The MSI R9 290X Lightning is the first graphics card from MSI in the Radeon R9 series that features its trademark TriFrozr cooling solution. It is built to minimize the shortcomings of the AMD’s latest graphics card which is extremely hot and loud. MSI also loaded the card with the highest quality Military Class 4 components which includes the Copper MOS, Hi-c CAP, New SFC, and Dark Solid CAP to ensure the best stability and quality as well as the longest lifetime. The R9 290X Lightning also has many other overclocking features such as 12+3 power phase design, 12-layer heavily customized PCB, LN2 switch, Triple Overvoltage, Triple Temp Monitor, and V-Check point. You have all the formulas of a card to break world records. Equipped with their brand new cooling system and various other overclocking-oriented components, is the MSI R9 290X Lightning the best graphics card that money can buy?
Product Link: http://www.msi.com/product/vga/R9_290X_LIGHTNING.html
Suggested Retail Price: RM 2,599
The MSI R9 290X Lightning offers 2816 unified shaders, 64 ROPs, 176 TMUs, and 4 GB of GDDR5 memory on a 512-bit memory bus. MSI bumped the GPU to 1080 MHz, up from 1000 MHz from AMD’s reference Radeon R9 290X. However, MSI didn’t increase the memory clock for this card out of the box, but it stuck with the stock 5000 MHz (effective).
This gigantic graphics card comes a massive box illustrated with an F35 Lightning II aircraft. MSI decided to make the packaging looked more premium but we found that the glossy outer cardboard is too fragile and will break easily during unboxing of the graphics card.
Moving on to the card itself, we see the MSI R9 290X Lightning in all its beauty. The first thing that you will notice is that this graphics card comes with a huge 3-slot TriFrozr cooler. There are three fans attached on the cooler. One small 80 mm yellow fan in the middle, sandwiched by two 90 mm black fans. The speeds of these fans are controllable with the included MSI VGA Fan Control software. MSI implements Propeller Blade Technology to improve the airflow.
The Radeon R9 290X GPU chip is soldered at the middle of the graphics card. Based on AMD’s Hawaii XT, the R9 290X will support AMD’s TrueAudio, Mantle, DirectX 11.2, and bridge-free Crossfire technology using CrossFire Direct Memory Access aka XDMA. The fully customized PCB features a beefy 13+2 phase VRM to deliver a precise digital power for superior efficiency, stability, and performance so that you won’t need to worry about power delivery under extreme conditions.
Generally, there are three choices of GDDR5 memory chips for graphics card. It is known that the Elpida chip really doesn’t seem to have a lot of potential for overclocking, and the Hynix IC has a good overclocking headroom but lacks of performance-per-clock efficiency. MSI decided to use the Samsung-FC03 for their R9 290X Lightning because it is the best performing IC among these three memories.
There is no CrossFire connector found on the graphics card. With R9 290 Series, AMD started to transfer multi-GPU data via the PCIe slot interface of the card. You have a tiny jumper switch that allows you to toggle between two modes: “LN2” mode and “Original” mode. The liquid nitrogen (LN2) jumper switch unlocks restrictions on temperature limit and overcurrent protection (OCP) so you can unleash full power from the GPU. The “Original” mode sticks to 20% power limit.
The Triple Load Level Indicator offers an instant and easy-to-understand display of current GPU load levels. For starters, if the LED glows red, this means that the R9 290X Lightning is under heavy load, Blue for medium and Green for light load.
Let’s take a closer look at the MSI’s most advanced cooler, the TriFrozr. The cooler is consisted of two massive aluminium fin arrays that are interconnected by two 8 mm and four 6 mm heat pipes. The nickel plated copper base has a large surface to absorb the heat generated by the GPU. The heat is then conducted to the aluminium fins and eventually dissipated by the tri-fan system.
As for accessories, the R9 290X Lightning comes with the user manual, the Quick User’s Guide, the Certificate of Quality and Stability, three V-Check point cables, a pair of 6-pin-to-8-pin power cables and a molex-to-6-pin-PCIe Y-cable. Also included is a MOSFET heatsink, which comes in handy for watercooling and liquid nitrogen users. This heatsink is used if you remove the stock cooler and install either non-full cover water block or LN2 pot.
The Intel Core i7 4770K processor was overclocked to 4.625 GHz while all the graphics cards used were operating at stock clocks and stock cooler on air cooling. The MSI R9 290X Lightning was set to “Original” mode. Ambient temperature was around 30°C throughout the benchmarks.
Software & Tools
- MSI’s exclusive software and only for R9 290X LIGHTNING.
- Temperature of GPU and PWM on the interface.
- Control the fan speed via two PWM controllers automatically or manually.
OverClocking & Temperature
The Radeon R9 290X GPU is known to be hot and overclocking with AMD’s stock cooler can cause thermal throttling. But you don’t have to worry with the MSI’s TriFrozr cooler. This massive cooling system is designed to take a heat load of 550W.
We took the MSI R9 290X Lightning for a quick test on 3DMark 11 benchmark. With the help of MSI AfterBurner overclocking utility, we managed to overclock the GPU clock speed to healthy 1260 MHz (+17%) from 1080 MHz, which is considered as a very good overclocking result. In comparison, we were only able to achieve 1150 MHz and 1225 with the competing ASUS ROG Matrix R9 290X Platinum and DirectCU II OC, respectively. The memory overclocking was within expectation. It went to 6450 MHz (+29%) from 5000 MHz without any vRAM overvolting. It is the average overclock for Samsung based memory chips. The load temperature hit 79°C maximum. This overclock improved the graphics score by 13%.
WaterCooling the Card
It is known that water’s thermal conductivity is higher than air’s [0.6 vs 0.025 W/(m·K)], which means heat moves easier with water. In simpler terms water can absorb more heat and faster than air, thus leaving the GPU with less heat, and making it colder.
Recently EK Water Blocks (EKWB) sent us their brand new EK-FC R9-290X Lightning full cover water block to dinvestigate the impact of water cooling on the overclocking of MSI’s R9 290X Lightning. First of all we are going to have a closer look at the idle temperatures for the air cooled versus watercooled Lightning.
As you can see from the picture above, the GPU’s idle temperature was reduced by 5°C from 42°C to 37°C with water cooling, whereas the VRM1 and VRM2 temperatures were shaved off by 7°C from 40°C and 59°C to 33°C and 52°C, respectively.
Then we tortured the card with FurMark GPU Stress Test for 10 minutes. Water cooling once again impressed us by reducing the GPU temperature from 73°C to 50°C. Meanwhile the VRM1 temperature relaxed to 47°C from 74°C. That was a really huge drop!
Next we tested the watercooled R9 290X Lightning card on the most popular First Person Shooter (FPS) game, the Battlefield 4. The GPU temperature went down from 74°C with air cooling to 49°C when watercooled. At the same time, the VRM1 temperature dropped to 46°C from 72°C.
In overclocking aspect, water cooling did bring some significant improvements on the overclock headroom of the R9 290X Lightning. In 3DMark 11 benchmark, we were able to push another 40 MHz on top of air cooling on the GPU frequency to 1300 MHz. However, liquid cooling didn’t help at all on memory overclocking in which the resulting clock remains at 6450 MHz. The maximum temperature hit 54°C during the test.
Thoughts & Verdicts
The MSI R9 290X Lightning is not just a graphics card to play games. It is specially designed to attract the hardcore enthusiasts that want the best of the best. With a completely redesigned TriFrozr cooler with SuperPipes and undisputable Military Class 4 components on top of an enhanced power delivery design, the R9 290X Lightning is certainly among the top graphics cards in the market.
Out-of-the-box it is simply the fastest R9 290X that we’ve tested so far. Moreover, sometimes it outperforms NVIDIA’s GTX 780 Ti, sometimes a little bit worse, depending on the game titles. It can handle just any modern games to date at high resolution such as 2560 X 1600 at maximum quality settings.
Overclocking was a breeze and the clock rates that we hit were impressive thanks to the massive overclocking features loaded on the R9 290X Lightning. We managed to get a healthy +170 MHz overclock on the GPU speed and a whopping +1500 MHz on the memory with the TriFrozr cooler. It overclocks better than the ROG Matrix R9 290X Platinum and DirectCU II OC from ASUS. Putting the graphics card under water extended the overclocking headroom to a higher level. With liquid cooling, we obtained an outstanding +220 MHz gain on top of stock GPU frequency which is really great. However, it seems that the memory module has hit its oveclocking wall as we did not see any difference between air cooled to water cooled overclocking.
The downside of the graphics card is the price. With a hefty price tag of RM 2,599, it is about RM 400 more expensive than MSI’s second tier R9 290X card, which is the Twin Frozr GAMING OC Edition. So it is not just a graphics card for anyone but aimed at those who want a great extreme overclocking experience and bring home some trophies from overclocking competitions.
Last but not least, we would like to thank MSI Malaysia for making this review possible. Also, in kind and special thanks to EKWB for shipping us the beautiful EK-FC R9-290X Lightning full cover water block, all the way from Slovenia. Thank you so much!
Performance/Price Value: 4/5
+ Excellent overclock ability
+ Impressive cooling performance
+ High grade components
+ Solid backplate
+ Includes MOSFET heatsink for watercooling and LN2 purpose
+ Includes removable VRM and memory heatsink
- Too big and heavy
- No game bundle
Disclaimer: OCDrift.com gives out our own award based on the Hardware Performance, OverClocking Ability, Innovation, and Value as determined by the reviewer
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