MSI GTX 1080 GAMING Z 8GB Review



As I gradually whittle my way through the stack of GTX 1080’s I have in front of me, something is becoming increasingly obvious: for all their differences in branding, NVIDIA’s board partners have precisions little differentiating their GPU designs from one another. Everything from overclocking headroom to cooling performance to even out-of-box clock speeds seems to have quickly reached a plateau. Also, like underglow was all the rage with import car tuners during the Fast & Furious heydays, LEDs are everywhere now and no, they don’t add horsepower.

MSI has realized that even with such powerful graphics cards within NVIDIA’s stable, their little corner of the market runs the very real risk of stagnation. What could possibly set their wares apart from the G1’s, Superclockeds, AMPs and STRIXes of this world? As it stood last time around, not all that much and MSI’s market share took a small dip.

With the GTX 10xx-series they’re hellbent on doing things differently. Not only is MSI stepping up their game on the cooling technology front with a new sixth generation Twin Frozr heatsink design but they’re also introducing a brand new GPU control application and brand new product series that outperform many of their competitors’ offerings. As a matter of fact, with the GTX 1080 their Gaming series has now multiplied into three distinct products: the Gaming 8G, Gaming X and Gaming Z. The Gaming Z being covered here is meant to be a flagship within their lineup.

Dmitry and Eber actually covered these new Gaming-series cards at Computex and despite taking careful notes, they struggled to differentiate one from another. The reason for that is pretty simple: for all intents and purposes the 8G, Gaming X and higher end Gaming Z all share the same PCB design, components and heatsink. Meanwhile it is the core speeds and relative pricing which vary quite wildly.

The Gaming Z naturally sits atop its siblings with some of the highest frequencies I’ve seen on a GTX 1080 thus far. Like recent Gigabyte and ASUS cards it can operate in three different modes when MSI’s accompanying software is installed: Silent Mode with base / boost speeds that match a Founders Edition at 1733MHz / 1607MHz, Gaming Mode (1873MHz /1733 MHz) and finally the balls-to-the-wall OC Mode (1911MHz / 1771MHz) Both Gaming and OC also add a bit (100MHz to be exact) of memory overclocking into the equation as well.

On paper at least the MSI GTX 1080 Gaming Z is quite simply one of the fastest graphics cards on the planet but it has a suitably high price as well. At $749 it is a good $100 more than the Gigabyte G1 Gaming and EVGA Superclocked cards we recently reviewed but only $50 more than the Founders Edition. One would hope this premium will translate into some great overclocking headroom as well considering so many NVIDIA cards struggle with oddball (and unnecessary) power / voltage limits.

While $749USD may seem like a hefty price to pay when there are several alternatives –some from MSI’s own stable- there are some reasons for the cost as the Gaming Z looks, feels and acts like a premium product.

In my personal opinion, I think this is one of the best looking cards on the market. There’s a good balance between the shroud’s black areas and red highlights without looking gaudy and, unlike some of EVGA’s latest creations, there isn’t an overt industrial look either. To make matters even better the card shouldn’t have many problems fitting into compact chassis since its length is just 11”. One area you do have to take into account though is the PCB’s width; at about 5” this is a portly card but as you’ll see later, there’s good reason for that.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the new MSI GTX 1080 GAMING series is their thoroughly revised heatsink design. While it may not be that evident at first glance, thousands of engineering hours have been pumped into the Twin Frozr VI in an effort to make it quieter, higher performing and quite a bit more compact as well. That may sound like the Holy Trinity of unobtainium, I’ll get a bit ahead of myself and say that’s exactly what MSI has achieved. Incredible stuff.

So let’s talk a bit more about what went into the Twin Froze VI since there are a few things here which should allow MSI to pull ahead of their competitors. Unlike some, MSI decided to forego direct-contact heatpipes and is instead using a high efficiency solid nickel-plated copper baseplate. This was done since the GP104 core is quite small and an HDT-style base would make proper contact with it.

The baseplate is then topped by six squared-off 8mm heatpipes which run upwards and are eventually interspersed at strategic locations throughout the heatsink. MSI’s heatsink is a thing of beauty as well since it has been engineered to optimize airflow through the addition of minute air deflectors which not only accelerate air movement but also allow for more efficient cooling. As a result, the heatsink can be thinner without sacrificing its cooling potential.

In order to properly cool the mission critical components mounted to the Gaming Z’s PCB, there’s a large secondary heatsink that covers the GDDR5X memory modules and MOSFETS.

Topping off all of this technology are two second generation 92mm TORX fans. Along with double ball bearings for an increased lifespan, they utilize a patented mix of traditional blades and new dispersion blades (you’ll recognize those by the small indents). This is supposed to provide the maximum amount of incoming air without requiring high RPM levels.

Like many other cards these days, the GTX 1080 Gaming Z has the ability to completely shut off its two fans when in idle or low load scenarios.

Along the cards side there isn’t really much to see in the daylight but MSI has attempted to keep a relatively clean overall design language even though the heatpipes do require some additional space. You should also be aware that the MSI logo located here has a built-in LED.

Around back there’s a 6+8 pin power input setup which is supposed to grand upwards of 75W of additional overclocking headroom. That’s absolutely great from a marketing standpoint but if MSI decides to tow the NVIDIA Greenlight directives with this card by limiting voltages and the chip’s usable power, extra features like this will be pointless. I’ll go over this more in-depth within the overclocking section.

Pull off the various heatsinks and you can see why this is considered a truly premium product. MSI has used that additional PCB width to add a massive 10-phase PWM with their Military Class components. That means Hi-C CAPs for higher overall power efficiency and lower ripple, Super Ferrite cores for the suppression of inductor whine and Japanese capacitors.

The Gaming X’s underside is covered in a full-length backplate that gives a nice finished look to the card but it doesn’t provide any additional cooling capacity since it doesn’t make direct contact with the PCB. Like some other parts it too has an LED incorporated into it, though this time the MSI Gaming Series “shield” glows.

From an I/O perspective, there isn’t anything interesting going on here. The Gaming Z ships with a single DVI, four DisplayPort 1.4 connectors and a lone HDMI 2.0 output. MSI has decided to go with a slightly more distinctive design for the grille stamping but that really won’t affect performance one way or another.

So let’s talk LEDs since they’re everywhere these days and, being a premium GPU, the Gaming Z naturally includes several customizable zones. The first of these are the “shark gills” on either side of the rear fan. I’m never going to understand the phenomenon behind all these lights but they look pretty tasteful and are actually quite unique.

I’ve already mentioned the other two LED zones on the backplate and along the card’s side. That large shield-style one is exclusively on the Gaming Z. Unfortunately when this card is first installed, they quite simply don’t match the front area’s color but, with MSI’s Gaming App (more about this on the next page) that can easily be changed or they can be switched off. Unlike EVGA’s limited on/off option on their Superclocked series, these LEDs can be customized to any color under the rainbow to match your build.

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