VGA Coolers: Thermalright V1 Ultra, Zalman 700 & 900, AC Silencer 5 v.3

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June 5, 2006 by Devon Cooke

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 slots.

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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