A PC that doesn't make a sound, it remains the ultimate goal for many a hardware enthusiast. We recently review the passively cooled HTPC chassis Streacom FC-5. The Dutch company Quibus Enzo proved with its Knoll Creek Silent system that it's possible to passively cool a fairly powerful system with a Core i5 processor and Radeon HD 6770 graphics card quite effectively, as long as you use the right components. If you want to create your own completely silent desktop along the same lines, you'll need a passively cooled graphics card. There isn't a whole lot of choice in that category, but Hardware.Info tested and reviewed four of them.
Among the latest generation GPUs, it's striking how few passively-cooled graphics cards were made. There are two reasons for this. A few manufacturers informed us, off-the-record, that they have moved away from cards without an active cooler because they tend to malfunction relatively often. That makes sense, if the card does get very hot for some reason, there is no way of counteracting that. Still, modern GPUs have built-in safeguards for clocking down if certain temperatures are reached.
The second reason is that it's becoming a niche market, there isn't a whole lot of demand for passively-cooled graphics cards. That used to come primarily from users that wanted a quiet allround or business PC. A system like that no longer requires a dedicated graphics card, since the integrated GPUs on processors have become powerful enough.
With previous-generation GPUs manufacturers like ASUS, Gigabyte and MSI usually had at least one passively-cooled model, but that's no longer the case. Fortunately there are a few exceptions, and we received two cards from Sapphire and one from Club 3D and Zotac each. HIS and PowerColor also have passively-cooled cards, the iSilence and Go!Green, but were not able to provide samples.
The system we use to test our graphics cards is a so-called test bench, and is not installed in a desktop chassis. For passive graphics cards this is a worst case scenario, since the casefans in a chassis will always create some type of airflow. However, since the whole point of using passively-cooled cards is to create a near-silent or completely silent PC which won't have many fans and therefore little airflow, we will still use this test setup. In the past we've seen passive graphics cards quickly reach temperatures in excess of 90 degrees, which is bad for the lifespan of the graphics card and is likely the reason for the high failure-rate. Fortunately the four cards in this test did not get that hot.