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It’s been hard to evaluate video cards these days as there is no difference between a model from one manufacturer and a model from another one based on the same graphics chip, since they are all identical and provided by the chip manufacturer (NVIDIA or AMD) and the only thing the video card “manufacturer” does is to add their sticker to the video card and put the card in a box with the “manufacturer” logo. This is why we were so excited to review a model where the manufacturer actually added something really unique to the video card: MSI N260GTX Lighting Black Edition comes with an overclocking panel (called AirForce) that can be installed on your case or desk, allowing you to overclock the video card by touching some buttons, making overcloking easy especially for the newbie. Other features were added to the video card as well: double the memory compared to the standard model (1,792 MB vs. 896 MB), 10-phase voltage regulator circuit, solid aluminum caps, ferrite chokes, low RDS(on) transistors, test points on the board for you to check the GPU and memory voltages using a voltmeter and a better cooler.
The drawback of design its own product instead of using NVIDIA’s reference model is that it takes time, and by the time your product reaches the market it may be already too late. Although GeForce GTX 260/216 is not the latest product from NVIDIA, we cannot consider it obsolete, making it an interesting choice.
Before going into the specifics from MSI N260GTX Lightning Black Edition, let’s take a look at the product box, which is somewhat different as well, remembering a jewel case.
[nextpage title=”The Video Card”]
MSI N260GTX Lightning Black Edition is based on GeForce GTX 260/216. We use the “216”on the name to remind you that we talking about the second version from this graphics chip, which has 216 processors instead of 192. On both GeForce GTX 260 versions the GPU runs at 576 MHz, the shader processors run at 1,242 MHz and the 896 MB memory is accessed at 1 GHz (2 GHz DDR) through a 448-bit interface, translating into a maximum theoretical transfer rate of 112 GB/s.
On this model from MSI the GPU runs at 655 MHz (13.71% above the standard model) and the processors run at 1,404 MHz (13.04% above the standard model). The memory has the same clock specs, however N260GTX Lightning Black Edition comes with double the memory: 1792 MB instead f 896 MB. According to MSI this is the first GeForce GTX 260 to have this feature, which improves performance in games that use large textures like Grand Theft Auto IV.
The reviewed card comes with three video outputs: VGA, DVI and HDMI. This way you can connect it to any kind of display without the use of any adapter. The card comes with one HDMI-to-DVI adapter – to allow you to connect two video monitors with DVI cables to it – and one DVI-to-VGA adapter – to allow you to connect two video monitors with VGA cables to it.
[nextpage title=”The Video Card (Cont’d)”]
The standard cooler was replaced by an aluminum model with two fans and five nickel-plated heat-pipes. We were very curious about the performance from this cooler, as NVIDIA standard coolers are known to be noisy, heavy and not efficient, and this is one aspect that we will be testing on this review.
We removed this cooler from this video card and you can see it in Figure 8.
In Figure 9, you can see the video card with its cooler removed. The cooler does not touch the memory chips, which are cooled down by a big passive heatsink, which is also used to cool down the transistors from the voltage regulator circuit. As mentioned, this video card uses a 10-phase design (click here to understand what this means) with solid caps (longer life-span and immunity from leakage), ferrite chokes (25% less energy loss) and low RDS(on) transistors (less wasted energy).
In Figure 10, you can see all accessories that come with this video card: the DVI-to-VGA and HDMI-to-DVI adapters mentioned in the previous page, the SPDIF cable to allow the HDMI connector to carry digital audio (click here to understand this subject) and two USB cables for the overclocking panel (AirForce), which we will discuss in the next page.
This video card comes only with one CD. No games
are bundled, which is disappointing, especially because we are talking about a video card that costs a lot more than the regular GTX 260/216.
[nextpage title=”The AirForce Panel”]
You can see the AirForce overclocking panel on the pictures below. It can be installed either to an empty 5.25” bay from you case or to your desktop, as shown on Figures 13 and 14. The panel is installed to the motherboard using a USB port. The panel comes with two kinds of cables: a cable to install the panel to an internal USB header, if you are going to use the panel on your case, or a cable to install the panel to a standard external USB port, if you are going to use the panel on your desk. After installing the panel you need to install a program from MSI called Lightning in order to make the panel work.
The installation is easy, however the cable for installing the panel on your desk is simply too short. At only three feet (90 cm) it is impossible for you to install the panel on your desk. MSI should have included a cable with at least six feet (1.80 m).
The panel has a series of LED’s that indicate the current overclocking level. There are touch buttons marked + and – for you to increase or decrease each parameter, which includes GPU (core) voltage, memory voltage, GPU (core) clock, memory clock and processors (shader) clock, respectively. The voltage buttons also change the brightness and contrast of the screen, when the button “Theater” is pressed.
AirForce comes with three preset configurations: “Game,” which is the default video card configuration, making it to run at the specs already published (655 MHz for the GPU, 1,404 MHz for the processors and 1 GHz for the memory). Hitting “Office” makes the video card to lower its clock rates to 350 MHz core, 700 MHz shader and 600 MHz memory. And hitting “Power Saving” makes it go to 300 MHz core, 600 MHz shader and 100 MHz memory. In theory these other two presets allow you to save energy. We will measure this during our tests.
The “Lightning” button on the panel brings up the Lightning application from MSI showing the current clock rates from the video card. This screen is shown for only three seconds, however MSI launched a new version where this limitation was removed (click here to download it).
The buttons, however, don’t work well. You have to press them really hard and several times until the command is understood. It is probably a flaw on the type of switch MSI used. This could be easily solved by using regular buttons instead of this “touch” type.
[nextpage title=”Main Specifications”]
MSI N260GTX Lightning Black Edition main features are:
- Graphics chip: GeForce GTX 260/216 running at 655 MHz core / 1,404 MHz shader.
- Memory: 1,792 MB GDDR3 memory (448-bit interface) running at 1 GHz (“2 GHz”).
- Bus type: PCI Express x16 2.0.
- Connectors: One HDMI, one DVI and one VGA output.
- Video Capture (VIVO): No.
- Cables and adapters that come with this board: HDMI-to-DVI adapter, DVI-to-VGA adapter, SPDIF cable, two USB cables for AirForce Panel.
- Extra features: AirForce overclocking panel.
- Number of CDs/DVDs that come with this board: one.
- Games that come with this board: Racedriver: None.
- Programs that come with this board: None.
- Minimum Required Power Supply: 500 W.
- More information: https://www.msicomputer.com
- Average price in the US*: USD 295 (USD 275 after mail-in rebate)
* Researched at Newegg.com on the day we published this review.
[nextpage title=”How We Tested”]
During our benchmarking sessions, we used the configuration listed below. Between our benchmarking sessions the only variable was the video card being tested.
- CPU: Core 2 Extreme QX9770 (3.2 GHz, 1,600 MHz FSB, 12 MB L2 memory cache).
- Motherboard: EVGA nForce 790i Ultra SLI (P05 BIOS)
- Memories: Crucial Ballistix PC3-16000 2 GB kit (BL2KIT12864BE2009), running at 2,000 MHz with 9-9-9-28 timings.
- Hard disk drive: Western Digital VelociRaptor WD3000GLFS (300 GB, SATA-300, 10,000 rpm, 16 MB cache).
- Video monitor: Samsung SyncMaster 305T (30” LCD, 2560×1600).
- Power supply: OCZ EliteXStream 1,000 W.
- CPU Cooler: Thermaltake TMG i1
- Optical Drive: LG GSA-H54N
- Desktop video resolution: 2560×1600 @ 60 Hz
- Windows Vista Ultimate 32-bit
- Service Pack 1
- nForce driver version: 15.17
- NVIDIA video driver version: 181.22
We adopted a 3% error margin; thus, differences below 3% cannot be consid
ered relevant. In other words, products with a performance difference below 3% should be considered as having similar performance.
[nextpage title=”Our Tests”]
Due to the particularities of this video card, we decided to test it differently, as we were curious to see the maximum overclocking level we could get with the AirForce panel and the temperatures that we would achieve with this video card compared to the standard GeForce GTX 260/216.
We used only two programs, 3DMark Vantage (running the “Extreme” preset, which runs at 1920×1200 with all image quality enhancements enabled) and Call of Duty 4 (at 1920×1200 with all image quality enhancements enabled, running the demo wetwork).
The maximum overclocking we could achieve with AirForce panel was putting the GPU at 680 MHz (18% above standard GTX 260), shader at 1,458 MHz (17% above standard GTX 260) and memory at 1,050 MHz (5% above standard GTX 260).
Temperatures were measured in two different locations: at the base of the cooler (marked “Temp. 1”) and on the solder side of the printed circuit, right behind the GPU (marked “Temp. 2”). They were measured while running 3DMark Vantage and they reflect the maximum temperature achieved (as seen at the end of the second graphics test, called “New Calico”).
The results you can see in the table below.
|GTX 260/216||N260GTX||N260GTX (Max. O.C.)|
|CoD 4||94.9 FPS||103.3 FPS||103.3 FPS|
|3DMark Vantage (GPU Score)||4404||4805||5033|
|3DMark Vantage (Extreme Score)||X4608||X5027||X5265|
|Temp 1||62.3° C||51.9° C||52.9° C|
|Temp 2||52.2° C||46.9° C||48.3° C|
MSI N260GTX Lightning Black Edition was 8.85% faster than the standard GeForce GTX 260/216 on Call of Duty 4. Further overclocking this card didn’t improve performance on this game.
On 3DMark Vantage the GPU score from MSI N260GTX Lightning Black Edition was 9.10% higher than the one achieved by the standard GeForce GTX 260/216, increasing 4.75% when we overclocked it, making it to achieve a score 14.28% higher than the standard GTX 260/216.
The 3DMark Vantage Extreme score from MSI N260GTX Lightning Black Edition was 9.09% higher than the one achieved by the standard GeForce GTX 260/216, increasing 4.73% when we overclocked it, making it to achieve a score 14.25% higher than the standard GTX 260/216.
But the good thing about MSI N260GTX Lightning Black Edition is the efficiency of its cooler, which was making the GPU to run 10.4° C cooler.
We also measured power consumption using a wattmeter. Notice that the wattmeter measures the total AC consumption of the whole system, and not only from the video card. With the system idle, the consumption remained the same (around 133 W), no matter what preset we chose on the AirForce panel. Then we decided to run the 2D video test from PCMark Vantage to see if we could see any difference in consumption. At “Game” preset, consumption was between 218 – 219 W when playing the first video of the test, while at “Office” preset consumption lowered to 213 – 216 W. At “Power Saving” preset consumption dropped to 205 – 208 W, however we could see a lot of lag (stuttering) on the video being played.
So while having a “power saving” feature sounds like a good idea, in practical terms you won’t save a lot.
If you want a GeForce GTX 260/216 with double the amount of memory, with a better manufacturing quality, with a better cooler, coming factory-overclocked and coming with this interesting overclocking panel, MSI N260GTX Lightning Black Edition is for you.
There are some drawbacks regarding this card. First is the USB cable from the panel, which is too short. The second are the buttons on the panel, which don’t work very well. Third is the absence of games (but honestly this doesn’t bother most gamers). And fourth, pricing. At USD 295 it is a little bit over USD 100 more expensive than the standard GeForce GTX 260/216 (64% more for 15% performance gain). If you live in the US you can get a USD 20 rebate, making it to cost USD 275.
If you are really worried about pricing, good news is that you can get a card with similar specs but half the standard memory size (896 MB) and without the overclocking panel for USD 200 (or USD 180 after a USD 20 mail-in rebate). This card is called MSI N260GTX-OCv3.
We are always looking for the best cost/benefit ratio for our readers. With MSI N260GTX Lightning Black Edition costing over 50% above the standard model it doesn’t provide this important feature.