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MSI GTX 1080 Ti Lightning Z 11GB Review

Rating: 9.0.

Water cooling is more popular than ever on high-performance graphics cards like the GTX 1080 Ti, solutions include MSI’s Sea Hawk, ASUS Poseidon and Gigabyte Aorus Waterforce. Yet in this high performance market is there still room for the bulky and over-engineered air-cooled option? MSI certainly thinks so with its latest flagship the GTX 1080 Ti Lightning Z.

MSI’s Lightning brand is well renowned among the enthusiast community and Lightning products of the past always stood out with a striking yellow colour scheme. Market trends have since shifted and now MSI’s Lightning brand is more about features than a particular colour scheme.

Enter the MSI GTX 1080 Ti Lightning Z, a rather sophisticated and strikingly well-equipped graphics card for the high-end market. MSI has pushed the aesthetic focus towards neutrality, enhancing things with a fully fledged RGB lighting system that goes well beyond a mere RGB logo like most graphics card vendors deliver.

There are changes in the cooling department – not least the surprise that MSI is ditching its trusty dual-fan Twin Frozr solution of the past for a triple-fan implementation. MSI, like Gigabyte with its Aorus GTX 1080 Ti, has opted for the 2.5 slot design deciding that outright cooling capability should not be hampered by the need to keep to a seemingly arbitrary size constraint.

MSI has delivered a quirky innovation by having a fully fledged copper heatpipe built into the backplate to provide further cooling potential. There are also a number of heat pipes in close proximity to PCB components which MSI is calling “Close Quarters” heat pipe cooling.

The real impressive characteristic of the Lightning Z is not necessarily the cooling solution but what’s going on beneath that. The PCB is engineered for extreme overclocking scenarios with a 14 phase power solution capable of delivering abundant power even when under LN2 cooling and extreme voltages.

An LN2 switch, voltage check points and a number of temperature sensors for the GPU core, memory and VRMs make the Lightning Z an overclocker’s dream. MSI is keeping the production run exclusive as only 3000 units will be made, though the vast majority of those will make their way into the hands of consumers – rather than extreme overclockers.

Factory clock speeds are aggressive but not market leading, 1582MHz core boosting up to 1695MHz with a slight overclock to the memory running at 11124MHz.

GPU  MSI GTX 1080 Ti Lighting Z MSI GTX 1080 Ti Sea Hawk X MSI GTX 1080 Ti Gaming X MSI GTX 1080 Ti Duke OC
Base Clock
 1582 (1607) MHz  1544 (1569) MHz  1544 (1569) MHz 1531 MHz
GPU Boost Clock  1695 (1721) MHz  1657 (1683) MHz  1657 (1683) MHz  1645 MHz
Memory Clock Effective
11124 MHz  11016 (11124) MHz  11016 (11124) MHz  11016 MHz
Memory Bandwidth  489 GB/s  484 (489) GB/s  484 (489) GB/s 484 GB/s
Price (£)  £TBC $TBC
 £900 ($800)  £775  ($820) £TBC ($750)

An optional “Lightning” mode can be toggled from within MSI’s software that boosts the GPU clock to 1721MHz but there’s more frequency than that to be found for the adventurous overclocker. On MSI’s other graphics cards that software-triggered faster operational mode is usually called “OC” mode, the OC mode speeds of other MSI graphics cards are tabulated above.

No flagship graphics card is complete without an oversized box, MSI’s GTX 1080 Ti Lightning Z meets that requirement for sure.

MSI bundles the graphics card with an alternative triple slot I/O shield, three voltage read-off cables for the corresponding headers, a 6 pin to 8 pin adapter cable, some documentation, a driver DVD and a set of decal strips if you don’t like the default silver colour. Strangely enough “lightning-style” yellow is not one of the optional colours – there is red, black and gold.

MSI’s decision to ditch the Lightning yellow is probably well-founded and the neutral colour scheme put in its place undoubtedly has a wider appeal. Nonetheless there’s something missing and at a quick glance it just doesn’t look like an MSI Lightning graphics card.

Nostalgia aside though the MSI Lightning Z is a highly imposing graphics card with its brash 2.5 slot cooling solution. When paired with the RGB Lighting the scope to mould the Lightning Z to any build is there which will probably allow MSI to shift all 3000 units with relative ease.

Weighing in at 1.7kg and measuring 32cm in length and 13cm in height, the Lightning Z is a sizeable beast. MSI uses a triple fan design, instead of a dual fan design seen on previous Lightning models. The two outer fans are 100mm and the centre fan is 90mm, all three use double ball bearings and are built to MSI’s Torx 2.0 design specification.

The backplate is perforated to allow some airflow to the heat pipe which runs along the centre of the backplate. Focusing in on the side-profile and the three 8-pin PCIe power cable requirement stands out. Note that the third connection is mandatory and the system will not boot without it. That said in practice the third connection is mainly there for extreme overclockers looking to push obscene amounts of power through the GPU while under LN2.

Just to the right of the SLI connections is the vBIOS switch which toggles between a standard mode and an LN2 mode. By toggling the DIP switch to LN2 mode it removes power, current (amperage) and thermal restrictions on the GPU.

MSI’s Mystic Light software is a pleasant change from the rather limited Gaming App that usually controls MSI’s GPU RGBs. Mystic Light is dedicated RGB software and has a solid range of Lighting Effects, Profile options and general tweakability. It’s very usable and visually appealing.

The LED extent almost covers the whole graphics card and is split into two main sections – one on the top and one on the backplate. These are very bright and vibrant and give a great aesthetic appeal that even other “RGB” graphics cards just can’t match. Put simply the “light show” is much more impressive than on most of its competitors.

 

At one end of the card MSI has tacked on voltage check points for those users inclined towards the dark art of extreme overclocking. At the opposing end MSI offers a wide selection of Display outputs – two HDMI 2.0b, two DisplayPort 1.4 and one Dual-Link DVI-D. VR users should be well catered for with the dual HDMI.

A close up on the backplate reveals it quite literally is a single copper heat pipe spread across the length. It makes direct contact PCB components to provide additional cooling capability.

The heatsink is an impressive behemoth too with 6 heat pipes snaking off in various directions. Four are 6mm and two are 8mm.

 

The pièce de résistance for most will be the PCB which has an impressive 14 phases for the GPU core and a further 3 phases tie up the memory. MSI uses digital PWM controls, solid dark capacitors,  Hi-c capacitors, super ferrite chokes and “3 in 1” 60 amp DrMOS MOSFETs.

Our GPU test system has been built with the intention of benchmarking a variety of graphics cards from mid-range to high-end. Each GPU is tested in a number of 3D applications and games at 1080p, 1440p and 2160p (“4K”) resolutions using Very High or Ultra detail presets.

Test System Components

General Test System Notes

  • AMD Graphics cards were benchmarked with the AMD (Crimson ReLive Edition) 17.4.2 drivers (17.10.1711 Beta 5) except the RX 570 and RX 580 GPUs which were benchmarked with a special press release driver (17.10.1030 Beta 8).
  • Nvidia Graphics cards were benchmarked with the Nvidia (GeForce Game Ready) 381.65 driver.
  • To tune the test system appropriately for acoustic measurements the case was stripped of its original fans and fitted with ultra quiet Noctua fans.
  • The CPU cooler, the Corsair H100i v2, was set to a fixed low fan speed to further reduce the base noise level while the pump was left to operate at full speed since it produces no significant noise output.
  • The CPU was left to default Intel Turbo behaviour, disabling ASUS enhancements such as all-core Turbo to minimise heat output inside the case and non-GPU related power consumption. The CPU voltage was also negatively offset (read: reduced) by a measure of -0.15 to further reduce non-GPU related heat and power consumption and keep CPU temperatures down to accommodate for the ultra silent CPU and System fan profiles.
  • Each 3D benchmark or game is run 3 times at each resolution with an average result of the three runs taken as the final result for the graphs. Where benchmark screenshots are shown note these may not match the graphed figure since the graph represents the average of three while the screenshot is a single of those three values.

Comparison Graphics Cards List

Software and Games List

  • 3DMark
  • Ashes of the Singularity
  • Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
  • Furmark
  • GPU-Z
  • Grand Theft Auto V
  • Metro Last Light Redux
  • MSI Afterburner
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider
  • Steam
  • SteamVR Performance Test
  • Unigine Heaven

3DMark is a showcase DirectX 11 benchmark designed for today’s high-performance gaming PCs. It is our [FutureMark’s] most ambitious and technical benchmark ever, featuring real-time graphics rendered with detail and complexity far beyond what is found in other benchmarks and games today.

We run 3DMark Fire Strike (1080p), Fire Strike Extreme (1440p) and Fire Strike Ultra (4K).

3DMark sets the scene for the MSI GTX 1080 Ti Lightning Z. On paper it may not be the fastest GTX 1080 Ti we’ve tested but in testing it operated at a faster average clock speed and had a memory overclock which resulted in the highest overall performance.

The SteamVR Performance Test measures a system’s rendering power using a 2-minute sequence from Valves Aperture Robot Repair VR demo. After collecting the data it determines whether a system is capable of running VR content at 90fps and whether VR content can tune the visual fidelity up to the recommended level. For machines that are not VR Ready the tool can help determine whether capabilities are bound by Graphics Card, CPU, or both.


Unigine provides an interesting way to test hardware. It can be easily adapted to various projects due to its elaborated software design and flexible toolset. A lot of their customers claim that they have never seen such extremely-effective code, which is so easy to understand.

Heaven Benchmark is a DirectX 11 GPU benchmark based on advanced Unigine engine from Unigine Corp. It reveals the enchanting magic of floating islands with a tiny village hidden in the cloudy skies. Interactive mode provides emerging experience of exploring the intricate world of steampunk. Efficient and well-architected framework makes Unigine highly scalable:

  • Multiple API (DirectX 9 / DirectX 10 / DirectX 11 / OpenGL) render
  • Cross-platform: MS Windows (XP, Vista, Windows 7) / Linux
  • Full support of 32bit and 64bit systems
  • Multicore CPU support
  • Little / big endian support (ready for game consoles)
  • Powerful C++ API
  • Comprehensive performance profiling system
  • Flexible XML-based data structures

We set Quality to ‘Ultra’, Tessellation to ‘disabled’ and Anti-Aliasing to 2x.

MSI’s GTX 1080 Ti Lightning manages to keep ahead of Gigabyte’s Aorus GTX 1080 Ti by a smidge.

Ashes of the Singularity is a real-time strategy game set in the future where descendants of humans (called Post- Humans) and a powerful artificial intelligence (called the Substrate) fight a war for control of a resource known as Turinium.

Players will engage in massive-scale land/air battles by commanding entire armies of their own design. Each game takes place on one area of a planet, with each player starting with a home base (known as a Nexus) and a single construction unit.

We opt for the Extreme quality profile and run the GPU-Focused test using the DX12 game mode.

Ashes of the Singularity in DX12 mode seems to be CPU bound at 1080p and 1440p resulting in some inconsistent results. At 4K we see all graphics cards able to stretch their legs a bit more and at this resolution the MSI Lightning Z pulls away slightly.


Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is set in the year 2029, two years after the events of Human Revolution and the “Aug Incident”—an event in which mechanically augmented humans became uncontrollable and lethally violent.

Unbeknownst to the public, the affected augmented received implanted technology designed to control them by the shadowy Illuminati, which is abused by a rogue member of the group to discredit augmentations completely. (Wikipedia).

We test using the Ultra quality preset and the DirectX 12 API at all resolutions.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided demonstrated a consistent lead for the MSI Lightning Z across all resolutions.


Grand Theft Auto V is an action-adventure game played from either a first-person or third-person view. Players complete missions—linear scenarios with set objectives—to progress through the story. Outside of missions, players may freely roam the open world.

Composed of the San Andreas open countryside area and the fictional city of Los Santos, the world is much larger in area than earlier entries in the series. It may be fully explored after the game’s beginning without restriction, although story progress unlocks more gameplay content.

We use the Ultra quality settings (or the highest alternative when Ultra is unavailable), MSAA is set to 2x. The Advanced Graphics options are all set to their maximum levels. Memory usage is calculated as 3469, 3764 and 4733 at 1080, 1440p and 4K, respectively.

GTA V shows limited variation between GTX 1080 Ti graphics cards at all resolutions.

Just like the original game Metro 2033, Metro: Last Light is played from the perspective of Artyom, the player-character. The story takes place in post-apocalyptic Moscow, mostly inside the metro system, but occasionally missions bring the player above ground. Metro: Last Light takes place one year after the events of Metro 2033, following the canonical ending in which Artyom chose to proceed with the missile strike against the Dark Ones (this happens regardless of your actions in the first game). Redux adds all the DLC and graphical improvements.

At all resolutions we test using a Very High quality profile with SSAA enabled and Tessellation set to Normal.

The narrowest of leads opened up for the MSI Lightning Z over the Gigabyte Aorus GTX 1080 Ti in Metro Last Light Redux.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a third-person action-adventure game that features similar gameplay found in 2013’s Tomb Raider. Players control Lara Croft through various environments, battling enemies, and completing puzzle platforming sections, while using improvised weapons and gadgets in order to progress through the story. It uses a Direct X 12 capable engine.

We use the Very High quality preset and 2x SSAA at all resolutions with Direct X 12 enabled.

The higher average frequency on the GPU-side and on the memory helped the MSI Lightning Z open up a lead at the top of our graphs.

Our acoustic measurements are less precise on this mid-range test system, the noise floor of the totally quiet testing room is 34 dBA as measured with a Benetech GM1351 Digital Sound Level Meter.

We take our measurements with the decibel meter on the top and middle section of the case, overhanging the side panel (PSU side, not Motherboard tray side) by exactly 1 inch to avoid any airflow pressure coming from the exhausting H100i V2.

The underlying noise level of the system, emitted by all the non-GPU hardware combined, is 35 dBa thus anything above this level can be attributed to the graphics cards. The PSU is passive for the entire power output range we tested all graphics cards in and all CPU and System fans have a fixed fan speed completely isolating them from any changes in temperature across the system.

Noise levels were measured after 5 minutes of load under three scenario: Furmark, Unigine Heaven and desktop idle in sequential order with 2 minutes downtime in between each test.

It’s not the quietest graphics card on test but it is among the quietest GTX 1080 Tis available. The MSI Lightning Z is only marginally louder than the Gigabyte Aorus GTX 1080 Ti, to the tune of 1 dBA, and is roughly as noisy as the Palit Super JetStream and MSI Gaming X GTX 1080 Tis.

For reference the load fan speed percentage was between 50 to 55% and the RPM read-out at approximately 1400RPM.

Our only gripe is that within about 2 minutes of going under load the fan spins up really fast (approximately 2200RPM) for 2 or 3 seconds before ramping back down to normal levels. We’re not sure why and it seems like a vBIOS glitch that ought to be ironed out at a later date.

EDIT: MSI replied to our fan speed concern above on the 10th July 2017 and they said this was implemented on purpose.

  1. The function helps remove the dust on the fan blade and fins of thermal module.
  2. It also helps warm up the bearing of fan and make it smooth while rotating.

Temperatures were measured after 5 minutes of load under three scenario: Furmark, Unigine Heaven and desktop idle in sequential order with 2 minutes of downtime in between each test. GPU-Z was used to record the maximum temperature, fan profiles on GPUs were left to their default behaviour.

Delta temperatures are presented below to account for small fluctuations in room temperature, but for all the testing present in this graph the temperature ranged from 21.6 to 23.1 degrees Celsius.

Cooling performance was stellar – this was the coolest GTX 1080 Ti on test.

It didn’t just achieve this on the GPU core either, the comprehensive cooling solution kept the VRMs and memory cool too.

Nonetheless we found MSI’s claim that users could ‘Monitor temperature of GPU/Memory/VRM through Afterburner‘ to be initially challenging. The version of Afterburner supplied on the product download page, 4.3.0, did not let us achieve this. However, after we acquired beta version 4.4.0 Beta 12 and accepted the reboot prompt, upon first launch we were then able to see one PCB temperature and four VRM temperatures.

In our load tests VRM temperatures were in the low 80s or high 70s while the PCB temperature was in the mid-70s. Very safe and respectable temperatures all around.

Power consumption was measured after 5 minutes of load under three scenario: Furmark, Unigine Heaven and desktop idle in sequential order with 2 minutes of downtime in between each test. The measurement was taking using an Energenie ENER007 power meter and measured for the whole system at the power supply, excluding the monitor.

While Furmark and desktop idle provide stable and consistent power read-outs, Unigine Heaven does not so the power reading is taken as the peak value that occurs in Scene 2 of 26.

Power consumption was a little lower than anticipated. Perhaps MSI has implemented more efficient VRMs than on its Gaming X or the lower VRM operating temperatures allow things to run more efficiently. Either way power consumption is absolutely fine for the performance on offer.

Overclocking seems to be GPU-limited because even if the final base and boost clocks differ, as recorded in GPU-Z, most GTX 1080 Tis still tend to top out around 2,050 MHz effective on the GPU core. MSI’s main performance advantage was that the memory was that little bit more capable, able to push +700MHz in Afterburner rather than 400-500 on most other GTX 1080 Tis.

Under LN2 mode there would almost certainly be more potential there to unlock but for the remit of this review LN2 is not an option.

The effective performance gain was a modest 5 per cent.

The GTX 1080 Ti is well-established as one of the fastest graphics cards a consumer can buy, Titans aside. With initial performance leaks suggesting AMD won’t be able to match Nvidia’s current top-end with its Vega-based products, a flagship GTX 1080 Ti seems like a futureproof investment for high-quality 4K gaming.

MSI has executed the GTX 1080 Ti Lightning Z particularly well with an excellent blend of style, performance and cooling – and it’s well endowed with features for a graphics card too.

The decision to jump into triple slot territory has been criticised in the past but in this instance it has paid off for MSI. Anyone with the money to put more than one GTX 1080 Ti in an SLI configuration should be able to stretch to water cooling, as such the space requirement of three slots is relatively inconsequential.

The benefits of the triple slot design are noteworthy with impressive temperatures for the GPU core, memory and VRMs, noise levels are surprisingly low too. Performance doesn’t suffer to keep noise and temperatures down, MSI manages to lead other overclocked GTX 1080 Tis by a narrow margin across the board thanks to a consistently high average boost frequency and a slight memory overclock.

MSI’s decision to ditch the trademark “Lightning Yellow” may come as a surprise to some but a neutral colour scheme with RGB LEDs is a market shift that has been ongoing for at least the last year. MSI “gets away with it” quite easily since the extent and functionality of the RGB LED system is so visually remarkable. The only gripes are that they do not provide “Lighting yellow” decal strips in the accessory bundle for long-time fans of the Lightning series and the peculiar fan behaviour under initial load that MSI would benefit from ironing out through a vBIOS update.

MSI’s GTX 1080 Ti Lightning Z is not yet available to buy but will be available soon and limited to 3000 pieces worldwide so expect pricing to reflect that exclusivity. MSI provides a 3 year warranty with its graphics card products. As KitGuru is not aware of launch pricing at this current moment in time the final judgement of the review may change subject to that pricing. However, UK buyers should expect to see pricing between £850 to £900, given pricing of MSI’s other GTX 1080 Ti products.

Pros

  • Excellent cooling performance and noise levels
  • Great out of the box performance
  • Solid build quality and component use
  • Multiple temperature monitoring points in Afterburner
  • Impressive RGB LED implementation

Cons:

  • No “Lightning Yellow” decal in accessory pack
  • Limited availability
  • Strange initial fan behaviour under load

KitGuru says: Lightning fast and Lightning sharp, the MSI GTX 1080 Ti Lightning Z is a truly excellent flagship graphics card.

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