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GeForce GTX 690 Review: Testing Nvidia's Sexiest Graphics Card

GeForce GTX 690 4 GB: Beauty Isn’t Always Practical

Benchmarking Nvidia’s new GeForce GTX 690 almost wasn’t even necessary. The company gave us a great idea of what to expect when it told us that its new Death Star would be fully operational, featuring two uncut GK104s. A slightly lower base clock suggested average performance just a smidge below two GeForce GTX 680s—but certainly not enough to be noticeable while you’re gaming.

If you consider $500 for GeForce GTX 680 to be a fair price, then $1000 for GeForce GTX 690 is comparably reasonable. But is it any better? Or should you just stick to a pair of Nvidia’s fastest single-GPU cards?

That’s going to depend on your priorities.

Practically, two GeForce GTX 680s facilitate slightly better performance and they exhaust all of their heat out into the surrounding environment. They’re also scalable at a more granular level. That is to say, if you buy two GeForce GTX 680s today, you could add a third tomorrow and be out-of-pocket for $1500. For most enthusiasts with the right motherboard slot configuration, that’s the smarter play.

But a GeForce GTX 690 is quantifiably quieter than GTX 680s in SLI, even if you have two empty spaces between the cards for ventilation (such is the case with our Gigabyte X79-UD5 test bed). It’s the easiest way to achieve quad-SLI, too, though you’d better be prepared to tackle the thermals inside your chassis with all of the verve of a professional system builder. Overclocking a CPU gets a lot tougher in a bath of GK104 backwash.

And finally, GeForce GTX 690 has an X-factor that’s hard to measure. It’s a beefy mix of metal, polycarbonate, silicon, and lights—certainly sexier than GeForce GTX 680. But enough so to sway a big buying decision? For some folks, sure. Holding the thing in my hand imparts a sense of fine workmanship that just can’t be conveyed by words. The GeForce GTX 690 is a well-built board, and I simply must call out the attention given to acoustics especially.

If you count yourself a fan of hardware bling, GeForce GTX 690 is unquestionably the fanciest card to ever come from Nvidia, and you certainly can’t knock its visual appeal (nor can you knock its unmatched performance).

Now, let’s say you want to buy one (or two, for quad-SLI). Not surprisingly, given general unavailability of even the single-GPU GeForce GTX 680, you’re going to have a hard time getting your paws on a GTX 690. How bad will the situation be? Nvidia tells us that the cards will roll out in limited quantities, just like GeForce GTX 590. A few should be floating around by May 3rd, with greater numbers on May 7th. System builders just laugh when we ask how many they’re expecting. Consider our expectations curbed.

With Nvidia claiming availability on day one, we can’t preemptively call this a paper launch like we did when AMD previewed the Radeon HD 7970 three weeks before shipping it. But don’t be surprised if the closest you ever get to a GeForce GTX 690 is this story, regardless of whether you have a Grover Cleveland burning a hole in your back pocket.

And so we come full circle. Nvidia’s new flagship is a lot like an expensive sports car: attractive, exclusive, and not necessarily practical. But if you’re in line for one, there’s a fair chance you already know that and probably don’t care.

Chris Angelini is an Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware US. He edits hardware reviews and covers high-profile CPU and GPU launches.