Introduction

The high performance market is usually the place to look for the most exciting and powerful graphics solution, but few real world gamers can afford to shop there. While budget and mid-range parts may not be as interesting as the newest and fastest graphics cards out there, there are many decent parts available. These lower-priced cards may not be as fast as their high-priced companions, but besides the benefits they offer your bank account, many also provide features that are not generally available on the higher-end products.

While AMD and more recently Intel have been focusing on lower power consumption for their CPUs, the GPU market is still very focused on high performance, high power consumption designs. ATI and NVIDIA have been engaged in a performance arms race, much like the race several years ago between AMD and Intel that culminated in the power hungry NetBurst architecture. Thankfully, that era is mostly past on the CPU front, but we're still left with top-end GPU configurations that can often consume as much power as the rest of the system. However, not everyone is willing to sacrifice all other aspects of their computer design in the pursuit of speed.

Life is tough as an add-in card vendor, making video cards for ATI/NVIDIA. The cards are basically all the same and it's not really easy to add value in the form of additional features to a video card. In the past, third party board makers have used clock speeds, game bundles, technical support/warranty and more robust cooling to differentiate their products in the market. With the new focus on building quiet PCs, noise output is yet another way for these guys to differentiate product.

All this leads us to today's topic: enter the Silent Graphics Card, a graphics card that is completely passively cooled, often using heat pipes and an oversized heatsink to eliminate the need for a fan to keep the GPU/memory cooled. The idea of a quiet or silent graphics card is appealing to many types of computer users, and many card manufacturers have realized this and are offering silent solutions. In the past, the only passively cooled video cards were slow entry level offerings. This is no longer true, and you can now get many mid range GPUs that offer reasonable performance without any noise output. The highest end GPU solutions are still all actively cooled, but if you're looking at any of the more affordable GPUs, you may be able to find a passively cooled alternative.

One of the most important parts of a graphics card is the heat sink. All processors can potentially get extremely hot while crunching calculations, and it's the heat sink's job to expel all that heat so that the processor remains stable. A processor is somewhat fragile and if it has inadequate or improper cooling, the excess heat can damage it. With graphics chips getting faster all the time comes the need for better and more efficient cooling solutions. The amount of heat a heat sink can dissipate is dictated by, among other things, the amount of surface area and the size of the heatsink. Larger heat sinks can dissipate more heat, but there's a practical limit to how large your heat sink can get. Adding a fan allows the use of a smaller heat sink with less surface area, but without one you have to increase surface area, thus giving most of these silent cards very large, elaborate, heat sink designs.

As with most things in life, there are compromises to be made. Dual-slot GPUs sacrifice size for improved cooling, often at the expense of other expansion options. In some cases like the 7900 GTX, the larger HSF design results in higher performance as well as lower noise levels, but while quieter than other high-end GPUs the 7900 GTX is still not silent. Many gamers are willing to give up potential future use of a PCI or PCIe slot in order to get the improved performance that comes with 7900 GTX and X1900/X1950 cards. Others will also be willing to give up expansion options in order to reduce noise levels. Single-slot silent GPU solutions are still possible, but they typically come with lower performance in order to reduce heat output.

With all this in mind, we've put together a roundup of a large selection of completely silent graphics cards from several manufacturers. Our requirements are that all entrants in this roundup be passively cooled - water cooling solutions may be interesting to some people, but they still require a radiator and often involve a lot more work getting everything set up and installed properly. We are going to be looking at which of these cards offer the best value for performance, and we'll also show what types of games and settings are playable for each GPU. One question that some people will want to know is which of the silent solutions offers the best performance, and our benchmarks will look to provide an answer. In addition, we will look at what kind of power loads and heat levels we see can expect with these cards. Finally, we will determine how well the various offerings overclock above the factory clock speeds.

Stability is also going to be a concern, as many of these silent solutions may only work properly in the presence of other fans. Building a completely silent PC - i.e. no fans at all - presents some difficulties during long periods of operation, as heat buildup will occur within the case unless some mechanism for removing it is present. Passively cooled power supplies, CPU heat sinks, motherboards, and GPUs all exist, but putting all of them into the same case without at least one fan to provide air flow may be going too far. This is a topic that we will look to address in a future article, and we would encourage the use of discretion on the part of those looking to eliminate noise. A single slow-moving fan can dramatically reduce case temperatures without generating much noise at all.

We'll be looking at cards from several different manufacturers, and we've grouped the offerings accordingly. We have both ATI and NVIDIA cards from ASUS, Gigabyte, HIS, EVGA, Albatron, Sparkle, and MSI. The cards range from the X1300 and 7300 GS on the low end to the X1600 XT and 7800 GT on the high end. There are a lot of cards to look at, so without further ado, lets start by looking at some silent graphics solutions from ASUS.

ASUS
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  • Josh Venning - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    I also forgot to mention that some people use their pcs in home theater systems as well. This would be another case when you want as little noise from your computer as possible. Reply
  • imaheadcase - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    That was not always the case, my 9700 Pro i still use when fan went out a year ago, works like a charm without it on. It was in its time the high end card, lets hope those days come buy again :D Reply
  • eckre - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    What a great review, when tom did their silent VC review, they included a grand total of three cards...pfft. nice job anand.

    I have the 7600GT, very sweet and 0dB is oh so nice.
    Reply
  • Josh Venning - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    We just wanted to say thanks all for your comments and we are still trying to make sure we've caught any errors. (there are actually only 20 cards in the roundup and not 21) As Derek said, these cards were included in the article because we requested any and all silent cards that any of the manufacturers were willing to give us to review. That's also why we have more cards from ASUS and Gigabyte than the others. Reply
  • Olaf van der Spek - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    quote:

    If a general purpose CPU can offer a 40% improvement over its predecessor (Pentium D) while consuming 40% less power on average, why can't a GPU revolution accomplish the same thing?


    Because the videocard industry hasn't introduced such a bad design as the netburst architecture.
    Reply
  • epsilonparadox - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    No they've introduced worse. When they recommend a second PS just for grafx or even a 1Kw single PS, they've taken intel's lack of thermal control to a whole new level. Reply
  • DerekWilson - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    graphics cards use much much less power in 2d mode than in 3d mode -- and even their 3d power saving capabilities are really good.

    this is especially true when you consider the ammount of processing power a GPU delivers compared to a CPU.

    Theoretical peak performance of a current desktop CPU is in the 10-15 GFLOPS range at best. For a GPU, theoretical peak performance is at least one order of magnitude larger reaching up over 200 GFLOPS in high end cases.

    I'm not saying we can reach these theoretical peak rates on either a CPU or a GPU, but a GPU is doing much much more work under load than a CPU possibly could.

    Keep in mind we aren't even up to GHz on GPU cores. On the CPU front, Intel just shortened the pipeline and decreased clock speeds to save power -- doing more work in one cycle. This is absolutely what a GPU does.

    And the icing on the cake is the sheer options on the silent GPU front. Neither AMD nor Intel make a fast desktop CPU that can be (easily) passively cooled. These parts are a testiment to the efficiency of the GPU.

    On the flip side, ATI and NVIDIA push their high end parts way up in clock speed and power consumption trying as hard as possible to gain the performance crown.

    There are plenty of reasons GPUs draw more power than a CPU under load, but a lack of thermal control or inefficient desing is not one of them. It's about die size, transistor count, and total ammount of work being done.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, September 02, 2006 - link

    I disagree with Derek, at least in some regards. The budget and midrange GPUs generally do a good job at throttling down power requirements in 2D mode. The high-end parts fail miserably in my experience. Sure, they consume a lot less power than they do in 3D mode, but all you have to do is look at the difference between using a Radeon Mobility X1400 and a GeForce Go 7800 in the Dell laptops to http://www.anandtech.com/mobile/showdoc.aspx?i=276...">see the difference in battery life.

    In 2D mode, graphics chips still consume a ton of power relatively speaking -- probably a lot of that going to the memory as well. A lot of this can be blamed on transistor counts and die size, but I certainly think that NVIDIA and ATI could reduce power more. The problem right now is that power use is a secondary consideration, and ATI and NVIDIA both need to have a paradigm shift similar to what Intel had with the Pentium M. If they could put a lot of resources into designing a fast but much less power-hungry GPU, I'm sure they could cut power draw quite a bit in both idle and load situations.

    That's really the crux of the problem though: resources. Neither company has anywhere near the resources that AMD has, let alone the resources that Intel has. Process technology is at least a year behind Intel if not more, chip layouts are mostly computer generated as opposed to being tweaked manually (I think), and none of the companies have really started at square one trying to create a power efficient design; that always seems to be tacked on after-the-fact.

    GPUs definitely do a lot of work, although GFLOPS is a terrible measure performance. The highly parallel nature of 3D rendering does allow you to scale performance very easily, but power requirements also scale almost linearly with performance when using the same architecture. It would be nice to see some balance between performance scaling and power requirements... I am gravely concerned about what Windows Vista is going to do for battery life on laptops, at least if you enable the Aero Glass interface. Faster switching to low-power states (for both memory and GPU) ought to be high on the list for next-generation GPUs.
    Reply
  • DaveLessnau - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    I'm wondering why Anandtech tested Asus' EN7800 GT card instead of their EN7600 GT. That card would be more in line with Gigabyte's 7600 GT version and, I believe, is more available than the 7800 version. In the near future, I'd like to buy one of these silent 7600GTs and was hoping this review would help. Oh, well. Reply
  • DerekWilson - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    you can get a really good idea of how it would perform by looking at Gigabyte's card.

    as I mentioned elsewhere in the comments, we requested all the silent cards manufacturers could provide. if we don't have it, it is likely because they were unable to get us the card in time for inclusion in this review.
    Reply

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