MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning Review

December 10, 2015 // 1:57 p.m.

Tags: #best-gtx-980-ti #gtx-980-ti #maxwell

MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning 6GB Review

Manufacturer: MSI
UK price (as reviewed):
£628.78 (inc VAT)
US price (as reviewed): $729.99 (ex Tax)

MSI's Lightning series of graphics cards are built to be the best of the best, and the eye-watering price tag of this card is a reflection of that. At £630, the GTX 980 Ti Lightning carries a premium of roughly £100 over the least expensive models. Clearly, the target market is consumers who are capable of laying down hefty wads of cash for components, those who may want to break some overclocking records and those who have to have the fastest components around no matter what. After all, AMD has no answer to overclocked GTX 980 Ti SKUs as its own top-end card, the R9 Fury X, is sold at reference speeds only and is a pretty poor overclocker.

*MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning Review MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning Review
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The first thing to note is that this card is gargantuan – it's a whopping 330mm long and 140mm tall, while the cooler is so large that this is effectively a triple slot card.

There isn't much about the GTX 980 Ti Lightning that could be described as standard, but it naturally has a few things in common with other GTX 980 Ti cards. Firstly, they all come with 6GB of GDDR5 as standard – only the Titan X ships with 12GB. The display outputs, including a trio of DisplayPort 1.2 connectors, HDMI 2.0 and DVI-I for older screens, are also standard. Lastly, the card has a pair of SLI fingers and supports 4-way SLI, but because of the cooler's size the only way that's even feasible is with liquid or LN2 cooling. In terms of the former, there does appear to be a Bitspower waterblock in circulation but it isn't the easiest product to find.

*MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning Review MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning Review
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Even looking at the power connectors we can see that this is no ordinary card, as it requires two 8-pin and an extra 6-pin PCI-E power connection. This means it can technically draw up to 450W in total – basically, power is never going to limit you if you're gunning for extreme overclocks.

Speaking of overclocks, the GTX 980 Ti Lightning is very fast out of the box, shipping with a 1,203MHz base clock (1,304MHz boost), which is 20 percent higher than reference. It's still not the faster factory overclock out there, but it's big nonetheless. The memory has also been given a very modest bump to 7.1GHz effective – we'd like to have seen more but as most ignore this component completely we'll take what we can get.

*MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning Review MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning Review
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The meaty card is put together very well and is extremely solid and weighty, helped in no small part here by the thick metal backplate – an absolute necessity with a cooler this hefty. The design is eye-catching to say the least, and the Lightning logo and white lines along the top have RGB lighting behind them which you can control through MSI's Mystic Light app – personally we'd prefer this functionality to be integrated into Afterburner, though Mystic Light does apply to components other than graphics cards too.

*MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning Review MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning Review
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The custom cooler is called TriFrozr in reference to the trio of fans which are thankfully semi-passive, turning only once the GPU reaches about 60°C and switching off again during idle or low load periods at about 50°C. The shape of the fan blades alternates from one to the next, with MSI claiming that one is used to generate higher airflow than normal while the regular ones then push this extra air down through the heatsink, which itself uses fins designed to eliminate dead zones of air. These claims are hard to test – the proof of the design will be in how cool and quiet it is under load.

*MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning Review MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning Review
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One thing we can see is that as the fins are arranged vertically, most of the card's hot air will be pushed out through the top, back into your case, and the bottom, directly at your motherboard. Pleasingly, though, all of the MOSFETs and GDDR5 chips, as well as the two digital PWM controllers, are actively cooled through the use of a full-cover cooling plate. Meanwhile, the GPU is served by a large copper base plate and five heat pipes in various sizes feeding the two separate fin stacks – the apparatus is nickel-plated too for a consistent finish and shine.

*MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning Review MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning Review *MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning Review MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning Review
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The GTX 980 Ti Lightning employs a whopping 12+3-phase design, a significant upgrade over the reference 6+2. Naturally, MSI is using its Military Class 4 components here, with the MOSFETs, chokes and capacitors all claimed to be superior to standard models in various ways, with the end result said to be greater efficiency and better stability at higher frequencies. It also uses two separate Pure Digital PWM voltage controllers, one dedicated to the GPU and the other controlling the memory and PLL power.

Right next to the SLI fingers is a small switch that can be used to switch the card into LN2 mode, thus unlocking its power, current and thermal limits without the need for solder mods. Clearly, this is going to appeal to a very niche crowd but then again this is a £630 graphics card we're dealing with. Further serving this crowd are the headers along the right edge of the PCB which can be used to precisely monitor the GPU, memory and PLL voltages.

Specifications

  • Graphics processor Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 Ti, 1,203MHz (boost 1,304MHz)
  • Pipeline 2,816 stream processors, 176 texture units, 96 ROPs
  • Memory 6GB GDDR5, 7.1GHz effective
  • Bandwidth 340.6GB/sec, 384-bit interface
  • Compatibility DirectX 12, OpenGL 4.5
  • Outputs/Inputs 3 x DisplayPort 1.2, Dual Link DVI-I, HDMI 2.0
  • Power connections 2 x 8-pin PCI-E, 1 x 6-pin PCI-E, top-mounted
  • Size 330mm long, triple-slot
  • Warranty Three years

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