You may have noticed that the Internet is awash this morning with reviews of the latest ATI series of graphics cards, the 68 series. You might also be wondering therefore why we here at Overclock3D aren't doing the same.
The answer is simple. The 6870 and 6850 are as good as re-branded (and my heavens do we hate to hear that word) versions of the 58xx, youll hear much more from us on this subject over the coming weeks but for now its the turn of MSI's green team flagship card.
So given the choice between reviewing a rehash of an older product that isn't as good as the model on which it's based, or giving you a review a genuine game-changing piece of hardware that really drops a nuclear-sized chunk of power, it's no surprise that we'd much rather deal with the new, than try and get excited about the old.
Enter the MSI N480GTX Lightning.
We've reviewed a few Twin Frozr II equipped cards and always found it to be about the greatest cooling solution this side of moving our offices to an igloo. However if you cast your mind back to when we reviewed the GTX480 we discovered that it probably contributes more to global warming than any field of cows ever could. The Lightning has the updated variant, namely the Twin Frozr III to hand though.
So is this the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, or can MSIs Twin Frozr III really tame nVidias monster?
MSI clearly think so because besides being a Twin Frozr III card, this is branded as one of their Lightning series. The Lightning really is the top of the MSI technical tree being the equivalent to their Big Bang motherboards or similar. It has more bells and whistles than a troop of Morris dancers.
The basic technical specifications follow. We'll cover the more unique elements of the N480GTX Lightning on the next couple of pages.
Following on from the normal Lightning packaging we have a military jet on the front of the box. It suits for both the Lightning moniker and also the "Military Class" hardware on the card.
Inside the box the card is well protected with a lot of well cut, dense, foam. The accessories package is fairly standard although the eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted three odd little cables. These are voltage probes and we'll show you where they go in a moment.
Here is the Lightning in all its Twin Frozr III glory. Very similar to the excellent Twin Frozr II, containing a huge amount of heatsink and two 90mm PWM fans.
In keeping with the modern trend for extreme products to be in black and red, the MSI is no exception. There is no denying its attractiveness, although perhaps if we were really picky we'd have liked to see it in the deep blue and gun-metal colour scheme that the latest MSI motherboards come in. Considering that the MSI mobos should be high on anyones purchase list it might be nice to see a holistic colour scheme. However we can understand why black and red was chosen because it's much more common.
To assist with consistent heat dispersion across the full width of the card the Lightning comes replete with a very nice back-plate/brace. The slots for venting and MSI logo really show the thought that has gone into the whole design.
To aid with extreme overclocking the Lightning has a 16 phase power design which well get into more on the next page, but this does mean that the MSI has 2 8pin PCIe power inputs for the GPU and a 6pin one dedicated for the Memory as well. It's a hungry beast, but then the GTX480 isn't exactly enviromentally friendly anyway.
One of the big selling points of the MSI over the reference card is the inclusion of a DisplayPort output alongside the standard dual DVI and HDMI outputs. Gold plated too so you know that corrosion wont become an issue with providing your monitor with the clearest signal possible.
Here is where the N480GTX Lightning really separates itself from the pack. Just to the right of the screw on the backplate you can see two small dip switches. Flip them to switch the card from the default BIOS into an extreme one. This enables increased GPU and memory voltage whilst also upping the over-current protection threshhold from the already hefty 320 Amps to 600 Amps.
If you're one of those people who dabble in the sub-zero arts, the extreme BIOS also helps fix any issues with LN2 based cooling freezes.
Returning to the voltage probes we saw above, just above the MSI logo are the inputs to connect your voltage probing equipment.
Twin Frozr III
If there is one thing that has been proven over time, it's the ability of the Twin Frozr II cooling system to be one of the best around. So it's no surprise at all to see the Twin Frozr III adopt a very similar design. Huge heatpipes, big fans and a very clever fin design are all we can ask of a cooling solution and MSI have got it in spades.
The problem with non-reference cooling is usually that it's a pain if you want to switch over to a GPU water block because you have to go full-cover. The Lightning comes with a separate heatsink for the GDDR and power phases, so you could leave it as is and just go for a GPU block if you so choose.
Here is the card in all it's naked glory. There definitely isn't a inch of room on the board that isn't taken up with something or other.
The GPU side of the board is fairly standard with the Fermi chip and the GDDR5 RAM. To the bottom left of the GPU is the 1 phase PLL PWM.
The right hand side is where the other important additions lay. Just below the power inputs is the 3 phase Memory PWM, and the huge row of 12 GPU PWM phases complete the 16 Phase PWM on the Lightning. This means that rather than the 154 Amps of the standard GTX480, the Lightning has a maximum current capability of 480 Amps!
Intel Core i7 950 @ 4GHz
6GB Mushkin Redline DDR3
ASUS Rampage III Extreme
Noctua NH-D14 with MX3 thermal paste
MSI N480GTX Lightning
Windows 7 Ultimate 64 Bit
Overclocking and Temperatures
So with the full huge improvements over the reference GTX480 in cooling and power phases it was time to see how far MSI Afterburner could push the card.
The reference 480 managed to improve the Core clock to 830MHz although this did necessitate manually running the fans at 90% to keep the card remotely stable and even then it blitzed through 90°C quite happily.
The MSI Lightning shows that the "Lightning" moniker isn't ill advised completely annihilating the stock card by pushing up to 900MHz, with suitable gains in the linked shaders and even the memory made it up to 2GHz. Staggering increases.
"Ahhh but the GTX480 is a grill" I can hear you all saying. Maybe in reference trim, but that Twin Frozr III isn't just a pretty face.
With the fans at 50% and FurMark set to 1920x1200, 8xAA and all the candy turned on the Lightning, when at stock, didn't top 64°C. Let's repeat that.
At stock, under major loading, the MSI N480GTX Lightning is only just hotter than the reference GTX480 at idle.
Overclocking performance follows a similar pattern to the reference with the fans needing to be run at 80% to keep the card under control. Here however is the major difference.
The reference card just about kept under 100°C at 90% fans and was louder than Heathrow on a busy summers afternoon.
The Twin Frozr III at 80% keeps the card at 78°C and is comprehensively quieter than the reference design. It's SOOO quiet.
We'll definitely have something to say about this in our conclusion, but it's time for testing.
3D Mark Vantage
Well I think it's fair to say that the results are pretty conclusive. It's rare that when we're comparing like for like, as we are between the MSI N480GTX Lightning and the reference GTX480, that the stock "upgraded" card outperforms the reference when overclocked, but here the graph is perfectly linear throughout testing.
The only time the reference card gets past the Lightning is when overclocked against the stock Lightning in Extreme mode. Otherwise the Lightning completely dominates.
Unigine Heaven 2.1
Normally when we move away from 3D Mark to Unigine the gap between the cards lessens dramatically. Here the Lightning actually increases its lead when we run zero anti-aliasing. Once the cards are fully stressed with 8xAA the MSI just romps off into the distance.
The only time the reference GTX480 gets close is at minimum frame-rate where the overclock definitely helps keep the card running. But the average frame-rate is King and the Lightning definitely takes the crown.
If this was a boxing match the towel would have been thrown in by now. The MSI N480GTX Lightning is spanking the GTX480 so hard it's almost like it's a different card rather than the same card but done properly.
Finally we have a game that closes the gap between our cards, although as we've proven from previous testing it's more because Metro 2033 isn't very well optimised rather than any inherent flaws in the testing. Even still the Lightning manages to eke out enough of a lead to show its dominance.
Finally we have the excellent, if a little short, Mafia II. By virtue of its console roots all of our cards can give immense frame-rates in this game. Still the Lightning at stock is keeping tabs on the overclocked reference 480 and the overclocked Lightning is in a difference league altogether.
Turn the page for the most predicatable conclusion in OC3D history...
If you're the kind of reader who zips straight here then you might be wondering how the MSI N480GTX Lightning will fare under the scrutiny of the OC3D guys.
If you read the review though, you already know exactly what we think.
The MSI N480GTX Lightning is epic. Brilliant. Amazing. The fastest single-GPU on the planet by a huge margin.
It overclocks well, and far better than the reference design. But even better it runs both stock and overclocked MUCH cooler than its reference counterpart. Almost icing on the cake is how quiet it is, and believe us when we say it's quiet. At stock it's as quiet as a reference HD5870 which isn't exactly loud. If you are used to running the nVidia design then switching to the MSI will probably make you think you've gone deaf.
28157 P-Score for the overclocked Lightning is exactly what the GTX480 should have been when it was first released.
In fact if there is one overriding impression we've had from the MSI N480GTX Lightning it's this :
nVidia, What the hell were you doing??
A multi-billion dollar company that took seemingly forever managed to produce a brutally hot, ear-splittingly loud, under-performing card that was the biggest disappointment since Daikatana.
MSI on the other hand have taken a design that isn't exactly new and with a bit of tweaking managed to give us exactly what the GTX480 should have been in the first place. Cool, quiet and faster than a top-fuel dragster.
The Twin Frozr III cooler is so brilliant that we reckon if MSI offered it as a separate upgrade for owners of the reference GTX480 they couldn't make them fast enough such would be the demand.
Sure it's a little more expensive than the current GTX480 pricing, but it's actually on a par with where the 480 was upon release with an expected street price of about £430. Considering the price of a standard 480 and an extra cooler it's a bargain. Once you factor in how much extra it does and that even at stock it tramples on an overclocked GTX480, it's a no brainer.
Finally we have a GTX480 that does what we all hoped it would. If you're in the market for one of nVidias beasts, this is the only one to buy. If you already own a GTX480, sell it and buy one of these.
Seriously. It's brilliant.
And that's why today OC3D are reviewing something that genuinely is worth lusting over, rather than a re-badged something else. Although come back tomorrow if you want to read all about that.
Thanks to MSI for providing the N480GTX Lightning for test. Discuss in our forums