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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  • Leo V - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    ...I can buy a high-end 7800GT substantially cheaper, buy a quiet Zalman 80mm low-rpm GPU cooler and run it undervolted at 7V. (In fact, I have done exactly that.) It will be cheaper, run WAY cooler, and be quieter, because I can get rid of a case fan that I would need with a "silent" card anyway.

    The idea of running a 50-100watt GPU with a silent cooler is dubious -- you still need a fan somewhere in your system, and the best place is closest to the hottest parts. Those parts are naturally the CPU and GPU.

    Instead of "silent" (but not really) high-end cards, give us cards with heatpipes + large, slow quiet fans that can be undervolted.

    Most importantly, ATI and NVIDIA please stop making 100watt monsters and follow Intel's and AMD's lead in improving power efficiency.
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    Sorry, I cant say I would agree that a fan would be quieter than a passive solution, I dont care if you could run it at 1V, and did :) Reply
  • Leo V - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    quote:

    ...I can buy a high-end 7800GT substantially cheaper


    e.g. substantially cheaper than the holy grail "silent" version of the 7800GT.

    And Kudos to the companies for the inventive products and to Anandtech for covering them.
    Reply
  • hkBst - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    I've been waiting for a review of the passively cooled 7900GT from MSI for a while and I was expecting it to be in here. How can it not be?

    Look here: http://www.msi.com.tw/program/products/vga/vga/pro...">http://www.msi.com.tw/program/products/vga/vga/pro...
    Reply
  • DerekWilson - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    We sent multiple requests for cards out to 16 different graphics card manufacturers. I'd say we did pretty well with more than half of those responding.

    We also requested that each manufacturer send us all their passively cooled cards. If something was left out it was either because the manufacturer decided not to send it, or we weren't able to get ahold of it before our submission deadline. We tested a lot of cards and have been working on this for quite some time, so silent cards that have come out recently or were not widely available until recently will not have been included.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    Also, the MSI 7900GT Silent card is only available in Europe, and we did mention this in the review. Reply
  • haris - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    Any chance you could retest the cards using a mid range system. It seems kind of silly to test an FX-55 with a $50-100 video card. Reply
  • nullpointerus - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    Yet Another Silly Performance Retest Request (YAMPRR)

    Testing an FX-55 with a $50-100 video card is not silly; testing graphics cards' performance relative to each other requires removing all other factors including the CPU and RAM. Not everyone has a "mid-range" system, and those who do not have a "mid-range" system do not want the results skewed just to make your life easier. If you want specific performance advice for your particular system and games, why do you not join and post in the forums?
    Reply
  • ss284 - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    Well considering the majority of people who are looking for midrange graphics cards have a midrange system, his request is a perfectly good one. Unless Anandtech enjoys targeting the minority of its readers it should be doing more applicable performance testing. Then again, the FX-55 isnt exactly a cutting edge processor anymore. Just scale everything back 10% and you will have a rough estimate of what performance would be like on a mid range system. Reply
  • nullpointerus - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    Yet Another Defense of a YAMPRR (YADY). *yawn*

    Well considering the majority of people who are looking for midrange graphics cards have a midrange system, his request is a perfectly good one.

    No, it's a silly one. The point of the article is to compare graphics cards, not to make life easier for a certain group of people. People who follow this esoteric stuff religiously tend to distill the information into a more practical form. And as I said, the information he wanted is readily available in the forums. A couple of mouse clicks and a bit of typing is better than ignorantly saying the video card article is silly for not providing framerates similar to some mythical ideal of a mid-range system.

    Unless Anandtech enjoys targeting the minority of its readers it should be doing more applicable performance testing.

    How about you go where the information is normally provided instead of trying to turn all the front page articles into your personal system upgrade newsfeeds?

    Could we just skip ahead to where everyone chimes in with their own ideas of what a mid-range system is. Does it use AMD or Intel? Single or multi-core? How much RAM? Which timings? Which system boards? Which components are overclocked?

    I'll make a deal with you: get together a mid-range system that everyone will agree on, and then I will agree with you that we should conflate graphics cards testing with mid-range system testing. You see, ridding the comments section of silly YAMPRR and YADY posts will not benefit anyone if we still have to deal with all the senseless bickering about little details such as chipset revisions, features, and all the other inane griping I have seen posted when Anandtech picks out a CPU, overclocking, or RAM configuration as representative of X-range systems.
    Reply

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