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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  • imaheadcase - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    I guess to each his own, i play bf2 on a 19inch CRT monitor at 1024x768. But even if i had a better card i would still prefer lower rez. Reply
  • DerekWilson - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    it's an issue of how games work on the inside ...

    all the objects, shapes, characters, and landscapes are there no matter how you see them. everything is mathematically represented in the software. rendered onto your display is a viewport into the world. this viewport only allows you to see a fixed grid of colors. the color of each pixel is determined by a bunch of factors, but the largest contribution is made by the object that projects onto a particular pixel.

    ... on second thought, this is too hard for me to explain with out a lot of math. lets look at it another way.

    when there's a naked person on tv, they decrease the resolution of the area over the persons naughty bits. this makes it harder to see what's really there because there is a smaller number of large pixels that can only represent one color each. it follows, then, that it would also be harder to shoot the person acurately in said bits.

    I think your preference may be based on your experience with performance at higher resolutions. Responsiveness is necessary for a quality experience in games like bf2. If you get a faster card, I would encourage you to at least try a higher resolution.
    Reply
  • blckgrffn - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    When it is in stock at newegg, its ~$90, not nearly $140.

    Nat
    Reply
  • mostlyprudent - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    I would be interested to know how much noise (quantitatively) an actively cooled 7600GS or 7600GT contributes to a system built in a relatively quiet case like an Antec P150. I am familiar with some of the leaf blowers attached to the higher end cards, but wonder how much overall system noise savings you'ld get in the mid-range cards. Reply
  • wilburpan - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    One obvious use for silent video cards would be in an HTPC system, where quiet performance would be a priority. Can't have those noisy computer fans intrude on watching Snakes on a Plane, you know. :@) Anyway, it would have been nice to include some video playback benchmarks to see how these cards can handle playing back a 1080p HDTV signal, or similiar tests. Reply
  • ViRGE - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    Since HDTV is MPEG2, any modern video card should be able to handle a 1080P signal(since this is an either/or case, it either can or can't). The limitations come in to H.264, where the video decode engine may not be clocked high enough to do higher resolution decoding. Unfortunately, I'm not sure there's any 1080 commerical/usable content that would work with Cyberlink/Intervideo's H.264 decoders(the only ones with GPU acceleration), since Quicktime content doesn't work in those. Reply
  • DerekWilson - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    with nvidia, the video decode engine is clocked off the core -- it actually will run better on a card with fewer pipelines and a higher core speed ... iow, the 7600gt is a better video decode graphics card than a 7900gt at default clock speeds.

    a little counter intuitive, but there it is.

    nvidia 7 series parts with a core clock of >450 MHz should have no problem accelerating 1080p decode on players that support purevideo.
    Reply
  • MontagGG - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    Which of these have HDCP? Reply
  • DerekWilson - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    to my knowledge, none of the cards tested here support hdcp. but I will certainly try to confirm this ... Reply

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