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MSI Radeon HD 6950 Twin Frozr III Review

Date: June 29, 2011
Author(s): Rob Williams

On the lookout for a higher-end graphics card, but value both temperatures and acoustics? MSI, with its Radeon HD 6950 Twin Frozr III Power Edition (*phew*) may have just what you’re looking for. In our tests, it often settled right beside more expensive offerings, and where acoustics and temperatures are concerned, it can’t be beat.



Introduction

It’s been about six months since AMD launched both the Radeon HD 6970 and HD 6950, and at its given price-point, not much has changed since then. As it seems, the market is not going to be changing too much until later this year, either, when AMD plans to launch its Southern Island GPUs.

One thing that has changed since the HD 6900 series launch is pricing. While the HD 6950 at launch retailed for $299, today many can be found for as low as $240, and with a mail-in rebate, that price could be dropped even further. MSI’s Twin Frozr III edition retains that original $299 pricing, however, so our goal here is to see if its premium is justified.

The full product name is ‘Twin Frozr III Power Edition’, which represents a couple of things. First, it utilizes a robust cooler that sets out to be as efficient as it is quiet. Yes, those claims are touted about pretty much every non-reference card, but as our testing has proved, we can see this card means it.

“Power Edition” refers to the fact that the entire power circuitry has been taken into consideration for the ultimate in efficiency. It features voltage control, a 6+2 power phase design and improved stability. Great for the clocks given, and effective at handling your overclocks.

MSI Radeon HD 6950 2GB Twin Frozr III

According to MSI, the Twin Frozr III cooler makes this card about 11°C cooler than the reference design (we found it to be even better), and 13.9dB quieter. It’s a high-end card that could be shoved into a SFF chassis, essentially, and in using the card that way, you shouldn’t have to worry about anything while enjoying your high-end gaming experiences.

As always, a quick refresher of AMD’s current line-up:

Model
Core MHz
Mem MHz
Memory
Bus Width
Processors
Radeon HD 6990
830
1250
4096MB
256-bit
3072
Radeon HD 6970
880
1350
2048MB
256-bit
1536
Radeon HD 6950
800
1250
2048MB
1024MB
256-bit
1408
Radeon HD 6870
900
1050
1024MB
256-bit
1120
Radeon HD 6850
775
1000
1024MB
256-bit
960
Radeon HD 6790
840
1050
1024MB
256-bit
800
Radeon HD 6770
850
1200
1024MB
128-bit
800
Radeon HD 6750
700
1150
1024MB
128-bit
720

Added to this list from last time are AMD’s HD 6770 and HD 6750 graphics cards, which haven’t quite caught on to a large degree up to this point. We do have an HD 6770 model from Sapphire in the lab however, and though we haven’t properly reviewed it yet, the results from our testing is reflected in the charts here.

Compared to the HD 6970, the HD 6950 drops 80MHz on the core and 100MHz on the memory, and also sees a reduction of 128 cores. All-in-all, not a major decrease in hardware – especially not one that properly justifies a $60 – $100 cost increase.

MSI has made sure its Twin Frozr III edition isn’t some ordinary HD 6950, though. The clocks have been boosted +50MHz on the core and +100MHz on the memory, putting it almost on par with the HD 6970 in terms of raw performance. As the HD 6970 still features more cores, however, it will still have a considerable advantage.

MSI Radeon HD 6950 2GB Twin Frozr III

Pictured at the top of the page, you can see the card utilizes a rather laid-back aesthetic. It’s not meant to stand out, but rather just be effective. I’m not sure which company manufactures the heatsink used here, but it reminds me of Thermalright’s designs, and in all regards appears to be built with absolute efficiency in mind.

The shot above showcases MSI’s care in making sure you receive the card in good working order. Every single connection that exists on the card comes with a blue plastic cover, and these are recommended to stay put for ports that are not being used, just to keep the dust out. The card, like the reference design, also features a dual-BIOS switch, but that’s located nearer to the other end.

MSI Radeon HD 6950 2GB Twin Frozr III

Due to a lack of time (or energy, you be the judge), I decided to take a side-view shot of the card rather than take the entire cooler off. In looking at it from this angle, it’s easy to understand the design and its goals. Overall, easily one of the more effective-looking designs I’ve seen in a while.

As another one of MSI’s ‘Military Class II products, the Twin Frozr III edition features Hi-C capacitors, solid capacitors and also Super Ferrite Chokes. Combine all this with the already impressive power design, and this card means business, and is technically much more impressive than the reference design.

There have been five driver releases since we last benchmarked the HD 6950, so it will be interesting to see if overall performance can put MSI’s card closer than ever to HD 6970 levels. Let’s check it out.

Test System & Methodology

At Techgage, we strive to make sure our results are as accurate as possible. Our testing is rigorous and time-consuming, but we feel the effort is worth it. In an attempt to leave no question unanswered, this page contains not only our testbed specifications, but also a detailed look at how we conduct our testing.

Test Machine

The below table lists our testing machine’s hardware, which remains unchanged throughout all GPU testing, minus the graphics card. Each card used for comparison is also listed here, along with the driver version used. Each one of the URLs in this table can be clicked to view the respective category on our site for that product.

Component
Model
Processor
Intel Core i7-975 Extreme Edition – Quad-Core @ 4.05GHz – 1.40v
Motherboard
Gigabyte GA-EX58-EXTREME – F13j BIOS (08/02/2010)
Memory
Corsair DOMINATOR – 12GB DDR3-1333 7-7-7-24-1T, 1.60v
AMD Graphics Radeon HD 6990 4GB (Reference) – Catalyst 11.4 Beta

Radeon HD 6970 2GB (Reference) – Catalyst 10.12 Beta
Radeon HD 6950 2GB (MSI Twin Frozr III) – Catalyst 11.6

Radeon HD 6950 2GB (Reference) – Catalyst 11.1

Radeon HD 6950 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst 11.1

Radeon HD 6870 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst October 5, 2010 Beta

Radeon HD 6850 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst October 5, 2010 Beta

Radeon HD 6790 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst March 23, 2011 Beta

Radeon HD 6670 1GB (Sapphire) – Catalyst March 23, 2011 Beta

Radeon HD 6570 1GB (Sapphire) – Catalyst March 23, 2011 Beta

Radeon HD 6450 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst March 23, 2011 Beta
NVIDIA Graphics GeForce GTX 580 1536MB (Reference) – GeForce 262.99

GeForce GTX 570 1280MB (Reference) – GeForce 263.09

GeForce GTX 560 Ti 1024MB (Reference) – GeForce 266.56
GeForce GTX 560 1024MB (MSI) – GeForce 275.20

GeForce GTX 550 Ti 1024MB (MSI) – GeForce 267.59

GeForce GTX 460 1GB (EVGA) – GeForce 260.63
Audio
ASUS Xonar D2X
Storage
Seagate Barracuda 500GB 7200.11
Power Supply
Corsair HX1000W
Chassis
Cooler Master HAF X Full-Tower
Display
Gateway XHD3000 30″
Cooling
Corsair H50 Self-Contained Liquid Cooler
Et cetera
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit

When preparing our testbeds for any type of performance testing, we follow these guidelines:

To aide with the goal of keeping accurate and repeatable results, we alter certain services in Windows 7 from starting up at boot. This is due to the fact that these services have the tendency to start up in the background without notice, potentially causing inaccurate test results. For example, disabling “Windows Search” turns off the OS’ indexing which can at times utilize the hard drive and memory more than we’d like.

The most important services we disable are:

The full list of Windows services we assure are disabled is large, but for those interested in perusing it, please look here. Most of the services we disable are mild, but we go to such an extent to have the PC as highly optimized as possible.

Game Titles

At this time, we benchmark with three resolutions that represent three popular monitor sizes available today, 20″ (1680×1050), 24″ (1920×1080) and 30″ (2560×1600). Each of these resolutions offers enough of a variance in raw pixel output to warrant testing with it, and each properly represent a different market segment: mainstream, mid-range and high-end.

Because we value results generated by real-world testing, we don’t utilize timedemos. The possible exceptions might be Futuremark’s 3DMark Vantage and Unigine’s Heaven 2.1. Though neither of these are games, both act as robust timedemos. We choose to use them as they’re a standard where GPU reviews are concerned.

All of our results are captured with the help of Beepa’s FRAPS 3.2.3, while stress-testing and temperature-monitoring is handled by OCCT 3.1.0 and GPU-Z, respectively.

For those interested in the exact settings we use for each game, direct screenshots can be seen below:

Colin McRae: Dirt 2

Colin McRae: Dirt 2 - Settings

Colin McRae: Dirt 2 - Settings

Just Cause 2

Just Cause 2 - Settings

Mafia II

Mafia II - Settings

Metro 2033

Metro 2033 - Settings

StarCraft II

StarCraft II - Settings

Colin McRae: Dirt 2

It’s not that often that faithful PC gamers get a proper racing game for their platform of choice, but Dirt 2 is one of those. While it is a “console port”, there’s virtually nothing in the game that will make that point stand out. The game as a whole takes good advantage of our PC’s hardware, and it’s as challenging as it is good-looking.

Colin McRae: Dirt 2

Manual Run-through: The race we chose to use in Dirt 2 is the first one available in the game, as it’s easily accessible and features a lot of GPU-pounding effects that the game has become known for, such as realistic dust and water effects, a large on-looking crowd of people and fine details on and off the track. Each run-through lasts the entire two laps, which comes out to about 2.5 minutes.

Here’s a super-strong start for MSI here, with its HD 6950 pushing past the HD 6970 at 1680 and 1080p, only to be surpassed by a mere 1 FPS at 2560. With the performance as strong as it is compared to the HD 6970, it’s clear that AMD has had some nice driver optimizations put in place since we last benchmarked the HD 6970 (10.12).

Just Cause 2

Just Cause 2 might not belong to a well-established series of games, but with its launch, it looks like that might not be the case for long. The game offers not only superb graphics, but an enormous world to explore, and for people like me, a countless number of hidden items to find around it. During the game, you’ll be scaling skyscrapers, racing through jungles and fighting atop snow-drenched mountains. What’s not to like?

Just Cause 2

Manual Run-through: The level chosen here is part of the second mission in the game, “Casino Bust”. Our runthrough begins at the second-half of the level, which requires us to situate ourselves on top of a car and have our driver, Karl Blaine, speed us through part of the island to safety. This is a great mission for benchmarking as we get to see a lot of the landmass, even if some of it is at a distance.

The trend which began with Dirt 2 continues here in full force. Next to the dual-GPU HD 6990, MSI’s card out-performs the everything else. It doesn’t help that this game doesn’t favor NVIDIA even in the least, however.

Mafia II

For fans of the original Mafia game, having to wait an incredible eight years for a sequel must’ve been tough. But as we found out in our review, the wait might be forgotten as the game is quite good. It doesn’t feature near as much depth as say, Grand Theft Auto IV, but it does a masterful job of bringing you back to the 1940’s and letting you experience the Mafia lifestyle.

Mafia II

Manual Run-through: Because this game doesn’t allow us to save a game in the middle of a level, we chose to use chapter 7, “In Loving Memory…”, to do our runthrough. That chapter begins us on a street corner with many people around, and from there, we run to our garage, get in our car, and speed out to the street. Our path ultimately leads us to the park, and takes close to two minutes to accomplish.

At the lowest resolutions, things got back to normalcy, but at 2560×1600, MSI’s card again impressed, sitting right behind NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 580, but as it barely surpassed the stock HD 6950 by any real measure, AMD’s recent driver improvements apparently aren’t global.

Metro 2033

One of the more popular Internet memes for the past couple of years has been, “Can it run Crysis?”, but as soon as Metro 2033 launched, that’s a meme that should have died. Metro 2033 is without question one of the beefiest games on the market, and though it supports DirectX 11, it’s almost a feature worth ignoring, because the extent you’ll need to go to in order to see playable framerates isn’t likely going to be worth it.

Metro 2033

Manual Run-through: The level we use for testing is part of chapter 4, called “Child”, where we must follow a linear path through multiple corridors until we reach our end point, which takes a total of about 90 seconds. Please note that due to the reason mentioned above, we test this game in DX10 mode, as DX11 simply isn’t that realistic from a performance standpoint.

The extra cores on the HD 6970 helped it pull ahead here, but MSI’s card still has a sizable lead when compared to the reference version.

StarCraft II

Of all the games we test, it might be this one that needs no introduction. Back in 1998, Blizzard unleashed what was soon to be one of the most successful RTS titles on the planet, and even as of today, the original is still heavily played all around the world – even in actual competitions. StarCraft II of course had a lot of hype to live up to, and it did, thanks to its intense gameplay and superb graphics.

StarCraft II

Manual Run-through: The portion of the game we use for testing is part of the Zero Hour mission, which has us holding fort until we’re able to evacuate. Our saved game starts us in the middle of the mission, and from the get-go, we build a couple of buildings and concurrently move our main units up and around the map. Total playtime lasts about two minutes.

NVIDIA strikes back at AMD here, which helps to make up for AMD’s incredible performance in Just Cause 2. Still, great performance overall.

Futuremark 3DMark 11

Although we generally shun automated gaming benchmarks, we do like to run at least one to see how our GPUs scale when used in a ‘timedemo’-type scenario. Futuremark’s 3DMark 11 is without question the best such test on the market, and it’s a joy to use, and watch. The folks at Futuremark are experts in what they do, and they really know how to push that hardware of yours to its limit.

Futuremark 3DMark 11

Similar to a real game, 3DMark 11 offers many configuration options, although many (including us) prefer to stick to the profiles which include Performance, and Extreme. Depending on which one you choose, the graphic options are tweaked accordingly, as well as the resolution. As you’d expect, the better the profile, the more intensive the test. The benchmark doesn’t natively support 2560×1600, so to benchmark with that, we choose the Extreme profile and simply change the resolution.

With 3DMark, the HD 6970 manages to prove its dominance, though MSI’s HD 6950 pulls quite a bit ahead of the reference – as we’d expect with the respective clock boosts.

Unigine Heaven 2.1

While Futuremark is a well-established name where PC benchmarking is concerned, Unigine is just beginning to become exposed to people. The company’s main focus isn’t benchmarks, but rather its cross-platform game engine which it licenses out to other developers, and also its own games, such as a gorgeous post-apocalytic oil strategy game. The company’s benchmarks are simply a by-product of its game engine.

Unigine Heaven 2.1

The biggest reason that the company’s “Heaven” benchmark grew in popularity rather quickly is that both AMD and NVIDIA promoted it for its heavy use of tessellation, a key DirectX 11 feature. Like 3DMark Vantage, the benchmark here is overkill by design, so results here aren’t going to directly correlate with real gameplay. Rather, they showcase which card models can better handle both DX11 and its GPU-bogging features.

The strengths of the HD 6970 proved itself as the resolution went higher here. At 1680, MSI’s card ruled, while at 1080p, both MSI’s card and the HD 6970 were equaled. At 2560, the HD 6970 pulled ahead, but just barely. Considering that MSI’s card here performs so close to NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 580, I’d consider it a win overall.

Power & Temperatures

To test our graphics cards for both temperatures and power consumption, we utilize OCCT for the stress-testing, GPU-Z for the temperature monitoring, and a Kill-a-Watt for power monitoring. The Kill-a-Watt is plugged into its own socket, with only the PC connect to it.

As per our guidelines when benchmarking with Windows, when the room temperature is stable (and reasonable), the test machine is boot up and left to sit at the desktop until things are completely idle. Because we are running such a highly optimized PC, this normally takes one or two minutes. Once things are good to go, the idle wattage is noted, GPU-Z is started up to begin monitoring card temperatures, and OCCT is set up to begin stress-testing.

To push the cards we test to their absolute limit, we use OCCT in full-screen 2560×1600 mode, and allow it to run for 15 minutes, which includes a one minute lull at the start, and a four minute lull at the end. After about 5 minutes, we begin to monitor our Kill-a-Watt to record the max wattage.

In the case of dual-GPU configurations, we measure the temperature of the top graphics card, as in our tests, it’s usually the one to get the hottest. This could depend on GPU cooler design, however.

Note: Due to changes AMD and NVIDIA made to the power schemes of their respective current-gen cards, we were unable to run OCCT on them. Rather, we had to use a less-strenuous run of 3DMark Vantage. We will be retesting all of our cards using this updated method the next time we overhaul our suite.

On the temperature side of things, MSI’s card impresses. It almost matches the super-low-end Radeon HD 6450, and that says something. It even beats out MSI’s own GTX 560! Hitting about 60°C on a $300 GPU is quite nice, given we’re used to seeing temperatures about 20°C higher. Power-wise, MSI’s card manages to suck down a bit more than the reference card, though it’s to be expected with its overclock. It does however manage to idle just the same.

Final Thoughts

Let’s get right to the good stuff. MSI’s Twin Frozr III, where HD 6950s are concerned, is impressive. It has a lot of technical bits to impress, and with its built-in overclock, it even manages to sit behind the Radeon HD 6970 more often than not. It also surpassed the GTX 570 in almost all of our tests, and that card has to take advantage of mail-in rebates in order to come close to the same price.

Due to time-constraints, I wasn’t able to put time into overclocking, but with all of what this card packs in, I’d imagine that there’d be few other cards quite so capable of pushing ridiculous clock speeds. It’s not just the fact that it includes a 6+2 power phase design, but also the fact that it uses higher-end on-board components and with the Afterburner software, lets you fine-tune three different voltages; GPU, memory and VDDCI.

Does all of this add up to a “must-buy”? At $300, that’s a difficult question to answer. At Newegg, there exist top-brand HD 6950s that are selling for around $240 ~ $250, which you could easily purchase and overclock yourself. While you may not reach the top-end clocks that this card should be able to, that may not be quite so important to you.

MSI Radeon HD 6950 2GB Twin Frozr III

What impressed me most about the Twin Frozr III wasn’t its overclock or fancy power design, but rather the fact that it’s quiet. So quiet, in fact, that it may actually be one of the quietest GPUs I’ve ever tested. With most of the room noise turned down or off, I booted up and listened intently to the GPU. I could hear air movement slightly, but it was totally drowned out by the other hardware in the PC (especially the hard drive).

As I cranked up a 3DMark 11 Extreme run, I could barely hear the card get any louder. It did, but to actually notice it was tough – again, in relation to the other components. If you have a 100% silent PC, you may hear the differences a little easier, but in a regular PC with the door on, you may be hard-pressed to notice it at all, even with a high GPU load.

For this reason, and also the fact that the cooler kept the temperatures so low overall, this would be an ideal GPU for a high-end gamer to put into a SFF chassis. I wouldn’t expect the ~60°C temperatures to remain in a smaller enclosure, but you’re unlikely to get another solution for this card that can perform quite this well.

I can honestly say that if I were building an HTPC or SFF PC, or even a PC with an ATX chassis, and wanted to pick up a GPU that both offered high-end gaming capabilities and still managed to run quiet and retain good temperatures, I’d choose this card without hesitation after having used it. If I were to purchase an HD 6950 for a regular chassis and didn’t mind the louder noise, I’d go with a lesser-expensive version, since $50 is not chump change. For a long-life and reliable card, however, MSI has a good thing going with its Twin Frozr III.

MSI Radeon HD 6950 Twin Frozr III
MSI Radeon HD 6950 Twin Frozr III

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