MSI R9 290X Lightning Review: The Right Way To Cool Hawaii

Judging from the R9 290X Lightning's hefty build, it takes a lot of metal to cool the Hawaii GPU properly. But what does this massive card give you aside from sharp looks? How about impressive acoustics? Is its $750 price tag worth the premium experience?

Based on the size of its R9 290X Lightning, it appears that MSI has a thing for overkill. But the company might also be onto something. As we already know, cooling AMD's Hawaii GPU properly is what separates the men from the boys. Forget about re-purposing cooling solutions from other cards. Asus tried that and it didn't go over well at all. Instead, MSI sent over a three-slot take on the Radeon R9 290X, which, as you can see, employs a trio of cooling fans and a lot of metal dedicated to keeping that hot graphics processor operating within its comfort zone.

This thing isn't a toy. A $700 price tag, tied for the most-expensive Radeon on Newegg, makes you think hard before dropping nearly $150 more than the cheapest models with aftermarket cooling.

Even the Lightning's box is massive; it includes an extra compartment with lots of accessories and a certificate of ownership. You're dealing with a limited-edition piece of hardware, after all.

The snazzy-looking board and high-end packaging (not to mention lofty price) naturally have us expecting quite a bit out of MSI's R9 290X Lightning. Historically, the company reserves this branding for its flagship models. Does this board live up to that standard? It's time to break out the lab gear and find out.

Box Style and Contents

The number of accessories you get with this card is impressive, though we question the wisdom of including 6-to-8-pin adapter cables. Why solder eight-pin plugs to the card and then encourage users to fry thinner cables that might not be suitable for driving a high-end GPU? The same goes for the bundled Molex adapter. Who in their right mind would make up the balance of too-few cables by tapping into a pair of four-pin plugs? We've woken up to the smell of smoke in the morning; it's not fun. Seriously. We expect folks who buy $700 graphics cards to use similarly enthusiast-oriented PSUs.

Beyond the manual and CD (which contains the drivers, MSI's Afterburner software, and a fan control utility for the three fans), the box contains a metal plate, thermal pads, and screws. The plate fits over the DC-DC converters when you embark on an extreme overclocking mission, go the water cooling route, and remove the massive heat sink.

Lab Note about the Dimensions

The dimensions reported here don't necessarily match the manufacturer's official technical specifications. Rather, we measure them by hand to assure they're correct. The image and chart below should help illustrate what each measurement actually means. Auxiliary PCI Express power connectors are not included; they have to be added depending on the power plug and cable design.

Size Comparison

MSI's R9 290X Lightning is as long as the Sapphire R9 290X Tri-X. However, it monopolizes three expansion slots, and is a tad higher, too. As a result, we're fairly certain it's the bulkiest Radeon R9 290X we've tested thus far.

Length L
Height H
Depth D1
Depth D2
Asus R9290X-DC2OC-4GD5 R9 290X DirectCU II OC11.3" / 288 mm
5.6" / 142 mm
1.5" / 38 mm
0.16" / 4 mm
Sapphire Tri-X OC R9 290X12.0" / 305 mm4.5" / 114 mm1.5" / 38 mm
0.16" / 4 mm
Gigabyte GV-R929XOC-4GD R9 290X Windforce OC11.1" / 282 mm
4.8" / 123 mm
1.5" / 38 mm
0.16" / 4 mm
HIS R9 290X IceQ X² Turbo11.7" / 297 mm
5.3" / 135 mm
1.4" / 36 mm
0.16" / 4 mm
MSI R9 290X Gaming 4G11.0" / 279 mm
4.7" / 120 mm
1.5" / 38 mm
0.24" / 6 mm
MSI R9 290X Lightning
12.0" / 305 mm
4.8" / 122 mm
2.1" / 53 mm
0.2" / 5 mm

Weight Comparison

The weight of a card might be interesting if you're trying to figure out if any additional support is needed, or to calculate the amount of stress your motherboard might be under in a CrossFire-based setup. Since MSI's offering is by far the heaviest in this field, we want to emphasize the importance of bracing it somehow, even if you're only able to use cable ties.

Asus R9290X-DC2OC-4GD5 R9 290X DirectCU II OC2.5 lbs / 1135 g
Sapphire Tri-X OC R9 290X2.25 lbs / 1022 g
Gigabyte GV-R929XOC-4GD R9 290X Windforce OC2.32 lbs / 1053 g
HIS R9 290X IceQ X² Turbo2.15 lbs / 976 g
MSI R9 290X Gaming 4G2.29 lbs / 1038 g
MSI R9 290X Lightning3.49 lbs / 1581 g
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  • blackmagnum
    If it costs 750 bucks, it should come with water-cooling. Why the need to slap on a pound of metal to cool it if there was a more customer friendly way?
  • solix
    Unless I am mistaken you burn 3 slots with this guy. For how close this is to the Tri-x in thermals and acoustics, but with the loss of a slot and the added price, meh. Tri-x still seems like the best value proposition.
  • CaptainTom
    I just want to point out how silly the 780 Ti is priced. People, this card trades blows with the 780 Ti while giving you an extra GB of VRAM. It should cost at least as much as the 780 Ti. Or better yet, the other way around! ;)
  • AndrewJacksonZA
    Unfortunately, in order to increase this card's GPU voltage, you have to register with MSI for a special license. This isn't given out freely; only professional overclockers can get their hands on it.

    Whoa, wait, what???
  • dscudella
    As of my post, the pricing on Newegg for the mentioned cards:

    MSI 290x Lightning $699.99 + $4.99 shipping
    Sapphire 290x Tri-X OC $649.99
    Sapphire 290x Tri-X $639.99
    Gigabyte 290x Windforce $579.99 ($549.99 after rebate)

    This makes the Lightning $125 ($155 after rebate) more expensive than the Windforce. MSI is really stretching the price here.
  • zzzaac
    $899 or 841 USD where i'm from for this card. Got to admit though, 3 slot cards are really unappealing for me.

    Got to agree that the Tri-X seems a better value proposition
  • cats_Paw
    A bit useless review:
    The main aspect of a GPU and its most important job is to make games run smooth.
    In this review there is only a Performance ratio chart. This does not give the important data at all.

    I dont care if that GPU has 80 or 85 FPS in farcry3, but I Do care if it has 25 or 30 on more demanding games/settings.
    Finally, this card seems like itsmissing its purpouse a bit.
    It has a huge heatsink, but dosent actually run cool or quiet.
    It has an OC that is decent but dosent increase performance that much.
    You could water cool that GPU for a similar price and get better performance in every aspect as long as you are willing to have a loop in your PC.
  • redgarl
    Where is your review of the Powercolor PCS+ R290x...? From all the review I have seen, not only they are cheaper, but perform better I from what I am seeing, smaller.
  • ubercake
    That "Certificate of Quality and Stability" is humorous...

    "I hereby declare this video card to be of the utmost quality and thereby further and henceforth declare this same electronic device to be 101% stable to the fullest of my capabilities to determine it as such. Sincerely, Your Mom".

    Definitely something to frame and hang on your wall above the monitor.
  • ewok93
    I feel like it would be much more cost effective to go with water cooling, it would definitely be much lighter. I may be wrong, though, as that heatsink is pretty freaking massive. It just seems like past a certain point, air cooling can only do so much, and can only take up so much space.

    If you're just going for overkill, I want to see one of these with phase change cooling. It can't cost that much more, can it?
  • admin$
    I used to be a huge fan of AMD and was excited for the 290x because of its performance for the price. But this card is slower and more expensive than the 780ti. I can't justify purchasing a slower card for more money just because I am loyal to the AMD brand. Sorry AMD, I just bought my asus direct cu ii gtx 780ti for 709$ at frys (they matched amazon). It was the right choice too. Probably the next to go will be OC'd 8350. :( Its just not the XP 3200+ days anymore.
  • rwinches
    As I read this Amazon showing $650

    Anyway 3 slots? No. But it looks good on you though.
  • Haravikk
    Personally I think that if you're getting into three-slot 1.5kg territory to air-cool a graphics card that you may as well switch to liquid cooling, especially for the price. I mean, for the extra cost of this limited edition you could get a cheaper R9 290X compatible with the Kraken G10 adaptor, and use that with any suitable all-in-one cooler. For around the same cost it should give you better, quieter cooling and a lot less stress on your poor motherboard.
  • forged
    that power drop might be similar to the unusual voltage drop that i observed with 780 Lightning. I didn't notice the effect on gaming though. It's just something not common to the other cards i have owned.
  • heero yuy
    so this thing is supposed to be good for overclocking and it has a huge possible power draw to facilitate that
    yet apparently in order to increase the voltage you need to be a professional overclocker in the eyes of MSI

    am I missing something here?
  • unknown9122
    What a monster.
  • geok1ng
    there is no reason to ditch VGA completely. A single DVI-I output would improve the compatibility of the card without changing the out layout too much. 2 DVI-D are a compromise, if not downright stupid.
  • ykki
    MSI needs to rethinking its marketing strategy
  • Steveymoo
    So ridiculously huge. And so expensive!!

  • Achoo22
    Why are there no 780 and 780TI boards in the sound and heat comparison charts?