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The cards



Since we're spilling secrets, here's something I've learned over too many years of doing this job. Did you know you can largely determine the class of video card cooler via a simple visual inspection? True story: I've been told each heatpipe on these things adds 50 cents to the manufacturing cost. If you watch, card makers will economize meticulously. For instance, we absolutely loved the five-pipe cooler on MSI's R7870 Hawk, pictured farther down the page here. The thing is darn near silent, even when running a game. When they built the GeForce GTX 660 Ti Power Edition card, MSI used a cooler that shares the same shroud and looks nearly identical—but has one fewer heatpipe, presumably since the lower-power GTX 660 Ti doesn't produce quite a much heat. Fiddy cents, people. That's what it's all about.

That's also why it's a bit surprising to see the cooler pictured above on Asus' GTX 660. I count five heatpipes under that plastic shroud. Yet there's only one six-pin power plug on the card, an indication it pulls less than 150W of power. You know what that means? Somewhere in cubeville, an Asus engineer won a fight with a bean counter. Maybe clocked the dude with his slide rule. Good for him. And good for us, since this puppy barely has to spin those fans in order to keep the GK106 beneath it cool.

Then again, I'm not sure the bean counters aren't in cahoots with the engineers on this one. You see, this card is full of upgrades over Nvidia's reference design. The circuit board is custom, with six power phases (up from four) and a host of premium "super alloy" electronics components, because apparently, the reference-grade capacitors are made out of tin foil and fermented apple juice. There's even a digital VRM. Meanwhile, the GPU chips have been binned, so they start out at 8% faster than the reference clock and purportedly have extra overclocking headroom. Asus includes a GPU Tweak program that lets users adjust the GPU boost clock, voltage, memory clock, power targets, and fan speeds. The trick here—and this is where the bean counters get their satisfaction—is that Asus charges $249.99 for this baby, 20 bucks more than the GTX 660's base price. Is it worth paying the extra for this card and cooler? Just wait 'til you see our acoustic and thermal results. You'll be ready to Amazon Prime that thing, hard. Just remember, for Asus: fiddy cents. Maybe several times over, with all of the upgrades, but still.




The Asus card measures 10.5" to the tip of its cooler, while the Zotac is just 7.5"

Zotac, meanwhile, has taken the exact opposite approach with this rendition of the GTX 660, following Nvidia's reference design closely, presumably right down to the MOSFETs made from weasel whiskers coiled around mothballs and dipped in solder. (I dunno. They still seem to work.) Even the reference card's pretender-extender plastic cooling shroud is gone, revealing the tiny PCB in all its 7" glory. The benefit here is the price, which is bone stock, a penny shy of $230, even though Zotac ups the GPU's base and core clocks from 980/1033MHz to 993/1050MHz. Another benefit is Zotac's sweet-looking "angry bumblebee" cooler. Although it has only two heatpipes, that flat-black shroud is made of sturdy metal. In a pinch, you could seriously stab an intruder with its pointy tip.

Base
clock
(MHz)
Boost
clock
(MHz)
Peak
ROP rate
(Gpix/s)
Texture
filtering
int8/fp16
(Gtex/s)
Peak
shader
tflops
Memory
transfer
rate
Memory
bandwidth
(GB/s)
Price
GeForce GTX 660 980 1033 25 83/83 2.0 6.0 GT/s 144 $229.99
Zotac GTX 660 993 1059 25 85/85 2.0 6.0 GT/s 144 $229.99
Asus GTX 660 TOP 1072 1137 27 91/91 2.2 6.1 GT/s 147 $249.99
Radeon HD 7870 GHz 1000 - 32 80/40 2.6 4.8 GT/s 154 $249.99
MSI R7870 Hawk 1100 - 32 88/44 2.8 4.8 GT/s 154 $259.99

These differences in clock speed and even GPU brands add up to only a few gigatexels of filtering power or fractions of a teraflop within the range of 30 bucks or so. That's like half the price of a game, for goshsakes, for a single Xbox worth of texture filtering.

Speaking of games, Nvidia has decided not to bundle the GTX 660 with a free copy of Borderlands 2 like it does for its GTX 660 Ti cards. That's unfortunate, because I plan to waste nearly a week of "testing" time on BL2 later this month—it's the most anticipated game of the year, in my book. I'll tell the guys I'm doing important innovation in the field of latency-based game testing, but in reality: pew pew. Then I'll pull a mean squares-based overall performance metric outta nowhere, and nobody's the wiser.

Meanwhile, as you can see in the table above, the GTX 660 is at least theoretically a very close match for AMD's Radeon HD 7870 graphics cards in most of the key rates. The 7800 series ships with a coupon for GTA-alike Sleeping Dogs, the game that's already kept TR's Geoff Gasior up late enough that his news posts the next day required major rewrites. At least we love our work.


Here's a picture of the MSI R7870 Hawk, one of the 13 different video cards we tested, since I'm evidently a masochist. Not that the R7870 is painful to use at all. In fact, it's formidable competition for the GTX 660—like you couldn't have guessed that.

The upgrade scenario

Peak
ROP rate
(Gpix/s)
Texture
filtering
int8/fp16
(Gtex/s)
Peak
shader
tflops
Memory
bandwidth
(GB/s)
GeForce 9800 GTX 11 43/22 0.4 70
GeForce GTS 250 12 49/25 0.5 72
GeForce GTX 260 (216 SPs) 18 47/23 0.6 129
GeForce GTX 460 25 43/22 1.0 128
GeForce GTX 560 Ti 26 53/53 1.3 128
GeForce GTX 660 25 83/83 2.0 144

Speaking of pain, some of you unfortunate folks are probably still saddled with a graphics card like Ye Olde 9800 GTX listed at the top of the table there, and you may be contemplating an upgrade. That's good. You should know that your five Xbox 360s of texture filtering oomph are seriously dated. The GTX 660 offers twice as many Xboxes now.

To give owners of older cards a sense of what improvement an upgrade might bring, and to add some sense of actual drama to this otherwise-sorry exercise, we've included a handful of older cards in our testing. The really old pre-DX11 cards could only run a couple of the games at the settings we used, Skyrim and Arkham City. Since we tested those games at the sweet, sweet Korean monitor resolution of 2560x1440, I had to scrap plans to include a 9800 GTX and was forced to use a GeForce GTS 250, instead. The GTS 250 is based on the same G92 chip but has 1GB of RAM instead of 512MB, so it has at least a chance of handling the higher resolution without bumping into memory capacity issues. Would-be upgraders who own any G92-based card—including the GeForce 8800 GTS 512, 8800 GT, 9800 GT, and 9800 GTX—will want to watch how the GTS 250 stacks up against the newest GeForces and Radeons. Just assume your card would be panting even harder than the GTS 250, and you'll have the basic idea.

The somewhat newer and more powerful GeForce GTX 260 is also on our slate, as are several DX11 cards initially from the GTX 660's price range, including the Radeon HD 6870, GeForce GTX 460, and GTX 560 Ti. I'm sure I've slighted somebody who wants to know how his Radeon 9700 AGP compares, but before you post an angry comment, worry not: Damage Labs offers personal concierge comparison testing for the video card of your choice. Just ship the card and a valid check for $5,000 to our P.O. box, and we'll take care of you ASAP. Or right after we finish Borderlands 2, at least.

Another new GeForce: the GTX 650
Believe it or not, the GTX 660 isn't the only new GeForce poking its head above the ground today. Nvidia is also unveiling the GeForce GTX 650, a much cheaper card that, mystifyingly, still carries the premium "GeForce GTX" brand. Like the GeForce GT 640 that we reviewed a while back, the GTX 650 is based on the GK107 graphics processor, a Kepler derivative slimmed down in the extreme. The GK107 has only a single GPC, two SMX cores, eight pixels per clock worth of ROP throughput, and a 128-bit memory interface. Crucially, though, the GTX 650 comes with GDDR5 memory. The GT 640 costs $99 and uses only DDR3, with under half the bandwidth, and it fared rather poorly in our testing. At 10 bucks more, the $109 GTX 650 should be quite a bit faster—which is good, since it's a direct competitor to the Radeon HD 7750, a card that clowned the GT 640 in our last round of tests.

Since it's Kepler-based, the GTX 650 has an up-to-date array of features, including PCI Express 3.0. As a low-end part, however, it lacks fancy extras like GPU Boost and SLI support. Because the GTX 650 is based on such a teensy Kepler derivative, the card requires only 64W of power at peak—or so they say. A TDP that low raises the question of why a six-pin aux power connector is still onboard. Hrm. I'll have to ask Charlie about that.

Anyway, we may have to take a look at a GTX 650 at some point soon. Like the GTX 660, they're supposed to begin selling at online retailers today, but unlike the GTX 660, Nvidia chose not to supply advance review units to the press—so you know it's gonna be compelling. Eh, works for me, since I can pawn off that review on Cyril.