Saturday, November 30, 2013

Review: MSI Radeon HD 7870 2GB Video Graphics Card

The best thing about being a PC owner is that you can actually upgrade your hardware. In the old days, this didn't matter much, because CPUs/motherboards were getting so much faster year after year that within 3 years it was time to retire the old motherboard and buy a whole new machine. In recent years, that has changed.

For instance, for video games, the bottleneck is no longer the CPU. 2009's Intel i920 quad core processors are about half the performance of the latest Haswell machines, but that's still plenty of power to drive any video game. The bottleneck is the GPU. While CPUs have gone faster by only about 100%, GPUs have sped up by about 200% over the same time period. The reason for this is that GPUs are extremely parallel machines, and therefore process improvements from 40nm to 28nm enable that many more parallel computations simply through replication.

A recent sale got me to buy the MSI Radeon 7870. The way you shop for a GPU is to visit Tom Hardware's Graphics Card Performance Hiearchy Chart. They recommend not upgrading if the proposed upgrade is less than 3 levels above your current hardware. Since I'm not as enthusiastic as they are, I waited until the sales generated upgrades 6 tiers above the old Radeon 4850 that came with my machine.

Replacing the hardware was both straightforward and annoying. The straightforward part is ripping the old card out. Some idiot at HP thought he was working at Apple and zip-tied the graphics card to the motherboard, giving me conniptions until I noticed the tiny zip-tie. One snip with a pair of scissors and it was gone. The next level of annoyance came when I realized that the new card came with 2 mini-display port outputs, 1 HDMI output, and 1 DVI output. My old setup depended on 2 DVI outs. OK, no problem, one of my monitors has one of the new-fangled display port inputs. I duly bought a 3m display port cable and plugged in to discover that it didn't work. Then I read the Display Port FAQ and realized that display port is unreliable over 2m cables for high resolution displays. So I returned the display port cable, and bought a mini display port to DVI cable. Note that this only works for lower resolution displays that don't need a dual DVI input, but fortunately, my secondary display was one of those.

So now I can play Arkham City at 1440p with detail level set to "high" and never drop below 30fps. I tried overclocking the GPU, but had one glitch during a game, so I'll hold off on doing that for now. If you don't run high resolution screens like I do, you probably can get 40-50fps without problems, but then you probably wouldn't ever get the urge to upgrade the GPU on your machine, either.

All in all, it was a bit of a hassle but I think the upgrade was worth it. Recommended.

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