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Three kings
We have three different examples of retail versions of the GeForce GTX 560 Ti for comparison, from the three major enthusiast motherboard manufacturers, all with custom coolers and board designs and all clocked higher than Nvidia's baseline frequency.

The first such board to arrive in Damage Labs was Gigabyte's GTX 560 Ti SOC, and it's pretty remarkable thanks to a dizzying 1GHz GPU clock and 4580 MT/s memory. Gigabyte has left Nvidia's base 822MHz and 4008 MT/s speeds in the dust, yet this card is slated to sell for only $269.99 when it hits online retailers next week. Those clock speeds mean the SOC will threaten the product sitting at the next rung up Nvidia's stack, the GeForce GTX 570, in a number of key graphics throughput rates.

Like most of these card makers, Gigabyte cites several factors that purportedly contribute to its product's superiority over the average reference design. Those include higher-quality components, rigorous testing of chips during their sorting into different speed grades, a custom board design (9.5" long, or half an inch beyond the reference card), and a bitchin' cooler with quad heatpipes and dual fans.

In fact, Gigabyte's next-generation "Windforce" cooler has fans angled slightly outward in a way that the firm claims reduces turbulence (and thus noise.) We like the fact that the gap in between the two fans ought to leave some room for air intake, even with a card installed in the adjacent slot. Many of these fan-based coolers perform poorly in SLI (or in the company of a TV tuner or sound card, for that matter.)

The real secret to the SOC's ridiculously high clock speeds, though, may be the component pictured above: a Proadlizer film capacitor from NEC/TOKIN. I don't believe we've seen one of these on a graphics card before. It sits on the back side of the card right between the VRMs and the GPU and memory chips, purportedly providing "excellent noise absorption performance" and "high switching frequency." The card's six-phase power and other attributes may contribute to its ability to sustain higher frequencies, as well. Whatever the case, Gigabyte's SOC is a pretty vivid illustration of a board maker taking the GTX 560 Ti to another level, and since it hit our labs first, we were able to run it through our full suite of performance tests.

Aesthetically, Asus' GTX560 Ti Direct CU II TOP is my favorite GTX 560 Ti card so far. Whereas Gigabyte's effort comes from the heavy-metal-flames school of industrial design, Asus opts for the more understated red-and-black 1985 VW GTI approach. The matte paint and racing stripes work pretty well, in my opinion.

Asus' cooler has one less heatpipe, but all three of the pipes snake across the surface of the GPU, making direct contact, which purportedly results in better heat conduction. This card is unique among the group in sporting a metal brace running the length of the PCB to prevent warping. Asus is also proud of its selection of "super alloy" components for this board's power delivery circuitry, which it claims provides superior performance and higher overclocking headroom than the reference design.

You may have to test that out for yourself, though, because the clock speeds on this card are a little more understated than the Gigabyte's, with a 900MHz GPU core and 4.2 GT/s memory. Much like the Gigabyte, this card is priced at $269.99 and slated for availability at online retailers in 7-10 days. Asus also has a stock-clocked version of the GTX 560 Ti that should be available immediately for $249.99.

MSI's choice of a brushed-metal-and-chrome approach rounds out our sampling of industrial design schools in PC hardware nicely. Nvidia's reference card covers the black-and-neon theme, so I believe all we're missing is a military/camo scheme to finish off all of the major schools.

Anyhow, MSI's rendition of the GTX 560 Ti is adorned with the company's familiar "Twin Frozr II" dual-fan cooler with quad heatpipes. This cooler performed well for us aboard MSI's high-clocked (810MHz) version of the GTX 460, and we expect similarly good things here. Like the other guys, MSI touts its component selection—these are claimed to be "military class"—and custom cooler as sources of superiority to the poor, battered reference design.

At 880MHz and 4200 MT/s, this card is a little slower than the Asus and a lot slower than the Gigabyte, but MSI will only ask $259.99 for this offering—and it should be available immediately. Versions with 900 and 950MHz clock speeds, still at 4.2 GT/s memory, are planned, as well.