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MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning Video Card Review

MSI releases its kick-ass new GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning, showing the world once again it makes some of the best video cards on the planet.

@anthony256
Published Fri, Aug 28 2015 12:00 PM CDT   |   Updated Tue, Nov 3 2020 6:59 PM CST
Rating: 96%Manufacturer: MSI

Introduction, Quick Specs and Availability & Price

Late last year when NVIDIA announced its GeForce GTX 980, enthusiasts and gamers waited patiently for MSI to announce its Lightning edition GTX 980, but it never happened. The company released multiple GTX 980 products which were all great, but the icing on the cake wasn't there.

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VIEW GALLERY - 65 IMAGES

Just a few weeks ago, we started hearing credible rumors that MSI would release a GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning, and those rumors turned out to be true. MSI skipped the GTX 980 in favor of the GTX 980 Ti, and it has seriously paid off. Here we have the cherry-picked GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning, and it is one of the best video cards I've ever used.

MSI doesn't just don any of its video cards with the "Lightning" branding, so this GM200 GPU must have been something special. The card is built for overclocking and enthusiasts, where it has 2 x 8-pin and 1 x 6-pin PCIe power connectors for the very serious overclockers out there. More so, it packs LN2 parts in the damn box ready for some liquid nitrogen adventures.

I could go on forever about how this is going to be a kick ass card, but instead of that, let's dive headfirst into the review and take it slow.

Quick Specs

The GPU in question is still the GM200, but a cherry-picked GM200 GPU. MSI worked closely with NVIDIA on securing itself the crème of the crop GM200 that was more than capable of being pushed far beyond the stock limits. This is why we have an insane amount of power going into the card, as well as LN2 compatibility.

MSI's GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning requires not just 2 x 8-pin PCIe power connectors, but a single 6-pin PCIe power connector, too. The 2 x 8-pin PCIe power connectors provide 150W each, while the 6-pin PCIe connector draws 75W. This means that the GTX 980 Ti Lightning can consume up to 375W on its own, which is insane.

Availability & Price

MSI has the cards available right now, with a not-so-bad price of $729. It's a premium card, with a not so premium price. We even feel that MSI could have charged more as this is a card for the true enthusiasts out there.

Packaging & Detailed Look

The Packaging

I didn't expect much in the way of packaging from the GTX 980 Ti Lightning, but boy was I wrong. The box is around one-third bigger than most GTX 980 Ti boxes, but the inside packaging will blow you away. This is a premium product, through and through.

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The front of the box teases the usual fighter jet that has donned previous Lightning edition cards from MSI, with the top right hand corner showing that this is an 'OC series' product. In the bottom right, we see that this is a GTX 980 Ti, duh - and it features various NVIDIA technologies: GameStream, GameWorks and G-Sync as well as DirectX 12 with Windows 10.

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On the back, we have quite the slew of details. Starting with the 'Mystic Lights' which lets GTX 980 Ti Lightning users completely customize the lights on the top of the card - which are yellow by default. This is a great touch. We also find out the various cooling technologies that MSI has deployed onto the GTX 980 Ti Lightning.

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Inside, we have a swish box that the GTX 980 Ti Lightning and all of its bits and pieces are found in.

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Once again, with the drawer at the bottom pulled out. In here, are the PCIe power connectors, and the LN2 part.

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Awesome packaging, right?!

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This is the 'extra heat sink for LN2' that MSI includes in the package. Only super-enthusiasts using liquid nitrogen cooling will make use of this.

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You also get a certificate of quality & stability from MSI in the box.

Detailed Look

I'm going to come right out and say it: the MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning is one of the, if not, the best looking video card on the market right now. It is simply gorgeous. The front of the card has yellow accents that just scream 'beauty', while the yellow accents also double as the letters 'OC' for OC series. It's not something you notice right away, but once you look at it twice, you see it.

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The front of the card, with the triple-fan cooler and 'OC' yellow accents. We have 'Lightning' branding at the top, with MSI branding at the bottom.

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MSI has used a backplate on the GTX 980 Ti Lightning, with a few lightning bolts to the left and right of a fighter jet on the backplate.

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The MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning requires 2 x 8-pin + 1 x 6-pin PCIe power connectors.

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One thing I was hoping to see was MSI sticking with the usual display connectivity of the Maxwell cards from NVIDIA, where we are not disappointed. We have 3 x DisplayPort, 1 x HDMI 2.0 and 1 x DVI out.

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As we said before, this is a card for enthusiasts - with some connectivity for LN2 and voltage regulation/monitoring.

Card Specifications & Cooling Setup

Card Specifications

This is the most powerful GeForce GTX 980 Ti that MSI has on its roster, with the GTX 980 Ti Lightning still featuring the usual 6GB of GDDR5 RAM, but it's clocked up to 1774MHz (up from 1750MHz on the reference GTX 980 Ti).

The 2816 CUDA cores have their Base Clock pushed up from 1000MHz to a huge 1203MHz, resulting in an increase from the reference Boost Clock of 1075MHz to a huge 1304MHz.

Cooling Setup

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From the top of the card, we can see the two gigantic heat sinks that keep both the GM200 GPU and the VRMs nice and cool. To the right, we have the triple PCIe power connectors that power the card with a heat sink that runs off of the edge of the card.

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Looking at the card from the bottom, we get a closer look at the heat sink array that MSI is using to keep the card cool.

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A closer look at the huge heat sink and heat pipe array cooling the GTX 980 Ti Lightning.

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At the end of the card, we have the heat sink running over the PCB itself.

Testing Method & Test System Configuration

Testing Method

I've played Battlefield 4 on a 64-player server to provide some real-world performance numbers. I've found this is one of the best ways to provide the most realistic performance numbers, as it involves actual gameplay in a large server that really strains most setups.

For now, I'm going to be using the same suite of benchmarks I've been using on my Tweakipedia articles, which uses a mix of synthetic benchmarks with Futuremark's 3DMark and Unigine Heaven. After that, we have a bunch of titles with built-in benchmarks (which does not represent actual in-game performance) but they are repeatable for you at home to gauge the performance of your PC or GPU.

Over time, I will be adding in new benchmarks and a new section that will concentrate solely on real-time gaming benchmarks. This will take more time per review, as I'll have to invest time into actually physically playing the games, but it'll be worth it in the long run. For now, let's get right into the synthetic benchmarks and see how this video card performs.

Battlefield 4 Testing

This is one game that we did differently, as it does not feature a built-in benchmarking feature. When it comes to Battlefield 4, there are countless ways you can benchmark it. Some find a spot in the single player campaign which is easily repeatable, and use that. For our testing, we've chosen to use a 64-player online multiplayer server for real-time performance statistics.

We joined a 64-player map and played for five minutes using FRAPS, pulling our minimum/average and maximum FPS. We did this for each test, we run the game for 5 minutes at 1080p/1440p and 4K. We are using a custom Ultra preset (disabling AA). It's time consuming, but it gives us a perfect look into true real-world performance.

Test System Configuration

We are still using our X99-based Core i7-5820K processor, but we'll be replacing this soon with Intel's new Skylake processor and Z170 chipset. We just received our awesome new GIGABYTE Z170 Gaming 7 motherboard and have secured ourselves a shiny Skylake-powered 6700K in the last few days. Expect us to move over to that in the next few weeks.

The current X99-based system is something you can read about here. As for the detailed specifications, this is what we're running:

  • CPU: Intel Core i7 5820K processor w/Corsair H110 cooler
  • Motherboard: GIGABYTE X99 Gaming G1 Wi-Fi
  • RAM: 16GB Corsair Vengeance 2666MHz DDR4
  • Storage: 240GB SanDisk Extreme II and 480GB SanDisk Extreme II
  • Chassis: Lian Li T60 Pit Stop
  • PSU: Corsair AX1200i digital PSU
  • Software: Windows 7 Ultimate x64
  • Drivers: GeForce 355.65 / Catalyst 15.7.1

Benchmarks - Synthetic

3DMark Fire Strike - 1080p

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3DMark Fire Strike Extreme - 1440p

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3DMark Fire Strike Ultra - 4K

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Heaven - 1080p

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Heaven - 1440p

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Heaven - 4K

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Starting off with the 1080p run of 3DMark, the MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti is 15% faster than the reference GTX 980 Ti. At 2560x1440, the MSI card is 20% faster, while at 4K the MSI card is 16% faster than the reference card from NVIDIA.

We have even better results for Heaven, with the GTX 980 Ti Lighting smashing the reference GTX 980 Ti by 19% at 1080p. QHD is a resolution that the GTX 980 Ti loves, with the GTX 980 Ti Lightning beating the reference card once again by 20%. Finally, at 4K the MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning betters the reference card by 20%.

Benchmarks - 1080p

Battlefield 4

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Grand Theft Auto V

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GRID Autosport

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Metro: Last Light

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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

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Thief

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Tomb Raider

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BioShock Infinite

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You can find our performance summary of all of our gaming tests later in the review.

Benchmarks - 1440p

Battlefield 4

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Grand Theft Auto V

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GRID Autosport

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Metro: Last Light

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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

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Thief

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Tomb Raider

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BioShock Infinite

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You can find our performance summary of all of our gaming tests later in the review.

Benchmarks - 4K

Battlefield 4

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Grand Theft Auto V

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GRID Autosport

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Metro: Last Light

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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

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Thief

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Tomb Raider

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BioShock Infinite

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You can find our performance summary of all of our gaming tests later in the review.

Performance Summary

Mind Boggling Performance!

If there's something that the Lightning cards do well, it's performance. The MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning is no slouch, with the best performance that we've seen so far. The AMD Radeon R9 Fury X bests it in a couple of tests, but overall, the MSI card just lays the smack down all over the place.

Performance at 1080p

Kicking off with Battlefield 4, we have the usual ceiling that we get at 1080p: 175FPS. Still, if you've got a 1080p 144Hz monitor, you're going to love this card. Metro: Last Light sees the MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning just killing it, thrashing the AMD Radeon R9 Fury X and the reference NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 Ti by a considerable margin of around 25%.

Shadow of Mordor is another hard game for any GPU, with the GTX 980 Ti Lightning handling it like a boss. The GTX 980 Ti Lightning pumped out a huge 128FPS average, compared to the 112FPS on the Fury X and 114FPS on the reference GTX 980 Ti.

Moving onto Thief, the GTX 980 Ti Lightning is 24% faster than the Fury X at 1080p, while it's 12% faster than the reference GTX 980 Ti from NVIDIA. Tomb Raider is even better, with the MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning being a huge 35% faster than the Fury X, and 18% faster than the reference GTX 980 Ti.

Performance at 1440p

Things really start to kick into high gear at 2560x1440, with the MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti performing just as we thought it would in Battlefield 4: we have an additional 6% performance. Still, on our Acer XB270HU monitor and its native resolution of 2560x1440 and refresh rate of 144Hz backed up by NVIDIA's G-Sync technology, this is the perfect sweet spot.

The MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning is a huge 29% faster than the reference GTX 980 Ti in Metro: Last Light, while it's 24% faster than the AMD Radeon R9 Fury X. The domination from MSI continues into Shadow of Mordor, where the GTX 980 Ti Lightning is 17% faster than the reference GTX 980 Ti, while it's 13% faster than the HBM-powered Fury X.

Thief is always good to higher-end cards, but the Fury X gets its ass handed to it at 1440p by the MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning. The GTX 980 Ti Lightning pumps out 85FPS average, which is 21% faster than the 70FPS average from the R9 Fury X. Tomb Raider is very similar, with the MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning coming in at 22% faster than the AMD Radeon R9 Fury X.

Performance at 4K

This is what you're here for, isn't it? Well, you can rest assured that the MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning kicks serious ass at 4K. We see a huge 83FPS average in Battlefield 4 at 4K with the Ultra preset (AA disabled), which is a great result, especially when compared to the 60FPS from the Fury X.

Overclocking, Power Consumption and Sound Testing

Overclocking - Let's See How Far We Can Go

The MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning is a card built for enthusiasts, but it has its limits with the built-in cooling. There are going to be people that buy this card and never use the stock cooling, ripping it off and slapping on some water cooling or better yet - using LN2.

I didn't think I'd get too much more out of the card overclocking it, and we didn't - we went from Boost clocks of 1304MHz to 1364MHz stable. It didn't do much to the scores, but it's enough to say that it can be overclocked even more than the factory overclock. Does the OC help though? Take a look at our results below.

Battlefield 4

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Metro: Last Light

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3DMark Fire Strike Extreme - 1440p

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Heaven - 1440p

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Power Consumption

With 2 x 8-pin + 1 x 6-pin PCIe going into the card, you'd expect the power consumption numbers on the MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning to be off the charts, but they're actually respectable. We have power consumption of around 360W in Heaven and Battlefield 4.

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When we were overclocking the card, we had power consumption that was peaking at around 400W to 420W, depending on the game and benchmark.

Sound Testing

I thought that the triple-fan cooling setup on the MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning would be loud when we manually cranked the fans to 100%, but I was wrong. Even at 100%, the GTX 980 Ti Lightning is generating 55dBa, which is not bad at all with all things considered.

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After hours of benchmarking and gaming, we have the fans only making 41-42dBa of noise, which is just great for a card with this much power inside.

Software

Overclocking Software

MSI has one of the world's most known pieces of overclocking software, MSI Afterburner. We used that during our testing to overclock the GTX 980 Ti Lightning.

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Here we have Afterburner opened up with the GTX 980 Ti Lightning in the system, with GPU-Z beside it.

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And once again, with just MSI Afterburner opened up.

What's Hot, What's Not & Final Thoughts

This is where you can fast forward to the final section of the review, and get a quick recap and points on the MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning.

What's Hot

The Best GTX 980 Ti, Period: MSI, you've done it again. The GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning is a no holds barred beast of a video card. It's the thing that dreams are made of. The perfect card for 1440p 144Hz or 4K gaming.

Fury X Crusher: The MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning absolutely crushes AMD's Radeon Fury X, which features that fan dangled new High Bandwidth Memory (HBM) technology.

Worth The Wait: MSI never released a GeForce GTX 980 Lightning (non-Ti), so we had to wait for the GM200 to be released in the form of the GTX 980 Ti and boy was it worth it. This was worth the last agonizing year or so waiting for MSI to get the Lightning brand out again.

Enthusiasts + LN2 = New World Records: We can be sure that there will be new world records with the GTX 980 Ti Lightning, especially when it gets to subzero temperatures.

Quiet Gaming: With all of this power under the hood, the MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning barely makes a sound.

QHD + 4K Gaming Goodness: I do all of my gaming on a 2560x1440 144Hz G-Sync monitor, and this card just plowed through that like butter in my favorite games. I'm addicted to Battlefield 4 still, and I didn't experience anything under 144FPS.

What's Not

Could've Had More OC Headroom: For a card that takes up three PCIe power connectors, I was hoping for some better OC results. But, this card is made for LN2 and beyond, so we can't really fault that considering we used air cooling.

Final Thoughts

I had big expectations for the MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning when the package arrived, and all of those expectations were met, and then some. Starting with the package, I didn't expect it to arrive in the high-quality box like it did. It had separate compartments for all of the bits and pieces, and just made the entire experience feel like it was worth all of the $729.

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Once the package was opened, the GTX 980 Ti Lightning itself was just beautiful. I'm a big fan of my technology products not just performing well, but they have to look the part - especially video cards. I don't want all of the flashy LEDs and all that, but some nice yellow accents and a triple-fan cooler go a long way, and that's what MSI nails here with the GTX 980 Ti Lightning.

Moving onto the performance, well, it's unrivaled. The MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning kicks the ass of the reference GTX 980 Ti, as well as AMD's Radeon R9 Fury X. There's only one or two benchmarks at 4K where the MSI card loses to the Fury X, but in everything else it wipes the smile off of its HBM-based face.

The MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning is a video card for true enthusiasts. It doesn't hold back, and it will have some serious potential when the cooler is taken off and it's put under liquid nitrogen. That's when the real fun will begin, but it doesn't mean that it's only for LN2 users. If you're after a GTX 980 Ti right now and don't want any compromises, the MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning is that card, without a doubt.

TweakTown award
Performance (overclocking, power)99%
Quality (build, design, cooling)99%
General Features (display outputs, etc)95%
Bundle, Packaging & Software95%
Value for Money90%
Overall96%

The Bottom Line: MSI knows how to make some of the best video cards on the market, and the GeForce GTX 980 Ti Lightning is proof of that. This is a no holds barred piece of technology that you simply need to own.

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Anthony is a long time PC enthusiast with a passion of hate for games built around consoles. FPS gaming since the pre-Quake days, where you were insulted if you used a mouse to aim, he has been addicted to gaming and hardware ever since. Working in IT retail for 10 years gave him great experience with custom-built PCs. His addiction to GPU tech is unwavering.

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