MSI GTX680 Lightning GPU Review

Today we get to look at arguably one of the most coveted models of cards for enthusiasts from MSI, their Lightning brand. For this implementation, all the features that come along with that such as more robust power delivery area and cooling to name two, have been applied to Nvidia’s venerable GTX 680. Let’s take a closer look and see how this one performs.

Specifications and Features

Listed below are the specifications listed from the MSI website. The important thing to take away from this is the factory core clocks have been upped to 1110 MHz with a boost of 1176 MHz.

MSI GTX680 Lightning Specifications
Graphics Engine GeForce GTX 680
Interface PCI Express x16 3.0
Memory Type GDDR5
Memory Size (MB) 2048
Memory Interface 256 bit
Core Clock Speed (MHz) 1110 (Boost Clock: 1176)
Memory Clock Speed (MHz) 6008 (3004×2)
DVI Output 2
D-SUB Output N/A
HDMI-Output 1
Mini HDMI-Output N/A
DisplayPort 1
Mini DisplayPort N/A
HDTV Support N/A
HDCP Support Y
HDMI Support Y
Dual-link DVI Y
Display Output (Max Resolution) 2560×1600
RAMDACs 400
DirectX Version Support 11
OpenGL Version Support 4.2
SLI Support Y
3-way SLI Y
Card Dimension (mm) 280 x 129 x 49.15 (w/ GPU Reactor)

What sets this card apart from the other GTX 680′s available outside of the TwinFrozr IV cooling solution (Xtreme Thermal), is a fully custom PCB sporting additional power phases, an 8+3+1 – (core/memory/pll) set versus 4+2+1, Unlocked Digital Power, GPU Reactor, and Military Class III components to name a few. Listed below are more details (sourced from MSI).

 

Unlocked Digital Power

- Unlocked BIOS: One click to unlock all protections for extreme overclocking
- Digital PWM Controller: More stable and precise voltage by digital signal
- Enhanced Power Design: 2X Power output for maximum OC potential

 

GPU Reactor
- An add-on device on the back of GTX 680 Lightning (Behind GPU) for the overclocking stability
- Provide 200% higher power capacity and eliminate power noise (ripple)

Xtreme Thermal
- Dust Removal technology on Twin Frozr IV keeps dust out for the best thermal condition
- Dual Form-in-one Heatsinks provide better heat dissipation and strengthen the structure

Military Class III Components


- Meet MIL-STD-810G standard to ensure the best stability and quality.
- Adopt CopperMOS, Hi-c CAP, Golden SSC, and Dark Solid CAP

To continue on my MSI marketing rampage, here are a couple of slides detailing more of the specifications and features. These slides detail the 12 Phase PWM (8+3+1), as well as showing the two(2) pin PCIe connectors versus the 8+6pin configuration on most other 680′s. The last slide in this group simply shows the GPU Reactor and how it fits on the card. This unit is very easy to remove/add in case you need to go SLI.

One of the major features here (but not pictured) is the use of a CHiL voltage regulator to control, well, voltage. Remember the reference cards use a dynamic Vcore and max out at 1.175 V which can potentially limit your overclocking headroom. Future releases of MSI Afterburner (no ETA, but soon!) should allow us to break through that barrier manually so we can get back to the type of overclocking enthusiast are used to. I have to say that is a welcome addition to those who do not want to or just don’t have the skill sets and tools to hard mod the card. So lets hope the voltage one can apply is significantly more. I’m personally thinking 1.35 V would be generous.

MSI brought the Twin Frozr IV (further mentioned as TFIV) cooling solution  to the 680 to keep temperatures down. The TFIV uses two 100mm PWM fans with propeller technology to move “up to 20% more air” as well has having two 8 mm “super pipes” flanking the middle of the heatsink array and nickel-plated copper base. The solution is claimed (by another slide not pictured  here) to be 16 °C cooler and almost 7 dB quieter to whatever card they compared against (reference?). The solution is quieter and more effective than the reference coolers that’s for sure.

MSI’s higher end cards give you more overclocking flexibility by implementing their 3×3 OC kits. Triple overvoltage, triple temperature monitoring, and triple voltage check points (all include core, memory, and PLL).

 

Photo Op

Starting off looking at the retail packaging, the second thing you will notice, after the large packaging, you can see they are keeping the F-35 Lightning fighter theme gracing the cover as well as showing the model type, “GTX680 Lightning” on the front. Moving to to the rear of the packaging covers typical things like minimum system requirements, as well as some of its major features. This box has a flip top lid with the upper panel going over more features like Military Class III components, Unlocked Digital Power, and the 3X3 OC kit. The bottom gives you a sneak peak of the card inside as well as listing a even more features.

Inside the retail packaging, the card was packed well using  form fitting foam sitting in an anti-static bag nice and snug. Towards the front the include accessories reside (DVI to VGA adapter, 6 to 8 pin connector, SLI bridge and more importantly, the voltage check cables).

Retail Packaging - Front

Rear

Rear

Box lid - Top

Box lid - Top

Bottom

Inside packaging

Inside packaging

After getting it out the box, you can see the card is using the TwinFrozr IV cooling solution sporting two 100 mm fans. These fans use an ‘anti-dust’ feature which spin the blades the opposite way (clockwise) upon power up to blow any loose dust off the heatsink.

Flipping the card over you see the now familiar GPU Core Reactor help keep more stable power supplied to the GPU. Its location is right behind the GPU to more effectively get the power where it needs to go. I’m not a huge fan of bling but this unit glowing blue I cant say I mind too much. Also on the backside are LED’s that show the active phases for both the core and memory. On the default bios the amount of power phases used varies upon load. When switching over to the LN2 bios all LED’s and phases are lit up and ready to roll.

MSI GTX 680 Lightning - Front

MSI GTX 680 Lightning - Front

Rear

Rear

Display Outputs (2 DVI-d,

Display Outputs - 2 DVI (1-D, 1-I), 1 HDMI, 1 Displayport)

Two(2) 8pin connectors

Two(2) 8pin connectors

Taking off the TwinFrozr IV heatsink reveals this isn’t your mamma’s reference board. Power plane fortification in the way of the 8+3+1 setup (core/memory/pll) mentioned in the specifications and features section is pretty obvious. You can see the necessary components such as the memory and power components all have a heatsink on top of them to help keep cool.

There’s not too much on the backside outside of more supporting components for power delivery. Moving on to the last picture of the base of the Twinfrozr IV heatsink you can see the pipe configuration with the 8 mm monsters flanking smaller what looks like 6mm pipes in the middle of the nickel-plated copper base to whisk the heat away from the GPU.

TwinFrozr IV heatsink removed

TwinFrozr IV heatsink removed (w/ board cooling)

safsd

TwinFrozr IV heatsink removed (w/o board cooling)

Rear with GPU Reactor and backplate removed

Rear with GPU Reactor and backplate removed

Heatsink

Heatsink

Wiping off the liberal application of Thermal Interface Material (TIM), is the  GK104 core fed by the 8+3+1 power configuration which uses the Copper MOS(fets) which run cooler, have a higher current capacity, Hi-C (High Current) caps, and Golden Solid State Chokes all helping in achieving potential superior overclocking ability. The last item pictured is the GPU Reactor core board sporting its additional Hi-C caps.

Core shot

Power Delivery area

Power Delivery area

GPU Reactor board

GPU Reactor board

 

Performance and Overclocking

Test System

  • Intel i7 3770K CPU @ 4 GHz (Overclockers.com Approved!)
  • EVGA Z77 FTW (Overclockers.com Approved!)
  • G.Skill RipjawsX 2 x 4 GB 2133 MHz CL7 @ 1.65 V
  • 60GB OCZ Vertex 2 SSD (Overclockers.com Approved!)
  • Seasonic 1000 W
  • MSI GTX680 Lightning (Stock – 1100(1202 boost)/1200 and 1200(1302 boost)/1400 overclocked)
  • Windows 7 64 bit Operating System
  • nVidia 301.42 WHQL Drivers

Benchmarking Method/Settings

  • All Synthetic benchmarks were at their default settings
  • Unigine Heaven (HWbot) was run with the “extreme” setting
  • Alien vs. Predator – 1920×1080 with highest settings offered (4x AA, textures set to highest)
  • Battlefield 3 – 1920×1080 at Ultra settings (4xAA/HBAO by default)
  • Dirt 3  - 1920×1080 with 8x MSAA and all settings enabled and at Ultra where possible
  • Metro 2033 – 1920×1080, DX11, Very High, 4x MSAA/ 16x AF, PhysX OFF, DOF enabled, Scene: Frontline
  • Civilization V – 1920×1080, 8x MSAA, Vysnc OFF, High Detail Strategic View: Enabled, Other Settings: High, using full render frames value ( / 60)
  • More detail is in our article: Overclockers’ Updated Video Card Testing Procedure

Overclocking Software

Most are familiar with MSI Afterburner so I wont go in to much detail here. One of the differences you may notice below however  is that it doesn’t list the clock speeds or voltage where you can make adjustments. Instead the value is just at zero(0+) so you increase the default values PLUS what you set the sliders to, so its an offset basically.

Another release will be coming out soon to allow one to push past the normal 1.175 V limit. I think this is a HUGE addition to those that may be nervous about volt modding video cards and would like to push past the 1.175v limit. How high it will go remains to be seen, but I hope its in the 1.3+ V range personally. The next version will also unlock the ability to change all three voltages with this card and really allow it to stretch its legs across the core and the memory.

MSI Afterburner 2.2.2

Synthetic Benchmarks

This is my first review since we have updated our review methods and have since dropped 3DMark06 as it was getting a little long in the tooth and was wholly bound by the CPU. All that remains in 03, Vantage, 11, and Unigine Heaven (Hwbot version) respond well to the GPU.

To start first see what will mostly be, and as most expect, a reoccurring theme of the MSI GTX680 Lightning beating out its reference based peer and of course its little brothers, the GTX670 SC and GTX670 Direct CU II. There are very little differences here between all the cards results however.

3DMark 03 and 3DMark Vantage

3DMark 03 and 3DMark Vantage

Stepping on over to 3DMark 11 we see the Lightning leading the pack again…and the same goes for Unigine Heaven as well. Although the monster overclock on the GTX670 Direct CU II managed to pass up the 680, that is how close these cards really are.

3DMark 11 and Unigine Heaven (Hwbot)

3DMark 11 and Unigine Heaven (Hwbot)

Game Benchmarks

Switching gears and moving to games, you can see we also changed this section up a bit as well. We got rid of Dirt 2 and Hawx 2, and replaced them with much more modern games such as Battlefield 3, Batman: Arkham City, Metro 2033, Dirt 3, and Civilization V. This selection should give readers a fairly good idea of how video cards perform across a variety of modern games and genre’s of games.

To begin, not much changes here from the synthetic testing above. The GTX680 Lightning is leading the pack in most cases. In Alien versus Predator though the stock score came in a bit lower than the rest, but that could be in the drivers. In Batman and Battlefield 3, the Lightning asserts itself as the leader. All games in this list are easily playable with some good eye candy at 1920×1080 resolution which is what one would expect from this caliber of card.

Alien v Predator, Batman: Arkham City, Battlefield 3

Alien v Predator, Batman: Arkham City, and Battlefield 3

When looking at the results below, Civilization V has another one of these peculiar results in that the 670 manages to beat it out here. Again I’m chalking this up to driver issues. Moving over to Dirt3 and Metro 2033, we see it right back up at the top. Even Metro2033, the GPU killer, comes in at a playable for most frame rate in the low 30′s.

Civilization IV, Dirt3, and Metro 2033

Civilization IV, Dirt3, and Metro 2033

Cooling and Power Consumption

For our power consumption tests, we used Heaven and 3DMark 11 to find the peak consumption through those tests. Compared to some monster cards in the past, you can see the newest generation of high end cards comparatively sips on power. At stock speeds and voltages, the max load was an anemic 308 W. When flipping the LN2 switch and pushing the clock speeds and voltages on the GPU, that rose 321 W peak in 3DMark 11 with 316 W in Heaven. A quality 500 W PSU would  be plenty to support this card and overclocking both it and the CPU.

For the temperature testing, we use the same benchmarks in 3DMark11 and Heaven using the default fan profile. 3DMark 11 is faster and doesn’t heat up the GPU as much as well as having small breaks between runs, while Unigine Heaven takes a long time and doesn’t let up until the end. At idle with the temperatures normalized to 25 °C, the MSI GTX680 Lightning sat at 28 °C and 31.5 °C (stock and overclocked) with the fan on auto (30% at idle). When in 2D mode the card drops down to 0.987 V and lowers the core speed significantly to save power. This card on auto peaked around 65 °C while overclocked. The fan spun up to around 45% or so at that speed and was barely audible over my system fans.

Power Consumption

Power Consumption

Temperatures

Temperatures

Pushing the Limits

One of my favorite things to do here is to see how far our review card goes. Considering at stock speeds you already have a boost of 100+ MHz over reference core clocks, I didn’t have too much faith in pushing this card further. I probably should have reserved judgement a bit as I was able to push this card to a stable 1210 core clock and +225 MHz on the memory (likely could have gone further). The resulting core clock resulted in a boost clock of 1302 MHz. Couple that with a solid 4.8 GHz overclock on the 3770K Ivy Bridge CPU, and that brings me to some solid results listed below.

While this specific sample may not scream on air, its really not made to do so…on air. With the voltage read points, LN2 BIOS switch that disables protection settings, as well as the power delivery area on steroids, this  card really should be taken cold to reach its full potential.

3DMark Vantage - 38,528

3DMark Vantage - 38,528

3DMark11 - 11,158

3DMark11 - 11,158

Conclusion

Overall MSI has put out another great product in its Lightning series using Nvidia’s new Kepler architecture. The differences in board design such as increased power phases allowing more and cleaner power to get to the GPU, voltage read points, the GPU Reactor, and the TwinFrozr IV cooling solution, all make for a much better than stock solution in the overclocking department. One minor downside is waiting for the new release of MSI Afterburner (2.2.3) to come out to use all the functions; specifically it is rumored to have voltage control beyond the 1.175 limit most are used to.

The MSRP for this card is $599.99 and is currently priced that way at newegg.com. Its not the most expensive GTX680 out there (an EVGA model holds that honor at $629.99), but it certainly is up there in the number two slot. You just have to remember what this card is made for and that is pushing the limits with superior hardware behind it than reference models and most, if not all, aftermarket boards as well. You get what you pay for and there is a premium for better components.

Pricing aside, you have a monster of a video card even with stock cooling and voltage limits. Where this card really will earn its keep however is when it is under water or especially extreme cooling with the new MSI Afterburner release. If you want the best GTX680 you can get, this MSI GTX680 Lightning certainly has a good argument for it.

-Joe Shields (Earthdog)

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