The GK110 GPU that's been demolishing benchmarks since it first appeared on the GTX Titan, and then beneath the hood of the incredible GTX780 is unquestionably an enormous performer. It's so good that at first glance the idea of overclocking it out the factory seems to be a strange one, given the amount of potential it has at stock.
However, if we've discovered one thing in our testing of factory overclocked GTX780s that the GK110 Kepler GPU responds massively to a boost in clock speed, so having the benefits of a 3rd party cooler alongside a factory overclock should be enough to tempt even the most fiscally prudent amongst you.
Just tweaking the clock speed would hardly be enough for MSI to give this particular card their Lightning moniker and fortunately there is a lot more beneath that yellow cooler.
There is a big increase on both the Core and Boost clocks, up from 863/900 to 980/1033. That should see a large performance improvement when compared to the standard cards, even with the memory remaining at 6008MHz effective.
|Memory||3 GB GDDR5|
|Memory Bit-Rate||384 Bit|
|Memory Clock Speed||1502MHz (6GHz)|
|Connectivity||1 x DisplayPort|
1 x Dual Link DVI-D
1 x Dual Link DVI-I
1 x HDMI
|Power Connectors||2x 8 Pin PCIe|
Putting slogans on your packaging is something which occurs in nearly every walk of life from oven chips to De Beers diamonds. It's somewhat rarer in the world of computer hardware and MSI have gone straight for the jugular with the rather unequivocal "Built to be perfect". Blimey, that's a statement of intent. In keeping with the premium placement of the Lightning in the MSI range the box is extremely sturdy and replete with gold lettering.
Whilst most graphics cards come in this high-density foam, the rest of the packaging is a treasure trove of interesting things. We have all the adaptors you could possibly require, and of a much higher quality than the usual molex to PCIe adaptors.
This piece of metal is both inspired and curious. It's designed to help dissipate the heat from the power phases for those extreme overclocks, and is simply to install too. The curiosity comes from the fact it's not installed by default. When you're spending this much you don't want your first task to be removing the heatsink.
The card itself is gorgeous. The TriFrozr has three fans to keep the card cool, but they aren't your regular ones as we'll see on the next page. The black and yellow colour combination is gorgeous and perfectly matches the MPOWER MAX motherboard we looked at recently.
The Lightning logo changes colour depending upon the power loading. We've always felt this feature to be a double-edged sword. It's nice to know how hard your card is working, but we think that in general people would prefer a logo that lit up to match the rest of their system rather than varying between three colours.
As you would expect from such a high-end card there is a backplate to ensure the PCB is as stable as possible even under extreme scenarios, and adds yet more surface area for temperature control.
At the business ends we have the regulation 8+8 power inputs, and the DisplayPort/HDMI/DVI outputs that are now a staple of the nVidia designs.
As we saw on the previous page there is a lot of metal supporting the PCB on the Lightning. So often companies focus upon dissipating the heat, rather than ensuring the PCB can also stand the strain of such wild temperatures in the first place. With a sandwich of thermal plates, alongside the optional MOS heatsink and the cooler itself, you should be able to push for high overclocks without being thermally limited.
Rather than just have three standard fans that run according to a single profile, the fans on the TriFrozr cooler are fully independent. Anything that gives additional control has to be a good thing.
Voltage fluctuation is one of the key elements for a stable overclock. When you're on the ragged edge the last thing you need is a sudden spike which freezes your system up mid-test. The Lightning has, if MSI are to be believed, the flattest ripple profile of any GTX780.
Just take a moment to look at these figures. It's okay, we'll wait for you to pick your jaw up. As near as makes no difference unlimited power potential. You could probably start cooling with liquid helium and not be limited by the amount of current available. The 'Military Class 4' components that form the backbone of the Lightning certainly earn their money.
Although the video is currently offline, we love the demonstration of the importance of fan design. It's not solely about moving the air about, but actually moving it to where you want it.
MSI GTX780 Lightning
Intel Core i7-3960X @ 4.6GHz
ASUS Rampage IV Extreme
Corsair Dominator Platinum
Corsair Neutron GTX
Windows 7 x64
Firstly there are a lot of tweaks you can make with the Afterburner software and the Lightning, as you'd expect. Just upping the power percentage and clock we already broke through the factory overclock at 1130MHz. Although we'd be disappointed if we couldn't out-perform the factory clock.
Just increasing the available power and letting the GPU Boost 2.0 software work out the rest and we get a similar boost in performance, up to 1123MHz on the GPU core.
Combining all our tweaks, and saving you the hours between the various stages, we finally have our bench clock. An outstanding 1267MHz GPU Boost clock and a very healthy 200MHz, 800MHz effective, increase on the GDDR5. This should see a nice batch of benchmarks, and we're expecting a couple of our single-GPU records to fall.
As the performance of the GTX780 is well established and the Lightning is designed for hardcore overclockers who are aiming for world records, we've trimmed the games out of our review today and we're sticking with repeatable benchmarks, of which Alien vs Predator is one. Stock performance, at 140FPS is staggering although our first overclock result is slightly disappointing. We're talking a few frames here, so let's move on.
In lower resolutions it's always harder to find a difference because the GPU is mainly idling and so it proves with CatZilla. The stock card is very good and as we move up through the resolutions and detail intensity the gains get even bigger. With the overclock a similar story unfolds, although the incredible performance of the MSI GTX780 Gaming is brought into sharper focus when compared to its big brother.
Resident Evil 6
We will keep you on the edge of your seat a little longer before we reveal the 3D Mark results. We know you're all a slave to them, but other tests can highlight real world performance and flaws just as well. The Lightning again proves itself an exceptional card at stock, and the overclock, whilst still close to the Gaming version, has just enough extra performance to take the victory.
3D Mark Vantage
This is what you've come for, and the Lightning doesn't disappoint in giving the highest single GPU result we've seen. Higher than a GTX Titan and a tantalising 90 points shy of the magical 50000 P Score. In the Extreme preset it produces an even bigger gap over its rivals with a whopping 31124 X Marks. The stock card is no slouch either.
3D Mark 11
Blimey Charlie it's a close run thing in 3D Mark 11. The out-the-box Lightning is consistently brilliant. With the overclock in place the P Score just shades the MSI Gaming and Gigabyte cards, although in the Extreme test the performance falls off somewhat.
Such is the ease of the Ice Storm test that the few points the Lightning has over the other GTX780s is hardly worth mentioning, although it's there. The real stars are the harder tests with all of them comfortably topping the charts. Let's compare shall we. Cloud Gate record 32572, Lightning 32940. Fire Strike 10023, Lightning attained 10453, and Fire Strike Extreme was previously 5061 and is now an almost unbelievable 5298. Stunning results.
After the breathless 3D Mark results the small improvements in Unigine seem less impressive. So let's step away from the overclocked result and look at how brilliant the stock results are. Although buying this card for its out of the box performance would seem counter-intuitive, if that's what you want then it certainly provides the performance.
The Gigabyte Windforce overclock just edges the MSI Lightning in Unigine Valley. Such is the consistency of the results across the cards that those few tenths of a frame seem a big difference. The Lightning has things nailed down in stock trim though.
The GTX780 is a stunning card. This is nothing new. You can purchase almost any of them and know that you're getting a card guaranteed to put a smile on your face. In fact the performance of them is so good that those small differences end up being magnified. So what does the MSI Lightning offer to tempt your wallet?
Looks are one. The TwinFrozr on the MSI Gaming is gorgeous and the TriFrozr on the Lightning has shown that MSI have lost none of their eye for detail or ability to create an aesthetically pleasing card that combines form and function. There is a wealth of little touches from the individually controllable fans, through the 'sandwich' heat-spreaders, and to the yellow fan and stripe that marks this out as one of the premium MSI products. If anything we don't think it's yellow enough. Most people have tower cases, and in them we tend to only see the bottom of our graphics cards. It could do with a smattering of yellow there, and more across the side, because when it's installed that yellow fan is out of your eye line. It obviously is aimed at those people who purchased the MPOWER MAX, and goes together beautifully with that particular motherboard. Whoever decided to include the colour changing light on the side needs a talking to though. It's always either off or red, and if the colour is able to be changed we want the ability to set it ourselves. At the very least it should be yellow. Equally the back-lighting is the same blue that we've seen on previous Lightning cards, when at this price we'd expect that to be yellow too.
It's not only the design that is nice, as the cooler performance is excellent too. We've often commented about how nVidia's GPU Boost 2.0 really shines when there is a lot of thermal headroom, and the TriFrozr provides bags of it. So much so that we saw the highest clocks we've seen on a Kepler GPU so far. It's not all about cold at the expense of silence either, with the card no louder than any tri-fan design and barely more than the TwinFrozr on the Gaming.
With a shed load of power available from the 16+3+1 design it's not surprising that we were able to manually overclock the Lightning to new heights either. Of course with more tweaking options available to the user you have to do more than just slide a couple of bars and hit apply, and so to some degree you get out what you put in as with many things in life. We did try using the LN2 switch to see if it would allow us to push a little further than the standard mode, but not only does that lose the factory overclock but even with this cooler you're running up to the thermal limit of the GPU. Better to leave it alone unless you're actually going sub-zero, or perhaps a dedicated water loop.
Performance generally rewarded our efforts too with new OC3D high-scores in many of the benchmarks that are the measure of any overclock worth its salt. There were a couple of odd results where the overclock didn't seem to perform much better than the stock card, but more often than not the Lightning was able to give us eye-poppingly large scores. However it's worth noting that our final test overclock was completely 3D Mark Vantage stable so if you're testing a different benchmarking utility you should be able to easily go further than we did.
It's positioned in the MSI range as for the extreme overclockers and enthusiasts, whereas the Gaming model is, oddly enough, for the gamers. So there is some price premium to be had, and the Gaming is excellent enough that if you're not looking to overclock then maybe you should just buy that one. Except because of the excellent cooler and even bigger factory overclock it is the best performing GTX780 in 'out of the box' trim. So that presents a slight catch 22. You can't justify the extra expense of the Lightning when compared to other GTX780s for features you wont use, but even if you don't it'll still be the best performer.
Manufacturers sometimes advertise their cards as for enthusiasts without ever really providing the features that niché audience require. The MSI GTX780 Lightning is everything to all people, having outstanding stock performance, equally brilliant overclocked performance, and tons of potential left in the tank for more exotic cooling solutions. Despite the price premium you're paying, we think that it has enough to justify the cost and as the GTX780 is the best graphics card and this is the best of those GTX780s we have to award it our OC3D Gold Award.
Thanks to MSI for supplying the GTX780 Lightning for review. Discuss your thoughts in the OC3D Forums.