled in the SM3.0/HDR tests that contain lots of complex pixel shaders. It is 60% and 65% ahead of the fastest single-chip card in the first and second test, respectively. The factory overclocking is valuable here, providing a performance boost of up to 10%.

The victory of the MSI card is logical as the two RV670 chips have as many TMUs as Nvidia’s solutions but surpass them in sheer computing power. It is also faster than the reference Radeon HD 3870 X2 thanks to the ore-overclocked frequencies.

Conclusion

Now it’s time to sum up everything about the MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC graphics card we have tested today. This product should be affordable for a large user audience, so we’ll discuss every consumer aspect of it.

From a technical point of view, the new flagship product from MSI is impressive. ATI’s developers managed to accommodate two RV670 chips on one PCB for a total of 640 shader processors. The card’s peak heat dissipation is about 150 watts. However, MSI didn’t spend much effort on their version of ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2 as the results of our tests suggest. The 25MHz increase in the GPU clock rate is hardly an achievement. The resulting performance growth isn’t high.

The accessories are overall sufficient, but not original. If you are going to be satisfied with a full set of cables and don’t mind having no free software in the kit, the MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC will suit you just fine.

And finally, the card’s performance in real-life applications is the most important factor. Unfortunately, the MSI card has some nuances here. You should be aware that the driver is not yet polished off, and CrossFire technology doesn’t work in all applications. Anyway, the ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2 is the fastest Radeon HD 3870-based solution. If you need something more than the standard 3870 X2 model, you may be interested in the MSI R3870X2-T2D1G OC.

The R3870X2-T2D1G OC beats its opponents thanks to the factory overclocking, but only in those applications where CrossFire works correctly. If you consider buying it, you may want to check out beforehand whether it’s compatible with your favorite games.

Highs:

Lows: