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Overall, two very different graphics cards rise to the top. First, we have HIS' HD 7950 IceQ Turbo sporting a tall two-slot thermal design. It manages to edge out the other five boards, taking first place in performance and cooling, along with third place in acoustics. Second, there's Asus' HD 7950 DirectCU II, a heavier three-slot card that generates the least noise, finishes a close second in cooling performance, and still posts competitive benchmark results. PowerColor's HD 7950 PCS runs quietly, but suffers much warmer operating temperatures. And the other two factory-overclocked submissions are both hotter and louder. Finally, AMD's reference design demonstrated the worst performance, the least-attractive acoustic profile, and the highest temperatures. Its only redeeming quality is price.
There's an elephant in the room that keeps us from wholeheartedly recommending any Radeon HD 7950, though: GeForce GTX 670. Although two of the six cards we tested currently cost less than a reference $400 GTX 670, the rest actually cost more. The least-expensive Radeon HD 7950s give you an approximately $20 savings (before rebates), but neither showed particularly well here. Unless you have an application where the 7950's compute potential is absolutely imperative, you'll probably want to hold off until these cards become a little more affordable (which they're already in the process of doing).
The DHE cooling solution on HIS' HD 7950 IceQ Turbo really works. Not only does it cool well, but it outperforms the thermal solutions of the other cards we tested. It also manages to beat them in the gaming benchmarks without generating that much extra noise.
Although this board won our recommendation in Europe, we're not able to give it an endorsement in the U.S. As we've seen HIS do in the past, it's only selling this higher-clocked Turbo model overseas. North American customers can get the HD 7950 IceQ (no Turbo), but it runs at a reference 800 MHz and costs more than $400. Sure, it's more attractive than AMD's reference design. But it's certainly not a front-runner at that lower speed.
If you don't mind losing three expansion slots to a single graphics card, and are alright tracking down a bracket to keep this heavy board in place, then Asus' HD 7950 DirectCU II does wonders to the baseline acoustic performance of AMD's reference Radeon HD 7950. Its cooling performance is bested only by HIS' impossible-to-buy HD 7950 IceQ Turbo, and an aggressive 900 MHz core clock rate tops our charts.
If you don't feel like stepping down to HIS' HD 7950 IceQ (since the Turbo isn't available here in the U.S.) and the wide/heavy Asus HD 7950 DirectCU II isn't doing it for you, then the other three cards in our round-up might be more interesting. All of them are solid choices capable of delivering admirable performance.
MSI HD 7950 Twin Frozr III: Solid design, top build quality; a recently-released BIOS makes it a great card for overclocking.
PowerColor HD 7950 PCS: Slim enough to enable two cards in a CrossFire configuration; very quiet; unfortunately, unplugging power connectors can be difficult.
Sapphire HD 7950 OC: Not as quiet; again, unplugging power connectors is difficult.
The only reason to consider the reference design is if you want to attach a third-party cooling solution. Otherwise, the price difference is just not large enough to justify buying a slower, louder, hotter card over any of the models in today's round-up.