True GeForce GTX 680: MSI N680GTX Lightning 2 GB Graphics Card Review

Another “lightning” from MSI combines all the goodness you can only imagine. Our today’s review will talk about this great product in detail and reveal its performance in all contemporary games including the new title – Sleeping Dogs.

by Sergey Lepilov
08/22/2012 | 01:50 PM

Besides the logical separation into AMD and Nvidia-based products, MSI classifies its graphics cards into four series, each with special features of its own. The following chart summarizes the differences:

 

The chart suggests that the Lightning series accumulates all the best that MSI engineers have managed to come up with. So, let’s take a look at the MSI N680GTX Lightning graphics card!

Technical Specifications

The detailed technical specifications of the new MSI card are summed up in the table below side by side with those of the reference Nvidia GeForce GTX 680:

 

Packaging and Accessories

The graphics card comes in a large cardboard box with a picture of a jet fighter on its front and detailed information about the product and its key technologies on the back.

 

You can open up the flap to learn some more information about the card and take a look at it through the window.

The graphics card is shipped with the following accessories: a DVI->D-Sub adapter, two 6-pin->8-pin power adapters, a SLI bridge, three cables for reading voltages, a disc with drivers and utilities, an installation booklet, and an MSI Military Class III certificate:

The MSI N680GTX Lightning is manufactured in China. Its warranty period is 3 years and its retail price is $599, which is $100 more expensive than a regular GeForce GTX 680. Let’s see what we get for that extra money.

Design and Features

It’s hard to tell the new card apart from the MSI R7970 Lightning we tested earlier. It looks the same and even has the same dimensions (300x125x49 millimeters):

Contrasting with the black casing, the silvery logos of MSI, Twin Frozr IV and Lightning Series and the bright yellow stripes catch the eye, making the card attractive.

The N680GTX Lightning is equipped with two dual-link DVI outputs, one HDMI 1.4a and one DisplayPort 1.2:

The connectors are gold-plated, emphasizing the high status of the product. There are two MIO connectors for building SLI configurations in the standard location near the video outputs.

 

The reference card’s 6- and 8-pin power connectors are replaced here with two 8-pin ones to ensure that the card has enough power at increased frequencies. The PSU requirements haven’t changed, though. The N680GTX Lightning is recommended to be used with a 550-watt PSU, just like the reference card.

Although massive, the exclusive Twin Frozr IV cooler is only secured with four screws around the GPU. It is quite easy to take off. We only have to remove the heat-spreader that covers most of the PCB to have a good view of the graphics card.

The PCB is in many ways similar to the one of the R7970 Lightning model, the only obvious difference being the GPU chip.

A number of discrepancies can be found on closer inspection, though.

The unique 12-phase power system incorporates gold-plated solid state chokes, CopperMOS transistors, Dark Solid capacitors and tantalum-core Hi-c capacitors.

Each power phase has a dedicated indicator based on blue LEDs. It can be seen on the reverse side of the PCB. The gold-plated chokes are especially impressive:

Besides the marketing effect, the Golden SSCs ensure stable voltages and overcurrent protection at high loads. The N680GTX Lightning also features a special Lightning Power Layer PCB that helps reduce interference and increase stability at overclocking. All of this is referred to as Unlocked Digital Power.

The GPU Reactor module on the reverse side of the PCB is expected to ensure even more stability in overclocked mode (up to 200% more).

 

The GPU voltage regulator is managed by an 8-phase PWM controller CHiL CHL8318.

Like every other Lightning series card from MSI, the N680GTX is overclocker-friendly with such features as dual BIOS (with LN2 settings, no voltage limitations and a higher power consumption limit) and three connectors for reading voltages (V-PLL, V-MEM and V-GPU):

 

So, this graphics card looks perfect for extreme overclocking with liquid nitrogen or something like that.

The GK104 GPU was manufactured in Taiwan on the 18th week of 2012. It is revision A2:

Its base clock rate is lifted from 1006 to 1111 MHz (+10.4%) by default and can be boosted to 1176 MHz. Otherwise, it is a regular Kepler with standard specs (you can see them in the table above). Its voltage is 1.175 volts in 3D mode and 0.988 volts in 2D mode.

Our GPU turned out to have a high ASIC quality of 96%:

The card carries 2 gigabytes of memory in eight GDDR5 chips manufactured by Hynix Semiconductor. They are labeled H5GQ2H24MFR R0C:

The memory frequency is left at its default 6008 MHz, so the rest of the memory subsystem parameters are identical to those of the reference card’s.

Here is a summary of the N680GTX Lightning specs:

 

Twin Frozr IV Cooling System: Efficiency and Noise

The Twin Frozr IV was installed on the MSI R7970 Lightning card we tested earlier and hasn’t changed much since then.

The only difference is that the nickel-plated copper sole of the cooler lacks the characteristic protrusion for the sunken-in die of the Tahiti GPU. Otherwise, it is the same high-quality and high-efficiency cooler with additional heat-spreaders on both sides of the PCB.

The superpipes as MSI calls them are snuggly fitted into the grooves and soldered to the cooler’s base.

The two 100mm Power Logic PLA10015B12H fans have originally shaped impellers that are promised to deliver a 20% stronger air flow. They run on ball bearings and support PWM-based regulation.

They also feature cute blue highlighting and a dust removal technology (when turned on, they rotate in the opposite direction for a few seconds, blowing dust out of the heatsink).

We checked out the card’s temperature during five consecutive runs of  Aliens vs. Predator (2010) game with the highest image quality settings in 2560x1440 resolution with 16x anisotropic filtering and MSAA 4x antialiasing):

We used MSI Afterburner 2.2.3 and GPU-Z 0.6.3 as monitoring tools. This test was performed inside a closed system case at 25°C room temperature. All thermal tests were carried out before we took the card apart, i.e. with its default thermal interface still intact.

The Twin Frozr IV was highly efficient on the MSI R7970 Lightning. Let’s see how it can cope with the N680GTX Lightning now:


Automatic fan mode

Max fan speed

Yes, the pre-overclocked GeForce GTX 680 from MSI is cooled very well. With the fans regulated automatically, the GPU temperature grew from 33°C in idle mode to 64°C at peak load. The memory and VRM temperatures were roughly the same. The speed of the fans was only 1650 RPM, so the card didn’t disturb the quiet of our testbed. When the fans were set at their maximum speed of 3200 RPM, the GPU temperature was 58° while the memory and VRM were 2°C colder. Well, it is clear that such an efficient cooler mustn’t be used at the full speed of its fans.

The noise level of each cooler was measured after 1:00 AM in a closed room about 20 m2 big using CENTER-321 electronic noise meter. The noise level for each cooler was tested outside the system case when the only noise sources in the lab were the cooler and its fan. The noise meter was installed on a tripod and was always at a 150 mm distance from the cooler fan rotor. The tested cooling systems were placed at the edge of the desk on a sheet of polyurethane foam. The lowest noise reading our noise meter device can register is 29.8 dBA and the subjectively comfortable noise level in these testing conditions was around 36 dBA (do not mix it up with low noise level). The fans rotation speeds were adjusted in the entire supported range using our in-house controller by changing the voltage with 0.5 V increment.

We’ll test the acoustic performance of MSI N680GTX Lightning against reference NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680 and AMD Radeon HD 7970 cards as well as against an ASUS GeForce GTX 680 DirectCU II TOP which features one of the quietest coolers we’ve ever seen. The vertical dotted lines mark the speed of the fans in the automatic regulation mode.

Here are the results:

Although the noise graph of the MSI N680GTX Lightning goes higher than the other three, its noise in the automatic regulation mode is lower compared to the reference coolers of the AMD Radeon HD 7970 and Nvidia GeForce GTX 680. That’s not bad, yet the Twin Frozr IV can’t be called quiet in 3D applications, especially in comparison with the ASUS DirectCU II. The latter remains the quietest original GPU cooler we’ve ever tested.

Overclocking Potential

We tried to overclock our N680GTX Lightning at its default voltage of 1.175 volts and with the Power Limit set to the maximum.

The cooler worked in the automatic regulation mode. As a result, we managed to increase the base GPU clock rate by 75 MHz and the graphics memory clock rate, by 1000 MHz.

The card was stable at clock rates of 1186/1251/7008 MHz:

This is better than average, yet you can expect such results from a GeForce GTX 680. Thanks to the Twin Frozr IV cooler, the overclocked card had the same temperature and its fans rotated at the same speed as before:

After we increased the GPU voltage by 93 millivolts (the voltage would drop automatically to this value when we selected 100 millivolts), the GPU could be overclocked by 135 MHz more.

Interestingly, the memory frequency had to be reduced by 20 MHz in order to make the card stable at that GPU clock rate. So, the resulting clock rates were 1246/1311/6988 MHz:

As a matter of fact, this is the highest GPU clock rate among all five GeForce GTX 680s we have tested so far. The Twin Frozr IV must be praised again as it kept the overclocked and volt-modded GPU as cold as 71°C at a fan speed of 2070 RPM.

Our applause goes to MSI for creating such an overclocker-friendly PCB and such an efficient cooler!

Power Consumption

We measured the power consumption of our testbed equipped with different graphics cards using a multifunctional Zalman ZM-MFC3 panel, which can report how much power a computer (without the monitor) draws from a wall outlet. There were two test modes: 2D (editing documents in Microsoft Word or web surfing) and 3D (three runs of Metro 2033: The Last Refuge benchmark in 2560x1440 resolution with maximum image quality settings).

Here are the results:

The MSI N680GTX Lightning doesn’t surprise us in terms of power consumption. Its system consumes up to 452 watts when the card works at its default frequencies and up to 500 watts when the card is overclocked. Interestingly, the system with the default AMD Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition needs more power than the system with the overclocked and volt-modded MSI N680GTX Lightning. Each of the tested configurations is going to be satisfied with a 550 or 600-watt power supply, though. Such PSUs are commonplace in today’s gaming PCs.

Testbed Configuration and Testing Methodology

All participating graphics cards were tested in a system with the following configuration:

In order to lower the dependence of the graphics cards performance on the overall platform speed, I overclocked our 32 nm six-core CPU with the multiplier set at 37x, BCLK frequency set at 125 MHz and “Load-Line Calibration” enabled to 4.625 GHz. The processor Vcore was increased to 1.465 V in the mainboard BIOS:

Hyper-Threading technology was enabled. 16 GB of system DDR3 memory worked at 2 GHz frequency with 9-10-10-28 timings and 1.65V voltage.

The test session started on August 17, 2012. All tests were performed in Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate x64 SP1 with all critical updates as of that date and the following drivers:

We ran our tests in the following two resolutions: 1920x1080 and 2560x1440. The tests were performed in two image quality modes: “Quality+AF16x” – default texturing quality in the drivers with enabled 16x anisotropic filtering and “Quality+ AF16x+MSAA 4(8)x” with enabled 16x anisotropic filtering and full screen 4x or 8x antialiasing if the average framerate was high enough for comfortable gaming experience. We enabled anisotropic filtering and full-screen anti-aliasing from the game settings. If the corresponding options were missing, we changed these settings in the Control Panels of Catalyst and GeForce drivers. We also disabled Vsync there. There were no other changes in the driver settings.

Today’s testing suite includes one popular semi-synthetic benchmark and 8 most resource-demanding games of various genres with all updates installed as of the beginning of the test session date, including the newest title - Sleeping Dogs:

If the game allowed recording the minimal fps readings, they were also added to the charts. We ran each game test or benchmark twice and took the best result for the diagrams, but only if the difference between them didn’t exceed 1%. If it did exceed 1%, we ran the tests at least one more time to achieve repeatability of results.

Performance

3DMark 2011

As expected, the graphics cards from MSI and ASUS, having almost identical clock rates, are close to each other in 3DMark 2011. Both are ahead of the AMD Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition. The overclocked MSI wins this test.

Metro 2033: The Last Refuge

The Nvidia-based cards find it difficult to compete with the AMD Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition in this game, although the gap is small. The GeForce GTX 680s from MSI and ASUS have the same results here.

Aliens vs. Predator (2010)

We see the same picture in this game, too:

Total War: Shogun 2

Nvidia-based cards are rather unpredictable in this game. When a new game patch is installed automatically, GeForce GTX 680 and 670 cards usually slow down but Nvidia’s programmers react by releasing a driver update. This time around, the GeForce 305.37 beta driver, released for the GeForce GTX 660 Ti, makes the top-end Nvidia-based solutions competitive against the AMD-based card.

We can add that the ASUS GeForce GTX 680 DirectCU II TOP and MSI N680GTX Lightning deliver the same performance again, outpacing the ordinary GeForce GTX 680 by 8-10%.

Crysis 2

The GeForce GTX 680s from MSI and ASUS are just as fast as the reference Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition in this game. The Nvidia-based solutions are somewhat better in terms of bottom frame rate, though. The overclocked MSI is deservedly ahead in this test.

Battlefield 3

The same goes for Battlefield 3:

DiRT Showdown

The AMD Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition is unrivalled in this game:

So, the Nvidia-based cards have to compete with each other only.

Sniper Elite V2 Benchmark

The AMD Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition is faster than the GeForce GTX 680s here, so the products from ASUS and MSI can only compete with each other.

Sleeping Dogs

Sleeping Dogs making a debut in our tests, we want to show you a couple of screenshots from its benchmark scenes and the graphics quality settings we are going to use in it.

 

 

The difference between the graphics quality modes is in antialiasing. The Normal mode uses minimum-quality FXAA whereas the Extreme mode features FXAA together with SSAA at the maximum quality level. Here are the results:

The single-GPU top-end cards are similar in Sleeping Dogs at the Normal settings, but the AMD Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition goes ahead when we enable FXAA together with SSAA. It is not the first time that we see the Tahiti with 384-bit bus and 3 GB of memory handle the resource-consuming SSAA better than the Kepler with its 256-bit bus and 2 GB of memory.

Conclusion

The MSI N680GTX Lightning is one of the fastest single-GPU graphics card available today. It has a high GPU clock rate by default and can also be overclocked further. The Military III certification of the card refers to the use of expensive and durable components for it. Its Twin Frozr IV cooler is highly efficient, but cannot work quietly, which seems to be the only downside about this device. Its numerous accessories, 3-year warranty, attractive exterior design, highlighted fans, dust removal system and overclocker-friendly features make it an excellent, even though pricey, choice. Well, top-end graphics cards are not expected to be cheap, are they?

In conclusion we would like to award MSI N680GTX Lightning with our Ultimate Innovation title for all the hard engineering work that MSI has put into this product, which resulted into significant improvement of the PCB layout and a highly efficient cooling system: