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BFG's GTX 295 H2OC: Water-Cooled Graphics
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Date: Sep 21, 2009
Section:Graphics/Sound
Author: Joel Hruska
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Introduction
In a market where dual-GPU, single-PCB graphics cards are readily available from most major OEMs, product manufacturers are increasingly turning to water cooling as a way to differentiate their products and out-maneuver their competitors. The superior thermal characteristics of liquid cooling allows companies like BFG to hit higher core / memory clocks than they might using air alone.  However, H2O-reliant high-end video cards cater to an even smaller slice of the market—specifically, those enthusiasts with big money to spend and who are comfortable using water in their own PC.

BFG's GTX 295 H2OC CLE (aka the GTX 295 H2OC with ThermoIntelligence Advanced Cooling Solution) changes that. This particular flavor of H2OC is a self-contained cooling system that arrives fully assembled and can be plugged into the system immediately, provided your case meets the appropriate requirements. This last characteristic is by no means guaranteed.  Consult our Thermal Analysis section for more information on how the cooler (designed by CoolIT Systems) integrates into a real-world, closed-case environment.

The H2OC CLE's "easy" setup is just one of its hooks; BFG clocks the card well above NVIDIA's baseline specifications. A standard GTX 295 has a GPU clock speed of 576MHz, a shader clock of 1242MHz, and DDR3 memory runs at 1,998MHz, give or take a tick. In contrast, BFG's water-cooled cards run a 675MHz core, 1458MHz shaders, and a memory clock of 2214MHz. That's 17.1 percent, 17.3 percent, and 10.8 percent above stock, and it's enough of a boost that we should see a practical performance difference.

One quick note on naming conventions: BFG has decided they would attach the "GTX H2OC" label to two video cards. The first—BFGEGTX2951792H2OCWBE in product-code parlance—is designated the "GTX 295 H2OC 1792MB PCIe 2.0 with ThermoIntelligence." This card ships with an attached water block, but must be integrated into the end-user's existing water cooling system. Just to make it completely clear, we're not evaluating this that card today but rather this card...
 

The Self-Contained Water-Cooled BFG GeFroce GTX 295 H2OC

Yup, it's a box. A large box. Most of what's inside it is the card itself—the only extras BFG ships with this beast are an HDMI cable and a DVI-to-VGA adapter. Flip the box over, and we see the following:



Pay attention to that; we'll discuss it in a few pages. For now, let's turn our attention to the video card itself.

This other card—part number BFGRGTX2951792H2OCLE—is the "GTX 295 H2OC 1792MB PCIe 2.0 with Thermointelligence Advanced Cooling Solution," and that's what we've got on the workbench. If you end up ordering one of these bad boys, double-check the actual product number—that's why we've bolded the two-letter distinction—and check a photo for good measure. Henceforth, when we refer to the GTX 295 H2OC, we'll be referencing the pre-built solution we're reviewing today.

The Cost of CoolIT
BFG's GTX 295 H2OC is a well-built card, with a cooling solution that places it in a niche of its own, but the card carries a hefty price tag, even in this rarefied air. According to NewEgg, the self-contained H2OC solution retails for $849.99, compared to $729 for the DIY water-cooled BFG card and "just" $469.99 for BFG's own air-cooled GTX 295. Do the math, and the H2OC commands a massive 81 percent premium over the already-expensive standard GTX 295. Higher clockspeeds, in this case, simply aren't enough—for what amounts to almost an extra $500. For that price we'd expect a video card to show up with pizza and compliment our taste in t-shirts. Does the BFG H2OC put out this kind of value? Let's take a look.
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The Card and Its Cooler

The attached water tubes are reasonably flexible and the connectors themselves have a limited degree of rotation. Unfortunately, the two are placed too close together to allow for more than small adjustments.

Stock imagery is useful, in this case, for giving a clear sense of scale and detail. The small button on top of the cooler is used to set the speed of the 120mm fan attached to the radiator. A series of beeps indicates the setting if the fan's noise isn't indication enough—one beep for low, two beeps for medium, and three for maximum speed. Exact decibel measurements aren't available, but the fan is effectively inaudible over general system noise at low speed, and easily the equal of most GPU coolers at high. Since low noise levels are part of the draw of water cooling, keeping things quiet is a major plus.

                   
A better view of the radiator, and the six-pin/eight-pin power plugs. Click for high res.

The gap between the two tubes, as previously noted, is smaller than it appears to be here.
The HDMI port in front is a bit of a rarity; most manufacturers have opted to use a DVI port for HDMI signal pass-through, except on GTX 295 cards. You can't see it from here, but the fan is attached to the radiator by pop rivets. Good luck disconnecting the two, should the former ever fail. 

Now that we've taken a quick look at the card, let's examine its performance. Fast is a given, but exactly how fast is it?
 
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Test Bed Configuration and Crysis

HOW WE CONFIGURED THE TEST SYSTEM: All tests were performed using the same platform and hardware. An Asus M3A78-T Deluxe and a Phenom II X4 955 were the basis of the testbed, along with 4GB of OCZ DDR2-1067. All drivers, benchmarks, and the OS itself were installed fresh; benchmark results were run three times and averaged. Manual playthroughs were performed 3x and averaged as well; repetition should cancel out the individual differences from each run.

When one of your cards isn't too far from the $1000 mark, it's tough to find appropriately priced competition. In the end, we settled for a stock GTX 295, courtesy of NVIDIA, and a Radeon HD 4870X2. As we noted at the start, the BFG H2OC has its work cut out for it, and we don't expect performance alone to settle the question of whether or not this card is worth the money. Anisotropic filtering was locked at 16x in all benchmarks at all resolutions, antialiasing settings varied slightly depending on the benchmark and the available options. Generally, we targeted 1680x1050/4xAA for a lower-end option, or for those with smaller monitors, and 1900x1200/8xAA at the upper end.

HotHardware's Test Systems
Phenom II Powered

Hardware Used:
Phenom II X4 955 (3.2GHz)

Asus M3A78-T Deluxe
(AMD 790GX chipset)

BFG GTX 295 H2OC
NVIDIA GTX 295 Stock
ATI Radeon HD 4870X2

4GB OCZ DDR2-1067
(2 X 2GB)

Integrated Audio
Integrated Network

Seagate 7200.10 750GB
(7200 RPM - SATA)

Relevant Software:
Windows Vista Ultimate SP2 64-bit

ATI Catalyst v9.8
NVIDIA GeForce Drive v190.62

Benchmarks Used:

Crysis
FarCry 2
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars v1.5*
Tom Clancy H.A.W.X.
Left 4 Dead*

* - Custom benchmark

Crysis v1.21
DirectX 10 Gaming Performance


Crysis

If you're at all into enthusiast computing, the highly anticipated single player, FPS smash-hit Crysis, should require no introduction. Crytek's game engine produces some stunning visuals that are easily the most impressive real-time 3D renderings we've seen on the PC to date. The engine employs some of the latest techniques in 3D rendering like Parallax Occlusion Mapping, Subsurface Scattering, Motion Blur and Depth-of-Field effects, as well as some of the most impressive use of Shader technology we've seen yet. In short, for those of you that want to skip the technical jib-jab, Crysis is a beast of a game. We ran the full game patched to v1.21 with all of its visual options set to 'High' to put a significant load on the graphics cards being tested. A custom demo recorded on the Ice level was used throughout testing.


It's not surprising to see the Radeon HD 4870X2 trailing the GTX 295 in Crysis; the game has never been known as a Team Red favorite. What is interesting, however, is the performance hit we see from both of the GTX's when we move from 4x to 8x FSAA—ATI might start at a lower framerate, but it drops far less when we increase the resolution and the AA levels, at least initially. While all three cards are fairly well-matched at 1900x1200 and 8xAA, ATI slips behind again once we move to higher AA levels.

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FarCry 2

 

FarCry 2
DirectX Gaming Performance


FarCry 2

Like the original, Far Cry 2 is one of the more visually impressive games to be released on the PC to date. Courtesy of the Dunia game engine developed by Ubisoft, Far Cry 2's game-play is enhanced by advanced environment physics, destructible terrain, high resolution textures, complex shaders, realistic dynamic lighting, and motion-captured animations. We benchmarked the graphics cards in this article with a fully patched version of Far Cry 2, using one of the built-in demo runs recorded in the "Ranch" map. Game details were set to "Very High" at 1680x1050 and "Ultra High" in 1900x1200, AA methods were set to 4x and 8x using the in-game engine.
 
 

Far Cry 2 runs beautifully at higher resolutions and detail levels, but is GPU-bound enough that we see a significant—12 percent—gap between the BFG GTX and our stock model. The Radeon actually does quite well at our 1680x1050 detail setting, but falls back from the other two cards once we increase resolution and AA mode.

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Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
OpenGL Gaming Performance


Enemy Territory:
Quake Wars

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is Based on a radically enhanced version of id's Doom 3 engine and viewed by many as Battlefield 2 meets the Strogg, and then some.  In fact, we'd venture to say that id took EA's team-based warfare genre up a notch or two.  ET: Quake Wars also marks the introduction of John Carmack's "Megatexture" technology that employs large environment and terrain textures that cover vast areas of maps without the need to repeat and tile many smaller textures.  The beauty of megatexture technology is that each unit only takes up a maximum of 8MB of frame buffer memory.  Add to that HDR-like bloom lighting and leading edge shadowing effects and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars looks great, plays well and works high end graphics cards vigorously.  The game was tested with all of its in-game options set to their maximum values with soft particles enabled in addition to 4x anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering.
 
 

We tested ET:QW at 1680x1050 with 4xFSAA and "High" shaders, and at 1900x1200 with shaders set to "Ultra High." In our first 1900x1200 resolution, AA was set to 8xQ for NVIDIA cards and 8x (Box Filter) for ATI, while the second test used 16xQ for both GTX 295's and an 8xAA "wide tent" filter for ATI. 16xQ and 8x wide tent should be a fair point of comparison, and the point is rendered somewhat moot by the difficulties I ran into when attempting to force non-standard AA modes in general with both cards. The H2OC's margin of victory increases slightly as we move to higher resolutions, but the two cards remain in close proximity throughout. The Radeon can't quite match the performance of the NV cards, but none of the solutions we tested have any trouble here.

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Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead
DirectX Gaming Performance


Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead is a co-operative, survival horror, first-person shooter that was developed by Turtle Rock Studios, which was purchased by Valve part-way into development. Like Half Life 2, the game uses the Source engine, however, the visual in L4D are far superior to anything seen in the Half Life universe to date. The game pits four Survivors of an apocalyptic pandemic against hordes of aggressive zombies. We tested the game at our two resolutions with shaders set to "High" at 1680x1050 and "Very High" for 1900x1200. 8xQ and 16xQ FSAA were used for the NVIDIA cards; 8x box tent and 8x wide tent took care of our Radeon 4870X2. All test results were gathered by playing through the entire finale of the "Dead Air" campaign.

 
 

The performance pattern here generally follows the established curve—BFG's GTX 295 is a bit faster than the standard model, which in turn is faster than the Radeon 4870X2. Enabling wide-tent AA on the Radeon card hits performance badly, but the game remains playable at max detail levels on all the video cards we tested.

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Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X.

Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X.
DirectX Gaming Performance


Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X.

Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. is an aerial warfare video game that takes place during the time of Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter.  Players have the opportunity to take the throttle of over 50 famous aircrafts in both solo and 4-player co-op missions, and take them over real world locations & cities in photo-realistic environments created with the best commercial satellite data provided by GeoEye.  We used the built-in performance test, with DirectX 10.1 enabled for the Radeon cards. Ambient Occlusion was set to "High" for our 1680x1050 benchmark and "Very High" at 1900x1200. Please note that H.A.W.X's and ATI's Radeon HD 4000 series have a problem with each other when anisotropic filtering is enabled. Specifically, turning it on hits ATI's performance like a frozen chicken fired at a turboprop. While I've included Radeon results for H.A.W.X, performance can be boosted significantly by turning AF off. NVIDIA's GTX 295's don't suffer from this problem.
 
 

More of what's been happening throughout is seen here again. Again, BFG's H2OC leads. The Radeon's performance increases by 30-40 fps if we turn AF off completely, though you don't see that represented in the graph above, since we tested with AA on exclusively.  We've made ATI aware of the problem, which is likely a driver issue, but the company has yet to incorporate a fix.

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Thermal Analysis

Normally when we gather GPU temperature data, we log the results from an open-air testbed and leave it at that.  There are far too many cases and ambient temperature conditions out there in the real world to possibly model. In the case of the BFG H2OC, however, there was good reason to put it into an enclosure.  Without actually testing the card in a restricted environment against an air-cooled model, there was no way to compare the real advantage of water over air.

We've got a roomy Cosmos case that we figured would be just the thing for a watercooled card like the H2OC, and did not expect any problems until we saw BFG's image of the card in a case. See if you can spot the problem:



While it's true that the entire point of this video card is to appeal to customers who don't already have a water-cooled rig, BFG's use of a stock Intel cooler, combined with the warning on the back of the box, raises compatibility concerns. Enthusiast systems, whether OEM-built or otherwise, tend to use third-party heatsinks, most of which are significantly larger than Intel's own reference design. This point was driven home with particular strength when we realized the CPU cooler inside our Cosmos testbed was far too large to give the H2OC's radiator+fan design sufficient clearance. De-coupling fan and radiator and reattaching through the 120mm fan grate would've been the simplest way to fix the problem, but the radiator fan is actually pop-riveted in place.

Thermal Analysis
GPU Temperature Data

Here's our starting point; a base comparison of GPU temperatures using the air-cooled GTX 295, the water-cooled BFG H2OC at low fan speeds, and the same card at its medium fan speed. While we could have modeled the card at maximum RPM, there's no reason to buy an $800+ card if you want the sound of an air turbine—you can literally buy that at half the price. One thing to remember here is that the air-cooled card was perfectly stable at all temperatures, despite the sky-high readings. Water is an easy winner, here, by a sizable margin.
 

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Power Consumption

We'd like to cover a few final data points before bringing this article to a close. Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing, we monitored how much power our test systems were consuming using a power meter. Our goal was to give you an idea as to how much power each configuration used while idling and under a heavy workload. Please keep in mind that we were testing total system power consumption at the outlet here, not just the power being drawn by the motherboards alone.

Understanding Peak Power
Most of the time, editors and testers reference a product's idle power (aka, the power it consumes when doing nothing, but outside any sort of sleep state) and its load power. Video card power consumption figures are usually tested by use of whatever game the reviewer feels best does the job—do a bit of data gathering, and you'll often find that the figures average out pretty evenly across multiple titles. Often, however, does not mean always. There are specific feature tests in 3DMark 2006 that create what appear to be near-worst-case scenarios for both ATI and NVIDIA cards. For NVIDIA, the first pixel shader test in 3DM2K6 is a worst-case scenario, while the Perlin Noise test in that same benchmark is ATI's thermal Achilles heel. Without an easy way to fold these numbers into existing metrics, we list them separately as "Peak" power.

Total System Power Consumption
Tested at the Outlet


There's not much new here, save for the addition of peak power data. If you flip back to the temperature difference we saw between load and peak, you'll see its mirrored here in the relative power consumption of each mode.
 

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Our Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: BFG's GTX 295 H2OC with ThermoIntelligence Advanced Cooling Solution is a bit faster than a standard GTX 295. On average, this self-contained, water-cooled dual GPU powerhouse was about 10 - 12% faster than a stock GeForce GTX 295, though these gains aren't enough really to justify the price premium of the product.  You'll need to see clear on the upcharge for its other salient benefits, like the significanlty cooler GPU temperatures we recorded (up to 30ºC cooler at load), as well as its super-quiet operation.

  

It's sleek, silent, and undeniably sexy, but is the BFG H2OC (remember, this is the "GTX 295 H2OC with ThermoIntelligence Advanced Cooling Solution flavor) price justifyable?  We'll be the first to admit that the H2OC runs beautifully and serves as a fabulous ambassador for water cooling, but its $849 price tag is still nearly double that of a single standard GTX 295, and it's more than twice the cost of a Radeon HD 4870 X2 (or three Radeon 4890s). Having done the heavy lifting when it comes to delivering the benefits of H2O to consumers who aren't familiar with it, BFG ironically stops a few pieces of plastic short of actually making the setup experience easier. For $850, would it be too much to ask for a detatchable fan, possibly a few shrouds (these could possibly allow users to vent the cooler through the top of the chassis), and some clips to allow for a range of options? The distance from the video card to the actual radiator may be impossible to change, but there's no shortage of inventive tricks BFG could use to make the process easier.

If you're a customer who's anal-retententive enough to hate noise and well-off enough to demand uncompromising performance, ignore everything written below the words "sleek, silent, and undeniably sexy." This card, for you, represents a sort of Nerdvana. If you don't meet those two criteria, BFG's regular GTX 295 is a steal by comparison.

     
  • Self-contained water-cooling
  • Very quiet
  • Excellent Cooling Performance
  • Cooler construction limits chassis options.
  • Performance boost doesn't justify the price.



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