Gigabyte 9800 Silent Cell: a Gift for Fans of Peace and Quiet

Noiseless graphics cards are always in demand among people who value peace and quiet. Today we are going to talk about one more solution like that, this time based on an Nvidia GPU.

by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
09/08/2009 | 02:12 PM

I doubt that anyone will oppose the assumption that the eternal performance race also has negative sides to it. One of them is the ever growing power consumption and as a result, heat dissipation. Heat must be removes somewhere otherwise the system will inevitable overheat and fail. Therefore, performance is not the only thing that gets bigger. So do the cooling systems and the level of noise they generate during work. It is one of the most challenging tasks for the graphics card makers, because they have to stay within very limited form-factor. However, some of them already introduce very doubtful solutions, for example, Palit Revolution 700, which occupies three slots in the system.

 

While the increase in the size of the graphics cards cooling systems is something we can possibly live with, then the noise aspect concerns a lot of users out there, especially those who prefer to stay up at night in from of their computer systems and do not really try to set any 3DMark world records. Another application for noiseless graphics accelerators is the HTPC segment. These systems must be quiet by definition, because I doubt that anyone will be happy with a steady background fan noise accompanying a favorite soundtrack or movie. To satisfy the existing demand for quiet solutions, some graphics card makers offer products equipped with noiseless coolers. Most often these are budget solutions like Radeon HD 4600 or lower that cannot suit for contemporary 3D gaming, but sometimes you can come across a few very nice exceptions, such as Gigabyte GV-R485MC-1GI that we have reviewed before.

However, Gigabyte doesn’t have a preference when it comes to graphics chip makers and offers solutions on both: AMD/ATI as well as Nvidia GPUs. In our today’s review we are going to discuss one more noiseless graphics accelerator from Gigabyte, but this time based on G92b graphics core. Just like all other solutions from this manufacturer, our today’s hero has a model name that is pretty typical of this maker, but is absolutely impossible to remember or pronounce for a regular user: GV-N98TSL-1GI. As for us, we are going to refer to it as Gigabyte 9800 GT Silent Cell. As you can see from the name, this graphics accelerator doesn’t claim to set any 3D world records, but it has a number of other advantages and overall looks extremely promising.

Let’s meet our today’s hero now!

Package and Accessories

Gigabyte solutions are most often shipped in vertical boxes, but for 9800 GT Silent Cell the package design has been changed dramatically. The new box is of common horizontal orientation and has a transparent cut-out window revealing the cooling system heatsink:

The overall design concept is very strict, there is nothing excessive here except for the bright mention of the fact that this solution belongs to Ultra Durable VGA series and features a golden plated HDMI connector. Overall, the graphics card package makes a very good impression. Its quality and protective abilities are also high enough: the external slip-cover hides another box made of thick cardboard with a polyurethane foam tray inside that holds the actual graphics card. The top of the tray is covered with clear plastic sheet. The back of the box is dedicated to the detailed description of features and advantages of the Silent Cell cooling system, however, the airflow schematic provided there seems a little off, that is why we are going to get back to it later in our review.

There are not too many accessories bundled with the card, but it is totally appropriate for the price range of Gigabyte 9800 GT Silent Cell. Together with the card you get the following items:

The manual breaks all records in the number of languages used in it: there are 25 different languages including Russian, Korean, Arabic, Greek and even Thai. Nevertheless, despite this diversity, everything a user might need, such as the description of GamerHUD utility and BIOS reflashing procedure, is there and we have to give Gigabyte due credit for that. There are very few graphics card makers these days who pay so much attention to supporting documents for their products.

We have no unfavorable comments about the package and accessories that come with Gigabyte 9800 GT Silent Cell. The only thing we could probably point out is the useless praising of golden-plated connectors. Therefore, let’s move on to the actual technical specifications and features of the graphics card now.

Design and Functionality

Since the discussed solution belongs to Gigabyte UDV (Ultra Durable VGA) series, it automatically implies that the card is based on a proprietary design. Moreover, the massive heatsink of the graphics cards cooler makes it look considerably longer:

Just like Gigabyte GV-N250OC-1GI solution, which we have already discussed in one of our previous reviews, Gigabyte 9800 GT Silent Cell is built using “2oz Copper PCB” technology, i.e. the metal layers in the PCB are of double thickness, which improve the card’s ability to dissipate the heat from such components as GPU, memory chips or voltage regulator MOSFET. According to Gigabyte, in case all other conditions are identical this solution alone helps lower the GPU temperature by about 5-10%, which unfortunately, we can’t check, because for an experiment like that would require two absolutely identical graphics accelerators differing only by the thickness of the metal PCB layers. Nevertheless, this statement doesn’t contradict any laws of physics, so it has the right to exist.

The graphics core is powered via four-phase voltage regulator using polymer dielectric capacitors and low Rds(on) MOSFET. They used ON Semiconductor NCP5388 controller chip. External power is connected via standard six-pin PCIe 1.0 connector, which is a little hard to reach because of the long-bed heatsink of the graphics card cooling system that goes over it. The card is also equipped with GamerHUD chip that is a special feature of selected Gigabyte graphics solutions. It allows flexible control of the GPU and memory voltages using the utility with the same name.

It is a little strange to see obvious overclocking related features in a solution quipped with a passive cooling system and definitely not intended to be overclocked. Of course, Gigabyte 9800 GT Silent Cell could become a good experimental platform for overclocking if you get yourself a good cooling fan for its heatsink, but I don’t think that overclockers and enthusiasts would be the primary target group for this solution.

The card is equipped with eight Samsung K4J10324QD-HJ1A GDDR3 chips, each 1 Gbit in capacity (32Мx32) that can work at 1000 (2000) MHz frequency at 1.85 V voltage. The actual memory frequency is a little lower - 900 (1800) MHz, which is in fact a reference frequency for GeForce 9800 GT. The use of 1 Gbit chips is another unique peculiarity of Gigabyte 9800 GT Silent Cell: graphics cards like that are usually equipped with 512 MB of memory, but here we have twice as much – 1 GB. I don’t think it really matters for relatively slow graphics solutions like GeForce 9800 GT, but we still have to acknowledge it as a positive factor.

The GPU is marked as G92-283-B1, however, GPU-Z erroneously reports its revision as A2, i.e. sees it as 65 nm G92 rather than a newer 55 nm G92b. The graphics core works at official Nvidia frequencies of 600 MHz for the primary domain and 1.5 GHz for the shader processor domain. G92 features 128 unified shader processors, 112 of which are active. There are also a total of 64 texturing units with 56 active ones. In other words, one of the eight computational blocks is disabled in the core, just the way it is supposed to be in a GeForce 9800 GT.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t overclock the Gigabyte 9800 GT Silent Cell solution we had in our lab with the cooling system as is, namely in passive mode: the best we could do was gain 20-30 MHz GPU frequency, that is why we decided not to proceed at this point. In fact, there is nothing surprising here: passive cooling systems work at their full capacity right from the start that is why any overclocking attempts may rapidly overload them and cause graphics card overheating. I am sure that with additional heatsink cooling you can achieve much better results, but we are going to leave it at the mercy of true overclocking fans who are not afraid to resort to such measures as hardware modification of the voltage regulator circuitry and use of liquid nitro for cooling purposes.

The card is equipped with a not very common set of connectors: instead of two DVI-I ports there is one DVI-I, one VGA and one HDMI, which is an absolutely justified solution considering Gigabyte’s positioning of this graphics card. The mention of “golden plating” of the HDMI connector has no real practical meaning and cannot possible improve the quality of the digital signal going through it. However, many consumer electronics manufacturers have been using this marketing trick for a long time although any user with a little experience will smile at it at best. The card doesn’t support the outdated analogue video outs.

As for the cooling system, it is extremely simple in design and consists of a pretty large aluminum heatsink connected to the copper base plate with three heatpipes:

 

This whole thing is attached to the graphics card PCB with four screws, but since it is not very heavy and the graphics chip is protected with a metal contour framing, you can’t really damage the GPU. Some memory chips contact the heatsink base plate via elastic purple pads, but the other ones aren’t cooled in any particular way, which eliminates the whole point of memory cooling in general. The only possible reason for these pads to be of any practical value is to prevent the cooler base from shifting or angling.

Some of the heatsink plates are sticking out of the case through the slits in the retention bracket – Gigabyte uses this solution on all their graphics cards equipped with passive cooling systems. Theoretically, these slits can improve cooling efficiency if the air pressure inside the system case is higher, because in this case hot air from the heatsink will come out. However, Gigabyte insists on the contrary, i.e. that these slits are used to suck cool air from outside into the system case. And the schematic image on the back of the box shows this particular airflow scenario.

Overall, Gigabyte 9800 GT Silent Cell cooler is very simple, I can even say primitive. However, due to the fact that it uses a heatsink with large effective cooling surface area, it should theoretically work very well, provided that there is proper ventilation inside the system case. Our tests confirmed that Silent Cell cooler does its job well enough – under heavy load the GPU temperature remained around 74-75 °C, which is a very good result for a fully passive cooling solution. However, it is important to keep in mind that it worked inside a very spacious Chieftec LBX-01 system case and of course, we wouldn’t recommend sticking Gigabyte 9800 GT Silent Cell into a small poorly ventilated system case, just like any other graphics accelerator equipped with a fanless cooling solution, because it may cause overheating and lead to untimely death of the card.

Testbed and Methods

We are going to investigate the performance of Nvidia Quad SLI graphics configuration using the following testbed:

The graphics card drivers were configured in the following way:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia GeForce:

The list of benchmarks includes the following gaming titles and synthetic tests:

We selected the highest possible level of detail in each game using standard tools provided by the game itself from the gaming menu. The games configuration files weren’t modified in any way, because the ordinary user doesn’t have to know how to do it.

Besides Gigabyte 9800 GT Silent Cell we have also included the following graphics accelerators to participate in our test session:

We ran our tests in the following resolutions: 1280x1024, 1680x1050 and 1920x1200. Everywhere, where it was possible we added MSAA 4x antialiasing to the standard anisotropic filtering 16x. We enabled antialiasing from the game’s menu. If this was not possible, we forced them using the appropriate driver settings of ATI Catalyst and Nvidia GeForce drivers.

Performance was measured with the games’ own tools and the original demos were recorded if possible. We measured not only the average speed, but also the minimum speed of the cards where possible. Otherwise, the performance was measured manually with Fraps utility version 2.9.8. In the latter case we ran the test three times and took the average of the three for the performance charts.

Performance

Crysis Warhead

In the first two resolutions Gigabyte 9800 GT Silent Cell doesn’t yield to Radeon HD 4770 and in 1920x1200 it is even way faster. However, we see very low level of performance in all cases that indicates that graphics accelerators of this class are unfit for Crysis Warhead game, unless you are prepared to sacrifice the level of detail.

BattleForge

The minimal performance readings on Gigabyte solution are a little higher than those of Radeon HD 4770, but the average performance is way lower, even though the difference almost vanishes by the time we get to 1920x1200. Unfortunately, we can’t claim that the performance level is high enough for comfortable gaming experience here, just like in Crysis Warhead.

Fallout 3

However, those of you who enjoy the beauty of post-apocalyptic world will find that Gigabyte 9800 GT Silent Cell is a great choice for this game, even if you own a monitor supporting 1920x1200 or 1920x1080, which is getting more and more popular. The card maintains over 30 fps minimal performance level. Moreover, our subjective experience suggests that you can play with comfort.

Left 4 Dead

The game runs on the Source engine and has an integrated benchmark, but the latter does not report the bottom speed information.

The above described Gigabyte solution may also become a good choice for Left 4 Dead fans. The card works just fine with maximum level of detail settings and enabled FSAA 4x in all resolutions including 1920x1200. Radeon HD 4770 also performs pretty well, but we have to admit that it falls noticeably behind Gigabyte 9800 GT Silent Cell.

Street Fighter 4

The fighting games fan should also be pleased: the recently released but already pretty popular Street Fighter 4 game doesn’t wolf down all GPU resources and runs perfectly fine on solutions like GeForce 9800 GT or Radeon HD 4770. The leadership here sways back and forth: Nvidia solution takes the lead in low resolutions, while in 1920x1200 Radeon HD 4770 takes over by winning about 5% from Gigabyte 9800 GT Silent Cell. This lag is certainly not critical, especially since the above described Gigabyte graphics card has one more significant advantage: absolutely noiseless cooling solution.

Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X.

We use the in-game benchmarking tools that do not allow to measure the bottom frame rate. We also enable DirectX 10.1 support for ATI’s solutions.

This game doesn’t favor Adaptive AA algorithms used in AMD solutions, that is why when transparent textures antialiasing is employed, Nvidia solutions are usually way ahead in this game. This is certainly true for the above described Gigabyte graphics card. Although it belongs to the budget segment, it works very well in this game in 1280x1024 resolution.

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage

During tests in this application we use the Extreme profile (1920x1200, 4x FSAA and anisotropic filtering).

Gigabyte solution is a definite leader among the today’s testing participants because GeForce 9600 GT has significantly weaker specs and Radeon HD 4770 doesn’t support PhysX acceleration.

But the situation in individual benchmarks depends on the resolution. Namely, in 1280x1024 the best result belongs not to our today’s hero, but to Radeon HD 4770. Even in 1680x1050 it yields to Nvidia solutions not as seriously as in 1920x1200.

Conclusion

As we have expected right from the start, Gigabyte 9800 GT Silent Cell performed very well and made a very good overall impression, of course, keeping in mind the price range it is in. The major advantage of this solution is its absolutely noiseless cooling system – a very valuable feature for a pretty large user group out there. Moreover, Gigabyte 9800 GT Silent Cell belongs to Ultra Durable VGA series, which means that only high-quality components are used to make this card. “2oz Copper PCB” Technology implies the use of twice as thick metal layers in the PCB, which improves the cooling of all electronic components on it.

As for the performance, we didn’t reveal anything new here: the card is steadily inferior to GeForce GTS 250 and anything beyond that. However, in a number of cases it can not only compete successfully against a dangerous opponent like Radeon HD 4770, but even outperform it quite significantly. The diagrams below can illustrate it very well:

Overall, Gigabyte 9800 GT Silent Cell is an inexpensive but at the same time very high-quality graphics solution for those users who value quiet. It can be a great choice for an HTPC platform or a quiet gaming system that can be used in the night time without bothering anyone with the annoying fan noises. We can recommend this solution to those, who prioritize acoustic aspects of the graphics card performance and do not hunt for the maximum performance possible.

Highs:

Lows: