High-End Graphics With Specialized Cooling
Air, Electricity, and Water
If you have the necessary cash at your disposal, you can use it to buy some fabulous graphics cards armed with elaborate cooling solutions.
You won't get much in the way of non-standard cooling at price points under $150. However, for $300, you should get a card that's capable, quiet, and cool. And when it comes to 3D graphics cards that retail for $500 or more, you'll also hear talk about how such expensive boards should include fancy extras, like liquid cooling.
Regardless of how you feel about liquid inside your PC, you have to give it up for EVGA's GeForce GTX 295, for example, which lets the company quietly offer impressive performance from its dual-GPU board. As seasoned lab rats, we're used to standard cooling fans on graphics cards. Once you apply a significant gaming load, you get accustomed to hearing fans spin up akin to a jet engine. By contrast, this water-cooled graphics card is dead silent. You start the testing, brace yourself for an acoustic barrage, and then nothing happens. Great stuff, right?
Dual-GPU architectures ask a lot from their coolers because these designs cram the processors, memory, and power circuitry of two boards into a single package, simultaneously doubling power and thermal requirements, which large heatsinks and powerful fans work hard to displace. Compared to BFG's air-cooled GeForce GTX 295, MSI's GeForce GTX 280 has an easier job—its HydroGen-series card includes only one GPU, making it easier for MSI to pack all of its cooling resources onto a single circuit board. It also makes for a solid-performance product, as the integrated water cooler allows for high clock speeds, letting this older-generation graphics card keep up with the newer GeForce GTX 285 models.
Have no fear if you're reluctant to go the water cooling route. Instead, you can turn to optimized air-cooling alternatives. Nvidia does a good job managing thermals with its massive two-slot reference coolers, but they're often loud and large. With its specialty models, MSI improves upon this design significantly (both in terms of cooling performance and aesthetics). The company's GeForce GTX 285 SuperPipe is a classic example. It uses long (8 mm diameter) heatpipes and twin fans to figuratively blow Nvidia's reference fans away.
On the ATI front, there's a bit of a duel taking place between the MSI Radeon HD 4870 X2 and the Palit Revolution 700 Deluxe version of the same card. Here, loud and cool compete against quiet and cooler.
Thanks to its 40 nm manufacturing technology, the Radeon HD 4770 is also notable in that it is very quiet, energy efficient, and cool. It delivers enough speed at high-quality settings to keep up with some of the quicker high-end cards featured here. You can check out its benchmark results in our tables and we plan to conduct additional tests for other models soon.
Ed.: We're keeping tabs on availability of the Radeon HD 4770s, and right now they're nearly impossible to find. We still recommend the card to anyone who can get their hands on it, but there are plenty of other options out there if you aren't able to wait.