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June 5, 2006 by Devon
Even though some of today's graphics cards get hotter than most CPUs, the variety of aftermarket coolers for graphics cards is
surprisingly limited. Large tower heatsinks have made it easy to cool even the
hottest processors with very little airflow, but the same cannot be said for
graphics cards. Building a graphics cooler is a challenge because many of the
conditions that allow a CPU to be well cooled do not apply to graphics cards.
For starters, the market for hot high-end graphics cards is a fraction of the
size of the CPU market. Graphics cards have less standardized mounting systems
for heatsinks, they cannot support as much weight, and they must deal with more
stringent space restrictions than a CPU. Motherboards are designed to accommodate
the cooling requirements of hot processors, but graphics cards are limited by
the layout of the expansion cards plus whatever wiggle room the manufacturers
think they can get away with. In practice, this has meant that good graphics
coolers nearly always protrude above and below the graphics card, potentially
causing compatibility problems and blocking the use of one or more expansion
Despite all of these challenges, a number of companies sell aftermarket coolers
that purport to be cooler, quieter, more space efficient, or all three at once
compared to the stock heatsink/fan modules. Some manufacturers have even adopted
their own versions of these aftermarket coolers instead of using the reference
designs from ATI and nVidia.
Over the last few months, a small pile of these aftermarket coolers has been
growing in the SPCR lab as we pondered about the challenges of testing them
effectively. With the development of our test bed for graphics cards a couple
months ago, we finally had a tool we could use to
separate the gems from the pretenders.
Our pile contained four different coolers:
These coolers use a variety of different approaches
to improve on stock cooling. There are two heatpipe-based designs, one that
exhausts waste heat outside the case, and a simple one that simply boasts of
better cooling. All of them were tested under the same thermal conditions in
our VGA test bed, described in on page 6.
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