Desktop graphics cards come in all sizes, but the MSI GeForce RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio comes in only one: totally massive.
At 12.9 inches, it's more than 20 percent longer than the Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Founders Edition, and that's not to mention its width of two-and-a-half slots.
This is a serious piece of graphics hardware, with an $849 price that's $50 higher than the Founders Edition card.
That premium buys you a bunch of notable advantages, including a higher factory overclock, a robust triple-fan cooling system, greater power-delivery potential, and an RGB LED illumination system.
The RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio is about as maxed-out of an RTX 2080 as we can imagine.
Provided your computer case can house it, this will be the RTX 2080 to beat.
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An Army of RTX 2080 Models
The RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio is one of nine different RTX 2080-based graphics cards in MSI's lineup.
This is the highest-end RTX 2080 of MSI's completely air-cooled designs.
MSI offers other RTX 2080 models with different air-cooling designs, plus cards with liquid-only and hybrid liquid cooling.
The "X" in the RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio signifies its aggressive factory overclock.
Its 1,860MHz boost clock is higher than the 1,800MHz boost clock of the RTX 2080 Gaming Trio (non-X), along with the Nvidia RTX 2080 Founders Edition$799.00 at Nvidia.
The only card I found on the market that offered a higher factory overclock was the Asus ROG Strix RTX 2080, which is rated for 1,890MHz.
To keep it relative, the RTX 2080 reference card has a 1,710MHz boost clock.
That makes the boost clock of the RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio just shy of 10 percent higher, which is substantial.
I'll get into how much of a difference that made later in this review.
It's noteworthy that the RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio has two eight-pin power connectors, as the standard RTX 2080 has one eight-pin and one six-pin connector.
MSI rates the RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio for an eyebrow-raising 260 watts, meaning it should have lots of room for overclocking.
By comparison, the RTX 2080 Founders Edition carries a 225-watt rating, while the RTX 2080 reference card has a 215-watt rating.
The triple-fan cooling system is another of the key selling points of the RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio, which it shares with the RTX 2080 Gaming Trio.
It uses MSI's most advanced fans with double ball bearings for quiet operation.
We'll revisit the cooling after the benchmarks section.
That's Some Fancy RGB Lighting
MSI went all-out with the RGB lighting system on the RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio.
This card is a visual stunner.
The side and the top of the card are their own lighting zones.
You can choose colors, lighting patterns, brightness, and frequency in the MSI Mystic Light software...
I'd be seriously tempted to mount this graphics card vertically in a so-equipped chassis to show it off.
You'll have a hard time seeing the top LEDs if this card is traditionally mounted.
Let's look at the rest of the card while we're at it.
The top of the card is dominated by the huge heatsink and three-fan cooling system.
The rear two fans are the same size, while the front fan is slightly smaller.
Those two banks of fans can operate at different speeds.
This card is big and heavy enough that it comes with an optional support bracket.
It screws into the adjacent PCI-card backplane positions and touches the RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio via rubber pads to minimize vibration.
Plus, MSI took the time to make the bracket look fancy.
Like other RTX 2080-based graphics cards we've reviewed, the back of the board is covered with a passive heatsink to keep the GDDR6 memory temperatures under control.
It has a classy brushed-aluminum finish.
The connectivity along the back of the card is standard fare for an RTX 2080: three DisplayPort 1.4a video-out connectors, a single HDMI 2.0b video-out connector, and a VirtualLink (USB Type-C) interface for next-generation virtual-reality headsets.
We haven't yet had a chance to test the latter, as no supporting headsets are yet available.
The perforations in the backplate are mostly for show.
The cooling fans exhaust air into the case and not out the back.
Bench Testing: Giving the RTX a Workout
As I wrote this just a short while out from the GeForce RTX 20 series release date, the world was still waiting on a critical mass of games that support Nvidia DLSS and ray-tracing.
(Check out the Founders Edition card review referenced earlier for more on these nascent technologies.) PC Labs instead ran a series of synthetic benchmarks and the latest AAA game titles to thoroughly test this RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio.
Our test rig is equipped with an Intel Core i7-8700K processor, 16GB of G.Skill DDR4 memory, a solid-state boot drive, and an Aorus Z370 Gaming 7 motherboard.
The benchmarks include results for other RTX 2080 cards we've reviewed.
We've also included the $1,199 GeForce RTX 2080 Ti Founders Edition so you can see how the other half lives, and Nvidia's previous flagship, the GTX 1080 Ti Founders Edition.
(The following analysis is benchmark-by-benchmark, so skip down to the conclusion section if you're interested in the TLDR version.)
3DMark Fire Strike Ultra
Synthetic benchmarks can be good predictors of real-world gaming performance.
Futuremark's circa-2013 Fire Strike Ultra is still a go-to for 4K-based gaming.
We're looking only at the graphics subscore, not the overall score.
The MSI RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio maintains the barest of leads over the Nvidia RTX 2080 Founders Edition.
The minimal lead isn't a surprising result, given the MSI's boost clock is minimally higher.
3DMark Time Spy and Time Spy Extreme
This is Futuremark's DirectX 12-enabled benchmark for predicting the performance of DirectX 12-enabled games.
It uses major features of the API, including asynchronous compute, explicit multi-adapter, and multi-threading.
The MSI RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio performed similarly here, landing 1.5 percent higher than the Nvidia RTX 2080 Founders Edition in 3DMark Time Spy Extreme.
Our last synthetic benchmark is Unigine's 2017 release, Superposition.
This DirectX 12 benchmark does incorporate ray tracing, but it's done in software, not hardware, and thus doesn't utilize the RTX 2080's RT cores.
Here again the performance differences between the MSI RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio and the Nvidia RTX 2080 Founders Edition ranged between 0 percent and 2 percent.
It's unrealistic to expect this pattern to change; both cards share the same GPU, so the differences really come down to the core clock, where again, the MSI card has a slight advantage.
The following benchmarks are games that you can play.
The charts themselves will list the settings we used (typically the highest in-game presets and, if available, DirectX 12).
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Square Enix's recent title is our first real-world test.
Although Nvidia has demoed this game using the RTX 20 series ray-tracing technology, the initial release of the game available at this testing does not support ray tracing.
(It's supposed to be added in a post-release patch.)
It's a safe bet you won't be able to tell the differences among any of the RTX 2080-based cards in this comparison.
Also, note how the MSI RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio (or any other RTX 2080 card, for that matter) is just a few frames ahead of the GTX 1080 Ti Founders Edition, the outgoing flagship.
The two aren't supposed to directly compete, but they currently occupy similar price points, though GTX 1080 Ti is reportedly on its way off the market.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
The 2015 predecessor to Shadow of the Tomb Raider is still a great benchmark.
The differences between the RTX 2080-based cards continue to be minimal.
Meanwhile, the GTX 1080 Ti put up stronger relative performance in this game than it did in the newer Shadow of the Tomb Raider, indicating that the RTX 2080 is better optimized for newer games.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is several years old at this point and doesn't use such advanced shading techniques.
An early DirectX 12-enabled game, Hitman isn't quite as demanding now as it was at release.
Take your pick: Half dozen of one, or six of the other.
It was a multi-way battle with no conclusive winner among the RTX 2080-based cards and the GTX 1080 Ti Founders Edition.
Far Cry 5 and Far Cry Primal
We're looping these two games together since the benchmarking results are so similar.
Neither of these games change the behavior observed so far.
You can continue to expect minimal performance differences between the MSI RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio and the Nvidia RTX 2080 Founders Edition.
Final Fantasy XV
We'll take a respite from fps-based benchmarks for Final Fantasy XV.
The MSI RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio slightly underperformed next to the Nvidia RTX 2080 Founders Edition, but the difference is so small it's hardly worth a mention.
World of Tanks Encore
This is another non-fps-based benchmark that's available as a free download.
It's not super-demanding, but still a reliable test and indicative of a massively multiplayer battle game.
Minimal clock-speed differences again account for minimal performance gains for the MSI RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio over the Nvidia RTX 2080 Founders Edition.
Tom Clancy: The Division
A 2016 release that remains tough to handle, here's our final DirectX 12-specific game test.
It's again unrealistic to expect the small clock-speed bump of the MSI RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio to make a significant difference over other RTX 2080 cards.
It's consistently there, but it's small.
Overclocking and Cooling
I used a beta version of MSI's Afterburner utility to overclock the RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio.
The beta version had Nvidia Scanner built-in, a software tool designed for one-click overclocking.
I bumped the core voltage, power, and temperature limits to their maximum levels prior to scanning.
The software recommended a 90MHz overclock on the boost clock, which was right in the range I expected.
Here are comparative results in select benchmarks to measure the effect of the overclock.
In all cases, higher numbers are better.
(Note: I used a different test rig for overclocking than PC Labs did for the benchmarks section of this review.
Therefore, the numbers below can't be compared to those in the benchmarks section above.
The mild overclock had little impact on real-world performance.
The small bump is essentially something for nothing, given all I did was click a button.
Remember, this is an overclock on top of the factory overclock.
Hardcore overclockers ought to be able to take advantage of the higher power limit of the RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio to push it further.
(Nvidia itself sanctions the use of the Nvidia Scanner to overclock the RTX 2080, so I'll stick with that for now.)
The cooling system on the RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio did a remarkably good job of keeping the GPU cool.
This chart shows its boost frequency and GPU core temperature over a 30-minute session in Shadow of the Tomb Raider...
The core clock and GPU temperature lines are remarkably stable.
There's normally fluctuation in both, but MSI appears to have the thermal performance of this card down to a science.
The core clock averaged 1,920MHz over the session, considerably higher than its rated 1,860MHz boost clock.
The card automatically boosts its clocks if thermal and power conditions allow.
The power limits are clearly there with this card, as is the thermal headroom: The GPU core temperature averaged just 66 degrees C during this session, far below its maximum rating of 88 degrees C.
Here's what the graph looked like after applying the overclock from the Nvidia Scanner...
The average core temperature increased, imperceptibly, to 67 degrees C, a difference of 1 degree C.
The core clock continued to hold a steady line, averaging 2,010MHz, or exactly 90MHz higher than the average pre-overclock.
It's a real pleasure to see a graphics card that has thermal and core-clock performance that's this stable.
Noise-wise, I couldn't discern the fans in the RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio from the rest of the case fans in my test rig.
Unlike a blower-style card that would send air out the rear, the cooling design on this graphics card exhausts directly into the case.
You'll need to ensure good airflow around the card, as well as good exhaust from the case to ensure optimal conditions.
The RTX 2080 to Beat...So Far
The value proposition of an Nvidia RTX 20 series graphics card remains partially based in faith.
At this writing, we're still waiting on a host of games to be released that support its key technologies, DLSS and ray tracing.
There's no doubt that the RTX 2080 brings performance advantages to current-generation games, but at a steep entry price over the GTX 1080 that it's designed to replace.
As the axiom goes, though, if you're spending this kind of money, what's a little more? The $849 MSI GeForce RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio delivers a truly geek-worthy feature set for just $50 more than Nvidia's $799 GeForce RTX 2080 Founders Edition.
In terms of looks, the two-zone RGB LED lighting system and massive cooler make it one of the flashiest RTX cards you can buy.
Meanwhile, its excellent cooling performance, dual eight-pin power connectors, and higher power rating give it excellent overclocking potential.
A significant factory overclock means the MSI RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio is already one of the best-performing RTX 2080-based graphics card you can buy, right out of the box, so think of every extra megahertz you can eke out as a bonus on top of a bonus.
MSI GeForce RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio
The Bottom Line
A massive air cooler and dual eight-pin power connectors make MSI's GeForce RTX 2080 Gaming X Trio...