I see bright flashes in the distance. What could it be? Wait… listen. What is that noise following it? Sounds like thunder. So, I guess that means the flashes are lightning. Could it be? Is it really? That’s right ladies and gentlemen, since this is obviously a computer enthusiast website that has nothing to do with meteorology – this HAS to be the long awaited MSI N780 Lightning that has rumbled its way into my reviewer’s den of torture! MSI surely took its sweet time bringing this card to market with a teaser or two along the way. From the looks of those teasers and leaked shots we saw recently, this video card loos to be a beast! At least hardware wise. Let’s see if my attempt at ‘wordsmithing’ is backed up by the hardware and performance of MSI’s top tier GTX 780.
Specifications and Features
One of the first things we always look at in my reviews are the specifications and features of the hardware in hand. The basics, such as the GPU core (GK110), the amount of CUDA cores (2304), memory (3 GB), and memory bus (384 bit) are the same as every other GTX 780 available today. One of the first things that I looked at when I received the information below was the clock speed. I expected this to come in clocked as fast or faster than what is out there. For the most part, it does.
The MSI N780 Lightning core clock comes in at 980 MHz with a listed boost clock of 1033 MHz. Using Boost Clock 2.0, the actual boost clock will vary based on power consumption and temperature as to where the clock will rest when gaming or benchmarking. In this case, the clock speed settled at 1124 MHz during the synthetic and game testing at stock speeds, and did so without any fluctuations. These speeds are not the fastest out there, however. It is bested by the EVGA Classified and the Galaxy GTX 780 HOF by a slim but measurable margin, as you will see later. The RAM comes in at its ever stagnant for this line of cards, 1502 MHz (quad pumped to 6008 MHz). I really wonder why the memory isn’t touched on any of these cards.
The card uses DX11.1 API, OpenGL 4.3, and rests in a PCIe 3.0 slot. According to the specs below, the card only does two way SLI, but, there are two connectors so I have to imagine that is a typo and the card will support Quad SLI. We will go over the accessories a bit later, but this shows what is included.
As far as the feature set goes for this card, MSI brings to the table a few things in the marketing information worth mentioning. The first is the Triple Force Architecture. This consists of Triple Level Signals, which is represented by the words “Lightning” on the card. These light up using three colors – green, blue, and red, which represent an increasing power load in that order.
The next item is the Trifrozr Thermal Design. This new cooler sports three fans with the two on the outside being larger (looks like 100 mm), and a smaller yellow fan (70 mm) in the middle to help cool the card down. This design, MSI says, “far exceeds any traditional or custom cooler’s thermal performance and ensures better cooling of the GPU, memory, and PWM modules.” The fans still use the ‘Propeller Blade’ and dust removal technology (fans run in reverse, full tilt for a short time upon booting). These fans can be independently controlled via additional included software, which allows you to control the larger outside fans together, and the smaller middle fan by itself. I have to say that I like the physical implementation, but I am not liking the separate software to control the fans. The software works just fine and looks good too, but I really would have liked to see it integrated into the MSI Afterburner software. You can use MSI AB to control the large outside fans, but the middle fan remains at its stock speed. This wasn’t a problem heat-wise. Fans can’t do it alone of course, and MSI uses a new nickel plated copper heatsink with seven 8 mm heatpipes snaking their way through the fin array. Last up in the Trifrozr Thermal design is the Pure Digital PWM. MSI states this gives a more accurate voltage signal than traditional (assuming analog) designs. This in turn is supposed to help us with stability.
Next up is the Twin BIOS and Enhanced Power Design. The Twin BIOS is self explanatory really. There are two BIOS chips on this card. One is the standard BIOS for gaming, while the other is made for extreme (think LN2) overclocking. This BIOS removes some voltage protections (OCP/OVP) to assist with that type of overclocking. Along with the dual BIOS comes the Enhanced Power Design. The N760 Lightning uses a total of sixteen… let me put that as a number for emphasis… 16 phases for the GPU, which more than doubles the reference design. The memory is fed by a total of two phases. All of this sits on a custom designed, ten layer PCB. Last up in the power area is MSI’s use of the familiar GPU Reactor. This device sits on the back of the PCB directly behind the GPU, and is said to provide 300% higher power capacity. It should help to eliminate power noise (aka ripple) and help with higher clock speeds, especially when using extreme cooling methods. We haven’t seen much improvement in clock speed with this device on air, so it is mainly for really pushing the power in water and LN2 situations.
Like a lot of MSI products contain, the N760 Lightning also has parts tested using the Military standard MIL-STD-810G. More specifically the new DrMOS 4, CopperMOS, Hi-c CAP, new SFC, and Dark Solid CAP. While all the tests this standard lists are not used, it should still provide at least a placebo effect for the robust nature of the parts used on this, and other MSI products.
Last up is MSI Afterburner and the 3×3 OC Kits. MSI dubs this as a ‘must have’ for enthusiasts and represents voltage adjustment and monitoring for the GPU, memory, and PLL. Having the ability to change these values will of course help with overclocking and unleashing the potential these video cards have to offer their owners.
Below is a slideshow from the MSI Press release, highlighting some of the items above.
Photo Op – Meet the MSI GTX 780 Lightning
First, we will take a look at the retail packaging for the Lightning. We see a familiar theme with a fighter plane on the front. Specifically, it’s an F-35 ‘Lightning’. Not too much to see here other than the type of card, and the OC Essentials that are part of this package. The back side goes over some high level features, such as the new Triple Force architecture and its Military Class 4 Components. The top, bottom, and sides, don’t have much to see, so we will leave that alone.
Inside this large box is a another box which contains the GPU and the accessory stack. This container reminds me of a jewelry box by the way it opens to expose the card and accessories. You can see from below that the top opens up to expose the GPU, while there is a drawer box that contains the included accessories.
Speaking of accessories, the MSI N780 Lightning comes with everything you see below (and more, driver CD is not pictured). We have the Quick User’s Guide, the Certificate of Quality and Stability, DVI to VGA adapter, SLI bridge, voltage read point plugs, two 8-pin power cables. Also included is a VRM heatsink, which appears to be for when you strap a pot to the card as this one does not fully cover around the socket area and memory. That is a really nice value add for a card of this caliber.
Moving on to the card itself, we see the MSI N780 Lightning in all its glory. The first thing that you realize is this does NOT have the Twin Frozr IV cooler on it. Instead, a new and interesting looking cooler from MSI. This cooler has a total of three fans. One on each side, with a small yellow fan in the middle. I can’t say it is the best looking cooler implementation, but it sure does look effective!
On the back side we can see a couple familiar items found on MSI’s high-end cards. First being a backplate that helps protect some of the components on the rear of the card. Next up is the good ‘ole GPU Reactor. This time the cover is black with blue LED’s nestled below that shine brightly through when powered up. Speaking of lighting up, the ‘Lightning’ moniker glows in three different colors. Green for idle/2D (less than 150W load), blue for light gaming (151-210W load), and red for anything above that.
About the only other thing to note here is are the dual SLI connection points on the top right of the card. NVIDIA supports tri-SLI on this card, however i have seen results at Hwbot with quad 780’s.
As far as the outputs go, the MSI N780 Lightning has a very typical offering really. It has one DisplayPort, one full size HDMI, and two DVI’s (DL DVI-I and DL DVI-D).
As expected you will need two 8-pin PCI-E connectors to power this card.
So now we take a quick look at the TriFrozr heatsink. As you can see below, this thing runs nearly the entire length of the card. It uses a fairly dense fin array, which gets the heat from seven 8 mm ‘Super pipes’ that rest on a nickle plated copper base. The fans are all PWM controlled via the new MSI VGA Fan Controller Software (pictured a little later). The application works just fine. No complaints there. However, if you want to use one application, like MSI Afterburner, to control all three fans, you are out of luck. MSI AB will only control the larger fans, while the small yellow fan remains at idle speed (26%). I really hope they change that. While its not a huge deal, it does add another layer to controlling a piece of hardware… Something I could do without.
As you can also see, the Lightning uses a heatsink to help remove heat from the memory ICs and power delivery area as well. When we take off the that heatsink, you get your first look at the entire, formidable, VRMs the Lightning has to offer – all 16+2+1 phases. Also visible is the Elpida memory that rests under the hood. For the extreme overclocker, MSI included a different VRM heatsink for when you want to go cold. This heatsink does not cover the memory or around the socket, but just the VRM area. This makes compatibility a non issue with a pot attached to the card, while still keeping the VRM section cool. Very nice inclusion there, MSI!
Below are shots of the heatsink removed and up close. Again, we see a shot of the eight super pipes making their way throughout the fin array helping to get the heat away from the core. The next picture is the bottom side of the VRM and memory heatsink. It made good contact throughout.
I did not have the proper tools for take the shroud off the actual heatsink, but I will show you a picture of it courtesy of MSI.
Next up are the bits that make this card what it is. First is the GK110-300 core, then the Elpida memory. This was a bit sad to see as normally these ICs do not like to overclock nearly as high as their Hynix counterparts. This particular part is rated at 1500 MHz (6000 MHz GDDR5) at 1.6 V. I really hope these clock well on this type of card!
Last up are the CHil ICs used to control the voltage for the GPU and memory. The Lightning uses CHil CHL8318 and CHL8214 respectively.
Since the quality of the solution and parts used are a bit above my head, I talked with our local guru, Bobnova. In a nutshell, he approves of these parts and the robust nature of this GPU, so they can’t be slouches! Thanks BobN for taking a look!
Performance and Overclocking
As we all know by now, Overclockers.com utilizes multiple resources to review their hardware. In order to ensure the results are the same no matter who reviews the item, we have a specific test system set up and methods/settings as follows:
- Intel i7 4770K @ 4 GHz, 1.1 V
- MSI Z87 XPower
- Kingston Hyper X Predator 2 x 4 GB 2666 MHz CL11 @ 1866 MHz 9-9-9-24
- 240 GB OCZ Vertex 3 SSD
- Seasonic 1000 W PSU
- MSI GTX 780 Lightning – @ 980 MHz (1124 MHz actual boost)/1502 MHz, Overclocked @ 1076 MHz (1202 actual boost)/1607 MHz
- Windows 7 64 bit Operating System
- NVIDIA 320.49 drivers
Other cards used for comparison are as follows (links are to the reviews):
- 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)
- Batman: Arkham City – 1920×1080, 8xMSAA, MVSS and HBAO, Tessellation HIGH, Detail Level: Extreme
- 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.com GPU Testing Procedures
Below is the screen capture of GPU-Z 7.2. I took this image late in the process so the driver here does NOT match the one I used for the review. Not too much to see here, but there is one thing to note. This version of GPU-Z currently does not show the voltage past 1.165 V on this card. I verified via Digital Multi-Meter that I was able to receive the voltage I gave it (1.25 V on the multimeter).
Overclocking Software – MSI Afterburner and VGA Fan Control
We all know what MSI Afterburner looks like and nothing has changed with the latest beta release, 3.0.0 Beta 14. This is the version that supports the Lightning and what should be used when overclocking the card. As you can see here, this allows one to adjust three voltages (GPU core, Memory, and Aux or PLL voltage). GPU-Z does not show voltage above 1.165 V for some reason, but using the voltage read points on the card confirmed it was getting the full 1.25v when called upon.
Second, and quite important is that the LN2 BIOS does NOT, at this time give an increase in the power limit. It is still stuck at 109%. With it being set there, I am unable to push past the overclocked speeds used in the review. That is not good for a card of this caliber. Essentially, it renders everything MSI did hardware wise nearly useless as even reference cards on reference cooling can generally handle the overclocks I achieved. I really hope a firmware flash or an update to MSI AB will resolve this issue.
NOTE: MSI is working hard to get a BIOS out that will have that limit raised!!
As far as the fan control goes for all three fans, you can see this little add on GUI below. As mentioned earlier in the review, this software allows one to control the fans independently, specifically the two outside 100 mm are together, and the smaller 70 mm yellow fan on its own. The application works as it should, so no complaints there. My beef is with this software is that it has to be open to work. If you close the application, the fans ramp down to their automatic clock speeds. The other beef is that it actually exists. I really do not like the idea of another piece of software just to control the fans. While it really isn’t a huge deal, I think adding this ability to their already well established MSI Afterburner software would be easiest for the end user.
Finally, some benchmarks. As you should all know from reading the testing methods above, the card at stock speed boosts to 1124 MHz and holds across all testing. For the overclocked results, it ended up at 1202 MHz with the memory at 1607 MHz. Due to the power limit, these are the best clocks I could do with stock voltage and not going over the limit causing throttling.
That out of the way, let’s get to it! First up is 3DMark Vantage since we finally retired 3DMark 03. You can see below the MSI N780 Lightning managed a score of 41,204 out of the box, losing to its chief competitor (EVGA GTX 780 Classified) due to the higher out of the box clock speeds it has. The similarly clocked EVGA GTX 780 SC also manages to best it by a very slim margin, but it did beat out the reference 780 and ASUS Direct CU II. That said, it is less than a percentage point behind the much more expensive reference Titan. Quite impressive on that front!
Moving on to something a little more modern, we have 3DMark 11. Here the Lightning manages to only lose to the EVGA 780 Classified while matching the EVGA SC and Titan (differences are within the margin of error). It easily beating out the reference 780 and ASUS GTX 780 Direct Cu II, scoring 13,228 out of the box.
Moving on to the newest benchmark in our test suite, 3DMark Fire Strike, we see more of the same thing really with the Lightning managing a middle of the pack score of 8,988. The same will go for Unigine Heaven (Hwbot) as well, with a score of 3000.4 (rounded up) it managed to beat the EVGA SC and essentially tie the Titan.
Next up we move on to our gaming suite. The first game we will look at is Alien vs Predator. Here we see the Lightning manage 90.6 FPS out of the box, losing again only to the Titan and the higher clocked 780s in the round up.
Batman: Arkham City is a bit more of the same, as we’ve now come to expect. The MSI offering posted 133 FPS matching the Titan, and coming in two FPS behind the Classified.
Last up in this graph is Battlefield 3 where it put up 125.4 FPS, falling behind the Classified and the Titan.
Moving on to Civilization V, we see this card manage to take a commanding lead with 133.7 FPS over everything else in the test. I double checked the settings on the benchmark, and they were spot on, so I am not sure why it is showing such a difference.
In Dirt 3, the MSI N780 Lightning pulls down 149.5 FPS, beating (if only barely for some cards) all cards in this test as well.
Last up, our GPU killer, Metro 2033. Here (after finally being able to get it to run after multiple installs of the OS…grrrrrr) it managed 52.5 FPS, putting it on par with the EVGA SC 780 and a FPS behind the Classified from EVGA.
Overall a pretty solid showing here with a lot of cases the Lightning coming close, matching or beating the mighty expensive Titan. But, it is not all smiles and lollipops. I really would have liked to see the Lightning match the Classified performance out of the box. While the reality is the FPS difference isn’t much and you would only notice if you were measuring FPS on screen, it is still a bit slower than its head to head competitor. This is even though it has the same or better power area and cooler to support higher clocks.
Pushing the Limits
The “PTL” section is usually one of my favorites, and still is, but perhaps not for this card out of the box. With that in mind, I chose to flash to a 3rd party BIOS and see what I could do with it. In this case, I managed a 1323 Mhz on the core and 1654 Mhz on the memory. Not too shabby for Elpida’s, ehh? With these clocks and slightly higher CPU speeds, I managed to take the OCF record in 3DMark Firestrike away from the Classified at least. One thing to note, this BIOS only let me go up to a paltry 1.21v actual versus the stock BIOS that throttles can go to 1.25v. I bet 1350+ is in this card at 1.25v… Anyway, here is the 3DMark Firestrike result.
(Side note: With the factory LN2 BIOS, I could only hit 1323 Mhz on the core without throttling so I could not touch the memory)
Cooling and Power Consumption
So how did the new cooler do? In my opinion, just fine with Boost 2.0. Even with the card overclocked to its (artificial) limit, the fan(s) never ramped up past 49% (nearly silent), and kept the GPU at 75 °C in a 25 °C ambient room. There was still PLENTY of headroom left to crank all the fans and keep the card from throttling due to temperature. The temperatures do seem a bit high, but again, this is how the fan profile works now.
As I said before, I have two beefs with the cooling. The looks are not for everyone and you need another application to manage all three fans, specifically the yellow one in the middle.
Who has two thumbs and says a quality 550 W power supply is enough to handle a single GPU and CPU, even overclocked using ambient cooling? THIS GUY! As you can see below, even the mighty 780 overclocked couldn’t manage to break 390 W at the wall (90% efficient PSU) while overclocked. So much horsepower and so little power draw these days… I see it monthly and it never ceases to amaze me. To add to that, in the “PTL” section above, with a 4.9 Ghz 4700K (1.47v) and the clockspeeds mentioned above on the 780, I peaked at 480W at the wall (so around 430W actual use).
Well, after what felt like forever for this, and other cards of its type to appear, we finally have the results we were all looking for. For the MSI N780 Lightning, they have brought to the consumer quite a piece to marvel at hardware and features wise. It has more robust power bits than the EVGA Classified and the even higher clocked Galaxy GTX 780 HOF, which comes in at a seemingly paltry 8+2 configuration compared to the other two GPUs. The performance, out of the box, is also quite good with its factory overclock making the Titan shake in its barely adequate power section. It’s shaking because a card like this costing 25% less, is right up there performance wise.
That said, I just do not understand what the point of having much more robust, and therefore expensive, supporting hardware if the power limit will not even allow it to be utilized. The overclocked speeds I achieved were done at stock voltages and it still easily hit the 109% power limit! To be fair, both the EVGA and the MSI card suffer from this affliction (all thanks to NVIDIA, note), with the MSI offering being the worst offender with the lowest limit out of the bunch. EVGA allows for 115% on the Classified while the HOF comes in at 126%. If you recall the MSI GTX760 HAWK I reviewed, its LN2 BIOS had a 185% limit. I was hoping for at least that or more here on this higher class card. It makes no sense to have such a rugged power section if you cannot come close to utilizing it. Regardless, you will want to use the LN2 BIOS when pushing your clock speed on this card.
So about that LN2 BIOS and its current state… It is not a great one. MSI shipped their card, at least to some reviewers, with the same 109% limit on the LN2 BIOS. Shortly after, they released another LN2 BIOS which thankfully raised that limit to an astounding 300%! THAT is what we are talking about MSI!!! While that sounds good, the results were not. This BIOS in MSI AB reports excessive power use ( in all versions, Beta14/15) and Precision X as well. When switching to the LN2 BIOS and raising the power limit to 300%, it caused me to see reported power use around 250% at REFERENCE 780 speeds of 863 Mhz on the core (LN2 BIOS drops it to that value) and voltage (1.16v actual). My Kill-A-Watt meter did NOT show this type of power consumption. Because of this excessive power use, we are seeing premature throttling because of this apparent BIOS bug. So again, on the stock LN2 BIOS, things are not where they need to be.
That out of the way, I was still able to raise the voltage to +50mv (so 1.22v actual) and reach 1320 MHz on the core. So not bad there really. But then again we are still leaving +50mv on the table as we were hitting the 300% power limit for no real reason. I have been working with MSI for nearly seven weeks now, trying to improve this BIOS and nothing has come from them so far. A quick google around the ‘net yields a couple of people working on BIOS’. I have sent MSI a 3rd party BIOS’ that has more or less seem to have corrected the issue, and still nothing from MSI at this time. They have most certainly been listening, but I do not see any results. And with a $770 card that has a lower limit than others, that isn’t a good thing. They really need to support their users that purchased this card with a properly functioning LN2 BIOS at least.
Memory and Looks
Now, let’s talk Elpida Memory. Usually, it is the worst clocking of the other options, Samsung and Hynix. That said, I have seen mentioned the use of Elpida ICs were essentially forced as, for whatever reason, it is the only ICs available at this time (EVGA, via Jacob in their forum corroborates that sentiment as well). So while this is not MSI’s fault, it is disappointing it’s all that is really available for these monsters at this time. Good thing that bandwidth isn’t really an issue, but I still would have loved to see the historically higher clocking Hynix on these units without a doubt.
As far as the looks of the card. This one will be a love/hate relationship I am afraid. It feels like a heavy, well-built card with minimal plastic on it. But, because of the 70 mm yellow fan in the middle it tends to stand out in a crowd a bit. Some will love it, others not so much. I’m torn on it really. I personally do not care much what a card looks like. For me, it’s inside the case which is under my desk in the first place, and I am a function over form type of guy anyway. To each their own on that front.
One thing I haven’t mentioned in the whole article is the pricing. $749.99 is the MSRP, but Newwegg has it for $769.99. By $70, the Lightning costs more than the EVGA Classified and $80 more than the Galaxy 780 HOF. It clearly has the most robust PCB and power solution, so a few more dollars landed in fortifying things a bit more than the competition. This is the most expensive GTX 780 on the market at the moment. I would have liked to see this card around $719.99 personally.
The Bottom Line
Man, I’ll tell ya’… looking over what I just wrote, there sure seems to be a few points to complain about with the N780 Lightning. In MSI’s defense, most of those complaints are user preference (looks/fan control) and part availability (Elpida vs Hynix memory ICs) and not a significant design flaw, which is good. The PCB and power delivery area are second to none, and the new cooling solution is quiet with a lot of capacity left even if it doesn’t tickle your eye. As far as performance goes, we have mentioned that out of the box it flirts with the Titan for about 75% of the cost.
There are quite a bit of things to love. But in the end, we still have a $770 card specifically built for overclocking that is handicapped. The price I can look past, or at least attempt to justify, however that choking power limit on the default and excessive power use on the LN2 BIOS is something I cannot overlook for a card specifically made for extreme overclocking. In fact, I wouldn’t choose the EVGA either as we saw it easily hit a power limit on ambient overclocks in its review. Again, to mitigate that issue, there are 3rd party BIOS’ in the wild that will raise the limit and not show the excessive power use. I suggest using those until MSI raises the default BIOS power limit and fixes the LN2 BIOS. Until that changes, which MSI says it will, this card receives the ‘MEH’ status. As soon as MSI corrects the issue with the BIOS limit, regardless of its higher asking price, this really needs to be at the top of the list in high end GPU’s to choose from, especially if you are looking to go LN2.
– Joe Shields (Earthdog)