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Asus ENGTX260: A Quiet Graphics Card for Gamers?

It’s huge, draws over 120W at load, ridiculously overpackaged, and illustrated lavishly when no one will ever see it once installed. But it has a secret card up its sleeve: The Asus nForce 260 based ENGTX260 could be the quietest stock high end gaming video card ever.

September 23, 2008 by Lawrence Lee

Product
Asus ENGTX260/HTDP/896M
PCI-E Video Card
Manufacturer
ASUSTeK
Street Price
~US$300

As PC game technology advances, GPU manufacturers have done well to keep up.
It seems every few months or so, a new batch of graphics cards are unveiled
by ATI or nVidia with performance shaming predecessors barely a year old. As you can
expect, the amount of power needed to drive these cards scale up as well;
it doesn’t help that some are now even equipped with two processors. They have
also become very large physically, that it is has become necessary
to check dimensions against the case prior to purchase. Nobody blinks when they see a graphics
card equipped with loud dual slot coolers — in fact, it is the hallmark
of a powerful GPU.

But is it possible to have an excellent gaming system, and have it quiet, or
better yet silent as well? With extensive modifications, of course, but what
about straight out of the box? For those obsessed with silent computing, adding
a high-end graphics card without some kind of quiet, third party cooler, is
propesterous. Many of us assume that the stock cooler will be woefully inadequate
and most of the time, we’re right.

Asus has a line of “silent” graphics card, though the ENGTX260 we’ll
be looking at today is not marketed as such and just by looking at it, our gut
says it’s just another loud, angry card. Anecdotal evidence however says it
is in fact a pretty quiet card, but is it? And more importantly, is it SPCR
quiet?


ENGTX260 box: Completely out of place on the cover art is a fetching Asian archer… the kind
of girl who would dig anyone with an Asus graphics card?


A parade of packaging.

We have always chided Asus for their excess packaging, but this particular
box was ridiculous. There’s a box to hold the accesories, a box to hold the
card, and two hollow filler-boxes to keep everything from firmly in place because
the outside box is larger than necessary.

Asus ENGTX260/HTDP/896M: Specifications
(from the
product web page
)
Graphics Engine NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260
Bus Standard PCI Express 2.0
Video Memory DDR3 896MB
BUS PCI Express x16
Engine Clock 576 MHz
Shader Clock 1.242 GHz
Memory Clock 1.998 GHz ( 999 MHz DDR3
)
RAMDAC 400MHz
Memory Interface 448-bit
CRT Max Resolution 2048 x 1536
DVI Max Resolution 2560 x 1600
D-Sub Output Yes x 1 (via DVI to D-Sub
adaptor x 1 )
DVI Output Yes x 2 (DVI-I)
HDTV Output (YPbPr) Yes
HDCP Support Yes
TV Output Yes (YPbPr to S-Video and
Composite)
Adapter/Cable Bundled 1 x DVI to D-Sub adaptor
1 x HDTV-out cable
1 x Power cable
Software Bundled ASUS Utilities & Driver
Notes Special bundled: 1. CD
Leather Wallet 2. Leather Mouse Pad

The card size is 4.376 inches x 10.5 inches

PACKAGE CONTENTS & CARD

Along with the card, buyers will receive an ever so useful leather mouse pad
and CD wallet, along with a component cable and 6-pin power adapter. The card
requires two 6-pin power cables, but if your current power supply doesn’t have
at least one 6-pin cable, it’s unlikely to have enough juice to drive this monster.


Box contents.

The card itself has a rectangular cooler, split into two difference sections.
It resembles a box for ammunition rather than then a VGA heatsink.


The ENGTX260’s camouflage decals are useful for gaming in a forest environment.

The cover of the heatsink features the same mythical archer on a camouflage/army
fatigue backdrop. The PCB measures 26.7cm or 10.4″ — almost an entire
inch longer than the width of a typical ATX motherboard.


The bottom of the card.

The card’s dual slot cooling solution encapsulates the entire card, making
it difficult to see exactly how the heatsink works — what is evident is
that it uses a blower type design with an exhaust at the back. On the bottom
of the cooler near the rear resides a small vent.


The top of the card.

On the opposite side we see more ventilation but the internals are still completely
obscured. There is also a small, removable plastic cover that hides the SLI
bridge connector.

MORE DETAIL & INSTALLATION

ATI cards with dual slot coolers usually have translucent housing you can see
into, but the ENGTX260 is solid black all the way around except for the decorative
camouflage. There isn’t a whole lot to see as very little of the PCB;s surface
is actually exposed.


Power ports.

Typically, the 6-pin power connectors requried to drive modern
graphics cards are at the end of the PCB. With the cables in place, it increases
the card’s effective length. Since the GTX 260 is already quite long, they’ve
placed these connectors on the side instead. In addition there is a small port
covering the S/PDIF pass-through connector for HDMI connectivity. As this particular
model does not officially support HDMI, we’re not sure if the port has been
disabled, or if they simply haven’t bundled a S/PDIF cable and HDMI adapter.


The fan.

The card’s blower fan is typical for a stock dual slot video card cooler, resembling
a water/hamster wheel. They are usually quite loud, though we hope
this is not the case here.


The back of the card.

The heatsink is held to the back of the card with 8 screws.
There are two more near the exhaust point which keeps the back panel attached.
Normally we would remove the cooler to see exactly what’s under the hood,
but this proved to be problematic. The cooler is divided into two pieces,
top and bottom, and they need to be pried apart like a clamshell package.
Doing so required more force than we were comfortable exerting for fear of
damaging the card. If you’d like to see what’s inside, check out the review
at Hardware
Canucks
— they took apart the BFG GTX 260 cooler. Both the BFG
and Asus versions seem to use the same reference cooler design.


Installed.

TEST METHODOLOGY

Our test procedure is an in-system test, designed to:

1. Determine whether the card’s cooler is adequate for use in a low-noise system.
By adequately cooled, we mean cooled well enough that no misbehavior
related to thermal overload is exhibited. Thermal misbehavior in a graphics
card can show up in a variety of ways, including:

  • Sudden system shutdown or reboot without warning.
  • Jaggies and other visual artifacts on the screen.
  • Motion slowing and/or screen freezing.

Any of these misbehaviors are annoying at best and dangerous at worst —
dangerous to the health and lifespan of the graphics card, and sometimes to
the system OS.

2. Estimate the card’s power consumption. This is a good indicator of how efficient
the card is and will have an effect on how hot the stock cooler becomes due
to power lost in the form of heat. The lower the better.

3. Determine the card’s ability to play back high definition video, to see
if whether it is a suitable choice for a home theater PC.

Test Platform

Measurement and Analysis Tools

The anatomy of our test platform is detailed here: Updated
VGA Card/Cooler Test Platform

Testing Procedures

Our first test involves recording the system power consumption using a Seasonic
Power Angel as well as CPU and GPU temperatures using SpeedFan and ATITool (or
just SpeedFan if a nVidia based card is used) during different states: Idle,
with CPUBurn running to stress the processor, and with CPUBurn and ATITool’s
artifact scanner (or 3D View, which ever produces higher power consumption)
running to stress both the CPU and GPU simultaneously. This last state mimics
the stress on the CPU and GPU produced by a modern video game. The software
is left running until the GPU temperature stabilizes for at least 10 minutes.
If artifacts are detected in ATITool or other instability is noted, the heatsink
is deemed inadequate to cool the video card in our test system.

If the heatsink has a fan, the load state tests are repeated at various fan
speeds while the system fan is left at its lowest setting of 7V. If the card
utilizes a passive cooler, the system fan is varied instead to study the effect
of system airflow on the heatsink’s performance. A B&K Sound Meter is employed
to take system noise measurements at each fan speed.

Video Playback Testing

For our second test, we play a variety of video clips with PowerDVD. A CPU
usage graph is created via the Windows Task Manger for analysis to determine
the approximate mean and peak CPU usage. If the card (in conjunction with the
processor) is unable to properly decompress the clip, the video will skip or
freeze, often with instances of extremely high CPU usage as the system struggles
to play it back. High CPU usage is undesirable as it increases power consumption,
and leaves fewer resources for background tasks and other applications that
happen to be running during playback. Power draw is also recorded during playback.

Video Test Suite


1920×816 | 24fps | ~10mbps
H.264:
Rush Hour 3 Trailer 1
is encoded with H.264. It has a good mixture
of light and dark scenes, interspersed with fast-motion action and cutaways.

 


1440×1080 | 24fps | ~8mbps
WMV3:
Coral Reef Adventure trailer
is encoded in VC-1 using the
WMV3 codec (commonly recognized by the moniker, “HD WMV”).
It features multiple outdoor landscape and dark underwater scenes.

 


1280×720 | 60fps | ~12mbps
WVC1: Microsoft Flight Simulator X trailer is
encoded in VC-1. It’s a compilation of in-game action from a third person
point of view. It is encoded using the Windows Media Video 9 Advanced
Profile (aka WVC1) codec — a much more demanding implementation
of VC-1.

 


1920×1080 | 24fps | ~19mbps
WVC1: Drag Race is a recording of a scene from
network television re-encoded with TMPGEnc using the WVC1 codec. It
features a high-paced drag race. It is the most demanding clip in our
test suite.

Estimating DC Power

The following power efficiency figures were obtained for the Seasonic
S12-600
used in our test system:

Seasonic S12-500 / 600 TEST RESULTS
DC Output (W)
65.3
89.7
148.7
198.5
249.5
300.2
AC Input (W)
87.0
115.0
183.1
242.1
305.0
370.2
Efficiency
75.1%
78.0%
81.2%
82.0%
81.8%
81.1%

This data is enough to give us a very good estimate of DC demand in our test system. We extrapolate the DC power output from the measured AC power input based on this data. We won’t go through the math; it’s easy enough to figure out for yourself if you really want to.

TEST RESULT

Baseline, with Integrated Graphics: First, here are the results of
our baseline results of the system with just its integrated graphics, without
a discrete video card. We’ll also need the power consumption reading during
CPUBurn to estimate the actual power draw of discrete card later.

VGA Test Bed: Baseline Results
(no discrete graphics card installed)
System State
CPU Temp
System Power
AC
DC (Est.)
Idle
22°C
73W
Unknown
CPUBurn
39°C
144W
115W
Ambient temperature: 21°C
Ambient noise level: 11 dBA
System noise level: 12 dBA@1m

Note: In our new semi-anechoic chamber, our VGA test bed now
measures 12 dBA@1m. Ambient is only 11 dBA.

Asus ENGTX260:

VGA Test Bed: Asus ENGTX260
System State
Fan Speed
System SPL@1m
GPU
Temp
PCB Temp
CPU
Temp
System Power
AC
DC (Est.)
Idle
700 RPM (40%)
15 dBA
43°C
38°C
25°C
113W
88W
CPUBurn
700 RPM (40%)
15 dBA
44°C
39°C
44°C
184W
150W
CPUBurn + ATITool
880 RPM (50%)
21 dBA
72°C
62°C
51°C
269W-
290W
220W-
237W
Ambient temperature: 22°C
Ambient noise level: 11 dBA.
System noise level (minus graphics card): 12 dBA@1m.

When the test system was first fired up, the fan was easily audible, but quickly
ramped down by the time the POST screen appeared. Once the system booted up, we were
were amazed at how quiet the card was. We actually had to double-check that
the fan was operating. In our semi-anechoic chamber, the system at idle registered
only 3 dBA higher than the system without the card installed — indeed it
was very difficult for us to detect the difference. What’s more the GPU temperature
was very low at 43°C. Within a few inches of the card, we could hear the
fan ticking slightly, but behind the side panel of the case, this wasn’t audible.

After stressing both the CPU and GPU for half an hour, the fan speed increased
by less than 200 RPM, but the noise level was much higher at 21 dBA. In
a quiet environment, this would be audible. Enclosed in our test system, the
fan’s less desirable attributes seemed to blend away and what remained was benign and inobtrusive.
The card does suffer from the same high-pitched whine on load
that seems to be endemic with modern high performance graphics cards. Although the system’s power draw reached levels we’ve never seen in our lab
before while testing a video card, the GPU temperature was more than acceptable at
only 72°C. Stock VGA coolers rarely do this well, in terms
of both performance and noise.

Power

The power consumption of an add-on video card can be estimated by comparing
the total system power draw with and without the card installed on our test system. Our results
were derived thus:

1. Power consumption of the graphics card at idle – When CPUBurn is run on a system, the video card is not stressed at all, and stays in idle mode. This is true whether the video card is integrated or an add-on PCIe 16X device. Hence, when the system power under CPUBurn with just the integrated graphics is subtracted from the system power under CPUBurn with the add-on card, we obtain the increase in idle power of the add-on card. (The actual idle power of the add-on card cannot be derived, because the integrated graphics does draw some power — we’d guess no more than a watt or two.)

2. Power consumption of the graphics card under load – The power draw
of the system is measured with the add-on video card, with CPUBurn and ATITool
running simultaneously. Then the power of the baseline system (with integrated
graphics) running just CPUBurn is subtracted. The difference is the load power
of the add-on card. (If you want to nitpick, the 1~2W power of the integrated
graphics at idle should be added to this number.) Any load on the CPU from ATITool
should not skew the results, since the CPU was running at full load in both
systems

Power Consumption Comparison
GPU State
Diamond HD 4850
ATI X1950XTX
Asus ENGTX260
AC
DC (Est.)
AC
DC (Est.)
AC
DC (Est.)
Idle
+59W
+50W
+49W
+42W
+40W
+35W
Load
+120W
101W
+131W
110W
+146W
122W

The ENGTX260 is clearly the most power hungry card we’ve tested, using up to
122W DC on full load, topping the X1950XTX’s 110W and HD 4850’s 101W draws.
Given these results, it’s very impressive that the card can be cooled quietly
by the stock cooling unit. At idle the card draws only 35W, which is actually fairly
low for a high-end video accelerator, though more modest cards like the HD 3850/3870
use half that.


GPU-Z screen at various states.

To maximize power savings, the ENGTX260’s GPU core and memory clock speeds
vary depending on the type of load the system is under. According to GPU-Z,
the card clocks itself to 300/100Mhz when idle, 400/300Mhz when video playback
is initiated, and 576/999Mhz when the GPU is stressed with 3D applications.

Video Playback

Video Playback Results
Video Clip
Mean CPU Usage
Peak CPU Usage
AC Power
Rush Hour
2%
7%
~131W
Coral Reef
15%
25%
~139W
Flight Sim.
30%
48%
~151W
Drag Race
33%
44%
~153W

As expected, the ENGTX260 handled our video playback tests
with ease. CPU usage during playback was very low, and never peaked past 50%.
Power consumption varied greatly depending on the type of clip being played
with the most stressful VC-1 clips elliciting about 20W more than the Rush Hour
H.264 clip.

Video Playback Comparison
Video Clip
Diamond HD 4850
Asus ENGTX260
Asus EN9600GT
Mean CPU
AC Power
Mean CPU
AC Power
Mean CPU
AC Power
Rush Hour
3%
~136W
2%
~131W
2%
~113W
Coral Reef
28%
~151W
15%
~139W
15%
~121W
Flight Sim.
55%
~168W
30%
~151W
28%
~131W

As the card is equiped with the same (and as far as we know, unchanged) PureVideo
HD decoder as the previous nVidia-based card we tested, the EN9600GT, the CPU
usage results were very similar. And while it plays video more efficiently than
the HD 4850, the EN9600GT is even more frugal. Generally speaking, the more
advanced the graphics card is, the more power it consumes when idle — and
this usually applies to video playback as well. Obviously if video playback
is the card’s main task, a much cheaper, low power card can do just as well.

MP3 SOUND RECORDINGS

These recordings were made with a high resolution, lab quality,
digital recording system
inside SPCR’s own 11 dBA ambient anechoic chamber, then converted to LAME 128kbps encoded MP3s. We’ve
listened long and hard to ensure there is no audible degradation from the original
WAV files to these MP3s. They represent a quick snapshot of what we heard during
the review.

These recordings are intended to give you an idea of how the
product sounds in actual use — one meter is a reasonable
typical distance between a computer or computer component and your ear. The
recording contains stretches of ambient noise that you can use to judge the
relative loudness of the subject. Be aware that very quiet subjects may not
be audible — if we couldn’t hear it from one meter, chances are we couldn’t
record it either!

The recording starts with 10 seconds of room ambience, followed by 10 seconds
of the VGA test system without a video card installed, and then 10 seconds each of the actual product’s
noise at idle and load levels. For the most realistic results, set the volume
so that the starting ambient level is just barely audible, then don’t change
the volume setting again while comparing all the sound files.

  • Asus ENGTX260 stock fan — idle (40%/12 dBA@1m), load (50%/17 dBA@1m):
    One
    meter

FINAL THOUGHTS

Gaming: This is not our forté, so for an overall sense of how
well the GTX 260 performs in games, check out the reviews at The
Guru of 3D
, Anandtech,
techPowerUp,
and HardwareCanucks.
The general consensus is that the GTX 260 offers performance similar to the Radeon
HD4870, with the edge of one over the other varying with the game used
for testing. The extra memory on the GTX 260, gives it a definite advantage
at higher resolutions. It is a good “budget” choice for
1920×1200 gaming, though it plays games much more smoothly at lower resolutions.

Video Playback: Video playback was excellent as the GTX 260 uses the
same decoding hardware as the Geforce 9 series. CPU usage was very low.

Cooling: The stock cooler was suprisingly quiet and effective. At idle,
even in a quiet room it would barely be audible, if at all. When stressed the GPU’s
fan does not ramp up very much, and the amount of extra noise it generates is
minimal and easily drowned out by in-game sound effects and music.
Rarely are we satisfied with stock VGA heatsinks, but the ENGTX260 cooler was
an exception. It is quiet enough to make all but the most picky of silent PC
users happy.

Power Consumption: By our estimates, the ENGTX260 requires approximately
35W minimum and up to 122W when stressed to the limit. It is a lot, but when
you consider the amount of 3D performance the GTX 260 provides, it’s not unreasonable.
While we prefer cards with low power consumption, but if you love PC games, higher energy consumption is still one of the prices.

Overall, the Asus ENGTX260 is an excellent high-end gaming card. It’s power
consumption is fairly high, but not out of line for the performance it
provides. It is a very large card physically, as the PCB is an inch wider than
most ATX motherboards. In a cramped mid-tower case, it could cut
off the circulation between the top and bottom halves of the case. Luckily,
the stock cooler, the ENGTX260’s biggest strength in our opinion, keeps the
GPU at very reasonable temperatures, directing most of the heat out the back.
It is also quiet enough to be usable in most silent PCs, which is
quite an accomplishment. The GTX 260’s are priced similarly to the HD 4870,
but the surprisingly quiet cooler, at least on the Asus version, tips the scales
in our opinion.

Asus ENGTX260/HTDP/896M
PROS

* Effective, quiet stock cooler
* Excellent 3D performance
* Excellent HD playback

CONS

* Long PCB
* High power consumption

Our thanks to ASUSTeK
for the video card sample.

* * *

Articles of Related Interest
Diamond Radeon HD4850
Asus EN3650 Silent Graphics
Card

Asus EN9600GT Silent Edition
Graphics Card

ATI HD 3850 & HD 3870:
Improved Acoustics & Power Efficiency

Updated VGA Card/Cooler Test
Platform

* * *

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