Graphics Card, GPU Cooler & RAM

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GRAPHICS CARD: AMD Radeon HD 6870 1GB

Ideally we would like to have the most powerful card that can be cooled adequately in a small case, so energy efficiency was definitely a factor in our selection. High-end cards like the Radeon HD 5870 and GeForce GTX 470 eat up a lot of power and can only be cooled quietly with very large heatsinks. Unfortunately our case is only big enough to accommodate a graphics card/cooler combination that takes up just a tad more than two expansion slots.

Estimated Power Consumption (DC)
Card
Idle
Load
ATI HD 4870 1GB
55W
147W
HIS HD 4890 Turbo 1GB
57W
153W
AMD HD 6870 1GB
18W
163W
HIS HD 5870 Turbo 1GB
22W
216W

Because of this heatsink limitation, the new Radeon HD 6870 was the obvious choice as its performance is only a step behind the HD 5870 but its power consumption is much lower. By our estimates the HD 6870 uses 163W at full load, an amount which we felt was manageable. The GPU is appropriately the most expensive component in our build, with 6870's from various manufacturers retailing for US$250~$260 online.

If you balk at the thought of spending US$250 a graphics card, consider a GeForce GTX 460, Radeon HD 5850, or Radeon HD 6850. They are priced closer to US$200, but offer pretty decent performance. Of the three, we prefer the HD 6850 simply because it is more compatible with third party coolers. If you want to gamble on a quiet and cool stock cooling solution, look for cards with dual fan heatsinks. With some luck and fan control software like MSI Afterburner, you may hit the jackpot and end up saving a good chunk of cash on an aftermarket GPU heatsink.

Use the SPCR/Pricegrabber Shopping Engine to help you get the best deal on a Radeon HD 6870.

GRAPHICS CARD COOLER: Scythe Musashi

Noise & Cooling Comparison
Card
Idle
Load
SPL @1m
GPU Temp
SPL @1m
GPU Temp
ATI HD 4870
13 dBA
66°C
22 dBA
87°C
HIS HD 4890 Turbo
16 dBA
61°C
30~31 dBA
83°C
HIS HD 5870 Turbo
18 dBA
40°C
34 dBA
88°C
AMD HD 6870
15 dBA
45°C
34 dBA
90°C
Ambient temperature: 23°C
Ambient noise level: 11 dBA
System noise level: 13 dBA

In our VGA test system, the HD 6870 reference cooler was only quiet when idle, measuring just 15 dBA@1m. On load it was terribly loud as most high-end reference card heatsinks are, generating an earsplitting 34 dBA@1m. While the 6870 is more energy efficient than other cards in its class, a third party cooler is still necessary to get the overall noise of our gaming system down to an SPCR-acceptable level.

The two top coolers we had on hand, the Arctic Cooling Accelero Xtreme Plus and the dual fan GELID Icy Vision, were both too large, extending past the edge of the chassis with the case cover off. We looked at alternatives like the Accelero Twin Turbo Pro and Zalman VF-3000A, but they too were too thick according to the specifications. In addition, neither heatsink seemed to have VRM heatsinks of the right size for the 6870.


That left us with only two slimmer coolers from Scythe, the Setsugen and Musashi. Of the two, the dual fan Musashi delivers better performance but it has much less heatsink surface area than all the incompatible alternatives we had to scratch off our list. To be honest we weren't entirely sure it would be able to cool a 6870 quietly, but in the end were were able to make it work. The Musashi has a street price of approximately US$45.

RAM: 4GB Corsair XMS3 DDR3-1333

In recent months the price of DDR3 has come down significantly and a good 4GB DDR3 kit can be had for about US$60. We used a Corsair 4GB DDR3-1333 kit, but anything from a reputable manufacturer with a good warranty policy will do. Computer memory is a commodity, as the recent price-swing reminds us. With such low prices you may be tempted to go with an 8GB kit which wouldn't hurt, but for a dedicated gaming system the extra memory would likely go unused.

Use the SPCR/Pricegrabber Shopping Engine to help you get the best deal on system memory.

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OCZ Signature 4GB Desktop Memory Model OCZ3SR1333LV4GK- $53.99 (after MIR+ promo code "MEM1117A") at Newegg.com, expires 11/30