SPCR's 2012 Graphics Card/Cooler Test System

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SPCR's 2012 Graphics Card/Cooler Test System

September 10, 2012 by Lawrence Lee

Our old video card/heatsink test platform consists of an AMD Athlon II X3 processor on a Gigabyte 785G motherboard mounted in an original Antec P180 case. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, it doesn't have any serious issues but its age combined with a few case nitpicks makes it a prime candidate for an upgrade. The platform was never particularly energy efficient to begin with and the P180 was overly large and heavy for our purposes. Wear and tear had damaged the side panels too, making them difficult to mount and no longer flush against the rest of the chassis.

Our new test system, fundamentally, is similar to its predecessor. It offers us plenty of room to work inside along with ample clearance for longer graphics cards. The environment is very stressful due to a low airflow, low noise configuration which helps us differentiate the acoustic and thermal differences between the various video card and heatsink models. The ability to quickly increase fan speeds is also necessary as many fanless coolers aren't equipped to survive such a torture test.

Motherboard: Gigabyte Z77X-UD3H

The motherboard is arguably the most important component in any PC build as it defines the limitations of most of the other components and peripherals. An Intel board is an obvious choice for hardcore gamers as their high-end processors deliver superb performance and we appreciate their excellent energy efficiency compared to AMD's offerings. Unless you have the deep pockets for a LGA2011 Sandy Bridge Extreme system, the feature-rich Z77 chipset for the LGA1155 Sandy Bridge/Ivy Bridge platform is ideal.

Gigabyte's Z77X-UD3H is an incredibly versatile ATX Z77 board. For high-end gamers, there are three PCI-E 16x slots for using multiple video cards in CrossFireX or SLI. Like most Z77 motherboard, it has excellent overclocking features which can help alleviate any bottlenecking issues with these high-end multi-GPU setups. Integrated graphics is available for use with Lucid's Virtu GPU virtualization software but it's also nice to simply have backup available in case a discrete graphics card fails.

The board has an mSATA slot under the CPU socket, presumably to use a small drive to take advantage of Intel's SSD caching feature. It's a nice add-on if you'd rather not spare one of the SATA ports for a standard SATA SSD. The board is also equipped with an attractive physical start button and a POST LED indicator which can come in handy when assembling and testing a new system. PWM fan control is offered on all four of the board's fan headers though only two of them work with DC (3-pin) control.

We appreciate the layout of the board as well, particularly the placement of a PCI-E 1x slot above the first PCI-E 16x slot. This gives some clearance between the top of the card and the CPU/cooler. Some third party GPU heatsinks have large screws on the top which may interfere with larger CPU coolers. It's also notable that all the cable headers are located at the bottom edge and the SATA ports are laid on their sides, so they won't get in the way of any large, dual or triple slot video cards/coolers.

CPU: Intel Core i3-2100

The Core i3-2100 is quite popular amongst budget gamers who prefer Intel hardware but can't afford the ~US$200 for a proper quad core Core i5 or i7. This dual core CPU with Hyper-threading runs at 3.1 GHz and actually keeps up with most games fairly well. For our purposes, we don't need a particularly high-end chip and the i3-2100's lower power requirements means we don't need to run the fan that's cooling it at loud levels.

RAM: Kingston HyperX Genesis 8GB DDR3-1600

Memory isn't a critical component for our system but with RAM being so cheap these days, 8GB should be standard in just about any build even though 4GB is often enough, even for a gaming PC as most titles are still 32-bit applications that don't use more than 2GB in Windows. We'll be using a 2 x 4GB kit of HyperX Genesis DDR3-1600, high performance DIMMs from Kingston. They're equipped with low profile heatspreaders which we recommend to avoid interference with third party CPU coolers.

Power Supply: Kingwin Lazer Platinum 1000W

1K watt power supplies are still overkill for any single GPU system but the Kingwin LZP-1000 gives us plenty of headroom for future high-power cards and most importantly, it's incredibly quiet so it will have a minimal impact on the system's overall noise level. On our PSU test platform, the fan stayed at its minimum speed with a load of up to 400W DC, producing only 17 dBA@1m in the process. The modular cables are also much appreciated.

Case: Fractal Design Define R3 (modified)

The Define R3 is one of the most popular quiet cases on the market thanks in part to its minimalist exterior, user-friendly interior, included fan controller, and the presence of acoustic dampening foam. It doesn't meet all our criteria however, particularly with regard to its non-removable hard drive cage which limits the total video card length. We ended up ripping out the drive cage entirely, rivets and all as we didn't require any 3.5 inch drives anyway and it makes for better system airflow. We also replaced the stock fans as acoustically, they weren't good enough for a reference system.

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