Lightning Returns

The MSI Lightning brand means quality, overclocking and performance. Can the R9 290X option live up to the history?

With the GPU landscape mostly settled for 2014, we have the ability to really dig in and evaluate the retail models that continue to pop up from NVIDIA and AMD board partners. One of our favorite series of graphics cards over the years comes from MSI in the form of the Lightning brand. These cards tend to take the engineering levels to a point other designers simply won't do – and we love it! Obviously the target of this capability is additional overclocking headroom and stability, but what if the GPU target has issues scaling already?

That is more or less the premise of the Radeon R9 290X Lightning from MSI. AMD's Radeon R9 290X Hawaii GPU is definitely a hot and power hungry part and that caused quite a few issues at the initial release. Since then though, both AMD and its add-in card partners have worked to improve the coolers installed on these cards to improve performance reliability and decrease the LOUD NOISES produced by the stock, reference cooler.

Let's dive into the latest to hit our test bench, the MSI Radeon R9 290X Lightning.

The MSI Radeon R9 290X Lightning

MSI continues to utilize the yellow and black color scheme that many of the company's high end parts integrate and I love the combination. I know that both NVIDIA and AMD disapprove of the distinct lack of "green" and "red" in the cooler and box designs, but good on MSI for sticking to its own thing. 

The box for the Lightning card is equal to the prominence of the card itself and you even get a nifty drawer for all of the included accessories.

We originally spotted the MSI R9 290X Lightning at CES in January and the design remains the same. The cooler is quite large (and damn heavy) and is cooled by a set of three fans. The yellow fan in the center is smaller and spins a bit faster, creating more noise than I would prefer. All fan speeds can be adjusted with MSI's included fan control software.

The stock clock speeds of the card are not really that different than the stock 290X cards, which is a bit disappointing. You'll boot up the card at 1080 MHz core clock and 1250 MHz memory, not much higher than the 1000 MHz stock speed. What is important to note though is that with the drastically improved cooler on this card, you'll be hitting 1080 MHz on 100% of your gaming time.

The center fan can be controlled individually from the side fans so you can adjust acoustics to target sound levels or cooling performance at your preference.

The cooler might look like a 2-slot design, but in reality it is going to take up the space of a third slot on your case / motherboard as well, so be prepared for that. The fans and shroud on the cooler extend past the two slot bracket and will come in contact with other installed cards for sure.

Output connections include a pair of dual-link DVI ports, a full-size HDMI port and a full-size DisplayPort. This is a solid mix of options, though if you are looking to start integrating the new, lower cost 4K / 60 Hz panels in your setup, this won't be ideal as you are going to need a DisplayPort connection for each.

If you want to power the MSI R9 290X Lightning you'll need a pair of 8-pin and a 6-pin power connections available. This is a big increase over the standard R9 290X that only required a single 8-pin and 6-pin power connection. MSI claims that this additional connection helps maintain stability in the highest of overclocked settings, but…damn. I think most gamers that are buying this card will have plenty of PCIe power connections to go around though and the power consumption numbers, even with our overclocked settings, didn't go crazy.

For the crazy among us, the switch along the top of the card changes between standard and LN2 BIOS that, when enabled, removes the over current protection and voltage limits on the card itself. This can be quite dangerous for the uninitiated (but critical for LN2 overclockers) and for our testing this switch remained in the original position.

Another nod to the overclockers is the included voltage check points on the PCB for easy access.

Of course on the back of the 290X Lightning you'll see a back plate to help protect the components on the rear of the PCB. 

This comparison of the MSI R9 290X Lightning and the ASUS R9 290X DirectCU II should help with the sizing of the two beasts. The ASUS card is a tad longer, but will actually fit in a two slot configuration comfortably.

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