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MSI GTX 680 Lightning Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Overclocking Results & MSI's AfterBurner

Overclocking Results & MSI's AfterBurner


This section has been a long time in the making since we went on a rollercoaster ride of epic proportions while overclocking the Lightning. Let’s start things off by saying that while some cards offer a straightforward overclocking experience where you can drag a few application sliders and leave things be, this one rewards even the smallest change and features an almost infinite number of options for enterprising individuals. You’ll find yourself constantly striving to one-up your latest accomplishment and luckily, MSI’s flagship is more than willing to deliver.

Unfortunately, until recently we were singing a very different tune than what’s presented in this section. The reason for this is quite simple: MSI’s AfterBurner software just wasn’t up to the task of keeping up with the GTX 680 Lightning’s abilities or bypass the stringent limitations NVIDIA placed upon their Kepler architecture.


For reasons we don’t want to speculate about, NVIDIA has decided to put a cap deep within their BIOS which limits core voltage to 1.175V. Normally, this would be more than enough for anyone but with their advanced cooling solutions and overclocker-oriented marketing, one of the main challenges for any of NVIDIA’s board partners is finding a way past this voltage ceiling. The AfterBurner version that was available when the Lightning first launched couldn’t bypass this so its extra 200% Power Limit adjustment when using the LN2 BIOS simply went to waste. AfterBurner 2.2.3 finally turned this unfortunate situation around.

GTX-680-LIGHTNING-16.jpg

With AfterBurner 2.2.3 (pictured above) allowing for an almost infinite number of possibilities, we decided to test overclocking on MSI’s GTX 680 Lightning in two ways. The first will be with the default BIOS paired up with a 1.171V core voltage. The second attempt was with the LN2 BIOS enabled alongside a maxed out Power Limit and a core voltage of 1.325V. All voltages were confirmed with a multimeter rather than software. In both cases, the memory voltage was set to +100mV and the PLL bumped to +50mV. We also disabled the default fan speed profile and set it to 70% which is about as loud as any sane person could stand them. We believe overclocks will go MUCH higher on more exotic forms of cooling but unfortunately, that option wasn’t available to us.

Now, you may notice that the image of the AfterBurner with the LN2 BIOS enabled only shows a +100mV increase, or the same as the default BIOS. Essentially, there is still a 100mV increase (which is quite limiting for overclockers) but the LN2 BIOS has a higher starting load voltage to begin with, hence this is 100mV on top of a “default” voltage of 1.271V.

Anyways, on to the results:

Default BIOS @ 1.171V
Maximum Boost Clock Observed: 1374MHz
Memory Clock: 6.604GHz (QDR)

LN2 BIOS @ 1.325V
Maximum Boost Clock Observed: 1450MHz
Memory Clock: 6.788GHz (QDR)

The results we see above are certainly interesting since in its default configuration, our sample’s core wasn’t able to beat some GTX 680s we’ve tested in the past. 1.374GHz is still VERY impressive but the Lightning doesn’t really shine until switching over to the very capable LN2 BIOS. When that happens, the sky truly is the limit and our 1.45GHz plateau was reached simply because we set 1.325V as the absolute ceiling for our tests when using air cooling.

Memory overclocking was quite good as well with speeds in excess of 6.6GHz being achieved with a minimum of effort. Interestingly enough, the LN2 BIOS allowed these clocks to hit even higher levels, presumably due to the excess overhead granted to the onboard memory controllers.

As you can see below, the end result of all this tweaking was some very, very impressive performance.

GTX-680-LIGHTNING-90.jpg

GTX-680-LIGHTNING-91.jpg
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Conclusion

Conclusion


MSI’s GTX 680 Lightning is built for overclockers, this market’s elitists who demand top tier parts and won’t settle for anything less. In this respect, it succeeds spectacularly and we’d even go so far as to say that it is one of the best cards that money can buy right now.

From a features perspective, MSI hit all of the high notes with high quality design and attention to even the smallest details. Build quality is top notch, the dual BIOS offers a world of possibilities for serious overclockers, the new AfterBurner software is a joy to use and a 3 year warranty with Canada-based RMA services will be a boon for those of us north of the 49th parallel. In addition, the Twin Frozr IV heatsink played David to ASUS’ gigantic Goliath by beating its much larger triple slot competitor in thermal and acoustical testing.

There were some surprises throughout testing as well. Lightning’s paper specifications are a bit of a fallacy since they seem to indicate it won’t perform up to the DirectCu II TOP’s level. That wasn’t the case as throughout testing, MSI’s flagship was able to consistently trade blows with the best ASUS had to offer. It even pulled ahead by a miniscule amount once everything was said and done. At first this may seem impossible but through the “magic” of NVIDIA’s GPU Boost, the Lightning’s advanced power distribution and slightly lower temperatures allowed the core to hit its maximum speed more often and for longer periods of time than its competitor. The actual difference may be minor and will be indistinguishable to end users but in our charts at least, MSI now has the fastest GTX 680 we’ve tested. But is it worthy of a $599 price on that merit alone? No.

While we can’t fathom a reason why a gamer would be willing to buy a Lightning rather than a more affordable option, hardcore overclockers should be salivating right about now. The LN2 BIOS and unlocked power / voltage limits are what they have been waiting for since the GTX 680 was first introduced. MSI did take their sweet time getting AfterBurner updated with the necessary features that allow the GTX 680 Lightning to stand apart from the competition but without them, this conclusion would have sounded much, much different.

Normal everyday users may be swayed by MSI’s fancy marketing terms and the pedigree of the Lightning brand but let caution prevail before jumping onto the $599 bandwagon. Without the willingness to push this card to its absolute limits with extreme methods of cooling (be it with blaringly loud fans or LN2), the high end features you pay so dearly for will be wasted. On the other hand, if someone is willing to put time, money and patience on the line to master the art of GPU tweaking, the GTX 680 Lightning has the chops to provide a profoundly rewarding experience and will be worth every last penny.


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