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Corsair's Hydro GFX GeForce GTX 1080 Ti graphics card reviewed

No assembly required

All-in-one liquid coolers are commonplace for CPUs these days, but slapping a closed-loop cooler on one's graphics card still takes a bit of elbow grease. Finding the right third-party cooler bracket and a compatible graphics card can require a fair bit of research, and disassembling a perfectly fine graphics card to Frankenstein a liquid-cooling bracket to it can be intimidating for the inexperienced. Corsair wants to take all of the guesswork out of liquid-cooling a GeForce GTX 1080 Ti with its Hydro GFX. This card boasts a pre-installed liquid cooler that's ready to rock out of the box.

The Hydro GFX GTX 1080 Ti is actually a collaborative effort between MSI and Corsair. MSI provides the GeForce GTX 1080 Ti card itself, while Corsair provides the liquid-cooling hardware and radiator fan that keep the GP102 GPU cool. For its part, Corsair pulls a version of its H55 120-mm closed-loop cooler from its arsenal and equips it with one of its new ML120 fans. The ML-series design relies on an unusual magnetic levitation bearing to suspend its rotor, and it claims to bridge the gap between high-static-pressure and high-airflow designs.

Even though the ML120 is space-age tech, I'm let down by the fact that Corsair and MSI didn't see fit to include an integrated fan controller that would tie the ML120's speed to GPU temperatures. Instead, that duty is delegated to the owner's motherboard or an external fan controller. Problem is, most motherboards made today can't track graphics-card temperatures or tie that information to the duty cycles of their onboard fan headers, leaving Hydro GFX owners with a couple of less-than-ideal options for keeping fan noise in check.

One way would be to set a constant fan speed for the Hydro GFX's associated fan header in a motherboard's firmware. This method admittedly avoids rapid up-and-down changes in fan speeds, but it also might result in higher-than-necessary noise levels at idle. Another would be to manually raise fan speeds before entering a game and cranking them down again after finishing. Some gamers might have the patience to do this on the regular, but it's so inconvenient that I can only imagine the most noise-sensitive would ever bother.

For folks like me who simply can't live without temperature-controlled fan speeds from their graphics cards, Corsair offers a unique solution in its $70 Commander Pro. This USB fan controller can both tie fan speeds to GPU temperatures and natively control PWM fans—a combination that is, to my knowledge, impossible to find in any other product.

The problem with the Commander Pro is that it's another $70 on top of the already eye-watering $850 (or $820 on discount, as of this writing) one will have to shell out for the Hydro GFX. Even those ready to buy a GTX 1080 Ti might take pause at that prospect, since practically every other graphics card on the market from the Radeon RX 550 to the Nvidia Titan Xp already offers a built-in fan controller. Sure, the Commander Pro also gives its owner control over RGB LED lighting strips and adds some other handy features to the bargain, but would it really have been so hard to include the unit's fan-control logic in the Hydro GFX to begin with?

I won't be stripping this GTX 1080 Ti completely down to its GPU in this review, because the card I have on hand is a loaner from Corsair that will be returning to the company's review-sample pool when I'm done with it. Removing the plastic shroud from the card does let us get a glance at the Hydro GFX's bones, though.

A smooth metal plate provides heat dissipation to the memory chips surrounding the GPU and some of the card's power circuitry. From the seven phases visible underneath the blower fan, it's safe to say the basic PCB layout is nearly identical to that of the GTX 1080 Ti Founders Edition's.

Unlike many graphics cards available these days, the Hydro GFX sticks to white accent lighting for the MSI logo on the cooler shroud and the translucent rotor of the ML120 fan. Corsair has made a name for itself as the purveyor of all things RGB LED, though, so some might find the exclusively white lighting a drawback for their otherwise-colorful builds. White is one of the hardest lighting colors to coordinate using RGB LEDs, and a close-but-not-quite match might annoy picky DIYers.

The Hydro GFX offers a bevy of display outputs: one DVI-D port, one HDMI 2.0 port, and three DisplayPort version 1.4-ready outs. If you want to hook up triple displays and a VR headset all at once, the Hydro GFX is ready.

  GPU base
core clock
GPU boost
GTX 1080 Ti Founders Edition 1480 1582 2750 11264
Corsair Hydro GFX GTX 1080 TI (silent mode) 1480 1582 2754
Corsair Hydro GFX GTX 1080 Ti (gaming mode) 1544 1657 2754
Corsair Hydro GFX GTX 1080 Ti (OC mode) 1569 1683 2781

Though I'm reproducing Corsair's nominal clock speeds for the Hydro GFX here out of completeness, the Pascal architecture's GPU Boost 3.0 technology mostly makes specified clock speeds irrelevant. Even so, the Hydro GFX offers three clock speed modes: silent, gaming, and OC. (You'll need MSI's Gaming App to take advantage of these profiles.) Silent mode claims the same boost range as the GTX 1080 Ti Founders Editon. Gaming mode steps that range up 75 MHz to 1657 MHz, while OC Mode further boosts the boost range to 1683 MHz. With any luck, these figures will bear little relationship to the card's delivered clock speeds, though.

I've already revealed the Hydro GFX's $850 price, and I gotta admit: I find that number a bit hard to swallow. Nvidia's Founders Edition GTX 1080 Ti lists for $700, and the Hydro GFX essentially takes that reference board design and mounts an affordable Corsair H55 liquid cooler to it. The liquid cooler will almost certainly make the Hydro GFX an overclocking star, but the reference-ish board design may not be a good enough supporting cast. The Founders Edition GTX 1080 Ti couldn't sustain both a GPU and a memory overclock without running into power limits in my experience, and MSI's Aero power-delivery subsystem isn't much different from that card's.

On top of the fan-control foibles I already described, it's hard to ignore the fact that air-cooled GTX 1080 Tis with overbuilt board designs and beefy, highly effective heatsinks sell for about $100 or even less than the Hydro GFX. These cards may not be able to milk every bit of potential from a given GP102 chip, but they can probably get close for more than 10% less money. Let's see whether the Hydro GFX can take GP102 to great enough heights to justify its price tag.