Best Of The Best: High-End Graphics Card Roundup

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.

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  • Reynod
    Looks like another Nvidia fanboi article.

    The claim that ATI stock is hard to get is just rubbish.

    Try getting any stock of the paperlaunched latest Nvidia cards eh?

    TSMC isn't able to produce any in sufficient numbers for Nvidia so the cards are just smoke and mirrors.

    How much did the NV marketing department pay you to write this rubbish?
  • Hammeh
    Nothing, Tom's is independent in reviews.
  • Anonymous
    Im sure Tom`s Hardware is giving us an independent review, But I can see why some people might think theres a slight swing, Some important facts wasnt stressed enough.
    Being in the market for a new graphics card im getting alot of conflicting reviews from different people, But I still hold Tom`s reviews quiet high.
  • godfath3r
    reynod get real pal, your obviously getting defensive because your an ATI 'fanboi' as you put it. if you actually read the article it says the 4770 is a great card but is hard to get hold of, which is the truth. and regardless of that fact the 4770 is more of a mid range card which wouldnt have a living chance against the 295 or the 4870x2 so whats the point about giving it a full glowing refernece. the simple fact is that the 295 is the best card available, just see the results for yourself.

    ohh and another pointer this article is in relation to the best of the best which nvidia currently holds the title for. now if we were talking about the best for value then it would be a differnt story
  • Reynod
    It's hard to call it the best of the best when there are none to be bought becasue the 295 and 280 are a halo part ... and not available in any volume.

    That's because they can't actually make them ... its a sham.

    I call that simply wrong.

    Oh ... and I have Nvidia cards mainly.
  • technogiant
    The average results are skewed in favour of Nvidia because of the inclusion of the results from "The Last Remnant" game which is quite apparently not working on ATi cards....this is obvious to anyone so why did you do that unless you were deliberately trying to favour Nvidia?
  • technogiant
    Also never seen anyone use "The Last Remnant" as a bench mark must have looked long and hard to find one that was so unfair.
  • Reynod
    I would accept the review if Chris did it.

    I am sure it would have been more balanced.

    There are a number of overclocked X2 ATI cards out there too ... funny bout that.
  • jontseng
    This is just bad analysis, plain and simple. It does no service to the author, to TG and to the readers. Come on folks, this is elementary logic 101:

    1) EITHER there is a problem with the Last Remnant test, OR we must accept the GTX295 is actually 636% faster than the 4870x2 (303 aggregate frames versus 41), and that the 4850 is 17% faster than the 4870x2 (48 frames versus 41).

    2) In spite of this rather obvious issue the author simply included the test and made no comment about it. The appropriate action is clearly to either exclude the test, or to include it with an explanation of the discrepancy. The author did neither.

    The error was compounded because he used the flawed data to draw (similarly flawed) conclusions. For example he claims that the EVGA295 is "29.8% faster" than the 4870x2 based on the aggregate framerate data. In total the EVGA295 polls 620 more frames than the x2, but 262 of the difference (or 42% of the outperformance!!) is attributable to this single flawed test!

    3) I have to conclude that EITHER he did not notice the anomalous result (in which case he is incompetant) OR he did notice it and ignored it (in which case he is being misleading).

    Which is it to be?
  • Solitaire
    I would like to say this is a very flawed but unbiased article, but once again Toms is about as impartial as Hitler. ONE ATI card. And the benchmarks have been intentionally slanted. Again. But this time with all the subtelty of North Korea on a nuking spree. Where the hell are the non-reference HD4850X2s? At least those are actually available on teh interwebs! Not a single HD4890"XT" ("true" OC, the ATI-verified higher-binned parts) - they're not even acknowledged on the chart! Those are close to a GTX285 at stock and have a much higher OC ceiling. Where's the Sapphire Atomic HD4870X2? That's not just liquid-cooled, you can even throw the CPU into the pre-built WC loop! And that unit is actually available, and it has significantly higher stock clocks and OC headroom!

    You didn't even try to hide it this time Toms. Yes, nVidia has the fastest cards. No, in the real world this doesn't really mean much - exactly where do you go to buy these things, and what bank do you have to knock off to afford them?! 99% of people like window-shopping these "halo" parts but they won't influence their actual purchases - the value-for-money in their price bracket is what affects them, and for most people it ain't gonna be a $800+ halo part!
  • Anonymous
    And no 2560x1600 for high end cards?! This is pretty ridiculous.
  • sirius666
    Wow, this Roundup is not balanced!
    I would say it is from an Nvidia Fanboy, the Frames are not the same i experience with my 4870 x2 and i got the one from MSI.
  • hipshot
    this is my last visit to Toms... time to find another source of components reviews that is REAL. I thought CPU mag was bad lol.
  • Anonymous
    I agree with the percentage of people here, I am looing for a GFX card and this by no means gives me a good idea of what cards are available and comparative results other than the Nvidia market. Id have liked to have seen a broader range of ATI cards such as the 4850 x2 and more OC cards.
  • LePhuronn
    Um, I think you lot have missed the point of this article.

    This article is not about comparing numerous cards to determine the best. This article is about taking the established top-tier cards and looking at their crazy, crazy cooling and finding the real gem.

    The reason there's only 1 ATI card in this list is simply because ATI only has 1 card that can compete with NVIDIA's simply better lineup. This is about the best of the best, and ATI only have 1 entry in that category.

    Plain, simple, stop moaning when you've missed the point.
  • Anonymous
    LePhuronn - well said and totally agree with you. I cannot believe how many people feel 'threatened' because their favoured brand/make of graphics hardware perhaps didn't appear too favourably in their limited shortsightedness. It's not about 'which is best', or 'value for money'. As LePhuronn states the article is about taking a look at top-tier cards and their specific cooling systems... not a buyers guide!