MSI N280GTX OC HydroGen Page: 1
Introduction

Pre-overclocked graphics cards are nothing new but pre overclocked AND watercooled cards are something of a rarity. MSI have seen a niche in the market they wish to explore with the OC HydroGen model based on the GTX280.

Despite MSI overclocking the GTX280 to 700mhz, a 10c temperature drop is claimed over the stock clocked 602mhz GTX280. This makes the OC HydroGen 280 the fastest  pre-overclocked GTX280 available and perhaps more importantly, faster than the recently reviewed GTX285. This is achieved by using a full cover waterblock which cools all the main components while remaining just single PCI thickness.

Obviously adding a copper full cover waterblock is not cheap and thus the price of £359.99 is £50 more expensive than the cheapest GTX285 we could find. However, if all out performance is what you want and you already have a water-cooled system then serious consideration should be given to this card.

Here's what MSI had to say:

10 Degrees C Lower than GeForce® GTX 200 fan thermal solution via the massive contact surface increase brought by micro channel technology, MSI N280GTX OC HydroGen series successfully runs the world highest core clock setting at 700MHz, but surprisingly has 10℃ lower temperature level than normal fan cooling GeForce® GTX 200 series even at full workload.

1-Slot ultra slim tank design Ready for 3-way SLI!

MSI achieves this with only 1-slot thick HydroGen micro channel water cooling tank. This makes a multiple graphics setup in single system possible, even with all the water cooling accessories together.

Specifications


The differences between the three high top end GPU's from Nvidia are small but significant nonetheless and could have a major impact on the results of our benchmarking.
 
 GTX 280
GTX 285GTX 280 Hydrogen
Fabrication
65nm55nm65nm
GPU Size576 mm²470 mm²576 mm²
GPU Frequency602 MHz648 MHz700mhz
Shader Frequency1296 MHz1476 MHz1400 MHz
Memory Frequency1107 MHz1242 MHz1150 MHz
Memory Interface512 Bit512 Bit512 Bit
ROPs323232
TMU's808080
Stream processors 240240240
Memory1024Mb1024Mb1024
Memory bandwidth140,7 GB/s159,0 GB/s141,7 BG/s
 
As we see, MSI have increased both the memory and shader frequencies to better feed the core. With a whopping 100mhz overclock on the core itself, we expect great things from the HydroGen and it will be interesting to see if the extra 50 MHz is enough to dethrone the GTX285.

Let's take a look at the packaging and the card itself...



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Packaging & Appearance

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the packaging is the size of the box being almost twice the length of the card itself. The front of the package displays the main features of the card; 1GB DDR3, 3-way SLI and PhysX capabilities. Strangely the front of the package does not give any indication that this is a water-cooled card. The rear of the package goes into the finer points of the cards features as well as the basic system requirement for running the GTX280.

Front Sleeve Rear Sleeve
 
It isn't until we flip the lid of the outer sleeve that the main feature of this unique GTX280 is indicated. MSI claim a drop of 10c from a standard aircooled GTX280 which is a very reserved amount judging by the results we came across later in the review. The full cover, high grade copper waterblock has a Delrin port featuring a G1/4 thread size ensuring compatibility with most common barbs on the market today.

Inner Top Inner Bottom  

The inner box is a very well packed hard foam structure ensuring the contents are secure from damage during transit. The compartmentalised box is split into two sections, the main carrying the card and the secondary cardboard box holding the accessories. The usual assortment of accessories are included, however there is no Molex to 6-pin PCIe nor 6pin PCIe to 8-pin PCIe. I could perhaps live with that (luckily we have a choice of supporting PSU's) but something I was none too impressed by was the omission of barbs or elbows. Unfortunately you will have to buy your own connectors for the HydroGen to fit this into your loop be it 1/2" or 3/8". Considering the cost of the card I would have thought that a selection of barbs would be included but sadly this was not the case.

Inside Accessories 

The card itself is a stunning looker with the full copper block looking both very sleek and futuristic. Our card needed a quick douse of metal polish before photographing due to oxidised finger prints covering the card but once polished up it certainly looked the business.  The card itself appears to be a standard affair with no differences that I could find from the standard GTX280.

Card Top Card Bottom

MSI Power 

The GTX280, as with the standard version, is powered by PCIe 6-pin+PCIe 8-pin cables, the dual SLI tabs are there as are the 2xDVI ports (HDMI + VGA adapter included) and S-Video port.

SLI DVI

Disappointingly, despite the slimline copper block, MSI opted not to adapt the I/O shield to single PCI. This is a real shame as the card would be ideal for those wanting to make use of that extra PCI slot which otherwise would be taken up with the double slot aircooled version.

Side View Engraving

While most reviewers would leave it right there and run a few benchies, here at OC3D we like to go that extra mile so let's delve a little deeper and take the card apart to explore the finer points of the waterblock...



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A Closer Look

The waterblock is held on with 8 screws, 4 round head and 4 cap head style screws all with hex key fitting. Underneath the screws are plastic washers to prevent any shorting of the PCB. The block came away with relative ease once the screws were removed and I am pleased to report that the block made good contact with the GPU. Rather than opt for thermal tape, as used on the SLI chip and VRM's,  MSI used the same paste on the memory as they used on the GPU.

Cap head Block removed

Block Contact

The main block is a 4 part setup with each section screwed to the main slab of copper. The top (as expected) is removable via a further four screws which then reveal the main section of copper. The section directly above the GPU is a very well machined fin design which increases the surface area being cooled significantly. This should serve to dissipate heat more efficiently than a flat section.

Inside Block Fins

Strangely MSI have seen fit to add a separate memory plate, again attached by screws, instead of milling the plate into the block. Why MSI did this is beyond me as all it serves is to create another layer for heat to be transfered through.The top cover which channels the water is a masterpiece in milling. The channels are superbly engineered with very few mill marks and no rough edges to be found. The inlet/outlet holes that lead to the Delrin barb housing are a little restrictive but not excessively so. My main concern is the the way the block will channel the water through the fins which, if the EK Supreme which has a similar design, is anything to go by will restrict flow even more.

Top Block Ram plate

Another little irritation of the block is the barb spacing. Those who wish to use 1/2 outside diameter barbs will find that the spacing is very tight. This shouldn't however, be a problem for those who use the 3/8 barbs.
 
Opening Barbs
 
No one can deny that this is one serious looking piece of equipment. The engraved, aluminium inserts do not come into contact with the water so galvanic corrosion won't be a problem and minor issues aside, which may/may not affect performance, the block could easily dethrone the very popular EK, Aquacomputer and XSPC if for nothing else but for its looks. Aesthetics however, mean nothing in the world of water-cooling if the block does not have the performance to match. Let's find out if the MSI 280GTX OC HydroGen is indeed a sheep in wolf's clothing...



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Test Setup

To ensure that all reviews on Overclock3D are fair, consistent and unbiased, a standard set of hardware and software is used whenever possible during the comparative testing of two or more products. The configurations used in this review can be seen below:

i7 Rig

CPU: Intel Nehalem i7 920 Skt1366 2.66GHz
Motherboard: Asus P6T Deluxe 'OC Palm'
Memory: 3x2GB Corsair Dominator DDR3 1600mhz @ 8-8-8-24
HD : Hitachi Deskstar 7k160 7200rpm 80GB
GPU: MSI NGTX280 OC HydroGen
Graphics Drivers: GeForce 181.4
PSU: Gigabyte ODIN 1200w
Radiator: Thermochill PA120.3 (3xYL DSL-12)
Pump: Laing DDC18w (XSPC top 1/2")
 
During the testing of the setups above, special care was taken to ensure that the BIOS settings used matched whenever possible. A fresh install of Windows Vista was also used before the benchmarking began, with a full defrag of the hard drive once all the drivers and software were installed, preventing any possible performance issues due to leftover drivers from the previous motherboard installations. For the 3DMark and gaming tests a single card configuration was used.

To guarantee a broad range of results, the following benchmark utilities were used:
 
3D / Rendering Benchmarks
• 3DMark 05
• 3DMark 06
• 3DMark Vantage

3D Games
• Crysis
• Far Cry 2
• Company of Heroes

• Race drive: GRID
• Call of Duty IV
• Unreal Tournament III


Power Consumption

Power consumption was measured at the socket using a plug-in mains power and energy monitor. Because of this the readings below are of the total system, not just the GPU. Idle readings were taken after 5 minutes in Windows. Load readings were taken during a run of Crysis.


 
For the power consumption test I added the additional power draw of the Laing DDC pump + 3 yate loon 120mm fans which were used to cool the radiator. This is in place of the stock aircooler on a standard GTX280 so it comes as no surprise that the watercooled card did, all things considered, draw more power from the socket than a stock GTX280 due to the additional equipment required.


Temperatures

Temperatures were taken at the factory clocked speed during idle in Windows and after 10 minutes of running Furmark with settings maxed out (2560x1600 8xMSAA). Ambient temperatures were taken with a household thermometer. As we use an open test bench setup consideration should be given to the fact that the temperatures would likely increase further in a closed case environment.
 
 
 
Wow. The performance of the waterblock is certainly under question no more. Cooling the card down to such a level demands respect and even when the card was overclocked (see below), the card reported very little increase in temps, maxing out at an astonishing 48c after 5 minutes of Furmark. This is far beyond the conservative drop pf 10c claimed by MSI. At the time of the review, we couldn't test the restriction by any scientific means other than by sight of cavitation in the reservoir which surprisingly seemed unaffected by the GPU block as much as I would have thought.

 
Overclocking

For our overclocking tests I used Rivatuner to overclock the card which is perhaps the most commonly used generic utility to overclock GPU's at a driver level. To test stability, I ran 3D Mark 06 and a few runs of Crysisbench which I confess does not signify true 24/7 stability, however, it does give a good indication of stability nonetheless as heat would be the main enemy. As you can see above, this is not the case with this graphics card.

Stock overclocked
 

As the card was already overclocked past the GTX280 stock clockspeed of 602MHz to a record 700mhz, we did not expect the card to perform much higher than this given that most GTX280's that have passed through our hands reaching a maximum 730mhz. We were wrong. The Overclocking performance of the MSI nGTX OC Hydrogen far exceeded our expectations reaching a maximum 792Mhz on the core before instability materialised. This I feel was a limitation of voltage rather than temperature and I have no doubts that given a few volt mods, the card could easily exceed 800mhz.

We left the shaders linked to the corespeed which also reached an astonishing 1584Mhz. Couple this with a memory overclock of a further 200mhz past the 1150mhz overclock as standard, and this is by far the fastest GTX we have ever come across. Simply amazing.

Let's move on to our suite of benchmarks where we pitch it up against the ATI 4850x2, GTX285 and stock GTX280...



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3DMark is a popular synthetic gaming benchmark used by many gamers and overclockers to gauge the performance of their PC's. All 3DMark runs were performed a total of 5 times, with the highest and lowest results being removed and an average calculated from the remaining 3 results.
 





 
Results Analysis

3DMark usually gives a good indication of how the remainder of the benchmarks will pan out so on first impressions it appears that, expectedly, the overclocked GTX280 is a better performer than its stock clocked brethren but it is also slightly behind the newer GTX285.

Let's see if this transfers over to our real world gaming benchmarks.


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Unreal Tournament 3 is the highly anticipated game from Epic Games and Midway. The game uses the latest Unreal engine, which combines fast gameplay along with high quality textures and lighting effects. All benchmarks were performed using UTbench with a fly-by of the DM-BioHazard map. As usual, all benchmarks were performed 5 times, with the highest and lowest results being removed and an average calculated from the remaining three.
 
 


GRID
 
Race Driver: Grid is a visually taxing game that presents a challenge to any graphics system. Results were recorded using FRAPS to log the average FPS over a 2 minute race. To ensure consistency, the same track, car and general path of travel was used in each of the 5 benchmark runs for each graphics card, with an average FPS being calculated from the median three results.
 
 


 
Company of Heroes is Relic's first title to make use of the "Essence Engine". This engine was designed and coded from scratch by Relic in order to make use of special graphical effects, including high dynamic range lighting, dynamic lighting & shadows, advanced shader effects and normal mapping. On May 29, 2007 Relic released a DX10 patch for Company of Heroes which was applied for this test.  Running the in game performance test 5 times, the highest and lowest scores were omitted with the average calculated from the remaining 3.



 
Results Analysis

Mirroring the 3DMark benchmarks, the HydroGen card puts its stock clocked brother firmly in its place. It also gives the GTX285 a good run for its money and thanks to the PhysX capabilities all Nvidia cards score very highly in Unreal Tournament III. GRID remains a strong point for ATI despite the high clocks of the Hydrogen and the newly released drivers from Nvidia.

Let's head over to the next set of benchmarks...


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Ubisoft has developed a new engine specifically for Far Cry 2, called Dunia, meaning "world", "earth" or "living" in Parsi. The engine takes advantage of multi-core processors as well as multiple processors and supports DirectX 9 as well as DirectX 10. Running the Far Cry 2 benchmark tool the test was run 5 times with the highest and lowest scores being omitted and the average calculated from the remaining 3.
 


 


Call of Duty 4 is a stunning DirectX 9.0c based game that really looks awesome and has a very full feature set. With lots of advanced lighting, smoke and water effects, the game has excellent explosions along with fast game play. Using the in-built Call Of Duty features, a 10-minute long game play demo was recorded and replayed on each of the GPU's using the /timedemo command a total of 5 times. The highest and lowest FPS results were then removed, with an average being calculated from the remaining 3 results.
 
 




Crysis is without doubt one of the most visually stunning and hardware-challenging games to date. By using CrysisBench - a tool developed independently of Crysis - we performed a total of 5 timedemo benchmarks using a GPU-intensive pre-recorded demo. To ensure the most accurate results, the highest and lowest benchmark scores were then removed and an average calculated from the remaining three.
 
 
 
 
Results Analysis

The Overclocked GTX280 and standard GTX285 performed pretty much identical to one another during this phase of the testing. Only when the resolution was maxed out in the torturous Crysis run did the higher clocked GTX280 surpass the 285 by any significant margin.

Let's head over to the conclusion where I formulate my thoughts on todays review subject...



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Conclusion

The MSI N280GTX OC Hydrogen certainly validated its high price tag. Taking into consideration the cost of the lush full cover copper block and the fact that this is an extremely high, pre-overclocked package and it starts to work out at a competitive price point. Alternatively, for £360 you could get a 4870x2 which would no doubt outperform even this pre-overclocked card in most areas, but at a cost. One of the benefits of having a water-cooled GPU that seems to come lower down the list of priorities to performance and cooling is something that is often overlooked. Depending on your water-cooling setup, the GTX280 OC HydroGen will run silent. A silent, high performing card is certainly nothing to be taken lightly these days, nor is the fact that many manufacturers will frown upon adding aftermarket cooling let alone water-cooling if it came to warranty issues. Herein lies the attraction of the MSI card. You get the best of both worlds - high Performance, silence, and cool running but no warranty worries.

The pre-overclocks were already the fastest we have seen at OC3D so I was amazed at how much further the card could be pushed. A GPU core speed of a smidge under 800mhz is an amazing achievement, due in part to the efficient water-cooling block provided which kept temperatures in the mid 40's regardless of how much strain the card was under. The power draw of the card will be slightly less than that of a standard GTX due to there being no fan but consideration needs to be made to the added power requirements of a water-cooling loop. Noise, as we have previously mentioned isn't an issue so I am struggling to find anything bad to say about the card.

If I had to find fault it would be the price. For the money you could buy the newer GTX285 and add your own block but this could invalidate your warranty - something a lot of people are concerned with doing after paying over £300. There is also the risk of damaging the card yourself when fitting an aftermarket waterblock but at this end of the market, speed is everything and speed usually goes hand-in-hand with temperatures so this is something people are willing to risk. The MSI card eradicates this risk. As stated, the flagship ATI card would offer more performance but then noise becomes an issue, so while the GTX280 OC HydroGen does at first glance appear expensive, it strikes a very even balance and could form an attractive proposition to the shrewd water-cooling performance junkie.

The Good
- Amazing overclocking
- Great performance
- Fantastic cooling

The Mediocre
- No included barbs
- Dual slot I/O plate

The Bad
- Some may be put off by the high price of a previous gen card, despite it's benefits



Thanks to MSI for providing the n280GTX OC HydroGen for todays for review. Discuss in our forums.