MSI N580GTX Lightning XE 3GB SLI Video Card Review

Two MSI N580GTX Lightning XE 3GB video cards in SLI! Tested in NV Surround. We are going to find out if these 3GB video cards hold an advantage over two GeForce GTX 580's and two Radeon HD 6970's. This is the most VRAM per video card we have ever gamed with. We test with seven games, including the new F.3.A.R.

Introduction

We have recently evaluated a couple of flavors of MSI's latest, and fastest performing, Lightning series video cards based on the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580 GPU. Earlier this month we put the MSI N580GTX Lightning video card to the test. The N580GTX Lightning sports 1.5GB of RAM, same as a stock GTX 580, with boosted frequencies and a custom cooling device. Beyond that, MSI engineered the Lightning series with the latest Military Class II hardware components. The end result was a video card that provided better performance, as well as better power efficiency when compared to a standard GeForce GTX 580. MSI took the GeForce GTX 580 GPU and made it better, was our overall conclusion.

MSI wasn't stopping there however, and had another video card up its sleeve that pushed the awesome sauce even further. The MSI N580GTX Lightning XE 3GB video card is the epitome of GeForce GTX 580 based performance. We evaluated that video card, which features double the RAM of a standard GeForce GTX 580, and the same boosted frequencies as the non-XE Lightning video card. MSI went even further with this video card, providing a couple of new fan technologies, including fans that change color when they rise above 45c, and an automatic dust cleaning system that kicks in when you boot your computer. Along with MSI's custom hardware components, this video card also proved to be more efficient at idle and full load Wattage compared to a standard GeForce GTX 580. Once again, MSI made the GeForce GTX 580 better.

In that evaluation, we weren't able to fully utilize the 3GB of RAM on the video card, because we were limited by resolution at 2560x1600. Unfortunately, NVIDIA does not support NV Surround with one video card, so we could not test a multi-display setup with just one MSI N580GTX Lightning XE 3GB video card. This video card was screaming for a higher resolution and SLI. Well we got another one folks, and we can now test MSI N580GTX Lightning XE 3GB SLI performance in a triple-display setup.

MSI N580GTX Lightning XE 3GB SLI Video Card

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Here they are, two MSI N580GTX Lightning XE 3GB video cards with SLI enabled. These video cards do require 2x 8-pin power connectors each, so with our power supply we had to use an adaptor that converted two 6-pin connectors into another 8-pin. MSI does include this power adapter in the packaging. MSI also includes an SLI connector cable in the packaging.

These video cards have 3GB of RAM each, and run at 832MHz core, 1664MHz shaders and 4.2GHz memory. Note that in SLI the framebuffer is not shared, as each video card needs its own framebuffer space for Alternate Frame Rendering (AFR.) The MSI N580GTX Lightning XE 3GB has more RAM than a Radeon HD 6970, which has 2GB on board. These are the largest VRAM sizes per-card we have ever tested in gaming. Therefore, our goal is to push these cards as hard as we can and see where the advantages really are.

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MSI uses a technology it dubs Smart Temp Sensor technology. The basics are that the fans change colors to white, when the ambient temperature rises above 45c. This allows you to see how hot the inside of your case is, around the video cards, at a cursory glance. We didn't show this to you in our initial evaluation because we test in an open-case environment, and the air around the video cards never got hot enough to change the colors of the fans. However, with two of these video cards installed, that all changes.

In the pictures above we have taken a picture of the fans while the video cards were sitting at full load in a game after a while. You will notice the hottest video card is the one in the primary slot. The space between the video cards, while relatively spacious, still causes the primary video card to get hotter. Notably, the fan that is most white, i.e. most hot, is the fan toward the end of the video card. This is useful, and gives you an idea where you might need to place a fan in order to keep that area of the computer and video card cooler. It was neat to see this in action, and you can actually tell as the fans are spinning what color they are.


Comparison Setup

We use price as our "benchmark," comparing video cards at the same price point. We do this so that we find which video card provides the best value and gameplay experience for a similar price. The video cards we are comparing here today are worlds apart in pricing. The MSI N580GTX Lightning XE 3GB video card is by no means cheap. MSI states the MSRP of this video cards is around $589.99-$629.99. Therefore, two of these for SLI will cost you between $1,180-$1,260. That is no short amount of change. On the other hand, two standard GeForce GTX 580's will cost you around $920 with rebates. That is around $300 more for these Lightning XE video cards. Added to that, the Radeon HD 6970 is at incredibly low prices now, and two for CrossFireX will cost you around $630 with rebates, more than $500 cheaper than two Lightning XE video cards. Looking for value really comes into play here.

We are going to compare the two MSI N580GTX Lightning XE 3GB video cards directly to two standard GeForce GTX 580 video cards and two standard Radeon HD 6970 video cards, so this is a direct dual-GPU to dual-GPU to dual-GPU evaluation. This evaluation provides us with an opportunity to really find out if VRAM is important in gaming, especially in a triple-display setup with dual-GPUs. The standard GTX 580 SLI configuration has 1.5GB of RAM per GPU, the standard HD 6970 CFX configuration has 2GB of RAM per GPU, and the MSI N580GTX Lightning XE SLI configuration has 3GB of RAM per GPU.

We also don't want anything like PCIe bus bandwidth getting in the way of complicating matters when we scale up to three or four GPUs. By using two separate video cards in each test here, both video cards of every configuration are running at PCIe 2.0 x16. And most importantly, as you will see, the Radeon HD 6970 and the GeForce GTX 580 (while worlds apart in price) match absolutely perfectly in performance, with blows being traded depending on the game. Again, this will answer an important question about which setup gives you the best value.

The questions we are going to ask in this evaluation are if two 3GB GTX 580's give you a better gameplay experience over two 1.5GB GTX 580s. We are also going to see if two 3GB GTX 580's will give you a better experience than two Radeon HD 6970's. With these three configurations, we are going to find out a lot about the usefulness of more VRAM at high resolutions in a multi-display setup and if these Lightning XE video cards are really worth the money.