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The cards
We've gathered together quite a collection of the latest graphics cards in order to make this article possible. The GeForce GTX 400 series is still relatively new, so this endeavor has given us the chance to look at quite a few new graphics cards that deviate from the reference designs established by Nvidia. There's quite a bit of creativity in terms of custom coolers, higher clock speeds, and the like in some of these cards, sweetening the pot a bit for potential buyers.

MSI's GeForce GTX 460 Cyclone 1GB

MSI's GeForce GTX 460 Cyclone 1GB is emblematic of the variety in this first crop of GTX 460 cards. Although it retains the compact length of the reference cards, this puppy's heatpipe-infused, dual-slot cooler is nothing like the usual shrouded number. The thing looks amazing, and without giving away too much, it's pretty darned effective, too. The caveat here is that the cooler protrudes above the top edge of the card by roughly an inch, which could make it a tight fit in quite a few shallow enclosures. Your case will need some extra room above the expansion slot area in order for this card to fit comfortably.

With the upgraded cooling comes some additional clock speed headroom, and MSI capitalizes by raising clock speeds from the GTX 460's stock 675MHz to 725MHz. (Because GPUs based on the Fermi architecture run their shader cores at twice the GPUs' base clock frequency, that raises the shader clock from 1350MHz to 1450MHz, too.) MSI holds the line on the memory clock, though, at 900MHz—or 3.6 GT/s, since GDDR5 memory transfers data four times per clock cycle. If you'd like some additional speed beyond that, MSI's Afterburner software allows for GPU overclocking and overvolting from within Windows.

Right now, the Cyclone is selling for $234.99 at Newegg with free shipping.

Because the Cyclone is such a departure from the reference design, we've tested it in a single-card config in the following pages. We've also paired it in SLI with a stock-clocked GTX 460 1GB from Zotac. In that case, the pair should perform just like two stock-clocked cards, since the slower of the two cards will constrain their performance.

Gigabyte's GV-N460OC-768I sports twin fans

The more affordable variant of the GeForce GTX 460 has 768MB of memory, less memory bandwidth, less pixel filling and antialiasing capacity, and a smaller L2 cache. Its shader core and base clock speeds are the same as the 1GB version's, though, and the price is lower. End result: the GTX 460 768MB may be a pretty good value, particularly if you're buying two.

Gigabyte has provided some additional incentive at the GTX 460's 768MB standard $199.99 price by throwing in a custom cooler with two fans, two heat pipes, and loads of surface area. In a pinch, it could double as a means of propulsion through the Everglades. This cooler doesn't stick up beyond the top edge of the card as much as MSI's Cyclone, but the heatpipes do poke up a quarter of an inch or so. The cooler protrudes about three-quarters of an inch beyond the rear edge of the board, too, although that only makes the card about 9" long in total.

Gigabyte has raised clock speeds to 715/1430MHz, with the standard 900MHz memory. Once again, we've paired this card with a reference one for SLI testing. The Gigabyte card was a late arrival to Damage Labs, so we didn't have time to test it fully as a single card. We have measured its power draw, noise levels, and GPU temperatures individually, as well as in SLI.

Zotac's GTX 465 cards form a pair

These Zotac GeForce GTX 465 cards are essentially based on Nvidia' reference design, with no notable deviations. That's no bad thing, for several reasons. For one, the GTX 465 is the cheapest GTX 400-series product with dual SLI connectors up top, making it the most affordable entry into three-way SLI. For another, although I like the look and single-card performance of custom coolers like those above, I worry about how well they'll perform with another card sandwiched right up next to them, potentially starving them for air.

We've had problems in the past with similar, fan-based coolers from Asus overheating in multi-GPU configurations—and even in single-GPU configs where another sort of expansion card was installed in the adjacent slot. Nvidia's cooler designs carefully leave room for air intake next to the blower, so they better tolerate cramped quarters. Furthermore, the shroud-and-blower reference coolers from both AMD and Nvidia exhaust essentialy all of the hot air they move across the heatsink out the back of the case. The custom coolers with fans push air down, toward the board itself, and don't direct much heat out of the expansion slot opening.

Beyond that, the GTX 465's advantages over the GTX 460 are few. Since the GTX 460's introduction, the GTX 465 has spent a lot of time alone in its bedroom, listening to Pearl Jam and writing in its journal, stopping at meal times to yell at its parents. We expect it to go into counseling soon. Perhaps that's why the Zotac GTX 465's price has dropped to $250 bucks at Newegg, along with a $30 rebate. You could get it for less than the MSI Cyclone, if the rebate pays out—a big "if" in the consumer rebate biz, we must remind you.

Asus' GTX 470 keeps it classy

For its GTX 470 offering, Asus has seen the wisdom of sticking with Nvidia's stock cooler, and the result is a card with nicely understated looks. The one, surgical addition Asus makes to the GTX 470's stock formula is its SmartDoctor overvolting and overclocking utility—just what you'd want to see added. The GTX 470 came out looking surprisingly good in our recent GPU value roundup, and prices have dropped since then. Asus' version is down to $289.99 at Newegg. There's free shipping and a $20 mail-in rebate attached, too.

Zotac's GTX 480 AMP! wins the girth contest

This monster is Zotac's GeForce GTX 480 AMP! edition, complete with unnecessary punctuation. When the folks at Zotac told us they'd be producing a GTX 480 with a cooler that performs better than the incredibly beefy stock unit, we responded with skepticism. "What's it gonna be, triple slot?" After a brief pause, the answer came back: "Heh, yep." And so it is. With two fans and more surface area than the pages of the federal budget, this thing looks to have a good chance of outperforming the dual-slot default cooler.

The two large fans are generally pretty quiet, but we ran into an annoying problem with ours. Apparently, the shroud may have been bent slightly in shipping; it was making contact with the fan blades somewhere, resulting in a constant clicking noise while the card was powered up. We removed the shroud, which is fairly light and thin, and bent it slightly to keep it out of the way of the fan. That sort of worked. Eventually, we just decided to remove one of the four screws holding the shroud because that was the best way of preventing any contact with the fan. That's not the sort of problem one wants to encounter with a graphics card this expensive—we're talking $509.99 at Newegg as of right now—but we'd hope our experience wasn't typical. Zotac's packaging for the thing is form-fitting and protective, and ours didn't look to have been damaged in shipping.

If there's a silver lining to the apparent fragility of the cooler, it's the fact that this three-slot-wide contraption doesn't weigh the card down much. The extra volume is dedicated to a handful of copper heatpipes and oodles of aluminum fins. We'll check its performance shortly, of course.

Speaking of which, the GTX 480 AMP! is clocked at 756/1512MHz, with its GGDR5 memory at 950MHz (3.8 GT/s). That's up slightly on all fronts from the GTX 480's stock speeds of 700/1400/924MHz, so this card should be a little faster than the standard-issue version.

Because this thing is triple-slot, we didn't even bother with attempting SLI. We just tested the AMP! by itself and left the SLI work to the reference cards, which were able to fit into the two main PCIe x16 slots on our test motherboard and take advantage of all 16 lanes of PCIe bandwidth per slot.

Naturally, we've tested against a broad range of DirectX 11 Radeons in single- and dual-GPU CrossFireX configurations. There are some inherent rivalries here at certain price points—such as the Radeon HD 5830 versus the GeForce GTX 460 768MB at around 200 bucks, or the GTX 470 versus the Radeon HD 5850 at just under $300—but not all of the match-ups are so direct. Nvidia currently has no analog for the $150-ish Radeon HD 5770, for instance, and AMD doesn't have an answer for the GTX 460 1GB or GTX 465 in the mid-$200 range. The mismatches grow more obvious at the high end, where the Radeon HD 5870 (~$400) and the 5970 (~$650+!) straddle the GTX 480's ~$450-510 asking prices.