Extreme graphics cards: Three killer boards that beat their reference designs

Modern, high-end graphics processors (GPUs) are semiconductor marvels. Delivering massive transistor counts, tremendous parallel processing performance, and incredible 3D rendering speeds, they inspire intense technolust in serious PC gamers.

But man does not live by GPU alone. If you want a high-end GPU, you must seek it on a high-end graphics card that may well be rife with other interesting upgrade features. Indeed, graphics cards themselves are feats of extreme engineering, marrying crafty circuit-board design to clever cooling strategies.

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Today we look at three single-GPU graphics cards, each a unique marvel of engineering. Two cards are built around Nvidia's latest GTX 680 GPU, and the other incorporates AMD's latest Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition. The GTX 680 focuses on delivering tremendous gaming performance, while the Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition is strong at games but also provides excellent GPU performance for nongaming applications that can benefit from using a GPU for computational tasks.

Typically, Nvidia and AMD build reference boards with fairly conservative GPU and memory clock speeds. Card makers then take these reference designs, relabel them without changing much of anything, and offer them for sale. Lately, however, graphics card manufacturers have tried to differentiate themselves in a highly competitive market by creating their own board designs. These designs offer custom cooling, improved voltage regulation, and significantly higher core clock speeds than the reference designs do. Out of the box, they're faster than reference designs, but they also tend to be a little pricier.

The contenders

Let's take a look at a spec chart for these high-end graphics cards. Then we'll discuss each card individually in greater depth.

FEATURE

EVGA GTX 680 Classified

Asus GTX 680 DCII TOP

Sapphire Radeon HD 7970 Dual X OC

GPU

Nvidia GTX 680

Nvidia GTX 680

AMD Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition

Core clock

1111MHz

1137MHz

950MHz

Boost clock

1176MHz

1201MHz

1000MHz

Video memory

4GB (6008MHz)

2GB (6008MHz)

3GB (5800MHz)

Power connectors

Two 8-pin

One 8-pin, one 6-pin

One 8-pin, one 6-pin

Display connectors

One DP 1.2, one HDMI 1.4a, two DVI-Dual Link

One DP 1.2, one HDMI 1.4a, two DVI-Dual Link

One DP 1.2, one HDMI 1.4a, one DVI Dual Link, one DVI Single Link

Physical size (length/height/design style)

10.5 inches/5.94 inches/double slot

11.8 inches/5.1 inches/triple slot

11.0 inches /4.72 inches/double slot

Price

$650

$550

$475

The GTX 680 is a newer GPU than the AMD Radeon HD 7970, and card makers seem to be able to push its core clock speeds just a bit higher than the AMD's. However, differences in graphics chips' core clock speed don't always directly translate into performance differences.

Now let's take a closer look at each card. Afterward, we'll dive into the performance test results.

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