Inexpensive Hi-End: MSI R6950 Twin Frozr III 1 GD5 Power Edition/OC Graphics Card

This review is dedicated to the newest graphics accelerator that combines all the advantages if a high-end product with a very appealing price for its class.

by Sergey Lepilov
10/19/2011 | 11:32 AM

The latest news from the computer graphics realm suggest that we are not going to see new GPUs this year as AMD and Nvidia are both expected to introduce their next top-end solutions in Q1 2012. It means that if you are shopping for a fast graphics card right now, you have to choose from the last-year products based on the Cayman and Barts or the GF110 and GF114 processors depending on what GPU brand you prefer. We, on our part, keep on testing and reviewing the most original and exciting of such products. Today we've got a graphics card from MSI which seems to combine the best in terms of the GPU, PCB and cooling.

Closer Look at MSI R6950 Twin Frozr III 1GD5 Power Edition/OC

Packaging and Accessories

 

The R6950 Twin Frozr III 1GD5 Power Edition/OC comes in a large eye-catching box with shimmering text and a picture of its frost-covered cooler on the face side.

 

You can learn right away that the card comes with a 3-year warranty, has an 8-phase power system, is ready for 3DMark 2011, etc. Its detailed specs and system requirements can be found on the back of the box. If you feel like getting even more information, you can unfold the top of the box to view detailed descriptions of each of the product's components.

The product’s accessories are exhaustive: two power cables, a mini-DisplayPort->DisplayPort adapter, DVI-I->analog adapter, CrossFireX bridge, CD with drivers and utilities, installation guide and an ad booklet.

The only thing that seems to be missing here is a video game or a coupon for downloading one for free. The R6950 Twin Frozr III 1GD5 Power Edition/OC is manufactured in China and costs about $259 in retail. Its warranty period is 3 years.

PCB Design

Let’s have a look at the card:

Its face side is covered with a dual-slot Twin Frozr III cooler and its aluminum casing. By the way, the casing makes the card longer by an extra 17 millimeters.

The casing might have been shorter, which would make the card compatible with more system cases (its PCB is only 242 millimeters long whereas the cooler makes it as long as 270 millimeters). On the other hand, we have to acknowledge that it looks stylish.

The R6950 Twin Frozr III 1GD5 Power Edition/OC is equipped with two dual-link DVI-I outputs, one HDMI connector and two mini-DisplayPorts:

Notwithstanding the generous selection of connectors, there is enough space left on the card's mounting bracket for a vent grid. As we found out during our noise level tests, some of the hot air is indeed exhausted through that grid, but most of it is thrown out in the opposite direction.

The graphics card is equipped with two interface connectors for CrossFireX configurations and has two 6-pin power connectors.

  

According to AMD’s specs, the Radeon HD 6950 has a peak power draw of 200 watts in 3D applications (about 140 watts under typical gaming load). However, the MSI card may differ in this respect as it has a custom PCB, increased frequencies and less of onboard memory.

MSI classifies the card's PCB as “Military Class II”, meaning high-quality and durable components, although it looks like a regular second-revision Radeon HD 6950 PCB.

We've got an 8-phase power circuit here: six phases for the GPU and two for the memory chips. The uPI Semiconductor uP6218 controller supports the Triple Over-Voltage feature, which means you can use MSI Afterburner to tweak the card's voltages.

 

There is a small switch near the power connectors in the top part of the PCB. It selects the cooler’s operation mode: Performance or Silence. This in fact selects one of the two BIOS versions. The switch is set at Performance by default.

Manufactured in Taiwan in late January 2011, the Cayman GPU has an open die with a size of 289 sq. mm.

It has a standard Radeon HD 6950 configuration with 1408 shader processors, 88 texture-mapping units and 32 raster back-ends. The GPU frequency is pre-overclocked by 6.3% from 800 to 850 MHz at a voltage of 1.1 volts. The frequency and voltage are reduced to 250 MHz and 0.9 volts in 2D applications.

As opposed to most Radeon HD 6950s, the MSI version comes with 1 rather than 2 gigabytes of GDDR5 memory. The eight FCFBGA-packaged chips located on the face side of the PCB are manufactured by Elpida and marked as W1032BABG-50-F.

This 5ns memory is rated for 5000 MHz but the MSI card clocks it at 5200 MHz, which is 200 MHz higher than the memory frequency of the reference Radeon HD 6950. The clock rate is lowered to 600 MHz in 2D applications. The memory bus is 256 bits wide.

Thus, the R6950 Twin Frozr III 1GD5 Power Edition/OC has the following specifications:

Cooling System

The R6950 Twin Frozr III 1GD5 Power Edition/OC features MSI’s original cooler which consists of a copper base, five copper heat pipes, slim aluminum fins, fans, and an aluminum casing.

The heat pipes (the three in the middle are 6 millimeters in diameter whereas the two outermost ones are 8 millimeters) are soldered to the base as well as to the heatsink fins. They are all nickel-plated.

They are fitted into the grooves in the base. The copper base is about 3 millimeters thick at its slimmest point.

The power components and memory chips are cooled with an aluminum plate with thermal pads.

The fans are 74 millimeters in diameter. Their blades are shaped in a curious way:

MSI claims this design of the 13-blade impeller helps increase the air flow by 20%. The Twin Frozr III cooler is expected to be 11°C more efficient than the reference cooler while being quieter by 13.9 dBA.

The speed of the fans is PWM-regulated within a range of 1500 to 4600 RPM. They are manufactured by PowerLogic (the PLD08010S12HH model).

Each fan is specified to have a peak power draw of 4.2 watts (it is 4.45 watts according to our measurements). They seem to run on sleeve bearings which claim to have an extended service life.

We checked out the card’s temperature while running Aliens vs. Predator (2010) in five cycles at the highest settings (1920x1080, 16x anisotropic filtering and 4x full-screen antialiasing). We used MSI Afterburner 2.2.0 Beta 7 and GPU-Z 0.5.5 as monitoring tools. This test was carried out with a closed system case (you can view its full configuration in the appropriate section of the review) at an ambient temperature of 24°C. We had dismantled the card before the tests and replaced its default GPU thermal grease with Arctic MX-4.

Let’s see how efficient the cooler is in its two modes (Performance and Silent):


Performance mode

Silent mode

The GPU temperature reached 71°C in the Performance mode while the speed of the fans grew from 1840 to 3060 RPM. Interestingly, the temperature was a mere 1°C higher in the Silence mode but the speed range was at a much quieter level (1560 to 2700 RPM) even though not exactly silent. So, we tried to set the cooler’s speed at 1920 RPM (43% from the maximum) and it coped with its job, keeping the GPU temperature no higher than 77°C.


1920 RPM

The temperature was only 61°C at the maximum speed of the fans.


4580 RPM

The card is of course very loud at its max fan speed. How loud, exactly?

We measured the level of noise using an electronic noise-level meter CENTER-321 in a closed room about 20 sq. meters large. The noise-level meter was set on a tripod at a distance of 15 centimeters from the graphics card which was installed on an open testbed. The mainboard with the graphics card was placed at an edge of a desk on a foam-rubber tray.

The bottom limit of our noise-level meter is 29.8 dBA whereas the subjectively comfortable (not low, but comfortable) level of noise when measured from that distance is about 36 dBA. The speed of the graphics card’s fans was being adjusted by means of a controller that changed the supply voltage in steps of 0.5 V.

For the comparison’s sake, we’ve added the results of the Sapphire Radeon HD 6950 Toxic Edition into the next diagram:

The R6950 Twin Frozr III 1GD5 Power Edition/OC is clearly quieter than the Sapphire card which in its turn is quieter than the reference Radeon HD 6970. However, even the MSI card can’t be called really quiet. It is such in 2D applications when its fans have a speed of 1550 RPM and lower (Silent mode) but when the fans accelerate to 1950 RPM and higher, the Twin Frozr III cooler becomes rather uncomfortable. So, we don’t think that the MSI card will suit those users who want a silent computer.

Overclocking Potential

Our R6950 Twin Frozr III 1GD5 Power Edition/OC could be overclocked to a GPU frequency of 940 MHz, which is good enough for a junior Cayman. The highest memory frequency we could achieve was 5680 MHz.

When overclocked, the card’s GPU got only 1°C hotter but the cooler's fans rotated at 3300 RPM (Performance mode) rather than at 3060 RPM.

Technical Specifications

Testbed Configuration and Testing Methodology

All graphics cards were benchmarked in a closed system case with the following configuration:

For comparison purposes we also included the results of Sapphire Radeon HD 6950 2 GB Toxic Edition:

It was tested in three modes:

  

In order to lower the dependence of the graphics cards performance on the overall platform speed, I overclocked our 32 nm six-core CPU with the multiplier set at 25x and “Load-Line Calibration” (Level 2) enabled to 4.5 GHz. The processor Vcore was increased to 1.46875 V in the mainboard BIOS:

The 6 GB of system DDR3 memory worked at 1.44 GHz frequency with 7-7-7-16_1T timings and 1.5V voltage. Turbo Boost and Hyper-Threading technologies were disabled during our test session.

The test session started on October 2, 2011. All tests were performed in Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate x64 SP1 with all critical updates as of that date and the following drivers:

The graphics cards were tested in two resolutions: the today’s most popular 1920x1080 and the maximum 2560x1600. The tests were performed in two image quality modes: “High Quality+AF16x” – maximum texturing quality with enabled 16x anisotropic filtering and “High Quality+ AF16x+MSAA4(8)x” with enabled 16x anisotropic filtering and full screen 4x anti-aliasing (MSAA) or 8x if the average framerate was high enough for comfortable gaming experience. We enabled anisotropic filtering and full-screen anti-aliasing from the game settings or configuration files. If the corresponding options were missing, we changed these settings in the Control Panels of Catalyst and GeForce drivers. There were no other changes in the driver settings.

The list of games and applications used in this test session includes two popular semi-synthetic benchmarking suites, one technical demo and 15 games of various genres:

If the game allowed recording the minimal fps readings, they were also added to the charts. We ran each game test or benchmark twice and took the best result for the diagrams, but only if the difference between them didn’t exceed 1%. If it did exceed 1%, we ran the tests at least one more time to achieve repeatability of results.

Performance

3DMark Vantage

3DMark 2011

Unigine Heaven Demo

BattleForge: Lost Souls

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat

Left 4 Dead 2

Metro 2033: The Last Refuge

Just Cause 2

Aliens vs. Predator (2010)

Lost Planet 2

StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty

Sid Meier’s Civilization V

Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. 2

Crysis 2

Total War: Shogun 2

DiRT 3

World of Planes (alpha)

Hard Reset Demo

The diagrams show that the MSI R6950 Twin Frozr III Power Edition/OC is roughly equal to the Sapphire Radeon HD 6950 Toxic Edition. There is almost no difference between Radeon HD 6950s with 1 and 2 GB of memory and working at 850/5200 MHz as the next diagram indicates:

The two cards are generally within 1% from each other, the 1GB version being even faster in some tests. The gap occasionally grows to 2-3% but is never larger. This difference may even be due to variations in memory timings as the MSI and Sapphire cards use memory chips from different brands. Another thing to be noted is that the results are correct for 1920x1080 whereas the amount of memory is going to be a weightier factor at 2560x1600. However, the performance of a Radeon HD 6950/6970 card is going to be too low for comfortable play even at 1920x1080, except for a few games with lower system requirements, so you can hardly use them for 2560x1600 anyway.

Then, we can also see that the MSI R6950 Twin Frozr III Power Edition/OC, when overclocked to 940/5680 MHz, is ahead of the more expensive reference Radeon HD 6970 clocked at 880/5500 MHz. Even though the gap is only 2-3% on average, the MSI card seems to be preferable to purchasing an HD 6970.

Here is a table with the full test results:

Conclusion

We are very pleased with the MSI R6950 Twin Frozr III Power Edition/OC card. It is a very fast graphics card which is as good as AMD’s top-end offers but comes at only $259. It doesn’t feel handicapped by being equipped with only 1 gigabyte of graphics memory whereas its efficient cooler with two operation modes and high-quality components promise stability and a long service life even at overclocked frequencies. Its 3-year warranty, overwhelming accessories and solid packaging should also be mentioned among its definite advantages. Therefore, we are proud to award MSI R6950 Twin Frozr III Power Edition/OC with our Recommended Buy title:

The only thing we were not particularly happy about is that the Twin Frozr III cooler is rather noisy and too large (it could have been 17 millimeters shorter).

We really wish excellent products like MSI R6950 Twin Frozr III Power Edition/OC came out in a month or two at the most after the announcement of the reference Radeon HD 6970 and HD 6950, and not an entire year later…