We take a dekko at three silent graphics cards

We take a break from the constant humming of our over-clocked over-strained graphics cards in an attempt to introduce an air of tranquillity with a selection of silent graphics cards. Not all systems are about raw power, and with the convergence of devices, people are finding many interesting places and applications for the good old desktop PC. With this in mind, we take a look at three supposedly completely silent graphics cards that could suit those with a sensitive ear.

We’ve got our hands on three of ATI’s mainstream offerings, starting with the HIS Radeon HD 5550 Silent, found online in the US for $80.00; at the current exchange rate this card would be around the £56 mark, however, the US to UK rate for tech pricing seems to be around $1=£1 at the moment so we wouldn’t hold our breath. The card is low profile and has a single heat sink that extends over the back, protruding a couple of centimetres above the low-profile bracket, so check headroom before you order.

The next card is the equivalent offering from Sapphire, the ATI Radeon HD 5550 Ultimate, which retails for around £80.00. This matches both the features and price of the HIS offering very closely. The card has a single slot full-size PCB and a nice looking but rather large heat-sink that extends onto the back of the card via a couple of heat-pipes.

And lastly, the Sapphire Radeon 5450 which can be yours for just under £50.00. This low-profile card is the smallest on offer with a black one-piece heat-sink that extends over the top and around the back of the card. The card also uses the least power, drawing under 20 watts on load!

We’re going to try a selection of tests to see if any of these cards has an advantage. Taking a closer  look at the packaging, the boxes are covered in game style art and DX 11 stickers; at this end of the market all that should probably be seen as marketing hype at best. Gaming may not be the main focus of the boards but without it we can’t help but think that there may be no real edge over IGP chips. We run them through their paces with a selection of real-world and synthetic benchmarks.

The games in question will be Race Driver: GRID, Dawn of War 2, Modern Warfare 2 and Crysis Warhead. Each card will also get the synthetic treatment courtesy of 3DMark Vantage. The test set-up contains an AMD Phenom II X6 Black Edition 1090T processor, 8Gb DDR3 1600mhz Kingston HyperX memory, Asus CROSSHAIR IV FORMULA 890FX motherboard and a Western Digital VelociRaptor hard drive.

We weren’t expecting these cards to set the gaming benchmarks alight, but once settings were dropped a little things got playable. The notable and unsurprising exception to this was Crysis Warhead, which although running on all three cards, had to have the settings dropped to a point where some of the major selling points of the game were completely lost. The 5450 certainly did the worst through these tests, but anyone buying a fan-less graphics card to play Crysis is probably mildly deluded anyway. Next we try the synthetic benchmarks in 3DMark Vantage, testing both factory settings and the highest stable over-clock we could get.

At the factory clock speed the two 5550s were nearly indistinguishable, and although the Sapphire card over-clocked slightly better, there’s not much advantage to this when you’re talking about the mainstream market. The 5450 came in significantly lower than the other two cards. Just breaking the 1k mark isn’t the best of performances, and when starting from a lower base over-clocking has even less of an effect.

Games and 3D won’t be on everyone’s agenda, and taking a look at the multimedia performance we’re fortunately getting past the point where 1080p playback will test anything other than integrated kit. Nevertheless, we try Bluray playback on all three and unsurprisingly find no problems.

At this point we have to give up on the two 5550 cards showing any differences. It would be fair to say that neither of these cards disappointed but they sit in a strange middle ground, slightly over-powered, and priced for general media use, but underwhelming when it comes to 3D performance. Given that HIS have managed to squeeze the card onto a low-profile PCB, that gives it the advantage in our books.

That doesn’t mean that HIS has it all its way.  When buying a graphics card for your set up you have to ask what do you really want from it, and this is where the silent 5450 come into play, offering most of the features of the other cards at a significant discount. If you’re looking to play games, the 5450 isn’t right for you, but then again the 5550s aren’t exactly going to  revolutionise your digital world, either. However, if you’re using these cards for general multimedia, then we don’t really see what the 5550s offer over their less powerful counterpart. The 5450 did have one small but important absence from the card, namely a HDMI port or adapter; something that seems like a major oversight given possible applications. A quick check of Sapphires website reveals that  an HDMI version of this board is available and we’d go for that one if you can find it.

Leaving the HDMI port aside we say that the Sapphire 5450 would be our choice, since it offers a full set of features, uses the least power and costs under £50, whilst still producing 0dB.  But shhh, you didn’t hear that from us, right?