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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  • TheInternal - Tuesday, September 12, 2006 - link

    It's wonderful to see Anandtech take the time to review silent products. I've really been trying to quiet down my PC, and seeing this review gave me some further encouragement. With rumors of ASUS acquiring XFX, it will be interesting to see if Anandtech decides to review the passively colled XFX 7950 GT with heat pipes that look awfully reminescent of the ones from the ASUS 7800 you reviewed.
    I'm also curious to see if any 7900 GS cards become available with passive cooling soon.
    Reply
  • Richey02hg - Tuesday, September 05, 2006 - link

    I was just curious if any of these cards are AGP? or they all PCI Express only? and also, its hard to tell since an x800xt all in one wonder isnt in there. But would any of these be an upgrade over that? Because I have to admit, just seeing that word "silent" makes me happy cause my GPU is insanely loud Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, September 06, 2006 - link

    All are PCIe. I'm not sure if there are any silent AGP cards out there other than very low end components. As for the X800 XT, that is roughly equivalent to the 7800 GS in performance, albeit without SM 3.0 support. 7600 GT would also be pretty similar in performance I think. I would recommend holding onto your current system as long as you can, and when he can no longer stand the performance it offers do a wholesale upgrade to PCI-E GPU and motherboard, and probably a new CPU and RAM is well. At that point, you might as well just go ahead and buy a completely new system -- you could even try selling off your current system to recoup some of the cost. Reply
  • Richey02hg - Thursday, September 07, 2006 - link

    thanks for the advice, Im actually planning to get a laptop in 2006 and thanks to your review im definetly waiting for that second wave (forget the name) of the core 2 duos for laptops :) Reply
  • Eddie Lin - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    Gigabyte seems don't need reserve SLI bridge seems 7300GS only go with S/W SLI and don't need bridge. Is really good heatsink design on this card Reply
  • DerekWilson - Friday, September 01, 2006 - link

    Thanks Eddie --

    We have added this information to the article.
    Reply
  • yacoub - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    It's an absolute joke that Asus and Gigabyte don't have silently-cooled 7900GTs out yet. The card requires less power and runs cooler than the 7800GT did. It's a shoe-in to get a silent version. wtf.

    This is practically a roundup of grandfathers and retirees when you include a 7800GT. ;P
    Reply
  • nullpointerus - Friday, September 01, 2006 - link

    Maybe they are trying to get rid of old cards without dropping the price too much? Reply
  • yyrkoon - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    Alot of people that would consider buying a fanless GPU wouldnt even care if it DID make tons of noise, some of us live in deserts, where its extremely dusty. There is nothing like owning an air compressor or two, just for 'dusting' you house, shops, and PC / electronics innards.

    I guess I'm one of the few people who actually enjoy having a fan or two on while I'm sleeping for background noise, but less moving parts means longer part life here in the Nevada desert. However, I own a eVGA 7600GT KO, that has a fan on it, and you know what, I have a really hard time hearing it from 6 feet away. In fact, the 120mm low RPM fans that came with my Lian Li case make more noise, and they dont make much noise themselves.

    I think its a great idea that these manufactuers are making products like this, but at the same time, for me personally its not really an option. I only buy parts from a compnay with a good reputation, and offer excellent customer support, and hence I'm very picky about who I buy from. At the same time, I know what I want, and if something passive isnt availible on say a 7600GT (which is what I wanted for this current system), and at the same time, from a company I would normally buy parts from, then I wont bother. I would think it a better option to buy the part you wanted for a video card, then buy an aftermarket passive cooler if it comes down to that (which would probably void your warranty, so again, for some of us, not really an option).

    So basicly, what it boils down to, is that I have to buy a graphics card with a fan to get what I want, and if problems later ensue, its a good thing I have a can of miracle oil around, and a few saringes . . .
    Reply
  • Josh Venning - Thursday, August 31, 2006 - link

    These are some good points; it's true that with less moving parts you would theoretically see longer life and resistence to dust and dirt, something that could be a plus. And while it's true that a normal graphics card (with a fan on it) will be pretty hard to hear from a little ways away inside your computer case, the idea is that some people need that extra bit of silence for whatever reason, and every extra fan adds to the noise level on the system. For myself, when recording sound/music with a computer, getting things as quiet as possible is very important, so this is one case where eliminating even a couple of dbs is worth buying a silent gpu for. (especially if, like myself, your recording computer is one you also want to be able to play games on.) Reply

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