From the results of our testing, it’s clear that third-party graphics card coolers are somewhat of a mixed bag and it's very hard to get yourself a good buy.
One sweeping generalisation we can make is that none of the coolers worth buying were particularly easy to fit. The coolers we tested ranged from the fiddly to the downright destructive - Arctic Cooling in particular is responsible for making several HSFs that are as finger shredding as those wall-of-notes Scandinavian metal songs that plague the latter levels of Guitar Hero games.
Think before taking your graphics card to bits; the stock HSF is a better option than many third-party models
While you might be sitting there thinking, "just man up, bit-tech", the fact is that a complex, fiddly install process can, with several of these coolers, easily result in the cooler not being properly fitted to the card - and that makes it very easy to subject your GPU to much more heat than it can take. Testing with the Twin Turbo Pro destroyed our Radeon HD 5870, while we had a near-death experience with the Accelero S1 Rev 2 the first time we fitted it.
It’s actually easier to install a full-cover waterblock than any of the third-party coolers we tested. Given that a waterblock will provide far superior cooling, and potentially be much quieter, we feel far happier recommending a GPU waterblock instead of buying a third-party air cooler.
What’s more, you can now pick up a full-cover graphics card waterblocks for the HD 4890 for around £50 (and those for the HD 5870 and GTX 280 are only a little more), making them not that much more expensive than the high-end coolers in our round-up.
We used Furmark to stress the GPUs of our test cards; some coolers couldn't cope, and we even killed one
If you’ve got cold feet about water-cooling or can’t afford the initial outlay just yet, then there are graphics card coolers that are better than the stock coolers. For older cards, Akasa's Vortexx Neo is cheap and cheerful - a 5ºC reduction in load temperature and 16ºC reduction in idle temperature for less than £12 is excellent.
For a GTX 280, the Arctic Cooling GTX Pro is perhaps worth a look; it's big, and at over £50, it's expensive, but if heat is becoming an issue and you want to keep your graphics card then it can do the job when it comes to cooling.
It's a crying shame the Scythe Setsugen isn't available to buy though, as it's both cheaper and easier to fit, though - in fact, the absence of the Setsugen means that the best cooler we tested is absent and there's no real clear easy recommendation. As such, cooler manufacturers of the world, take note - there's a big gap in the market for a sensibly priced, easy to fit cooler that outperforms the Nvidia and ATI stock coolers. In the meantime, if you do want to replace your graphics card's cooler, tread carefully.