The MSI N480GTX Lightning has got to be one of the top single-GPU graphics cards available in the market. As the customized variant of Nvidia's GeForce GTX480 GPU which occupies the top slot, it commands a slight price premium. You do get a card worthy of it too.
Default core/memory clock speeds are shipped in a factory over-clocked condition.
MSI has basically kept the GTX480 GPU chip intact but changed everything else about it. The MSI GeForce GTX480 Lightning has a re-designed cooler. Called the TwinFrozr III, the cooling as we saw was better than that of the reference design. How much better exactly, will depend on your cabinet's ambient temperature and the extent to which you want to overclock.
This brings us to the next major difference. The N480GTX Lightning has voltage regulators capable of providing an extra bit of voltage. Supplied software, MSI AfterBurner can be used to set this and to overclock. Increased voltage allows you to push speed of the GPU's core clock and memory clock higher than it could otherwise have been possible.
Actually the default clock speeds are themselves shipped in a factory over-clocked condition. Want to know specifications of the reference GeForce GTX480 and the MSI GTX480 Lightning juxtaposed beside each other for comparison? The two screenshots of the GPU-Z diagnostic tool below, will show you exactly that.
At left side, is the reference Nvidia GeForce GTX480; at right side is the MSI N480GTX Lightning.
The TwinFrozr III cooler has a fair bit of heatsink and heat-pipes to draw heat away from the GPU, and two fans atop them. MSI has used an open cooler design, apparently being confident that all or most of the card's heat will exit the desktop cabinet from the heat vents situated at the rear of the card. Airflow was evidently not an issue, we saw its fans running at a comfortable pace at idle, and running much faster at full load but still never getting beyond the "barely noisy" threshold.
Plenty of metal in there, beneath the plastic casing and fans.
As a whole, this dual-slot cooler actually gives the Lightning a lighter feel. The card still feels high-end, its length that juts out beyond the width of a full-ATX PC motherboard being a dead giveaway. Sheer scale of power connectors to allow headroom for overclocking is another giveaway - it actually has two 8-pin and one 6-pin connectors for PCI-E power input. In comparison, today's mainstream graphics cards only need one 6-pin power input and budget cards don't need it at all (they are fed from the motherboard's 75-Watt capable PCI-E x16 slot). MSI's recommendation for the N480GTX Lightning is to use a 700W PSU capable of supplying 42 Amps over the +12V line.
Display outputs at the rear consisted of one port each of HDMI and DisplayPort, and two DVI ports. This card has 1.5GB of GDDR5 video memory clocked at 1000 MHz and a GPU core clocked at 750 MHz (unlike the reference design's 924 and 701 MHz respectively). It has a 384-bit memory interface and 480 unified shaders that support DirectX 11. These specifications can be seen above, in the GPU-Z screenshot of the MSI GeForce GTX480 Lightning.
Notice the copper-colored display output ports instead of the usual shiny steel color.
The MSI N480GTX Lightning graphics card's package contents included a quick user guide, a CD with drivers and MSI AfterBurner software, two 6-pin to 8-pin convertor PCI-E power cables, one DVI-to-VGA port adapter and one DVI-to-HDMI port adapter.
To prevent bottle-necks as much as possible, the test-bed consisted of an Intel Core i7 965 processor, Intel DX58SO motherboard, Intel X25-M 80GB SSD, 3GB of Kingston DDR3-2000MHz HyperX RAM, Tagan BZ-1300W PSU and Windows 7 Ultimate. We used the latest driver for the Lightning at the time of testing - Nvidia ForceWare v260.89.
The graphs here show only performance numbers selected from a wider set of tests conducted. This card turned out to be a great performer in benchmarks. Note that all of the below is as seen at default settings and not post-overclock, although the ease of overclocking the MSI card would have returned even higher performance.
To put the results in context and help you compare, we juxtapose its benchmark scores with three other top-end graphics cards. These are the reigning champion Asus Ares (Radeon 5870 X2) and the AMD Radeon 5970 both of which are dual-GPU cards, and the reference-designed Zotac GeForce GTX480. The performance gap between the two variants of the GTX480 GPU could be attributed to updated drivers since the Zotac was tested, and to the factory overclocked nature of the MSI Lightning.
Below is a graph of how the MSI card fared in synthetic benchmarks:
Below is a graph of gaming performance seen in higher-end usage patterns.
Among the top-end cards chosen for comparison, the MSI Lightning had a clear edge in idle temperature seen. When pushed to operate at full load, it again had the edge in temperatures seen.
When all has been said, what matters at the end is whether you think this graphics card was made just for you. It clearly has plenty of muscle at its disposal and is the fastest single-GPU card in existence for now. Those who game on large monitors and those who use professional rendering applications undoubtedly benefit. Besides raw performance, it also has quiet and good (on air) cooling to offer, reducing the need for an after-market cooler.
But that still does not explain the price offset fully. The big deal with the MSI N480GTX Lightning is its enthusiast friendliness - right from being able to over-clock speeds confidently due to the cooler, to adjusting voltage via software to extract every last ounce of performance from the GTX480. To that end, we think this card does fulfil its mission but the price deters it from obtaining a higher rating.