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MSI GTX 580 Lightning Xtreme Edition (XE) 3GB Review

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SKYMTL

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Let’s start this off by saying this isn’t a case of déjà vu. Less than a month ago we featured the MSI GTX 580 Lightning; a card which was essentially the pinnacle of their graphics card lineup. Other NVIDIA board partners have also stepped up to the plate with products like Gigabyte's Super Overclock edition, ASUS' upcoming Matrix and Zotac's AMP!. Well, things don’t last long in this industry and MSI is now one upping their original Lightning by introducing an “Extreme Edition” of it.


Called the Lightning XE here in North America (in order regions it will go by the Xtreme Edition name), this new GTX 580 basically takes all of the great features from the original GTX 580 Lightning and expands upon them with a few additional bangs and whistles. Naturally, we still get the pre-overclocked goodness along with an excellent heatsink design and more additional overclocking headroom than most people can actually use. But things like additional monitoring capabilities and dust removal technology for the heatsink have also been tacked on.


From a specifications standpoint there really isn’t all that much to differentiate the Xtreme from the standard Lightning. The clock speeds are identical and as we will see later, the two cards share the same PCB design as well. What allows the newer Lightning is able to stand out is its 3GB memory layout which doubles up what most other GTX 580s come equipped with.

For high resolution situations that demand copious amounts of memory bandwidth, more and more enthusiasts have been looking for high end cards which have larger framebuffers. In the past we have seen larger memory allotments be all but pointless on lower end cards since the underlying architecture reaches its saturation point long before the memory subsystem does. Whether or not this will be applied to the cream of the crop is something that will be looked into a bit later.


Naturally, more features and 3GB of GDDR5 combine to make the Lightning XE one expensive card. MSI has set the suggested retail price at $580 but expects retailers will be charging a cool $600 to $630 for the privilege of owning this limited edition card. Considering a stock GTX 580 will run you around $500 and even a 3GB card like Zotac’s 3G Edition goes for $540, spending a good amount more will likely be pointless for most But for the few users who will actually be able to get the most out of this card and its features, the Lightning XE may actually be a bargain in disguise.
 
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SKYMTL

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A Closer Look at the MSI Lightning XE 3GB

A Closer Look at the MSI Lightning XE 3GB



As is befitting a card of the Lightning’s stature, it ships in a massive box with plenty of protection and a long list of accessories. The most notable additions here is a pair of ultra long SLI connectors and a trio of voltage monitoring leads for a digital multimeter.


Just like we said in the introduction, you’ll likely be having a bit of déjà vu right about now since for all intents and purposes the Xtreme Edition’s façade is basically a carbon copy of the standard MSI Lightning. It uses the same excellent Twin Frozr III heatsink –with two blue fans- and retains its predecessor’s impressive 11 ½” length so be prepare to measure carefully if you’re using a smaller case. The Lightning series’ girth has also been expanded over a reference GTX 580 by about 3/4” which allowed MSI to incorporate an expanded PWM design.


While the Twin Frozr III heatsink design with its three large 8mm heatpipes has been carried over from previous cards, MSI has added fans which change colour. This may seem a bit tacky to some of you but the fans have a finish on them which shifts colour from blue to white as ambient temperatures rise while being backlit by LEDs. This allows passive monitoring of in-case temperatures…as long as your case has a window installed.


The fans on the Lightning XE are also programmed to counter rotate at high speeds for about 30 seconds at system startup in order to remove any dust that’s been accumulating on the heatsink fins. This “dust removal technology” is supposed to keep the Twin Frozr III heatsink operating at peak thermal efficiency so temperatures don’t deviate over the Lightning’s lifetime.


Due to its high clock speeds and the ability to hit even higher targets when enough voltage is applied, MSI has equipped the Lightning XE with two 8-pin PCI-E power connectors. We also see the three voltage monitoring pin-outs making a comeback from past Lightning and Hawk series cards. With these, you can measure PLL, GPU and memory voltages in real time with a multimeter.


Much like the rest of this card, the backplate connector layout is an exact reflection of the standard Lightning. It has a pair of DVI connectors as well as full sized outputs for DisplayPort and HDMI 1.4.
 
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SKYMTL

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Diving Deeper into the Lightning XE

Diving Deeper into the Lightning XE



MSI’s Power4 Architecture has made a comeback on the Lightning XE. This brings an enhanced PWM layout, independent memory power inputs, a copper MOS design and Proadlizer solid state super capacitors onto this particular GTX 580.

The starting point of any high end GPU design lies with the strength of its PWM layout and MSI has truly gone all out for the Lightning. They have instituted a 12-phase GPU PWM along with three phases for the GDDR5 memory and a final dedicated phase for the PLL/VDDCI PWM. In total, that brings the Lightning to an impressive 16 phases for the PWM. As can be seen, the PCB has actually been widened by a good ¾” to ensure this massive PWM has enough space.

In terms of memory, MSI has retained the reference version’s twelve chip layout (or two ICs per 64-bit memory controller) but instead of using 128MB modules with a 32x32 array design, they are using 256MB ICs with a denser 64x32 internal layout. This move allows the same number of modules to be used but tends to increase the overall latency due to the more complex structure.


Lightning’s underside is a sight to behold with an extended and lengthened PCB which has a quartet of Proadlizer solid state capacitors sitting at its core; one of which is dedicated to the memory while the others are for the core. These are supposed to provide additional capacitance and lower electrical resistance for stable power.


Along the PCB’s edge are three DIP switches with a fourth being located near the PCI-E slot connector. The main grouping of three includes an OPC Unlocker that allows the core to ignore any power limiter that has been placed upon it, a V-Switch for quick voltage tuning and a PWM Clock Tuner which essentially overclocks the PWM clock to 310Mhz from the reference 260Mhz. The fourth switch is dubbed XtremeCool for working around the GTX 580’s “cold bug” and should be used when overclocking with LN2.

Next to the three main DIP switches is a toggle used for quick BIOS switching. The Lightning holds two BIOSes onboard; one of which houses the standard overclocked file and another which is tailor-made for high end cooling solutions since it implements aggressive voltage presets. When used in conjunction with the XtremeCool toggle, this should allow extreme overclockers to push speeds to the heart’s contents.


One other interesting thing that the Lightning brings to the GPU overclocking world is a dedicated memory power input path. In layman’s terms, this is achieved through power distribution via one of the 8-pin PCI-E connectors in tandem of a 3-phase PWM instead of drawing the GDDR5’s current through the PCI-E slot connector on to a single phase PWM. Naturally, there are benefits like lower ripple and slightly more current stability but the vast majority of users likely won’t notice a difference other than increase component life.


In order to provide higher current to the GPU core, copper-based MOSFETs were used. Naturally, a cooler component can cope with higher loads so MSI implemented two copper layers (one above and one below the die) which allow quick dispersion of heat from the FET’s die package. The result is actually quite impressive: a 20% temperature reduction and a doubling of current capacity from 20A to 40A.


Much like some other manufacturer’s MSI has instituted a PCB design which effectively eliminates electrical noise. Called the Lightning Power Layer, it isolates the circuits for various card components in order to increase stability and enhance cooling through the use of copper.
 
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SKYMTL

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MSI’s AfterBurner Gets Updated

MSI’s AfterBurner; Upgraded for the Lightning XE


It has been a while since we last took an in-depth look at MSI’s excellent AfterBurner overclocking and monitoring software. Much has changed over the last year or so but many of its newest features aren’t available on most graphics cards since they are specifically tailored to MSI’s own cards. The Lightning XE is equipped to take advantage of every one of these features along with one which is being introduced specifically for this card and some upcoming versions as well.


Alongside the standard core voltage and clock speed sliders, MSI has instituted what they call Triple Over Voltage support. In essence, this allows voltage increases to the Core, Memory and Auxiliary sections of select cards. The auxiliary section is particularly interesting since it boosts the PLL voltage (which includes the on-card PCI-E interface and memory bus) for more stability at higher clock speeds.


One thing which is being seen for the first time is MSI’s new Triple Temperature monitoring which uses sensor diodes placed on GPU core, memory and VRMs to accurately read and log temperatures in real time. These don’t replace the standard probes but are rather used to complement the existing ones for increased situational awareness when overclocking.
 

SKYMTL

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Test System & Setup

Test System & Setup

Processor: Intel Core i7 920(ES) @ 4.0Ghz (Turbo Mode Enabled)
Memory: Corsair 3x2GB Dominator DDR3 1600Mhz
Motherboard: Gigabyte EX58-UD5
Cooling: CoolIT Boreas mTEC + Scythe Fan Controller (Off for Power Consumption tests)
Disk Drive: Pioneer DVD Writer
Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Black 2TB
Power Supply: Corsair HX1000W
Monitor: Samsung 305T 30” widescreen LCD / / 3x Acer GD235HZ 23.5" 1080P LCDs
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate N x64 SP1


Acoustical Testing Platform:

Processor: Intel Core i5 750(ES)
Memory: OCZ Platinum 2x2GB PC3-12800
Motherboard: Intel DP55WG (Warrensburg)
Cooling: Thermalright TRUE w/Noctua NF-P12
Disk Drive: Pioneer DVD Writer
Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB
Power Supply: Corsair AX1200



Graphics Cards:

MSI GTX 580 Lightning X 3GB
Gigabyte GTX 580 Super Overclock
MSI GTX 580 Lightning
NVIDIA GTX 590 3GB (Ref.)
NVIDIA GTX 580 (Ref)

AMD HD 6990 4GB
AMD HD 6970 2GB(Ref)

Drivers:

NVIDIA 270.61 WHQL
ATI 11.4 + CAP 11.2 R4

Note: Even though AMD claims the “AMD Optimized Tessellation” feature in the 11.1a drivers has not yet been implemented, we have changed the setting to “Off” in order to ensure additional, untested optimizations are not enabled.

Applications Used:

3DMark 11
Aliens Versus Predator
Battlefield: Bad Company 2
DiRT 2
F1 2010
Just Cause 2
Lost Planet
Metro 2033
Unigine: Heaven


*Notes:

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT OUR BENCHMARKING PROCESS PLEASE SEE THIS ARTICLE

- All games tested have been patched to their latest version

- The OS has had all the latest hotfixes and updates installed

- All scores you see are the averages after 3 benchmark runs

All game-specific methodologies are explained above the graphs for each game

All IQ settings were adjusted in-game
 

SKYMTL

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Messages
12,857
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3DMark 11 (DX11)

3DMark 11 (DX11)


3DMark 11 is the latest in a long line of synthetic benchmarking programs from the Futuremark Corporation. This is their first foray into the DX11 rendering field and the result is a program that incorporates all of the latest techniques into a stunning display of imagery. Tessellation, depth of field, HDR, OpenCL physics and many others are on display here. In the benchmarks below we have included the results (at default settings) for both the Performance and Extreme presets.


Performance Preset



Extreme Preset

 

SKYMTL

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Aliens Versus Predator (DX11)

Aliens Versus Predator (DX11)


When benchmarking Aliens Versus Predator, we played through the whole game in order to find a section which represents a “worst case” scenario. We finally decided to include “The Refinery” level which includes a large open space and several visual features that really tax a GPU. For this run-through, we start from within the first tunnel, make our way over the bridge on the right (blowing up several propane tanks in the process), head back over the bridge and finally climb the tower until the first run-in with an Alien. In total, the time spent is about four minutes per run. Framerates are recorded with FRAPS.


1920 x 1200





2560 x 1600



 

SKYMTL

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BattleField: Bad Company 2 (DX11)

BattleField: Bad Company 2 (DX11)


To benchmark BF: BC2 we used a five minute stretch of gameplay starting from the second checkpoint (after the helicopter takes off) of the second single player mission up until your battle with the tank commences. Framerates are recorded with FRAPS.


1920 x 1200





2560 x 1600



 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
DiRT 2 (DX11)

DiRT 2 (DX11)


Being one of the newest games on the market, DiRT 2 cuts an imposing figure in terms of image quality and effects fidelity. We find that to benchmark this game the in-game tool is by far the best option. However, due to small variances from one race to another, three benchmark runs are done instead of the normal two. It should also be mentioned that the demo version of the game was NOT used since after careful testing, the performance of the demo is not representative of the final product. DX11 was forced through the game’s config file. In addition, you will see that these scores do not line up with our older benchmarks at all. This is due to the fact that a patch was recently rolled out for the game which included performance optimizations in addition to new graphics options.


1920 x 1200





2560 x 1600



 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
F1 2010 (DX11)

F1 2010 (DX11)



1920 x 1200





2560 x 1600



 
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