MSI N580GTX Lightning Xtreme Edition 3 GB Graphics Card Review

Today we are going to talk about another very fast and very expensive graphics accelerator. What are its advantages and drawbacks compared to the previously reviewed products from EVGA and Gigabyte? The answers to these and other questions are in our new review.

by Sergey Lepilov
11/18/2011 | 01:36 PM

After testing two top-end graphics cards from Gigabyte and EVGA based on the Nvidia GF110 processor, we've got yet another same-class product to check out. This is the MSI N580GTX Lightning Xtreme Edition that was announced back in summer at Computex 2011.

 

Before the announcement MSI offered an ordinary N580GTX Lightning but the Xtreme Edition is supposed to be faster, more advanced and more expensive. Let's take a closer look at it.

Technical Specifications

Packaging and Accessories

You don’t have to be a military aircraft expert to identify the American fifth generation fighter F-22 Raptor in the picture on the face and back sides of the box. The box is huge, measuring 460x310x78 millimeters.

Besides the fighter, there are also a number of info icons, labels and slogans referring to the product contained within. If you need even more information, you can open up the top of the box and read as much about the graphics card as you want.

There is a window here, allowing you a peep at the graphics card’s cooler.

Included into the box are two power adapters (6-pin->8-pin), two flexible SLI bridges, one DVI-I->D-Sub adapter, three multimeter cables, a CD with drivers and utilities, and a promo booklet.

There are no games in the box although they would make the product more attractive considering its high price.

The graphics card is manufactured in China. It can be found in retail for about $594, which is its recommended price. The ordinary MSI N580GTX Lightning is $70 cheaper.

PCB Design

The anodized aluminum casing and acid-blue fans make this version of the card different visually from the ordinary one.

Both versions have the same specified size of 307x127x45 millimeters. However, this card is actually as long as 293 millimeters whereas its PCB is 280 millimeters long. Its weight is 1164 grams.

As opposed to the similar products from Gigabyte and EVGA, the MSI N580GTX Lightning Xtreme Edition offers a full selection of connectors: two DVI-I ports with support for high resolutions (dual-link), one HDMI 1.4a connector and a DisplayPort (version 1.2).

The connectors are all gold-plated. This can hardly improve the signal quality but looks nice anyway. There are two MIO connectors at the top of the PCB to build 2-, 3- and even 4-way SLI configurations.

The MSI N580GTX Lightning Xtreme Edition is equipped with two 8-pin power connectors.

The card’s peak power draw is specified to be 260 watts but MSI recommends a 700-watt power supply for a computer with it (Nvidia’s recommendation is 600 watts).

There are three connectors for cables you can use to measure the card's GPU, memory and PLL voltages.

You can also use jumpers to increase the range of those voltages, switch from a PWM frequency of 260 to 310 MHz (PWM ClockTuner) and disable the current limiter (OCP Unlocker).

There is a BIOS version selector nearby. You can switch from the Original to LN2 version to remove any voltage tweaking limitations and avoid the so-called cold bug which can occur with liquid-nitrogen coolers.

The MSI N580GTX Lightning Xtreme Edition features a 16-phase power system with 12 phases for the GPU (based on a PWM controller uP6225AM) and four phases for the graphics memory (an uP6207AI controller).

Like the earlier-tested products from Gigabyte and EVGA, the MSI card employs high-quality DirectFETs that feature superior electrical as well as thermal properties. They can effectively give their heat away through both the heatsinks and the PCB.

There are also four enhanced-capacitance Proadlizer NEC/TOKIN capacitors on the reverse side of the PCB:

These capacitors ensure increased stability at high voltages and frequencies and are employed by several makers in their top-end products. The N580GTX Lightning Xtreme also features a special Lightning Power Layer PCB that helps reduce interference and increase stability at overclocking. MSI says this card is Military Class II which means high-quality components with longer service life (Hi-c tantalum-core capacitors and Super Ferrite Chokes).

All this circuitry and electronics is complemented with beautiful LED illumination on the reverse side of the PCB.

 

The Nvidia GF110-375 revision A1 chip was made in Taiwan on 40nm tech process on the 33rd week of 2011 (it is mid-August). It’s covered with a heat-spreader.

The GPU configuration is standard with 512 unified shader processors, 64 texture-mapping units and 48 raster operators. Its 3D frequencies are pre-overclocked from 772/1544 MHz to 832/1664 MHz at a voltage of 1.013 volts, which is somewhat lower than the frequencies of the Gigabyte and EVGA cards (855/1710 MHz). The frequencies are lowered to 51/101 MHz at a voltage of 0.962 volts in 2D applications.

As opposed to the regular Lightning, the Xtreme one sports twice the amount of onboard memory: 3072 megabytes in 12 FCFBGA-packaged chips from Hynix Semiconductor.

They are marked as H5GQ2H24MFR T2C, which means a rated access time of 0.4 nanoseconds, clock rate of 5000 MHz and voltage of 1.5 volts (1.35 volts for 2D mode). The memory of the N580GTX Lightning Xtreme Edition is pre-overclocked to 4200 MHz, which is 200 MHz higher than the memory frequency of the reference GeForce GTX 580 and 100 MHz higher than that of the Gigabyte GeForce GTX 580 SuperOverclock and EVGA GeForce GTX 580 Classified.

That’s the MSI N580GTX Lightning Xtreme Edition specs are reported by the GPU-Z utility:

Now let’s examine its cooler.

Cooling System

The N580GTX Lightning Xtreme Edition carries MSI’s exclusive Twin Frozr III cooler that has a nickel-plated copper base, five copper heat pipes and an aluminum heatsink with fans. The whole arrangement is covered with an aluminum casing.

The outermost pipes are 8 millimeters in diameter whereas the three middle ones, 6 millimeters. Every detail of the heatsink is nickel-plated; they are all soldered to each other.

The copper base sports good finish quality, especially for a GPU cooler:

There is thick gray thermal grease between the cooler and the GPU. We know nothing about its properties.

A metallic plate with thermal pads is used to cool the power circuit components.

The cooler has two fans from Power Logic. It is the PLA09215B12H model with a dual ball bearing.

The fans have a form-factor of 92x92x15 millimeters but the impellers are 86 millimeters large. The speed of the fans is regulated automatically and can reach as high as 3500 RPM. The innovative design of the 11 impeller blades helps improve the air flow by 20%. The cooler features a dust removal system: the fans are rotating in the opposite direction for 30 seconds after turning on in order to blow dust speckles out of the dense heatsink. This is a questionable, yet unique, solution. Each fan is highlighted:

Using a temperature sensor, the cooler changes the color of the highlighting from blue to white upon reaching 45°C.

We checked out the card’s temperature while running Aliens vs. Predator (2010) in five cycles at the highest settings (2560x1600, 16x anisotropic filtering, 4x full-screen antialiasing).

We used MSI Afterburner 2.2.0 Beta 8 and GPU-Z 0.5.5 as monitoring tools. This test was carried out with a closed system case at an ambient temperature of 24°C.

MSI’s original cooler proved to be very effective in automatic mode as well as at the full speed of its fans.


Auto mode

Max speed

Despite the increased frequencies, the GPU was only 67°C hot with the fans regulated automatically and 60°C at the full speed of the fans. That’s very low for a top-end GPU, especially as the fans were only rotating at 1980 RPM in the automatic regulation mode. How quiet is it?

We measured the level of noise using an electronic noise-level meter CENTER-321 in a closed room about 20 sq. meters large. The noise-level meter was set on a tripod at a distance of 15 centimeters from the graphics card which was installed on an open testbed. The mainboard with the graphics card was placed at an edge of a desk on a foam-rubber tray.

The bottom limit of our noise-level meter is 29.8 dBA whereas the subjectively comfortable (not low, but comfortable) level of noise when measured from that distance is about 36 dBA. The speed of the graphics card’s fan was being adjusted by means of a controller that changed the supply voltage in steps of 0.5 V.

We’ve included the results of the Gigabyte GeForce GTX 580 SuperOverclock into the diagram for the sake of comparison:

The vertical dotted lines mark the max speed of the fans in the automatic regulation mode. As you can see, the MSI cooler is somewhat noisier overall, but quieter than the Gigabyte cooler at low speeds. On the other hand, neither of these coolers can keep below the subjectively comfortable level of noise, so you may want to look for other solutions if you need a silent computer.

Overclockability

Our sample of the MSI N580GTX Lightning Xtreme Edition didn’t surprise us with its overclocking potential, yet we managed to make the card stable at GPU clock rates of 910/1820 MHz and a memory clock rate of 4780 MHz.

The good news is that the temperature of the overclocked card grew up by a mere 2°C and the fan speed, by only 100 RPM.

We've tested three versions of GeForce GTX 580 recently, and MSI's seems to have the most efficient and quiet cooler compared to Gigabyte's WindForce 3X and EVGA's GeForce GTX 580 Classified, let alone the cooling system of the reference GeForce GTX 580.

Performance

We’ve tested a lot of GeForce GTX 580 cards, including those with 3072 megabytes of memory, so we don’t want to give you the same info once again. We will limit ourselves to just a few tests of the MSI N580GTX Lightning Xtreme Edition at overclocked frequencies using a six-core Intel Core Extreme Edition i7-980X overclocked to 4.5 GHz. The results are compared to those of its two competitors as well as of the Sapphire Radeon HD 6970 2 GB Toxic Edition.

3DMark Vantage

 

3DMark 2011

 

Unigine Heaven Demo

 

Aliens vs. Predator (2010)

Notwithstanding the high resolutions and maximum settings the MSI card delivers very high performance and doesn’t differ much from the other GeForce GTX 580-based products. Well, this should have been expected.

Conclusion

The MSI N580GTX Lightning Xtreme Edition is a typical premium-class graphics card with everything that this positioning entails: a high-quality PCB with LED indication, durable components, stable operation even in overclocked mode (also with liquid-nitrogen coolers), dual BIOS, overclocked frequencies, a double amount of onboard memory, voltage-tweaking options, a high-performance Twin Frozr III cooler with temperature-dependent highlighting, a stylish exterior design, and good accessories. What else could we ask for? Perhaps, a lower noise level and a more affordable price. By the way, judging by the latest news from the Nvidia camp, we can really hope for the price to go down very soon.