PowerColor Radeon HD 6970 LCS Review

ccokeman - 2011-02-08 18:40:10 in Video Cards
Category: Video Cards
Reviewed by: ccokeman   
Reviewed on: March 3, 2011
Price: $ 519

Introduction:

Of all the cooling solutions on the market one of the most appealing and yet most feared is water cooling. Who in their right mind would put water in with electronics and hope that the inevitable does not happen (sheepishly raising my hand)? Water cooling is one of the cooling solutions that offer tremendous upsides when done correctly and that most feared of things when done incorrectly. The last factory released water cooled card I looked at was made by PowerColor, the HD 5970 LCS. What I found was that by liquid cooling the trouble spots with a full cover water block, the core clock speeds were increased by another 120Mhz over a non-water cooled card. Peformance was increased significantly as well with that card so the expectation is that the HD 6970 LCS from PowerColor will offer up some nice gains in performance with the enhanced cooling. PowerColor have again gone with EK Waterblocks as their supplier of choice to equip this card. The Acetal and Nickel plated copper is an enticing look that is all the rage right now.

So what do you get with a card of this caliber when you shell out a cool 5 bills for it? You get a card equipped with a high-end cooling solution that is already installed (saving you the trouble and potential heartaches), comes with a warranty and gets a generous increase in the base clock speeds to 925MHz on the Cayman XT core and 1425MHz on the 2GB of GDDR5 memory. Seeing as how just about every one of the HD 6970 cards I have tested have delivered a clock speed of just over 1000MHz I have to wonder if the cooling will allow for some significant increases above that number or will the main benefit be just reduced operating temperatures? Let's see what the HD 6970 LCS from PowerColor has to offer and see if it can live up to the hype.

Closer Look:

The packaging used for the HD 6970 LCS is traditional PowerColor and is on the smallish side. The front panel of the shell shows the card with the model numbers and series listed under the card. To the bottom right is a picture of four monitors in an Eyefinity setup. The total amount of the GDDR5 frame buffer is listed at the top right and is 2GB in size. Just under this listing are the type of outputs this card is capable of using. The back side of the box talks about AMD specific technologies that are employed by the HD 6900 series including Accelerated Parallel Processing, AMD HD3D, HDMI 1.4, CrossfireX and DirectX 11. Also discussed on the right hand rear panel are the benefits of water cooling as PowerColor sees them. Chief among those reasons are the immense cooling potential of a liquid cooled solution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside the shell is the box that holds the HD 6970 LCS. Inside are the driver disk and a generic installation manual. Digging further you find the video card and hidden in a compartment up at the front side of the box is the large selection of accessories.

 

 

The bundle of accessories that come with this card include just about everything you need to get the HD 6970 LCS installed in your system save the liquid loop. That you need to supply on your own! The balance of the bundle includes 3/8 and 1/2 inch barbed fittings, a pair of extensions in case your fittings are to long to fit the EK block, clamps for both sizes of tubing, a Crossfire bridge connection, Mini HDMI to HDMI adapter and the 6 Pin PCIe power to 8 pin adapter.

 

You can see from the packaging and contents that PowerColor has something special here. It will be interesting to find out just how special it is for the premium price.

Closer Look:

The Cayman XT based PowerColor HD 6970 LCS comes from the factory equipped with a high-end water cooling block from EK Waterblocks. This liquid cooling solution has an Acetal cover with a nickel plated copper block giving you the best of both worlds. A cover that will not crack and leak (potentially killing or seriously damaging your gaming rig) and nickel plating that keeps the copper block looking new. Something the copper just does not do over time as it oxidizes. Besides the looks, the reasons for going with a liquid cooled solution comes down to the thermal capabilities that are presented in the form of much lower operating temperatures. This in turn brings stability to overclocked settings when tweaking the voltage by effectively cooling the card and VRM components. The third and really the most significant in my eyes is the removal of an incredibly loud blower fan assembly. When the full cover water block is installed, the card effectively shrinks into a single slot solution even though the mounting bracket is still the reference bracket. The HD 6970 core is built on the 40nm process and is based on a VLIW4 design with an added tessellation unit. Baseline specs for this card include 24 SIMD , 1536 streaming multiprocessors, 96 texture units, 32 ROPs and a massive 2GB of GDDR5 frame buffer that drives compute performance to 2.75 TFlOPS in stock trim. With the addition of the water cooling solution, PowerColor has kicked up the clock speeds a few pegs to 925MHz or 45MHz on the core and 50MHz on the GDDR5 memory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Connectivity on the HD 6970 LCS is what you would see on a reference HD 6970 with its hideously loud air cooler. There are two DVI ports, one being single link only due to the amount of lanes needed for the balance of the connectivity while the other is dual link capable. Additionally you have two mini DisplayPort 1.2 ports that will allow you to connect to a total of up to six DisplayPort monitors using either an MST (Multi Stream Transport) hub or monitors that support daisy chaining. The last option is an HDMI 1.4a port that will allow you to send both High Definition or Blu-ray content and 7.1 surround sound out to the display and sound systems via a single cable. This configuration is capable of running resolutions up to 5760 x 2160 in an Eyefinity setup. This gives the end user options for either a 3x2 gaming setup or multiple configurations for a workstation setup to improve productivity. The plugs and covers are a way to keep unused ports clear of dust or contaminants.

 

 

Using a full cover waterblock precludes the use of the shroud over the card components and removes the fan from the power consumption totals. Even so, the HD 6970 is rated to run with a TDP of 250 watts with a minimum power supply requirement of 550 watts. The power supply to this card from PowerColor is the same as the reference card with a single 8 pin PCIe and single 6 Pin PCIe connections required from the PSU. On the spine of the card near the I/O bracket are the CrossfireX bridge connections. These two connections will allow up to four cards to be run in CrossfireX for increased gaming performance. At this point AMD has worked to get CrossfireX scaling up to where it belongs and have done an impressive job as of late. The small switch located to the rear of the Bridge connections is the BIOS switch that can be used for any number of reasons at this point but setting up different BIOS profiles that can be changed at the flick of a switch is the most common one. PowerColor even uses this feature to convert an HD 6950 to an HD 6970 via a BIOS mod that unlocks the additional cores on the die. This trick has been figured out and used extensively on just about every reference HD 6950. The key here is that PowerColor gives you a warranty.

 

 

Connecting this card into your water loop or building a water loop specifically for the graphics card are minimum requirements for using this card in a system. PowerColor supplies the barb fittings to use in the block but you can always use your own fittings of choice. The fittings screw into the copper part of the block on the back side and the Acetal on the front side. This pass through allows more than one of these cards to be used in the same water loop with an infinitely nicer looking implementation.

 

 

 

What we have is a card that looks just like it would if you installed the waterblock at home but with an added bonus...a warranty.

Specifications:

Graphics Engine
RADEON HD6970
Video Memory
2GB GDDR5
Engine Clock
925MHz
Memory Clock
1425MHz (5.7Gbps)
Memory Interface
256bit
DirectX® Support
11
Bus Standard
PCIE 2.1
Standard Display Connectors
DL-DVI-I/SL-DVI-D/HDMI/2* mini DisplayPort
Feature Support
OpenGL
Support
CrossFireX™ Technology
Support
ATI Stream Technology
Support
ATI Eyefinity Technology
Support
ATI Hypermemory Technology
 
Display Support
VGA Output
Via Adapter
DVI Output
DL-DVI-I/ SL-DVI-D
DisplayPort
On Board
HDMI
On Board
TV Output
 
HDTV Output
 
HDCP Support
Support
Maximum Resolution
VGA
2048x1536
DVI
2560x1600
DisplayPort
2560x1600
HDMI
1920x1200
Power Specs + Board Dimensions
Board Dimensions
275mmx111.2mmx38mm
Minimum System Power requirement (W)
550W
Extention Power Connector
One 6-Pin and One 8-Pin PCI Express Power connectors

 

Features:

New and advanced architecture

AMD Eyefinitytechnology

AMD PowerTunetechnology

AMD CrossFireX™ technology

Enhanced Quality Anti-Aliasing

2GB Frame Buffer

 

 

Information courtesy of PowerColor @ http://www.powercolor.com/Global/products_features.asp?id=314#Specification

Testing:

Testing of the PowerColor HD 6970 LCS will consist of running it and comparison cards through the OverclockersClub.com suite of games and synthetic benchmarks. This will test the performance against many popular competitors. Comparisons will be made to cards of equal and greater capabilities to show where they fall on the performance ladder. The games used are some of today's newest and most popular titles to give you an idea of how the cards perform relative to each other.

The system specifications will remain the same throughout the testing. No adjustment will be made to the respective control panels during the testing, with the exception of the 3DMark Vantage testing, where PhysX will be disabled in the NVIDIA control panel. I will test the cards at stock speeds, then overclocked in order to see the effects of any increases in clock speed. The cards are placed in order from highest to lowest performing in the graphs to show where the cards fall by comparison. The Powercolor HD 6970 LCS will be put into an existing water cooled loop simulating what you normally find with a high to mid-range system.

 

 

Comparison Video Cards:

 

Overclocking:

When overclocking a video card or CPU, heat is most often one of the barriers to increasing the core clock and memory speeds. There are many ways to pull this heat from the CPU or GPU from air to Ln2 or a simple water cooling loop. PowerColor has gone the water cooling route with this offering and the clock speeds it was able to hit are a testament to the fact that water cooling helps increase the clock speeds that are attainable by keeping temperatures in check. As delivered, the LCS comes with a 925MHz clock speed on the core that is within 25 MHz of the highest clock speeds I have been able to reach on a reference based HD 6970. That being said, I had expected to top out in the 970MHz range but easily shot above the 1GHz mark with a tweak to the voltage up to 1.270v. Sure that may seem high to some but in games the temperatures never reached above 45 degrees Celsius in the water loop in the test setup. That is the reason for a liquid cooled card right there. Ultimately the clock speeds reached 1021MHz on the core and 1520MHz on the GDDR5 memory. This represents an overclock of around 10% on the core and roughly 6.5% on the memory. These improved clock speeds offer up increases in gaming performance that you would not be able to get with a reference cooled card.

 

Maximum Clock Speeds:

In the past, I had used MSI's Kombuster utility to check for stability coupled with the ability to run through the entire test suite. I have found that some game tests would still fail with this utility, so I have moved to testing with several games at maximum settings through several resolutions to verify the clock speeds that are listed below. Why the change? I have found some cards will play fine at a 4xAA setting, but fail when using 8xAA due to the increased graphics load. If it fails, then the clock speeds and tests are rerun until they pass.

   

 

  1. Aliens vs. Predator
  2. Metro 2033
  3. Crysis Warhead
  4. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
  5. Just Cause 2
  6. Unigine Heaven Benchmark 2.1
  7. Batman: Arkham Asylum
  8. Battlefield: Bad Company 2
  9. 3DMark 06 Professional
  10. 3DMark Vantage
  1. Temperature
  2. Power Consumption

Aliens vs. Predator, developed by Rebellion Developments, is a science fiction first-person shooter and is a remake of its 1999 game. The game is based off the two popular sci fi franchises. In this game, you have the option of playing through the single player campaigns as one of three species, the Alien, the Predator, and the Human Colonial Marine. The Game uses Rebellion's Asura game engine that supports Dynamic Lighting, Shader Model 3.0, Soft Particle systems, and Physics. To test this game I will be using the Aliens vs. Predator benchmark tool with the settings listed below. All DirectX 11 features are enabled.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

In this first test, the additional clock speed does not seem to add any benefit to performance until the overclocked testing at 1920 x 1200.


 

Testing:

Part first-person shooter, part survival horror, Metro 2033 is based on the novel of the same name, written by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. You play as Artyom in a post-apocalyptic Moscow, where you'll spend most of your time traversing the metro system, with occasional trips to the surface. Despite the dark atmosphere and bleak future for mankind, the visuals are anything but bleak. Powered by the 4A Engine, with support for DirectX 11, NVIDIA PhysX and NVIDIA 3D Vision, the tunnels are extremely varied — in your travels, you'll come across human outposts, bandit settlements, and even half-eaten corpses. Ensuring you feel all the tension, there is no map and no health meter. Get lost without enough gas mask filters and adrenaline shots and you may soon wind up as one of those half-eaten corpses — chewed up by some horrifying manner of irradiated beast that hides in the shadows just waiting for some hapless soul to wander by.

 

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

In Metro 2033, the performance scaling as the resolution increases almost mirrors the reference card through all three resolutions.

Testing:

Crysis Warhead is a standalone expansion pack situated in time with the story line of the original Crysis. As Sergeant "Psycho" Sykes, you have a secret mission to accomplish on the far side of the island. Along the way there are EMP blasts and aliens to contend with, as you hunt down the KPA chief. This game uses an enhanced version of the CryEngine 2.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

The performance of the PowerColor LCS is only eclipsed by the HD 5970 in this test.

Testing:

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is an iteration of the venerable first person shooter series, Call of Duty. Despite its long, successful pedigree, the game is not without substantial criticism and controversy, especially on the PC. Aside from the extremely short campaign and lack of innovation, the PC version's reception was also marred by its lack of support for user-run dedicated servers, which means no user-created maps, no mods, and no customized game modes. You're also limited to 18-player matches instead of the 64-player matches that were possible in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Despite all this, the game has been well received and the in-house IW 4.0 engine renders the maps in gorgeous detail, making it a perfect candidate for OCC benchmarking. You start off the single player missions playing as Private Allen and jump right into a serious firefight. This is the point where testing will begin. Testing will be done using actual game play with FPS measured by Fraps.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

As the resolution increased, the performance scaled better than the GTX 570 in this game where the HD 6970 delivers a higher FPS at 2560 x 1600 in the stock testing.

Testing:

Just Cause 2 is a third-person shooter that takes place on the fictional island of Panau in Southeast Asia. In this sequel to 2006's Just Cause, you return as Agent Rico Rodriguez to overthrow an evil dictator and confront your former boss. When you don't feel like following the main story line, you're free to roam the island, pulling off crazy stunts and causing massive destruction in your wake, all beautifully rendered by the Avalanche Engine 2.0. In the end, that's what the game basically boils down to — crazy stunts and blowing things up. In fact, blowing things up and wreaking havoc is actually necessary to unlock new missions and items.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

The higher clock speeds on the PowerColor HD 6970 show an upside when compared against the reference card. The increased performance puts it on par with the GTX 580 at stock speeds in the 2560 x 1600 testing.

Testing:

Unigine Heaven Benchmark 2.0 is a DirectX 11 GPU benchmark based on the Unigine engine. What sets the Heaven Benchmark apart is the addition of hardware tessellation, available in three modes — Moderate, Normal and Extreme. Although tessellation requires a video card with DirectX 11 support and Windows Vista/7, the Heaven Benchmark also supports DirectX 9, DirectX 10 and OpenGL. Visually, it features beautiful floating islands that contain a tiny village and extremely detailed architecture.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

In this test the PowerColor HD 6970 LCS did not show any really strong increases over the reference card when overclocked, despite the significant jump in clock speed.

Testing:

Batman: Arkham Asylum is a new game that brings together two bitter rivals, the Joker and Batman. The Joker has taken over Arkham Asylum, Gotham's home for the criminally insane. Your task is to rein the Joker back in and restore order. This game makes use of PhysX technology to create a rich environment for you to become the Dark Knight.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

In Batman, the higher clock speed of the PowerColor LCS delivers increased performance.

Testing:

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is a first-person shooter developed by EA Digital Illusions CE (DICE) and published by Electronic Arts for Windows, PS3 and XBox. This game is part of the Battlefield franchise and uses the Frostbite 1.5 Engine, allowing for destructible environments. You can play the single player campaign or multiplayer with five different game modes. Released in March 2010, it has so far sold in excess of six million copies.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

Even when overclocked, the HD 6970 LCS did not offer significant increases over the reference card in this game.

Testing:

3DMark 11 is the next installment for Futuremark in the 3DMark series with Vantage as its predecessor. The name implies that this benchmark is for Microsoft DirectX 11 and with an unintended coincidence, the name matches the upcoming date in number (which was the naming scheme to some prior versions of 3DMark nonetheless). 3DMark 11 is designed solely for DirectX 11 so Windows Vista or 7 are required along with a DirectX 11 graphics card in order to run this test. The Basic Edition has unlimited free tests on performance mode whereas Vantage only allowed for a single test run. The advanced edition costs $19.95 and unlocks nearly all of the features of the benchmark and the professional edition runs $995.00 and is mainly suited for corporate use. The new benchmark contains six tests, four of which are aimed only at graphical testing, one to test for physics handling and one to combine graphics and physics testing together. The open source Bullet Physics library is used for physics simulations and although not as mainstream as Havok or PhysX, it still seems to be a popular choice.

With the new benchmark comes two new demos that can be watched, both based on the tests but unlike the tests, these contain basic audio. The first demo is titled "Deep Sea" and have a few vessels exploring what looks to be a sunken U-Boat. The second demo is titled "High Temple" and is similar to South American tribal ruins with statues and the occasional vehicle around. The demos are simple in that they have no story, they are really just a demonstration of what the testing will be like. The vehicles have the logos of the sponsors MSI and Antec on their sides with the sponsorships helping to make the basic edition free. The four graphics tests are slight variants of the demos. I will use the three benchmark test preset levels to test the performance of each card. The presets are used as they are comparable to what can be run with the free version so that results can be compared across more than just a custom set of test parameters.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

The HD 6970 LCS again outperforms the reference card (as it should) in each resolution stock and overclocked.

Testing:

Featuring all-new game tests, this benchmark is for use with Vista-based systems. "There are two all-new CPU tests that have been designed around a new 'Physics and Artificial Intelligence-related computation.' CPU test two offers support for physics related hardware." There are four preset levels that correspond to specific resolutions. "Entry" is 1024 x 768 progressing to "Extreme" at 1920 x 1200. Of course, each preset can be modified to arrange any number of user designed testing. For our testing, I will use the four presets at all default settings.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

When compared to the reference HD 6970, the PowerColor LCS is the higher performer in each resolution in this test, stock and overclocked.

Testing:

Temperature testing will be accomplished by loading the video card to 100% using MSI Kombuster, which is paired with MSI's Afterburner overclocking utility for temperature monitoring. I will be using the stability test set to a resolution of 1920x1200 using 8xAA. I will use a 15 minute time frame to run the test, ensuring that the maximum thermal threshold is reached. The fan speed will be left in the control of the driver package and video card's BIOS for the stock load test, with the fan moved to 100% to see the best possible cooling scenario for the overclocked load test. The idle test will be a 20 minute cool down with the fan speeds left on automatic in the stock speed testing and bumped up to 100% when running the overclocked idle and load testing. For load testing the GTX 580 and GTX 570, I will use Crysis Warhead run at 2560x1600 using the Gamer setting with 8xAA looping the Avalanche benchmark scenario, as I have found this to put a load close to that of Kombuster on a video card. This is needed as a way around the current limiting ability of the GTX 500 series when it detects programs that put an unrealistic load on the GPU, which Kombuster does.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

  

Lower = Better

 

One of the key benefits of a liquid cooled card is clearly evident in the maximum temperature reached under load. A maximum of 45 degrees Celsius is a 20+ degree reduction in load temperatures when overclocked with the fan running at 100% and a 47C reduction when the fan is automatically controlled in the stock testing.

Testing:

Power Consumption of the system will be measured in both idle states and loaded states and will take into account the peak voltage of the system with each video card installed. I will use MSI Kombuster to load the GPU for a 15 minute test and use the peak load of the system as my result for the maximum load. The idle results will be measured after 15 minutes of inactivity on the system. For load testing the GTX 500 series, I will once again use Crysis Warhead run at 2560 x 1600 using the Gamer setting with 8xAA looping the Avalanche benchmark scenario.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

Lower = Better

 

The PowerColor HD 6870 LCS delivers lower idle current numbers than the reference card by way of its lack of a fan running. When overclocked and under load, the power consumption is increased over the level of the reference card due to the significant increase in clock speed the cooler running GPU offers.

Conclusion:

A factory water cooled card that comes with with a warranty is what you get in a nutshell with the HD 6970 LCS from PowerColor. When you break it down, the costs associated with owning a water cooling system are not what you would call inexpensive. Sure there are self-contained water systems from CooliT, Corsair and Antec for the CPU but that's not what we are talking about here. These coolers can be had for the cost of a high-end air cooling solution. They do not however take care of the video card problem, you still have to cool it somehow by either installing a dedicated loop or adding the card into an existing liquid loop. For me, it was a simple cut, drain and reconnect process that took about 15 minutes.

At first glance the $520 price tag of the HD 6970 LCS seems a bit expensive when compared to the $360 to $380 reference cooled cards. Take away the included water block that will set you back around $110 and the value is clearly evident. Add in the fact that one no longer has to worry about installing the full cover block and voiding a warranty and the value just becomes even clearer. Out of the box, the HD 6970 LCS has better performance than a reference based card due in no small part to its higher clock speeds. Bumping up the speeds brings additional performance as the included water block allowed the GPU core on the HD 6970 LCS to reach over 1GHz with nothing but a voltage tweak to get there. Overclocking is enhanced with the addition of the EK Waterblock's full cover waterblock. This block, when used in a liquid cooled system, will deliver exceptional cooling performance with the card never breaking the 50 Celsius mark at 45C. What has to be the biggest advantage of the card is not what it has but what it does not have. That ungodly loud fan noise when the fan is pushed to the 100% level. No howling beast to make you wonder why you bought the card. The overclocks achieved on this card were 1021MHz on the GPU core and 1520MHz on the GDDR5 memory. Easily better than any HD 6970 I have tested, something I have to attribute to the exceptional cooling delivered by the Ek block.

PowerColor has delivered another winner with this card and it is a great card to bear the LCS nameplate. It delivers top notch overclocking without a noise penalty and comes with a two year warranty. You have access to the entire AMD ecosystem with this card being CrossfireX capable, 3D Stereoscopic Eyefinity technology and more. All for what really is a cost point that makes this an attractive card for the enthusiast ready to jump into or is heavily involved with a water cooling setup.

 

Pros:

 

Cons: