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The challenger
Nvidia's GeForce GTX 560 isn't launching in a vacuum. In fact, right out of the gate, it will have its mettle tested by AMD's Radeon HD 6870, which also retails around the $200 mark. Asus sent us its HD 6870 DirectCU to represent the Radeon team against the latest GeForce:

This Radeon currently retails for $199.99 ($179.99 after a mail-in rebate) at Newegg, so it has the virtue of being cheaper than both of our contenders from the GTX 560 clan. Don't let the lower price fool you, though. Asus has tuned and tweaked this design, too, raising the GPU clock speed from 900MHz to 915MHz and installing a custom DirectCU cooler with heat pipes and a copper base. The company claims the card offers a longer life span and considerably quieter operation over the reference 6870 thanks to the DirectCU cooler and choice electrical components.

Our testing methods
We conducted testing using the latest drivers from Nvidia and AMD. Nvidia provided us with 275.20 drivers for its GeForce cards, and we used AMD's freshly released Catalyst 10.5a hotfix drivers with the Radeons. When benchmarking the Radeons, we left optional AMD optimizations for tessellation and texture filtering disabled.

As ever, we did our best to deliver clean benchmark numbers. Tests were run at least three times, and we've reported the median result.

Our test system was configured as follows:

Processor Intel Core i5-750
Motherboard MSI P55-GD65
North bridge Intel P55 Express
South bridge
Memory size 4GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Kingston HyperX KHX2133C9AD3X2K2/4GX
DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz
Memory timings 9-9-9-24 1T
Chipset drivers INF update 9.2.0.1025
Rapid Storage Technology 10.1.0.1008
Audio Integrated ALC889
with Realtek R2.57 drivers
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 6850 1GB
with Catalyst 8.85.6 RC1 drivers
Asus Radeon HD 6870 TOP
with Catalyst 8.85.6 RC1 drivers
XFX Radeon HD 6950 1GB
with Catalyst 8.85.6 RC1 drivers
Zotac GeForce GTX 460 1GB
with GeForce 275.20 beta drivers
MSI GeForce GTX 560 Twin Frozr II
with GeForce 275.20 beta drivers
Asus GeForce GTX 560 TOP
with GeForce 275.20 beta drivers
Zotac GeForce GTX 560 Ti AMP!
with GeForce 275.20 beta drivers
Hard drive Samsung SpinPoint F1 HD103UJ 1TB SATA
Power supply Corsair HX750W 750W
OS Windows 7 Ultimate x64 Edition
Service Pack 1

Thanks to Intel, Kingston, Samsung, MSI, and Corsair for helping to outfit our test rigs with some of the finest hardware available. AMD, Nvidia, and the makers of the various products supplied the graphics cards for testing, as well.

Unless otherwise specified, image quality settings for the graphics cards were left at the control panel defaults. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.

We used the following test applications:

Some further notes on our methods:

  • Many of our performance tests are scripted and repeatable, but for Bulletstorm, we used the Fraps utility to record frame rates while playing a 90-second sequence from the game. Although capturing frame rates while playing isn't precisely repeatable, we tried to make each run as similar as possible to all of the others. We raised our sample size, testing each Fraps sequence five times per video card, in order to counteract any variability. We've included second-by-second frame rate results from Fraps for those games, and in that case, you're seeing the results from a single, representative pass through the test sequence.

  • We measured total system power consumption at the wall socket using a P3 Kill A Watt digital power meter. The monitor was plugged into a separate outlet, so its power draw was not part of our measurement. The cards were plugged into a motherboard on an open test bench.

    The idle measurements were taken at the Windows desktop with the Aero theme enabled. The cards were tested under load running Bulletstorm at a 1920x1080 resolution with 4X AA and 16X anisotropic filtering.

  • We measured noise levels on our test system, sitting on an open test bench, using a TES-52 digital sound level meter. The meter was held approximately 8" from the test system at a height even with the top of the video card.

    You can think of these noise level measurements much like our system power consumption tests, because the entire systems' noise levels were measured. Of course, noise levels will vary greatly in the real world along with the acoustic properties of the PC enclosure used, whether the enclosure provides adequate cooling to avoid a card's highest fan speeds, placement of the enclosure in the room, and a whole range of other variables. These results should give a reasonably good picture of comparative fan noise, though.

  • We used GPU-Z to log GPU temperatures during our load testing on all cards but the Radeon HD 6790, which wasn't supported by GPU-Z's temperature probing component. With that card, we ran the load test in a window and jotted down the temperature reported by AMD's Catalyst Control Center.

The tests and methods we employ are generally publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.