MSI GTX 680 Lightning Review

Author: SKYMTL
Date: August 4, 2012
Product Name: GTX 680 Lightning
Part Number: N680GTX Lightning
Warranty: 3 Years
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A Closer Look at the MSI GTX 680 Lightning

MSI’s Lightning uses the same Twin Frozr IV heatsink we’ve seen in other Lightning branded products and measures about 12” long so pay special attention to your case’s interior dimensions before taking the plunge. More importantly, in order to accommodate an impressive component layout, MSI has maximized this card’s width at 5”. Words just don’t do it justice.

From the outside, there really isn’t any way to distinguish this card from the HD 7970 Lightning and to us, this is a missed opportunity. No one wants to spend $600 on an ultra high performance custom graphics card only to realize it looks exactly like one that costs nearly $100 less. Even a small splash of NVIDIA green across the heatsink shroud in place of the Tonka truck yellow would have gone a long way towards some differentiation.

The most visible feature on the GTX 680 Lightning is its massive Twin Frozr IV heatsink. This cooler uses a nickel plated copper base, five 8mm “SuperPipe” heatpipes and a significant number of aluminum fins to ensure adequate thermal distribution. It is topped with a pair of 100mm fans for a quiet cooling solution that shouldn’t have any issues handling the heat output from an overclocked GK104 core.

Interestingly enough, MSI hasn’t needed to go ASUS’ route of expanding the heatsink’s height for optimal thermal performance. Instead of using a triple slot design similar to the DirectCu II’s, the Twin Frozr IV should allow for lower temperatures by using a combination of larger fans and a wider surface area.

MSI has also equipped this card with two so-called “Form in One” secondary heatsinks. These make direct contact with the various components on the Lightning’s PCB, thus reducing the temperature of memory modules, VRMs and other mission critical items.

The Lightning’s fans are 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 IV heatsink operating at peak thermal efficiency so temperatures don’t deviate over the Lightning’s lifetime.

The Lightning’s side houses a switch that eerily resembles the one found on most HD 7970 cards and it serves almost the same purpose. In its default position, the standard BIOS is enabled which contains reference-spec limitations. Moving the switch over selects the Unlocked BIOS which allows for a 150% increase in Over Current Protection and 200% higher power limits. This is particularly important for GTX 680 overclocking since both items can been combined for a higher TDP limit which will lead to a greatly enhanced Boost range. Just remember that when this switch is moved, you will need to reinstall the GPU drivers.

MSI has designed their power distribution so the Lightning gets all of its current from the dual 8-pon connectors. This means there’s a single 8-pin connector for the GPU core while the memory gets its own dedicated power input through the second 8-pin connector. Not only does this effectively separate critical current circuitry, ensuring clean power is delivered to the primary components but it also cuts out the PCI-E interface from the equation, thus leaving the motherboard’s power supply untouched. However, if additional power is needed, the card can still draw upon the interface.

We’re sure that some of you remember the HD 7970 Lightning’s backplate connector layout. Simply put, it was a dog’s breakfast since an adaptor needed to be purchased separately if your high end monitor supported DVI instead of DisplayPort. This time around MSI decided to be a bit more sensible and stuck with NVIDIA’s reference layout. As such, you get lone HDMI and DisplayPort outputs alongside a pair of Dual Link DVI connectors, resulting in native support for 3+1 Surround.

MSI’s Lightning also includes pin-outs for (from left to right) GPU, Memory and PLL voltage reading via a multimeter. The location may be slightly inconvenient if this long card barely fits within your case but the included leads will allow for some directional control.

The underside of this card is awash with interesting items like MSI’s removable GPU Reactor which sits directly over the GPU core. There’s also a secondary Form in One heatsink that runs along the PCB’s entire length and is supposed to help disperse any built up heat.

While its name may elicit some snicker from certain enthusiast circles, the GPU Reactor does have its uses. According to MSI, attaching this add-on PCB to the area directly behind the GPU core is supposed to provide additional power capacity in order to ensure maximum stability when overclocking. To achieve this, the Reactor leverages the Lightning’s advanced VRM grid in order to selectively boost current to the core when need while virtually eliminating voltage fluctuations. This is certainly an interesting concept and judging by the impressive clock speeds these cards have been achieving when placed into the right hands, the GPU Reactor seems to be doing its job. However, if you plan on overclocking within the limits of air cooling, we highly doubt you will see any benefits from this inclusion.

Previous versions of the Lightning had a small (and inconvenient) wire powering the integrated GPU Reactor’s LED’s which attached the Reactor to the card. MSI has redesigned this area so the LED’s power is fed directly through the pin-outs instead.

When compared against a reference GTX 680, the Lightning is a monster and will take up a relatively large footprint within your case. It is long and wider but most modern ATX-sized cases will be compatible without too many issues.

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