MSI GeForce GTX 770 Lightning Review
MSI’s Lightning series have always been counted among the best cards in the GPU market. Alongside the Matrix, Super Overclock and Classified, they represent the pinnacle of modern graphics card design by offering overclockers the tools necessary for pushing clock speeds to extreme levels. However, like its competitors, the Lightning’s abilities come at a cost.
As NVIDIA rolled out the new GTX 700-series, MSI follow up quickly with their own lineup of custom, pre-overclcoked versions. In this case the Lightning treatment has been given to the GTX 770, an incredibly affordable $399 graphics card considering the amount of performance it delivers. That affordability has been somewhat negatively impacted by the Lightning’s $70 premium but at $469 it should still be a price / performance darling considering the GTX 780 goes for $180 more.
A few weeks ago we looked at Gigabyte’s GTX 770 Windforce 3X OC and remarked how it was able to keep temperatures low, which positively impacted clock speeds. MSI has aimed to do the same thing with their GTX 770 Lightning, though their clock speeds are hitting slightly higher levels.
The GTX 770 Lightning’s intent is to be the fastest GTX 770 on the market, at least initially. It looks like they’ve achieved this since no other competitor has been able to hit the Lightning’s Base Clock of 1150MHz yet. Supposedly, ASUS, Galaxy and EVGA are busy working on similarly clocked cards but they’re not quite ready for release. This leaves the Lightning unmatched from a specifications perspective for the time being.
How MSI’s stated frequencies align with the GTX 770 Lightning’s actual in-game performance is another matter altogether due to NVIDIA’s GPU Boost 2.0 technology. The average frequency we saw throughout testing was 1241MHz, which leads us to believe that MSI built in sufficient thermal overhead to ensure heat doesn’t build up to a limit where the core needs to throttle downwards.
Much like Gigabyte’s WindForce, MSI’s GTX 770 Lightning’s upper clock speed remained at 1241MHz within nearly every single game. This was due to NVIDIA’s voltage limit being hit at the exact same time by both cards and GeForce Boost 2.0 effectively slapping down any additional clock speed overhead. Unfortunately, this will cause the more $60 expensive Lightning to loose in a price / performance battle when directly comparing out-of-box performance.
It is a shame to see MSI overlook the memory on their highest-end GTX 770 SKU but with 7Gbps modules running full-tilt, there really isn’t all that much headroom left without some stringent binning.
Naturally, the most defining feature on the MSI GTX 770 Lightning is the distinctive Twin Frozr IV heatsink and the lone yellow racing stripe running its length. The effect is sleek yet modern and it does help distract slightly from the card’s physical size.
Speaking of size, the Lightning certainly isn’t a compact graphics card since it boasts a length of 12”, making it a tight fit in some older enclosures and many mATX chassis. There’s also a matter of width since at 5”, it is wider than many other cards on the market.
MSI’s Twin Frozr IV heatsink retains all of the hallmarks from previous generations but adds a few new feature to further enhance cooling. There’s now a so-called “dual form in one” design which uses a uniform fin and base layout in order to enhance performance and optimize airflow. Meanwhile, the two 80mm fans utilize a unique blade design which increases their air movement potential by about 20% and lowers the speed to noise ratio significantly.
Around the PCB’s leading edge is a pair of non-reference additions: a trio of voltage reading terminals and a small switch. Those voltage read points are a usual occurrence on Lightning cards and they can be used to accurately monitor core, memory and PLL currents.
That switch can be used to select a secondary “unlocked” BIOS which effectively eliminates NVIDIA’s GPU Boost limits and should allow for higher overclocks. More importantly, moving this out of its default position should –in theory- grant access to higher frequencies even without manual tuning since the voltage cap we mentioned previously should be cast aside. We’ll look into this more closely within the overclocking section.
The Lightning’s underside reveals a wider PCB which not only expands the space allocated for the PWM but also allows for a larger heatsink without breaking the card’s clean looks. MSI has also installed a secondary aluminum heatsink here which disperses the heat from rear-mounted components.
The GPU Reactor is a unique feature which taps directly into the GPU core’s power grid, is removable (though why someone would want to yank it is a mystery to us) and supposedly improves overclocking stability. While we didn’t experience any clock speed differences with it removed, the added 200% power capacity and cleaner voltage distribution will likely benefit extreme overclockers.
I/O connectors have been carried over en masse from the reference card so the Lightning receives a pair of DIV connectors, an HDMI port and a lone DisplayPort which is good enough for native 3x1 Surround support. The power connectors have been expanded a bit to a pair of 8-pin inputs due to the GTX 770 Lightning’s overclocking headroom.
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