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MSI's R6950 Twin Frozr III 1G/OC
Our second contender, the MSI R6950 Twin Frozr III 1G/OC looks a bit less extravagant (and shorter, at 10.6") than the Gigabyte card. With dual cooling fans and no fewer than five heat pipes, the Twin Frozr III is by no means subdued.

MSI claims its cooling solution pumps 20% more airflow and generates 13.9 dB less noise than the reference AMD cooler, all the while maintaining lower temperatures. That's not all. Tucked away at the edge of the PCB, almost hidden under the cooling shroud, lies a slide switch for toggling between two fan presets.

Out of the box, the card comes with the switch in the position pictured above—"Performance." You'll want to flick it to the right to select the "Silence" preset. We've tested both, so stay tuned for decibel numbers.

Just like its Gigabyte rival, MSI's Twin Frozr III ventures beyond AMD's reference specifications. MSI has pushed the core speed from 800 to 850MHz and the memory speed from 1250 to 1300MHz, yielding a 5.2 GT/s peak transfer rate between the GPU and the accompanying 1GB of GDDR5 memory. MSI also touts a special sauce that purportedly makes the card more stable, durable, and tolerant of high speeds than the reference design: a 6+2-phase power distribution system, high-c solid-state capacitors, ferrite-core chokes, and the ability to tweak GPU, memory, and PLL voltages independently (which requires the latest Afterburner beta from MSI's website).

Unlike Gigabyte, MSI sticks with the default port arrangement—dual DVI, dual Mini DisplayPort, and one HDMI output. A DisplayPort adapter comes in the box, in case none of your displays have Mini inputs. Dig further into the box, and you'll find a CD containing MSI's Live Update 5 and Afterburner utilities. Live Update 5 is designed to grab BIOS and driver updates automatically. Afterburner, meanwhile, offers finer fan speed and overclocking controls, not to mention more thorough monitoring capabilities, than AMD's Overdrive control panel.

As you can see in the screenshot, Afterburner lets users manually set a response curve that dictates how fan speeds should ramp with the GPU temperature. That feature comes especially handy for folks who want their cards to stay as quiet as possible at idle. Out of the box, Afterburner exposes the same amount of overclocking headroom as AMD's Overdrive control panel—that is, the card is limited to 900MHz core and 1325MHz memory speeds. The latest beta of the Afterburner software lets you go beyond that but requires editing a configuration file, and MSI tells us the functionality isn't officially supported.

You'll find the MSI R6950 Twin Frozr III 1G/OC at Newegg for $259.99 before a $25 mail-in rebate. The card comes with a three-year warranty.

Finally, we have our third contender, which you might have seen duking it out with a GeForce GTX 560 Ti not long ago.

Like the MSI model, the XFX HD-695X-ZDDC has a pair of fans and a relatively short (10.1") circuit board. The card's dark cooling shroud makes it look little sleeker and stealthier than the MSI design. XFX uses only three heat pipes to connect the heatsink and GPU, but those heat pipes are made of copper.

So far as we can see, XFX makes no claims about exceptionally durable or high-quality components. However, it boats that XXX Edition cards like these have been subjected to "rigorous testing methods, including 55°C burn chamber testing, stress testing, even shock & vibe testing." The HD-695X-ZDDC has the lowest GPU speed of the three cards we're testing—830MHz, up from the stock 800MHz. Its 1300MHz memory clock matches the MSI offering and has a 50MHz advantage over both the reference design and the Gigabyte card.

XFX doesn't offer custom overclocking software, but AMD's Overdrive control panel takes care of the basics—and its interface isn't ugly as sin, which is always nice. The overclocking limits are even harsher with this card, though: 840MHz for the core and 1325MHz for the memory.

Right now, Newegg sells the XFX HD-695X-ZDDC for $269.99 before a $30 mail-in rebate, with a free copy of DiRT 3. Unlike its counterparts, the card comes with lifetime warranty coverage. You'll need to register on XFX's website to quality for lifetime coverage, otherwise the warranty tops out at two years.