MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti LIGHTNING Video Card Review

We take the MSI GTX 980 Ti LIGHTNING video card and see how it plays the most demanding games. This video card "engineered to perfection" for extreme overclocking and has a TriFrozr cooling setup. We compare it to the overclocked ASUS GTX 980 Ti STRIX DCIII and an AMD R9 390X CrossFire configuration to find its true value.

Microstar International aka 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 our test bench today is the MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti LIGHTNING video card.

The MSI GTX 980 Ti LIGHTNING is the third custom video card we have evaluated based on the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 Ti GPU. Our first custom video card we evaluated based on the GTX 980 Ti GPU was GIGABYTE GTX 980 Ti G1 GAMING.The second model we looked at was the ASUS GTX 980 Ti STRIX DCIII OC. You can also take a look at our preview from launch day, which was followed-up with a full evaluation of the GTX 980 Ti on June 15th of 2015.

According to PC Hound, the GTX 980 Ti is priced around ~$649 while the NVIDIA flaghip TITAN X card costs $999.

This fully customized MSI GTX 980 Ti LIGHTNING has a street price from $780 to $835 at the time of writing this. Newegg and Amazon are offering a $30 rebate, and Newegg includes a free Rainbow Six Siege or Assassin's Creed Syndicate game valued at $60. Also worth mentioning is that MSI has two 980 ti Lightning cards for sale. The other is the "LE" version with much lower GPU and VRAM clocks.

There are several things that set this MSI GTX 980 Ti LIGHTNING apart from the previous two custom GTX 980 Ti video cards we reviewed. We will cover these attributes in more depth momentarily. The first thing we notice is the price differential between these. The ASUS GTX 980 Ti STRIX DCIII goes for $689, which is a premium compared to the 980 Ti $649 MSRP, but not as large of a premium as the MSI GTX 980 Ti LIGHTNING. Because the two video cards should provide somewhat equal performances, we will use the ASUS GTX 980 Ti STRIX DCIII with its highest stable overclock as a comparison video card in this evaluation. This will help us determine what advantage the MSI GTX 980 Ti LIGHTNING poses with the higher price.

In the previous two custom GTX 980 Ti video card reviews, we used the AMD R9 Fury X to compare against the GTX 980 Ti cards. The Fury X sells for ~$629. We saw performance favor the GTX 980 Ti in these evaluations. Since the MSI GTX 980 Ti LIGHTNING is more expensive, we see it more fitting to include two AMD Radeon R9 390X 8GB video cards in CrossFire, which can be yours for as low as $380 each coming very near to the price of the MSI LIGHTNING video card at $760. In this way we test what is closest in price and see what this other option affords us.


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The first thing that makes the MSI GTX 980 Ti LIGHTNING a customized video card with your purchase is its factory overclock. This video cards base GPU frequency is 1203MHz with boost to 1304MHz. We find this increases in-game up to 1404MHz where it performs consistently at this frequency. This is 202MHz faster than a reference GeForce GTX 980 Ti right out of the box. The memory frequency is just slightly overclocked to 7.1GHz, compared to 7GHz on a reference model.

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MSI's design includes the new TriFrozr thermal design. Similar to the TwinFrozr cooling system, this new setup includes three fans that are placed on the front of the video card, dispersing heat from the massive finned heatsink that stretches the area of the video card. This cooling system is capped by a solid aluminum plate that contacts the GPU, and spreads heat across five heatpipes to large heat sink. The fans then blast away the heat in order to ensure cool operations. The TORX fan allows for maximum downward airflow while remaining quiet at high RPMs. It is also a "dust free" fan.

The feature that sets this video card apart from the competition is the extreme overclocking ability provided by LN2 mode. Hardcore overclockers have the option of changing a switch on the board to LN2 mode which opens more voltage regulation, provided you have the liquid nitrogen cooling solution ready to go. This video card undoubtedly performs well in this area, however it will be difficult for us to utilize this feature in our evaluation. Again, this is a major advantage and luxury provided by the price premium that the other GTX 980 Ti video cards do not have. That said, it is likely to ever be utilized either.

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MSI also uses top of the line Military Class 4 components, including the DRMOS, Hi-C CAPs, Super Ferrite Chokes, and DARK Caps. These components will drastically improve the video cards lifespan, while ensuring optimal energy distribution on the board. The DRMOS 60A is a next-generation MOSFET that delivers power to the GPU. This has 16 power phases which will provide the necessary voltage under extreme overclocking conditions.

The MSI GTX 980 Ti LIGHTNING video card also has a color changing LED along the top edge. The LIGHTNING logo and surrounding marks can light up to different colors which are customized through Mystic Light software. This is a third party software you will have to seek out, but you can select from many different colors and even different light up effects.

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The accessory package that comes with this video card includes a driver installation CD and installation guide, a Military Class 4 component certification, one SLI bridge, one 6-pin to 8-pin PCIe power cable, three small voltage check points for manual voltage monitoring, and one MOS heatsink for use with LN2 mode.

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The video card has a black PCB which is mounted on a black aluminum backplate. The backplate is there to ensure the video card does not bend over time, and keeps all of the rear-mounted components safe. The backplate has the LIGHTNING logo printed on it. You can look at how the video card is put together, and see that the heatsink really does take up a great amount of surface area, which is topped by the cooling system. The overall build quality of the MSI GTX 980 Ti LIGHTNING is amazing with extremely pleasing aesthetics. This video card is downright gorgeous.

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MSI recommends a minimum 600W power supply or greater for this video card to work properly. The MSI GTX 980 Ti LIGHTNING requires two 8-pin PCIe power connectors and a 6-pin PCIe power connector, all located at the rear of the video card along the top edge. The I/O panel adds support for a dual-link DVI-I connector, three Display Port connectors, and one HDMI port. The MSI GTX 980 Ti LIGHTNING measures 13 inches in length, 5.5 inches in height and 2 inches in width. It is fairly heavy thanks to the massive heatsink that spans the area of the card.