MSI N580GTX Lightning Video Card Review

MSI's flagship of flagships, the N580GTX Lightning, is on our test bench. Sitting among the realm of $500 video cards, the MSI N580GTX Lightning exudes class and sophistication. Does it justify its price tag? Is it that much better than other GTX 580s? Is it even better then MSI's own R6970 Lightning?

Introduction

Microstar International (MSI) is a Taiwan-based computer hardware manufacturer founded in 1986. Primarily a designer and manufacturer of PC motherboards, MSI has expanded its business into barebones PCs, servers and workstations, communications devices, consumer electronics, Notebooks, Netbooks, graphics cards, and other various electronic products. Its company motto, "Quality Products Create Faithful Customer," believes its underlying corporate strategy of designing and manufacturing quality devices for various markets and letting its high-quality reputation earn it the trust and respect of electronics consumers worldwide.

On the test bench today is MSI's flagship GeForce GTX 580 product: the MSI N580GTX Lightning. This video card features an overclocked NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580 GPU paired with 1536MB of GDDR5 memory. Cooling the whole device is MSI's impressive Twin Frozr III cooler. The goal of this review is to determine whether or not this ~$525 video card can justify its price premium over the lower priced MSI R6970 Lightning, or if the R6970 Lightning can be overclocked enough to be competitive with the N580GTX Lightning. We will also compare to a reference GTX 580 to see what it offers over a standard GTX 580.

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NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580 GPU

NVIDIA launched the GeForce GTX 580 (codename GF110) on November 9th of 2010. It was NVIDIA's flagship gaming GPU at the time, and would be until the GTX 590 was launched in late March of 2011. The GTX 580 represents what Fermi should have been at launch. It is built on a 40nm wafer process and is comprised of three billion transistors for a total of 512 CUDA cores arranged into 16 streaming multiprocessors. There are four graphics clusters containing 64 texture units and 48 raster operator (ROP) units. The graphics clock (texture units and ROPS) is 772MHz, while the processor clock (CUDA cores) is twice that, at 1544MHz. The video card has 1536MB of GDDR5 memory clocked at 1002MHz (4008MHz DDR), mated to the GPU via a 384-bit memory bus for a maximum theoretical memory bandwidth of 192.4GB per second. It is designed to safely draw 244 Watts with a thermal threshold of 97 degrees Celsius.

At launch, NVIDIA estimated an MSRP of $499 USD through its board partners. As of now, GTX 580 board prices vary from $470 to $590, and even up to $700 for a water-cooled option from EVGA.


MSI N580GTX Lightning

The MSI N580GTX Lightning is not a reference design GeForce GTX 580. It does feature the GF110 GPU and 1.5GB of GDDR5 memory, but that is about where its similarities with the reference product end. Available in retail for $525.99 USD, the N580GTX Lightning boasts a number of high-end features.

It has MSI's "Power4 Architecture", providing a 16 phase PWM power supply. The cooler is MSI's Twin Frozr III model, which MSI says will keep the video card 21 degrees Celsius cooler than the NVIDIA reference cooler. It has two 9cm "Propeller Blade" fans, designed to produce up to 20% more airflow and operate 5.5 dB quieter, again when compared to NVIDIA's reference design. The "Lightning Power Layer" (LPL) means that the PWM wire runs are on their own PCB layer, reducing interference from high-speed signal lines.

MSI's "Military Class II" component set is also featured. Designed to increase the functional life of the video card by 8 times, Military Class II features some upgraded electronic components. It has highly conductive capacitors (Hi-c CAP) to reduce wasted energy and "Super Ferrite Chokes" (SFC) to also reduce wasted energy and increase the video card's power handling capabilities, all while increasing stability thanks to reduced noise in the power supply circuitry. There are also aluminum-core solid capacitors to reduce the chance of blown capacitors and further reduce wasted power.

This is a video card with premium components, but without the premium price. While $525.99 USD is on the higher side of pricing compared to other GeForce GTX 580 offerings, it is not the most expensive, and it is clocked higher than most of its higher priced competitors. Gamers on a tighter budget may balk at the idea of paying $526 for a video card, but the truth is that the GeForce GTX 580 was not designed for low-budget gaming.

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This video card comes in a very big box. It measures 18"x12"x3". The front of the box features a stylized Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II aircraft and displays all the expected branding information, including "N580GTX Lightning" in chrome silver print.

MSI has dedicated the top inside box flap to boasting about the technology and high-end components they have packed into this video card. The information on the panel describes what we have already gone over on this page.

The bottom inside box flap is dedicated to describing the Twin Frozr III cooling device. It has two 9cm fans and two 8mm "SuperPipe" heat-pipes. It has a nickel plated copper base and "Ultra high density fins" to give the cooler as much cooling surface area as possible. MSI boasts 20% more airflow for 21 degrees Celsius better cooling and 5.5 dB quieter operations when compared to the reference cooler.

The back of the box again features the fighter jet theme. It also lists system requirements and basic features for the video card. The right side of the back of the box is dedicated to a small features list printed in 29 different languages.

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The N580GTX Lightning's software bundle includes two quick setup guides and a driver/utility CD-ROM disc. The accessories bundle includes two SLI bridge ribbon cables, two 6-pin to 8-pin power cable adaptors, three V-check terminal dongles, and a DVI to VGA adaptor.

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The MSI N580GTX Lightning is a large video card. It is 11.5" long, 5.5" tall, and 1.5" deep. The front of the video card is completely covered by a large aluminum heat-sink and shroud. The shroud is dark grey and black with a red accent stripe and hosts two 9cm cooling fans. Underneath the cooler is a large heat-sink with a large number of very thin aluminum fins. The fins are bonded to two 8mm heat pipes which sprout from a copper heat-collector plate which sits on top of the GF110 GPU. The Twin Frozr III cooler shroud does not completely duct the moving air over the video card and out of the back of the chassis. Proper case ventilation will be important for systems with this video card.

On the top edge of the N580GTX Lightning, we can see one of the heat pipes protruding from under the shroud. We can also see the black aluminum PCB heat-sink, which also serves to reduce flexing of the video card, which could protect it from damage in transit. Unlike the reference GTX 580, the MSI N580GTX Lightning has two 8-pin power supply ports which must be connected for this video card to function.

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On the back of the PCB, we can see a few interesting features. There are 4 black chips labeled "NEC/TOKIN 0D10*' which is an NEC Proadlizer circuit. The Proadlizer is essentially an array of low-impedance capacitors. It was designed to improve efficiency of high-speed switching circuits. With traditional capacitors, impedance decreases as frequency increases, which leads to reduced effectiveness as a noise filter. The Proadlizer was designed to have a flatter impedance curve, which means noise is more effectively filtered as frequency increases.

There are seven switches on the top edge of the video card. Six of them are sealed, and one of them is accessible. The larger switch is a BIOS switch used for liquid nitrogen cooling. The N580GTX Lightning has a second BIOS available for extreme LN2 cooling to fix problems caused by extremely low operating temperatures. The other switches are labeled "Mem V-Switch", "GPU V-Switch", "PLL V-Switch", "OCP Unlocker", and "PWM Clocktuner".

On this video card's PCI expansion bracket, we find two dual-link DVI-I ports, one full-size HDMI port, and one full-size DisplayPort connector.


The Competition

The MSI N580GTX Lightning's natural competition are other NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580 based video cards. For this reason, and too see if the factory overclock on this video card offers any competitive advantage, we are including a reference clocked GeForce GTX 580 in this evaluation.

AMD does not have a single-card solution in the $500 video card bracket. The Radeon HD 6990 is fast indeed, but it also costs $700 if you can find it in stock. The next step down is a Radeon HD 6970, which is about $180 cheaper than the N580GTX Lightning.

However, our recent evaluation of MSI's R6970 Lightning revealed a promising performer at a great price, especially when overclocked. So, for this evaluation, we are going to find out if a supped-up AMD Radeon HD 6970 (specifically the MSI R6970 Lightning) can offer real competition to a much faster and more expensive video card.