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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  • yyrkoon - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    If its silly, why even bother replying . . . No need to go out of your way to be a jerk. Reply
  • nullpointerus - Friday, September 01, 2006 - link

    Jerks don't take the time to apologize. As for why I apologized, I felt badly for responding in kind. I was belittling people who felt the need to belittle the site without taking the trouble to think their arguments through. Apparently that put some kind of chip on your shoulder such that you felt the need to attack me after I'd already apologized. Reply
  • DerekWilson - Friday, September 01, 2006 - link

    maybe we can take a different angle as the standard reasoning has been rolled out already ...

    if we decide to test with a system that "matches" the graphics card, we are making a decision about what is reasonable for either a specific level of performance or price point. By making such a decision, we limit ourselves -- for instance, in this review we may have chosen a system to match a 7600 GS. But maybe it's too under powered for a 7600 GT, or perhaps its too overpriced for a 7300 GS.

    we absolutely can't test every card with every processor and every memory configuration on every chipset for every review.

    en lieu of choosing one system that is supposed to be a "one size fits all", we can remove the system from consideration by choosing the highest end configuration possible.

    when a graphics card peforms better in our system, we know it is capable of better performance in any system. this is true in almost every case.

    this does put a burden on the reader to understand the limitations of his or her own system -- i.e., will the fact that the 7600 GT performs higher than 7600 GS expose a CPU limitation on the system the reader is building/upgrading.

    this question can be answered in a couple ways.

    with game tests, if you can borrow a high end graphics card and see where the cpu limitation falls at something like 800x600 without aa and af, you'll know where the upper limit on framerate is based on the CPU. thus a decision can be made about the best fit for a card.

    if you can't borrow a higher end card, you can turn all the graphics settings down as far as possible and run at 640x480 or lower if possible (does anything aside from the chronicles of riddick still support 320x240?). this isn't ideal, but even on a low end card you can get a pretty good idea of whether or not there will be a cpu limitation entering into the mix.

    when you know what the cpu limit of your system is, pick the resolution you want to run, and find a card that gives you a number just over this limit. this card is the ideal fit for your system at your resolution. it will deliver the performance your cpu will ask for.

    I know its complicated, but its much better than the can of worms we'd open if we went in another direction.

    In GPU reviews meant to demonstrate the capabilities of a graphics card, we will not add unnecessary bottlenecks to the system.
    Reply
  • nullpointerus - Friday, September 01, 2006 - link

    You need a form letter, or something. Maybe you could put up a short page entitled Why We Test this Way and link to it on the front page of each article. Reply
  • nullpointerus - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    Hmm...that last paragraph came out a little too harsh. I apologize in advance if I've offended anyone. I still think the points are valid, though. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    If you look at the performance difference between an E6400 stock and 3.0 GHz OC in our http://www.anandtech.com/systems/showdoc.aspx?i=28...">PC Club system review, you will see that it makes virtually no difference in performance even with a 7900 GT. All of these GPUs are the bottleneck in gaming, but we use a higher-end (relatively speaking) CPU just to make sure. Reply
  • imaheadcase - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    I disagree 800x600 is great for sniping, i play on a 9700 Pro and normally switch between 800x600 and 1024x768 and like 800x600 better on large maps. It brings the objects "bigger" to me and lets me get better accuracy.

    Even if i had a 7900GT i would prob not go higher than 1024x768. Don't know why people play at higher rez, makes everything so tiny. Squinting to play a game is annoying and distracting from gameplay :D
    Reply
  • Josh7289 - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    People who have larger monitors have to use higher resolutions to keep things from getting too large, and to make good use of all that real estate, especially when it's an LCD (native resolution).

    For example, a 17" CRT is best run at 1024 x 768 for games, while a 21" or so LCD is best run at 1600 x 1200 or 1680 x 1050, depending on its native resolution.
    Reply
  • Olaf van der Spek - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    What do you mean with 'too large'?
    In games it's not like in Windows where objects get smaller if you increase the resolution.
    Reply
  • DerekWilson - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    this is correct (except with user interfaces for some reason -- and there the exception is warcraft 3). thanks Olaf.

    lower resolution will give you much less accuracy -- larger pixels in the same screen area decrease detail.

    the extreme example is if you have a 4x3 grid and you need to snipe someone -- his head has to be in the center of one of the 12 blocks you have to aim through to even be able to hit him. The smaller these blocks are, the more pixels fit into the head, the more capable you will be of sniping.
    Reply

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