Asus EAX1600XT SILENT passively-cooled graphics card
Gaming performance without the noise?
Review These days there isn’t much difference between one manufacturer’s graphics card and another’s, mainly because the standard reference designs from ATI and Nvidia work just fine. That leaves card makers scrambling around for differentiators, and with ever increasing concerns about noise, some manufacturers are trying to figure out how to make their cards more quiet than their rivals...
Asus is one of many manufacturers that have produced a passively cooled card - its version is the EAX1600XT SILENT/TVD/256M. As the name suggests, it's based on the ATI X1600XT GPU and 256MB of (GDDR 3) graphics memory. The GPU is clocked at 590MHz while the memory comes in at 690MHz – effectively 1.38GHz. The memory bus is only 128 bits wide which limits the memory performance when compared to higher-end cards which use a 256-bit bus to double the rate at which data can be passed between the GPU and the memory.
The EAX1600XT also features ATI's Avivo system, with video in and out supported through either S-Video or composite video, the latter via a breakout cable. Oddly enough, there’s no component video-out cable supplied even though it should be part of the Avivo feature set.
The Asus-designed heatsink uses twin heatpipes that wrap around the card. As a result, the front of the card is unusually clutter-free. The GPU is covered by a small metal plate with a copper inlay into which the heatpipes are connected. At the rear of the card is a rather large heatsink which dissipates the heat from the two heatpipes. It’s worth checking that you have enough room above the PCI Express slot in your system before you go out and get one of these cards due to the unusual construction, especially if you’re using a small form-factor or Micro ATX system.
The X1600XT is ATI's mid-range product, although it's been pushed down to the bottom end of the mid range by the likes of the X1800 GTO. One of its advantages is its ability to operate in CrossFire mode without the need of a master card.
The drawback of CrossFire at the high end has been the need for a special master card to control the co-operative rendering effort. However, lower cost – and lower bandwidth – cards can operate in CrossFire mode by simply adding a second card and ticking a box in the drivers. It all sounds very easy in theory, but it turned out that things weren’t actually that straightforward in practice. This was partly due to the recently released Asus A8R32-MVP Deluxe motherboard the cards where tested and which needed a BIOS update for peer-to-peer CrossFire to work. But ATI's drivers also caused problems, though hopefully they'll be improved in the April update.
Incidentally, the primary card of the two became very hot, even when it wasn’t doing any kind of 3D rendering. Presumably this is because it has to process data from the secondary card as well as its own. If you're after two of these cards for a CrossFire configuration, I’d advise you to invest in some kind of additional cooling, at least for the primary card.
Initial test results where erratic at best, ranging from minus 30fps to 900fps in some tests. The BIOS upgrade solved this problem, though, and it’s unlikely you’d come across this problem with other, more stable motherboards. Once the BIOS was flashed the results where much more in line with what I'd expected, although interestingly enough this is when the second part of the problem showed up. For some reason, it turned out that at lower resolutions CrossFire was significantly slower than a single card in Half-life 2. I’m sure this is down to the drivers as this wasn’t the case in any of the other games, or in 3DMark tests.
The performance gains from using two cards over one depends on what resolution and what quality settings you use. Half-life 2 showed the smallest performance gains as you might have gathered already, due to the previously mentioned drivers issues.
In Far Cry, the performance improvements ranged from 30fps to as little as 2fps, although at 1,280 x 1,024 resolution the gain was between 20-30fps, which makes it a viable upgrade path.
F.E.A.R. is a rather resource-hungry game and the increase in performance never got much better than 20fps. This is still a considerate increase, although in most instances the gain was a much more modest 2-5fps.
Running 3DMark05, the performance gain with CrossFire is much more noticeable, but this doesn’t necessarily reflect in-game performance.
The same goes for 3DMark06, although the gains here seemed to be even higher as in some scenarios the score more than doubled.
The cards where tested using the Asus A8R32-MVP Deluxe motherboard, an AMD Athlon 64 FX-60 processor, 1GB of Crucial Ballistix PC3200 DDR memory, a Western Digital Caviar 16SE hard drive and a Tagan 2force power supply.
As you might have noticed on the graphs, some scores are missing at 2,048 x 1,536. This is because of a lack of graphics memory. Using two graphics cards doesn’t mean that you get double the memory. ATI seems to have a better implementation here than Nvidia as at least some applications will run at full quality settings at this extremely high resolution on dual 256MB cards.
Operating alone, an X1600XT is good enough for anyone using a 1,280 x 1,024 resolution but who doesn’t expect to play the very latest titles with all the image-quality features enabled. In CrossFire mode, the X1600XT turns out to be quite an interesting alternative to SLI - at least as an upgrade path. The problem is that ATI released the X1800 GTO, which doesn't cost much more money yet can on its own outperform two X1600XT’s in just about every test.
The advantage of the Asus EAX1600XT SILENT/TVD/256M over another X1600-based board is the passive cooling and this is the main selling point of these cards. This is something most faster cards don’t seem to be able to deliver, with each new card being noisier than the previous one.
At £118, the Asus board isn't the cheapest X1600XT card around, but then the passive cooling system does increase the manufacturing cost.
The Asus EAX1600XT SILENT/TVD/256M is a good enough graphics card in its price class, but it’s not for the performance hungry user. However, if you’re looking for a low-noise gaming solution you could do far worse, and there’s always the option of fitting two cards if you have a CrossFire-compatible motherboard and want a little extra performance. ®