Updated VGA Card/Cooler Test Platform

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December 20, 2007 by Lawrence Lee and Mike Chin

Any good hardware testing system requires both methodology and equipment. The gist of computer component testing is to place the item under test in a standardized environment and subject it to a series of standardized tests. The results obtained from testing of different models and makes can then be compared with confidence that they reflect real differences.

We have always tried to establish test systems that reflect real-use conditions rather than ideal ones. For graphics cards and coolers for graphics cards, this means using the test item in a real PC with airflow and thermal conditions typical of the very quiet systems we encourage readers to seek or build.

Recently we began to find fault with our video card and video card heatsink test system, which by our standards simply wasn't quiet enough any more, no longer reflective of current standards in system cooling, starting to show signs of wear and tear, and difficult to service.

Our VGA test bed... until now.

For a couple of years, our VGA test system been housed in a modified LX-6A19 (D8000) case from Cool Cases. This system worked well for a while, but like everything in the computer industry, it did not take long for its age to show. One main issue is the increased power of the ATI X1950XTX graphics card which became our high power test platform for video card coolers over the past year. The increased power had two effects:

1. It challenged the cooling of the CPU. The heatsink we were using was only just able to keep the CPU under throttling temperature. Turning up the speed of the 92mm fan on the CPU cooler was not a good solution because the increased noise level could interfere with acoustic measurements.

2. Over time, the stress and abuse of long-term, high power loading on the Antec NeoHE 430 began to show in increased buzzing from the power supply under high load. Increasingly, there was an annoying whine and buzz when video cards were stressed with ATI Tool. In addition, its fan tended to speed up during load and often become the main source of noise in the system, despite the fact that it was separated from the rest of the system with a fresh air intake duct. This same duct also made replacing the power supply and re-routing all the cables a nightmare. Disconnecting the CPU fan and the power cable to the internal fan controller was also problematic as it was buried deep inside the 3.5" mounting cage. There was no other misbehavior we could identify, but it seemed wise to make a preemptive move to replace the PSU before it failed.

We decided then to improve the test platform. The same motherboard, CPU, and RAM would be used. The case, CPU heatsink, and power supply would be upgraded so that thermal conditions would be a little less demanding for the CPU (and a bit for the VGA card as well). As the case is a P180, the PSU would also be less subject to high heat in its separate thermal chamber. We would also seek to reduce the overall noise level of the test bed down closer to inaudibility. (The hard drive was changed as well, but only for logistical reasons; it's an insignificant move that has no bearing on our acoustic and thermal testing.)

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