Closed-loop liquid cooling has made waves for CPUs and graphics cards alike of late, so I was excited to see what such a cooler could do atop Nvidia's GP102 GPU. By mating one of its H55 coolers with that chip, Corsair can claim the highest overclock and lowest load temperatures we've seen from a GeForce GTX 1080 Ti so far, but those impressive achievements come with caveats.
For one, I wish Corsair and MSI had drawn on their combined expertise to make fan control on the Hydro GFX a self-contained affair. Running the card's radiator fan at a fixed speed works, but it can make a system louder than it has to be at idle. Corsair offers a $70 fan controller that can tie the Hydro GFX's radiator fan speed to GPU temperatures, to be fair, but it's hard to justify that extra cost when most every other mainstream graphics card includes some form of fan control on board. Building that feature in doesn't seem like too much to ask of an $850 graphics card.
Corsair and MSI's innovative approach to cooling the Hydro GFX can't overcome the fact that Nvidia limits voltage control on Pascal cards, either, so this pixel-pusher's impressive thermal headroom mostly goes unused when we start turning the screws. At $150 more than Nvidia's Founders Edition card, the chart-topping speeds I was able to pull out of the Hydro GFX come at an eye-watering cost. At stock settings, the Hydro GFX performs no differently than our custom air-cooled point of comparison, either, so this is a card you essentially must overclock in order to realize its full value.
Presuming you're ready to put the spurs in this card from the get-go, the Hydro GFX has several good things going for it. Appropriately mounted, the remote radiator will move heat directly out of a case, and the lightweight chassis of the card won't place lots of strain on PCIe slots or cover up more than two such slots. Corsair's superb new ML120 fan is also one of the best-sounding I've ever heard at any speed, so it's a perfect match for the Hydro GFX.
Even with those virtues, custom graphics cards really set themselves apart on noise, vibration, and harshness these days, and the Hydro GFX just isn't $100 or so better than the other custom air-cooled GTX 1080 Tis we've used on those points. Unless you're willing to take a costly shot at the silicon lottery for a chance at the absolute highest clock speeds possible out of a turn-key GTX 1080 Ti, or unless you need to move hot air directly out of your case, other, cheaper GTX 1080 Tis seem able to deliver only slightly worse overclocking potential and better noise characteristics. Still, there may be something to be said for having a shot at the best GTX 1080 Ti performance out there, and if you're willing to play the silicon lottery, the Hydro GFX could reward the leap handsomely.