MSI N285GTX Superpipe OC GeForce GTX 285 Review
The MSI Experience
Tripping back memory lane is a fun exercise. Doing so not only gives one a sense of happier and more carefree times, but it also gives the reader good background on why a company does exactly what it does. MSI entered into the video card arena after having made a good splash in the motherboard market. At this time standalone video card companies were the norm. With guys like Diamond, VisionTek, 3dfx (STB), Gainward, Jaton, Pine and others taking up the majority of the channel. Asus had just gotten into the vid card market as well, and others such as Tyan were testing the waters. MSI decided to go all in and not hold anything back.
MSI was a master of taking the reference design, and wrapping a high end bundle around it that would make the user forget they were buying a reference design. I remember getting an MSI GeForce 4 Ti 4400, and the experience was pretty awesome. The card was a reference board with a reference cooler, but the box was big, shiny, and packed with everything a user could want. There were a grand total of three full game titles included, and these were not crappy games. Titles like “Sacrifice” and “No One Lives Forever” were the marquee offerings, and they included a large selection of digital video editing and 3D creation titles as well (the card featured video input/capture).
The inner bag is just a standard anti-static bag. Again, MSI certainly tried to cut down on any kind of damage to the card by packing it very carefully.
To be able to include as many software titles as they were, plus the VIVO dongle, plenty of cable, and DVI to VGA adapters, MSI had to take a few shortcuts with their actual hardware. While the card was a reference design, many things could be specified by the manufacturer. Different caps can be swapped in an out, a few of the power phases could be modified, and differing fans and heatsinks could be used. Unfortunately, MSI decided to use some lower quality caps and a really shoddy fan in their design. When I recommended the MSI GeForce 4 Ti cards, I was thrilled by the value of the extras in the package. About 8 months later when these boards started coming back non-functioning, or with really loud or non-working fans, I was not nearly as impressed.
Happily for consumers, MSI made good on those problem cards. The RMAs that I requested were promptly filled and I received new cards with better components. MSI also seemed to have realized that while excessive extras in a vid card bundle will sell cards, having to replace said cards in several months time is a bad move. MSI went back to the drawing board on how they were going to offer video cards.
MSI no longer offers the massive extras in their bundles, but they have put a huge amount of improvement in their choice of components for the boards themselves. MSI was a company that was bit very hard by the exploding caps problems, so they now use a lot higher quality caps for all of their products (motherboards and video cards). They also have put a lot more effort into cooling, as we will see when we finally take a look at their GTX 285 OC.
The marketplace has certainly changed, and MSI is doing a good job in keeping up with it. They offer a wide variety of NVIDIA and AMD based parts, in both reference form and those designed by MSI. While there is little need to change around the actual reference PCB design, the user of higher quality components and custom cooling can go a long way when it comes to the reliability of a video card. Also, a card that runs cooler will have a longer lifespan. Not exactly rocket science there, but when times are tough and people find less money to upgrade their products more often, longevity is certainly a concern for most of us.
The N285GTX Superpipe OC
With so many transistors in modern day GPUS packed so tightly, and pulling so much power, cooling has certainly come to the forefront of the industry when designing new cards. I can still remember my first STB Lightspeed 128 paired with an Orchid Righteous 3D Voodoo Graphics card, and both were single slot PCI affairs without even a trace of a heatsink. These 500 nm parts had no need for heatsinks, as the 1 million transistors per chip running at 57 MHz just would not get hot enough to require any kind of external cooling other than what their packaging provided. My first video card with any kind of heatsink was an NVIDIA Riva 128, and the glued on heatsink was a 1” by ½” metal plate with the edges turned up and notched to make basic fins.
The full contents of the box. No software bundle, no VIVO connector, and no other extraneous and unnecessary extras.
MSI has now taken the heatsink to an entirely new level. The “Superpipe” is not so much revolutionary, but rather a combination of many good ideas not yet put together in one package. The new thing that they are pushing is that of the “Superpipe” itself. This is a heatpipe that is around 80% thicker than the typical copper units out there. The larger, more massive pipe is better able to transfer heat.
The design features a large aluminum heatsink and fins, all connected to a copper base and of course the heat pipes. MSI uses 5 heatpipes in total, with the two longest ones (going to the farthest reaches of the heatsink) being the 8 mm Superpipes. Copper is one of the best materials for heat transfer, but is relatively poor for heat dissipation. Aluminum on the other hand is excellent for heat dissipation, but is poor for transfer. Heatsinks which feature a combination of both aluminum and copper typically perform much better than if used with just one metal or the other. The key to this is how well the design integrates the features of each metal.
The Superpipe design is a good one, from what I have been able to see and test. The copper base, heatpipes, and aluminum fins all are very nicely spaced, and the use of the two superpipes to effectively transfer heat to the aluminum fins that are farthest away from the GPU core (and therefore cooler) helps to improve overall efficiency. The card is fairly heavy, but not more so than a standard GTX 280 with the original NVIDIA reference cooling.
Memory on the board is also given attention by the use of plenty of aluminum ramsinks. GDDR-3 running at 1250 MHz does produce a bit of heat, and the overall design of the card allows effective cooling of the memory modules. Another aspect of the card that does require some attention is the amount of warp the PCB experiences with all of this metal on top of it. It seems the MSI engineers did a very good job with this card, as the amount of warp that I have observed is very limited. All of the memory modules look like they are in contact with their respective heatsinks, and the GPU is not pressed down so tight that it creates a divot in the PCB. Overall MSI seems to have done a very nice job with the design.
Two fans are used in the card, and they are both whisper quiet. In all of the summer months of testing, I rarely actually heard the card unless my ear was right up next to it. In closed cases where the temperature is usually warmer, I could just barely hear the fans, but they blended in with the background noise of the power supply fan and CPU fan. Even in the midst of hours long raiding in WoW (which is notorious for producing abnormally high GPU temperatures) the video card kept under 80 C at all times, and the fans never had to spin up to high gear to compensate.
The two fans do a nice job of cooling the card, all the while staying very quiet. They seem well constructed, and during the several months of use they have not become unbalanced or loud.
The open design of the fan and heatsink may not do a great job of pushing hot air out the back of the case, but if a case features a design with higher partial pressure then the hot air is being expelled quite efficiently from around the video card, and out the slotted backplate of the video card. The open design also helps facilitate cleaning, as dust is eventually going to settle and grow on the aluminum fins. On the reference design it was hard to get the fins completely clean without tearing the assembly apart. This is not the case for the MSI design, and it can quickly and easily be sprayed out with canned air.
I think it is very obvious that I am overall quite pleased with MSI’s cooling design. It has allowed MSI to also slightly overclock the GTX 285 without any negative results. The core is clocked at 680 MHz, the stream units are at 1476 MHz, and the memory gets a small lift up to 1250 MHz. A standard GTX 285 is clocked at 645 core, 1476 stream, and 1242 with the memory. Not a significant jump overall, but enough to keep things interesting.
The GTX 285 comes with all of the regular goodies that we expect. DX 10 support (no DX 10.1 though), CUDA, PhysX, and PureVideo HD. 993 gigaflops of single precision performance tied to 142 GB/sec of memory bandwidth makes this a very capable card in many applications.